Learning On the Road: NYC Edition

Brooklyn Bridge

Just back from a whirlwind six-day sojourn in New York City, I’ve been thinking about the thread that runs the breadth of the learning I have been fortunate to join in on the road. In the British Columbia backcountryCuban fine arts classroomsbackstage tours of Disneylandweekends at local ski resorts, and now the Big Apple, I’ve shared a love for adventure and travel with students across a wide variety of multi-day excursions. However the contexts of these adventures may vary from urban jungles to deserted forests or Gulf Island beaches, there is a unifying element in the experiences they offer.

“At the periphery there is infinite complexity; at the centre there is simplicity of cause.”

Emerson

Invariably, there is the ostensible purpose of the trip at hand: to hike the length of a coastal backcountry trek; to experience the interior powder and slope-side hot tubs on an escape to a local ski community; or to experience the mecca of American musical theatre on Broadway. But it is often the time and energy spent journeying to these locations, or the unexpected side trips and adaptations in these original intentions that create the most memorable moments and experiences. It is in accounting for subway travel in a group of thirty through Manhattan rush hour, or the rowdy long-weekenders encroaching on our evening campfires, that a trip becomes more than its slated itinerary, and an adventure engaged in whole-heartedly by its participants.

“We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

Steinbeck

A few weeks ago four of us (our theatre teacher and trip organizer, one of our vice-principals, myself and the lovely Mrs. Jackson) accompanied twenty six of our school’s musical theatre students to New York City. Our purpose was explicitly trained on Broadway, and seeing a trio of musicals (Miss Saigon, The Lion King, and Wicked), as well as a backstage tour at the Gershwin Theatre and a coupe of workshops and Q&A’s with working broadway choreographers, stage combat specialists, and performers. But the trip was also an encounter with one of the world’s Great Cities, a brief but immersive dip into the mythical city of Gotham, with the wonder of Times Square, the Empire State Building, Greenwich Village, and the Brooklyn Bridge.

So we attended our shows and workshops. The students were guided through the subways to Harlem, and Central Park, and grew to know their ways around Times Square and the midtown blocks surrounding our hotel. But as ever there was much more that created profound meaning and memories for our chaperones and students.

On a mad dash through the financial district, we huddled around the bronzed girl standing down the Wall Street Bull, traversed the cemetery where Alexander and Eliza Hamilton are laid to rest, and stood somber at the reflecting pools at the World Trade Centre, all in less than half an hour.

In the East Village outside the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, we paused the assembled students on the curb while my wife and I negotiated with our real estate agent back in Vancouver over the final details of an offer we were making on a town house.

Stonewall

And the next morning, we wound our way underground to the monument at Stonewall not far from Washington Square Park with a handful of students for whom the whitened statues of gay liberation activists represented a unmissable pilgrimage.

Stonewall

The sun was bright and we had a little more than an hour to visit the area around Washington Square Park, navigating quickly through the East Village streets with the help of Google Maps and nine students. Arriving above ground not far from Gay Street, there was a sense of approaching holy ground – holy for the unholy, perhaps: those left out of the almighty’s light for too long – a giddiness of self-recognition, of connection to those whose struggle made these lives – still difficult, still too often disregarded, to be sure – possible.

There was a sense of standing at a different kind of ground zero.

A few days earlier we’d been in Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial just inside the gates to Central Park, and another ode to the mad ones who have made New York the mecca of America’s wildest minds, from Hamilton, to Lou Reed, to the men and women who fought at Stonewall to create a broader representation of what it means to be human, to be acceptable, to be seen in the national narrative.

In New York you can be a new man,” the song says. And maybe that’s true. With seven short days in the city under my belt it is impossible for me to say.

But perhaps the lesson and the inspiration of New York is that you can be yourself, as bright and blazing as can be. Perhaps the canvas is as wide and as tall as we can make it, to be celebrated or condemned, attacked or revered.

Perhaps the lesson is as yet unlearned, and has only just begun to be scratched.

As with the best of learning in the wild, and on the road, the lessons go on being written for years after the adventure concludes.

The story continues to unfold.

“Moments happen quickly, and changes come slowly.”

Summer school

The title of this post, and its contents are synthesis and reflection of my thoughts while reading James Nahachewsky and David Slomp’s book chapter “Sound and Fury: Studied Response(s) of Curriculum and Classroom in Digital Times,” originally published in Beyond ‘Presentism’: Re-Imagining the Historical, Personal, and Social Places of Curriculum (2009).

Similar to Borges‘ introduction, “like all men, he was given bad times in which to live,” we find ourselves in complex times that have yet undeniably coalesced into a present “moment” that might be described as a Digital Age. The arrival of these digital times has arrived with

“a shift in perspective that recently has thrown many modernist educational boundaries and underlying assumptions into doubt – including constructs of learner and teacher, and schooling itself (Gee, 2004; Knobel & Lankshear, 2007). This shift is due, in part to young people’s own fluid, de-territorialized meaning-making afforded by the consumption and, perhaps more importantly, the production of digital texts.”

Nahachewsky and Slomp present the problem of how confronting these new realities of the digital age reveals a contradiction in that “digital texts, as created by young people become sites of action and agency [while] Arguably, brick and mortar classrooms are not.” The language arts, the authors note, are uniquely situated to reveal the particular opportunities such times present the study of pedagogy, as new media arise, changing the relationships between students, teachers, and even broader educative communities beyond our institutions. Using the shift brought to text by the digital age as a corollary, the authors begin to outline a structural transformation that is beginning to be seen in literacy education.

“The spaces of classroom and educational digital texts create complex dialogic ‘contact zones’ (Bakhtin 1981), where we may witness the representation of learner, teacher, and curriculum in interesting, complex, and non-traditional ways.”

Highlighting the example of the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol for Collaboration in Basic Education, Nahachewsky and Slomp note that democratic governments have engaged the collision of the 21st century and its burgeoning technological revolution to provoke discussion around the revolutionizing of curriculum itself, though the section of the paper begins with a quote from Jerome Bruner’s Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (1986):

“Language- can never be neutral, it imposes a point of view not only about the world to which it refers, but toward the use of mind in respect of this world.”

Because while the governments of the western provinces strive toward a collaboratively determined common curriculum that will best prepare young Canadians for the digital and globalized 21st century, “The primary issue the Ministers [of education from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon and the North West Territories] identified in the agreement was the need to optimize the limited resources of the provinces in improving education [emphasis from the original].” The point of view “imposed,” and which frames the narrative of educational reform contextualizes the task as one of necessity rather than aspiration.

One needn’t suggest that fiscal responsibility shouldn’t constitute an aspect of educational discourse; but by beginning from this foundation, the “authors” of our curricular narratives – granted such voice by the democratic processes guiding public policy in Canada – limit the possible iterations of curriculum that might better contribute to education’s guiding purpose(s) than those created solely out of financial necessity. With the broad focus of literacy, the authors summarize the purpose of language learning expressed in the WNCP, which presents literacy as a tool:

“To facilitate thinking, define culture, develop personal identity, build interpersonal relationships, extend experience, facilitate reflection, contribute to a democratic society, construct and convey meanings, and facilitate metacognitive awareness.”

But while even optimists among us might appreciate these strokes of application that these democratic processes have sketched out on our collective behalf, the authors emphasize what is not included in this discussion of education’s future, what is not part of the narrative authored on society’s behalf: “the question, To what end?”

“…to what end do we use language to facilitate thinking or to construct meaning?”

In other words, what is understanding? And what is it for?

The affordances of new media in these digital times has further contributed to the disruption of the narrative of the singular author, a process that has been at work throughout the modernist period and which dates back to the Enlightenment period. Such philosophical movements are congruent with Bruner’s suggestion “that our use of language has a constitutive role in creative social reality and concepts of our selves.” 

To paraphrase Michael Wesch, our digital times present us with the opportunity to witness Marshall McLuhan‘s edict that “we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us,” in real time, largely through the critical study and experimentation with different forms of texts encountered in the language arts classroom. Indeed, Nahachewsky and Slomp point out that “this has important implications for the culture of education and the concepts of self that teachers and students co-construct.”

As the revolution of text online has challenged the notion of a single authorial rendering (even of an original work or act), so too might the digital age present the opportunity to consider the direction and construction of meaning to be a collaborative act between students who are guided in this process by a teacher. However well intended, our present schools are places where

“students are seen as participants who are given a role as ‘performing spectators who play out their canonical roles according to rule when appropriate cues appear.”

Bruner notes further than “this role causes the child to only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it.” However much this framing might offer a shift in perspective to today’s educators, it has been more than one hundred years since Maria Montessori lamented that while “it is true that some pedagogues, led by Rousseau, have given voice to the impracticable principles and vague aspirations for the liberty of the child […], the true concept of liberty is practically unknown to educators.” (Montessori 1912)

More than one hundred years ago, Montessori wished

“to direct the teacher to awaken in him[self], in connection with his own particular field, the school, that scientific spirit which opens the door for him to broader and bigger possibilities. In other words, we wish to awaken in the mind and heart of the educator an interest in natural phenomena to such an extent that, loving nature, he shall understand the anxious and expectant attitude of one who has prepared an experiment and who awaits a revelation from it.”

However as we look to the educative narrative presented in Canada today, we might note the Federal Harper Government’s discussions of scientific discovery have similarly limited its scope to invest “scarce resources” in research that offers a practical return on investment, thus affirming the broader cultural narrative of perpetuating an infinite growth economy as our highest purpose.

As it is in education, the question To what end? is not included in the discussion of why we ought pursue scientific discovery (if not to achieve predicted economic outcomes), and the omission represents an abandoning of principles around which our cultural, social, artistic, political and moral traditions each originate and continue to revolve, those traditions which coalesced and were articulated during the dawn of the era of mass-printed texts.

Following the invention of the printing press, Europe witnessed the transformation of its public sphere(s) (Habermas 1991), with paradigmatic shifts visited upon religion, politics, science, philosophy and the arts. The ability of greater and greater numbers of people to encounter and freely share new ideas delivered a cataclysm upon the singular narratives of public affairs constructed with absolute power by monarchs and churches, and is the overarching arc of justice which guides foundational schools of western philosophical thought to this day. Broadening the base of authorship in the creation of a collective narrative led directly to the transformation of the existent structures of the preceding paradigm.

We might learn from these events, as the advent of our modern, digital technologies presents what may constitute an analogous ‘moment’ of cultural revolution where the discussion of what might be is at least as relevant for discussion as the prospects of what must be. In fact, we have learned much from those who sought to uphold the mantles of chalice and crown throughout the various Enlightenment revolutions employed various arguments to make their case, and should proceed skeptically with those who would tell us what “must be.” With the traditions of scholarship and tools we have acquired in the age of empiricism, the test to establish what “must”…

must be of the strictest rigor.

In the meantime, it is equally important that modern educationists explore and discover what can be, as it is central to the task of creating a fuller perception of nature and humankind which the traditions of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and political philosophy demand of us.