On other new beginnings and other new beginnings’ ends…

Howe Sound

“Every man moves on,” says my father quietly, and I think he speaks of Santa Claus, “but there is no need to grieve. He leaves good things behind.”

From Alistair Macleod’s “To Everything There is a Season

At certain times in life, there is too much to rightly say – too much felt, experienced, too many lives intersected, relationships fostered, or memories shared. Attempts to set down thoughts and feelings at a time like this obscure anything that falls outside that declaration; people, sentiments, scenes, and places are erased not for their lack of importance, but because in trying to describe the wholewe inevitably lose sight of the infinite complexities that compose it.

That said, there are the statements of fact to be reckoned with, and with that in mind I do want to share that as of next year I will undertake a secondment as a Faculty Associate at Simon Fraser University, working as part of their professional programs to certify new teachers. For the first time in ten years I will be starting a new job, moving beyond the home and students and role I’ve known for the near-entirety of my professional career, and becoming again the New Guy, an apprentice green and young among my more seasoned colleagues.

These last few years I’ve found myself an experienced member of my school community: confident to speak up, take on leadership roles, experiment with pedagogy and assessment, to fight for my vision of equity and justice for my students and colleagues. But with this confidence I’ve also been struck with a sense of wanderlust. As nice as it has been to feel as though I have a handle on what I’m doing, a part of me has longed to leap into the unknown.

Firm in the belief that we are growing most when we are forced beyond our comfort zones, I began to feel that I had been pushing hard in a host of professional directions – union activism, curriculum development, professional collaboration – and that, in time, this pushing would take me somewhere beyond my local school community. Indeed I had enrolled in and completed a master’s program over the last few years so that such future doors might be open to me, should I seek them out, even without a firm idea of what these new adventures might entail.

To be sure, my work with the TALONS is and has been too good to be true. In its every iteration it is education as it could and should be: community-focused, experiential, authentic, and personal for teachers and students alike. Our students and their families are deeply supportive and committed to making our program reach ever more daring heights and achievements, and celebrate each cohort’s learning with enthusiasm and love that is infectious and inspiring. I have been fortunate beyond words to call this program home these last ten years, and have not taken the opportunity to step away lightly. No small part of me worries that I will never have it so good; but I know that such fears can too often get in the way of stepping out into those new frontiers that we will come to call home.

It is time to scare myself with uncertainty, lean into the discomfort of unfamiliarity, and know again the work that comes with breaking trail.

I would be remiss however if in this time of looking forward I did not look back at a few of the people and places that have given shape to my last decade, without whom whatever lies ahead would not be possible. Without whom the perspective that writes these words would not have come into being.

JAM #SQUAD

Q and Andy

Though they each deserve their own novels of gratitude and attempts to describe what it means to be both colleagues and family, a few words here must be devoted to my TALONS teaching partners, Quirien Mulder ten Kate and Andy Albright.

For her part, TALONS would not exist without Q. In the first it would not be a program in our district for gifted high school students; and in the second it would most certainly not exist in any of its current or future iterations without her superlative energy and devotion to students, learning, the natural world, and the purest ideals of public service.

Since I have known her (with every indication that the trend was established long before), Q has done the work of several people: teaching courses within and beyond the regular timetable, supporting extra-curricular events and activities on evenings and weekends, attending musical and dramatic performances without fail, completing a PhD while she taught summer and night school, volunteering at Wildlife Rescue, and working to support her parents, niece and nephew, as well as a host of godchildren. She is a paragon of productivity, cutting to-do lists to smithereens in the service of others to an extent I have trouble understanding, even while I’ve been able to study her at close proximity for a decade.

Team TeachingFew of us will do so much in our lives to improve the state of our communities or the lives of others as Q does in a month. It has been a densely packed, invigorating, evolving, reflective and critically educational ten years working alongside her, forcing me to stretch my weaker areas as well as to know my own strengths and how better to positively impact my communities of practice both within and beyond the school. Ours has been a relationship of compliments, where each of us has owned the skills and dispositions lacking in the other, and where a state of fluidity and trust has enabled us to grow a program and working relationship that pushes us each to become bigger than we are. I owe every moment of my TALONS experience to her superlative tenacity and devotion to making our program a reality, as do every one of the TALONS, past and future.

And where Q might exude a life lived to its full depth – with singular obsessions explored to their very essences and marrow – Andy joined our program for four years before retiring this winter to lend a sense of life’s breadth. Having come to teaching in his thirties, Andy had previously worked for years in group homes for people living with disabilities, played in bands in the British Columbian Kootenays, and travelled across Canada as a high school senior in a yellow school bus researching the heights of the rock era. He’s sipped Italian wine in Italy, slept under the stars in Oregon, and spent a good amount of his twenties in the Vancouver counterculture-enclaves of Kitselano, Squamish, and North Van before they were millionaire retreats and lucrative offshore investments.

Andy has read the “good” books, can quote Dylan (Thomas, or Bob), loves Monty Python, and frequently recites long passages of The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye. He and I spent a lot of time on busses, around campfires, and laughing at the stupendous incompetence of the local compliment of moving truck companies. We told one another stories, remembered old friends, and shared much of the time we were able to have with one another with a similar purpose: to let what would be emerge, and to determine its meaning and significance afterwards. Ever a calm and articulate force, Andy brought an intentionality and thoughtfulness to TALONS that balanced Q and I, and couldn’t help but influence my life outside of school.

Often in our talks late at night around the campfire – ostensibly keeping watch for TALONS wanderers who might be looking for some teenaged evening freedom – we would lie under the stars and Andy would remember stories about his long-passed friend, Mark, someone I never met but who infused our relationship with the knowledge that even once these moments were no longer – once we had retired, or moved onto other gigs, or whatever would yet transpire – our friendship and the memories of these golden, glowing years would continue.

Where each of my colleagues is concerned, they will be carried with me for the rest of my days. We’ve stood around many a smouldering campfire late at night, debriefing and discussing the day’s events, hiked mountainsides in torrential rain, and chased bears from our campsites together, all of which – and much more between – can only be known by those who will work with the TALONS.

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The Woods

A good deal of my professional life since university has transpired in the woods. In fact, my first legitimate educational work was teaching swimming and canoeing, lifeguarding and sailing, as well as what might have been called outdoor leadership in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas at a summer camp for Boy Scouts. Having been awarded an internship to study the Scouts organization by working at the Gus Blass Scout Reservation in 2003, I returned in ’04 and ’05, and gained the teaching experience and other prerequisites to enter the PDP Program and obtain my teaching certification (without ever explicitly pursuing education as a career path).

I had always enjoyed camping, skiing, and swimming in lakes and rivers, of course. But partway through my time in Arkansas I began to take weekend adventures with a teammate (from Prince George, BC) into the southern wilds, and similarly started to lustily plan my summers home in BC with an extra fervour for the oceanside mountains of the coastal range. I started to read Walden, and Jack Kerouac, and non-fiction tomes by Sebastian Junger and John Krakaur while I starting to reach toward what lessons that the wildernesses of my two homes might have to teach me.

In a way, it was how I connected to British Columbia, even while living far from home: what makes the left coast special, to my mind, will always be the unique collision of mountains and the sea. And so while I roamed the south I kept an eye out for the woods and forests on the edges of town: my roommates and I took canoe trips on the White and Buffalo Rivers, we explored the Ozark National Forest, and made regular trips to the top of Pinnacle Mountain just outside of Little Rock.

Eventually I would be working for the Boy Scouts, and not long after that be in PDP, and then teaching the TALONS program, getting the job on the heels of volunteering on the program’s first adventure trip in 2006. The following year, I became a TALONS teacher and our classroom took to the hillsides of Eagle Ridge, and Buntzen Lake, the Fraser River and Harrison Hot Springs. Squamish. The Gulf Islands. The Sunshine Coast.

In our work, Q and Andy, and now Dave and I have been fortunate to act as ambassadors for the natural world, tour guides into botany, natural history, wilderness survival, and leave-no-trace camping. Our jobs take us into the backcountry, down rivers and over mountains, engage us in the most unique collaborations and problem solving situations. We have met the most wonderful people, and been involved in the most challenging pedagogies out of doors. And we have been fortunate to share our joy in living in BC with young people, who leave our program with a raft of experiential memories created in the magic of the coastal wilds: having learned, as one does, the most authentic lessons about life and the self that Mother Nature makes available to us.

TALONS Grade Nine Retreat

The Precious

“It’s not the end of anything: now you get to go out into the world and recreate this, whatever you think this is.”

TALONS grade twelve peer tutor Katie F, speaking to grade tens on the last night of the Adventure Trip in 2012.

There are a lot of educational buzz words the TALONS program has recognized in its evolving embrace of 21st century learning these last many years: place-based, inquiry, experiential, collaborative or community-based, as well as a host of others. There are myriad ways in which the Betts’ Autonomous Learner Model has bent and evolved to contain multitudes, and as I am fond of quoting Emerson, has proven time and again that “At the periphery there is infinite complexity, while at the centre there is simplicity of cause.”

The simplicity of cause that we have lived by these last ten years, which has infused the TALONS program and the lives of those who have passed through its two year cycle, has been the idea that while we all take part in the same basic structures and contexts of learning, what is learned is up to the individual. It is a prerequisite of emergent learning that what is learned arises from the uniquely individual contributions and perspectives of those involved, and cannot be predetermined.

We cannot know from year to year or cohort to cohort what will come about through the traditional pillars of a given TALONS year. The themes, jokes, stories, and lessons of each group are created and held onto by the individuals that pass through the classroom and our community; and while there are rhymes or echoes of the years gone by, each year has brought about completely new iterations of the TALONS community. No two experiences, individual or collective, has yet to be the same.

But there is something that runs through: a simplicity of unspoken cause that keeps our alumni coming back to our Night of the Notables or InDepth Celebrations, maintains friendships across university educations, and keeps us committed as teachers to sleepless nights in May and June, and tearful conclusions at the end of the year. A few years back this unnamed entity started being referred to as The Precious: that unknowable essence that first arises on the Fall Retreat, and fuels the enthusiasm of the Eminent Person Study, and culminates in the storm of April, May, and June (always pronounced Aprilmayjune). It is that feeling, known to those who have felt it, but which they cannot describe to outsiders. It is the reason that the frenzy of what may appear from the outside to be too much, too taxing, or too strenuous, is never worthy of regret.

As I began this post, I can still only admit that there is too much to say, really. There have been too many experiences, memories, and lessons along the way. Arguably it has been something that few will be able to relate to, but that those who know will understand without explanation.

I will defer here to a joke made of the attempt to sum up what TALONS means to those on their way out, and in addition to these near-twenty four hundred words, offer the reflections of our alumni, Liam, who said simply, “It was good.”

So good.

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.

On Knowledge

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It’s a great thing to receive invites like this one from Manitoba civics teacher extraordinaire Matt Henderson, and be prompted to a discussion of knowledge spanning two continents and including some of my favourite edu-thinkers in a single Tweet. A huge admirer of GNA Garcia, Zoe Branigan-Pipe, and Thomas Steele-Maley for their influence on my thinking about teaching and learning already, I’m excited at the introduction to @gmbchomichuk and Jock Martin, as well as the folks Matt is cavorting with in South America (nice timing, considering Manitoba has recently recorded temperatures colder than Mars). 

Matt followed up with a note to those of us who jumped at the opportunity to connect:

On Tuesday, we are workshopping (did I just say that?) the idea of knowledge acquisition: How do people acquire knowledge and how can teachers facilitate this process effectively?
As you all are expert/master teachers in my eyes (whom I adore), could you provide me with an explanation of how you personally acquire knowledge and how you as a teacher foster acquisition in your learning environments?


Envious of the ability he has to say it so well, I think Thomas has already articulated many perspectives on knowledge that guide my own personal development and conception of pedagogy.

I love this:

I see my learning broadly as a theory, design, and praxis cycle. I yearn to theorize the world around me, design learning environments for myself and others that intervene in the confluent and ever changing learning process. I then actively test those designs through mentorship, facilitation, teaching and learning.  Thus, I acquire knowledge through qualitative, quantitative and distributed modalities:

      • I read, write and cipher daily and have done more than my fair share of institutional learning (schools-universities).
      • I  am connected and those connections can grow, focus, change, and enhance my experiences and those of others acquiring knowledge.

Recognizing that schools bear an institutional responsibility to reproduce the subjectivities that lead to the successful aspects of society or civilization, I try to co-create educational experiences that reflect this messier authenticity at the heart of transformative, enlightenment education, which Michel Foucault characterized as something that should:

“…be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”

This view of learning relies on an emergent epistemology, or view of knowledge “that does not exist except in participatory actions.”

I am indebted to Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta for helping visualize an emergent pedagogy, where:

The meanings that emerge in classrooms cannot and should not be pre-determined before the ‘event’ of their emergence.”

Philosophical TraditionsThese postmodern conceptions of knowledge might strike some as too abstract or high-minded to bear any practical application to modern schooling; but it bears pointing out that the traditions that underpin this type of emergent knowledge creation are inextricably tied to modern philosophical traditions alive since the seventeen hundreds. In discussing what constitutes scientific or political truth, or how to designate a consensus of public opinion, or what is entailed in living a ‘good life’ (as well as what that ‘good life’ is, and who gets to live it), we are asking philosophical questions that represent the emancipatory ideals of modern learning as conceived during the Enlightenment period.

To be free to pursue one’s own mind and potential is irrevocably connected to one’s freedom from political tyranny: it is thus that we see that the continental revolutions in science, art and religion followed directly by political, technological and economic upheaval across the known world.

Intrigued by the interdisciplinary ethos running throughout this tradition, I spent a lot of time this semester thinking about how they might be brought into my classrooms, and found a likely opportunity to realize emergence in my Philosophy 12 course during our Metaphysics unit.

On the class site, I introduced a unit plan wherein:

Our task, in general terms, will be to encounter the lives and ideas of metaphysicians. And, in asking of ourselves what we can interpret of their essential guiding questions, to engage in the study of our own metaphysical thoughts and conceptions. This will happen in exposition on the class blog, connections made through comments and conversation, and inquiry through reflection and dialogue.

As the participants’ individual conceptions of reality, experience and knowledge were beginning to be shaped by the reading and inquiry they were conducting into the lives and ideas of various metaphysicians, I was considering the shift in thinking Osberg and Biesta described in emergent pedagogy.

I shared these ideas with the class as we began to conceive of what the summative reflection of the unit’s learning might become:

“The meaning of any new knowledge [which] ‘emerges’ would be highly specific to the complex system from which is emerged, it follows that no ‘knowledge object’ can retain its meaning in a different situation.”

We had, in Freirian terms, begun an investigation into the group’s generative themes, the guiding metaphors and narratives at the heart of our unique collected cultural experience, and brainstormed the ways in which we might realize the aims of his brand of emancipatory learning:

“To investigate the generative theme is to investigate the people’s thinking about reality an people’s action upon reality, which is their praxis. For precisely this reason, the methodology proposed requires that the investigators and the people (who would normally be considered objects of that investigation) should act as co-investigators. The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics, the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality.”

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12

And so one Thursday, after two weeks in which each member of the class had delved into the life and metaphysical question of some of the greatest thinkers in history, and spent time outside of school (as part of a long weekend ‘individual field trip‘ assignment) considering those questions, the class met to construct its Discussable Object (here is a link to the expanded photoset).

Here’s how I described it at the time:

The group engaged one another in a discussion that left a recorded physical ‘tail‘ that could be seen, and held onto.

Indeed, it was an ‘object‘ that came into being only by virtue of being suspended between the class’ interrelated ideas, and whose creation facilitated a synthesis of collecting thinking and learning.

In a reflection written shortly after the creation of the Discussable Object, I asked participants about their experience with this type of socially-constructed knowledge, where many returned to the idea of knowledge existing in those “participatory actions”:

Education is always in a participatory manner. The act of learning is to gain foreign information. The only source of foreign information is gained from other sources. Whether you’re reading a book, blog, or looking at a painting, you’re having a discussion, the basic form of exchanging knowledge. Discussions or conversation is the exchange of ideas. You require two parties. It is regardless if the other party is a person, a painting or a blogpost. The exchange is happening. Knowledge cannot be shared, used, or exist if it is not participating in active thought. 

Asked to reflect on the unit’s essential opportunities, several highlighted the open-endedness of the unit’s planning and structure:

I would keep the idea of “Phil’s day off” and the final class discussion. To me, I highly enjoyed the freedom we had to go about this unit and the opportunity to basically act like our own philosophers when thinking about certain questions.

Phil’s Day Off and the whole concept of the object. I thought that this made the assignment personal and gave us all a chance to really reflect and be creative. I would not have done Phil’s Day Off had it not been for homework simply because I’m lazy. Making it homework made it necessary and ultimately I’m glad I had that experience.

Group discussion was excellent. It facilitated a deeper understanding of themes and objectives. I think doing a #philsdayoff with out groups included and maybe even mixing up groups would’ve made it interesting.

I think the freedom aspect of Phil’s Day Off really helped the class think more about the conversation that we had the following week. It’s really fresh to have such freedom in a class, and it kept me engaged in my topic. 

I really enjoyed the group discussion because it was very enlightening and approached the topic in a different way that was more engaging than just writing about it in the blog.

The whole experience was quite something to behold, as is I believe this opportunity to share and discuss these various views of knowledge and learning. I think anytime people are making meaning together, we’re delivering on those promises of the Enlightenment, and that our cultural potential and possibility lies in our ability to cultivate greater and greater reservoirs of the human experience.

I’m grateful to participate in that anytime. But especially when it’s in classrooms and conversations with people like those included here. Thanks for the invite to connect, our future conversations, and for the learning from here on out.

TALONS Worldbuilding Project