Unplug’d 2012: Letters from the Edge

I’m happy to report that the fruits of last summer’s Unplug’d 2012 event have emerged as a fabulous mosaic of letters, songs and stories written and published in Algonquin Park over a weekend in August.

You can find my letter, written in the form of a song, on my page here, as well as video of me telling a story and singing a song on the Voyageur Six String Nation guitar on Sunday morning in Algonquin. [A previous post about my musical weekend at Unplug’d can be found here.]

Thanks to Rodd, Ben, Zoe, Kelly, as well as Todd & Martha for putting together and hosting another stellar incarnation of Unplug’d, and to the other faces in the above image. It’s great to read and hear each of your words and stories again, and to be able to share them.

Web Radio in the K12 Classroom

Digital Storytelling

Giulia Forsythe's Digital Campfire

I’ve had the good pleasure the last few years to have been able to enrich my personal learning network, as well as add to the constellation of thoughtful individuals that interact with my classroom(s) through the DIY magic of distributed web radio. Even casual readers of this blog will recognize the religious fervour that has often attended to my posts about the magic of #ds106radio, an organic offshoot of the Digital Storytelling course DS106 run out of (originally) the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia, as well as (these days) a host of other institutions around the world. In addition to becoming at various times my own open-mic coffee shop, where I’ve written, rehearsed and workshopped almost every song I’ve ever written, DS106Radio has also played frequent host to many a TALONS lesson, field trip, celebration, and a regular spate of Gleneagle’s Music Department showcases.

In the last week, I have been talking to a few of the administrators in our district about the how and what of distributed web radio, and in an effort to collect some of the power and relevance to K12 learning such a setup could offer us, I wanted to share some of what I’ve been able to be a part of because of this wonderfully easy, open-source technology solution to building community and communion around shared sound. 

But first, a little history.

The following audio documentary was recorded with a few of the people who had seen DS106Radio grow out of a conversation around a dinner table into a powerful node in each of our networks. Here you’ll hear GNA Garcia interviewing Grant Potter, Guilia Forsythe, Alan Levine and myself about how we’ve seen the radio evolve and effect our lives and professional practices. Alan points out near the end that without the inception of the radio, we wouldn’t even know each other, which, given the amount of time, face-to-face or otherwise, we’ve spent revelling in one another’s company over the past two years, is a humbling thought. (That’s Zack Dowell providing the acoustic musical bed; Jason Toal provided the actual bed.)

Listen to a mini – DS106Radio Rockumentary

But without veering too wildly into my own personal affections for the station, I want to focus here on sharing the ways I’ve explored in bringing my various classroom spaces, and beyond, to the web, often using free software on my laptop, or a $6 app on my phone. It is my hope that with a few examples to get things rolling, we might see some momentum around sharing audio in Coquitlam classrooms.Lunchtime Jams on #DS106Radio

Lunchtime Jams

Almost as soon as we figured out how to ‘go live’ from my laptop and iPhone, my music classroom became a regular performance space for my guitar students, and then a host of other interested individuals to share informal jams, songs and laughter with an audience that just as quickly fell into the habit of tuning into the sounds of the school’s music wing.

An early hit:

Concerts Live Streamed Around the World

It seemed a natural experiment to try running an evening broadcast of our school’s Spring Concert, in 2011, complete with student DJ’s to narrate the evening’s activities, backstage interviews with performers, archived recordings of the Music Department’s tour to Cuba, and even a request by an Internet listener for the in-house crowd to shout, “DS106 Radio For Life” (the station’s immortal tag line).

Since then we’ve broadcast almost every one of the concerts at Gleneagle live onto DS106radio, sharing the ephemeral sounds of the performing arts with an international audience who can recognize our lead trumpet players and vocalists by the tenor of their solos, and who know that in Coquitlam, there are some crazy-talented kids that love to share their art. How many schools or districts can claim the same notoriety? (If they can, I would bet they’re spending more on marketing than we are.)

Class Activity as Public Learning Project 

Last spring, a guitar class I was teaching took on the grandiose endeavour to convert itself into a Thirty Person Rock Band, a process that in addition to being shared on Youtube and Instagram, was conducted almost entirely live on the #ds106radio air, where people were able to tune in and play along with our rehearsals, band meetings, and triumphant last day of school show in the Gleneagle foyer. Our listening audience served as mentors, cheerleaders, and a reflection of the raw energy the creation of live music can bring to a community, and shared in the celebrations at the end of the term.

You can see how it all unfolded on Storify, here.

Sharing our Classrooms with Specific Audiences


It was a great pleasure last year to share in a day of #RadioforLearning with #ds106radio K12 sister-station 105theHive, where my guitar class joined in a day of cross-country broadcasting with classrooms in Ontario and northern Manitoba. As the Hive’s rolling live broadcast took reading exercises from rural Ontario north toward Hudson’s Bay, Gleneagle’s Music Department shared its guitar presentations with an audience that wound up reaching listeners in South America, as well as Hawaii.

Essay Feedback as Podcast

Back in 2011, I brought the audio elements of DS106 into the TALONS classroom as part of our This I Believe essay unit where, in addition to submitting individual essays as recorded spoken word pieces, the class collaborated to remix and synthesize the different threads into larger audio compositions.

In an attempt to fold my essay feedback into the process I had asked the class to engage in, I created my own synthesis of the collective learning into a twenty minute radio show of my own to serve as feedback and commentary on the larger lessons of writing and storytelling that I saw in the group’s essays.

Field Reports & Outdoor Education

Some of the most powerful learning opportunities we bring to our students happen outside of the classroom, on field trips or other opportunities for place-based learning that are effectively captured in photographs and videos, perhaps; but these events and experiential learning also opportunities for capturing vital audio artifacts that might otherwise disappear into the ether.

Remixing the Class Discussion

Just this past semester, one of the #Philosophy12 students recorded a few days’ worth of investigating Epistemology, and the notions of Opinions, Beliefs, and Truth, and posted the files for download on Soundcloud. As a possible extension of these open educational resources, I thought I would try my hand at remixing the contents using the GarageBand app on my iPad. The cognitive value in sifting through an hour of recorded audio to pull together a narrative, or logical argument is something that I found both incredibly challenging, and entirely relevant given the emerging digital landscape of the read-write-sing-remix web, where the original artifact of learning is further-evolved to include new reflective perspectives.

Everything above is just the beginning… 

I’ve tried to pull together as many different examples as I could over the course of a few days, but there may be a few notable broadcasts or events that I’ve neglected to include here. GNA Garcia used to broadcast concerts and conversations from her job at a highschool in Philadelphia. And the Hive folks have been creating live and canned shows for almost a year now (!). Matt Henderson started a terrestrial radio station with his kids in Winnipeg, and I’m sure there are other folks out there podcasting, sharing Audioboos, and finding other ways to explore the power of audio in their classrooms.

But I hope what I’ve shared here can serve as a catalyst and motivation for folks in my own back yard who may want to jump into an experiment with a Coquitlam branch of web radio over the course of the next semester. I’m hoping that local English, Music, Journalism, and other teachers start getting their phones out, warming up their GarageBands and Audacities, and seeing where our own digital campfire might take us as a learning community.

For life.

Greatest Work of Art Ever?

Getting the lowdown


Following this evening’s cultural adventure into the city for the Vancouver Opera‘s presentation of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s Pirates of PenzanceI wanted to share a favourite Radiolab episode of mine that introduces Wagner‘s epic  Ring Cycle (the title was actually the subject of a bet on the bus ride home, I was told).

It might seem hyperbole to claim, as many Wagnerites do, that The Ring Cycle is “The Greatest Work of Art Ever.” But the grandeur and power of this monumental work have permeated our culture from Star Wars to Bugs Bunny to J.R.R. Tolkien.

WNYC’s “The Ring and I: The Passion, The Myth, The Mania” asks what many of the uninitiated must wonder: “What’s the big deal?” This journey, intended for both devoted fans and newcomers alike, visits with a diverse cast of characters who weigh in with their answers to this complex question…

Having been able to meet a few of the people, and see the inner workings of tonight’s performance – even getting a chance to stand on the Queen Elizabeth Theater stage – and just what it takes to put together a single performance of an Opera, we glimpsed the inner working of the staggering achievement of a veritable town of committed individuals working at the top of their games.

Wagner’s Ring Cycle, or at least the picture of it painted here, is a sprawling attempt to document the heights of the period’s musical themes along with the richness of Germanic mythology that pervades the English language, as well as forms the foundation and archetypes for almost all of western civilization’s history  and storytelling. In strives to attain epic in its every breath.

I’ll admit, when I came across the episode billing something I had scarcely heard of as The Greatest Work of Art EverI was skeptical. But Jad & Robert help introduce one of the most daring composers who ever worked in one of the world’s most grandiose art forms, and it’s difficult to argue with the scope of the Ring’s influence.

Think about it: Star Wars, Bugs Bunny, JRR Tolkien.

If “Everything is a Remix,” we’re all stealing from Wagner. Led Zeppelin perhaps most of all.

On Notable Nights

It is always quite the task to put one’s finger on just what it is that happens at Night of the Notables. Even as they have added up over the years, and the alumni that return to the event are now three and four years into university, I still come home struggling to contextualize and make meaning of just what I saw tonight.

I was involved in bringing the evening to fruition, sure; in some ways integrally. But in some ways, I feel as though the TALONS teachers might be more custodians and caretakers of these traditions and ritual rites of passage. I think this perspective is what the alumni come to share in, to some degree; there is a connection to the people on stage who might be five or six years younger, but have stepped through – or are stepping through – this doorway, and who know what it is to be transformed.

The new alumni, the grade elevens, sit behind the current grade ten notables, their former younger classmates, with their grade twelve TALONS classmates over their shoulders. There is an epicenter that radiates from the stage, where the grade tens on stage, or in the front row, and this year’s grade nines are in the second. And the MPR (our school’s multi-use, theater / cafeteria space) is changed during the speeches into a cradle for the grade tens whose turn it is this year to be great.

In the last two years, the (separate morning and afternoon) classes have each performed fourteen interwoven dramatic monologues in their characters as eminent people, an astonishing feat to behold, where one after another, they break free of tableaus and from seats in the audience (descending the stairs after beginning from the balcony), holding the audience in their palm of their hand for two minutes, and then passing the ball to the next.

They finish one another’s sentences, answer mimed cell phone calls between speakers, and pass one another letters as transitions, together creating something that is honest, magical, and their own. There is prolonged  thunderous applause. Standing ovations.  In all, it is quite a thing to see happen. Truly. Even if it is hard to say just what it is that happened up there on that stage and in the halls of our school tonight.

Because just as it feels a little bit my own, how I take in the night’s triumph against the backdrop of those that have preceded it, how everyone in the room experiences the evening is measured against their own sense of the vulnerability felt by those in the present ‘hot seat.’ From the college kids in the back to the grade nines sitting in the second row (to the teacher grinning in the balcony), everyone in the TALONS orbit has gathered to give it up for those whose task it is this year to set aside their fears, come together as a group, and dare to do something exceptional.

To those TALONS this year: my hat is off to you. You rose so naturally to the challenge set before you, furnished with those you had wagered with yourselves, and looked us dead in the eyes from the stage, transformed before us. As I said to a group of notables a few years ago – some of whom were in the room tonight: “You will know success in this life for what tonight has taught you about the personal nature of success, the irrationality of fear, and the necessity of friendship.”

Teachers and Ritual Power

Notable class of 2012

Andrew B. Watt struck me appropriately on the Sunday night before Night of the Notables with a post – you would do well to read in its entirety here – that makes a great many points that each are deserving of attention and reflection. But there are a few that I want to highlight here.

 I had an unexpected bonus conversation with my friend C.T. today, which revolved around some of my favorite topics: magic and the ability to change consciousness; the passion for creating art; the mysteries of saints; and the power of teachers.  During this last part of the conversation, we segued to a discussion of the challenge that some teachers put forward — which is that, in an effort to advance their own work and career and power, they wind up trampling on the capacities and capabilities of their students. Indeed, the teachers reap the rewards of the students’ labor, and the students take on the negative consequences of the teacher’s own bad work.

I’ve long admired Andrew’s blogging and the breadth of knowledge and opinions he brings to a range of mutual topics of passion like history, politics, teaching, philosophy, as well as an often fearless interrogation of his practice. He was one of the first people whose blog I subscribed to, and someone who I’ve kept in loose touch with online over the past four years, reading one another’s blogs, offering the odd comment, and feeling sometimes like he’s a colleague who merely works down the hall (if that hallway reached Connecticut). 

This year we discovered that we shared a birthday, and Andrew spent it tweeting me pictures and commentary from the Metropolitan Museum in New York City while I hosted a barbecue in my Port Moody backyard.

Andrew B. Watt is all kinds of awesome, if you didn’t already know.

And so the point that Andrew’s raising is something that I consider seriously, and one I’ve considered alongside Klout scores and notions of celebrity in the era of the blogged classroom. But he takes it a level (or several) deeper:

We were talking about it in a magical/spiritual context. We’d both read a book recently in which a magical society’s inner circle of adepts was teaching rituals to their outer members which made the members feel powerful, but was in fact transferring power to the adepts… and shifting a lack-of-power onto the the students… not merely lack-of-power, but in fact negative-power.  A learned helplessness.

This is something that I think my TALONS colleagues and I are constantly in negotiation with: trying to figure out where to draw the line between at various times leading, supporting, facilitating, or merely observing the learning in our classroom, and interjecting ourselves too much into the process. If the outright goal isn’t to graduate participants in the program capable of owning their own goals and the action required to attain them, it is to at least introduce them to the ways in which such ownership can be attained.

This involves the difficult notion of ‘letting go,’ of occasionally allowing kids to fail, and then to frame these experiences as opportunities for future growth.

As much as parents or teacher/facilitators can position themselves to aid in the learner’s success, in the end the impetus for success rests in their hands. School should be about the creation of opportunities for students to realize and seize their own opportunities, and I look forward to the pillars of the TALONS program as treasured rituals of passage in the life cycle of the class: the Fall Retreat, Night of the Notables, cultural outings, the Adventure Trip, In Depth.

There is the artifice of tradition, and the singularity of the present moment in time, crystalized between the held gazes of the current participants.

But Andrew frames the question in an interesting way to consider:

 One of the things that magical teachers do (which exoteric/ordinary teachers like myself and many of my readers do not do) is give their students rituals to perform for their empowerment and spiritual growth.  C.T. had attended a workshop in which one of the presenters pointed out that some of these rituals do what they say they do — they empower the performers of the rituals so that they experience spiritual growth.  But, C.T. said that the presenter also warned about the opposite — rituals that disempower those who perform them, such that they think they’ve made spiritual progress, but in fact they have actually inflated their egos and empowered the teacher who has given them nothing of real value.  Meanwhile, the teacher gains power from the ritual performed — they get a toehold in the mental and emotional framework of the student, and the student is more inclined to treat further ‘empowerments’ as worthwhile and valuable, even as they are disempowered to seek further growth elsewhere.  Insidious.

Only mildly crushed by the prospect of not being considered a ‘magical’ teacher, I am keenly interested to think about how to bring about rituals that ’empower the performers of the ritual so that they experience spiritual growth,’ how to put the choice to act – or not – in the learner’s hands and see what meaning they can make of the experience.

How is it that we go about creating learning that is magical and transformative?

Whether growth is spiritual, intellectual, social, or emotional is, if the experience is crafted just right, up to the participant in the moment itself; where the teacher should find themselves in all of this a precarious balance, I think, and indeed, “one of those deep imponderables that can really roil the soul of a teacher and make them question the validity of their career.”

And perhaps, it is the one deep imponderable that drives all of the others.

Passing the Torch

I liked this idea Elaan posted from a pro-d conference that many of our district’s middle school teachers and admin are attending in Portland. Aside from puzzling me as to whether or not the 90s really are alive there, this reminded me of something that happened in the TALONS classroom last year:

For the new myths to be written, in other words, the old myths need to make room for them. And while there is a great empty space where the banner used to hang, there are already plans for its quotes and paint-stained hand and footprints to be deposited and scattered about the cupboards and closets of the room so that the ghosts and wisdom of TALONS past will still be speaking to us.

 

The last day of school, in fact, has in the past few years evolved to include the traditional closing circle, as well as speeches and ceremonies thanking the grade tens for what they have meant to the room, and wishing the grade nines the best as they set about inheriting the mantle of program leadership.

Two months later the process starts all over again. From Jeff’s blog, this September:

That’s what I wanted to replicate during this [retreat.] I wanted the grade 9s to feel as comfortable around us grade 10s just as Alvin did for us. I knew that there needed to be somebody in our cabin to take on Alvin’s role and I did my best to welcome the grade 9s and answer their questions. Even though we all come from different schools and different backgrounds, I just wanted to show that there is one thing we all had in common – we are part of the talons family.

 

The other night, I came upon a few TALONS alumni awaiting the Six String Nation presentation by Jowi Taylor, madly scribbling and filling a sheet of paper with a rhizomatic frenzy that I was told was an attempted visualization of “A TALONS Family Tree.” The resulting diagram had four tiers, reaching former members of the program now in university, the armed forces, or working through a gap year, and even as a somewhat preposterous enterprise – “Who do I marry?” someone shouts from the concession being set up in the kiosk nearby at one point. “You marry [so and so]. But you’re also kind of married to [so and so].” – there is something deeply meaningful, and more than a little poetic, being negotiated in the process.

In a chaotic web involving a few different colours of pen and pencil, different personalities, social bonds and archetypal tendencies serve as the forefathers and mothers, elder cousins and brothers and sisters, of their manifestations in the current group.

The visual effect is messy in the beautiful ways of spider webs and neural networks. Fundamental questions about what constitutes a community, and the possible roles in its creation are being interrogated, and the result is a contribution to personal folk lore and heritage that is passed between the hands of learners in the program, where everyone passes through the stages of newcomer, apprentice, leader, expert, and wizened elder between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. 

With the onset of the Eminent Person Study, there have been a few opportunities for the program’s alumni to provide input into the process as their younger counterparts set out on one of the year’s early rites of passage. Liam, Jonathan, Andrew and a few other alumni made themselves available as practice interview subjects a few weeks ago, and Iris, Zoe, Toren, Chelsea and Richard (grade elevens) have all come by the TALONS classroom to check in with various members of the class on their project progress or offer input into classroom discussions.

Part of this, they tell me, is that they miss the classroom. Its energy, the people. But what their presence and contribution to the classroom environment communicates to the current members of the program is that their present station in the chain is something to be missed, and that it is something to be held closely.

Epistemological Wayfinding | Remixing Philosophy12 Discussions

Many thanks to Greg for capturing Wednesday and Thursday’s class discussions on his phone and uploading them to Soundcloud, so that we can catch up with what was discussed in a few sprawling conversations that made use of Santa Clause, Tetris, triangles and paradigm shifts to grapple with the development of personal ideas surrounding human knowledge, truth, belief and opinion.

In addition to being able to stream the contents of the conversation, Greg has made the files available for download, so that participants are free to download and repurpose the materials into new philosophy resources.

I parsed the first ten minutes of Wednesday’s class into a few audio remixes:

Epistemology Remix Side 1

Epistemology Remix Side 2

Gleneagle joins the Six String Nation

Jowi & a gossip of Talons

We were lucky tonight at Gleneagle to be paid a visit by Jowi Taylor and his wonderful project, the Voyageur Six String Nation Guitar.

Iris meets Jowi & Voyageur

After meeting Jowi this summer at the Unplug’d conference, it was a great pleasure to have him tell this Canadian story as a fundraising event involving so many learners and parents in the Gleneagle family, gathered to bask in music created on a mythical instrument. Having been in the shoes of someone invited to play Voyageur at an evening like this, I was excited and anxious to share this particular aspect of the experience with two young musicians at school. It is a terrific honour to play after knowing the origin and essence of so many of the instrument’s parts, and manages to supply a perfect and personal moment of Canadiana for performer and audience alike.

Andrew closing the show

Iris and Andrew each wowed the audience tonight, with Iris playing an original of her own, and Andrew delivering a deft cover of a City and Colour song. It was a joy to see them bringing the guitar to life and smiling through it all for their friends in the audience, and they should be commended for putting a perfect cap on a great evening celebrating community.

Essential British Columbia

This week, we have been beginning our study of Canadian geography and our reading of the Golden Spruce by reflecting on what we might find as the Essence of British Columbia. In setting out to learn a few other TALONS skills – image manipulation, journal writing and a few technicalities of posting different items to our blogs – each of the classes have been selecting pictures from the TALONS archives of Flickr photos and adding text from different reflections on place to make the image come to life in a more personal and powerful fashion.

Which got me to thinking this morning that I and we have friends, colleagues and classmates out there in the world beyond B.C. There are our friends in the Idea Hive, and across Canada’s north and east through my connections in recent Unplug’d conferences. There are Jabiz’ classes, and Keri-Lee’s, and Mary’s students learning in Asia, and Europe. And while it gives me a personal charge to see our own provincial home characterized in so many memorable photos and personal reflections, it makes me curious to see others’ homes brought to life in a similar manner.

In a few weeks, we will be looking at Canadian Geography in the larger sense, and it would be excellent to see some of our co-learners from across the country attempt a similar remixing of their  own or their class’ pictures. But also those of you in our international ranks: this question of place is made more tangible with diverse responses to it, and we would love to see what you think of where you call home, and what you think it means.