On motivating the Difficult Student

Brooke’s challenge post brought something to mind I’ve been struggling with myself in EDCI 335 this semester:

“In the coursework this term, and in my work, [I] feel like content and ideas are flying into my head, being held in temporary holding long enough to process it into a semi-reasonable response, and quickly vacating for the next piece.”

Having been curating a personal course of study online and in my classes informally now going on five years, the weekly demands of my Learning Design course have often felt like derivations from a larger arc of learning I am actively synthesizing in discussions, posts and reflection in the classroom and beyond it. While recognizing the benefit of encountering influence and dialogue outside my general sphere of inquiry, I have frequently struggled to successfully integrate the intended outcomes of the course with my own existing narrative of personal learning coming into this term.

My design posts, both on this blog and in our silo’d discussion boards have often only seemed loosely bound by the central thread at their centre – me. Generally I have made what feel like scattershot responses to questions and debates I am not meaningfully connected to, or are housed in terminology or semantic distinctions that I often have seen as problematic in my own thinking, and are interrelated only in so much as they correspond to a textbook whose author cautioned me that I “might not the target audience” for it.

It’s not that I don’t think there is value in exploring this conflict. Indeed, these epistemological and linguistic concepts of learning are aspects of any topic that I find interesting. Whether arts, politics or education, the construction and transformation of different epochs or paradigms cut to the heart of my foundational beliefs about life and learning, and are where my own philosophical values align with both my professional and personal learning intentions.

But as our units have progressed and each begun anew with the assertion of various contentious assumptions about learning and knowledge, I have felt constrained by the compulsion to reexamine these same premises in each new argument before presenting what would be my own interpretation of the topic or questions associated with it. This perceived distance from our covered topics have made me a poor contributor to the class’ various discussion threads and conversations and have left  me feeling generally that “Design Thinking” and I can just agree to disagree.

But here I am.

I continue.

Because I need the marks for this week’s assignment, and next week’s, and last’s.

Because I need to get a grade in this course that will allow me to continue in the next phase of my studies.

And because I’m driven by the fear that I will have not answered the question sufficiently, or might in exploring my own perspective on the topic be seen to be missing the point of the exercise entirely.

In and of themselves, these are grim motivational forces, it’s true. And at times they have brought about unfavourable turns of my student profile.

From an early age, I have possessed an anti-authoritarian streak that rejects anything that doesn’t yield personal relevance or connection before I can engage in it meaningfully. Similar to the gifted students I work with these days, I want to know why we’re doing this – whatever it is – before I can commit to doing it. And I want to ask questions about the meaning or the relevance of the activity itself often much more than I am ever willing to “just jump through the hoop” and meet the task head on.

But what might have seemed at younger ages as defiance or oppositional behaviour, I’ve come to believe is part of the spirit and tradition of intellectual and philosophical thought. In attempting to align a sense of my own epistemology with existing values of pedagogy, I feel only more firm in myself and confident to pursue and create such personal courses of study, even when it might not be the path of least resistance.

At thirty two I’ve come to feel more confident in my seventeen-year-old decision to include a satirical essay with my high school Graduation Portfolio that initially earned me a failing grade back in grade twelve. Responding to one of the topics, “How has your education prepared you for the future?” I took the opportunity to [sarcasm] graciously thank the school system for the opportunity to participate in the fledgling Career and Personal Planning curriculum [/sarcasm] in an essay that caught the eye of the teacher in charge of signing off on our portfolios. When my parents later demonstrated to an administrator that the teacher’s reaction to the essay had unfairly biased him toward the rest of my portfolio, I was issued a 50% and allowed to graduate on time in the end.

But I’ve been fascinated by this whole process ever since, and even more so now that I teach: why in the school’s opinion was it more important for me to be obedient, in that case, than to exercise my critical thinking?

And why did my school not look to engage me as a learner, rather than seeking first to punish me?

I can only assume that without my parents’ potential to embarrass the teacher and the school over the whole scenario, I would have been forced to comply with the their wishes and then either not graduate or submit a placative assignment. And while it’s not indicative of the entirety of schooling, and perhaps unfair to extrapolate based on a unique experience, the memory (evidently) guides me these days as both a teacher and a student.

As many teachers do, perhaps, I try to create learning opportunities that I would have seen as meaningful and thus benefitted from as a learner when I was a student. And the dual role created by Learning Design this semester has been eye opening as I reflect on my learning as a student when I’m  caught between the oft-quoted maxim that we should “never let education interfere with learning,” and the knowledge that there are certain responsibilities to be placated within institutionalized learning.

Somewhere between the chaotic wandering of rhizomatic learning and replicative-education there is a balance to be struck, isn’t there?

Or from circumstance to circumstance, will one always win out over the other?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking this semester about what motivates me to learn, and a lot of time thinking about what triggers these instances where my motivation wanes. I’ve been thinking about how our institutions are set up to deliver on their mandate to produce beneficial skill-sets and competencies in younger generations, as well as nurture a lifelong love of learning in each of them.

And I wonder if these two aims might be at odds with one another, somehow?

How do we engage in organic learning, learning that is propelled by the individual within the (perceived) contexts of its collectives, and yet which fulfills these external, institutional measures as well?

The teachers who have been able to connect to my ‘difficult’ student are hopefully the ones I embody in my teaching these days. From elementary school, to university, to teacher-training and the informal spaces along the way, these teachers have been able to frame opportunities for learning as personally relevant and meaningful to me, and have acted as mediators between me as an individual and larger institutional requirements, contextualizing these experiences in terms that arouse my own motivation to engage and grow with them.

If the work of teachers is ultimately relational, and relies uniquely on our abilities of empathy and creativity, this is where much of it resides.

Eminent Person Study: Documenting Transformative Learning

Screen shot 2013-10-20 at 12.29.44 PM

We began talking about Eminent Person the other day by discussing Gardner Campbell’s quoting of Gregory Bateson’s work, and the idea of:

“…breaches in the weave of contextual structure.”

As I’ve mentioned here many times in the past, many experiential aspects of the TALONS program, and authentic learning wherever it happens for that matter, seek to create “breaches” in each participant’s “contextual structure.” In each bringing past experiences, expectations for ourselves and others, and other “contextual structures” to bear on the learning at hand, when these expectations are exceeded – above, beyond or laterally – we are given a view of the world and our relation to it that didn’t until then exist.

The knowledge of this expanded plane of perception leads us toward the action required to establish it as a new self-evident truth of existence. And we do this as individuals as well as cultures:

  • We see our first live concert and witness the magic of music as something made by people, and go about learning to play the guitar;
  • We watch Chris Hadfield sing with Ed Robertson and a choir in Toronto and know that the world is now this small, this connected;
  • We conduct interviews with experts thousands of miles away, and give speeches, and glimpse in ourselves strengths and talents we didn’t realize we there, and are never quite the same afterwards.

In a way it is impossible to settle for the previous way of imagining the world, and are forever drawn to the expanding horizon. And I think this is where the Eminent Person Study finds its particular stripe of ritual power from every autumn, as the new grade tens settle in to their first major opportunity for individual and collective learning, and the nines learn from their example.

The TALONS alumni often come away with having witnessed something profound:

In a way, I think Night of the Notables, especially the speeches, is the gr. 10 initiation. When I finished that speech and went to sit back down amongst the other gr. 10s, it was like taking my place among the elite. And every time someone came back, they passed the test, I suppose. I saw you all a supportive group being each others’ safety nets.

Having been privileged to be a part of the last seven incarnations of the TALONS Eminent studies, I’ve come to revel in the realization that:

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 [gathers] 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.

The experience is something shared, yet something unique to each of us. And it is this particular aspect of the learning process that I wanted to honour in redesigning the project outline and assigned expectations to focus on the sharing of and in one another’s journeys through the project.

Alumni quotes

Alumni Advice

The project’s goals remain largely the same, but I have tried to have the various assignments move away from presenting a finalized product toward capturing a study in progressBiographical research is intended to be connected to each learner’s personal goals – expressed in blog posts from earlier in the year, or their IEP – and field studies and Night of the Notables postings are designed to become a synthesis of both presentation and reflection of individual learning.

Groups will be formed to facilitate commenting and feedback to help further one another’s inquiries into biography (and autobiography), and it is my hope that these conversations will begin to constitute an assembled ecosystem of narrated learning artifacts. The challenge I am looking to confront specifically this year is emphasizing an ethos of social media sharing and documentation to effectively archive and organize this year’s learning for future reflection and growth.

Because we hope to be transformed positively from this experience, each of us. But if we are to make these journeys, and come to these new perceptions, there is an almost moral obligation to share that wisdom with others who might make the trip themselves, something I’ll be interested to see unfold in the coming weeks.

Rolling on a River | TALONS Adventure Trip 2013

Having brought along the Music Department‘s HD Flip Camera, I put together this 20’ record of the first three days of the Adventure Trip, collecting our journey east to Harrison Hot Springs, down the Harrison River toward Kilby, our exploration of Harrison Bay and journey west to the Dewdney Slough and on the Fraser River to Poplar Bar, near Fort Langley.

Music is provided by the Late Slips, Gleneagle’s Concert Choir, my guitar and loop pedal, and Owl, with the morning TALONS at Sea to Sky Outdoor School.

Many thanks to Ridge Wilderness Adventures for arranging our travel, meals and many of our leadership opportunities under the human steam of our own paddling in Voyageur canoes, and a truly memorable British Columbian experience.

On outdoor trips and trust

DSC04975

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.

First Banjournal

With the TALONS class setting out on its annual In-Depth Study, I wanted to get a little documentation going of my own efforts in learning the banjo. Having recently been given a rented (for three months) banjo from Long & McQuade in Port Coquitlam for Christmas (thanks mom and dad!), I’ve spent the last couple of weeks plucking away at the first few chords I looked up and trying to apply what I know from the guitar into my new instrument. You can see what this amounts to in the video above, as well as a few of my goals looking ahead at my relationship with the banjo:

  • To improve my fingerpicking by expanding beyond my thumb-and-index finger style.
  • Learn how to use different banjo tunings, and expand my ability and knowledge of different chords.
  • I didn’t mention this in the video, but I would also like to begin to learn different scales, and how to play lead riffs for the banjo when playing with others.

Beginning in semester II, I’ll have a daily opportunity to explore the project, and will be seeking out mentors in the spring. My parents gave me a few L&M gift certificates to invest in some banjo lessons, and in addition to getting some ‘expert’ help, I’ll be consulting with fellow guitar teacher and banjo player, Mr. Mancell. Playing on a daily basis with my guitar class should also provide a great study in seeing what I can do with my new musical acquaintance, and I’ll look to document my progress here, as well as on Youtube or Audioboo.

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

Untitled

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.