Things become what they are because of their potentialities. Teachers often speak of their students’ potential, of the reality that just as an acorn in the right setting has the potential to become a mighty oak, the student has potential to excel. To grow into a mighty oak, to reach its potential, the acorn needs nourishment. It follows, therefore, that to reach their potential students need nourishment. Given the right conditions a person’s creativity can soar.
Clearly the Soul Food Café, a virtual community for writers and artists, provides just the right conditions for a person’s creativity to flourish. Gwen Myers, says “The worlds’ oldest living organism is a grove of Aspen trees. They are each a separate tree, but they are one giant organism. Even though an individual tree may fall, the grove still flourishes. That is Soul Food to me. We are each our own tree, mature and strong enough to survive anything life may throw at us; but we all flourish and taste immortality within the Circle Of Soul Food. We weave a magic that is quiet and works in a powerful way. Despite the flow of words from the Circle as a whole, we are each in our quiet, private place; also, I have seen everyone who joins Soul Food bloom, and become what they should be as artists. I see everyone’s minds, hearts, and spirits shine more clearly in their words with every e-mail, comment, and post.”
Blog is the tool that has been used to potentiate, to make Soul Food participants more active and effective and to create the environment Gwen describes. Given that Blog is, for all intents and purposes, a static software program it is not immediately obvious how such a transformative process has taken place.
For those who are unfamiliar with what blog is we need to provide a little background. The emergence of Blogger changed the dynamics of web publishing. Blogger, a word coined by Pyra Labs, is a service that provides Web-based tools used by individuals to publish directly onto the Internet. The word “blog” is a shortened form of “web log”, or web-based journal. Inevitably the word was shortened to just “blog” and the verb “to blog” was born.
For many, web journals or blogs are an alternative to mainstream media while the majority of users perceive maintaining a blog to be a hobby. However, weblogs have become accepted in school, library, information science, and corporate settings. The large number of educational blogging sites on the Internet attest to the growing popularity of this medium among educators.
The Blogging explosion has been extraordinary. It is estimated (at the time of writing this) that there are now over 45 million blogs. About 75,000 emerge each day. This is an impressive number given that Blogger was only designed in 1999. The sheer number of blogs being published demonstrates that individuals have been quick to pick up on the idea of having an online journal, workbook, or directory. However, a blog can be used in so many different ways. An article by Lisa Mitchell, in The Education Age on July 3, 2006, reveals how blogs are transforming peer review and collaboration in academia.
As an educator, a specialist teacher of writing, I have always been keen to apply technology that facilitates communication and inspires people to engage in creative activities. After using Microsoft Word and Publisher in the early 90’s as a means to have students ‘publish’ their work, I found that the availability of free blogs from 1999 onwards provided real platforms for my students to reach a far broader audience. It was very easy to encourage students to publish their work on the web and to persuade students to participate in online discussion groups, particularly when they could do so in their own time and include friends. Students were adept learners and leaped at the opportunity to use all the new, exciting software.
Unlike creating Web pages, which demand design skills, knowledge of html coding and web hosting space, Blogs provide an incredibly easy, free way to establish and maintain a web page. Apart from enabling people to publish, blogs allow visitors to respond to posts and archives of older posts can be accessed at any time. This ‘vanity publishing’ appealed to egotistical teenagers. However, while bloggers are fun and help to massage egos, my work has revealed that bloggers offer far more than this.
Blogs have features which, when applied imaginatively, enable people to work in a team setting, comment on one another’s work, edit one another’s material and work collaboratively. It is possible to use the platform of WordPress to build interconnected web sites and have teachers, students and parents communicating online. It is possible to have a school’s curriculum online and in small, remote schools, where staff work in relative isolation staff are discovering that they can create forums where they communicate with one another and showcase integrated curriculum.
Blog is a more flexible than email based forums. Users can self publish ideas using this free software and visitors can provide almost instantaneous feedback. Academics who need to impress in order to further their careers are able to build up their credibility by regularly publishing using blogger. People who want to work with kindred spirits can fit into niche communities like Soul Food and enjoy benefits that are not as readily available to authors and other text publishers. A person can post a piece in semi-draft format and have people polish it. A teacher can edit their students’ work. This article was posted on a WriteBoard, a sharable, web-based text document program and members of the Soul Food community read it, passed critical comment and actually edited sections. Like blogger, WriteBoard is perfect for authors, journalists, PR folks, editors, publishers, freelance writers, letter writers, songwriters, poets, comedians, students, professors, and groups collaborating on papers.
Early in 2005, aware that I was working with a tool that had unique applications and potential, I decided to apply this technology at the Soul Food Café, the Internet site I have run for eight years. In an interview with Chris Dunmire from the Creativity Portal website, I talked about how I had envisioned the Lemurian Abbey as a place full of fine art and craft, a virtual monastery that would be filled with tiny, spartan cells where votaries of the muse could come, retreat behind walls and observe time differently. I believed that in this Monastery, time would not be measured with clocks and believed that monastic writers would be free to wander through the cloisters and walled gardens in a meditative state, capturing metaphors in their writing nets.
The Lemurian Abbey blogger quickly became a wonderful sanctuary for people from all over the world, people eager to practice the Soul Food Way and make writing and art a daily practice. Barbara Banta moved in with her companions, Tookey and Oreo and folk claimed a role for themselves. Faucon of Sakin’el became the lamplighter, Anita Marie Moscoso clambered down and found the catacombs and Trendle Elwood worked in the gardens.
As people settled into their cyber cells and began living their role and publishing their daily work, a metamorphosis began to take place, and I realised that there was something magical happening on the site. A creative transformation was taking place, and I could see that interaction and collaboration were working in an online setting. Artists and writers, everyday people who had stumbled upon the site, were not only publishing their work without inhibition but were providing support for fellow ‘novices’. Every day individuals, many of whom had been creatively blocked by less than favourable experiences at school, college and university, were drawn to the metaphor of the Abbey and the lifestyle it implied.
Soul Food members who have spent a significant time blogging are very complimentary about the way they have been taught to use blogger. Barbara Banta, who lives with a disability, highlights the more serious benefits of blogging when she says, “Blogging has been an amazing growth experience. Instead of limiting myself to a few known interests I’m now stretching out into areas I’d never even considered before. The possibility, make that probability, that people will actually read what I’ve written is enticing, while the actuality of connecting with others and receiving their comments is encouraging beyond belief. As a woman with a disability, the sheer luxury of being able to communicate ideas and opinions to a worldwide audience is a dream comes true. There’s a good chance no one will ever read the manuscript in my desk, but thoughts can now be shared, memories passed on, and my fiction enjoyed.”
Taking this further, Monika Roleff observed “a particular asset of Soul Food’s blogger network is the healing potential it has to break down boundaries in a supportive environment. People from all parts of the world, all kinds of conditioning can come together and become inspired by differences and similarities, to create a greater understanding in the world.”
After the Abbey’s success I announced that I would offer free places to people who wanted to be orientated, shown Soul Food and who wanted to work on team Blogs and jointly discover their potential to transform creativity. Twelve people accepted, packed their virtual bags at short notice and took off through the magic doorway into the fantasy Blogger world of le Enchanteur (my alter ego) and the Soul Food Silk Road.
At the time of departure for the Cave of the Enchantress, embroiderer, Leonie Bryant wrote: “I now have a lovely old wicker basket to take with me. It is a little dusty on top and beautiful inside. My excuse for the tardiness in packing has been a long search for my imagination, which unfortunately has been deeply buried since I was a child. I so badly wanted to bring it that I persevered with the search. So here I am with excited anticipation, hoping to make friends with my long lost muse. I have left locked in the cupboard my practicality and sensibility. I am so glad to have such inspiring friends to journey with to Umbria!”
A bond was forged and this hardy group travelled together right through until the end of 2005 and as they travelled they learned more about the potential of team blogging. It soon became clear that there was a need for archives and more and more blogs were created to house responses. Some travellers began to preserve their journeys on personal bloggers and the Soul Food Café’s 2005 Advent Calendar was created to preserve what had become known as a ‘Journey of the Heart’.
Like pioneers of old, travellers stopped and founded places like Duwamish, the Hermitage, Owl Island, The Isle of Ancestors and the House of Baba Yaga. In the process travellers established themselves and became identities. Everyone on the Silk Road knows of le Enchanteur’s hare-brained adventures, love the Hermit, Imogen, and are fascinated by Anita Marie Moscoso’s Curiosity Shop. Maps were drawn and the roads filled as more people came looking to meet the characters that had walked before them, who had written or drawn themselves into being.
On a regular basis I have asked participants to analyse blogging at Soul Food and to explain the secret ingredients of the blogger network’s success.
Carol Abel, who participated in the original ‘experiment’, said, “you set up the Lemurian Abbey, amongst other places, and people began to cluster around you and their posts – be they written or artistic – are the adornments. The fact that it is virtual, and yet so tangible, means that it has a huge appeal to an ever-increasing audience. Each person who joined the journey set up their own blogs and so the constellations increased, spawning more and more as friends set up their own and people linked to each other’s blogs. There is no doubt in my mind that if I had not come across you I would never have considered setting up blogs of my own and would never have dared ‘publish’ any of my work. The supportive nature of working in a closed environment, such as the abbey, meant that I could get a foothold on the bottom rung of the ladder and work my way up in confidence, at the same time improving my work, never fearing that I would be let down by other people’s lack of interest or hurtful criticism.”
Lori Gloyd has been basking in what has been a rapid creative transformation. She says “I have written more and made more artwork in the last three months using blogger than I have in my whole adult life. That is not an exaggeration. For ten years I plodded along just posting a few pieces every four or five months on my own simple website of my own creation. Only a few people in my immediate circle ever saw my work. Now, here, using blog power, uploading is easy and the response from a worldwide audience is swift. I write and create daily. My creativity is flourishing from the use of blogger.”
Janie Hart noted that being able to remain anonymous within the blogger network provides an all-important safety net. Lemuria is an artificial environment that you connect to from your own private space, without ever being jostled by the crowd that gathers there.
“Within an artificial environment or story setting,” added Ken Muller, “each participant can ‘role play’ a bit, and even offer discordant views of their own perceptions. Though participants on Soul Food may range across six continents they are ‘of the same blood’, connected by a creative flow and sense of being.” On the bloggers it is one’s unique voice that gives each person a readily distinguishable fingerprint.
Gail Kavanagh, enthused about the potential of blogger, says that “the bloggers have given me freedom to experiment and stretch — writing isn’t just an isolated activity that I do now, it’s part of my whole creative being. I use visual journals, collage, and other media that incorporates writing — I look at my writing as a piece of art and, with the encouragement and support I find on the bloggers, I reach out and try new things. For me, the bloggers are creative liberation. They have freed my spirit.”
The bloggers proved to be a place for Gail to experiment and she has thrived in this setting, enjoying the opportunity to recapture some of her ‘gypsy-like’ childhood. Indeed, it is the opportunity to be child-like, to feel child-like emotions that has enchanted and energized us all.
Gail also identified a characteristic of which students became aware. Students loved drawing before writing, adored using visual journals, collages, artistic trading cards, altered books and mannequins to express themselves before they even picked up a pen or put their fingers on the keyboard. Blogger, combined with free programs like Picture Trail and Image Shack enables people to experiment with abandon and showcase not just their writing but their art as well.
When asked why they are drawn to this virtual community, why they feel comfortable posting in such a public forum, a forum that can be accessed by anyone with an Internet connection, participants all make mention of the fact that they feel that the cyber world of Lemuria provides a safe container in which they can experiment.
Gwen Myers wisely pointed out that one of the allures of writing in this environment, is being able to bask in the inexpressible delight of having people from around the globe comment on her work. She says that “the intense excitement of seeing your words, your work, glimmering on the monitor feeds the creative life. Online publishing provides immediate rewards for the work put into it.” Myers explains that many “creative-types, who feel separate from the ‘rest of the world’, through virtual communities like Soul Food, find commonality and acceptance just as they are. This validation is the key—when you feel a part of a group, feelings of isolation quickly fade and are replaced by a sense of belonging.”
Myers goes on to say that she is personally fascinated to see how others handle the same subject matter. Travellers are provided with prompts but there is no compulsion to confine oneself to these. Gwen is also impressed with the ease with which one can go back and assess improvements in one’s skill level by looking at old blog posts. After charting her blog posts, she noted that her skills are being polished and observes her willingness to go out on a creative limb. This degree of comfort is fascinating given that almost a million people visit and read posts at Soul Food each year.
Monika Roleff also notes the potential provided of using blog to communicate, discuss and share. She points out that “the comment tool is brilliant for this” and says that “blogging resolves the issue of feeling isolated in your ideas”. Good quality feedback from like-minded people has nourished Monika and helped her commit to the daily routine. She says that through this daily process “tangible transformation has come. The results can be seen from week to week, or even day to day.”
Charlotte Greene says that it “is undeniable that there is a ‘Gestalt’ to this blogging thing, at least in the way you have taught us to use it. Not only is the whole more than the individual posts, but it sets an exponential process going, sort of like an elaborate root system sending all these signals up through the trunk and resulting in such unpredictable branching, leafing, and remodelling of the whole structure.”
Today visitors gasp in wonder at the beautiful constellation, the clustered quadrivium that adorns the cyber sky above us here in Melbourne, Australia.
Can the Soul Food experience be replicated in a classroom? What insights do the experiences of individuals, ranging in age from twenty five to eighty five, offer teachers who want to engage students and help them realise their creative potential? Can similar constellations be set up for students?
The short answer is yes! Teachers who fail to provide forums for high order thinking skills are failing tech-savvy students who are most comfortable operating in such settings.
Anita Marie Moscoso, a regular author at Soul Food, explains how her view of herself changed after working in this environment. “I had no idea that when I put my blog together and people started to actually read what I wrote that would make me a writer, an author…I thought that would not happen until the day I signed a contract with a publishing house.
Surprise…it didn’t happen that way at all.
I get e-mail strangers, they called my stories, strange and disturbing and wonderful…all in one sentence.
My friends and co-workers and people from my community would walk up to me and start talking about my stories. They knew the characters, the plots, they asked questions about the settings and asked where I got my ideas from.
Then one day it occurred to me: I’m a Writer.
Now I look at my blog differently. I don’t just dump stories there. I fret over the format ( blog stories have to be short, snappy just like those old radio plays ) I fret over the template and the size of the print. I want my blog to be easy to read, I need to pay attention to the links I post and WHY they’re there. I need to keep it fresh and I have to assign myself stories and deadlines and I have to stick to them or that traffic will go somewhere else. In other words, my blog isn’t just a space I fill up with random thoughts.
Everything I put there has to have a reason for being there and if I don’t commit to it my ‘business’ will suffer.
I guess I’m keeping what I do in perspective; I’m working these blogs because I want to become the best writer I can become. I’m passed wanting to be like ‘someone else’. I just want to be Anita Marie Moscoso-storyteller.
Wish me luck!”
What would happen if all students started thinking like Anita Marie Moscoso? How would you feel if your students started fussing over formats, links, length, and audience? How would a Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Maths teacher feel witnessing students ‘talk science and maths’ online and adjust their thinking as a result of feedback? What would an art teacher think if students scanned and loaded copies of their work on to a blogger or created an online folio?
In response to the blogging phenomena, the Victorian Education Channel invited me to work with them to establish a cluster for teachers and students from around the world. Global Teacher, as it has become known, is an intricate online network which provides a dualistic, interactive, cyber setting, for educators and students to self-publish using an especially designed publishing and communication tool.
Global Teacher is a network that has been designed to enable educationalists from all over the world to work collaboratively, share educational materials and publish staff and student work but it has not taken very long to realise that blogger enables transformative communications between staff, students and teachers. Staffs are using a tailor made blogging program called Global Teacher while students use a twin program called Global Student. These programs are ‘clones’ of Edublog and WordPress, which many educators will be already familiar with.
The challenge for educators is to rethink curriculum and move to relevant technology-based curriculum. The blogger revolution is changing not only personal and global communications but thinking, technical, personal and workplace skills. Innovative educators are infusing programs like blogger with oxygen and are using it to engage their students, provide real audiences and develop interactive clusters of learning. Teachers are using new technology tools such as Blog, WriteBoard, Audio Blog, Pod Casting in their provision of higher thinking skill based curriculum.
Currently, participants at Soul Food upload text and images, but we are introducing audio-blogging to facilitate poetry recitations, dramatic readings, running commentary and character acting. Working within a cluster of like-minded promotes critical thinking, applied reasoning, information processing and new communication skills. It encourages people to learn within a team setting and apply technology creatively.
Soul Food inspires everyone to be the best they can be. It subtly teaches goal-setting, self-assessment, time-management, change-readiness and agility. Teachers can learn from this experience and apply similar strategies in their classrooms.
To embrace blogging, expand the use of dotcom tools and help change teaching pedagogy, join Global 2. Make the commitment to do something each day to master and apply this online tool. Learn more about the digital landscape with which your students are already familiar. Experiment, post, and see for yourself how the blogger revolution is changing not only personal and global communications but thinking, technical, personal and workplace skills. Establish a blog and begin networking today. Bring your students on board by signing them up at Global 2 and put links to each of them on your blogger. Shamelessly ask for help. Seek new ideas and let it all happen. You will be amazed by the creative transformation that takes place.
The other part of this research project, supported by the State Library of Victoria Association and the Victorian Education Channel in the Department of Education was the Global Student arm which had thousands of student blogs in it.