Among the more ambitious spontaneous projects I’ve attempted as a teacher, the 30 Person Rock Band project came out of a conversation with my guitar class about what our next endeavour should be: songwriting, another recording of individual or group progress, a performance, or… something a little bigger. Something we’ll discover as we go, together.
So to start, we are asking for input: we don’t yet know even what we don’t know, and in the interest of finding a suitable starting point, we are hoping that you might help us with the initial creation of individual and collective responsibilities. We’re hoping that, whether you’ve played in a band or not, you might be able to help us delegate responsibilities to make the 30 Person Rock Band Project a collaborative and successful undertaking.
Tonight you reigned in triumph, and I hope that you each savour what this experience has revealed of the possibility you hold within yourselves. 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. Do not despair that you only get to experience the tonight’s of life but once apiece. They are only tests to give you strength for the examinations you will be soon be free to embark upon under your own steam. We owe it to the present moment, and to our present selves, to live as the sum of our experiences, and with tonight you mark certainly that you possess the raw material to write your own life’s work of eminence. I stand in awe at your strength and determination to courageously explore, discover and express your unique voices in this world.
I talked the other night, at the conclusion of this year’s Night of the Notables, about our relationship with the dark. I alluded to our recent practice of Night Solos, and how they put us in touch with an elemental piece of ourselves that comes with an immersion in a solitary unknown. It seemed a natural connection to make after watching the same group of TALONS become transformed on a stage they shared in fluid harmony that transported and transfixed an audience made of the class’ extended family community.
Parents, friends, alumni, administrators and school board trustees, a scattering of internet radio listeners from across the continent, and graduates of a program that has roots in our district back to the mid 1970s – all gathered to indulge and rally around spectacle that this year’s cohort inevitably finds to represent their admiration and investigation of a kindred spirit, someone who “left a ding in the universe.”
In many ways, this has always been the story of Night of the Notables. But this year has seen the TALONS program run with two full grade nine/ten cohorts totaling 56 learners. In the seven years since I attended the first incarnation of the district gifted program’s as a new teacher who gave one of my future colleagues my TOC card, we’ve all come a long way through this week, where the gallery walk and “cocktail” hour was barely enough time to scratch the surface of each of the TALONS interactive and illuminating learning centers, and the grade tens were briskly off to the theater for the presentation of speeches.
A traditional rite of passage for the grade tens, this year saw the formally individual podium speeches transformed into two half-hour series of interwoven monologues, each presented in the characters of their eminent people.
“The unknown isn’t as mysterious as we might think,” I borrowed from Stephanie‘s address as astronaut Roberta Bondar before continuing on about sitting alone in the dark.
“If we’re all sitting in the dark alone, we can explore and discover that unknown – which is all that any real learning is – just like we can give speeches, and create something new and magical and precious and ours, if we are supported by each other, all sitting in our own dark.”
The people on stage the other night were able to do it because everyone in the audience was up there with them, whether they were sitting in the dark as peers, or mentors, alumni, parents, and whether they did their sitting five years ago, or will years from now.
Thank you for being here to share this evening with us.
As a personal professional development and learning tool, I began this blog during the spring of 2009 as a means of connecting to the web and the world in the most personalized manner possible. After experimenting with Twitter, Delicious, and an English Department blog at work, having my own blog seemed the natural course of things.
At the best of times, it can be trying (for students, but also the program’s two teachers) to stay on top of the class’ varied passions, interests and Ministry mandated topics. But with blogs, I began to think as our online communication took shape over the summer and ensuing school year, each student (and again, teachers) presented, recorded, and reflected upon their individual learning, in addition to supporting one another in a fluid and ongoing narrative built around the topics of wide-reaching curiosity, as well as the course material.
TALONS teachers have long held as their goal to dissolve the lines between our diverse subjects as often as possible – supporting essay theses with biological arguments, using math analogies during the study of history, and many other as-yet-undiscovered connections – and are continually astounded by the depth and individuality in the class’ blogging.
For two years this blog served a living record, and synthesizer of TALONS student blogging, but has since seen these responsibilities delegated to the class blog, Defying Normality, its Flickr account, Youtube Channel and subject-based wikispaces:
TALONS Debate the “Good” Books: A class conversation of the ongoing relevance of “The Classics” boiled over into a Facebook thread between many of our grade tens debating the nature of “good” literature.
Though almost two months old, Liam’s English 11 Final Project – any substantial meditation and communication of a unique theme of the learner’s choice – is a compelling contribution of ‘student-voice’ in the conversation of education reform. Liam’s skills of research and storytelling, as well as argument and presentation are particularly on display throughout, as he deftly weaves the opinions of his fellow #Talons classmates into a potent field report from the front lines in learning.
Such it was that Liam’s effort became a learning resource in GNA Garcia‘s Learning Theories course for pre-service teachers at the University of Connecticut. See Gina’s Storified collection of the conversation Liam’s project inspired, and how this piece of classroom work began a life-cycle with boundless spheres of potential influence:
This week the Talons English class will be embarking on a novel study in a manner different from what we have explored in the past. Previously, the group of 28 students – completing requirements for English 9, 10 and 11 at the honours level – has undertaken the study of a single book that has provided fodder for class discussions, group work, and personal as well as critical essays. This time around the class will tackle a range of novels selected from the traditional thread of English literature, as well as a few dealing in more contemporary topics and themes.
To foster and encourage diverse student communication during the unit, the class will be using a blended means of blogging and commenting, creative and critical written pieces, as well as student-led group and class discussions, with the overall hope to build a knowledge and appreciation for reading, as well as the manipulation of language and narrative as art: a representation of the self and culture, as well as historical artifact. My hope, as stated in my new year’s post, is to communicate an honouring of these traditions of literature, and our cultural necessity for stories, written or otherwise, in forms as diverse as our imaginations will allow.
The books available for study this spring will be:
All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.
Ask whatever challenges dead and thoughtless beliefs. Ask: When did we become human beings and stop being whatever it was we were before this? Ask: What was the specific change that made us human? Ask: Why do people not particularly care about their ancestors more than three generations back? Ask: Why are we unable to think of any future beyond, say, a hundred years from now? Ask: How can we begin to think of the future as something enormous before us that also includes us? Ask: Having become human, what is it that we now doing or creating that will transform us into whatever it is that we are slated to next become?
Girlfriend in a Coma
I read “The Catcher in the Rye” the average number of times for a young person my age—which is to say, every few years between when I was sixteen and twenty-six or so. When I was about twenty I read the rest of the books and stories, and when I began to teach, about ten years ago, I usually included a Salinger story in every syllabus, usually demonstrating the use of dialogue to illuminate character. His is still my favorite dialogue, the dialogue that rings truest, that’s at once very naturalistic and musical; it’s really remarkable how difficult it is to do what he does between quotation marks.
I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
I’d recommend Little Brother over pretty much any book I’ve read this year, and I’d want to get it into the hands of as many smart 13 year olds, male and female, as I can.
Because I think it’ll change lives. Because some kids, maybe just a few, won’t be the same after they’ve read it. Maybe they’ll change politically, maybe technologically. Maybe it’ll just be the first book they loved or that spoke to their inner geek. Maybe they’ll want to argue about it and disagree with it. Maybe they’ll want to open their computer and see what’s in there. I don’t know. It made me want to be 13 again right now and reading it for the first time, and then go out and make the world better or stranger or odder. It’s a wonderful, important book, in a way that renders its flaws pretty much meaningless.
Neil Gaiman, author of Sandman and Anansi Boys
Though the courtroom setting defines the present in “Snow Falling on Cedars,” David Guterson’s finely wrought and flawlessly written first novel (he is the author of a book of short stories and a guide to home schooling), this meticulously drawn legal drama forms only the topmost layer of complex time strata, which Mr. Guterson proceeds to mine assiduously through an intricate series of flashbacks. Thus testimony slides ineluctably from merely verbal recollection into remembered incident into fully realized historical narrative — past events told from the numerous characters’ points of view with all the detail and intensity of lives being lived before our very eyes.
New York Times Review of Books
Marjane Satrapi’s ”Persepolis” is the latest and one of the most delectable examples of a booming postmodern genre: autobiography by comic book. All over the world, ambitious artist-writers have been discovering that the cartoons on which they were raised make the perfect medium for exploring consciousness, the ideal shortcut — via irony and gallows humor — from introspection to the grand historical sweep.
New York Times Review of Books
As a means to delve creatively into the cultural geography in Western Canada, our socials ten students will be undertaking the creation of public service announcements on issues relating to the present states of plants and animals across several different biomes. Having practiced digital storytelling skills in writing, performing and editing a brief time-line of human history in the local area last week, their sights will be set on documenting the evolving history of human interaction with, and use of, resource species such as the Rocky Mountains’ bears, the Plains’ buffalo, and the Pacific Coast’s salmon.
They were not a nation, nor even a tribe, but a loose association of groups consisting of up to a dozen families. All were, however, united in their allegiance to Tuktu – the caribou – which, in their millions, not only furnished the necessities of life but most of whatever else these people needed. Caribou skins provided clothing (the warmest and lightest known), footwear, tents, sleeping robes, covering for kayaks, even the heads of drums. Tuktu gave meat, and fat both to eat and to fill their lamps; sinews for sewing; and antler and bone for the manufacture of innumerable hunting and domestic implements, even including children’s toys. Tuktu was life itself to human dwellers in the Barren Lands.
Each of the animals and biomes selected by the groups this week bear a similar tradition of use that reaches back to the dawn of humankind, and I look forward to seeing the class’ representations of these ecosystems as they once were, on through their current state. Even in our suburban setting, there is still a reverence for the outdoors in many of the class’ undertakings – whether natural or urban – and the energy in class today as the groups selected their biomes and animals and set out on research stemmed from a connection many members of the class feel with their local setting. In documenting the traditions of our ancestors on this land alongside modern Canadians’ stewardship of the country’s most valuable resources, the project’s lofty purpose will be to offer a message to those who will follow in our footsteps here.
“We are all five-fingered people, the holy people. My grandfather and uncles always said that when we are taught these things, they are for the people, the children, and whoever comes to you wanting your help and the medicine of our ancestors. It is our responsibility to help them.”
The other night my teaching partner and I, along with two of our students, gave a brief presentation to our local School Board Trustees outlining the basic tenants of our Autonomous Learner Model-inspired two-year gifted students program. At the conclusion of our small talk, our superintendent offered praise to our learners’ poise and confidence in following the Mayor’s presentation to the daunting group of elected officials, and noted that our district, and public education in general, is headed in the direction of the type of differentiated instruction paramount in the TALONS classroom. Needless to say, in an age of consistent, and staggering, budgetary shortfalls in our local school districts, it is encouraging to hear positive words from the top of our local school organizations, and to know that we are ahead of the curve.
I heard one of our vice-principals say last week that, “My daughter’s not an identified gifted student, but that’s the type of learning I want her to be doing.” (Students must be designated as ‘gifted’ and so-eligible for our district’s Student Services funding to be able to apply to TALONS.) And I agree with him; it’s not that our model would only work with gifted learners. (Indeed, George Betts intended to have the model extended to students with learning disabilities and the general population of schools.)
When I teach courses to the general student body at our school, I use the same guiding principals as I do in a class where each of my 28 students has an Ministry of Education required Individual Education Plan (as they do in the gifted program). According to my course evaluations, the high achievers learn more than they would in a class they might have otherwise aced; and the low achievers tend not to fail with the same regularity. When they do, in fact, I would chalk up much more of their inability to succeed in the classroom setting to such poor prior experiences with any of the following: English, learning, teachers, or education in general (my students are generally 14 or 15 by the time they get to me, and hence have some fairly entrenched habits and perspectives). I failed one student in all of the 60-some students I taught through English 9 last year: the straw that broke his academic back was a report – oral, video, written or in a form of their choosing – on the touring schedule of the student’s favourite band. More differentiation (or less) would not have been likely to affect the outcome, I doubt.
Really, how could one fail in a system that is based upon working toward an individualized set of goals in relation to the mandated government curriculum? Yes there will be shortcomings in ability, prior knowledge, or other limiting factors. But how well are our schools prepared to create the type of learning, and learners, we claim to seek on a daily basis?
Heidi sent me the video at the top of this post on Twitter the other day, asking if the TALONS students had seen it. And they may have: it’s a popular tv spot for a company that has seized the modern zeitgeist to create revolutionary solutions to Herculean problems, featuring counter-cultural icons who have defined the last fifty years in areas from science, to politics, to arts and music and the ongoing struggle for freedom.
When I look out across my class on a given afternoon, I am constantly witness to the germination of passions and ideas that could well become the embodiment of Apple’s urging, to Think Different. Our students are lucky to be in a classroom where such diversity is encouraged. But I wonder how well they would be served in many other ‘average’ classrooms (which I am quick to point out are not always the result of poor teaching or under-qualified teachers, but the constraints placed upon our modern classrooms), and to answer that question, I look to the educational experiences of the faces in the clip attached above, many of whom no doubt learned to become those “crazy enough to believe they could change the world” not because of their education, but in spite of it.
Albert Einstein – From Wikipedia – Einstein clashed with authorities and resented the school’s regimen and teaching method. He later wrote that the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strictrote learning. In the spring of 1895, he withdrew to join his family in Pavia, convincing the school to let him go by using a doctor’s note. During this time, Einstein wrote his first scientific work, “The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields“.
Bob Dylan– From NNDB.com – Late in 1959 Dylan enrolled in the University of Minnesota, but his love of music soon overpowered any academic ambitions and the following year, after spending a summer in Denver honing his stage persona, he dropped out and moved to New York to immerse himself in its incipient folk-revival scene. While in New York he also sought out his hero Woody Guthrie, spending as much time as he could at the ailing musicians bedside.
Martin Luther King, Jr. – From Wikipedia – skipped ninth and twelfth grade and enteredMorehouse College at age fifteen without formally graduating from high school.Richard Branson – From Wikipedia – Branson has milddyslexia and had poor academic performance as a student, but discovered his ability to connect with others.John Lennon(with Yoko Ono)- From Wikipedia – Lennon failed all his GCE O-level examinations, and was only accepted into the Liverpool College of Art with help from his school’s headmaster.R. Buckminster Fuller – From Wikipedia – He was expelled from Harvard twice: first for spending all his money partying with a vaudeville troupe, and then, after having been readmitted, for his “irresponsibility and lack of interest”. By his own appraisal, he was a non-conforming misfit in the fraternity environment. Many years later he would receive a Sc.D. from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
Thomas Edison– From Wikipedia – In school, the young Edison’s mind often wandered, and his teacher, the Reverend Engle, was overheard calling him “addled“. This ended Edison’s three months of official schooling. Edison recalled later, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.” His mother homeschooled him. Much of his education came from reading R.G. Parker’s School of Natural Philosophy and The Cooper Union.
Muhammad Ali– From Wiki Answers – Muhammad Ali dropped out of Louisville Central High, a local basketball power, finishing 369th of 391 seniors in the class of 1960, and often traveling to fight on weekends.
Ted Turner – From Wikipedia – Turner initially majored in Classics. Turner’s father wrote saying that his choice made him “appalled, even horrified,” and that he “almost puked.” Turner later changed his major to Economics, but he was expelled before receiving a diploma for having a female student in his dormitory room.
Mahatma Gandhi – From Wikipedia – In 1885, when Gandhi was 15, the couple’s first child was born, but survived only a few days; Gandhi’s father, Karamchand Gandhi, had died earlier that year. Mohandas and Kasturba had four more children, all sons: Harilal, born in 1888; Manilal, born in 1892; Ramdas, born in 1897; and Devdas, born in 1900. At his middle school in Porbandar and high school in Rajkot, Gandhi remained an average student academically. He passed the matriculation exam for Samaldas College at Bhavnagar, Gujarat with some difficulty. While there, he was unhappy, in part because his family wanted him to become a barrister.
Amelia Earhart – From Wikipedia – Amelia and Muriel (she went by her middle name from her teens on), remained with their grandparents in Atchison, while their parents moved into new, smaller quarters in Des Moines. During this period, Amelia received a form of home-schooling together with her sister, from her mother and a governess. She later recounted that she was “exceedingly fond of reading” and spent countless hours in the large family library. In 1909, when the family was finally reunited in Des Moines, the Earhart children were enrolled in public school for the first time with Amelia entering the seventh grade at the age of 12 years.
Alfred Hitchcock – From Wikipedia – Hitchcock was sent to the Jesuit Classic school St Ignatius’ College in Stamford Hill, London. He often described his childhood as being very lonely and sheltered. Hitchcock left St. Ignatius to study at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation in Poplar, London. After graduating, he became a draftsman and advertising designer with a cable company.
Martha Graham – From Wikipedia – While the social status in which she was raised contributed to her access to education and refinement, it would also work against Martha. As the eldest daughter of a prominent physician, and a Presbyterian family, Martha was strongly discouraged from considering any career in the performing arts.
Jim Henson– From Wikipedia – In 1954, while attending Northwestern High School, he began working for WTOP-TV creating puppets for a Saturday morning children’s show. After graduating from high school, Henson enrolled at University of Maryland, College Park, as a studio arts major, thinking he might become a commercial artist. A puppetry class offered in the applied arts department introduced him to the craft and textiles courses in the College of Home Economics, and he graduated with a B.S. in home economics in 1960. As a freshman, he was asked to create Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV. The characters on Sam and Friends were already recognizable Muppets, and the show included a primitive version of what would become Henson’s most famous character, Kermit the Frog.
Pablo Picasso – From Wikipedia – the family moved to Barcelona, with Ruiz transferring to its School of Fine Arts. Picasso thrived in the city, regarding it in times of sadness or nostalgia as his true home. Ruiz persuaded the officials at the academy to allow his son to take an entrance exam for the advanced class. This process often took students a month, but Picasso completed it in a week, and the impressed jury admitted Picasso, who was 13. The student lacked discipline but made friendships that would affect him in later life.
It’s not that they were each rebels, renegades or educational outliers: Martin Luther King and others were academically as endowed as many meeting with success in our modern schools. But how well are our schools and present-day classrooms equipped to produce the types of thinkers listed above?
What grade would Bob Dylan be getting in your class?
My sister showed me a quote from David W. Orr she came across during an Environmental Education course this summer. When study is meaningful, the subject is often not what is learned.
The goal of education is not mastery of subject matter, but mastery of one’s person. Subject matter is simply a tool. Much as one would use a hammer and a chisel to carve a block of marble, one uses ideas and knowledge to forge one’s own personhood. For the most part we labour under a confusion of ends and means, thinking that the goal of education is to stuff all kinds of facts, techniques, methods and information into the students’ minds, regardless of how and with what effect it will be used.
And while many have come around to this way of thinking with regards to content not necessarily being the center of a course, but the means by which to drive critical thinking and a sense of pride and individuality into the curriculum, we have yet to entirely address these ideas in terms of technology. The use of more technology is not a golden ticket to ‘better’ learning, as it must serve the larger goals of creating community, and helping the members of that community to realize their potential. As with content, technology is merely the tool which may – or may not – allow this type of growth and awareness.
It has become nearly a running joke in our class that, if we are to undertake an adventurous outing or major presentation, one of my sisters will surely be along to photograph & otherwise document the procedings. Last spring my youngest sister Lindsay joined us on the TALONS adventure trip and, fresh from her documentary film program at Capilano College, produced a professional ten-minute ode (complete with cycling montages and confessional-style interviews with each member of the class) to five days we spent roughing it on the southern tip of Vancouver Island (and once I figure out how to get it off the DVD onto a blog post, you may see it here one day). And just this fall, while I recovered from a very pro-painful (ba-dump-ching) August, my younger (but not youngest) sister, Melissa, accompanied the TALONS on our September retreat, bringing with her a digital SLR with a new telephoto lens which provided many a poster-worthy action or candid shot over the course of the weekend (many of which I will upload to Flickr in the near future).
Melissa was also on hand last Wednesday night to capture the performances of the grade tens at Night of the Notables. Even these glimpses make clear the conviction in each of their performances, and deep connection between many of the students and their studied characters.
As the final week of our class’ Eminent Person Study draws to a close, my RSS feed from our blogs has filled with reports on interviews, summaries of learning centers, reflections on the Night of the Notables itself, and the students’ work continues to astound. Though the grade tens in the class are busy at work drafting a letter to future participants in the project (on how to best tackle the intrinsic curriculum in such endeavors), I am taking this opportunity to share the collected triumphs of our students’ work. If the grade tens’ letter will cover the intangible, I propose that this post serves as a collection of the tangible results of this year’s project.
We say that it’s “not your average poster,” when we talk about learning centers. But even when the traditional posterboard comes into play, the results are seldom conventional. Students’ centers are set up during forty-five minutes of gallery viewing on Night of the Notables, and their authors are encouraged to engage their audience in conversation – about their learning journey, about their eminent person’s life and works – or activities – building parachutes with materials available to Leonardo DaVinci, posing for Rolling Stone cover photographs, or walking a mile in the shoes of a blind librarian.
Andrea’s “Secret Room” – To represent the compartment in her Eminent Person’s Dutch home which sheltered escaping Jews from the Nazis, Andrea had guests squeeze into a similarly shaped (and scaled) hideaway and endure the cramped space, too many arms, legs and strangers’ breathing (not to mention audio recordings of shouting Gestapo officers.
It has been mentioned on this blog the momentum the class’ grade nines gave to the proceedings on Night of the Notables. As well, the grade tens’ dedication to helping one another form compelling, vivid speeches – and having drafts of their own work available almost a week before Wednesday evening’s presentations – brought an element of teamwork and unity to the proceedings that contributed to master turns of rhetoric and oratory as students took on the following notable personalities:
Once the grade tens letter is posted, we will ultimately have bid adieu to the Eminent Person Study for this year, and the watershed occasion it has marked, and embark upon – as Andrea so eloquently put it – “the next project:”
Representing Democracy: an Introduction to Revolution, Confederation & Collaborative Research, Writing and Performance.