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.

Inquiry into the Northwest

Northwest Inquiry
Organizing Inquiry Topics

These last few weeks, the TALONS have taken their study of Socials 10 west, from the fledgling union of Confederation to Hudson’s Bay, Manitoba, and the resistance that unfolds along the Red River Valley. In seeking out the story of Louis Riel, and how his execution – as well as the subsequent relationship between the government and the Metis, Inuit and other First Nations of the Northwest – fits into modern Canada’s understanding of our origin story, the unit seemed naturally suited to a structure of personal and collaborative inquiry.

In thinking about what shape the inquiry would take, I wondered if Canadian History might borrow a project from a study of personal narratives a few years back. As part of an English essay-writing unit, the personal reflection and  critical exploration that came about through each member of the class writing and recording an audio version of This I Believe essays gave way to a crystalline vision of a socially constructed artistic expression.

Really, it was something.

Even the Edward R. Murrow quote from the unit page on the class wiki speaks to something I think we’re teaching no matter what the topic in history:

“..to point to the common meeting grounds of belief, which is the essence of brotherhood and the floor of our civilization.”


Needless to say, perhaps, I’ve been looking to repeat the experience at some point.

Though the TALONS program seldom ‘repeats’ itself very often. There are familiar elementsevents and explorations, sure. But to a certain extent, each of the TALONS cohorts walks its own path, and creates its own stories. And as these stories get filtered down between grade tens and nines, survive on the class wikis and archives of blogged assignments now going back four years (!), I look forward to this period of spring when the forms, norms and storms of the fall and winter allow for the present collective of personalities to synthesize their learning in the present community’s own terms.

This year the class’ study of North American history began with Geography and the American Revolution, before taking on a series of discussions on Canadian Confederation, and setting out into the Northwest. But through each of these subjects, there has been much conversation around the role of mythology in our national identity:

  • How we tell the stories of our inception.
  • How we internalize our narratives of victory.
  • And how best to confront the darker corners of our past.
Northwest Timeline
Northwest Timeline

All of which is the long way of introducing where the class began last week by reading up on the resources and materials created by the TALONS of 2010 and setting out their own directions of inquiry in blog form, which were then sorted into distinct themes:

Cultural Effects of Expansion

“Canada’s a pretty great place today, eh? The Northwest expansion, or basically the years from 1700 – 1900, Canada went through the time that would most influence the country that it is today.

In looking closer to a specific part of this process, I wondered how the expansion into Rupert’s Land owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company affected the Lower Canadian French people.”

Alyssa

“From 1830 to 1996 Inuit, First Nations, and Metis were torn from their native culture with intentions of assimilating them into the dominant culture through the Residential School System. These schools, run by Christian priests and nuns, raised and abused the indigenous people of Canada in hopes to “kill the Indian in the child”. Some schools in Alberta and British Columbia going so far as the compulsory sterilization OF CHILDREN. Aboriginal children weren’t seen as children, they were seen as seeds of savages to invade the garden of civilizations that were in need of extermination.”

Julie

The Fur Trade

“At the forefront of this (as you all know) was the fur trade.  For a set of pelts scraped off the backs of deceased animals you would receive fantastic HBC products such as overly strong perfume, clothing made in China, and other forms of HBC swag decked out in those trademark stripes.  Jokes aside, the items up for trade were much more practical, however, not any greater in the quality or value than their modern merchandise.   While you could get fabulous point blankets, thunder sticks, and firewater, there had to be room for profit.”

Tyler

“As common knowledge of the Fur trade, Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company were fierce rivals for many years. They both wanted to control the fur trade and were willing to do anything to control the market. This resulted in some company members even willing to murder for better trades. They began fighting and they continued fighting from the 1780′s until 1821. In 1820, both companies began struggling financially. In 1821,  Henry Bathurst the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, forced the companies to stop fighting.”

Anthony

The Life and Hard Times of Louis Riel

“Though regarded as a hero in Quebec, Riel was still widely denounced as Thomas Scott’s “murderer”, and a reward of $5000 was offered for his arrest. Sir John A. MacDonald, wanting to avoid political conflict, even offered to provide funds to Riel if he remained in his exile. But Riel eventually returned and joined federal politics. He was quite successful as well, winning in a by-election in 1873 and the general election is 1874. All was well for Riel, until he went to Ottawa to sign the register. Riel was sentenced to two years imprisonment and stripped of his political rights. The federal government finally decided to grant amnesty to Riel, provided he went into a five year banishment. During his banishment, Riel would go on to stay at two asylums in Quebec and a teaching job in Montana.”

Justann

Related Current Events

“Later that year, in May, chat logs revealed 22 year old Bradley Manning’s confession to leaking the video to Wikileaks. Manning was arrested shortly after without a trial and sent to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. There, he suffered harsh living conditions where, as David House, founder of the Bradley Manning Support Network, states that Manning “[degraded] over time – physically, mentally, and emotionally.” His mental health, as stated by his lawyer, has been described as “almost gone.””

Christina

“Anyway, so Cyprus was actually surprisingly stable for a long time, rated in the top 50 of the nicest places to live, up until the Eurozone crisis in which everything went to hell  heck(Gotta keep things ‘G’). That, as you may or may not remember, happened just last year and is still affecting them today, as we see with Cyprus. Being a small island country, they don’t have a vast amount of resources to trade and sell to help them escape the crisis, which is a primary reason behind their economic downfall.”

Jess

In the photo above – and in these herehere and here – you can see the process by which these various individual threads were woven into different group inquiries that have become (over the course of the last week) the subject of various audio documentaries. Taking as examples the exemplary reporting, editing and storytelling of the folks at Radiolab and This American Life – and coinciding with a particularly timely episode of CBC’s Ideas – groups of three-to-five TALONS have been building collaborative audio documentaries of their individual explorations, soliciting interviews and writing personal reflections on their learning throughout the research process.

All of which we’re hoping to share this week, live on the (web) radio.


Building on a recent English unit that saw the class present audio dramas live in the classroom, the plan for this week is to take the groups’ various produced segments down the hall (to an often-used Math ‘tutorial’ office) and onto the Hive 105 airwaves such that they can be streamed live into the classroom speakers (for that extra bit of radio authenticity), and onto the wider web for listeners across the country, and anywhere else you might like to tune in from [For more information about how to listen to 105 the Hive in your classroom, click here].

You’ll be able to tune into the TALONS Northwest audio documentaries this week on both Wednesday and Thursday (Friday as well, if necessary), with the morning class presenting between 9:00am – 10:10am (PDT), and the afternooners going on between 1:45pm – 3:00pm (exact time to be determined), and join us on Twitter (or a Skype call in, if there’s time…) at @talonsblog during each of the broadcasts.

If you aren’t able to join us live, stay tuned to Defying Normality for the upcoming show notes and audio archive.

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.

Confederation on the CBC

Found: Money

Courtesy of Flickr user Haunted Snowfort

Let it not be said that public broadcasting’s role in meaningfully interrogating the roots of Canadian heritage and identity is anything less than Herculean. From bringing Hockey Night in Canada into homes from St. Johns to Sandspit, to uncovering the history of our national origins, I wanted to share a few gems that could be of aid in coming to understand the meaning and historical context of Confederation, as originally shared on CBC Radio.

Enjoy!

The Enright Files – Fathers of Confederation

Michael Enright, host of The Sunday Edition, in conversation about two of the more intriguing fathers of confederation. Biographer Richard Gwyn talks about Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first prime minister while University of Toronto Scholar David Wilson talks about the poet of Confederation Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

The Massey Lectures

1963: THE IMAGE OF CONFEDERATION 

PART 1 – PART 2 – PART 3 – PART 4 – PART 5 – PART 6 

In the 1963 Massey Lectures Frank Underhill writes:”Our experiment of the new Canadian nationality has now been going on for almost a hundred years. It must be confessed that we approach the centenary year of 1967 in a state of mind that falls far short of the spirit of optimism and high adventure that marked the Fathers of Confederation. We seem to have lost their clear assurance of national purpose. We are not sure even that we are one nation. Our Canadian politics of the 1960s is leading many citizens to doubt whether it is worth trying to be nation if this is the only kind of politics which we are capable. One senses a feeling of defeatism in the air.”

Nation of Hockey 

Part I  PART II

The back of our five dollar bill shows kids playing shinny on a timeless pond somewhere in Canada. But Calgary writer Bruce Dowbiggin argues that hockey is far more than simple nostalgia or big business. It’s a clear window into the complexity of modern Canada: from shifting political power and economics, to multiculturalism and what we think it means to be a Canadian in the 21st century.

 

CEA Guest Post: My Guitar Class is more than a Class

Many thanks to Max Cooke for inviting me to lend a voice to the Canadian Education Association‘s series on Innovation in Education, where I offered a story about the evolution of my guitar class, as inspired by retired Gleneagle drama teacher Richard Dixon.

As a mode of teaching, Richard transcended innovation and went about continually inventing his classroom environment out of blank space and the unique personalities that filled it. And while many of these plays were banged out on a typewriter, and others were written into formatted word documents to be printed out and memorized, I always come back to believing that it is this type of invention and innovation our classrooms so badly need today, just as they always have.

On his last day of school, Richard and I were talking about the new guitar class I was going to be teaching the following September, just down the hall from what would no longer be his classroom’s black box. I told him that aside from being excited at the prospect of the course, I didn’t know where I wanted to take it just yet. 

“The important thing to remember,” he said, “is that every class you teach is just another opportunity for students to practice forming communities.”

You can read the whole post on the CEA blog. See the other contributions to the series on innovation here. Thanks again to Max and CEA for the invitation, and to Richard for the eternally sage advice.

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.

 

Port Moody Youth Arts Festival Songwriting Workshop


A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to meet a handful of local talented musicians in an afternoon session I delivered at the inaugural Port Moody Youth Arts Festival, where through the course of an afternoon we would set out to write a song. In addition to the afternoon workshop, my name was slated for half an hour as the opening act of the evening showcase, and I hoped that I wouldn’t be standing on the stage explaining a failed effort.

I prepared the sparest of materials to make the most of our time during the afternoon, and spent my energy providing the space and the canvas, along with whatever emerging know-how I’ve gained in the last year about what makes songs come together and what they require to be performed convincingly I could. Fortunately, the Port Moody teens who had signed up for the workshop were exceptionally talented writers, musicians, collaborators, and performers.

The workshop was scheduled for the top floor of City Hall, a vaulted dome ceiling befitting our quaint suburban capital with a veranda that offered a view of Inlet Park, the rec center, and public library. It seemed a dignified place to be crafting a song out of the ether, and even if this went unspoken, the group set about searching for riffs and opening hooks, imagery and themes in pairs and individual spots around the space with diligence and urgency. At fifteen minute intervals, the group met as a whole to share the pieces they had come up with, and teach them to one another.

Eventually, the collective settled on an opening verse by a marvelous budding singer-songwriter named Julia, and while she retreated to the patio to extend the verses and lyrics, the rest of the group experimented with various other instrumentation that began to bring the song to life: acoustic guitars, bass, ukelele with slide, drums, a twelve string.

As a few of the participants were called to the stage to soundcheck their own band, Julia, Mickelvin, and Patrick worked to develop a chorus with transitions and complimentary guitar licks that built a musical tension throughout the song, and it was quickly typed up and photocopied in the library downstairs. There were a few last minute run throughs in the evening light of the floor-to-ceiling windows, and at five o’clock we broke for dinner.

The evening showcase was set to begin with us at six-thirty, and the group had yet to play the song on stage. But after a handful of run-throughs after dinner, the mood was relaxed while the newly minted band hung out with the evening’s emcees and the other acts, picking at pizza and veggie platters before being called to the stage.

I introduced the group and provided a brief summary of the day’s events, and then scurried into the audience to record video as the troupe proceeded to bring the house down. In a scaled down version of the Thirty Person Rock Band Project,  the workshop was a success for the way it allowed the individual talents of the participants to shine. Julia, Mickelvin, Patrick, Theo, Ian, Isaac, Jonathan and Michael came to the session open to who they might meet, and what they might be able to make together.

They all rose mightily to the occasion.

Carrying Stones

Voyageur at Unplug'd 2012
Photo by @cogdog

I arrived at Unpludg this year without a finished draft of my letter.

Either out of procrastination or by an unconscious but deliberate choice, I made the journey east resolved to not panic about not having completed my draft and to try my best to remain open to the vibrations of the moment over the course of the weekend, to soak the experience in, and use the time set aside for peer editing with my group to finish the song.

Our songwriter, Bryan

Earlier in the week, I had sat at my kitchen table looking out over Burrard Inlet strumming the familiar opening chords of G major, D, and C, singing I’m gonna write myself a letter…  until I settled on the opening groove of the song. Pretty quickly I had scribbled down the opening two verses and had a chorus that scratched at a theme of a collective voice emerging from so many individual journeys out toward the Edge.

My own curiosity about this year’s event, now expanded to include international participants, centered around what a diverse selection of passionate educators (to quote Rob Fisher from last year, “People who care about education so much it hurts.”) might create in a mosaic of their voices. Last year this had seemed easier, as our focus was the ‘limited’ prospect of a Canadian identity, and I wondered what my role would be an a conversation about about a more diverse voice.

UnPlug'd 2012 Visual Notes

@giuliaforsythe's visual notes

It wasn’t that Unplugd this year wasn’t still a heartily Canadian affair, with Ontario and educators from across Canada, not to mention the Edge hosts and Voyageur, the Six String Nation guitar, playing a role in welcoming our friends and colleagues from the United States and Australia. Thursday night’s reception in Toronto, culminating in a presentation from Jowi Taylor about his journey to collect the artifacts composing Voyageur, a guitar made up of mythically charged Canadiana – Trudeau’s canoe paddle, the Golden Spruce, Maurice Richard’s Stanley Cup Ring – provided an opportunity for the story of the guitar to begin the weekend’s conversation about people and place.

Being asked to play a song on Voyageur was an honour that was both invigorating and daunting, as I knew in some ways the performance would serve as a sort of host’s welcome to our international friends and local guests. But I had little idea the emotional weight such a guitar could bear. And when the story of Jowi’s journey to have the Voyageur built wound to a close, I was overwhelmed at the prospect of having my voice, and my words, spoken through this mystical object, joining in the chorus of the pieces making up the guitar, as well as the thousands of people who have held it in their hands, and contemplated their own relationship to the country and one another through the songs Voyageur has helped them sing and hear.

Needing a few minutes to settle myself at the front of the room and hopefully provide some context for the song I had chosen to sing, I talked about the idea of Canadian soul homes, and that truths are woven in places where people are living, as Martha reminded us in this year’s opening circle, “at the pace of creation.” I had arrived in Toronto the day before having brought a stone I picked up in the estuary of Noon’s Creek near my house, a barnacle encrusted river rock forged a hundred million years ago in  Heritage Mountain that now lolled in my neighbourhood’s high tides. Thinking about how I’d found the stone earlier in the week on a low neep tide that in the fall will be carrying streams of salmon home to spawn in the creeks where they were born, and that I was now being given the opportunity to make music by playing notes that would resonate through the sacred wood of the Golden Spruce struck me as especially moving in that moment.

 

 

As it turned out, leaving my letter unfinished was the right choice.

I think about writing songs a little like archaeology: once the hook – a riff, lyric or chorus – is discovered, the rest of the song is usually nearby, obscured just below the surface of sedimentary dust. They are like puzzles, where a songwriter creates an opening image, or symbol, builds upon that theme by creation tension (either literally or musically), and then resolves that tension for their audience.

Going into the weekend, I had written the first two verses and a chorus for my letter-song, but couldn’t have written the third verse (the resolution) before Thursday night, or the rest of Unplug’d had played out. The tension of the song was created out of my own question about the experience: what would this group come together to say? I would need to write the song, and capture it, from the middle of the experience.

Writing a song on Voyageur

On Saturday afternoon, my editing group of Donna Fry, Marci Duncan, and Gail Lovely sat on yoga mats in the upstairs studio of Points North, and I played them the opening verses of the song. We had saved the song for our last edit, and had spent the day  up until that point contextualizing the meaning of each of our letters through the stories we had told one another and our emerging reflections on what the experience was teaching us. Jowi Taylor was gracious enough to let me enlist the powers of Voyageur in the composition, and he joined us for a conversation about authenticity, and truth, and the role of music, metaphors, and symbols in our collective storytelling while I sat cross-legged with the guitar in my lap.

Like each of the songs I played on Thursday night, “Carrying Stones” turned out to be a collaboration, like all art and stories are, really. Jowi and Voyageur gave me most of the words in the third verse.

The rest of the Unplug’d participants helped set it to music.

You can continue to join in the song by playing along to the lyrics and chords I’ve posted here.

Looking back at the Bears Thirty Person Rock Band Project


You can check out the Storify tracking the Social Media progressions of the project here.

In what unconsciously turned out to be a culmination of the Fall’s Learning in Public project, guitar class this spring challenged a group of individuals to create and rally around a mutually agreed-upon idea for a new kind of class activity. Nothing overly complex, the Bears became an elemental symbol around which we were able to create a basic, guitar based rock and roll band that brought diverse classroom traits and talents to the forefront of our daily work.

Let me state here that I have little formal training as a music teacher, have never really played in a band (save a few student groups where I served much more an eager sponsor-teacher than bandmate), let alone led one, and had no idea throughout the process whether the endeavour would be successful, let alone what direction it might take on a given day.Initially, the class formed into small groups that functioned as committees responsible for various elements of the band’s life cycle: project management, branding, media, songwriting, arrangement. What the band became, every step of the way, would be built out of an individual and collective commitment to the cause: that of the continual creation of the band.

Not that these aren’t all things I was and am passionate to discover. This year my own musical growth has snowballed toward just such a learning opportunity, allowing me to frame my role as ‘teacher’ during the process as that of ‘lead learner,’ something we hear and talk about a lot as teachers, but which can be difficult to create deliberately. In this case, my purposeful treading of water mostly consisted of the necessity of keeping the project moving forward the only ways I knew how: creating opportunities for each of the committees, and the individuals composing them, to imagine a possible next step for the project, and then motivate and guide them in carrying it out.

This all being said, the success of the band was in the hands of the class as much as I could make it; I made an agreement with them – not unlike one that I feel like I make in most classes, but in this case it was explicit: so long as we all acknowledge that we can create something special here, I am going to hold you to the goals that you each set for yourselves to be a part of that process.

Whether we are successful or not has less to do with my expectations of the individuals in my class than my facilitation of the learning experience, where ideally each learner holds themselves to their own expectations.

What I’ve found that this ‘agreement’ helps bring about is an environment that is able to capitalize on the unique talents in the room. Once the band got going, people learned to arrange mic cables and amplifiers to maximize the effect of our sound; others wrote songs, led rehearsals, and created a logo for the newly minted Bears (that we eventually screened on T-shirts); various members of the band ran around with a videocamera, or various iPhones and iPads, to record and document the process, and on the second to last day of the year – following the chaos of locker-cleanout – we promoted and played a gig in the front entrance of the school that people had been alerted to by awesome hand-drawn fliers (complete with QR codes linking to the band’s Facebook page).

All of this happened in five weeks, during which I was away for a week on a TALONS class trip, and many members of the class were preparing to graduate high school. Like Ray Manzarek said of the year he and Jim Morrison formed the Doors, “we had a strange visitation of the energy,” an energy that is the intangible vibration of musical community and communication.

I start each guitar semester by telling my classes that humans evolved a wiring to participate in music; that our ability to stomp our feet, beat drums or chant in concert and unison literally set our ancestors apart from others who might not be so in tune (pardon the pun) with one another, and that communicating in music established the pathways and connections in our brains that eventually allowed us to develop language, and begin to know ourselves and one another in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.

On those first days of guitar every semester, we usually begin by snapping our fingers in time with one another, or passing bean bags through the air to a shared rhythm to learn one another’s names. I tell them that the ability to sync up like this is so innate that a person will be able to more exactly join in rhythm with another person than with a device like a metronome, and that when we make music with others, we are communicating in the oldest of ways, reaching back into the fabric of what makes us us, and creating something that is in ways universal, and at the same time deeply personal.

There is a momentum to performing live music that members of the group need to each be responsible for, the essence of musical connection that allows other players, and an audience to participate in the raw energy that the intersection of rhythm and melody is capable of creating.

This is a skill only learned by doing.

In the video of the Bears final performance, the band struggles to hear one another in the fray and excitement of the crowd and the moment, and the bass and drums are a bar ahead of the rest of the band until the first chorus. They/we work this out though, and as “We are the Bears” reaches its musical climax – in the moment between Sarah calmly saying, “Step away, bro,” and Kevin’s blistering guitar solo kicking in – the monthlong project’s goal is realized: the band has created a moment of visceral rock and roll, and brought it to their audience.

For the students in the band – not to mention their teacher – this is an incredible power to discover, and begin to wield, something I talked about with Brian Lamb and Giulia Forsythe after this year’s Northern Voice jam-after party in Vancouver: how to collectively keep the ball – the energy, the timing, the essence of a song – in the air between so many different hands, and how this is a visible skill when playing or watching music, but finds its way into so many different aspects of life, learning and the relationships we form with other people.

On the last day of class, many of the Bears made a point of hanging around for a few minutes to take pictures with one another, shake my hands and otherwise linger in the magical atmosphere the guitar classroom had been transformed into by their efforts.

“This class was more than a class,” one of the young men who was graduating told me on his way out the door. “Just what it was, I’m not sure. But it was pretty great.”

Hopefully we all spend the next little while trying to put our finger on just what it was, and how we can each do it again.