Social Media/Studies

UntitledIn addition to more critical efforts to conduct inquiries into history as it intersects with our present landscape, the TALONS class has come to embrace dramatic efforts to enact and recreate history in their social(s) learning. Whether engaging in a mock trial of King Charles II, or making impassioned speeches as characters in the French Revolution, such theatrical turns have traditionally made for memorable classroom moments.

A few years ago, a group of TALONS grade tens approached me to see if they could ‘pitch’ a unit plan for our upcoming French Revolution study: in blog posts and classroom activities, members of the class would each adopt a character from the revolutionary period, and strive to realize and represent diverse perspectives on events in 18th century France.

In the years since, the unit has evolved to include Twitter, as well as a series of improvised discussions, debates and addresses – all in character.

Thus the class is able to imagine and take in the passionate decrees of a young Maximilien Robespierre:

In the future I believe that it is not enough for the monarchy to only lose a portion of its power. France should be a country run for its people by the people, a democracy! At this moment I do not have enough political power to share my views in such ways, but in time I shall express my desires. One day I assure you, I will find a way to improve the lives of the poor and to strike down those corrupt from power.

And see the story through to his betrayal of Georges Danton, who addresses his friend:

I curse you.

We once had, if not brotherhood, at least mutual understanding. We were creating a France that our children would be proud of. I know not when your idealism became madness but I must have failed to see the signs, because I was not prepared for all the murders, and all the terror that you instilled into this country.

Robespierre, you will follow me into dissolution. I will drag you down screaming, and we will fall together.

In addition to these perspectives developing on individual blogs in monologues and comment threads, classroom time is spent charting the development of significant revolutionary events against characters’ reactions which are presented in improvised debates or speeches. And the dialogue continues on Twitter, as each character adopts an avatar to not only promote and archive their blogged artifacts, engage in dialogue with their allies and nemeses, and exercise their own democratic rights in carrying out the final assessments in the unit:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.38.18 PM

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.39.55 PMSensing that there might be a popular uprising against a tyrant teacher bent on sticking steadfast to an arbitrary deadline, I asked to see a show of support for the idea:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.43.23 PMThe idea was taken up quickly.

By philosophers:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.42.33 PMThe King of France:

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Feminist leaders:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.45.54 PMAnd even the farmers:

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At the culmination of the unit, each of the TALONS delivered a final address that looked back on their contributions to the revolution, and how they might have done things differently with the benefit of hindsight. And while each member of the class was only tasked with creating one unique angle on the historical events being studied, the effect rendered by the series of addresses on the unit’s final day presented a nuanced and multidimensional look into the various subjectivities that (might have) helped shape the revolutionary period.

From each of their perspectives, what the French Revolution might be about would likely sprawl in a dozen different directions: a part of a historical march toward justice; political reform; a spark in the narrative of female activism; the story of scarce resources driving extreme behaviour. And to ‘teach’ toward these myriad truths is at once a curricular requirement and Quixotic pursuit, revealing the tensions of education for citizenship in a pluralist democracy, asking How do we create unity and cultivate diverse perspectives?

In interpreting history, as well as our present moment, students ought be engaged in rehearsing this act, and with the dramatic role play the answer offered to the pedagogic problem lies at the heart of narrative.

Of sensing an individual’s arc at the centre of a multitude of shared and individual lives.

Of constructing ‘we’ out of many ‘I’s.

Whether face to face or in the online sphere, this is the task of schooling in the multicultural society.

Learning Project: Performance Goals

Leading up to our first performances in #IntroGuitar, for credit students were asked to prepare brief introductions to their goals in these first efforts. Here is my introduction to the song I selected to perform, an original entitled “Judy and the Town.”

While the song is a few years old, I have elected to focus more on performing this semester, and have looked to present the tension in the song between the somber second verse and more jubilant ending. This involves establishing the song’s structure in the first two verses, which lead to transitional pre-choruses and full choruses, and then turning the corner into the final chorus / coda, gaining momentum and hopefully voices in a singalong ending.

And then Scott’ll come home / and the dogs’ll come home / and we’ll all be at home / and if Lindsay ever leaves she’ll still come home

In my recorded performance, I am not quite into the physical performance of the song; the guitar I had handy didn’t have a strap to facilitate standing. But I have managed to employ my rhythm playing in such a way that lets the storytelling in the vocals become clearly imagined by the audience.

 

With Hemingway

Ambos Mundos

Italy, Spain, Cuba – half the world is filled with the places that he appropriated simply by mentioning them. In Cojimar, a little village near Havana where the solitary fisherman of ”The Old Man and the Sea” lived, there is a plaque commemorating his heroic exploits, with a gilded bust of Hemingway. In Finca de la Vigia, his Cuban refuge, where he lived until shortly before his death, the house remains intact amid the shady trees, with his diverse collection of books, his hunting trophies, his writing lectern, his enormous dead man’s shoes, the countless trinkets of life from all over the world that were his until his death, and that go on living without him, with the soul he gave them by the mere magic of his owning them.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Meets Ernest Hemingway

Last week I was fortunate once again to travel to the island of Cuba and visit the Ambos Mundos hotel and bar that once housed Ernest Hemingway before he purchased and moved to his estate Finca de la Vigia. His first Cuban home, Hemingway began writing For Whom the Bell Tolls in room 511 at the hotel in the heart of Old Havana.

Havana Daytrip

When I graduated from university, my sister and I spent the following summer working at a Boy Scout camp in the Ozark foothills, and made a pact to read nothing but Hemingway for the balance of our time at the camp and en route back to Vancouver. He and I shared a birthday (July 21), and as a creative writing student I had learned from professors with deep affections for authors I hadn’t yet digested: among them Hemingway, William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. At the outset of my life beyond school and what promised to be an adventurous summer – my sister and I would leave the summer camp after six weeks in the woods to fly north and road trip across Canada – we seemed to have been presented a fitting venue to finally set teeth to Papa’s ouvre.

I had started For Whom the Bell Tolls before M. got off the plane with her copy to To Have and to Have Notand we marched forward from there:

I finished For Whom in a tent in Molena, Georgia, at a National Certification School for the Boy Scouts.

A Farewell to Arms, and Green Hills of Africa were read mostly near the scout camp pool in Damascus, Arkansas.

I read To Have and to Have Not in the tent that was my home that summer.

Islands in the Stream went down riding the train from Montreal to Toronto.

There were others, of course: The Sun Also Rises, Old Man and the SeaA handful of short stories: “The Killers,” “Hills like White Elephants,” “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and others. And by the time we crossed the continental divide, Hemingway’s protagonists and prose had enveloped the colour and tenor of our adventure.

View from Ambos Mundos

At twenty two years old, and newly graduated with a degree in creative writing, our summer in the woods and the ensuing journey home represented the discovery of an all-too-enourmous canvas upon which to paint my sister’s and my lives. Saying goodbye to intense and short-lived friendships, taking on the struggles of life outdoors, travel, not to mention fears about what lie ahead in terms of what I would do with my college education, Hemingway’s plots and conflicts provided a matter-of-fact commitment to the rough, sad, beauty of life.

In Niagra Falls, on the first afternoon of our trip, we found just more than $117 in our shared savings account, and more than 3000 kilometers between us and home.

Outside of Thunder Bay we drove into the darkening night and creepy dirt-road northern towns looking for a place to pitch our tent.

And upon arriving home, we learned that our mother had been diagnosed with cancer (which she would eventually beat).

Each of these difficulties was embraced with Hemingway’s words ringing in our ears: “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong at the broken places.” And as we crested the rocky mountains and entered again the lush and coastal climes of British Columbia, we had come to see ourselves as characters as large in life as the continent we had just crossed. There was little need to express this grandeur in hyperbole or poetry, however; the stark terms of Hemingway’s words created a notion of quiet heorism that was somehow the least any of us could do with our minute lives.

Papa's CornerYears before I would begin teaching a high school course in philosophy, Ernest offered a view on the good life I could embrace: “So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”

In the years since I’ve been guided by other artists, and other authors: Bob Dylan, Garcia Marquez. Springsteen. But in the spirit of Dylan, “I remember every face, of every man that’s brought me here,” and to stand in Hemingway’s lobby, and turn the knob on the door that he slept behind, is to touch something intangible that has profoundly shaped my life as an adult.

Last fall, I read The Dangerous Summera disappointing visit with an aging author in which his lesser qualities run too close to the surface: his infatuation with the brutal “beauty” of bullfighting, chief among them, perfectly representative of the shortcomings in his work around his own image, as well as masculinity and misogyny. But even while acknowledging these shortcomings, the ripples that he made with his mind in the world demand to be reckoned with, if only for me personally as someone who his work  has profoundly touched and influenced.

Sipping an icy lemonade in the lobby bar surrounded by pictures of a formal idol, a depressed man (along with fellow 21st’er Robin Williams) with whom I share a birthday, what he had created in his mind’s eye and invoked in my own imagination became real once more.

I was able to breathe its air, and touch its humid surfaces. To know that it and the life I had conceived in my mind as a young man are in fact still real.

#IntroGuitar Course Welcome & Introduction

Hey (#IntroGuitar) folks!

Here’s a brief example of how you might contribute a course introduction during our first few weeks of class this semester. You can see many others here.

While open online participants are free to jump in and begin on any particular assignment they like, even a short video introduction to yourself and your playing can provide a meaningful connection to your classmates before we get going.

Here are some prompts to get you going:

  • Who are you? Where are you from? How do you come to find yourself in #IntroGuitar?
  • What is your experience or history with guitar (or music)?
  • What do you want to learn during the course?
  • Is there anything you would like support in learning from the #introguitar community?

Be sure to categorize your post under Course Introductions so they will sort with everyone else’s, and connect with others who are starting out by offering a comment or feedback on their introductions.

Learning on (and of) the Web

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“…ds106 is not just ‘on’ the web—it is ‘of’ the web.”

Alan Levine

The advent of the web enables a type of individual inquiry and collective synthesis that makes new experiments in constructivism possible. But creating the conditions for such epistemological emergence can be a challenging possibility to consider.

As Osberg and Biesta note,

“…if educators wish to encourage the emergence of meaning in the classroom, then the meanings that emerge in classrooms cannot and should not be pre-determined before the ‘event’ of their emergence.”

Such a conception of knowledge-creation presents a problem for educators in imagining a means of assessing the type of collaborative inquiry necessary to bring about this type of learning. However, Gardner Campbell has created a daily pop quiz that may provide a template for a daily barometer of individual engagement:

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The pic of Gardner Campbell included here was taken by Michelle Lamberson

To achieve top marks on this type of quiz, learners must be engaged in generating personal courses of study around shared themes, the fruits of which can then be woven together in expressions of individual and collective synthesis that become the processes of learning in the classroom.

Osberg and Biesta describe a similar process of emergence based in “the idea that knowledge is neither a representation of something more ‘real’ than itself, nor an ‘object’ that can be transferred from one place to the next.”

“Knowledge is understood, rather, to ‘emerge’ as we, as human beings, participate in the world. Knowledge, in other words, does not exist except in our participatory actions.”

Bonnie Stewart characterized the shift in thinking surrounding open learning environments such as MOOCs as indicative of a cultural transition driven by digital technologies:

When communications are seen as key to learning, the numeric focus of the information-centered paradigm cannot be reconciled with the significant and varied body of educational research which foregrounds the importance of interactive (Dewey, 1938), situational (Lave & Wenger, 1991), and critical (Freire, 1970) perspectives on learning. The communications approach focuses on the Internet not as a technology but as a medium for human engagement. “The Internet encourages discussion, dialogue and community that is not limited by time or place. The role of educators in this world is to facilitate dialogue and support students in their understanding of resources” (Weller, 2007, p. 6).

This facilitation involves the planning and design of learning environments and activities, to be sure; but these preparations are best informed by educators’ own experience and learning in these environments, and in the same spirit of inquiry that is being asked of the students. As one of the TALONS articulated a few years ago now, to exist in the Age of Information is to participate in it.

In a rash of social studies blog posts that were published in late January of 2011, as the class was studying Louis Riel and the Northwest Rebellion and the Egyptian people were staging a revolution in Tahrir Square, TALONS now-alumni Megan comes to a realization at the heart of literacy in the digital age:

And then you come back to me. Still sitting in front of her computer, and still on the opposite side of the world. I am a child, in this age of information. But I am also part of the age of information. I have just as much say in what occurs as everyone.

If what happened in Egypt is any indicator as to what can be accomplished through communication, I think that maybe, I need to realize, or maybe we (and I’m talking to all my fellow youth out there) need to realize that if we organize we can accomplish something big. People may say that children and youth are better seen, and not heard. But you know what? We are the new generation, and we should have a say about what sort of world we are growing up into.

So hey, there’s my two cents. Just tossing it out in the world of the internet.

But I guess you might say this:

I know that it actually matters now.

I am a participant in this age of information.

An important aspect of participating in the age of information is developing a personalized means of accessing, filtering, saving, sharing and synthesizing the cultural voice of the zeitgeist being expressed across the culture. To provide meaningful experiences in this emergent environment, educators are challenged to engage with information in new ways made possible by the read-write web, and social media.

bell hooks describes such a process of “engaged pedagogy” as “more demanding than conventional critical or feminist pedagogy.”

“For, unlike these two teaching practices, it emphasizes well-being. That means that teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.”

The question of well-being brings into focus many educators’ difficulty in embracing the Digital Age and its myriad publishing tools, social media, and unending streams of information.

How do I read it all? 

Where do you find the time? 

Etc, etc… 

In the five or so years I have been teaching and learning in blended learning environments that attempt to seed the type of culture implied by the advent of digital publishing technologies, I’ve settled into something of an information workflow that allows me to read and reflect on an ever-rising tide of information, but also to organize those readings and reflections, and publish my own thinking to a fluid community of peers and students not only in the present, but also into the future.

Appropriately, this process has emerged over time, and continues to. But a lot of it looks like this:

Feedly ReadsReading

Favs

I stopped surfing around to the sites I tended to find interesting reads or views on a few years ago now, opting instead to follow my favourite sites on either Twitter, or in an RSS reader such as Google Reader. Now, unfortunately having lost the Reader, I’ve moved to Feedly, which does almost everything the former used to, and which is likely similar to many offerings from Digg Reader and a host of others.

My RSS feeds are collected into bundles that I can check at various intervals throughout the week: my News folder is a daily check, while Education, or Arts and Culture generally get more attention on the weekend. Something like Food or Music are generally lower in the pecking order, but as I flick through any of these folders, I am generally not so much reading what I find as filtering and saving the intriguing items for later on.

I do much the same thing on Twitter, where I use my Favourite option to save interesting things for later viewing more than as a sort of Facebook “Like.” 

Now, a lot of people probably participate in these first two steps, and that’s the last they ever see of these links and blog posts and other data flying across the web. But this type of reading demands a later stage in this filtering process where these items can be logged into digital long-term memory.

Delicious bitsWhich is where a service like Delicious comes in (Diigo and other sites can serve the same purpose here), as I then spend time – maybe once every few weeks – going back through those Favourites and Saved articles from Twitter and Feedly, and organize them for longer-term storage.

In Delicious, I’m able to save links to my Saves and Favs that I want to hang onto (helpfully, they have a Chrome plugin that lets me do this right from the page or article itself), as well as as descriptive tags that will help sort different articles, videos, posts or resources.

During the summer, when I have more time to cook, I actually send the favourites from my Food folder to another ap called Pocket which turns my iPad into a cookbook.

This way, as I approach a unit in Social Studies, for instance, or find myself in an email debate with one of my colleagues, or am writing a blog post about something one of my students blogged four years ago, I can consult Delicious and search the tag for “Confederation,” or “Enbridge Pipeline,” or “Student Posts,” et voila. 

Publishing

Blog Tags

When it comes time to publish, I find myself torn between two extremes of blogging or sharing: namely either the carefully-crafted or long-winded dissertation on a topic; or an attempt to capture a moment in time (which can still tend toward the long and windy…). This applies across platforms, to my blog probably as much as Twitter, or Youtube, or Instagram or Flickr.

But the important part of publishing or sharing online is that it can become the natural exhalation of all that good stuff I’m taking such pains to ingest with Feedly and Twitter and, y’know… life. The mass collections of data that these services offer in potential – much as the possibility for learning in life outside of screens – exists in proportion to our ability to synthesize those streams of information into our own view of things.

And it is this potential that I find so riveting about the social, metaphysical, and epistemological transformations brought about with the advent of the Digital Age.

In this view it is important to see one’s own publishing (especially in blogged form) as a node in a network of other information: thus the use of hyperlinks and reference to others’ ideas as support remains an essential quality. But so too does the impetus to organize new posts within a structure that will continue to organize your work into the future. So here we can see blog tags and categories, Youtube playlists, or Flickr albums playing an important role in your own informational tail being accessible, searchable and available to you six months or six years from the date of publication.

Over time these blogged gardens of links and stories and photographs can require weeding, and one is reminded of the health that returns to many of our perennial plants after a thorough trimming of its branches and tangled intersections.

Don’t be afraid to trim, hew, and hack. Unfollow, unsubscribe, reevaluate your workflow. As the Boss says, “there’s no right way to do it. There’s just doing it.”

Split-Screen Storytelling

I have to thank TALONS (and #introguitar) alum Clayton for recommending the MelodyLab app that allows you to make multi-part video-harmonies with your phone.  It might be a ways from replicating Matt Mulholland’s epic multi-part Ghostbusters theme song, but the free app introduces aspects of the loop pedal to video editing, offering this semester’s #introguitar crowd an exciting way to explore and document their learning about guitar.

But beyond the music-makers, it’s exciting to think that MelodyLab also equips visual storytellers with a mobile split-screen video camera anywhere they pack their phones. It is a potential that reminds me of Radiolab‘s poetic Symmetry video, and other epic split-screen moments in cinema.

Room for Improvement: If and when we do Eminent again…

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Before the new year, I compiled a host of the TALONS‘ responses to reflective prompts on their work created during the Eminent Person Study, highlighting the means and methods they employed to create stellar examples of public speaking in their Eminent Addresses. Being able to have each of these reflections assembled in one place – thanks to Google Forms, and a bit of code that helps display the various responses – creates a different type of feedback that allows us to glimpse the how of what is inevitably a successful aspect of the project.

When we are successful, it appears, it is because we put an exceptional amount of work into the product: we rewrite, and edit, and draft, and rewrite again. This sort of work is generally undertaken with the help of supportive peers and parents, and presented alongside a cohort of individuals similarly striving to achieve something grand. These are important insights to hold onto as we look ahead at creating future memorable learning opportunities for ourselves and future classes.

Perhaps equally as inviting is the opportunity to investigate what happens when things could be better, though. And so now later than intended, but still hopefully of value to the class and readers of this blog, here is the flip side of the Eminent data.

During which assignment do you feel you created work you believe could be improved?When it comes to work the TALONS would have liked to improve, the results are more divisive than when asked about where they believed they had been successful. Where a majority of the class felt that their Eminent Address had been the most successful, different aspects of the project reveal themselves as areas for future growth.

Among the contenders are the Interview and Night of the Notables (either on the night itself, or capturing their work in a follow-up blog post), followed closely by Document of Learning, and Introductory post.

Traditionally, the prospect of obtaining an ‘expert’ interview on a related topic to one’s Eminent Study has proved a sticking point for many TALONS over the years, so it is perhaps unsurprising that it should lead the field for this particular question.

This grade ten response distills much of what generally constitutes this difficulty:

The problem with my interview was that I couldn’t get one. If an assignment like this ever comes up again, I would be sure to contact more people (even if there is only a slight chance they would be able to help with my research), and to contact people earlier on. 

Indeed, whether or not an interview can be obtained is generally the result of having cast one’s net wide enough, if not allowing enough time for meaningful responses to be offered.

A grade nine echoes this sentiment:

I feel like I could have sent out my emails earlier, so I’d have an interview by now. I was procrastinating on my interview and sent my emails rather late. I also could have emailed more people because I think most of the people I emailed didn’t see my message or they just didn’t want to respond. 

However, even with enough time and emails heading in the right direction, one of the grade nines cast more specific advice for themselves forward toward next year’s study:

Next time, I will prepare for my interview as early as possible, and send more convincing emails that will increase the chance of me getting an interview. Having conducted some research on how to form emails, I want to: 

  • Make the title / subject line less vague, and keep it short
  • Write less text, as people are lazy and won’t want to read all of it
  • Avoid lengthy introductions
  • Compliment the reader
  • Use bold / italics to emphasize important points

However, even when successful, this grade ten was able to take away valuable lessons from the experience:

Although I did end up conducting an interview, I later observed that my questions might have garnered more of a helpful response if I had chosen a specific and narrowed topic. For this assignment, the questions that I asked could elicit a very long and extensive response, and because I asked so many of these kinds of questions, it became difficult to delve deeply into one specific area, as the interviewee felt the need to address all of the questions. In the future, I would try to narrow my questions to the most important area of study for the purposes of my research and understanding. 

In the cases of other aspects of the study the TALONS would like to see improved, a common thread that emerges in reflection is the race against time. As in the interview assignment, many members of the class can likely empathize with their classmate who wrote,

I feel that I definitely could have done a better job with my [Document of Learning, Library Field Study, Biblography]. But, unfortunately, Night of the Notables crept up on me and I had to put all of my efforts into [my Speech, Learning Center]. 

Even when it came to Learning Centers, this sentiment is likely familiar:

I believe I did fairly well with my Learning Center. However, I believe it could be improved the most out of all of my assignments because since it is such a big assignment there are many places where it could be improved. I would firstly start my learning center sooner, for I had to work well past midnight many days in a row leading up to NotN to finish it. 

This grade nine agrees:

I was happy with my Learning Center, however I believe that I should have put more time, effort and thought into the creation and presentation of it. 

As does this one:

The one thing I would have liked is for more time. Between juggling math, the environmental project, being project manager, elective homework, and extracurricular activities, starting my learning center was slowly making its way down the list. 

Which is a real-world application of the experiential learning TALONS is proud of providing: we often choose which of our tasks will garner our utmost effort, and occasionally even large projects – or aspects of complex projects – don’t get the amount of time or effort we feel they deserve in a perfect world.

Time is, in the world of work as in life, unfortunately a scarce commodity, and we are each tasked with making decisions about how we allocate it. And I doubt that as an even trade, many of the TALONS would exchange success in their Eminent Speech for a more successful turn in one of these other aspects of the project.

However, the sensation that we have not used our time wisely this time around can often be the best impetus to using it differently in the future, and for those who this year felt that their swap wasn’t an even trade (inasmuch as they didn’t spend time on their speech instead of other eminent assignments), I would hope that this sentiment leads to a more informed use of time in future opportunities.

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.

Blog as Prologue

Evening Meeting

Upon completing my undergraduate education, I toyed briefly with the idea of heading directly into my Master’s, though at the time it would have likely been in American literature or an MFA program in fiction writing than the course I’m currently following. Then again during my course work to obtain my teaching certificate, I considered accepting the invitation of one of my professor’s to pursue a doctorate in Fine Arts Education.

However, apart from the timing and other opportunities that kept me from continuing my studies at either of these junctures, I knew in the back of my mind that I would be best suited to continue my formal education if I were able to bring a crystallized vision of why my studies would be of value – to me or anyone else. Ever charmed by a holistic philosophy, I often do my best work when that work can intersect with personal passions, causes and ambitions.

My graduate studies would organically come to pass as my theories and practices – in life as well as work – came more clearly into focus and alignment with one another, as I am confident to say that they have of late.

This process, almost in its entirety, has evolved and emerged in some two hundred and seventy posts which find themselves in the pages of this site. In striving to define my own minute corner of the universe, my hope all along has been to register my perspective among the collective narratives of the communities to which I belong.

Back in 2009, I began this site by asking What is School’s Job? and invoked a Nabakov quote that has inspired me to explore and document my own perspective in the posts since, as well as my burgeoning graduate degree:

Indeed, this subjective life is so strong that it makes an empty and broken shell of the so-called objective existence.  The only way back to objective reality is the following one: we can take these several individual worlds, mix them thoroughly together, scoop up a drop of that mixture, and call it objective reality

Whether in blogged reflections, artistic challenges, or academic work, it is contributing to this conception of greater human knowledge and objectivity that continues to inspire me to push publish, and share my thinking with a wider audience. In the intervening years since that initial post, I’ve come to have a clearer sense of where my perspectives on educational theory and practice might best be put in the service of our shared educational reality, and have been doubly inspired by my initial graduate studies to expand my perspectives on each.

In considering the intersection of cultural epistemologies, ethics and social and political philosophy that constitute curriculum studies, I have come to focus on aspects of learning design and student ownership and engagement with learning through the lens of citizenship education. However, even as these interests have sprawled in the last several years, I have been driven to see them coalesce around the type of “simplicity of cause” that Ralph Waldo Emerson discusses, wherein “There is at the surface infinite variety of things; at the centre there is simplicity of cause.”

In documenting and reflecting upon outdoor education, collaborative inquiry, classroom discussion, digital media or learning through the arts, I’ve found these complexities to be grounded in the view that democratic freedom depends on a broadly engaged citizenry. Such a broadly engaged citizenry demands that schools provide students with experiences in constructing their individual and collective perspectives on community, thereby learning to better contribute as individuals to those communities.

Such a focus provides an ample platform to go about forming a problem statement for my Master’s research, as well as directing a question toward addressing it in future posts and papers. However, while each new representation of these questions, theories or experiences contains the potential for what yet may come, it stands among the prior formulations of itself, and in these multitudes is contained the essence of my thinking.

As a jumping-off point as I set out to synthesize my own thinking on citizenship education, it is important to consider the course of experiences which have brought me here. And by briefly tracing this arc of narrative learning, I hope to bring the larger themes of my own research and experience to bear on the discussion going forward.

Back in 2010, replying to a staff email thread at my school on the nuisances of cell phones, I argued for the citizenship benefits to technology in the classroom:

“It is not a matter of banning cell phones, or even giving them a constant working purpose in our classrooms (such that they are not idle and hence a distraction, or even to meet students “on their turf”), but rather, a focus on raising learners – and to continue in Broadbent’s vain: citizens – that exist within the emerging fluidity of the 24/7 social media cycle, and yet are empowered by its capabilities to unite, and connect, rather than cowed by its vapid and addictive lesser qualities.”

Reflecting on the merits of outdoor education a year later, I highlighted the ability of experiential learning in the woods “to provide experiential lessons in:

  • Realizing that we are a community.
  • Experiencing our place in the (local) natural world.
  • Learning self-reliance and accountability.
  • Living in the moment.”

While I wouldn’t be reading the paper for three more years, it is interesting to see the intersection of many of the notions expressed in this post with Daniel Shugurensky’s ideas about citizenship learning which

“generate[s] public spaces of social interaction in which discourse is based on finding agreement, welcoming different points of view, identifying the common good in a myriad of competing self-interests, searching for synthesis and consensus, promoting solidarity, and ultimately improving community life.”

In 2012, the opportunity to engage in my own community of practice at the Unplug’d event in Algonquin Park provided an opportunity to engage in my own experiential learning about the creation of an educational culture indivisible from the shared perspectives of a community of individuals.

On Saturday afternoon, my editing group of Donna Fry, Marci Duncan, and Gail Lovely sat on yoga mats in the upstairs studio of Points North, and I played them the opening verses of the song. We had saved the song for our last edit, and had spent the day  up until that point contextualizing the meaning of each of our letters through the stories we had told one another and our emerging reflections on what the experience was teaching us. Jowi Taylor was gracious enough to let me enlist the powers of Voyageur in the composition, and he joined us for a conversation about authenticity, and truth, and the role of music, metaphors, and symbols in our collective storytelling while I sat cross-legged with the guitar in my lap.

Like each of the songs I played on Thursday night, “Carrying Stones” turned out to be a collaboration, like all art and stories are, really. Jowi and Voyageur gave me most of the words in the third verse.

Building on my Unplug’d experiences, the work I was doing in my own classroom(s) became more and more oriented toward an aspect of digital citizenship I have come to see as an area of potential when looking at technology in learning: openness.

“whether it’s blogs, wikis, podcasts or campfires; videos, GIFs, or walks in the woods, the story of human progress, and knowledge, is about learning to adapt to these “breaches in the weave of contextual structure,” something that the Internet has brought us in spades. That we should be using it to capitalize on the greatest capacities we possess – creativity and self-expression, community-building and collaboration – seems the most genuine of purposes for classroom learning to take on, and something I’ve found in educational opportunities that thrive because of an attitude of openness.”

It is this ethos of openness and participation where I see my areas of focus and scholarship being of value, as my work in a variety of learning environments has offered a glimpse of enthusiastic cohorts of young people exploring and reflecting upon unique courses of study. As Simsek and Simsek note, the “democratic values needed for the citizenship are not different for new literacies. Many democratic values could be acquired by new literacies.” In fact, they point out that “New literacies are prerequisites for digital citizenship.”

Whether in the gifted cohort I team-teach in Coquitlam, the open-online Philosophy or Guitar courses I facilitate, or broader contributions I have offered to the digital and face-to-face experiences of my students and colleagues, I feel uniquely poised to chart a course of personal and collective development of ideas about citizenship in my corner of the world. And it is here that I would like to begin my Master’s research.

In future posts, I plan to chart and document the evolution of this scholarship as an extension of the prologue offered here.

Rising to meet the Eminent Speech

Eminent Speech Evaluation

Almost without fail, the Eminent Person Speech reigns supreme as the element of the annual project that produces – in the estimation of teachers, peers, and self-assessment – the highest quality work. While there are inevitably remarkable pieces of work contributed to various aspects of the study, whether in Night of the Notables learning centers, interview coups, or blogged representations of learning, and in grade nine or ten, the Eminent Speech rises above.

This year, when polled on the During which assignment do you feel you created your best work?aspect of the study during which they produced their best work, a full 60% of respondents (at the time of this writing, constituting about 85% of the two classes) highlighted their efforts to craft their speech.

Added to this insight, a follow up question asks the TALONS to “describe the process that led to the success highlighted in the previous question,” allowing the process leading to this highly successful aspect of the study to come more clearly into light.

A surprise finding? The best work is the result of tireless effort.

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Prepare, prepare, prepare

A grade ten describes their preparations:

I made sure to write my speech early on so that I had plenty of time to practice it. I practiced it until I knew it inside and out, so that I could recite it no matter what was going on. And having done that, when it was finally my turn to present, I wasn’t nervous at all.

Another thing that really helped was that a lot of the other tens took time to read my speech and help me edit it in the early stages. They guided me to what lines were a little awkward and how to fix my body motions.

Another ten offers the following:

First of all, this year I wrote my speech draft much earlier than the due date compared to last year. Due to this fact, I was able to receive a lot of great feedback from my peers during the writing process, which then allowed me to improve my speech even further. Once my draft was written, I was lucky that I had a lot of time to rehearse my speech. One step that led my speech to success during this stage was that I didn’t just rehearse the words, I also rehearsed body language and movement, and the use of the stage.

A grade nine dissects their drafting process further:

When I was writing, I didn’t limit my thoughts, writing down everything I wanted to include in the speech. By doing this, my speech originally was actually fifteen minutes long. I then took the time, with the help of my mom, to cut down the speech, take out details that weren’t needed, and rephrase events. I think that by writing down every single thought and event that occurred within the period of time the speech was focusing on, I was able to make the speech more thorough and interesting.

As does this one:

I believe it was the drafting process that led me to success on my eminent speech. I did a drafting process where I started writing, then got a better idea of what I wanted to say, and then I would start over. I did this until I didn’t quite start over, but edited previous parts until I was satisfied by the whole thing.

While this grade nine shares the evolution at the heart of his character’s metamorphosis:

During the process of writing the speech, I made a list of points that I wanted to include. After the first draft, I was struck with the idea of the extended metaphor of the caterpillar. I then wrote the second draft, taking the components of the first and smoothing it out. Finally, I edited and revised my speech to create more fluidity.

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Overcoming Fear

For many TALONS, the prospect of delivering an eminent address, whether in the classroom as the grade nines are asked, or on stage with the grade tens on Night of the Notables, is a daunting challenge. As Jerry Seinfeld humourously notes, for many of us public speaking is more popularly feared than death, meaning that “to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

A grade nine offers this reflection on overcoming a longstanding fear:

I believe my speech was my best work because it was the one I exceeded my own expectations the most in. I used to be quite an abhorrent public speaker, always getting overly nervous, shaking, mumbling, and having a monotone; but in this speech I was able to overcome my nervousness and actually deliver it satisfactorily.

The key to overcoming this anxiety? Revision, feedback, and support:

“I think my speech content was pretty good, considering that it went through six drafts and many, many people gave me feedback.”

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In another question, the same TALONS learner reflects on the contributions of a patient parent:

“My dad, along with giving me feedback on many of speech drafts, put up with me reciting my speech over and over in the days leading up to November 24th. Without his patience with me, giving me feedback and listening intently during the many, many times I recited my speech to him, I wouldn’t have had nearly as good a speech as I did. He gave me important pointers, such as where I started rushing, and he gave me confidence. With that confidence, I was able to deliver my speech well.”

A grade ten reflects on the input of a sibling:

“My brother contributed with helping me write my speech. Before I had written a draft that I was happy with I had written about five different speeches. But I hated them all because I didn’t think I was getting my main message across to the audience, namely that we shouldn’t stop because something is hard to do, that we should keep going until it becomes easy to do.

“One day I went to talk with my brother about my speech and how I wanted the audience to feel, and he suggested that I go for something powerful and try to address what [my eminent person] goes through as daily obstacles. This advice really helped me take a second look at how I was writing my speech and which side of [them] I wanted to show. Without my brother I wouldn’t have been able to re-think my speech and really focus on what was imported.”

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Another deals with overcoming a primal fear:

“Probably everyone out there knows that I do not like speeches, so even the fact that I did mine made me extremely happy.

“The writing process was extremely difficult. After changing perspectives three times and either going way over or way under the time limit, I was close to admitting defeat. Finally, I was happy with a fifth draft of my third perspective change. I was very happy with my written speech, but then came the delivery.

“Presenting my speech was probably the most nerve wracking five minutes of my life, but with the help of my friends, I managed to get through it. Before my speech started, I gave myself some goals and guidelines to follow. I reminded myself that, having not done many speeches in my life, this was not going to turn out perfect, so instead of worrying about that, I would focus on eye contact and pacing.

“My biggest goal was to come off as confident and though I’m sure more people knew how nervous I was, I believe that I was able to reach this goal (well, at least to some extent). While I’m still not ready to perform speeches without any hesitation, I’m glad I got this opportunity to face my fears.”

In responding to another question, a grade ten offers a similar account of working through the fear of performing at Night of the Notables:

What will you (or do you want to) remember about this project? 

“I want to, and will remember the fact that I was able to manage my anxiety regarding the presentation of my speech on the Night of the Notables. I have never liked drama and performing arts, which is somewhat contradictory when you take my commitment and love of [competitive] piping into account. I can will myself to march calmly towards thousands of spectators, flashing cameras and judges at the world championships. Yet, when I have to deliver a two-minute speech to a hundred supportive and encouraging people I’m a wreck. When I perform with my band, I have a safety net; I have never needed it but I know it’s there. When I speak or play by myself, even if it’s exponentially easier than what I do with my band I doubt myself.

“I don’t give speeches in front of large audiences often, but I compete in solo piping competitions often and I have come to recognize the progression and stages of my anxiety. I have been working on becoming more comfortable in these situations for over a year and I think the Eminent Address was an important milestone for me. I was extremely nervous a few days before the night, but I was able to tell myself, ‘You always feel this way before something like this,’ and ‘Imagine how you will feel on December 4th’ and I was able to control my anxiety and give a speech I was happy with.”

Together, we are strong

Perhaps the theme running beneath all of this wild success though is the support and community that is taking shape in the TALONS room by late November, where each member of the class is learning that they are here to test themselves, and hold one another up above their prior expectations. Parents who get to see what the program is ‘all about’ for the first time at Night of the Notables often remark at how exceptional the grade ten addresses are – “I feel totally inadequate now,” the parent of an alumni told me this year – and wonder how it is their children and their peers have been so transformed.

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What they don’t know, or what cannot be seen, is what is often taking place behind the curtain, in those moments before the show, when greatness waits out on the stage under the lights to be seized.

Reflecting on this moment, a grade ten shares a glimpse of what community looks like:

“There was one moment when we were behind the stage, floating around and whispering encouragement to our peers. The atmosphere had become quiet and focused, as it was a couple of minutes until showtime. I was learning against a wall, breathing deeply.

“Our first speaker looked a bit nervous and was sitting against the wall next to the curtains. Someone, I can’t remember who, whispered something about the Superman pose, and how it was supposed to increase confidence and make you less stressed. So the majority of our class assumed this pose, and stood there in silence for about a minute. I remember looking at us and thinking that we were superheroes. Not just our first speaker, who looked relieved to have something to take his mind off the upcoming stress, but everyone standing there.

“We shared that moment behind the stage, trusting one another to make the night wonderful, and feeling that trust back in the tight, long-held hugs and the same emotions on everyone’s face. It was a really special experience.”