An Ethical Online Course

Jesse Stommel has a great article at Hybrid Pedagogy on the ethos of participation in hybrid or online learning environments.

“The best online and hybrid courses are made from scraps strewn about and gathered together from across the web. We build a course by examining the bits, considering how they’re connected, and creating pathways for learners to make their own connections.”

The description echos the image created by Davie Cormier in this helpful MOOC primer video, and the idea of “pathways” is something I’m thinking about with Philosophy this semester. But he presents a twist in cultivating unique pathways within the hybrid classroom, and the notion that:

“Hybrid classes demand an even more complex architecture, requiring consideration of the physical space(s) we’ll work within, the virtual space(s), as well as the various ways we’ll move between the spaces. When we build a hybrid class, we must consider how we’ll create pathways between the learning that happens in a room and the learning that happens on the web.”

He outlines a few examples that start me thinking about how well the Philosophy 12 blog – or the TALONS blogged spaces, for that matter – connects to the learning conducted in our classrooms and within other physical space. And I think that a few of the questions I’m driving at in my Learning Project musings may lead me to consider ways and means to support and enrich these digital spaces.

Well-prefaced advice from Jesse in this regard:

“The single best tip I have on this front is to avoid the ping-pong ball effect, in which the teacher responds to every (or nearly every) comment made by students with immediate correction or affirmation. This very quickly reinforces a hierarchy in which students are constantly looking to the teacher for approval. Ignore any “best practices” or “quality assurance” measures that encourage the teacher’s voice to dominate online discussion. Model thoughtful engagement and responsiveness with several well-placed comments/questions and leave space for the learners to follow suit.”

Neatly aligning with so many different things I’ve been reading these days, he ends here, which if you don’t go check out the piece in full, should situate you in the heart of the matter:

“Most importantly, educators at every level must begin by listening to and trusting students. This means building space in every course for students to reflect upon the course’s pedagogy — an ongoing meta-level discussion of learning with student voices at its center.”

Making the Learning Visible: TALONS on the American Revolution

Initial Questions about the American Revolution
Questions after reading homework from 2011

As part reflection on a statement made during the introductory session of Alec Couros#ETMOOC, and part synthesis of the TALONS introductory blogging and commenting on the American Revolution, I wanted to highlight some of the recent dialogue and discussion going on in the TALONS classroom these last few days.

Someone noted during the first #ETMOOC meeting that part of open learning revolved around making the learning visible, and I think a major contributing factor to the success of the TALONS blogging community is an evolving ability to present and share individual and collective learning. But something I have come to appreciate lately is how this knowledge has grown alongside an ability to meta-cognate, and build upon the lessons of networking norms explored by the last few years’ classes.

Old and Bold
Image edit and Interview synthesis by #Talons Yilin, Hayley, Max and Kyler

Now three full years into the class experiment in conducting and presenting our learning on the public web, the community has cultivated an understory of class discussion as the architecture of the initial thinking and conversation allows it to be visible and accessible as it is being created, but also indefinitely into the future

Since we first began experimenting with the form, the TALONS have each maintained an individual blog with EduBlogs, which the class has subscribed to (comments as well) using Google Reader. Every year, links and archives of posts from each of our units of study accumulate across our subject Wikispaces, Delicious bookmarks, and these blogs to become the fodder and foundation of the next year’s learners, and it is striking to see what is possible as these years have begun to accumulate.

The class began this last week with the assigned readings of a host of 2011 American Revolution posts, and a few questions:

More Questions about the American Revolution

    • What is the author’s main idea, or thesis in the post? 
    • How do they support this claim?
    • Who are the key figures / what are the main events discussed?
    • What conclusions about the American Revolution does the post give you? 
    • What questions about the American Revolution does the post give you? 
This led to many new questions, which then erupted in a weekend’s blog posts and commenting.

 

TALONS grade nine Alyssa highlights the Seven Years War as a key ingredient in the outset of the Revolution:

 

Over the course of thirteen years, the American revolution raged on between the British, and the American colonists.  But what were the reasons that brought on one of–or even the most–important revolution? What could could set flame to such a fire that a nation could split in two?

To discover this, we must trace back to the where the first larger scales of disruptions of peace started, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, in 1763. Just twelve years later, the American revolution officially started in 1775.

Picking up where the thread, Sierra does an eloquent job of creating context beyond the Seven Years War to reveal the colonies as anger and violence bound to boil over:

After the Seven years War, the British Empire was markedly fatigued, as the war had, among other things, caused great financial hardships to Britain. This meant that Britain was relying more and more on America, raising taxes to compensate for the splurge. They began enforcing new laws, such as the Navigation Act, prohibiting colonists from shipping and trading with countries other than Britain. Then they began implementing taxes, such as the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Townshend Act, taxing everything from printed materials, to lead, pain, and tea.

This angered some of the American colonists, and the propaganda began. Britain began sending over troops, to prevent violent protests, and in 1768, four thousand redcoats landed in Massachusetts to help maintain order. However, despite this, in 1770, on March 5th a rebellious group of American colonists clashed with British troops. Five colonists died in the confrontation, and the event became known as the Boston Massacre.

Following the horror of the Boston Massacre, Owen explains how a revolution about human dignity and democracy is still often seen to revolve around tea:

Nearly all the taxing acts were either reduced or completely dropped, proving that the British still had some leniency to the colonies, which the colonists did not appreciate completely. Wealthier men and others who relied on illegal trade were especially displeased with the taxes on goods as it would eat into their profits. Tea was the only trade item that was left taxed and was sold by the East Indian Trade Company at low prices. Of course, the rich and greedy men who sold smuggled tea could not afford to lose competition. Men like Samuel Adams were essentially so jealous that they organized a raid on the Boston trading ships that saw all tea content dumped into the harbor.

But there are other conversations, and other threads being pulled, with conversations on Monday afternoon exploring ideas of unity, hypocrisy and the nature of historical mythology and symbolism during and since the Revolution.

Marie’s post, Equality? has at present gathered an impressive 21 comments. Among them such insights and questions as the ones Kim addresses here;

Something I have to add is that women in America were fighting for their rights in the American Revolution, and they did win back some rights that should have belonged to them from the very beginning. Do you feel that the American Revolution opened the door for female rights in the future, or do you feel that no change was made (impacting the rights of women)?

Kim’s own entry came in the form of a fictionalized letter from an anonymous woman during the revolution:

As the war began to grow, so did the group of ours efforts, along with women across the country.  We spun thousands upon thousands of yards of yarn, stitched hundreds of clothing items, and took our time knitting far too many stockings for the American men in battle.  We fought to be able to fill the shortage of workers in jobs that were usually occupied by men, but were then left empty during the war, and we won the battle. I took on three jobs during that time: a blacksmith, a ship builder, and a writer.

Many people were not aware that women had made a difference, and had done anything other than sitting at their home raising a family.  Women clothed the armies, signed the petitions, and wrote the books. You would not be able to hear about the war today through the original documents and encyclopedias, if it werent for the dedicated women writers. Through these small actions that we took during this rough time, we opened the door for female rights to come.

Another grade ten, Bronwyn casts her gaze on the men at the center of the struggle to forge a way out of the war with Britain:

After the war, there was much social, political, and economic disorder. It was a country of thirteen governments, each trying to help itself at the cost of the others. Nine states had their own navy and each state had its own army.  Without changing their political and governing system, America was on the road towards anarchy. The saviours of the new independent country were people like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who worked endlessly to convince a sceptical nation of the concept of unification. Finally, a form of working democracy was created. However, it took them thirteen years of unrest and negotiation to create this government.  Thirteen Years.  Was America’s new governing system a system eight years of fighting and killing and then thirteen years of internal unrest? This is not a question I can really answer, but what I can say is that people’s quest for the perfect government and democracy came with a hefty price and most people believe that it was worth every penny.

And these are only a few. Each of the fifty six TALONS published an initial reflection on the American Revolution this weekend, and three times I have scanned through more than 100 comments in my Google Reader. The class spilled and consumed some 50,000 digital words on different aspects of the American Revolution: themes, opinions, interpretations, relations to current events and personal experience.

Not only is the conversation becoming a sort of living textbook, but it is creating an ecological succession beneath the canopy of the blogging forest that has been established over the last few years. “The learning,” that nebulous, individual struggle for understanding that we negotiate with one another, is visible now and for all of the future TALONS (not to mention anyone else who finds their way into the old-growth forest of now-more than 100 individual TALONS blogs that are still online).

I hope that visitors and residence alike take away that this sort of sharing of ideas and conversation can be a powerful and authentic means of discovery. Like Jabiz says,

…blogging is contagious. As the plants begin to grow, they shield and guide and support the younger saplings. Suddenly we find ourselves in a thriving eco-system of ideas. So I will till the soil, add fertilizer when needed, consider the amount of water every seed will need. I will find sunlight or shade as needed for every fragile sapling. I will wait patiently and stare at what appears to be barren soil. But like every successful gardener I have faith and I have patience. I will wait for every seed to grow.

This year’s individual TALONS blogs can be subscribed to as a bundle by clicking this link. The comment thread is syndicated here

You can keep up with the class’ collective online space, Defying Normality, which was graciously highlighted on the excellent site, Comments4Kids, today, or follow our adventures on Flickr.

Teachers and Ritual Power

Notable class of 2012

Andrew B. Watt struck me appropriately on the Sunday night before Night of the Notables with a post – you would do well to read in its entirety here – that makes a great many points that each are deserving of attention and reflection. But there are a few that I want to highlight here.

 I had an unexpected bonus conversation with my friend C.T. today, which revolved around some of my favorite topics: magic and the ability to change consciousness; the passion for creating art; the mysteries of saints; and the power of teachers.  During this last part of the conversation, we segued to a discussion of the challenge that some teachers put forward — which is that, in an effort to advance their own work and career and power, they wind up trampling on the capacities and capabilities of their students. Indeed, the teachers reap the rewards of the students’ labor, and the students take on the negative consequences of the teacher’s own bad work.

I’ve long admired Andrew’s blogging and the breadth of knowledge and opinions he brings to a range of mutual topics of passion like history, politics, teaching, philosophy, as well as an often fearless interrogation of his practice. He was one of the first people whose blog I subscribed to, and someone who I’ve kept in loose touch with online over the past four years, reading one another’s blogs, offering the odd comment, and feeling sometimes like he’s a colleague who merely works down the hall (if that hallway reached Connecticut). 

This year we discovered that we shared a birthday, and Andrew spent it tweeting me pictures and commentary from the Metropolitan Museum in New York City while I hosted a barbecue in my Port Moody backyard.

Andrew B. Watt is all kinds of awesome, if you didn’t already know.

And so the point that Andrew’s raising is something that I consider seriously, and one I’ve considered alongside Klout scores and notions of celebrity in the era of the blogged classroom. But he takes it a level (or several) deeper:

We were talking about it in a magical/spiritual context. We’d both read a book recently in which a magical society’s inner circle of adepts was teaching rituals to their outer members which made the members feel powerful, but was in fact transferring power to the adepts… and shifting a lack-of-power onto the the students… not merely lack-of-power, but in fact negative-power.  A learned helplessness.

This is something that I think my TALONS colleagues and I are constantly in negotiation with: trying to figure out where to draw the line between at various times leading, supporting, facilitating, or merely observing the learning in our classroom, and interjecting ourselves too much into the process. If the outright goal isn’t to graduate participants in the program capable of owning their own goals and the action required to attain them, it is to at least introduce them to the ways in which such ownership can be attained.

This involves the difficult notion of ‘letting go,’ of occasionally allowing kids to fail, and then to frame these experiences as opportunities for future growth.

As much as parents or teacher/facilitators can position themselves to aid in the learner’s success, in the end the impetus for success rests in their hands. School should be about the creation of opportunities for students to realize and seize their own opportunities, and I look forward to the pillars of the TALONS program as treasured rituals of passage in the life cycle of the class: the Fall Retreat, Night of the Notables, cultural outings, the Adventure Trip, In Depth.

There is the artifice of tradition, and the singularity of the present moment in time, crystalized between the held gazes of the current participants.

But Andrew frames the question in an interesting way to consider:

 One of the things that magical teachers do (which exoteric/ordinary teachers like myself and many of my readers do not do) is give their students rituals to perform for their empowerment and spiritual growth.  C.T. had attended a workshop in which one of the presenters pointed out that some of these rituals do what they say they do — they empower the performers of the rituals so that they experience spiritual growth.  But, C.T. said that the presenter also warned about the opposite — rituals that disempower those who perform them, such that they think they’ve made spiritual progress, but in fact they have actually inflated their egos and empowered the teacher who has given them nothing of real value.  Meanwhile, the teacher gains power from the ritual performed — they get a toehold in the mental and emotional framework of the student, and the student is more inclined to treat further ‘empowerments’ as worthwhile and valuable, even as they are disempowered to seek further growth elsewhere.  Insidious.

Only mildly crushed by the prospect of not being considered a ‘magical’ teacher, I am keenly interested to think about how to bring about rituals that ’empower the performers of the ritual so that they experience spiritual growth,’ how to put the choice to act – or not – in the learner’s hands and see what meaning they can make of the experience.

How is it that we go about creating learning that is magical and transformative?

Whether growth is spiritual, intellectual, social, or emotional is, if the experience is crafted just right, up to the participant in the moment itself; where the teacher should find themselves in all of this a precarious balance, I think, and indeed, “one of those deep imponderables that can really roil the soul of a teacher and make them question the validity of their career.”

And perhaps, it is the one deep imponderable that drives all of the others.

Learning Analytics in #Philosophy12

Visitors to the Philosophy 12 Blog since September 2012

Try as we (or, most of us) might to convince ourselves that we’re only blogging “for ourselves,’ there is a certain pleasure derived from looking into the view-counts, clustermaps,  and other user data that most of our blogs and sites are keeping track of for us. Knowing that there are specific people out there reading our words, watching our videos, and learning our songs always seems to push the envelop of what else we might put out there onto the web, and what reaction it might illicit.

But there is another layer to the data that shared sites are silently tracking and recording for us that offers another glance of our digital learning environments. Looking back at the first month of activity on the Philosophy 12 blog, I’m beginning to see a whole different purpose to these stats.

For instance, which posts are generating the most conversation?

Who are we reading?

Who are our most prolific commenters? (Interestingly enough, three of the top seven commenters this week are open participants, learning alongside us for no credit.)

Stephen Downes: Prolific like Batman

Who are we reading?

Philosopher Viewing

Now, all of this could very well be nothing more than the ego stroke that goes along with realizing that rings in our imagination to the tune of Muhahaha! but data sets like the above (and these are just the ones that come with a free WordPress.com blog) can help sift through the firehose of web-generated course content and help facilitators and learners alike zero-in on not only those hotbeds of conversation, but perhaps also (to follow the metaphor through to its logical conclusion) those embers needing a little more oxygen to reach ignition.

I know that there are folks like George Siemens, and Philosophy 12 guru Mr. Downes, who are blazing trails in much larger learning environments than ours, nurturing the burgeoning field of Learning Analytics (or Educational Data Mining). But I wonder – as much of the Philosophy 12 experiment has made me in the last few weeks – about the applications these environments might lend K-12 education. I’m also curious:

  • Are statistics like these informing/driving/related-whatsoever-to learning in your classroom(s)?
  • How might the gathering of such information change classroom practices in the future?
  • Is all of this just a big distraction from attending directly to student-learning?
  • Bueller?

Syllogisms, Reasoning & Logic with Batman

TALONS Class Blogging 2011 – 2012

Linked from the TALONS Blogging page on this site.

TALONS (PM) 2011-2012 As a personal professional development and learning tool, I began this blog during the spring of 2009 as a means of connecting to the web and the world in the most personalized manner possible. After experimenting with Twitter, Delicious, and an English Department blog at work, having my own blog seemed the natural course of things.

Two years ago I brought the TALONS class into the fray. A two-year program for gifted high school learners in our district, our class tackles English, Socials, Science, Math, Leadership and Planning curricula, augmented with experiential service learning projects, cultural events, and outdoor adventures in the local school community, and beyond..

At the best of times, it can be trying (for students, but also the program’s two teachers) to stay on top of the class’ varied passions, interests and Ministry mandated topics. But with blogs, I began to think as our online communication took shape over the summer and ensuing school year, each student (and again, teachers) presented, recorded, and reflected upon their individual learning, in addition to supporting one another in a fluid and ongoing narrative built around the topics of wide-reaching curiosity, as well as the course material.

TALONS teachers have long held as their goal to dissolve the lines between our diverse subjects as often as possible – supporting essay theses with biological arguments, using math analogies during the study of history, and many other as-yet-undiscovered connections – and are continually astounded by the depth and individuality in the class’ blogging.

For two years this blog served a living record, and synthesizer of TALONS student blogging, but has since seen these responsibilities delegated to the  class blog, Defying Normality, its Flickr account, Youtube Channel and subject-based wikispaces:

Some of the memorable learning experiences shared on this blog during the 2009 – 2010 school years are:

The RSS Feed to follow this year’s TALONS Learners’ blogs can be viewed, and subscribed to here, as can the class’ comment feed. Our individual bloggers this year are:

TALONS Facilitators

Grade Tens

Grade Nines

#Unplugd11: Why Sharing Our Stories Matters

Why Sharing Our Stories Matters: Story by Bryan Jackson from unplugd on Vimeo.

It was a great honour to be able to share the story above with members of my #Unplugd11 group – Rodd, Kim, Giulia, Kathy, and Andy – and be a part of the inspiring collaborative editing and writing process of the collectively-authored second chapter of the Summit publication, Why ______ Matters: Choices & Voices (pdf). As Giulia noted, it was amazing to work in a group where:

we negotiated meaning through shared understanding. We dug deep to determine ‘the point’. The main ideas were mined, refined, expanded and sculpted. The group was so considerate but challenging too. It was the perfect mix of choice and voice, modeled perfectly- as teachers, editors, learners, colleagues and friends.
Rodd's Group

Voices & Choices author group

As my invitation to the Unplugd Educational Summit arrived during the beginning of the unit(s) mentioned in my canoe story – which turned out to be perhaps the most fulfilling and relevant of the year – it seemed a logical focus for my essay and supporting anecdote around the topic: “Why ______ Matters.”

The conversation around Truth with respect to the emerging developments in 2011’s Arab Spring movement are seen beginning to take shape in a post highlighting many of the #Talons‘ thoughts from that first week. Megan made for a particularly inspiring synthesis to the class’ thinking:

If what happened in Egypt is any indicator as to what can be accomplished through communication, I think that maybe, I need to realize, or maybe we (and I’m talking to all my fellow youth out there) need to realize that if we organize we can accomplish something big. People may say that children and youth are better seen, and not heard. But you know what? We are the new generation, and we should have a say about what sort of world we are growing up into. So hey, there’s my two cents. Just tossing it out in the world of the internet. But I guess you might say this: I know that it actually matters now. I am a participant in this age of information.

The conversation continued across posts about events in the Middle East, discussions of Canadian history and Louis Riel, and provided powerful inspiration for the class’ This I Believe personal essays, that are the inspiration and support for my Unplugd thesis, “Why Sharing Our Stories Matters.”

Download the preface and first two chapters, as well as the upcoming sections of the Unplugd11 e-book as they are published here, and be sure  to tune into the emerging weekly author panel discussions on #DS106Radio: chapter two authors Giulia Forsythe, Rodd Lucier, Kim Gill, Kathy Cassidy, Andy McKiel and myself will be talking about Voices and Choices this Thursday evening, 9pm (EST), 6pm on the west coast (to tune into #DS106Radio, this link should open a streaming playlist in iTunes or other media players: http://www.bit.ly/ds106radio4life).

Wise words

Captured by #Talons' own Jenna

Captured by Jenna

“Do you believe in something beautiful? Then get up and be it.” Ted Leo

Kelly is on to something in the second draft of her This I Believe essay:

A character, even if it is based off of oneself, is not real. His or her experiences don’t have to follow the way of the rules of the world. The character is given a blank page every five hundred or so words, a new chance to create his or herself, a new chance at being somebody, a new chance at redemption, a new chance at life. So embrace your inner character. After all, everyday is a new page that we should not be afraid to write.

Conversations I'm following

P2011638

Photo from Al Jazeera English on Flickr

As the Talons class moves forward with its discussion of ongoing media coverage and context behind recent events in Egypt and across the Middle East, the conversation has ranged from an investigation of the realities of an emerging media landscape, to the nature of Truth, violence, and power. Views have been researched, expressed, challenged, and adapted. And we’re just getting started.

Here are four branches of the conversation I’m following:

Mahalia on Sara’s post:

“…residential camps consisted of young native children that had been forced to leave their homes, were not allowed to speak their language and were treated very cruelly( they were beaten). And Canada SHOULD be ashamed of what happened but they can’t just hide these facts from us. Being a little bit native myself I already knew about residential camps, I was so shocked when almost all our class had never heard of this. I noticed that in textbooks they make it seem like Europeans and Natives were “working together”. Not really. It seems that the textbooks given to us in school are trying to create the image of Canada where things are peaceful and always have been.”

Richard on Kelsey’s post:

The United States is flip-flopping between its support for Mubarak and its support for the Egyptian people. This is primarily caused by the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood will most likely take power of Egypt if Hosni Mubarak steps down from the presidency. According to many Egyptian people, the Muslim Brotherhood is an extremist group who are very much opposing the U.S. influence in Egypt. Due to the geographical location of Egypt in relation to other countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. is most likely afraid that these countries will eventually ally against them. This provides a major threat to the U.S., and the government there is unsure of which side to support. It is true that they have given a lot of funding towards Hosni Mubarak and have been in a political relationship with his government for many years now. This has been one of the main reasons why Mubarak has stayed in power for so long, fulfilling the United States’ goal to maintain Egypt as an ally. However, the strength of the people in Egypt is growing in these riots that have been occurring, while that also shows that a new leader needs to step into place very soon. Despite this, having Egypt in the control of the Muslim Brotherhood is not a very good idea, so a new party with different representatives is the key in Egypt. However, Egypt’s first true democratic election in almost thirty years will obviously be decided by its people, who will now have the right to elect anyone. The rioting in Egypt will end as soon as Mubarak steps down, but the problems created from this crisis on a national (for Egypt) and global scale are unlikely to end stop soon. As for what will happen to the bond between Egypt and the United States, it will most likely be severed if the Muslim Brotherhood takes power.

Liam on Nick’s post:

It may seem an odd thing, considering that Egypt and Israel have fought four wars since 1948, their people are generally opposed to each other, and until the Camp David Accords, Egypt did not recognize Israel’s right to exist. But the flow of American money is meant to stabilize Egypt and that it has – for thirty years Egypt has fought no war, and indeed has not even had a regime change. As Mubarak, a former military man, receives all this monetary aid, he has channeled the money into the military, which certainly contributed to stability. But how did it do this? Money can create stability in two ways: through investment in the economy and social programs to keep the people happy and self-sufficient, or through investment in the military and other security forces to keep order for a discontented people. There are times when the second option is preferable – like, say, Israel in 1948 – but generally, the first option is the best thing to do. Egypt was not really particularly threatened by any of its neighbours, and even Israel, the most controversial power in the region, is very unlikely to attack a major Arab power, for obvious reasons. So the question then must be asked, should the American aid go to buy tear gas canisters, used only to suppress protesters, or should it go to create jobs and a livelihood for thousands of people? What do you think?

Jen on Sepehr’s post:

I just don’t understand your views about how the Egyptian government “is fair and righteous”. As Mr.J pointed out, Amnesty International says “The most pressing human rights concerns that Amnesty International has documented are the use of emergency legislation to arrest and detain people without charge or trial; the widespread use of torture and other ill-treatment; grossly unfair trials of civilians before military and emergency courts; restrictions on the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly…” An article in The New York Times states “The government [of Egypt] has maintained what it calls an Emergency Law, passed first in 1981 to combat terrorism after the assassination of Mr. Sadat. The law allows police to arrest people without charge, detain prisoners indefinitely, limit freedom of expression and assembly, and maintain a special security court.” Next, the police, who you said “are present to stop the people from blowing themselves up or setting each other on fire in anger; they are not Mubarak’s bloody torturers.”, are torturing and raping people all over the place. You have Mr.J’s example from Amnesty International “In addition, government security forces have harassed and intimidated people engaged in public displays of support for victims of the bombing.” You also have a variety of examples of police brutality from The New York Times, “The Egyptian police have a long and notorious track record of torture and cruelty to average citizens. One case that drew widespread international condemnation involved a cellphone video of the police sodomizing a driver with a broomstick. In June 2010, Alexandria erupted in protests over the fatal beating by police of beating Khaled Said, 28. The authorities said he died choking on a clump of marijuana, until a photograph emerged of his bloodied face. In December 2010, a suspect being questioned in connection with a bombing was beaten to death while in police custody.”

Comment on a Love-Hate Relationship

In spite of everything, though, I love ballet.  I could not for a moment imagine my life without it, and it is one of the most important things in my life.  I am very glad I have found my way back to the dance world, and I hope I stay here for a while.

Kelly’s Love Hate Relationship

This is an introspective and honest post, Kelly, that dives directly to the center of your in-depth’s (some might say, life’s) challenge: to confront one’s self, for better or worse, and struggle to attain the goal (or live the life) we think might be possible for ourselves.

I can identify with the pressure to compete and maintain a high level of physical fitness and precision – not unlike dance, or gymnastics – through my track and field career, both in high school and university. Especially when I was younger, I was seized with a dreadful panic and anxiety before the start of races; for the first few years in track (ages 11 – 13), I participated in mostly field events. It wasn’t until the farther side of adolescence let me ‘grow into my body'(and develop a fledgling sense of coordination between my mind and extremities) that I became ‘elite,’ you might say, challenging for the provincial title in my event (the 800m) in grades 11 and 12, and shopping myself to various American universities.

But even then, and no less so once I went on to the NCAA, or in three consecutive national junior finals, doubt and anxiety were familiar competitors on the track, in addition to the call to test my own physical limits, and stare down my fellow racers in a gut-wrenching war of wills that lasted less than two minutes.

The day before what was to be one of my best college race – an 800m final at Duke University, in North Carolina – my coach introduced me to Don Paige, a coach from Villanova who had at one point held the world record in the 1000 yards, and was ranked #1 in the world in the 800m in 1980, the year the US boycotted the Olympics.

We sat in the steep grandstands watching the 1500s, and talked about race strategy: how to run the perfect 800. Don talked about his missed Olympic opportunity, and how he had partially orchestrated a showdown with the preeminent middle distance runner of the time, Sebastian Coe (who held the world record in the 800m for some twenty years; I knew more than one runner with a SebCoe tattoo: he is a legend), and beat him, running the fastest time in the world that year, and earning a spot in history.

Next to winning a head-to-head showdown with one of the greatest runners in history, my race at Duke seemed like child’s play.

But it was also essentially the same opportunity: to test myself under the best conditions, to set myself up for success, and do what I had to do, succeed or fail. Don Paige had beaten Sebastian Coe, and sat talking about my race the next day as if there was no way to even look at it as something other than an opportunity.

After piecing together my strategy with Don, I felt a sense of proximal greatness to this man, who took winning for granted because the thing he was most interested in was seeing what he could do.

On Duke’s Gothic stone campus, in the athletic complex belonging to the lore of Cameron Center, and Krzyzewskiville, it was difficult not to do the same.

On Saturday I was in the “B” final, and stood on the infield grass and watched Otukile Lekote run the fastest time in the world that year moments before my race.

When it was time to step out on the track, I calmly found a place in the middle-to-end of the pack, knowing it would be at least a lap before I made any kind of move, and in that time the runners at the front would have shown their hands, declared their intentions for the race.

Don and I, and my coach from Arkansas – a genuinely beautiful person who had no small hand in making my life what it is today – had talked about always having another card to play, as late in the race as possible. And I waited through 450m of the race before making my way toward a position in the pack where I could play mine.

The key to this, we had agreed, would be the critical third two-hundred, where an 800m runner classically falls apart, after a scorching opening lap, or overextends him or herself, leaving nothing for the home stretch. My goal was to apply pressure in the third two hundred, but leave myself enough of a “hand” to play, or extra gear to enter, in the race’s final turn.

Dukes stadium

Duke's stadium

After the pacesetter had dropped out, leaving him in the lead, this is what Paige had done to Sebastian Coe in 1980:

“At 200 meters, Sebastian Coe jumps. I’m amazed at how fast he is. He’s a half-step in front of me, but I don’t want him to get too far in front. We’re stride-for-stride. With 50 meters to go we’re dead even. I’m thinking we’re gonna tie. We both lean at the tape, he pats me on the back, I pat him on the back. I look over at my teammates and give them the thumbs-up. I knew I won, and Sebastian knew he lost.”

On the backstretch, I passed two thirds of the field, and was gaining ground on the leaders as we rounded the corner where I had talked to Don the day before. With two hundred meters to go, I gradually unleashed my kick and had gained on the leaders by the time we entered the home stretch, where I passed them and won the heat, leaving my ‘final card’ to be the effort I put into logging the fastest time I was able to run during university, 1:52.65, which for three year’s was my school’s record.

That was ten years ago; I couldn’t likely run an 800m in under 2:20 today.

And that is in some ways saddening, because I never did become the Olympian that I thought I would at eighteen, and I am detached from the world of sport such that Googling the names and dates that accompanied this comment brought back pangs at nostalgia for a nearly forgotten period in my life (both athletics, and my time in Arkansas).

But in a lot of ways, running, and competing at an elite level, opened doors both physical and personal in my life that led me to where I am today. If not for running, I wouldn’t have gone to Arkansas, wouldn’t have become an injured athlete who took a scholarship, and internship with the Boy Scouts, where I discovered teaching, music, and nurtured and explored a love and energy for the outdoors, literature and philosophy.

If my body had performed differently, and I had continued on at an elite level – as some of my friends, and former teammates have – I am sure running would have left me with the same lessons:

  • that you can’t control much but your own preparation, and commitment to your own goals
  • that to be great requires a denial of negativity and worry about how things might turn out, and an ability to just do what needs to be done
  • that we are stronger than we realize
  • that we are all in the same boat

And so I don’t regret not becoming, or staying great, at sports, not so long as I continue to apply the same lessons, and put forth the same degree of commitment to making myself better, and rising to challenges as they happen, and that I set up for myself to grow.

The lessons of your in-depth, dancing, TALONS and life beyond, are pieces of the same course of study, and we are greater always with the most difficult of lessons. Being as honest as you have been with the challenge you are up against, and all that it entails of who you are, is a grand step in conquering it and fulfilling your potential, as a student, dancer, and human being.

Do not let anxieties of what will be get in the way of the already challenging task of accomplishing something amazing. You have the opportunity to participate in the creation of something that is the essence of creative beauty, as well as the fulfillment of tireless hard work and precision that – succeed or fail – will be worth it if it is engaged in to its fullest.

If you give your best effort to anything, for any length of period, your time is never wasted, even if all it does is lead you to something completely different.

If you’ve made it this far into the comment, I thank you for letting me prattle on and tell this little piece of a story I had almost forgotten. Thanks for sharing this struggle to define your in-depth for yourself, and making your own lessons ours, too.

I can’t wait to see the depths your study takes, both as a physical, and personal test.

Any post that yields a comment that is this long, is irrefutably a great post. My apologies for there being so many words, Kelly; suffice to say that your thinking put me at a loss for the right ones, and the ones I could find multiplied.