#Eminent2016: Why Bob? Why Now?

My goal is to try and stick to some sort of chronological ordering of the aging of Dylan in the images used in the creation of this project. Hence, this young shot of Dylan in his Greenwich Village folk days here at the outset of the project, moving toward his more current iterations as the study progresses.

Image courtesy of Rolling Stone.

After almost ten years at the helm of the TALONS annual Eminent Person Study, I decided to conduct my own study alongside this year’s classes. These posts will be collected here. 

Why Bob?

They say everything can be replaced

That every distance is not near

So I remember every face

Of every man that brought me here. 1

For a brief moment when I first thought that I would take on the Eminent Person Study, I initially declared my intentions to study Bruce Springsteen. In recent years my musical tastes and affection has leaned heavily toward the Boss, and I would relish the opportunity to delve deeper into his life and rock catalogue. But with Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize win I’ve been hearing a lot more Bob, reading various responses to his inclusion as the first musician to be awarded with the literary honour, and been coming reacquainted with my first true love (and one of Bruce’s, to boot).

Before Bruce, and Josh, and even Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there was always only Bob.

Why Now?

Image courtesy of Consequence of Sound

An artist has to be careful never to really arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere. You always have to realize that you’re constantly in a state of becoming, and as long as you’re in that realm, you’ll sort of be all right. 2

Back when I was a student in an older version of our district’s gifted program – the forerunner to TALONS that operated at Dr. Charles Best Junior High back as far as the late-nineteen seventies – our teachers would occasionally participate in the major projects with us: studying eminent people, or engaging in-depth studies to sing or sew, and creating their own inquiries, findings and meaning alongside us. This always seemed an exceptional example to me of what life might be as an adult: that we might go on, continuing to strive, and learn, and change markedly into our middle and advanced ages. But Q and I, as well as the other TALONS teachers, haven’t much made or had the time to engage in these sorts of pursuits as TALONS teachers in recent years.

It’s true, two of us have completed advanced degrees, a PhD and an MEd between us, and we regularly share our personal and professional struggles and triumphs in blog posts and classroom conversations about the nature of lifelong learning and aspiration. But engage in a project directly alongside our students, we have not.

Additionally, TALONS seems to stand somewhat perched at a crossroads in its continued evolution. Having doubled a few years into our run as a two-teacher, twenty eight student cohort, there are now four teachers and nearly sixty students these days, two of those teachers new to the program this fall; we’ve added courses in the senior grades, and are breaking new trails in Adventure Trips, and other aspects of our learning and organization all the time.

As well, I find myself nearly ten years into my career, with just shy of that time spent facilitating the TALONS learning across a variety of subjects. And with so much change arriving in the TALONS world, I feel compelled this year to strike out a little beyond my own comfort zone as an act of solidarity not only with my grade nine and ten students, but my new teaching partners. Our program is a place where adults as well as adolescents are challenged to grow and develop beyond what they may have previously thought  possible, and to be joining such a juggernaut of an ecosystem as ours must be an intimidating prospect.

Hopefully some of this process extends an invitation to them to join the ranks of public learning that makes our program unique, both for what it teaches the young people among us as well as those of us beyond the school.

But… why Bob?

It’s not a good idea and it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers. 3 

Around the time I was graduating from university, I had begun to play guitar with the idea that I might be able to expand the scope of my expressive capabilities into music. I would be earning my degree in Creative Writing (with a minor in French and an additional honours thesis on civil society and ideology around a Boy Scout summer camp that I had spent two summers interning for), and had written a roughshod novel during school, along with hundreds of other essays, newspaper columns, letters, and stories. But like Kurt Vonnegut wrote once, “virtually every writer I know would rather be a musician,” I had always been drawn to music, to the images and melodies that lit fires in undiscovered places in myself. And so I set about exploring my existing taste and experience in music through a borrowed acoustic guitar; when I moved home to Vancouver I bought my own and started unpacking the history of popular music from Elvis on forward.

I listened to the Beatles incessantly, and in chronological order. I watched the Anthology documentaries and began to untangle the thread of blues and rock that ran through Elvis, and Chuck Berry, and Johnny Cash. I began to see the tightly woven threads of the culture that connected Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg to Jim Morrison, and back to Robert Johnson. I’d had some experience with each of these threads in isolation: I’d studied the Beats ravenously as an undergraduate; that hasty youthful novel written in my third year bore an inscription from one of Jim Morrison’s poems; and I could talk for hours about the complimentary and divergent aspects of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones’ early aesthetics.

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Then my dad bought the Martin Scorsese documentary on Dylan, No Direction Home, and everything became obsolete. Here was the Rosetta Stone to synthesize and decode the American spirit that unified the story I’d been untangling for years. Here was an artist who defied category or classification, who by the time you had decided what to call him had morphed into something else entirely, who seemed to know his own voice and gifts so well for never claiming to understand them so much as the fact that he would never cease to explore their potential. With Dylan there were no lines, no titles, no boundaries, and I wanted that for myself.

I wanted, as I still do, to find what my vision and voice can see and say: to expand beyond what I’ve previously thought possible, and to create new ways of being for others to follow, which is Why Bob, Why Now.

  1.  “I Shall Be Released”
  2. No Direction Home
  3. Songwriters on Songwriting

Room for Improvement: If and when we do Eminent again…

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Before the new year, I compiled a host of the TALONS‘ responses to reflective prompts on their work created during the Eminent Person Study, highlighting the means and methods they employed to create stellar examples of public speaking in their Eminent Addresses. Being able to have each of these reflections assembled in one place – thanks to Google Forms, and a bit of code that helps display the various responses – creates a different type of feedback that allows us to glimpse the how of what is inevitably a successful aspect of the project.

When we are successful, it appears, it is because we put an exceptional amount of work into the product: we rewrite, and edit, and draft, and rewrite again. This sort of work is generally undertaken with the help of supportive peers and parents, and presented alongside a cohort of individuals similarly striving to achieve something grand. These are important insights to hold onto as we look ahead at creating future memorable learning opportunities for ourselves and future classes.

Perhaps equally as inviting is the opportunity to investigate what happens when things could be better, though. And so now later than intended, but still hopefully of value to the class and readers of this blog, here is the flip side of the Eminent data.

During which assignment do you feel you created work you believe could be improved?When it comes to work the TALONS would have liked to improve, the results are more divisive than when asked about where they believed they had been successful. Where a majority of the class felt that their Eminent Address had been the most successful, different aspects of the project reveal themselves as areas for future growth.

Among the contenders are the Interview and Night of the Notables (either on the night itself, or capturing their work in a follow-up blog post), followed closely by Document of Learning, and Introductory post.

Traditionally, the prospect of obtaining an ‘expert’ interview on a related topic to one’s Eminent Study has proved a sticking point for many TALONS over the years, so it is perhaps unsurprising that it should lead the field for this particular question.

This grade ten response distills much of what generally constitutes this difficulty:

The problem with my interview was that I couldn’t get one. If an assignment like this ever comes up again, I would be sure to contact more people (even if there is only a slight chance they would be able to help with my research), and to contact people earlier on. 

Indeed, whether or not an interview can be obtained is generally the result of having cast one’s net wide enough, if not allowing enough time for meaningful responses to be offered.

A grade nine echoes this sentiment:

I feel like I could have sent out my emails earlier, so I’d have an interview by now. I was procrastinating on my interview and sent my emails rather late. I also could have emailed more people because I think most of the people I emailed didn’t see my message or they just didn’t want to respond. 

However, even with enough time and emails heading in the right direction, one of the grade nines cast more specific advice for themselves forward toward next year’s study:

Next time, I will prepare for my interview as early as possible, and send more convincing emails that will increase the chance of me getting an interview. Having conducted some research on how to form emails, I want to: 

  • Make the title / subject line less vague, and keep it short
  • Write less text, as people are lazy and won’t want to read all of it
  • Avoid lengthy introductions
  • Compliment the reader
  • Use bold / italics to emphasize important points

However, even when successful, this grade ten was able to take away valuable lessons from the experience:

Although I did end up conducting an interview, I later observed that my questions might have garnered more of a helpful response if I had chosen a specific and narrowed topic. For this assignment, the questions that I asked could elicit a very long and extensive response, and because I asked so many of these kinds of questions, it became difficult to delve deeply into one specific area, as the interviewee felt the need to address all of the questions. In the future, I would try to narrow my questions to the most important area of study for the purposes of my research and understanding. 

In the cases of other aspects of the study the TALONS would like to see improved, a common thread that emerges in reflection is the race against time. As in the interview assignment, many members of the class can likely empathize with their classmate who wrote,

I feel that I definitely could have done a better job with my [Document of Learning, Library Field Study, Biblography]. But, unfortunately, Night of the Notables crept up on me and I had to put all of my efforts into [my Speech, Learning Center]. 

Even when it came to Learning Centers, this sentiment is likely familiar:

I believe I did fairly well with my Learning Center. However, I believe it could be improved the most out of all of my assignments because since it is such a big assignment there are many places where it could be improved. I would firstly start my learning center sooner, for I had to work well past midnight many days in a row leading up to NotN to finish it. 

This grade nine agrees:

I was happy with my Learning Center, however I believe that I should have put more time, effort and thought into the creation and presentation of it. 

As does this one:

The one thing I would have liked is for more time. Between juggling math, the environmental project, being project manager, elective homework, and extracurricular activities, starting my learning center was slowly making its way down the list. 

Which is a real-world application of the experiential learning TALONS is proud of providing: we often choose which of our tasks will garner our utmost effort, and occasionally even large projects – or aspects of complex projects – don’t get the amount of time or effort we feel they deserve in a perfect world.

Time is, in the world of work as in life, unfortunately a scarce commodity, and we are each tasked with making decisions about how we allocate it. And I doubt that as an even trade, many of the TALONS would exchange success in their Eminent Speech for a more successful turn in one of these other aspects of the project.

However, the sensation that we have not used our time wisely this time around can often be the best impetus to using it differently in the future, and for those who this year felt that their swap wasn’t an even trade (inasmuch as they didn’t spend time on their speech instead of other eminent assignments), I would hope that this sentiment leads to a more informed use of time in future opportunities.

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.”

#Eminent2014 in Motion

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The passage of autumn into winter in the TALONS classroom is marked by the arrival of the Eminent Person Study and culminating Night of the Notables. And while there is a great deal of tradition and meaning transmitted down through years to the current group of students undertaking the project, the chain of cultural transmission is captured in the chorus of individual goals, reflections in progress, and documents of learning blogged as the project unfolds.

While everyone fulfills the same few tenants of the study, the learning that takes place – collectively and individually – is largely a personal affair, one that is handed down from year to year in links and digital portfolios. And as the individual lessons of the study accumulate, so does the culture at the heart of the TALONS classroom congregate in RSS and digital artifacts.

Thus we can look back in the Notable class of 2009 astride our own, with Saskia’s learning center, one which still resonates today:

I left out postcards for people to write to Zahra Kazemi’s son: Stephan Kazemi. These I made from her photographs as a reference to the postcards she herself created (mentioned above). I wanted them addressed to her son for several reasons. By having people write about what they thought of Zahra Kazemi, I was honouring his mother and his own struggle to find justice for her. At the same time, it also showed him just how much his help made a difference to my project. Eleven people ended up writing postcards and I hope that when Stephan Kazemi receives them, they will make him very happy.

The sentiments of Raiya, a year later, looking back on her turn under the lights, echoes in this the fall of 2014:

Night of the Notables left me awestruck, amazed, and inspired. I realized that all my pre-N.O.T.N. stress was well worth the great moments that came with it. For me, some of the more memorable moments of the night were the ten minutes we were all getting a pep talk from Mr. J, the five minutes we were all singing the same familiar notes of “Don’t Stop Believing”, and those three seconds of dead silence after your speech, followed by the thunderous cheers from your classmates. The energy from that night will stick with us our entire life.

The TALONS newly departed, too, leave their thoughts to frame this year’s experience:

Slide11I always get the most peculiar tickling sensation in my tummy after late nights with TALONS. I don’t know if it’s those shooting stars or the fact that these late nights are way past my bedtime, but it’s always a rather homey feeling that curls around my chest when we join hands, all tired and warm from the long day.

But each of these predecessors merely sets the stage for the voices that are lent to this chorus across the TALONS blogs this fall. Newly migrated to a new domain – talons43.ca – each of the blogs is collected and syndicates in a steady feed of interviews, and speech drafts, and learning center floorplans. The results represent a new generation’s perspective on a timeless aspect of the program, which by changing stays the same.

And so this year we’ve been able to travel with Julia to SFU, and glimpse the individual learning on a field trip to a local university:

Before events happen, I usually have this weird distorted vision of20141030_101631 (1)what will happen. On this trip, I had some educational expectations and such. Something I really wanted to get as much as I could of was experience. Experiences are as valuable as any research, and going to an environment I hope to return to as a university student, I hoped to absorb as much as possible. Some aspects of the buildings themselves were how they were all made of cement. It made for a quite gloomy yet professional feel, and looked quite impressive from a distance. It would feel great to walk across the serene pond, down the massive steps, and graduate. There was also a pyramid in a clearing that could only be the pyramid of life, and I questioned it no further. Experiences demand to be felt, and I was entranced.

We’re introduced to fellow grade nine Emma M’s look back on her speech, and see the evolution of the draft(s) that brought her there:

Oh eminent speeches.

I have written many speeches, however I always stress about them and slightly go crazy yet end up finishing with flying colours. People say I’m a good public speaker, and I think that I’m good at it, just when I get up to speak I don’t know if it’s nerves or adrenaline running through my veins. As well, once I finish the speech I don’t speak for a while because all I’m thinking is “Wow, I just did that.”

Sensing the permanence of the blogged reflection, by taking stock of her grade nine speech Nazlie offers some advice to her future self:

I presented my speech on monday, which I am really proud of myself for. I’m usually not the best with public speaking, but I feel like I did pretty well and I am less nervous to present in front of groups of people, especially the classroom. I think I have a pretty good technique for staying calm whilst presenting now, which is something extremely useful that I have gotten out of this project so far. However, I have miserably failed to follow through with my goal of time management, I left my speech to be written on the last weekend before I presented. Personally this wasn’t a big problem for the outcome of my speech, but I still believe it would’ve been more efficient for me to have written at least some of it the weekend before. I literally spent 2 weeks brainstorming and then ended up doing something completely different from what I brainstormed. So, Future me, who will probably look back at this post a year from now and feel terribly embarrassed, PLEASE brain storm and do some speech writing on the same day, preferably 3 weeks before NOTN, so then you won’t have to spend all day on Sunday and Saturday before the big day writing your speech based off of brainstorm-notes and then end up realizing, on the 3rd speech you’ve rewritten, that there is a way better POV to use. Please.

While attending to her own project, grade ten Jessica takes the opportunity to shine some light on Nazlie’s speech, as well:

SFU trip with TALONS

I also want to comment on Nazlie’s project. I recently heard her speech on the woman who runs Rookie. It blew me away. During her speech, she didn’t ever really move, using no body language to aid her, however it worked in her favour. I believe this is because her speech was formed as a letter to her eminent person and letters are not often associated with body movement. She caught my eye because she spoke with such passion in a way that was relatable, and because she was talking about body images and the affects society have on us.

But as the project marches on, Alison takes a moment to forecast her goals for Night of the Notables:

Compared to last year, my learning center is not so complex and it occupies more space. Also, visitors will have to directly converse with me for information about my person rather than reading off a board or by looking at pictures. Although the idea may be more simple, I think I will be equally or even more busy than last year, but I look forward to it! I hope that this learning center idea will be successful and entertaining on the night of while showing the true eminence of Niccolo Paganini to the guests!

While Lyle shares his interview progress with the Reddit community:

If you recall from last year, my interview requests crashed, burned, asked me to tell their wives they loved her, and then convulsed wildly until their vital signs were zero. I believe this was because I was overly optimistic about securing an interview with my person himself and so did a pretty half-hearted job of seeking interviews from anyone else. In short, I was fishing with a line instead of a net.

This year however, my interview request was fired out to a potential audience of almost 60, 000 people, all who are knowledgeable or at least interested in graffiti. Where did I find such an audience?

Reddit!

Joanna shares her successful interview attempt, as well as her results:

So this year, I was extremely lucky to get an interview on my first try, with none other than Margaret Sanger’s grandson, Alexander Sanger, who also happens to be the Chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council.

Talking with Mr. Sanger has really made me feel like I know Margaret Sanger a bit better- questions such as the one I asked about her personality are really going to help me be in character on Night of the Notables, and being able to see this woman from a family members point of view gave me quite a bit of insight on her private life. I also got the chance to learn about some of her lesser known beliefs, and this knowledge prompted me to look into her accomplishments outside of the legalization of contraceptives.

While her sister shares another draft of her speech speech draft, along with the following caveat

The first thing I did for my speech was pretty much a free-write. The free-write is below. I will be posting my speech draft #2, which will actually have a semblance of organization, in a different blog post. The transitions are in bold because I had already decided where I wanted to start and end, so those are parts that won’t change much. You’ll be able to tell that they don’t fit with the free-write, because they were created separately.

Emma F in turn sketches out the broad strokes of her turn as Frida Kahlo:

Although I have chosen not to illustrate a specific ‘snapshot’ moment or event in my speech, I have instead decided to address the concept Frida’s balance of surrealism and reality within her paintings. Although many have labelled her as a surrealist painter, she has incorporated so intimately the realities of her suffering in her work, which makes it difficult to dismiss her paintings as purely imaginative of dream-like. Of course it is necessary to acknowledge that there is a spectrum of realism within her paintings, from her most literal reprentations of people and still life to her most extravagant otherworldy images, but both polar opposites hold meaning and relevance in her life. Thus the ‘surreal’ paintings that she created still were rooted in the very real aspects of her experience.

And Jenny anticipates the Big Night:

Today the grade ten afternoons did a run through of our speeches. The result made me ecstatic! Our. Speeches. Will. Be. Awesome. Glorious. Magnificent. Superb. Spectacular. Terrific… etc. etc.

By Wednesday night, another cohort of grade tens will have passed across the stage which marks their true arrival as the program’s seniors. One of the TALONS pillars will have passed into recent history to be filed among the notables that have gone before, all to act as prelude for the grade nines who will inherit the honour next year.

Eminent Person Study: Documenting Transformative Learning

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We began talking about Eminent Person the other day by discussing Gardner Campbell’s quoting of Gregory Bateson’s work, and the idea of:

“…breaches in the weave of contextual structure.”

As I’ve mentioned here many times in the past, many experiential aspects of the TALONS program, and authentic learning wherever it happens for that matter, seek to create “breaches” in each participant’s “contextual structure.” In each bringing past experiences, expectations for ourselves and others, and other “contextual structures” to bear on the learning at hand, when these expectations are exceeded – above, beyond or laterally – we are given a view of the world and our relation to it that didn’t until then exist.

The knowledge of this expanded plane of perception leads us toward the action required to establish it as a new self-evident truth of existence. And we do this as individuals as well as cultures:

  • We see our first live concert and witness the magic of music as something made by people, and go about learning to play the guitar;
  • We watch Chris Hadfield sing with Ed Robertson and a choir in Toronto and know that the world is now this small, this connected;
  • We conduct interviews with experts thousands of miles away, and give speeches, and glimpse in ourselves strengths and talents we didn’t realize we there, and are never quite the same afterwards.

In a way it is impossible to settle for the previous way of imagining the world, and are forever drawn to the expanding horizon. And I think this is where the Eminent Person Study finds its particular stripe of ritual power from every autumn, as the new grade tens settle in to their first major opportunity for individual and collective learning, and the nines learn from their example.

The TALONS alumni often come away with having witnessed something profound:

In a way, I think Night of the Notables, especially the speeches, is the gr. 10 initiation. When I finished that speech and went to sit back down amongst the other gr. 10s, it was like taking my place among the elite. And every time someone came back, they passed the test, I suppose. I saw you all a supportive group being each others’ safety nets.

Having been privileged to be a part of the last seven incarnations of the TALONS Eminent studies, I’ve come to revel in the realization that:

From the college kids in the back to the grade nines sitting in the second row (to the teacher grinning in the balcony), everyone in the TALONS orbit [gathers] to give it up for those whose task it is this year to set aside their fears, come together as a group, and dare to do something exceptional.

The experience is something shared, yet something unique to each of us. And it is this particular aspect of the learning process that I wanted to honour in redesigning the project outline and assigned expectations to focus on the sharing of and in one another’s journeys through the project.

Alumni quotes

Alumni Advice

The project’s goals remain largely the same, but I have tried to have the various assignments move away from presenting a finalized product toward capturing a study in progressBiographical research is intended to be connected to each learner’s personal goals – expressed in blog posts from earlier in the year, or their IEP – and field studies and Night of the Notables postings are designed to become a synthesis of both presentation and reflection of individual learning.

Groups will be formed to facilitate commenting and feedback to help further one another’s inquiries into biography (and autobiography), and it is my hope that these conversations will begin to constitute an assembled ecosystem of narrated learning artifacts. The challenge I am looking to confront specifically this year is emphasizing an ethos of social media sharing and documentation to effectively archive and organize this year’s learning for future reflection and growth.

Because we hope to be transformed positively from this experience, each of us. But if we are to make these journeys, and come to these new perceptions, there is an almost moral obligation to share that wisdom with others who might make the trip themselves, something I’ll be interested to see unfold in the coming weeks.

On Notable Nights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teachers and Ritual Power

Notable class of 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shared Solitudes

Looking upTonight 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.

A Letter to my Students, on a Night they were Alive

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.

Deep seatsParents, 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.

Deadmau5A 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.”

Clint's Acceptance SpeechThe 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.

“That which you create,” Jonathan Toews wrote in his Notable address in 2010, speaking as IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, “Is yours to rejoice in.”

Indeed."That which you create is yours to rejoice in."Check out the TALONS Flickr set of Night of the Notables here.