Teaching to the (Limit) Situation

Korchstag

This post is part of a serialized collection of chapters composing my recently completed Master’s of Education degree at the University of Victoria. You can access the other chapters on this site here, and access a pdf of the completed paper on the University of Victoria library space here

This preoccupation with transcendence has been further nurtured by an acquaintance with critical pedagogy, and Paulo Freire (1970), who described the experimentation with what he referred to as “limit situations” as essential to the realization of human freedom, noting that “because [humans] are aware of themselves and thus of the world—because they are conscious beings— [they] exist in a dialectical relationship between the determination of limits and their own freedom” (p. 99). Describing the process, he writes that

As they separate themselves from the world, which they objectify, as they separate themselves from their own activity, as they locate the seat of their decisions in themselves and in their relations with the world and others, people overcome the situations which limit them: the “limit-situations.” (Freire, 1970, p. 99)

If the perpetuation of such an ongoing cycle of transformation becomes the end goal, our aim in turn becomes to build the capacity to maintain this praxis. As the cycle of action and reflection continues, we are inevitably challenged to resolve the conflicts that arise between the world as we feel it ought to be and the world as we find it. In the critical process of learning to confront and overcome these contradictions, people realize their ability to shape their own reality, as “through their continuing praxis, men and women simultaneously create history and become historical-social beings” (Freire, 1970, p. 101). Posed with the challenge of educating young people to develop the critical capacity to sketch out the boundary of themselves in the context of their realities such that they can be transformed, I approach (and pose) the questions in this project with the view that the means and processes at the heart of running, writing, and learning ought be viewed as ends in and of themselves. Immanuel Kant (1993) identified a similar notion in his second formulation of the categorical imperative, compelling humankind to “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means” (p. 30).

Here, I set out to present an institutional educational setting in which curricular goals and outcomes become embedded in the learning experiences intended to bring them about, revealing in the process a curriculum that emerges from expressions of teacher and student learning. As the arrival of the 21st century has introduced a communications revolution that has fundamentally altered the way individuals relate to one another within a truly global community, traditional views of cultural knowledge and citizenship, as well as the pedagogies intended to transmit these values to the next generation, have been challenged to adapt. As responses to these challenges, emergent conceptions of knowledge, citizenship, and pedagogy align to reveal that critical citizenship education must provide experiences in the rehearsal of community-forming and identity expression. Fortunately, the advent of the World Wide Web and the digital age present the possibility of cultivating just this sort of participatory meaning-making, offering rich platforms to supplement the individual learning that cohorts and communities might employ, formally and informally, to define their own contexts of schooling.

References

School Politics

Participation Inequality 90 9 1

Image courtesy of Christopher Allen on Flickr.

It is a common sentiment that schools ought be apolitical spaces, despite the fact that in policy, curriculum, and objectives they cannot help but exist in political reality. In the resultant power dynamic that confronts us as professionals, even reluctant teachers engage in a struggle for agency and voice in working for what we believe are the best interests of our students. As union members and public employees, our contract negotiations, and evolving role in society is regularly part of the broader political dialogue that surrounds schools, whether in our neighbourhoods, newspapers, broadcast media or holiday dinners.

Our efforts to work alongside our colleagues and cultivate the spaces of public education take on political dimensions in other ways beyond the classroom, as well. As the Canadian Multicultural Act puts forth, our pluralist democracy is only realized through “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society.”

However, even while we are each ensured this right as citizens of Canada (a right reinforced by the collective bargaining power to resist provided with our union membership), the structural inequalities present in society manifest themselves in our classrooms, and are similarly recreated among school and district staffs.  Intersectional privileges and marginalization lead to working environments which have largely been established (and continue to be maintained and administrated) by those who have been the beneficiaries of the system as it exists.

Administrators and trustees, board office employees and superintendents, department heads, increasingly essential Parent Advisory Council leadership, union representatives and other decision-making committees in a school or district tend to skew toward those who share a collection of unearned privileges: they are disproportionally male, often white, and possess a particular confidence and conversational / social capital. Among those who are not male, or caucasian, there is often a shared economic class (even among teachers, who share a pay scale but emerge from relatively diverse economic backgrounds), or level of education. Recent immigrants are at a disadvantage in acquiring these attributes (which can be acquired), and can be delayed in attaining positions of influence or power; as in all aspects of social life, those who are not comfortable or confident vocal participants in larger groups are underrepresented in the collected culture.

At this disempowered end of this spectrum of influence we generally see an over-representation of the young, new Canadians, visible minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, people with more challenging social-economic backgrounds, and women.

And yet, the Multicultural Act promises not only a national aspiration toward “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society,” but demands that Canada “assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.” We are not merely assured this right as citizens and educators in Canada, but also challenged to continually strive to expand the circle of participants in our emergent national narrative.

It may be easy to see that this ought be our intention as teachers orienting our schools and classrooms toward citizenship, and providing a democratic education; however it is important to consider the role we each play in cultivating the public school space as one which seeks to eradicate the inequalities which prevent “all participants” from contributing to “all aspects” of community life and identity.

Fortunately, there are many avenues and opportunities for these inclusive dialogues to take place, and which ought be embraced by those looking to work toward social justice in our schools, for our colleagues as much as our students: professional development, collaborative decision making, departmental, committees, union volunteerism, and social planning groups offer official channels for discussion and dialogue that includes the possibility of all voices. Beyond these our hallways and staff rooms, intramural pitches of competition and picket lines offer an informal space of interaction that can foster collegiality and consensus that enables our capacity to collaborate as professionals.

Across these settings there are inevitably those whose voices are heard above the rest, and we needn’t take anything away from those possessing the ability to influence; but we are not practicing democracy if we do not work to correct a system of interaction in which many are disproportionally voiceless.

Learning on (and of) the Web

Slide05

“…ds106 is not just ‘on’ the web—it is ‘of’ the web.”

Alan Levine

The advent of the web enables a type of individual inquiry and collective synthesis that makes new experiments in constructivism possible. But creating the conditions for such epistemological emergence can be a challenging possibility to consider.

As Osberg and Biesta note,

“…if educators wish to encourage the emergence of meaning in the classroom, then the meanings that emerge in classrooms cannot and should not be pre-determined before the ‘event’ of their emergence.”

Such a conception of knowledge-creation presents a problem for educators in imagining a means of assessing the type of collaborative inquiry necessary to bring about this type of learning. However, Gardner Campbell has created a daily pop quiz that may provide a template for a daily barometer of individual engagement:

Slide18

The pic of Gardner Campbell included here was taken by Michelle Lamberson

To achieve top marks on this type of quiz, learners must be engaged in generating personal courses of study around shared themes, the fruits of which can then be woven together in expressions of individual and collective synthesis that become the processes of learning in the classroom.

Osberg and Biesta describe a similar process of emergence based in “the idea that knowledge is neither a representation of something more ‘real’ than itself, nor an ‘object’ that can be transferred from one place to the next.”

“Knowledge is understood, rather, to ‘emerge’ as we, as human beings, participate in the world. Knowledge, in other words, does not exist except in our participatory actions.”

Bonnie Stewart characterized the shift in thinking surrounding open learning environments such as MOOCs as indicative of a cultural transition driven by digital technologies:

When communications are seen as key to learning, the numeric focus of the information-centered paradigm cannot be reconciled with the significant and varied body of educational research which foregrounds the importance of interactive (Dewey, 1938), situational (Lave & Wenger, 1991), and critical (Freire, 1970) perspectives on learning. The communications approach focuses on the Internet not as a technology but as a medium for human engagement. “The Internet encourages discussion, dialogue and community that is not limited by time or place. The role of educators in this world is to facilitate dialogue and support students in their understanding of resources” (Weller, 2007, p. 6).

This facilitation involves the planning and design of learning environments and activities, to be sure; but these preparations are best informed by educators’ own experience and learning in these environments, and in the same spirit of inquiry that is being asked of the students. As one of the TALONS articulated a few years ago now, to exist in the Age of Information is to participate in it.

In a rash of social studies blog posts that were published in late January of 2011, as the class was studying Louis Riel and the Northwest Rebellion and the Egyptian people were staging a revolution in Tahrir Square, TALONS now-alumni Megan comes to a realization at the heart of literacy in the digital age:

And then you come back to me. Still sitting in front of her computer, and still on the opposite side of the world. I am a child, in this age of information. But I am also part of the age of information. I have just as much say in what occurs as everyone.

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.

An important aspect of participating in the age of information is developing a personalized means of accessing, filtering, saving, sharing and synthesizing the cultural voice of the zeitgeist being expressed across the culture. To provide meaningful experiences in this emergent environment, educators are challenged to engage with information in new ways made possible by the read-write web, and social media.

bell hooks describes such a process of “engaged pedagogy” as “more demanding than conventional critical or feminist pedagogy.”

“For, unlike these two teaching practices, it emphasizes well-being. That means that teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.”

The question of well-being brings into focus many educators’ difficulty in embracing the Digital Age and its myriad publishing tools, social media, and unending streams of information.

How do I read it all? 

Where do you find the time? 

Etc, etc… 

In the five or so years I have been teaching and learning in blended learning environments that attempt to seed the type of culture implied by the advent of digital publishing technologies, I’ve settled into something of an information workflow that allows me to read and reflect on an ever-rising tide of information, but also to organize those readings and reflections, and publish my own thinking to a fluid community of peers and students not only in the present, but also into the future.

Appropriately, this process has emerged over time, and continues to. But a lot of it looks like this:

Feedly ReadsReading

Favs

I stopped surfing around to the sites I tended to find interesting reads or views on a few years ago now, opting instead to follow my favourite sites on either Twitter, or in an RSS reader such as Google Reader. Now, unfortunately having lost the Reader, I’ve moved to Feedly, which does almost everything the former used to, and which is likely similar to many offerings from Digg Reader and a host of others.

My RSS feeds are collected into bundles that I can check at various intervals throughout the week: my News folder is a daily check, while Education, or Arts and Culture generally get more attention on the weekend. Something like Food or Music are generally lower in the pecking order, but as I flick through any of these folders, I am generally not so much reading what I find as filtering and saving the intriguing items for later on.

I do much the same thing on Twitter, where I use my Favourite option to save interesting things for later viewing more than as a sort of Facebook “Like.” 

Now, a lot of people probably participate in these first two steps, and that’s the last they ever see of these links and blog posts and other data flying across the web. But this type of reading demands a later stage in this filtering process where these items can be logged into digital long-term memory.

Delicious bitsWhich is where a service like Delicious comes in (Diigo and other sites can serve the same purpose here), as I then spend time – maybe once every few weeks – going back through those Favourites and Saved articles from Twitter and Feedly, and organize them for longer-term storage.

In Delicious, I’m able to save links to my Saves and Favs that I want to hang onto (helpfully, they have a Chrome plugin that lets me do this right from the page or article itself), as well as as descriptive tags that will help sort different articles, videos, posts or resources.

During the summer, when I have more time to cook, I actually send the favourites from my Food folder to another ap called Pocket which turns my iPad into a cookbook.

This way, as I approach a unit in Social Studies, for instance, or find myself in an email debate with one of my colleagues, or am writing a blog post about something one of my students blogged four years ago, I can consult Delicious and search the tag for “Confederation,” or “Enbridge Pipeline,” or “Student Posts,” et voila. 

Publishing

Blog Tags

When it comes time to publish, I find myself torn between two extremes of blogging or sharing: namely either the carefully-crafted or long-winded dissertation on a topic; or an attempt to capture a moment in time (which can still tend toward the long and windy…). This applies across platforms, to my blog probably as much as Twitter, or Youtube, or Instagram or Flickr.

But the important part of publishing or sharing online is that it can become the natural exhalation of all that good stuff I’m taking such pains to ingest with Feedly and Twitter and, y’know… life. The mass collections of data that these services offer in potential – much as the possibility for learning in life outside of screens – exists in proportion to our ability to synthesize those streams of information into our own view of things.

And it is this potential that I find so riveting about the social, metaphysical, and epistemological transformations brought about with the advent of the Digital Age.

In this view it is important to see one’s own publishing (especially in blogged form) as a node in a network of other information: thus the use of hyperlinks and reference to others’ ideas as support remains an essential quality. But so too does the impetus to organize new posts within a structure that will continue to organize your work into the future. So here we can see blog tags and categories, Youtube playlists, or Flickr albums playing an important role in your own informational tail being accessible, searchable and available to you six months or six years from the date of publication.

Over time these blogged gardens of links and stories and photographs can require weeding, and one is reminded of the health that returns to many of our perennial plants after a thorough trimming of its branches and tangled intersections.

Don’t be afraid to trim, hew, and hack. Unfollow, unsubscribe, reevaluate your workflow. As the Boss says, “there’s no right way to do it. There’s just doing it.”

The Return of the Lunchtime Jam

Lunchtime Jam on @105theHive

Lunchtime Jam on 105 the Hive

Yesterday at lunch a group of Gleneagle Music students gathered in our band room to share a jam with the K12 distributed web radio station 105 the Hive. Our hope is that in the coming Thursdays we will be able to build an audience of listeners throughout the school, and beyond.

There are some pics of the session on the Gleneagle Music Flickr page, and will be updates about future performances here and on the Music Blog.

I also caught a few recordings of the action:


Reengage

Beach Day

Baker's Beach, Francis Peninsula Sunshine Coast, BC

For the first time in what feels like a while, I took the almost the entire summer as vacation this year, and came back into school fresh with (albeit unfocused) enthusiasm and energy for September. By design or retro-active justification, I like to come into a new school year without too many preconceived ideas about what it is my classes and I will wind up creating over the course of the year. In the TALONS class especially, but even in my other classes with Gleneagle’s general population of students – Philosophy 12, Intro to Guitar 11 – I like to rely on the formative rituals of group development to bring the individual character of a class to the foreground before making too many concrete plans. The Rites of Fall, whether retreats, or seating plans, or syllabi, have a way of bringing out the personalities and stories that will shape the year for all concerned, and I like to think I’m pretty good at trusting in them to do just that.

I make plans, and frame the content of my courses within my own developing sense of its relevance to myself, the themes I see running through current events, educational trends, popular culture, or what I know about the groups I’ll be working with come September (as TALONS is a split class, our grade nines replace the departing cohort of grade tens, and welcome a new group from our feeder schools).

Above Garden Bay

But I’m very much aware that these are mostly points of departure.

All of which is part of what has me excited about the TALONS Teachers’ approach to goal setting and planning for this school year, a process we are in the midst of sharing with both morning and afternoon classes these first few weeks of September.

Borrowing from an idea brought to me – among countless others – by Langley teacher Sherrine Francis, Quirien Mulder ten Kate, Andy Albright and I each resolved to focus our work and teaching with the TALONS group around a single word that would ground our teaching and provide something of a thematic conversation piece for us with our classes. I will allow my colleagues to speak for their own chosen words, but back in June I decided to set my sights on the idea of engagement, of occupying a person’s attention or efforts, of binding, as by pledge, promise, contract or oath.

As a social studies teacher, I feel as though I am entrusted in some ways with a responsibility to promote and provide guidance in navigating an increasingly disengaged democracy. And as a teacher who frames a lot of what I’m trying to accomplish in notions of socially constructed knowledge, and the potential of connectivism, I think that a lot of the skills this type of collaborative wordview deems necessary begin with a personal engagement in a collective struggle. It doesn’t matter if I’m teaching Philosophy, or Guitar; mostly I come back to Richard Dixon’s notion that “every class is just another chance for young people to practice building and maintaining communities.”

Untitled

And so I find myself this September thus far talking a lot about the potential of digital technology and social media to complement the learning we are doing in the classroom. About how it can offer space for a different sort of relationship between peers, and teachers, and the community beyond the school. About how these digital extensions of our physical communities can support the lives and learning of the participants.

But also about how this potential relies on collaborative engagement.

Engagement with our own learning, as well as with the learning of others. Engagement with our local communities, the people down the hallway, and our peers across oceans and continents.

Which is what I find myself coming back to in the way of a research topic and background interest for the start of my master’s education and my Personalized Learning and Social Media class at the University of Victoria: to explore the potential and the means of digital media and storytelling to support and complement physical learning communities in my classrooms, school, and personal learning network. It’s nothing particularly new to this blog,or my own learning in these last few years, but I am happy to have the focus of EDCI338’s assignments, as well as my newly minted #TIEGrad cohort, to help in the further exploration of these ideas.

“…totally uncharted territory.”

#IntroGuitar Performance Day

Something that I haven’t given as much blog attention here as I would have liked so far this semester is the vibrant community that has sprung up around our school’s Introduction to Guitar class. Having had students post their work regularly to a wiki site in past years, I wanted to incorporate some of the design lessons I learned in #Philosophy12 and create a site that could function as a hub of creation, collaboration, and community that would serve not only our school’s face-to-face guitar students, but also offer wayfinding musicians on the open web a place to play, learn, and offer their own expertise to one another.

Alan Levine nailed it with this description:

…it is not a class that teaches guitar but one where you can learn guitar.

And while I think the course has always functioned this way as a ‘closed’ system (even though we have shared our exploits on Youtube, #ds106radio, and other places), the energy and inspiration that our open online participants have so far brought to the class has increased the creative combustibility of the group by several orders of magnitude. There are folks in Japan, Ontario, Australia, Singapore, and even Ontario-azona strumming along with #IntroGuitar lessons and assignments, sharing stories of their instruments, their struggles (and triumphs) of playing music, and making meaningful musical connections with the face-to-face students who meet daily in our school’s choir room through videos, blog comments, and listening to performances in class.

One such connection that has been working its way through the course community began as a poem shared by a student of Jabiz Raisdana, in Singapore.

Having made some trans-oceanic songs written with Jabiz over the years, I opened up a Google Document and began sanding the poems edges and syllables with some chords and a basic melody. I recorded this so that folks could follow up with what I had made out of Michelle’s orginal poem, and posted the works on Twitter and the #IntroGuitar blog.

Over the weekend, Nathan John Moes continued to work with the chords and Michelle’s lyrics and added this version of the song that has been stuck in my head since Sunday night.

Take a listen. Seriously, wow.

Which all would have been amazing, right? A poem gets posted late at night (I might be adding that piece to the narrative…) on a student blog in Singapore, and a week later it’s spawned a song that has been amended, added to, and recorded by a few teachers in British Columbia.

But this ball is still rolling, still bouncing.

Coming full circle, Jabiz spent this past Saturday morning recording a new incarnation of the song (version III now, if you were counting), and so did Colin Jagoe, in Ontario.

Of his work putting the song and the recording together, Colin said:

...this is totally uncharted territory for me.

Totally uncharted territory, for a guy who isn’t even getting a grade or credit for the course and – beyond that – has been playing guitar for more than ten years.

And yet still, the ball bounces, and rolls. This morning Leslie joined the party all the way from Lima, Peru, Camrose, Alberta, offering the fifth (!) incarnation of the poem accompanied by her ukelele.

But this is likely not the end of this particular story, with chapters, verses and tomes yet to be discovered.

Maybe by you?

Update: 

Back in Singapore, Keri-Lee Beasley has added some stellar vocal harmonies to Nathan’s track. Check it out:

Web Radio in the K12 Classroom

Digital Storytelling

Giulia Forsythe's Digital Campfire

I’ve had the good pleasure the last few years to have been able to enrich my personal learning network, as well as add to the constellation of thoughtful individuals that interact with my classroom(s) through the DIY magic of distributed web radio. Even casual readers of this blog will recognize the religious fervour that has often attended to my posts about the magic of #ds106radio, an organic offshoot of the Digital Storytelling course DS106 run out of (originally) the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia, as well as (these days) a host of other institutions around the world. In addition to becoming at various times my own open-mic coffee shop, where I’ve written, rehearsed and workshopped almost every song I’ve ever written, DS106Radio has also played frequent host to many a TALONS lesson, field trip, celebration, and a regular spate of Gleneagle’s Music Department showcases.

In the last week, I have been talking to a few of the administrators in our district about the how and what of distributed web radio, and in an effort to collect some of the power and relevance to K12 learning such a setup could offer us, I wanted to share some of what I’ve been able to be a part of because of this wonderfully easy, open-source technology solution to building community and communion around shared sound. 

But first, a little history.

The following audio documentary was recorded with a few of the people who had seen DS106Radio grow out of a conversation around a dinner table into a powerful node in each of our networks. Here you’ll hear GNA Garcia interviewing Grant Potter, Guilia Forsythe, Alan Levine and myself about how we’ve seen the radio evolve and effect our lives and professional practices. Alan points out near the end that without the inception of the radio, we wouldn’t even know each other, which, given the amount of time, face-to-face or otherwise, we’ve spent revelling in one another’s company over the past two years, is a humbling thought. (That’s Zack Dowell providing the acoustic musical bed; Jason Toal provided the actual bed.)

Listen to a mini – DS106Radio Rockumentary

But without veering too wildly into my own personal affections for the station, I want to focus here on sharing the ways I’ve explored in bringing my various classroom spaces, and beyond, to the web, often using free software on my laptop, or a $6 app on my phone. It is my hope that with a few examples to get things rolling, we might see some momentum around sharing audio in Coquitlam classrooms.Lunchtime Jams on #DS106Radio

Lunchtime Jams

Almost as soon as we figured out how to ‘go live’ from my laptop and iPhone, my music classroom became a regular performance space for my guitar students, and then a host of other interested individuals to share informal jams, songs and laughter with an audience that just as quickly fell into the habit of tuning into the sounds of the school’s music wing.

An early hit:

Concerts Live Streamed Around the World

It seemed a natural experiment to try running an evening broadcast of our school’s Spring Concert, in 2011, complete with student DJ’s to narrate the evening’s activities, backstage interviews with performers, archived recordings of the Music Department’s tour to Cuba, and even a request by an Internet listener for the in-house crowd to shout, “DS106 Radio For Life” (the station’s immortal tag line).

Since then we’ve broadcast almost every one of the concerts at Gleneagle live onto DS106radio, sharing the ephemeral sounds of the performing arts with an international audience who can recognize our lead trumpet players and vocalists by the tenor of their solos, and who know that in Coquitlam, there are some crazy-talented kids that love to share their art. How many schools or districts can claim the same notoriety? (If they can, I would bet they’re spending more on marketing than we are.)

Class Activity as Public Learning Project 

Last spring, a guitar class I was teaching took on the grandiose endeavour to convert itself into a Thirty Person Rock Band, a process that in addition to being shared on Youtube and Instagram, was conducted almost entirely live on the #ds106radio air, where people were able to tune in and play along with our rehearsals, band meetings, and triumphant last day of school show in the Gleneagle foyer. Our listening audience served as mentors, cheerleaders, and a reflection of the raw energy the creation of live music can bring to a community, and shared in the celebrations at the end of the term.

You can see how it all unfolded on Storify, here.

Sharing our Classrooms with Specific Audiences


It was a great pleasure last year to share in a day of #RadioforLearning with #ds106radio K12 sister-station 105theHive, where my guitar class joined in a day of cross-country broadcasting with classrooms in Ontario and northern Manitoba. As the Hive’s rolling live broadcast took reading exercises from rural Ontario north toward Hudson’s Bay, Gleneagle’s Music Department shared its guitar presentations with an audience that wound up reaching listeners in South America, as well as Hawaii.

Essay Feedback as Podcast

Back in 2011, I brought the audio elements of DS106 into the TALONS classroom as part of our This I Believe essay unit where, in addition to submitting individual essays as recorded spoken word pieces, the class collaborated to remix and synthesize the different threads into larger audio compositions.

In an attempt to fold my essay feedback into the process I had asked the class to engage in, I created my own synthesis of the collective learning into a twenty minute radio show of my own to serve as feedback and commentary on the larger lessons of writing and storytelling that I saw in the group’s essays.

Field Reports & Outdoor Education

Some of the most powerful learning opportunities we bring to our students happen outside of the classroom, on field trips or other opportunities for place-based learning that are effectively captured in photographs and videos, perhaps; but these events and experiential learning also opportunities for capturing vital audio artifacts that might otherwise disappear into the ether.

Remixing the Class Discussion

Just this past semester, one of the #Philosophy12 students recorded a few days’ worth of investigating Epistemology, and the notions of Opinions, Beliefs, and Truth, and posted the files for download on Soundcloud. As a possible extension of these open educational resources, I thought I would try my hand at remixing the contents using the GarageBand app on my iPad. The cognitive value in sifting through an hour of recorded audio to pull together a narrative, or logical argument is something that I found both incredibly challenging, and entirely relevant given the emerging digital landscape of the read-write-sing-remix web, where the original artifact of learning is further-evolved to include new reflective perspectives.

Everything above is just the beginning… 

I’ve tried to pull together as many different examples as I could over the course of a few days, but there may be a few notable broadcasts or events that I’ve neglected to include here. GNA Garcia used to broadcast concerts and conversations from her job at a highschool in Philadelphia. And the Hive folks have been creating live and canned shows for almost a year now (!). Matt Henderson started a terrestrial radio station with his kids in Winnipeg, and I’m sure there are other folks out there podcasting, sharing Audioboos, and finding other ways to explore the power of audio in their classrooms.

But I hope what I’ve shared here can serve as a catalyst and motivation for folks in my own back yard who may want to jump into an experiment with a Coquitlam branch of web radio over the course of the next semester. I’m hoping that local English, Music, Journalism, and other teachers start getting their phones out, warming up their GarageBands and Audacities, and seeing where our own digital campfire might take us as a learning community.

For life.

On Notable Nights

It is always quite the task to put one’s finger on just what it is that happens at Night of the Notables. Even as they have added up over the years, and the alumni that return to the event are now three and four years into university, I still come home struggling to contextualize and make meaning of just what I saw tonight.

I was involved in bringing the evening to fruition, sure; in some ways integrally. But in some ways, I feel as though the TALONS teachers might be more custodians and caretakers of these traditions and ritual rites of passage. I think this perspective is what the alumni come to share in, to some degree; there is a connection to the people on stage who might be five or six years younger, but have stepped through – or are stepping through – this doorway, and who know what it is to be transformed.

The new alumni, the grade elevens, sit behind the current grade ten notables, their former younger classmates, with their grade twelve TALONS classmates over their shoulders. There is an epicenter that radiates from the stage, where the grade tens on stage, or in the front row, and this year’s grade nines are in the second. And the MPR (our school’s multi-use, theater / cafeteria space) is changed during the speeches into a cradle for the grade tens whose turn it is this year to be great.

In the last two years, the (separate morning and afternoon) classes have each performed fourteen interwoven dramatic monologues in their characters as eminent people, an astonishing feat to behold, where one after another, they break free of tableaus and from seats in the audience (descending the stairs after beginning from the balcony), holding the audience in their palm of their hand for two minutes, and then passing the ball to the next.

They finish one another’s sentences, answer mimed cell phone calls between speakers, and pass one another letters as transitions, together creating something that is honest, magical, and their own. There is prolonged  thunderous applause. Standing ovations.  In all, it is quite a thing to see happen. Truly. Even if it is hard to say just what it is that happened up there on that stage and in the halls of our school tonight.

Because just as it feels a little bit my own, how I take in the night’s triumph against the backdrop of those that have preceded it, how everyone in the room experiences the evening is measured against their own sense of the vulnerability felt by those in the present ‘hot seat.’ From the college kids in the back to the grade nines sitting in the second row (to the teacher grinning in the balcony), everyone in the TALONS orbit has gathered to give it up for those whose task it is this year to set aside their fears, come together as a group, and dare to do something exceptional.

To those TALONS this year: my hat is off to you. You rose so naturally to the challenge set before you, furnished with those you had wagered with yourselves, and looked us dead in the eyes from the stage, transformed before us. As I said to a group of notables a few years ago – some of whom were in the room tonight: “You will know success in this life for what tonight has taught you about the personal nature of success, the irrationality of fear, and the necessity of friendship.”

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.

Passing the Torch

I liked this idea Elaan posted from a pro-d conference that many of our district’s middle school teachers and admin are attending in Portland. Aside from puzzling me as to whether or not the 90s really are alive there, this reminded me of something that happened in the TALONS classroom last year:

For the new myths to be written, in other words, the old myths need to make room for them. And while there is a great empty space where the banner used to hang, there are already plans for its quotes and paint-stained hand and footprints to be deposited and scattered about the cupboards and closets of the room so that the ghosts and wisdom of TALONS past will still be speaking to us.

 

The last day of school, in fact, has in the past few years evolved to include the traditional closing circle, as well as speeches and ceremonies thanking the grade tens for what they have meant to the room, and wishing the grade nines the best as they set about inheriting the mantle of program leadership.

Two months later the process starts all over again. From Jeff’s blog, this September:

That’s what I wanted to replicate during this [retreat.] I wanted the grade 9s to feel as comfortable around us grade 10s just as Alvin did for us. I knew that there needed to be somebody in our cabin to take on Alvin’s role and I did my best to welcome the grade 9s and answer their questions. Even though we all come from different schools and different backgrounds, I just wanted to show that there is one thing we all had in common – we are part of the talons family.

 

The other night, I came upon a few TALONS alumni awaiting the Six String Nation presentation by Jowi Taylor, madly scribbling and filling a sheet of paper with a rhizomatic frenzy that I was told was an attempted visualization of “A TALONS Family Tree.” The resulting diagram had four tiers, reaching former members of the program now in university, the armed forces, or working through a gap year, and even as a somewhat preposterous enterprise – “Who do I marry?” someone shouts from the concession being set up in the kiosk nearby at one point. “You marry [so and so]. But you’re also kind of married to [so and so].” – there is something deeply meaningful, and more than a little poetic, being negotiated in the process.

In a chaotic web involving a few different colours of pen and pencil, different personalities, social bonds and archetypal tendencies serve as the forefathers and mothers, elder cousins and brothers and sisters, of their manifestations in the current group.

The visual effect is messy in the beautiful ways of spider webs and neural networks. Fundamental questions about what constitutes a community, and the possible roles in its creation are being interrogated, and the result is a contribution to personal folk lore and heritage that is passed between the hands of learners in the program, where everyone passes through the stages of newcomer, apprentice, leader, expert, and wizened elder between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. 

With the onset of the Eminent Person Study, there have been a few opportunities for the program’s alumni to provide input into the process as their younger counterparts set out on one of the year’s early rites of passage. Liam, Jonathan, Andrew and a few other alumni made themselves available as practice interview subjects a few weeks ago, and Iris, Zoe, Toren, Chelsea and Richard (grade elevens) have all come by the TALONS classroom to check in with various members of the class on their project progress or offer input into classroom discussions.

Part of this, they tell me, is that they miss the classroom. Its energy, the people. But what their presence and contribution to the classroom environment communicates to the current members of the program is that their present station in the chain is something to be missed, and that it is something to be held closely.