An Open Learning Project

Letter Song by @bryanjack

Photo courtesy of Giulia Forsythe

Each spring the TALONS undertake an In-Depth Study, a five month “passion project” wherein they are asked to document their growth and learning toward personalized goals in learning a skill or craft. There are two universal goals for the In-Depth Study:

1. Know something about everything and everything about something.

In school you are usually taught about many subjects.  In this project, the goal is to learn a great deal about one field of activity, usually not available in a school setting.

2. Learn what others tell you is important and learn what you decide is important.

In school you are told what to learn and how to learn it.  In this project, you will decide in what field and with what strategies, you will become an “expert.”

Along with the Fall Retreat, spring Adventure Trip and the fall’s Eminent Person project, the In-Depth Study constitutes a significant pillar in the TALONS Program that, because it is predominantly designed and facilitated by my teaching partner, hasn’t been much documented here. Though in past years I have undertaken a couple of different learning projects that have seen their way onto my blog:

Learning Pearl Jam’s “Daughter
Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
Banjournal

This year, as part of Alec Couros‘ appearance in my University of Victoria #tiegrad cohort, I have the opportunity to combine a few different aspects of my course work with my classroom teaching this spring. For Alec’s EDCI 569 class (The Distributed, Blended & Open Classroom), we are tasked with engaging in our own learning projects, as well as participating in an open online course or community. And as they have in the last few years, these new academic requirements find a worthwhile conspirator in our Music Department‘s #IntroGuitar class.

I’ve taught #IntroGuitar now at our school going on five years now, but only in the last few has the course opened up to facilitate music-making, teaching, and collaboration to a wider community of open online learners. There is a perfect marriage of sorts between the type of discovery-learning that attracts people to an instrument like the guitar, and the type of ethos espoused in the MOOC movement. As Dave Cormier says, “you can choose what you do, how you participate, and only you can decide when you’ve been successful, just like real life,” teenagers have been learning guitar in this personalized and peer-to-peer fashion as long as the instrument has existed. Even my own playing has followed this path, beginning in the early days of the social web when guitar tabs seemed to have already have leveraged the constructivist potential of the read-write web in ways other communities would adopt across the last fifteen years.

But these online resources – much my early learning took place before the advent of YouTube – were only part of the course of my life with guitar, as a year into the project I moved in with another beginner with whom I was able to commiserate over barre chords and blues scales. Even better, this roommate had a friend who played in a band, and he and his friends served as early mentors who were able to rapidly advance our learning.

Since those early strumming days in Arkansas, I’ve expanded my inquiry into music by writing songs, playing with groups of friends, and a few informal performances. But as happens in the lifelong learning of a thing – and in lifelong, personalized learning in and of itself – the process of discovery and progress can only continue so long as the learner is able to continually synthesize and build on prior learning. And in recent years, I’ve been fortunate to explore successive challenges with supportive peers and mentors in a variety of settings.

I’ve collected a brief summary of these learning communities here:

DS106 Radio

In the spring of 2011, the brainchild of Jim Groom and Grant Potter began as a means of sharing course work created in Jim’s Digital Storytelling class at the University of Mary Washington, and quickly spawned and supported a community of educators / music-makers who began using the distributed web radio station to share live rehearsals, themed shows of covers, and recorded original works. And for the next couple of years, the station became a digital version of my own coffee-house open mic: I would play new songs, covers, riff on others’ material, and listen to my friends when they would take over the airwaves.

Out of this digital community have come countless opportunities to jam in face-to-face rehearsal spaces and kitchens, living rooms and campfires in the years since, including up to a few weeks ago in East Vancouver.

Unplug’d

Bryan Six Nation Guitar V2In 2011, and again in 2012, I was invited to participate at the Unplug’d Educational Summit on the edge of Algonquin Park, where I was able to meet many of my online colleagues in a natural setting, and share a host of songs – Canadian-themed and otherwise – with educators from across Canada and around the world.

At the 2012 Summit, with Jowi Taylor and Voyageur the Six String Nation guitar, serving as the weekend’s welcoming keynote, I was invited to deliver what I consider my first “real” performance for guests at the summit hotel in downtown Toronto. And over the course of the weekend I was able to share an original song I wrote that weekend – on Voyageur – with participants at the culmination of the weekend. (I’ve written a longer post about this experience here.)

The Judy and the Town Sessions

A few summers ago, I set about assembling a few former students whose band had recently lost its lead singer (to a road trip back east, nothing tragic) to act as my own supporting group to work out a few of the original songs I’d written in recent years. Having always written and played on my own – solo acoustic, with the exception of some of the DS106 Radio jams – I had begun to hear the songs I was writing in fuller resolution, with drums, bass and more guitar to fill out an emerging aesthetic in my mind’s… ear. And while the Judy and the Town sessions were cut short as more members of the band eventually joined their lead singer back in Montreal, these recordings offer a warm reminder of the potential for my quiet solo songs to take on a life of their own in the hands of others.

Georgia Straight Guitar Society

This past fall, I was fortunate to join one of my dad’s friends and a colleague from school at the annual Fall Jam hosted by the Georgia Straight Guitar Society. A weekend retreat at a 100 year old camp in serene Crescent Beach, the Jam featured musicians from all over the Lower Mainland – and beyond – and offered an opportunity to participate in songwriting circles, endless middle-of-the-night jam sessions, and a Saturday night concert, where I again tasted the joy of bringing one of my songs to life with the help of talented friends.

He not busy being born is busy dying.

This summer I will turn 34 years old, and with these minor triumphs listed above the compulsion arises to continue to raise the stakes in my musical life.

To scare myself, if only a bit.

Because along with Dylan’s line about being busy being born, I’m reminded of Brene Brown, who offers the inspiration that our vulnerabilities are often the fear that keeps us from accessing our potential. And so the next place to take my guitar playing and my decade-plus inquiry into music, by looking back at the narrative thus assembled…

…is performance.

In his final address on the Tonight Show, Conan O’brien talked about people who asked him about his secret to success “like asking someone how they got struck by a meteor,” so unique are the pathways which lead us to exceptional personal achievements. But he did add that the thing he had always tried to do was “always put myself in a situation where I had no choice but to be great,” and I’ve always thought about this when faced with the opportunity to perform.

I surely haven’t ever always been great. But when I haven’t been I have most assuredly learned a lot about how I should proceed next time, and looking ahead at a spring that has already yielded a few opportunities to hone this emerging skill, I am grateful for the push offered by my classes’ Learning Project / In-Depth Study.

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  1. Pingback: On Playing Guitar – Adventures in a Gifted Classroom

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