My Life as the Music Department Digital Archivist

Snowball

The performing arts are made of fleeting moments of genius.

Whether on nights under the lights on the school stage, or transcendent travels among musicians from different places and cultures, I’ve been fortunate to spend time basking in the magic created by our school’s musicians for a few years now. As a newly minted member of the fine arts department when I started teaching guitar five years ago, I often found myself in awe dropping in on choir rehearsals and jazz workshops, and forging connections with student-performers who in many cases served as musical inspiration, if not outright mentors.

Percussion

Having begun blogging with the TALONS a few years earlier, the prospect of documenting and sharing the performing arts struck me as a unique application of social media and digital storytelling that continues to be a joyful part of my educational life online. In 2010 I started a Music Department Blog, Twitter account, and Flickr page (later adding a SoundCloud account), which I have maintained in the years since with photos, recordings and videos collected from organized concerts, tours, and classroom learning, as well as local concerts and more informal performances beyond the curriculum.

In the course of five years, these artifacts have collected to serve as the musical traditions of our school community, which incoming students are greeted with and will continue to contribute to with their voices and instruments. Our experiences Practice Room Cwith broadcasting concerts live on distributed web radio have also grown from an experiment on the fringes of learning with technology to a commonplace occurrence several students volunteer to DJ/host and can handle with minimal teacher support.

Which has all come a long way from the spring of 2011, when we were only learning how to wield the software, and Twitter was still the new kid on the block. The day when parents, local schools, and students would each be conducting a good part of their public lives on social media hadn’t quite come to pass, and I’m proud of the work our Gleneagle community has been willing to share with the world beyond our hallway.

Throughout, I’ve considered it part of my job to anticipate and be nearby when interesting music is being made at or around the school.

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Like when the choir sneaks into the Cathedral of Havana to sing a Spanish hymn. Or when a group of guitar students hang around for the first few minutes of lunchtime to cover Bob Marley, or the Beatles, or Broken Social Scene, or Dan Mangan.

Or our flight to California is delayed, and there’s time to kill at the gate.

Or a few grade twelves pile into a horsedrawn carriage in Cuba with a guitar and clave, and sing what they see on their way to the market.

As with anything that leaves a digital tail, these recordings, videos and pictures tell the story of people who have passed through our musical community. They document our choir’s verse along with Chris Hadfield’s “Is Someone Singing?” on a nationwide Music Monday. And when our new principal dropped by guitar class.

And that time the Bears played the last day of school.

Throughout, my process in documenting these momentary feats has moved away from the more ambitious, to favour the quick and dirty. When I started doing this, I collected reams of Garageband files, GBs of HD videos and pictures, always with the intention of editing down sleek documents of radio or podcast perfection: suites of songs interspersed with interviews with kids. Mini-documentaries of our travels, or the behind-the-curtain mania of concert night.

But this generally creates a backlog of material to log and edit, and my best intentions while shooting and collecting material haven’t often seen the light of day in an ideal form.

So I’ve taken to grabbing what I can in bite-sized records and documents that I can upload, tag and add to playlists quickly, then move on.Rhythm Man

When we travel, and there’s ready access to wifi, I’ll interview kids briefly about what they’ve been enjoying, how they think the tour is going, and post it on a service like Audioboom, or Soundcloud. I’ll post pictures on Twitter, or Instagram.

And collect an array of performance videos.

I also try to collect photos of the more ‘official’ aspects of the tour or concert, as the personal narratives of the students are handily shared and selfie’d across different media when we travel. Sometimes I try to keep track of some of these postings, and collect them in Storify, Flickr or other places; but in truth there are a lot of music students, and I don’t follow many of them unless they’ve made a point of interacting and engaging with the school or my own account. If I notice that they’ve shared a particularly good photo of a memorable moment, I’ll ask for them to email it to me or if I might Retweet their post.

But the key remains organization, and to maintain a vigilance toward tagging, sorting, and archiving the ephemera of these magical moments. While they are each preserved momentarily within a picture or a Twitter update, after a few weeks – let alone five years – the artifacts themselves are lost with the melodies long-since sung or performed on stages wherever we go. Because these videos and pictures and posts all serve the immediate need to relive a trip just passed – our weeks old trip to Cuba this year, for instance – but also now reside among the playlists and albums of trips, concerts, and rehearsals going back to 2010.

In its entirety, it is a grand monument to the talent and community at Gleneagle, a song composed one note at a time and fixed into its proper place among its ancestors.

The HS Music MOOC

IntroGuitarWhile it hasn’t blossomed with a wealth of open online participation (yet…?) this semester, the blended and open structure of #introguitar – as well as the new site design and digs courtesy of Alan Levine‘s WordPress blessings – has created an anthology of learning about guitar for both my own block of Introduction to Guitar, as well as Mr. David Salisbury who has taken up a block of beginners.

To a degree, it can be difficult to involve an outside community of learners with the goings on in a face to face course that is generating credit for students at our school. But whether folks show up from term to term doesn’t take away from the platform the site and assignments allow Gleneagle music students to document and direct their learning from whatever stage they currently find themselves.

Additionally, the opportunity to narrate and share their journeys in video reflections (and for those videos to roll out in a wall of televisions on the front page of the site) allows the individual voices in the class to come together in a stream of stories about learning guitar.

This has been especially helpful in integrating the many international students who find their way into guitar (either with a more formal musical background or in need of a class that won’t demand too high a degree of English language skills they are in Canada to build), and who might not be quick to speak up in the larger in-class discussions or activities. Similarly, as an elective course that draws grades 9, 10, 11 and 12 students, the video documents allow for a levelling of the social hierarchy that allows individual talents to be brought out into the light.

As it would serve to introduce open-online participants in addition to the face-to-face members of the class, the Course Introduction Assignment allows students to meet one another in a relaxed setting that still challenges them to be vulnerable. Mr. Salisbury and I shared a laugh about how self-conscious the process made each of us, even as experienced guitar players who address groups of people for a living.

That said, his intro video is awesome. And as I’ve already posted my own here on the blog, I’ll share his here:

Following the course intros, we spent a few weeks building fundamentals around basic chords, strumming together, and even arranged a simple A / A / A song by Josh Ritter, that we recorded and finalized in only a few days into a coherent number (you can check out the finished product here). From there, we set out to prepare our first performances of the semester, recording goal-setting videos and documenting these early efforts in sharing our work with small groups, a few of which have been shared on the class site.

This has all served to document our early first strides in term one (of two) toward an individualized “Introduction to Guitar.” Each of these first assignments provides a thorough baseline of the class’ playing, both in small and large ensembles, and on their own. And from here we will be able to move onward and outward in individual responses and remixes of various assignments.

Part of the challenge in hosting a MOOC that is also serving the for-credit and face-to-face community at our school is that there needs to be a certain degree of structure and accountability for the for-credit students, especially starting out: thus we each do each of the assignments to a similar degree of expectation and completion. Open learners are invited to participate in these aspects of the class, though I can understand that they might read too much pressure and expectation into the rigor being applied to the for-credit students; I get a lot of emails or messages on Twitter from past or potential open participants apologizing for not having done this or that assignment, which means these folks have forgotten the first tenant of open participation:

There are no expectations, no minimums and no apologies for open participants. 

But that’s all good: when open folks contribute – even by commenting on a video we’ve produced in class, or providing ratings on content on the site – we’re grateful to have them.

Always, no matter how little, infrequently, or sparse their contributions are.

And as the for-credit class moves toward our second term, and more individualized assignment-options, hopefully we can pull a few more folks into our mix.

But to do this I realize that I need to rededicate myself to making the site more of a communicative space than a bin into which students post their work. I need to redouble my efforts to comment, and connect and share the work being posted on the site in our face-to-face classroom, and to motivate our for-credit students to take more risks in sharing their progress in the coming term.

Having established a bassline baseline, our assignments in the coming term will look to challenge students’ and participants creativity, inviting them to:

In addition to our regular performances and daily class playing, these assignments will hopefully provide challenge and inspiration for face-to-face students and open learners alike to document and share their emerging skills.

If you are an aspiring or exemplary guitar player who would like to become an open participant in our course, don’t hesitate to drop your information in the Google Form embedded here, or be in touch with me on Twitter (@bryanjack) or by mail bryan at bryanjack dot ca.

The Quantified Self

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While I’ve been out of the #tiegrad loop with the FitBit frenzy, I am a devotee to employing a good bit of technology in my own fitness regime of late, and wanted to collect a few thoughts on how the phenomenon relates to digital storytelling and learning.

Having received a Garmin GPS watch for my birthday, I’ve been cataloguing and measuring my runs, cycle commutes, and other workouts for almost a year, something of a surprising development at this stage in my athletic life, I have to say. Without getting back into a story that’s been rehashed in bits and pieces on my blog in recent years, once upon a time I went away to university on a running scholarship. However (as I delve into in greater detail in this post here),

Since graduating in 2004, I hardly thought about running. And if I did think about it, or even found myself on an odd streak of jogging on the paths around the inlet near my house, I hardly thought of racing.

When my track and field days had been petering out, I struggled to find motivation to work my way out of injuries that had severely limited my capacity and potential as an ‘elite’ athlete. Having once been at least good, if not great, I had very little interest in fighting my way through the middle of the pack, and as I began to excel in my studies, my desire to compete slowly waned. And while I’ve generally remained an active person – hiking, participating in intramurals, biking to work and the like – I’ve remained apart from organized competition, leaving it in my ‘former’ life until only recently.

About a year ago I started running again, heading up the narrow trails above my house into the forests on Heritage Mountain. Beginning at a few kilometers, I started supplementing these jaunts in the woods with sessions at a spinning studio where I met local endurance-athletes, started to push myself beyond mere aerobic exercise, and began to talk about racing again.

I became reacquainted with the satisfaction of tired legs, the zen-like trance of the anaerobic threshold, and the no man’s land beyond what I knew was within my grasp.

Since adding my Garmin to the mix, and even more recently a heart-rate monitor, I’ve only been able to push this nebulous threshold further: because I can see it.

When my heart-rate falls following a climb, and I might be inclined to dip into recovery for longer than necessary, a quick glance at my watch lets me know there is room to be pushed. Or when I’m panting near the crux of the steep hill that begins most of my trail jaunts, I can be reassured that I’m pushing 90% of my maximum effort.

Totals

Toward the end of the month, I am pushed to get out the door more often, as my totals will be tallied on my Garmin Connect profile (which leaves something to be desired as a social network, but nevertheless aggregates my workout history), all because of what my watch makes visible in its record keeping.

Not that this couldn’t (and isn’t) achieved through keeping meticulous notes on exercise as it happens. I still have my training logs from high school and university and am comforted to know that I was, in fact, in peak form leading into my last few weeks of high school, right when it counted. But the ease and portability – not to mention the sheer diversity of data collected – of the digital markers can be an inspiring reflective tool.

Because each of these workouts, bike rides, hikes, and spin cycles was just an effort made on a particular day – none of them were completed with a particular view of their significance in the greater scheme of things. This isn’t unlike a series of Instagram selfies, or Twitter updates, or even lengthier blog posts.

In fact, the benefit of each of these digital tails is that when we stop to look back, these individual records become constituent parts of a whole that is itself perpetually coming into being. In the self-recognition generated by these opportunities to reflect, and be reflected, we are often pushed further on, and we continue to emerge.

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.

 

#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.”

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.

Why Collaborative Inquiry?

Puzzled

In a facilitator’s guide for Collaborative Inquiry for Educators, Jenni Donohoo presents the formation of professional learning communities as a means of addressing “adaptive challenges,” or those “for which the necessary knowledge to solve the problem do not yet exist” (Vander Ark, 2006 p 10). Many aspects of professional development seeks to approach these types of adaptive challenges, as many aspects of teaching and learning presently find themselves in flux.

With increasing classroom needs, revolutionary changes in technology and information literacies, in an evolving culture dealing with widespread anxiety and mental health concerns, classroom teachers and extended school communities confront diverse language language needs and an increased awareness around gender and sexual identity, among other unique challenges. In British Columbia, public schools face the additional challenge of an ongoing and tempestuous negotiation between different stakeholders over curricular reform, teacher-contracts, and the role of education in society.

The convergence of these myriad adaptive challenges – “for which the necessary knowledge [does] not yet exist.” – seem an appropriate place to engage a process of collaborative inquiry which allows participants to “adopt new values and beliefs.”

In such times, Levin notes that “the challenge of change is compounded by pressure from others to remain the same” (Levin, 2008 p 81), but that “change in schools come from ‘thoughtful application of effective practices in particular contexts” (p 81).

“When members of professional learning communities (PLCs) engage together in investigating challenges of practice, their understanding of these challenges grows deeper and is more unified, practice grows more sophisticated and powerful, and the group develops a tighter sense of camaraderie and common purpose.”

This type of cultural cultivation allows teams to “construct common understanding, share knowledge and experience, and develop common goals.” Developing a culture of inquiry enables sustainable change and the ability of an organization to respond to the evolving needs of a community:

“High quality professional learning includes learning communities that apply a cycle of continuous improvement to engage in inquiry, action research data analysis, planning, implementation, reflection and evaluation.”

But merely putting such a model into place is not enough to ensure such a culture will take hold. In fact, such cases are shown to be rare; where they are shown to be successful it is because of meaningful learning activities are undertaken to drive the process forward.

Donohoo presents a four stage process:

  1. Framing the Problem
  2. Collecting Evidence
  3. Analyzing Evidence
  4. Documenting, Sharing, Celebrating

Teams begin by determining a meaningful focus, and developing an inquiry that will allow them to collect evidence in their classroom, personal practice, or collaboration with a colleague. Once evidence has been collected, it is brought back to the team for analysis before being shared and documented for the wider PLC, and used to consider further inquiries. These stages are “the same stages used in action research.” However:

“The difference between the two approaches is that collaborative inquiry is conducted by a group of educators interested in addressing a school, department, or common classroom issue driven by student learning needs.”

In concluding the opening chapter of a lengthier guide for facilitators, Donohoo shares three primary considerations in implementing a collaborative inquiry model: Timing, Forming a Team, and Fostering Academic Discourse.

“The best time to introduce a collaborative inquiry is when the process of school improvement planning takes place,” Donohoo advises, adding that:

“By introducing collaborative inquiry as a strategy for school improvement, it will help team members understand how it relates to the work that is already happening in schools.”

In forming inquiry teams, Donohoo cites Katz et al. (2009) and suggests formal leaders “distribute leadership, identifying those teacher leaders who are in the position to lead in a focus area because of their expertise” (p 75).

However, it is the consideration toward fostering academic discourse which provides the greatest challenge – and in turn the greatest opportunity – for schools engaging in collaborative inquiry, highlighting MacDonald’s observation that

“teachers must be willing to expose their struggles and failures with their colleagues must be willing to tell the truth, or teams will go through the motions of collaborative inquiry but never see results” (2011 p 45).

Developing a rich dialogue that allows participants to reflect on and evaluate their own practices in the context of communal inquiry creates the opportunity for teams “to collaboratively generate knowledge while investigating problems of practice.” In closing, Donohoo refers to both Senge (1990) and Vander Ark (2006):

“Senge (1990) used the term ‘learning organizations’ to describe organizations that transformed themselves to meet adaptive challenges and become knowledge-generating versus merely knowledge-using organizations. Vander Ark (2006) noted that meeting an adapting challenge required ‘creating the knowledge and tools to solve the problem in the act of working on it” (p 10).

Such a model of inquiry is congruent with a constructive view of professional development described a few posts back:

“This act of development is a constructive act, one which suits the principles of democracy that we are all – regardless of subject speciality – charged with teaching in our classrooms, and a process we are obligated to engage in as citizens in a democracy, as well as teachers, and professionals. And if we are to provide this type of learning in our classrooms, we should be engaged – and are compelled to be engaged, in the language of our own members’ guide and professional expectations –  in a similarly constructive development of our own practice and profession.”

Not everyone will buy into the process deeply, maybe even especially at first. And it is a colleague’s prerogative to engage in professional development in this fashion. However, if small groups or pairs of colleagues are supported and given time and opportunity to experiment and explore their practice – and document and build through an ongoing praxis of inquiry – these relationships being fostered across a staff could enact a profound shift in school culture.