On outdoor trips and trust

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Ripples on the Fraser

“People who hear about the types of trips we take with young people invariably have two responses,” I told the class just over a week ago. “They either say, ‘You’re crazy,’ or ‘Wow! How lucky are you to have such a job?’”

I understand each of these responses.

Maybe we are a little crazy: we leave our own lives, families and friends for days at a time to immerse ourselves in the frenetic energy of adolescence, to keep in tow the patience to teach and see our endeavors large and small through to their conclusions. All the while, we know in the back of our minds (and occasionally the front) that the calamity that can find us out of doors can range from the frivolous to the total.

It’s true that there are a million reasons to keep learning indoors, and to not take these opportunities, given the potential costs and risks. But there are ample amounts of good fortune that accompany these risks and the investment of our free-time. There are gains to be made in connecting with our environment, as well as with one another, that are sorely worth pursuing in educating today’s young people.

Gregory Bateson describes these learning opportunities as “breaches in the contextual structure,” whereby individuals gain an understanding of the process involved in implementing “corrective change in the system of sets of alternatives from which choice is made.”

This sort of “third order” thinking is driven by a confrontation with “systemic contradictions in experience” (this is taken from University of Virginia prof Eric Bredo); to the outdoor educator, this double bind is represented by the necessity of learning to provide both the freedom to explore, as well as the structure and guidance that creates safe opportunities for growth.

Gardner Campbell points out that learning in this capacity puts participants – teachers and students and parents alike – to vulnerability. “It puts the self at risk,” he says. “The questions become explosive,” and “involve “the kinds of risks that learners, at their best, will be willing to take.”

In the outdoor setting, the potential for transcendant learning meets the spectre of negative possibility, that we might meet the very worst.

And so we find ourselves on the fourth morning of the Adventure Trip talking about trust, and the fact that our parent community trusts us to take their children into these experiences, onto the Fraser River in Voyageur canoes, into the woods, and onto the local highways on our bicycles because there is value in going out there. The value that we see as educators in providing students the freedom to learn and apply their skills in authentic outdoor settings is accompanied by the risks and vulnerability we assume in relying on no small amount of trust that the students who are in our care will behave responsibly while engaged in these events.

However, in this setting, as Gardner Campbell again points out, “All the bets are off. Even the bets about the bets being off.” And so it came to be that on Monday morning we were having the following conversation:

“There has been a breakdown in the trust between you and us,” we told the class just before breakfast. “And between yourselves and one another.”

“We have to go home.”

The first of the parent drivers were arriving and waited in their cars while the initial shockwave unfurled among their children. Tears were shed and Individuals sat with pancakes on camp plates in their laps while others paced or leaned against their parents’ cars and picnic tables. Where traditionally the Adventure Trip ends in similar tears and shuddering embraces – a mix of celebration and mourning at the passing of the precious cultivating in TALONS’ two-year cycles, here the class parted shocked at the sudden passing of the next two days’ potential.

Paul Tosey talkeds about Bateson’s systemic change as a confrontation with “the significance of metaphor at the root of perception, and the profound potential for learning should such metaphors change.” In a certain light, the crisis and the opportunity presented here each revolve around individual connections to (and interpretations of) the group’s collective mythology, and the growing need for current and future participants to renovate and write a new narrative.

“The group feels broken,” a student told me Monday morning before leaving, to which I said that the events and actions expressed on the trip were “the symptoms, not the break. Whatever has been broken was that way before we came on the trip.”

In the coming days and weeks we will begin to undertake the processes of seeking out the root causes of these breaks, and do what can be done to move forward in creating new symbols and understandings of just what it is our shared experience has meant, and will mean into the future.

It is after all, like everything else, an opportunity for learning.

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.”

Matt Henderson: Teaching ourselves to Last Forever


Indulging in some gallows humour over Twitter Monday morning, one of my colleagues east of the Rockies and I were consoling D’Arcy Norman after hearing about his Member of Parliament Rob Anders’ remarks concerning the death of NDP leader Jack Layton by highlighting a few recent antics of our own elected representatives:

My local MP, caught in a less-than-completely-truthful attack of Vancouver’s mayor, opted instead of acknowledging his error to shout down the opposition member bringing it to public attention and to further degrade the mayor on the floor of the House of Commons in the process. Matt’s MP accidentally divulged the email addresses of 1,500 constituents in a mass email.

Giulia Forsythe then joined the pity party and suggested that the three of us should run for office if we’d like to read fewer news stories that make thinking people cringe, if not downright ashamed of the deeds and statements carried out in our name during these days of our more perfect union.

To which Matt Henderson replied, “I ran as an MP in the last election and my class acted as my campaign team.”

Wait, really? 

I’ll forgive Matt for not touting this remarkable project too loudly at Unplug’d this summer – aside from being in another chapter group than me, he’s a self-described “observer,’ more comfortable with a sharp and subtle observation than holding court around a dinner table or campfire, perhaps. But the video he shared with D’Arcy, Giulia and I describing the process of his run for office, recorded at last year’s TedXManitoba, more than makes up for his reticence in Algonquin: it is a hilarious glimpse of Matt’s unique self-deprecating humour, passionate intelligence and innovative pedagogy that should be required viewing for history teachers at any stage in their careers.

Matt’s magic three elements of relevant, revolutionary pedagogy involve classrooms becoming places where learners collaboratively construct their own truths and are encouraged to apply this knowledge in their real communities, and where teachers chiefly concern themselves with enabling and creating these environments of autonomy.

A perfect example of bearded men thinking alike, among other things. Cheers to Matt for such an ambitious an rewarding project, and sharing it with the audience at TEDx, and beyond.

TALONS Worldbuilding Project

Time for Adventure

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Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an expedition, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you can control it. I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand it.

Steinbeck

And here we have come to that familiar time of year, when the TALONS class steadies its gaze on the stretches of highway out of town, into the Gulf Islands, out across the Straight of Georgia, and this year, up the Sea to Sky Highway. (Most of) the groceries have been bought, and the classroom fills with equipment and assorted adventuring regalia – tents, rope and tarps, coolers and stoves, reams of Gore Tex and stray hiking boot laces – by the day. Even the academic subjects are doing their part, lining up Socials units on geography and our study of the Salish people, and a science project in plate tectonics with a trip into the heart of the Coast Range and the traditional territory of the Squamish Nation.

The Adventure Trip constitutes a five day experiential exam for the TALONS’ Leadership 11 credit 1, and the result of months’ work toward the class’ PE 11 and Planning 10 courses (all three completed over two years in the TALONS program, in addition to the core subjects of English, Socials, Science and Math), but is also another signpost in the journey that each cohort travels together. Inevitably, the trip becomes an immersed expression of each group’s individual character: a chance for each member of the class to confront, and explore, their role in the collective.

As learning opportunities go, there isn’t much like it, and it is startling to behold that yet another of these adventures is upon us, perhaps the grandest yet.

  1. As a midterm for the grade nines, and final for grade tens.

Shared Solitudes

Looking upTonight you reigned in triumph, and I hope that you each savour what this experience has revealed of the possibility you hold within yourselves. 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. Do not despair that you only get to experience the tonight’s of life but once apiece. They are only tests to give you strength for the examinations you will be soon be free to embark upon under your own steam. We owe it to the present moment, and to our present selves, to live as the sum of our experiences, and with tonight you mark certainly that you possess the raw material to write your own life’s work of eminence. I stand in awe at your strength and determination to courageously explore, discover and express your unique voices in this world.

A Letter to my Students, on a Night they were Alive

I talked the other night, at the conclusion of this year’s Night of the Notables, about our relationship with the dark. I alluded to our recent practice of Night Solos, and how they put us in touch with an elemental piece of ourselves that comes with an immersion in a solitary unknown. It seemed a natural connection to make after watching the same group of TALONS become transformed on a stage they shared in fluid harmony that transported and transfixed an audience made of the class’ extended family community.

Deep seatsParents, friends, alumni, administrators and school board trustees, a scattering of internet radio listeners from across the continent, and graduates of a program that has roots in our district back to the mid 1970s – all gathered to indulge and rally around spectacle that this year’s cohort inevitably finds to represent their admiration and investigation of a kindred spirit, someone who “left a ding in the universe.”

In many ways, this has always been the story of Night of the Notables. But this year has seen the TALONS program run with two full grade nine/ten cohorts totaling 56 learners. In the seven years since I attended the first incarnation of the district gifted program’s as a new teacher who gave one of my future colleagues my TOC card, we’ve all come a long way through this week, where the gallery walk and “cocktail” hour was barely enough time to scratch the surface of each of the TALONS interactive and illuminating learning centers, and the grade tens were briskly off to the theater for the presentation of speeches.

Deadmau5A traditional rite of passage for the grade tens, this year saw the formally individual podium speeches transformed into two half-hour series of interwoven monologues, each presented in the characters of their eminent people.

The unknown isn’t as mysterious as we might think,” I borrowed from Stephanie‘s address as astronaut Roberta Bondar before continuing on about sitting alone in the dark.

“If we’re all sitting in the dark alone, we can explore and discover that unknown – which is all that any real learning is – just like we can give speeches, and create something new and magical and precious and ours, if we are supported by each other, all sitting in our own dark.”

Clint's Acceptance SpeechThe people on stage the other night were able to do it because everyone in the audience was up there with them, whether they were sitting in the dark as peers, or mentors, alumni, parents, and whether they did their sitting five years ago, or will years from now.

Thank you for being here to share this evening with us.

“That which you create,” Jonathan Toews wrote in his Notable address in 2010, speaking as IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, “Is yours to rejoice in.”

Indeed."That which you create is yours to rejoice in."Check out the TALONS Flickr set of Night of the Notables here.

Classroom 2.0 Live Presentation

I was thrilled to present my first-ever webinar this weekend to the excellent Classroom 2.0 Live series, where I talked about teaching TALONS, and what I’ve learned about using digital storytelling and web2.0 tools to support our unique learning environment.

In addition to the above video, a LiveBinder collection of the links shared within the session’s chat is preserved here as well.

Confluence

Macleod's Books II

As sometimes happens, I didn’t sit down at work today – unless you count the few minutes I spent helping a guitar student figure out how to add piano to the upcoming QR-code-musical-Easter-egg-hunt I’m setting up (and will tell you about later), or taking part in a few of the interviews throughout the day. But it was a memorable and energizing to live as “the bridge and the Bondo” between two communities of learners who make my job an invigorating blend of my own personal passions combined with professional exploration and experimentation in developing an enriching space for learning.

Today our class spread out, both in the physical building, and across the continent in search of learning through uncovering the experiences of others. And for brief sessions throughout the day, my greatest teachers (both TALONS learners and members of my personal learning network) became each others’ greatest teachers. In asking questions, the TALONS contributed the subject, and an audience, for the people I learn from and with every day – people like Stephen Hurley, and Rodd Lucier, Zoe Branigan-Pipe, GNA Garcia and Giulia Forsythe, Zack Dowell and Dave Truss, as well as Andys Forgrave and McKiel, and Leslie Lindballe (seriously though: no Jabiz?) – to talk about what they’ve learned about life, and work, and how they’ve learned it. By responding, and lending their reflection and wisdom to the questions, my colleagues were able to step into our classroom today because of the social – both physical and digital – networks I’ve brought into my life and learning.

This is how it all went down:

21st Century Learning: Entrepreneurial Citizenship vs. Democracy

A very interesting talk given by Tobey Steeves Friday afternoon at the BCSSTA Conference in Vancouver that is well worth your time to explore both in the slides above, and the corresponding ‘pencast’ embedded below that captures the session’s audio, and my notes about the discussion of public education’s role in a democracy, and how this thinking could be applied to education policy’s current obsession with a vague notion of 21st Century Learning.

I have been thinking of the role of this type of critical inquiry into not only the terminology surrounding 21st Century Learning and the advent of technology in the modern classroom, but Learning (or Schooling) itself, similar questions being posed by Dave Cormier in a recent post entitled, Workers, Soldiers or Nomads:

The why of education should be the first question that we answer in any discussion in the field. The answer to the ‘why of education’ question should be debated, mulled and hammered, on and on, and be at the centre of the work that we do. Sadly, it seems to be very difficult to say anything about “what learning is” and “why we educate our children”. We tend to end up saying something like the following
 
  • We are preparing our students for the future
  • We need to get them ready for university
  • We are trying to make good citizens for our society
  • We are trying to instill cultural values
  • We are trying to teach them to learn
There are any number of ways to say this, and, by saying it, say nothing. These answers have content, maybe, for the people saying them, but there’s no way for me to know what you mean. What are the cultural values you’d like to pass on? Is it likely that a vast majority of people are going to want to pass on those particular values? What would a good citizen do in our society? Are they law abiding or do they fight injustice? I’d like to think that they are both, but it’s pretty tough to create a system that both trains people to do what they are told and to also critically assess their culture.

I think that last piece, the ability to ‘critically assess [one's] culture,’ is essential if we are to realize this idea of Maslow‘s, brought to my attention this weekend by Canadian musician and activist Raffi Cavoukian:

So while we become human through being culturalized so that our mind, emotions, speech, and behavior is cultivated to the values of our parents and teachers, to develop to our full potential we have to simultaneously learn to wear our conventionality lightly so that we learn to choose what parts of the outer world to bring in and what to merely adapt to, and what to reject. If we conform blindly and unthinkingly to the cultural rules of family, religion, school, media, business, etc., we dull our individuality and avoid authenticity.  

From L. Michael Hall’s “Unleashing your Real Self

We talk a lot about individuality and authenticity in T.A.L.O.N.S. and how to live in such a way that we enable each of these in ourselves and one another. But isn’t what we’re really talking about also called subversion?

And what if we are talking about subversion?

Might that be (at least part of) the point of school?