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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
@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.
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.
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.
On Monday I’ll be giving a brief talk to the Langley cohort of Simon Fraser University’s Learning & Teaching with Technology Field Program about Personal Narratives as a framework for learning. Not particularly adept at the nomenclature surrounding and separating ‘frameworks,’ lenses, methods, and mostly considering myself self-taught when it comes to this stuff, I have long-found stories to be a vital part of my teaching bag-of-tricks, and will be sharing some of what I’ve found along the way with the group. As an introduction, I’ve shared the following post on the class’ Posterous account, but it’s private; so I’ve shared it here in the hope that those of you out there – who have really done all the teaching in this supposed ‘self-teaching’ I’ve been doing – might leave us a comment, a story, a link to some reading, or pass this post along to someone who might.
As a means of collecting some of the supplemental material I would attach to a discussion of Personal Narratives and Storytelling in the classroom, I thought I would put together a post here that you may find useful in extending the conversation post-”Institute.”
As a general introduction, the above video is a story I told in a canoe in Algonquin Park last summer at the Unplug’d Education Summit. The purpose of the “un-conference” was to bring together educational stake-holders to synthesize our individual essays (each filling the blank in the title, Why _________ Matters) into a book organized by thematically grouped chapters. You can download the e-book here, and learn more about this year’s event at Unplugd.ca.
While the whole process revolved around a socially constructive framework, my essay centered around the idea that “Sharing our Stories” matters: that each of our individual truths construct a shared “truth” or objectivity; and that if we follow this through to its logical conclusion, the skills required to realize, share and synthesize our stories become essentials in creating a healthy culture (democratic, social, educational or otherwise).
From both a personal and pedagogical perspective, this aspect of joining the personal and the collective through stories holds great interest for me, especially as we consider that our digital tools provide ever-more opprortunities to share unique pieces from our individual corners of the world with tribes and swarms and communities beyond our own local geography. Indeed:
…our understanding of authorship is, at the present time, caught between two regimes: one a system of knowledge production informed by Enlightenment-era notions of the self, the other is a world of “technologies that lend themselves to the distributed, the collective, the process-oriented, the anonymous, the remix.” As we step into the future increasingly governed by the latter, we move, in some ways, back to an earlier era: a move away from a culture of isolated reading — the individual reader, alone with a book or a screen — towards a more communal engagement, the coffee-house or fireside model of public reading and debate in which literary culture historically originated. Long before print culture, storytelling was not a solitary experience but a group event.Houman Barekat on Planned Obsolescence
In its more classical sense, education concerned itself almost exclusively with Aesthetics, or the “broader sense” that Wikipedia describes as “critical reflection on art, culture and nature. Educators today would do well to be aware of an emerging New Aesthetic (which is described here in a specific fashion that need not be completely digested or accepted to be relevent to our discussion).
Simply put, the New Aesthetic concerns itself with how the digital world and the real world are starting to overlap and intermingle in interesting, routine and unexpected ways. As search engines, online ‘bots’, spam generation engines, online mapping tools, google street view, machine vision and sensing technologies proliferate, our everyday life in the western technologically advanced world is starting to bristle with new types of augmentation and hybridity.
Interview with Bruce Sterling about the New Aesthetic
As we move into next week, I hope we can play around with some of these emerging tools to begin to tell our own stories and begin to create possibilities for storytelling (digital or otherwise) as a means of individual and collective learning in your classrooms.
The main point I like to stress in talking about storytelling in our emerging media/digital landscape is that despite our new modes of communication, the act of telling our individual and communal stories is fundamental to the creation and maintenance of our culture and in this way is at the center of what education strives to achieve.
As one of my teaching idols told me on the day he retired, “Any class you teach is just another opportunity for kids to practice forming communities,” a sentiment I find myself agreeing with more the longer I teach, and a process in which I find stories increasingly fundamental.
Now that we have come to the final week of the semester and school year (where did it all go???), the Thirty Person Rock Band Project, since baptized as the Bears, is trying to make its various pieces “land” in time to showcase the fury of the past few weeks’ endeavour: to make rock music.
As a group, we’ve been working on an aesthetic: amidst countless jams, we named the band, developed a logo, flyers, dance moves, and set out to write a song around a bass riff developed by the original Bear, Florentine.
At present, we are preparing to showcase our work this Thursday in a brief set to be played in the parking lot after the second-to-last 3pm bell of the year rings.