Learning On the Road: NYC Edition

Brooklyn Bridge

Just back from a whirlwind six-day sojourn in New York City, I’ve been thinking about the thread that runs the breadth of the learning I have been fortunate to join in on the road. In the British Columbia backcountryCuban fine arts classroomsbackstage tours of Disneylandweekends at local ski resorts, and now the Big Apple, I’ve shared a love for adventure and travel with students across a wide variety of multi-day excursions. However the contexts of these adventures may vary from urban jungles to deserted forests or Gulf Island beaches, there is a unifying element in the experiences they offer.

“At the periphery there is infinite complexity; at the centre there is simplicity of cause.”

Emerson

Invariably, there is the ostensible purpose of the trip at hand: to hike the length of a coastal backcountry trek; to experience the interior powder and slope-side hot tubs on an escape to a local ski community; or to experience the mecca of American musical theatre on Broadway. But it is often the time and energy spent journeying to these locations, or the unexpected side trips and adaptations in these original intentions that create the most memorable moments and experiences. It is in accounting for subway travel in a group of thirty through Manhattan rush hour, or the rowdy long-weekenders encroaching on our evening campfires, that a trip becomes more than its slated itinerary, and an adventure engaged in whole-heartedly by its participants.

“We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

Steinbeck

A few weeks ago four of us (our theatre teacher and trip organizer, one of our vice-principals, myself and the lovely Mrs. Jackson) accompanied twenty six of our school’s musical theatre students to New York City. Our purpose was explicitly trained on Broadway, and seeing a trio of musicals (Miss Saigon, The Lion King, and Wicked), as well as a backstage tour at the Gershwin Theatre and a coupe of workshops and Q&A’s with working broadway choreographers, stage combat specialists, and performers. But the trip was also an encounter with one of the world’s Great Cities, a brief but immersive dip into the mythical city of Gotham, with the wonder of Times Square, the Empire State Building, Greenwich Village, and the Brooklyn Bridge.

So we attended our shows and workshops. The students were guided through the subways to Harlem, and Central Park, and grew to know their ways around Times Square and the midtown blocks surrounding our hotel. But as ever there was much more that created profound meaning and memories for our chaperones and students.

On a mad dash through the financial district, we huddled around the bronzed girl standing down the Wall Street Bull, traversed the cemetery where Alexander and Eliza Hamilton are laid to rest, and stood somber at the reflecting pools at the World Trade Centre, all in less than half an hour.

In the East Village outside the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, we paused the assembled students on the curb while my wife and I negotiated with our real estate agent back in Vancouver over the final details of an offer we were making on a town house.

Stonewall

And the next morning, we wound our way underground to the monument at Stonewall not far from Washington Square Park with a handful of students for whom the whitened statues of gay liberation activists represented a unmissable pilgrimage.

Stonewall

The sun was bright and we had a little more than an hour to visit the area around Washington Square Park, navigating quickly through the East Village streets with the help of Google Maps and nine students. Arriving above ground not far from Gay Street, there was a sense of approaching holy ground – holy for the unholy, perhaps: those left out of the almighty’s light for too long – a giddiness of self-recognition, of connection to those whose struggle made these lives – still difficult, still too often disregarded, to be sure – possible.

There was a sense of standing at a different kind of ground zero.

A few days earlier we’d been in Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial just inside the gates to Central Park, and another ode to the mad ones who have made New York the mecca of America’s wildest minds, from Hamilton, to Lou Reed, to the men and women who fought at Stonewall to create a broader representation of what it means to be human, to be acceptable, to be seen in the national narrative.

In New York you can be a new man,” the song says. And maybe that’s true. With seven short days in the city under my belt it is impossible for me to say.

But perhaps the lesson and the inspiration of New York is that you can be yourself, as bright and blazing as can be. Perhaps the canvas is as wide and as tall as we can make it, to be celebrated or condemned, attacked or revered.

Perhaps the lesson is as yet unlearned, and has only just begun to be scratched.

As with the best of learning in the wild, and on the road, the lessons go on being written for years after the adventure concludes.

The story continues to unfold.

Teaching to Resist

Sea Lion

Where did everybody go?

Is it just me, or has it been a minute?

Did we turn a corner? Or have we ascended some ultimate peak to only be careening out of control these last how many months?

Did things online not seem to move so fast, previously? Or were they just less likely to see us preoccupied and frantic with the escapades of the new American world order?

…or is it not just online that this has been happening?

If it’s only been me who’s been feeling this way: I’m sorry to have deserted you, friends. We probably used to talk about other things. We used to share music, books. Used to browse each others’ photos over stories of where the “real world” had taken us. Lately it’s as though the noise of the world has been taking up more and more space, and those opportunities to ruminate in thinking about things frivolous or fleeting are losing out to the latest press release, analysis or interpretation, this or that comedic riff, or the public stands taken by individuals and groups that provide momentary bulwarks against bottomless negativity.

Perhaps it’s coming to grips with life as an act of resistance, and the need to keep one’s eye on the advancing shadows of authoritarianism, hatred, and white supremacy that the last eight years might have calmed us into thinking were in their deathly rattles. Perhaps it’s the shock that precedes the types of upheaval the likes of Steve Bannon and the newly orange-coloured president seem intent upon wreaking.

Whatever its cause or wherever its origins, I’m writing here to acknowledge that something has changed, rather than to pin down anything of substance that might explain it.

How to teach and learn now?

Last year our school began a pilot process of professional development based on a collaborative inquiry model. We begin the year with individual questions that lead us into small groups that meet over the course of the year to investigate the unique conundrums and inquiries we are each facing in our classrooms and teaching lives beyond (I’ve written about this here, if you’d like to hear more about the origins of this project).

This year we met for our second instalment and meeting in our small groups, and revised and re-entered the questions and inquiries that we had begun in September. A few of us had missed that initial day for trips or illness, and a few others besides had seen their questions change or become irrelevant in the meantime. A few more student-teachers and new staff had been added to our school as well, and so among the splinter cells of inquiry a smaller group was struck that I found myself in despite it not having a banner or direction under which to organize ourselves.

The conversation quickly turned to whatever latest outrage had been announced south of the border, and how the general mean-spiritedness of so many of the new administration’s initial policy announcements were affecting anxieties in both our students, and ourselves.

“How do I model coping with a world like this for my students when I am at an utter loss myself?” one of my colleagues asked.

“What can we do or say, especially in subject areas that aren’t directly related to current events, oppressive structures, or political goings on?” wondered another.

There is a line, we agreed, between acknowledging the panic that comes with witnessing preposterous cruelty on such a grand scale as the new government has sought to impose on the most vulnerable members of its society – from LGBTQ+ kids’ rights to safe schools, to green card holders and visiting scholars turned away at borders, to hate crimes erupting in the light of day echoing the new administration’s language, ideology, and intent – and modelling hope and perseverance for our young charges.

But as to where we might garner and gather that hope and perseverance is a query we have not yet seemed to solve, either around that little table, or in the larger culture of which we feel a part.

Don’t go away.

What seems clear is that we must stay present, and available to one another. That we stay trained on the creeping tide of hatred and fear that threatens the values of inclusion and progress that our societies and schools are based on. And that we fight alongside and for those who are most threatened.

We must admit that we each are struggling to find our feet as agents of resistance against an emerging institution that seems bent on keeping us off balance, and create balance and stability for one another in the minute ways we might be able.

Sharing in whim

I know teachers tend to throw out mixed messages, “Be open, share. Be careful, be scared.” This could be an authentic real world experience to create something beautiful with a larger group of people than those within our immediate community. (I invite other teachers to share this Flickr set and this post to see where it can go. Ask your class to leave poems, stories, haikus, comments anything. Maybe we can write a book, record an album…)

There are many things we can do with the images, the words, the connection. I hope that at least a few of you will share a few ideas in the comments below. I don’t know who will respond, but that is the beauty of sharing in whim 1, if you throw enough out there, occasionally something beautiful will come floating back.

The above photos were shared on Jabiz Raisdana’s blog with an invitation to Zach Chase‘s students to join into the fun with the proposition that if enough comments, poems, phrases and inspiration and were left on the photos, Jabiz would write them into a song that he would share for future mashup, remixes, or…?

What will you do with it? Download it. Remix it. Add your voice to it. Set it to images. Create a video. Rap it. This version is only a draft and is not even close to being “done.” Tear it up! Stones by intrepidflame

And while I mightn’t have “tore it up,” or reinvented any of what had previously been created or recorded, I sat at my kitchen counter after work on Friday, donned a set of headphones, and spent the better part of an hour adding my own voice to a project spanning both North American coasts that had gained its initial motivation and impetus from an unmet friend in Jakarta, Indonesia. In kind I offer my own addition to the project in the hopes that it inspires others to lend their own creativity, perspective, and voice to collaborative expression that would have unthinkable even five years ago (to me, anyway), but is today the sort of thing that can be accomplished on a Friday afternoon, between work and dinner.

My contribution:

Stones by Bryanjack

We’ve been talking about the benefits – personal and collective – that come with sharing a lot this week in the Talons class. Seeking an elusive objectivity in media and student reflections on the recent tumult in Egypt and across the Middle East, the class has moved past a definition of the (capital ‘T’) Truth which linearly separates Right & Wrong, or Truth & Lie, to an understanding that we can only know what we might collectively deign in shared exploration, conversation and reflection, and that this process must be ongoing.

This week we blogged, commented, argued, challenged one another, and constructed our own understanding out of the pieces of media, and truths, we could piece together in posts and a collection of quotes spanning student and journalists’ words, musical evocations, and the frozen images of photographs from halfway across the world.

Yesterday we distilled some of the more potent aspects of these expressions in a Typewith.me page that we hope to continue to shape, sculpt and share in the coming weeks, as a first experiment in working with the web as not only a research and publishing platform, but collaborative space wherein there are few, if any, limits.

We invite you (Mr. Chase’s class, Jabiz’ students, and the rest of you out there) to join in this conversation: comment on our blogs, highlight or share some words that resonate with you about the power of the collective and the human will toward freedom, or take the discussion to the next level.

Share, and be vulnerable: it may just be what we’re here for.

To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love ourselves with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee; to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this, just to be able to stop and instead of catastophizing what might happen just to say, ‘I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable is to feel alive?'”

If it is true, what Liam wrote yesterday, that, “Collective will is the most powerful force in the universe,” then we are truly onto something here. Let’s keep it going.

Today, Zach Chase writes, looking back on what a week it’s been, is the day you jump in and create something.

  1. Bryan’s note: this is so the title of the book / album / movie.