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

Screen shot 2014-01-27 at 3.54.00 PM

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