Something that I haven’t given as much blog attention here as I would have liked so far this semester is the vibrant community that has sprung up around our school’s Introduction to Guitar class. Having had students post their work regularly to a wiki site in past years, I wanted to incorporate some of the design lessons I learned in #Philosophy12 and create a site that could function as a hub of creation, collaboration, and community that would serve not only our school’s face-to-face guitar students, but also offer wayfinding musicians on the open web a place to play, learn, and offer their own expertise to one another.
…it is not a class that teaches guitar but one where you can learn guitar.
And while I think the course has always functioned this way as a ‘closed’ system (even though we have shared our exploits on Youtube, #ds106radio, and other places), the energy and inspiration that our open online participants have so far brought to the class has increased the creative combustibility of the group by several orders of magnitude. There are folks in Japan, Ontario, Australia, Singapore, and even Ontario-azona strumming along with #IntroGuitar lessons and assignments, sharing stories of their instruments, their struggles (and triumphs) of playing music, and making meaningful musical connections with the face-to-face students who meet daily in our school’s choir room through videos, blog comments, and listening to performances in class.
One such connection that has been working its way through the course community began as a poem shared by a student of Jabiz Raisdana, in Singapore.
Having made some trans-oceanic songs written with Jabiz over the years, I opened up a Google Document and began sanding the poems edges and syllables with some chords and a basic melody. I recorded this so that folks could follow up with what I had made out of Michelle’s orginal poem, and posted the works on Twitter and the #IntroGuitar blog.
Over the weekend, Nathan John Moes continued to work with the chords and Michelle’s lyrics and added this version of the song that has been stuck in my head since Sunday night.
Which all would have been amazing, right? A poem gets posted late at night (I might be adding that piece to the narrative…) on a student blog in Singapore, and a week later it’s spawned a song that has been amended, added to, and recorded by a few teachers in British Columbia.
Of his work putting the song and the recording together, Colin said:
...this is totally uncharted territory for me.
Totally uncharted territory, for a guy who isn’t even getting a grade or credit for the course and – beyond that – has been playing guitar for more than ten years.
And yet still, the ball bounces, and rolls. This morning Leslie joined the party all the way from Lima, Peru, Camrose, Alberta, offering the fifth (!) incarnation of the poem accompanied by her ukelele.
But this is likely not the end of this particular story, with chapters, verses and tomes yet to be discovered.
Having been exploring technology in the classroom for a few years now, I’ve seen more than a few passing trends in pedagogical circles come and go: blogs, wikis, podcasts; flipped classes, pe(a)rsonalized learning, Twitter, SharePoint, Edublogs, Youtube. Each has garnered momentary Klout clout in the Pedablogisphere before giving way to the Next Big Thing, a trend D’Arcy Norman pointed out in his recently completed masters thesis:
…educational technology can be prone to cycles of hype and fetishism, where new tools and applications are rapidly adopted by individuals who are seen as innovators in the field, with little time for thorough or rigorous investigation of the pedagogical strategies that may be enabled by the affordances of these new tools.
As I’ve seen the timeline of some of these technologies stretch beyond the horizons both ahead and behind us, I’ve sought to synthesize some of what I’ve found meaningful as a classroom teacher, outdoor leader, and an adult learner in physical and digital spheres into a sense of pedagogy that is in line with the rest of my views of teaching, and education.
He not busy being born, Bob Dylan tells us, is busy dying, and I have to agree with him and Gardner Campbell, who cites this compulsion to learn, to grow and expand our notions of ourselves and our place in the world as part of the evolutionary purpose of humanity itself. Beginning with Felix Baumgartner’s leap from the edge of space, and building on TS Eliot and the Music of the Spheres, Campbell’s keynote at the Open Education Conference in Vancouver last fall, The Ecologies of Yearning, helped me see the course of action toward Wesch’s call to envision new horizons as one central to the educational trust: to become open, and to be involved in openingoneself, one’s classroom, and one’s mind, to the possibility of building beyond our potential.
Each of these openings, I have to think, is indivisible from the others. An open mind is an open class is an open society. Some might say we are duty bound to go about creating the open society.
“This is what we say we want,” Campbell says of education: “Life long learning, critical thinking, adaptation.”
But in practice, he notes, “In this model, all the bets are off. Even the bets about the bets being off.”
The type of learning Campbell and Wesch are talking about, in other words, is risky business, especially when institutions are concerned, institutions which are bound by one responsibility to the will of the participant, but by another to the upholding of the order of the system itself, a paradox that confronts many stakeholders in modern education systems – K12, Higher Ed, Public, and Independent alike.
But Campbell introduces the work of Gregory Bateson, an “English anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist,” whose work with schizophrenia focused on just this sort of paradoxical “Double Bind,” and for which his Hierarchy of Learning serves as a sort of road map that I’ve written about before. Progressing forward from “Learning Zero,” the sort of critical thinking and adaptation included in mission statements and commencement speeches harkens Bateson’s
Learning III, and [the} bringing about [of the] possibility of Learning IV, must be concerned then with what the contexts of learning communicate - in where and how learning is carried out, what is motivating the learner, how the facilitating teacher interacts with the process, etc – but also with providing safe and authentic opportunities to “experience breaches in the weave of contextual structure.”
It is a sort of yearning, that Campbell speaks about, and which elements of digitization put us in touch with, that offer what he calls “some deep experience of the richness, the complexity, the ecologies of yearning that inform our desire to make meaning of our experience, which we must do together.”
And so whether it’s blogs, wikis, podcasts or campfires; videos, GIFs, or walks in the woods, the story of human progress, and knowledge, is about learning to adapt to these “breaches in the weave of contextual structure,” something that the Internet has brought us in spades. That we should be using it to capitalize on the greatest capacities we possess – creativity and self-expression, community-building and collaboration – seems the most genuine of purposes for classroom learning to take on, and something I’ve found in educational opportunities that thrive because of an attitude of openness.
Shotgun style, here are a few places that I think I’ve managed to create digital workplaces that are on the web, true, but are also of the web, itself.
It’s fitting that two of the TALONS alumni that originally gave me the guitar pictured above are actually in Introduction to Guitar this semester. I’m glad that they’ll get to see some of the story of the TALONS guitar that they might not have been privy to in the last two and a half years of its life here in a post that hopefully gives you here an idea of some of the power of musical instruments as totems of community, of place and of the people that connect them to us.
Clayton was actually the (or, a) prior owner of this guitar as his classmates neared the end of grade nine, and were plotting a year-end present pour moi, he volunteered it as a possible canvas that Immy could adorn with some personal and TALONS-related icons and symbols in paints and felt-tipped markers. A group of about ten or fifteen of the grade nine cohort showed up on a day near the end of June in my office to present the guitar to me, and if I recall, in my gushing surprise, I said something like, “Ohmigod, you wonderful, wonderful children.”
Which they are. Which they were.
Since then the guitar has accompanied me and the ensuing TALONS classes everywhere; it is my and our “travel guitar.” Even if the action is a bit high, and it doesn’t hold its tuning perfectly, it is too pretty to only live indoors. And its story is too good to not introduce it to new people.
One of the first ventures the guitar got to take was back east and into Algonquin Park, at the inaugural Unplug’d Educational Summit. In feeling particularly blessed to be invited along to Unplug’d, where so many of my educational idols were going to be collected, I was proud to bring the class’ guitar to the event, as it has been through my working relationships with TALONS learners these last few years that any of these people would have ever heard of me. Sitting on the dock at the lake, singing Tragically Hip songs in the back of a canoe, and getting to lead a campfire singalong with forty educational leaders from across Canada was a supremely memorable experience, and one that the TALONS guitar played no small part in.
Somewhere out there on the lake, it was becoming clear that what GNA Garcia had tweeted to me upon seeing a picture of the guitar was true:
The gift of a musical instrument is actually a gift to all of the people that will ever hear it.
What a thing to contemplate: that these objects are conduits for community, and connections between people. I started thinking – although I was only just starting – about what it meant to be someone who wielded one of these instruments, and how musicians can be vessels of sorts as well.
But more on that later… this is about the guitar, not me.
Since then, I’m happy to report, the guitar has made it on plenty of TALONS trips – into the woods on the Sunshine Coast, to Squamish, Hicks Lake – and on a host of my own adventures – family vacations to Vancouver Island, camping on Galiano. It’s the guitar that seems to deserve to be taken on adventures, and played outside, and to acquire more stories.
In its way it is its own entity: a magical and powerful object, and one I’m grateful to have encountered, and to keep encountering, every time I pick it up or hear it played.
Thanks Clayton and Immy for introducing us!
[Photo credits starting at the top: In its natural habitat, by Me; Dr. Alec @courosa Couros playing the guitar by @GiuliaForsythe; Canoe Strumming by @GiuliaForsythe (she was also paddling the canoe); Conservation & Song by @Aforgrave.]
As a mode of teaching, Richard transcended innovation and went about continually inventing his classroom environment out of blank space and the unique personalities that filled it. And while many of these plays were banged out on a typewriter, and others were written into formatted word documents to be printed out and memorized, I always come back to believing that it is this type of invention and innovation our classrooms so badly need today, just as they always have.
On his last day of school, Richard and I were talking about the new guitar class I was going to be teaching the following September, just down the hall from what would no longer be his classroom’s black box. I told him that aside from being excited at the prospect of the course, I didn’t know where I wanted to take it just yet.
“The important thing to remember,” he said, “is that every class you teach is just another opportunity for students to practice forming communities.”
You can read the whole post on the CEA blog. See the other contributions to the series on innovation here. Thanks again to Max and CEA for the invitation, and to Richard for the eternally sage advice.
Having turned the corner here in metro-Vancouver toward fall and winter, I thought I would post the video of a very warm afternoon (the last official day of summer 2012) and a writing prompt that travelled a long way to get there.
Special props are due to Liam, who rose to the occasion and supplied the harmonica solo.
A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to meet a handful of local talented musicians in an afternoon session I delivered at the inaugural Port Moody Youth Arts Festival, where through the course of an afternoon we would set out to write a song. In addition to the afternoon workshop, my name was slated for half an hour as the opening act of the evening showcase, and I hoped that I wouldn’t be standing on the stage explaining a failed effort.
I prepared the sparest of materials to make the most of our time during the afternoon, and spent my energy providing the space and the canvas, along with whatever emerging know-how I’ve gained in the last year about what makes songs come together and what they require to be performed convincingly I could. Fortunately, the Port Moody teens who had signed up for the workshop were exceptionally talented writers, musicians, collaborators, and performers.
The workshop was scheduled for the top floor of City Hall, a vaulted dome ceiling befitting our quaint suburban capital with a veranda that offered a view of Inlet Park, the rec center, and public library. It seemed a dignified place to be crafting a song out of the ether, and even if this went unspoken, the group set about searching for riffs and opening hooks, imagery and themes in pairs and individual spots around the space with diligence and urgency. At fifteen minute intervals, the group met as a whole to share the pieces they had come up with, and teach them to one another.
Eventually, the collective settled on an opening verse by a marvelous budding singer-songwriter named Julia, and while she retreated to the patio to extend the verses and lyrics, the rest of the group experimented with various other instrumentation that began to bring the song to life: acoustic guitars, bass, ukelele with slide, drums, a twelve string.
As a few of the participants were called to the stage to soundcheck their own band, Julia, Mickelvin, and Patrick worked to develop a chorus with transitions and complimentary guitar licks that built a musical tension throughout the song, and it was quickly typed up and photocopied in the library downstairs. There were a few last minute run throughs in the evening light of the floor-to-ceiling windows, and at five o’clock we broke for dinner.
The evening showcase was set to begin with us at six-thirty, and the group had yet to play the song on stage. But after a handful of run-throughs after dinner, the mood was relaxed while the newly minted band hung out with the evening’s emcees and the other acts, picking at pizza and veggie platters before being called to the stage.
I introduced the group and provided a brief summary of the day’s events, and then scurried into the audience to record video as the troupe proceeded to bring the house down. In a scaled down version of the Thirty Person Rock Band Project, the workshop was a success for the way it allowed the individual talents of the participants to shine. Julia, Mickelvin, Patrick, Theo, Ian, Isaac, Jonathan and Michael came to the session open to who they might meet, and what they might be able to make together.
Admittedly, this is the Casa (not Soundlab), but that is the 12 string Grant was playing in the Soundlab recordings).
Originally dropped in Alan Levine’s Storybox, which I think was supposed to remain a one-stop shop for media content, Grant Potter and I recorded a bunch of songs sitting around the Soundlab kitchen table back in September of 2011 that I’ve played on #ds106radio a time or two, but thought I would share here. I’ve spent the last week assembling different pieces of music, writing and presentations to be collected and shared on a separate page of this site with the hopes that assembling these works in such a way will lead me to the ‘next’ place in each of these extra-curricular directions.
As a kick off, and look back, at some of the music I feel fortunate to have made in the last year, here are a few choice cuts from the Soundlab Sessions, with Grant Potter.
In what unconsciously turned out to be a culmination of the Fall’s Learning in Public project, guitar class this spring challenged a group of individuals to create and rally around a mutually agreed-upon idea for a new kind of class activity. Nothing overly complex, the Bears became an elemental symbol around which we were able to create a basic, guitar based rock and roll band that brought diverse classroom traits and talents to the forefront of our daily work.
Let me state here that I have little formal training as a music teacher, have never really played in a band (save a few student groups where I served much more an eager sponsor-teacher than bandmate), let alone led one, and had no idea throughout the process whether the endeavour would be successful, let alone what direction it might take on a given day.Initially, the class formed into small groups that functioned as committees responsible for various elements of the band’s life cycle: project management, branding, media, songwriting, arrangement. What the band became, every step of the way, would be built out of an individual and collective commitment to the cause: that of the continual creation of the band.
Not that these aren’t all things I was and am passionate to discover. This year my own musical growth has snowballed toward just such a learning opportunity, allowing me to frame my role as ‘teacher’ during the process as that of ‘lead learner,’ something we hear and talk about a lot as teachers, but which can be difficult to create deliberately. In this case, my purposeful treading of water mostly consisted of the necessity of keeping the project moving forward the only ways I knew how: creating opportunities for each of the committees, and the individuals composing them, to imagine a possible next step for the project, and then motivate and guide them in carrying it out.
This all being said, the success of the band was in the hands of the class as much as I could make it; I made an agreement with them – not unlike one that I feel like I make in most classes, but in this case it was explicit: so long as we all acknowledge that we can create something special here, I am going to hold you to the goals that you each set for yourselves to be a part of that process.
Whether we are successful or not has less to do with my expectations of the individuals in my class than my facilitation of the learning experience, where ideally each learner holds themselves to their own expectations.
What I’ve found that this ‘agreement’ helps bring about is an environment that is able to capitalize on the unique talents in the room. Once the band got going, people learned to arrange mic cables and amplifiers to maximize the effect of our sound; others wrote songs, led rehearsals, and created a logo for the newly minted Bears (that we eventually screened on T-shirts); various members of the band ran around with a videocamera, or various iPhones and iPads, to record and document the process, and on the second to last day of the year – following the chaos of locker-cleanout – we promoted and played a gig in the front entrance of the school that people had been alerted to by awesome hand-drawn fliers (complete with QR codes linking to the band’s Facebook page).
All of this happened in five weeks, during which I was away for a week on a TALONS class trip, and many members of the class were preparing to graduate high school. Like Ray Manzarek said of the year he and Jim Morrison formed the Doors, “we had a strange visitation of the energy,” an energy that is the intangible vibration of musical community and communication.
I start each guitar semester by telling my classes that humans evolved a wiring to participate in music; that our ability to stomp our feet, beat drums or chant in concert and unison literally set our ancestors apart from others who might not be so in tune (pardon the pun) with one another, and that communicating in music established the pathways and connections in our brains that eventually allowed us to develop language, and begin to know ourselves and one another in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.
On those first days of guitar every semester, we usually begin by snapping our fingers in time with one another, or passing bean bags through the air to a shared rhythm to learn one another’s names. I tell them that the ability to sync up like this is so innate that a person will be able to more exactly join in rhythm with another person than with a device like a metronome, and that when we make music with others, we are communicating in the oldest of ways, reaching back into the fabric of what makes us us, and creating something that is in ways universal, and at the same time deeply personal.
There is a momentum to performing live music that members of the group need to each be responsible for, the essence of musical connection that allows other players, and an audience to participate in the raw energy that the intersection of rhythm and melody is capable of creating.
This is a skill only learned by doing.
In the video of the Bears final performance, the band struggles to hear one another in the fray and excitement of the crowd and the moment, and the bass and drums are a bar ahead of the rest of the band until the first chorus. They/we work this out though, and as “We are the Bears” reaches its musical climax – in the moment between Sarah calmly saying, “Step away, bro,” and Kevin’s blistering guitar solo kicking in – the monthlong project’s goal is realized: the band has created a moment of visceral rock and roll, and brought it to their audience.
For the students in the band – not to mention their teacher – this is an incredible power to discover, and begin to wield, something I talked about with Brian Lamb and Giulia Forsythe after this year’s Northern Voice jam-after party in Vancouver: how to collectively keep the ball – the energy, the timing, the essence of a song – in the air between so many different hands, and how this is a visible skill when playing or watching music, but finds its way into so many different aspects of life, learning and the relationships we form with other people.
On the last day of class, many of the Bears made a point of hanging around for a few minutes to take pictures with one another, shake my hands and otherwise linger in the magical atmosphere the guitar classroom had been transformed into by their efforts.
“This class was more than a class,” one of the young men who was graduating told me on his way out the door. “Just what it was, I’m not sure. But it was pretty great.”
Hopefully we all spend the next little while trying to put our finger on just what it was, and how we can each do it again.
In a few different broadcasts over the past year, I’ve messed around with some of the various filters and effects available with the free version of Nicecast and found its dials and visual interface both a lot of fun and helpful in the makeshift studios I’ve set up in my classrooms and house.
Not generally in my “wheelhouse of sound,” I was going after a certain, heavy, atmospheric texture that seemed appropriate for my randomly generated band name and album cover. “Goth soul,” Alan Levine calls it, which GNA Garcia clarifies as “rhythmic Emo-noise,” which is what I think I managed to create.