Rising to meet the Eminent Speech

Eminent Speech Evaluation

Almost without fail, the Eminent Person Speech reigns supreme as the element of the annual project that produces – in the estimation of teachers, peers, and self-assessment – the highest quality work. While there are inevitably remarkable pieces of work contributed to various aspects of the study, whether in Night of the Notables learning centers, interview coups, or blogged representations of learning, and in grade nine or ten, the Eminent Speech rises above.

This year, when polled on the During which assignment do you feel you created your best work?aspect of the study during which they produced their best work, a full 60% of respondents (at the time of this writing, constituting about 85% of the two classes) highlighted their efforts to craft their speech.

Added to this insight, a follow up question asks the TALONS to “describe the process that led to the success highlighted in the previous question,” allowing the process leading to this highly successful aspect of the study to come more clearly into light.

A surprise finding? The best work is the result of tireless effort.

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Prepare, prepare, prepare

A grade ten describes their preparations:

I made sure to write my speech early on so that I had plenty of time to practice it. I practiced it until I knew it inside and out, so that I could recite it no matter what was going on. And having done that, when it was finally my turn to present, I wasn’t nervous at all.

Another thing that really helped was that a lot of the other tens took time to read my speech and help me edit it in the early stages. They guided me to what lines were a little awkward and how to fix my body motions.

Another ten offers the following:

First of all, this year I wrote my speech draft much earlier than the due date compared to last year. Due to this fact, I was able to receive a lot of great feedback from my peers during the writing process, which then allowed me to improve my speech even further. Once my draft was written, I was lucky that I had a lot of time to rehearse my speech. One step that led my speech to success during this stage was that I didn’t just rehearse the words, I also rehearsed body language and movement, and the use of the stage.

A grade nine dissects their drafting process further:

When I was writing, I didn’t limit my thoughts, writing down everything I wanted to include in the speech. By doing this, my speech originally was actually fifteen minutes long. I then took the time, with the help of my mom, to cut down the speech, take out details that weren’t needed, and rephrase events. I think that by writing down every single thought and event that occurred within the period of time the speech was focusing on, I was able to make the speech more thorough and interesting.

As does this one:

I believe it was the drafting process that led me to success on my eminent speech. I did a drafting process where I started writing, then got a better idea of what I wanted to say, and then I would start over. I did this until I didn’t quite start over, but edited previous parts until I was satisfied by the whole thing.

While this grade nine shares the evolution at the heart of his character’s metamorphosis:

During the process of writing the speech, I made a list of points that I wanted to include. After the first draft, I was struck with the idea of the extended metaphor of the caterpillar. I then wrote the second draft, taking the components of the first and smoothing it out. Finally, I edited and revised my speech to create more fluidity.

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Overcoming Fear

For many TALONS, the prospect of delivering an eminent address, whether in the classroom as the grade nines are asked, or on stage with the grade tens on Night of the Notables, is a daunting challenge. As Jerry Seinfeld humourously notes, for many of us public speaking is more popularly feared than death, meaning that “to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

A grade nine offers this reflection on overcoming a longstanding fear:

I believe my speech was my best work because it was the one I exceeded my own expectations the most in. I used to be quite an abhorrent public speaker, always getting overly nervous, shaking, mumbling, and having a monotone; but in this speech I was able to overcome my nervousness and actually deliver it satisfactorily.

The key to overcoming this anxiety? Revision, feedback, and support:

“I think my speech content was pretty good, considering that it went through six drafts and many, many people gave me feedback.”

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In another question, the same TALONS learner reflects on the contributions of a patient parent:

“My dad, along with giving me feedback on many of speech drafts, put up with me reciting my speech over and over in the days leading up to November 24th. Without his patience with me, giving me feedback and listening intently during the many, many times I recited my speech to him, I wouldn’t have had nearly as good a speech as I did. He gave me important pointers, such as where I started rushing, and he gave me confidence. With that confidence, I was able to deliver my speech well.”

A grade ten reflects on the input of a sibling:

“My brother contributed with helping me write my speech. Before I had written a draft that I was happy with I had written about five different speeches. But I hated them all because I didn’t think I was getting my main message across to the audience, namely that we shouldn’t stop because something is hard to do, that we should keep going until it becomes easy to do.

“One day I went to talk with my brother about my speech and how I wanted the audience to feel, and he suggested that I go for something powerful and try to address what [my eminent person] goes through as daily obstacles. This advice really helped me take a second look at how I was writing my speech and which side of [them] I wanted to show. Without my brother I wouldn’t have been able to re-think my speech and really focus on what was imported.”

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Another deals with overcoming a primal fear:

“Probably everyone out there knows that I do not like speeches, so even the fact that I did mine made me extremely happy.

“The writing process was extremely difficult. After changing perspectives three times and either going way over or way under the time limit, I was close to admitting defeat. Finally, I was happy with a fifth draft of my third perspective change. I was very happy with my written speech, but then came the delivery.

“Presenting my speech was probably the most nerve wracking five minutes of my life, but with the help of my friends, I managed to get through it. Before my speech started, I gave myself some goals and guidelines to follow. I reminded myself that, having not done many speeches in my life, this was not going to turn out perfect, so instead of worrying about that, I would focus on eye contact and pacing.

“My biggest goal was to come off as confident and though I’m sure more people knew how nervous I was, I believe that I was able to reach this goal (well, at least to some extent). While I’m still not ready to perform speeches without any hesitation, I’m glad I got this opportunity to face my fears.”

In responding to another question, a grade ten offers a similar account of working through the fear of performing at Night of the Notables:

What will you (or do you want to) remember about this project? 

“I want to, and will remember the fact that I was able to manage my anxiety regarding the presentation of my speech on the Night of the Notables. I have never liked drama and performing arts, which is somewhat contradictory when you take my commitment and love of [competitive] piping into account. I can will myself to march calmly towards thousands of spectators, flashing cameras and judges at the world championships. Yet, when I have to deliver a two-minute speech to a hundred supportive and encouraging people I’m a wreck. When I perform with my band, I have a safety net; I have never needed it but I know it’s there. When I speak or play by myself, even if it’s exponentially easier than what I do with my band I doubt myself.

“I don’t give speeches in front of large audiences often, but I compete in solo piping competitions often and I have come to recognize the progression and stages of my anxiety. I have been working on becoming more comfortable in these situations for over a year and I think the Eminent Address was an important milestone for me. I was extremely nervous a few days before the night, but I was able to tell myself, ‘You always feel this way before something like this,’ and ‘Imagine how you will feel on December 4th’ and I was able to control my anxiety and give a speech I was happy with.”

Together, we are strong

Perhaps the theme running beneath all of this wild success though is the support and community that is taking shape in the TALONS room by late November, where each member of the class is learning that they are here to test themselves, and hold one another up above their prior expectations. Parents who get to see what the program is ‘all about’ for the first time at Night of the Notables often remark at how exceptional the grade ten addresses are – “I feel totally inadequate now,” the parent of an alumni told me this year – and wonder how it is their children and their peers have been so transformed.

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What they don’t know, or what cannot be seen, is what is often taking place behind the curtain, in those moments before the show, when greatness waits out on the stage under the lights to be seized.

Reflecting on this moment, a grade ten shares a glimpse of what community looks like:

“There was one moment when we were behind the stage, floating around and whispering encouragement to our peers. The atmosphere had become quiet and focused, as it was a couple of minutes until showtime. I was learning against a wall, breathing deeply.

“Our first speaker looked a bit nervous and was sitting against the wall next to the curtains. Someone, I can’t remember who, whispered something about the Superman pose, and how it was supposed to increase confidence and make you less stressed. So the majority of our class assumed this pose, and stood there in silence for about a minute. I remember looking at us and thinking that we were superheroes. Not just our first speaker, who looked relieved to have something to take his mind off the upcoming stress, but everyone standing there.

“We shared that moment behind the stage, trusting one another to make the night wonderful, and feeling that trust back in the tight, long-held hugs and the same emotions on everyone’s face. It was a really special experience.”

Emergent Citizenship: Curriculum in the Digital Age

Junedays

“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.” (Mitchell, 2008)

What is curriculum?

Kieran Egan begins his essay, “What is curriculum?” (Egan, 1978) by presenting the idea that schools and curriculum constitute a process by which “children are initiated into particular modes of making sense of their experience and the world about them, and also into a set of norms, knowledge and skills which the society requires for its continuance.” John Dewey presents a similar vision of schools that are “responsible not to transmit and conserve the whole of its existing achievements, but only such as make for a better future of society” (Dewey, 1916):

“It is the office of the school environment to balance the various elements in the social environment, and to see to it that each individual gets an opportunity to escape from the limitations of the social group in which he was born, and to come into living contact with a broader environment.” (p. 20)

Dewey’s description can be seen in congruence with the critical ontology of the self that Michel Foucault described in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” (Foucault, 1984), which should: “be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating”:

“It has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”

It is toward this ideal of enlightenment that we might apprehend the spirit of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Canada, 1982), or the Multiculturalism Act (Canada, 1988), which seeks “to promote the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society.” While Egan notes that “one symptom – or perhaps condition – of pluralism is the conflict and argument about what [the] curriculum of initiation should contain,” it should not be controversial to state that the mandate of education includes an introduction to (and the rehearsal of) the requisite skills which promote this “full and equitable participation” in the creation of our collective societal narrative(s) and identity.

This paper attempts to describe the nature of knowledge-creation in the Digital Age, and outline an approach to curriculum and citizenship that embraces an emergent sense of identity and culture.

Emergence in the Digital Age

The modernist conception of citizenship expressed in the Multiculturalism Act aligns neatly with possibilities brought about through the revolution in communication technologies that can be thought of as our Digital Age. Simsek and Simsek characterize the early stages of the Digital Age as a time when “the forms of information have changed drastically” (Simsek & Simsek, 2013):

“Information processing has been transformed from being passive receivers to active information processors, who must engage, construct, respond and act with information.” (p. 127)

“Our emergent digital times,” Nahachewsky and Slomp argue, “challenge the authority of any one author or teacher” (Nahachewsky & Slomp, 2009). However, envisioning a curriculum that might challenge the central authorial role of the teacher presents a number of difficulties, as Osberg and Biesta argue that such an emergent information landscape assumes 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[i]” (Osberg & Biesta, 2008). The emergent classroom is a place where

“Knowledge is understood, rather, ‘to ‘emerge’ as we as, as human beings, participate in the world.” (p. 313)

This view of knowledge is congruent with Simsek and Simsek’s description of the literacies required to actualize democracy in the digital era, which “differ from the previous ones, mainly due to their operational, interactive and user-based technological characteristics” (p. 129). Here we see that the emergent view of knowledge-construction, which presents a difficulty to institutional learning, may be supported by the advent of digital communications technologies.

Teaching and learning in polyphony

“If we hold that meaning is emergent,” Osberg and Biesta state. “Then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerge in the classroom becomes problematic” (p. 316). Sidorkin admits that “the tragic side of such a situation is that regardless of teachers’ intentions the relationship cannot become equal and truly dialogical” (Sidorkin, 2000). Despite one’s best efforts, the context of organized learning assumes orientation toward certain aforementioned goals and/or outcomes.

Paulo Freire confronted the student-teacher contradiction by prescribing what he called the “problem posing method” of education, whereby curricular content “constantly expands and renews itself” (Freire, 1970):

“The task of the dialogical teacher in an interdisciplinary team working on the thematic universe revealed by their investigation is to “re-present” that universe to the people from whom she or he received it – and “re-present” is not as a lecture, but as a problem” (p. 122).

However this framework maintains the authority of the teacher to “re-present” the reality of students toward their emancipation and as such is deserving of Bruner’s critique (highlighted by Nahachewsky and Slomp) in that the student becomes a “performing spectator” who “does not invent the world, [but] uses it” (Bruner & Bruner, 2009).

Sidorkin looks beyond this dialogical model toward Bakhtin’s idea of polyphony (Bakhtin & Emerson, 1993), and proposes that “the problem of imbalanced relation is not to be countered with power sharing based on considerations of equality.” Rather, he says, it should be “addressed with polyphony, the principle of engaged co-existence of multiple yet unmerged voices” (Sidorkin, 2000). The literacies attending such curricular intentions can be seen to revolve around the realization of a critical awareness of one’s community, and an ability to articulate a unique perspective within it. And it is here we see the notion of emergence begin to exist in a dual sense, as it arises in a collective narrative of community, but also in the individual’s sense of themselves within that community.

Sidorkin argues that curricular authority in the classroom should aim toward the realization of mutuality in meaning-making, stating “The polyphonic authority creates mutuality, and only this kind of authority should be used in education.”

It is this invitation to mutuality that Nahachewsky and Slomp describe by noting that:

“If students are allowed, through openness in the curriculum and their teachers’ language, to become part of a negotiation, facts then are created and become interpreted understandings shared by teacher and students, rather than transmitted by teachers as predisposed ‘truths’” (Nahachewsky & Slomp, 2009).

The skills and competencies attending such collective meaning-making may well have long been essential to the democratic project, as Simsek and Simsek note that “democratic values needed for citizenship are not different for new literacies.” However, they present the Digital Age as an opportunity to realize further promise of the democratic project:

“Many democratic values could be acquired by new literacies. New literacies are prerequisites for digital citizenship. New literacies increase the availability of relevant and credible information and broaden the capacity of individuals to get, share, compare, and contextualize information by developing new skills” (p. 133).

While they are careful to not describe the revolution in communicative technology as a panacea in an era of anemic political engagement and accountability, the authors do note that such a summary of digital citizenship embraces the value of broad contribution to an emergent, collaborative constructed community. Optimistically, they note, “Digital citizenship could create a more transparent, connected and participatory democratic environment” (p. 132).

Curriculum as Identity

The advent of the Digital Age has led to an increase in the opportunities for individuals to contribute their voice to the type of polyphonic democracy suggested by Freire and Sidorkin. Simsek and Simsek characterize the Digital Age by highlighting the increasing ability and access individuals have to spaces in which they might cultivate a networked, public “identity.”

“Identity in the digital territory is seen as a higher construct of literacies, which enables the citizen to act as a person with culture and independence as well as with critical abilities and democratic values” (Simsek & Simsek, 2013).

When conceived of in this fashion, the society education serves intends to admit all voices in its chorus, and asks that schools provide learning in the conception and expression of individual and pluralist identities. This is a process that unfolds endlessly, as the One and the Many are constantly making each other (Follett, 1919), and it is toward this critical praxis that education must orient the student experience if it is to achieve Freire’s “critical and dynamic view of the world” by which we might realize what he considered the central human objective: “permanent transformation of reality in favor of the liberation of people.” The progress toward this pluralist aim is the stated purpose of the Canadian Constitution, and should guide the continued exploration of curriculum in the Digital Age.

Bakhtin, M. M. M., & Emerson, C. (1993). Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics: U of Minnesota Press.

Bruner, J. S., & Bruner, J. S. (2009). Actual minds, possible worlds: Harvard University Press.

The Constitution Act, 1982 (1982).

Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1988).

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan.

Egan, K. (1978). What is curriculum? Curriculum Inquiry, 65-72.

Follett, M. P. (1919). Community is a process. The Philosophical Review, 576-588.

Foucault, M. (1984). What is Enlightenment? . In P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans. 30th Anniversary Edition ed.): The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.

Mitchell, D. (2008). Cloud Atlas: A Novel: Random House LLC.

Nahachewsky, J., & Slomp, D. (2009). Sound and fury: Studied response (s) of curriculum and classroom in digital times. Beyond ‘presentism”: Re-imaginging the historical, personal and social places of curriculum, 139-151.

Osberg, D., & Biesta, G. (2008). The Emergent Curriculum: Navigating a Complex Course between unguided Learning and Planned Enculturation. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(3), 313-328).

Sidorkin, A. M. (2000). Toward a pedagogy of relation.

Simsek, E., & Simsek, A. (2013). New Literacies for Digital Citizenship. Online Submission, 4(3), 126-137.

[i] See Biesta and Burbules (2003), Biesta and Osberg (2007), Cilliers (1998) and Osberg et al. (in press).

“…not a class that teaches guitar, but one where you can learn guitar.”

#IntroGuitar Performance Day

I’m forever indebted to Alan Levine’s description of #IntroGuitar sometime last spring, where he included Gleneagle‘s Introduction to Guitar 11 in a list of experiments in Open Courses You Won’t Find in the New York Times, A Cheesy Edudemic Infographic, or Among Davos Champagne Sippers:  

In a basic hosted WordPress web site, he has a place for his high school students and anyone else interested to post their recordings, videos, and writings about elearning to play guitar. There is a loose curriculum, but open participants can jump in and out easily.

And a semantic distinction, it is not a class that teaches guitar but one where you can learn guitar.

Already people are sharing stories of their guitars, taking tracks recorded by one participant and layering their accompaniment on top.

How much easier could it be to open up a course? A free hosted platform, invite people in? Who needs $6,000,000?

Not that I would turn down the six million, but I am humbled to have played a part in creating something that so naturally and easily manifests so many of the things we talk about as 21st Century Educators: choice, flexibility and relevance, the blending of digital and physical collaborative spaces, and the building of communities of practice for our students and the wider world.Screen shot 2014-02-02 at 11.51.56 AM

As Alan introduced, the course itself consists of the 25 for-credit students that have enrolled in the class at Gleneagle, and a website I set up using the free WordPress.com site.  From there, I have tried to set the for-credit tasks in line with creating a blended learning community for folks beyond the class to engage with and benefit from: categorizing assignments and allowing anyone who fills out a Google Form to become a site author, offering feedback, creating their own assignments, or tackling existing tasks on the site.

For those enrolling as Open Online Participants, there are few rules, expectations, or guidelines to speak of:

There are no minimums, and no apologies for open-online learners in Introduction to Guitar: do as much or as little as you like.

With this lackadaisical invitation, some of the most profound and creative learning in last year’s cohort was contributed by folks – from around the world – joining in for fun. 

In a particular piece of open-serendipity documented in more length here, I took a poem written by one of Jabiz Raisdana’s students in Singapore and lent it some musical accompaniment that I shared as a Google Document.

From there, Nathan John Moes, in northern BC, recorded a gem of a cover – that has since disappeared from Soundcloud – which survives courtesy of an asynchronous jam provided by Keri-Lee Beasley (back in Singapore), who sings over Nathan’s version here:

Sylvano Bussotti, Rhizome, 1959 (Via MaryAnn Reilly)

But that’s not even all of it: Jabiz took his own swing at what had become of his student’s poem, and so did Colin Jagoe (in Ontario) , and Leslie Lindballe (while she was down in Peru).

In an example of truly rhizomatic learning, momentum gathered around a personally relevant course of study for those who found the assignment compelling; others were free to join in or pursue their own plans:

With the start of another semester of Introduction to Guitar at Gleneagle, I’m excited to build on our open experiences of last year, and have already begun the process of serving as tour guide to our prospective Open Online Participants (something I hope will help throughout this semester), and enculturing our new For-Credit Students into the blended online learning environment.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll hopefully be seeing the fruits of this initial infrastructure setup in the type of spontaneous creativity and learning many of our participants will benefit from in the coming months.

Want to join us? 

Visit TalonsRockBand.Wordpress.com and our invitation to Open Online Participants, drop your details in our registration form, and familiarize yourself with the course site.

You’ll find a variety of assignment possibilities categorized on the dropdown menu at the top of the page, and a host of student\participant examples to guide you in your first efforts. If you don’t find an assignment worth pursuing, make one up!

It is, after all, your course as much as it is anyone else’s.

Sharing Classroom Practice

Open Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

Photo by @cogdog

A few colleagues at my school and I are looking to arrange a simple format that will allow a group of committed teachers to drop in on one another’s classes – either while on prep time or covered by another staff member – and to basically know that if our colleagues’ doors are open and the moment is right, would it be all right for someone from the group to visit, and see what’s going on?

Could we observe, jump in, or teach alongside them?

You know: can we visit?

These visits could be brief, and only a few minutes, or last as long as they need to. What the process requires to get started is to see if enough people are interested in being involved in seeing where the idea might take us as a group. While being arranged as the most informal of “Learning Teams,” we are not as concerned with creating a tangible output as we are with creating a shift in our community’s habits of practice, with the hope that such a change could foster immediate benefits in student learning by creating opportunities for:

Meaningful Connections with a variety of adults

One of the chief researched pieces of evidence about the effectiveness of ‘character’ education, and the building of a respectful and empathetic student population is that the cultivation of a variety of meaningful connections to positive adult role models promotes a necessary sense of responsibility and accountability. By following up with our current and former students in one another’s classes, and perhaps seeing them demonstrate a separate skillset than we might have seen in our own subjects – not to mention forming new connections to students we haven’t taught yet – we hope to promote an environment that might create a more interconnected community in our school’s hallways, and possibly allow for a different groundwork for this spring’s (and future) Grad Transition Exit Interviews.

Modeled interest in one another’s areas of passion and expertise

A time-honoured conversation among teachers in which I’ve noticed a sharp uptick over even the last few years has been around student-engagement and passion for course material (or, rather, the lack thereof). While I might usually chalk this up to the type of learning being conducted in school bearing little or no relevance to the learning students (or even adults) engage in outside of school, I also wonder:

  • How much of the passion we might have for our subjects is reflected in the culture outside of our classrooms?
  • How are the various lessons of our individual disciplines supported and reinforced in one another’s classrooms? 
  • What are the implicit messages students receive about the skills and values we say we are trying to teach, by not modeling it ourselves? 
  • How does our English coursework support the thinking we are trying to promote in Math? 
  • What skills are your students bringing from their elective courses into your history class? 

Our hope is that by making consistent appearances in one another’s classroom spaces that we will be reinforcing our explicit goals of promoting lifelong learning and critical inquiry, as well as making visible to our students the implicit regard and respect we have for one another’s role in the learning process as a congruent educational experience.

Demonstration of a community of learning

Most of you who will have read this far may agree that our intention in our classrooms is to create a ‘community of learning,’ and for our students to thoughtfully engage in creative, collaborative activities and ‘construct knowledge,’ whether by using digital technology or the horseshoe their desks are arranged in to share their ideas with their peers. Along with asking kids to “Think Outside the Box” without an example of what this might mean, we similarly limit the potential for collaborative problem solving when we do not engage with and learn from it in our own practice. It is important, as noted above, that we model this behaviour for our students, but also engage in it ourselves so that we might become better guides to them throughout this process.

Additionally, there are implications for our own practice that I feel so many of us say we want, and likely spend our careers trying to cultivate to varying degrees of success, but which is difficult to bring about. By this I mean things like:

Practicing ‘Open’ Behaviour 

People we generally refer to as ‘creative’ will often tell you that it is not an innate skill or genetic gift, as John Cleese says in an excellent lecture on the subject (that you can watch here): “creativity is not a talent; it is a way of operating.” Being open with one another about how we go about our teaching will have the immediate effect of informing how we see our own practice: offering a point of reflection, an opportunity to collaborate, or…

… well, nothing.

 Not everything leads to something else, and the ability to ‘think outside the box,’ as they say, has to come as a result of the ability for things to fail, for things to be picked up and ultimately discarded, and is generally brought about by people being open to all of these possibilities, not just the ones that we’re able to prove or demonstrate coming to fruition.

Creating Community Connections

We are hoping to enact a grassroots change of culture that existed in the cafes of Europe at the dawn of the Enlightenment, and is part of the workday at Google (where 20% of employees’ paid time is spent on projects of their own design, irrespective of their failure or success). Because while this spirit of openness and collaborative inquiry might exist in your corner of your school at the moment, I don’t think it is controversial to say that this isn’t an area our buildings thrive in school-wide, and that efforts to change this culture at staff meetings, pro-d and staff get-togethers are isolated opportunities that are ill-equipped to affect a change in the habits we each bring into work every day, and which we could all do more to reflect upon, interrogate, and look to change going forward as individual schools.

Or not.

Because we’re more than OK if others have got enough going on, or appreciate the ability to have their door shut and teach. I don’t think anything less of someone who might delete our invitation out of hand (or even those who might have moved on back there in the first paragraph). But I talk to enough people about enough of the above on a regular enough basis – and hear the familiar refrain that “that wouldn’t happen here” – to know that some people might want to email me back and see where we might take this initiative this time around, who might want to let interested teachers know when they’re going to be having presentations in your class, or debates, or experiments that we might like to watch, or who might want to watch similar things happen in other classrooms.

Are you, or your door, open to the possibility?

“Creativity is not a talent; it is a way of operating.”

The above talk given by the incomparable John Cleese contains not only a great deal of his characteristic wit, but also many salient points on developing one’s creativity. As the title says, Cleese introduces the idea of creativity as “not a talent, but a way of operating,” something that one can practice, deliberately devote space and time to, and see an improvement over time. What it comes down to, he says, is being open, something a few of my edu-idols have been living examples of for many years now.

Notably, Jim Groom, recently named in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ebook follow-up to the “12 Tech Innovators” article as an educator breaking trail, aligns several of Cleese’s points (which Jim also blogged about, and which I even only discovered when Jim’s colleague Tim Owens tweeted the link to the video) in discussing Innovation as a Communal Act:

When you look closely enough at the innovative work of any one person you quickly realize that it’s built around and on top of the work of a much larger community. And while I understand it’s simpler to enshrine a single individual for an achievement, I also know from personal experience that it often obfuscates the deeply social and distributed relations that make any of it possible…


Jim and John are driving at the similar heart of the creative act: openness. To be creative, one must be open to the possibility of being wrong, of being uncomfortable, embarrassed, or successful beyond their imagined goals To illustrate this notion of openness by its opposite, closed thinking, or operating, is the drive to be decisive: to rule out peripheral influences and act. Now.

Closed thinking, as you can imagine, is the natural enemy of creativity. But in its way serves its own purpose; open thinkers still need to publish their work, still need to perform, still need to, occasionally, be decisive, and rule out that new and perhaps late-in-coming idea, and pull the trigger, so to speak. “If we waited for artists to think their work was ready before anyone was able to see it,” I often tell my classes, “There would be no art in the world.”

However, Jim admits that closed thinking:

…remains a deep problem with the focus on credit and reward in the culture that we live in, our current educational system exemplifying the worst of that ethos.


Which is why, perhaps, the Chronicle article featuring Jim admits, You may have heard the word ‘disruption’ lately, as the work he has done with the Digital Storytelling 106 course that he teaches at the University of Mary Washington (not to mention the host of other insanely awesome projects he, Alan Levine, Martha Burtis, Tim Owens, and Andy Rush, among others have their hands in across that campus – including, yes, a #ds106 bus tour) directly confronts the limitations of education focused solely around closed thinking. But while Jim’s personality (and way of operating) are everywhere you look within the DS106 community, there is a more universal quality at work than the ability to teach an online course as two people at the same time:

I have only a modicum of responsibility for the community that is ds106—that could only happen because a group of people came together and opened themselves up to one another. They shared who they are, what they know, what turns them on, and as a result a community was born. And it seems to me now that every class should be such a community, every class should aspire towards becoming a community. That is the dream, that is why we do what we do. ds106 has become the realization of what school can and should be, and for me that is the real innovation and it can’t be attributed to any one person—it can only be attributed to the age old, and seemingly forgotten, innovation of communities coming together to help one another out.


The key to creativity, John Cleese says, is surrounding yourself with people who are invested in becoming open, in developing ideas, and putting them into action: people who know when it is time to be open, and when it is time to be closed. Jim seems to be saying roughly the same thing, and if there is something that takes the TALONS learners beyond what other groups might accomplish in similar settings is never so much about the individual parts, or their unique talents, but their commitment to becoming a whole that is greater than the sum of those parts.

When he retired a few years ago, our school’s legendary sage of a drama teacher Richard Dixon told me, “Every class is just another opportunity for students to learn to form communities.”

Every class, online or face to face, indoors or under a canopy of trees, an engagement with the timeless process of knowing ourselves and knowing one another, and creating the story of our journey together.

In-Depth Blogging, or Learning in Public (Part II)

Stretch your limits once in a while. You may find you have more range than you thought.

This week’s prompt for the #Talons in-depth blogging gave me the impetus to indulge an idea I had yesterday after recording a brief video (the one above) as my own contribution to my guitar class’ assignment repository this week.

Back in September, I conducted a little Learning in Public, taking on the open-D tuning and tricky strumming pattern of the Pearl Jam classic, “Daughter.” Partially in response to a project Dean Shareski was working on with pre-service teachers in Saskatchewan, the series was a compelling motivation to follow through in learning the song, share my struggle (and eventual success) with an audience, and hopefully put a little learning out there to help others looking to do the same.

And while I haven’t been documenting it in the same way, I have still been learning to play guitar (I doubt it is a project with any sort of ‘End’), and make music that excites me, that I love. I’ve collected a year’s worth of recordings into a definable album of original demos, collaborations and covers, continued to develop some veritable lead-guitar chops, and begun to make a habit of getting together with friends to make noise in a local jamspace. While challenging, rewarding, and motivating to continue all at once, the process has been mostly informal.

Which is why, at the outset of this new semester of guitar – with a new Assignments-scheme cribbed from the DS106 setup – I wanted to set for myself a definitive goal, and model the documentation of learning I would like to see from my music students, and that my TALONS co-teacher/facilitator is looking to see from the class’ In-Depth posts, around a topic of personal passion and relevance.

Namely: lead a rock band.

It’s my aim to stretch myself, and expand my range as both a musician and as a teacher / leader / facilitator, and figure out a little more about how this thing called Rock ‘n Roll works.

Bringing the Campfire to #eci831

Digital Storytelling
Giulia Forsythe’s Digital Campfire

Tibetan song jam by Bryanjack

Last night I sat in on Alec CourosEC&I 831: Social Media and Open Education session with Richard Schwier, where the lively conversation centered around learning and collaborating in (online) communities and contained a rabid chat thread brimming with links and extensions on Richard’s points.

As is becoming customary in these sessions, Leslie Lindballe was thinking of sharing a song toward the end of the session, and we shot a few private chats back and forth plotting a digital campfire singalong of sorts. Having tried jamming in real time with friends over the #ds106radio airwaves on a number of different occasions, I shared a Google Doc with the lyrics of Sweet Cascadia‘s “Me & my Bike,” and performed the song (on my ukulele) with the hopes that people in the session might be able to sing along from home.

Following this little experiment in all things digitally Kumbaya, Leslie sang a Tibetan song (accompanied by her uke) that I recorded in real time by setting my phone to record while sitting on the counter next to my speakers, and playing along in the same room (I can hear Leslie, but she can’t hear me, making the moment where she announces, “I can hear Bryan soloing,” all the more magical).

One Week Job

Friends of mine, Ian MacKenzie and Sean Aiken, have put their lack of direction to good use – and a good cause – with their One Week Job project.

One Week Job: The Documentary from Ian MacKenzie on Vimeo.

“Instead of take the first job that came along, he found a unique way of figuring it out: the One Week Job project. How it worked: Anyone, anywhere, could offer Sean a job for one week. Any money he earned for the work, he asked the employer to donate towards the ONE / Make Poverty History campaign. On his inspirational quest, Sean tried everything: Bungee Instructor, Dairy Farmer, Advertising Executive, Baker, Stock Trader, Firefighter, and more. Wherever he could find work, he’d go there, find a couch to crash on and immerse himself in whatever profession was at hand. And then he’d move on.”