“…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.”