So, what have I learned from being “disconnected” this month?
For one, I can appreciate the feelings described by some of my #teachread grad students who tried out various social media venues for the first time in our course. Some of them discussed the feeling of disconnection when they limited their engagement online to the occasional required post and response. I have been feeling the same as I glance at updates and posts by colleagues and not really read them, let alone respond and engage in the conversation. Other students talked about feeling like they were lost in a constant, fast-moving stream of words when they were trying to read, write and collaborate online. And yes, I have been so infrequently looking at my Twitter feed this month, I have felt out of sync, which has led to even less interaction on my part. I have learned that it is not about being connected or disconnected; rather, it is being engaged in conversations with others—exchanging, interacting, participating—that has made my personal learning network meaningful.
I have also learned that—like most things—this connection or disconnection thing is not a binary situation. While up at a cabin in the desert mountains of the southwest—disconnected as I can be from the world this month—I have been learning and thinking and…well…connected.
My niece and nephew visited for a night and in the morning my nephew and I sat sipping hot cocoa, listening to the different bird calls from the trees to our right and left, when we noticed an ordinary brown bird lift its wings and rise from the sagebrush in front of us. Suddenly it was no longer brown, but a soft blue, like water flying. We looked at each other and then back to the area to see if we could see any others like that one, and soon enough we saw three more. I asked him if he knew about birding. We didn’t have a bird identification book on hand, but we did have an Internet connection in that corner of the porch. I dug out my laptop. We sat comparing the birds flitting just a few feet in front of us to the pictures and descriptions online. We talked about search terms and categories that would result in a proper identification. And suddenly, we came across the Indigo Bunting. There it was, our deceptively bright blue bird. My nephew, who is starting 2nd grade this week, said, “I need to write this down.” And he went inside to dig out a pad of paper and pencil.
We talked about the genre of field notes, the type of information that goes into them, and how their sentences sound. As he wrote his entries, we talked about letter-sound correspondence and spelling patterns. At some point, he said it would be easier just to write the sentence from the website we had found. This led to a great discussion about attributing source material. We took a picture of his book to send to his parents once we were in cell phone coverage, and then realized that family and friends could be involved faster if we posted the picture to Facebook. In moments we were also responding to comments about our birding activities.
We took the newly formed field notebook on an adventure walk to a reservoir three miles away, during which we took pictures of birds with my phone and he later drew them in his notebook as we sat next to the reservoir. On the way, my niece and I discussed the need for bird, insect and flower identification apps for the phone, about how apps are developed, and what we thought photos would need to entail for automatic identification through an app. We then started taking the pictures with this in mind, discussing what we would need to include in the frame of the photo.
And then we ran into an entomologist, who was riding along on his bike along the dusty path, and he gave us directions to a place that had books on birds, flowers, and of course, insects of the area. (He also described the red velvet ant he found just feet from us in a failed attempt to turn my nephew from birds to insects.) We had a choice at this time to walk an extra mile in the hot midday sun to go look at the books or we could hitch a ride with a neighbor in an air-conditioned car back to the cabin. It wasn’t even a question to my nephew who wanted to see all the books and hold them in his hands.
I’ve learned that this Connected (or in my case, “Disconnected”) Educator Month (see Part I) isn’t like the “paper or plastic” question. Contemporary composition, like my nephew’s field notebook, isn’t a pad of paper or laptop question either. It isn’t a choice between books or apps for bird and flower identification. It isn’t drawing or taking pictures.It isn’t experts IRL (in real life) or comments on a post. Even if you’re “disconnected,” our world and how we experience it is still (re)shaped by these digital means of connection. Of course we could dicker about the degree of my disconnection, but even when I wasn’t using a digital device, my conversations with my niece and nephew and our expectations were influenced by the possibilities of “connection.”
(in which I connect my experiences and mix my metaphors)
This has led me to think about something I heard in a tweet or a blog post (link me if you know the source) as a possible new literacy strategy for my “disconnected” and “lost” grad students, who were just dipping their toes into the swift stream of digital reading, writing and collaboration available nowadays. Someone advised followers to treat online collaboration and connection as if it were the radio. You tune in and immediately have to contextualize the conversation in order to make sense of it. By merely listening in and making inferential leaps about the genre and the references people are making, you can eventually grasp it. I like this analogy. I think it works.
I’d also say that unlike the radio—and even unlike radio call-in shows—this particular swift-moving stream is even more meaningful if you jump in or—like my niece from a slippery stone she was standing on next to the reservoir—slip in. (Her feet got quite slimy, but she reported that the cool water made it all worth it.) It isn’t just about the information that’s out there that our current devices and apps allow us to get, nor is it the kind of the messages we can now send; rather, it’s the possible conversations and ideas that ignite between people that makes “connecting” worth it. The possibilities surround us.