An Open Learning Project

Letter Song by @bryanjack

Photo courtesy of Giulia Forsythe

Each spring the TALONS undertake an In-Depth Study, a five month “passion project” wherein they are asked to document their growth and learning toward personalized goals in learning a skill or craft. There are two universal goals for the In-Depth Study:

1. Know something about everything and everything about something.

In school you are usually taught about many subjects.  In this project, the goal is to learn a great deal about one field of activity, usually not available in a school setting.

2. Learn what others tell you is important and learn what you decide is important.

In school you are told what to learn and how to learn it.  In this project, you will decide in what field and with what strategies, you will become an “expert.”

Along with the Fall Retreat, spring Adventure Trip and the fall’s Eminent Person project, the In-Depth Study constitutes a significant pillar in the TALONS Program that, because it is predominantly designed and facilitated by my teaching partner, hasn’t been much documented here. Though in past years I have undertaken a couple of different learning projects that have seen their way onto my blog:

Learning Pearl Jam’s “Daughter
Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV

This year, as part of Alec Couros‘ appearance in my University of Victoria #tiegrad cohort, I have the opportunity to combine a few different aspects of my course work with my classroom teaching this spring. For Alec’s EDCI 569 class (The Distributed, Blended & Open Classroom), we are tasked with engaging in our own learning projects, as well as participating in an open online course or community. And as they have in the last few years, these new academic requirements find a worthwhile conspirator in our Music Department‘s #IntroGuitar class.

I’ve taught #IntroGuitar now at our school going on five years now, but only in the last few has the course opened up to facilitate music-making, teaching, and collaboration to a wider community of open online learners. There is a perfect marriage of sorts between the type of discovery-learning that attracts people to an instrument like the guitar, and the type of ethos espoused in the MOOC movement. As Dave Cormier says, “you can choose what you do, how you participate, and only you can decide when you’ve been successful, just like real life,” teenagers have been learning guitar in this personalized and peer-to-peer fashion as long as the instrument has existed. Even my own playing has followed this path, beginning in the early days of the social web when guitar tabs seemed to have already have leveraged the constructivist potential of the read-write web in ways other communities would adopt across the last fifteen years.

But these online resources – much my early learning took place before the advent of YouTube – were only part of the course of my life with guitar, as a year into the project I moved in with another beginner with whom I was able to commiserate over barre chords and blues scales. Even better, this roommate had a friend who played in a band, and he and his friends served as early mentors who were able to rapidly advance our learning.

Since those early strumming days in Arkansas, I’ve expanded my inquiry into music by writing songs, playing with groups of friends, and a few informal performances. But as happens in the lifelong learning of a thing – and in lifelong, personalized learning in and of itself – the process of discovery and progress can only continue so long as the learner is able to continually synthesize and build on prior learning. And in recent years, I’ve been fortunate to explore successive challenges with supportive peers and mentors in a variety of settings.

I’ve collected a brief summary of these learning communities here:

DS106 Radio

In the spring of 2011, the brainchild of Jim Groom and Grant Potter began as a means of sharing course work created in Jim’s Digital Storytelling class at the University of Mary Washington, and quickly spawned and supported a community of educators / music-makers who began using the distributed web radio station to share live rehearsals, themed shows of covers, and recorded original works. And for the next couple of years, the station became a digital version of my own coffee-house open mic: I would play new songs, covers, riff on others’ material, and listen to my friends when they would take over the airwaves.

Out of this digital community have come countless opportunities to jam in face-to-face rehearsal spaces and kitchens, living rooms and campfires in the years since, including up to a few weeks ago in East Vancouver.


Bryan Six Nation Guitar V2In 2011, and again in 2012, I was invited to participate at the Unplug’d Educational Summit on the edge of Algonquin Park, where I was able to meet many of my online colleagues in a natural setting, and share a host of songs – Canadian-themed and otherwise – with educators from across Canada and around the world.

At the 2012 Summit, with Jowi Taylor and Voyageur the Six String Nation guitar, serving as the weekend’s welcoming keynote, I was invited to deliver what I consider my first “real” performance for guests at the summit hotel in downtown Toronto. And over the course of the weekend I was able to share an original song I wrote that weekend – on Voyageur – with participants at the culmination of the weekend. (I’ve written a longer post about this experience here.)

The Judy and the Town Sessions

A few summers ago, I set about assembling a few former students whose band had recently lost its lead singer (to a road trip back east, nothing tragic) to act as my own supporting group to work out a few of the original songs I’d written in recent years. Having always written and played on my own – solo acoustic, with the exception of some of the DS106 Radio jams – I had begun to hear the songs I was writing in fuller resolution, with drums, bass and more guitar to fill out an emerging aesthetic in my mind’s… ear. And while the Judy and the Town sessions were cut short as more members of the band eventually joined their lead singer back in Montreal, these recordings offer a warm reminder of the potential for my quiet solo songs to take on a life of their own in the hands of others.

Georgia Straight Guitar Society

This past fall, I was fortunate to join one of my dad’s friends and a colleague from school at the annual Fall Jam hosted by the Georgia Straight Guitar Society. A weekend retreat at a 100 year old camp in serene Crescent Beach, the Jam featured musicians from all over the Lower Mainland – and beyond – and offered an opportunity to participate in songwriting circles, endless middle-of-the-night jam sessions, and a Saturday night concert, where I again tasted the joy of bringing one of my songs to life with the help of talented friends.

He not busy being born is busy dying.

This summer I will turn 34 years old, and with these minor triumphs listed above the compulsion arises to continue to raise the stakes in my musical life.

To scare myself, if only a bit.

Because along with Dylan’s line about being busy being born, I’m reminded of Brene Brown, who offers the inspiration that our vulnerabilities are often the fear that keeps us from accessing our potential. And so the next place to take my guitar playing and my decade-plus inquiry into music, by looking back at the narrative thus assembled…

…is performance.

In his final address on the Tonight Show, Conan O’brien talked about people who asked him about his secret to success “like asking someone how they got struck by a meteor,” so unique are the pathways which lead us to exceptional personal achievements. But he did add that the thing he had always tried to do was “always put myself in a situation where I had no choice but to be great,” and I’ve always thought about this when faced with the opportunity to perform.

I surely haven’t ever always been great. But when I haven’t been I have most assuredly learned a lot about how I should proceed next time, and looking ahead at a spring that has already yielded a few opportunities to hone this emerging skill, I am grateful for the push offered by my classes’ Learning Project / In-Depth Study.

In-Depth Blogging, or Learning in Public (Part II)

Stretch your limits once in a while. You may find you have more range than you thought.

This week’s prompt for the #Talons in-depth blogging gave me the impetus to indulge an idea I had yesterday after recording a brief video (the one above) as my own contribution to my guitar class’ assignment repository this week.

Back in September, I conducted a little Learning in Public, taking on the open-D tuning and tricky strumming pattern of the Pearl Jam classic, “Daughter.” Partially in response to a project Dean Shareski was working on with pre-service teachers in Saskatchewan, the series was a compelling motivation to follow through in learning the song, share my struggle (and eventual success) with an audience, and hopefully put a little learning out there to help others looking to do the same.

And while I haven’t been documenting it in the same way, I have still been learning to play guitar (I doubt it is a project with any sort of ‘End’), and make music that excites me, that I love. I’ve collected a year’s worth of recordings into a definable album of original demos, collaborations and covers, continued to develop some veritable lead-guitar chops, and begun to make a habit of getting together with friends to make noise in a local jamspace. While challenging, rewarding, and motivating to continue all at once, the process has been mostly informal.

Which is why, at the outset of this new semester of guitar – with a new Assignments-scheme cribbed from the DS106 setup – I wanted to set for myself a definitive goal, and model the documentation of learning I would like to see from my music students, and that my TALONS co-teacher/facilitator is looking to see from the class’ In-Depth posts, around a topic of personal passion and relevance.

Namely: lead a rock band.

It’s my aim to stretch myself, and expand my range as both a musician and as a teacher / leader / facilitator, and figure out a little more about how this thing called Rock ‘n Roll works.

Comment on a Love-Hate Relationship

In spite of everything, though, I love ballet.  I could not for a moment imagine my life without it, and it is one of the most important things in my life.  I am very glad I have found my way back to the dance world, and I hope I stay here for a while.

Kelly’s Love Hate Relationship

This is an introspective and honest post, Kelly, that dives directly to the center of your in-depth’s (some might say, life’s) challenge: to confront one’s self, for better or worse, and struggle to attain the goal (or live the life) we think might be possible for ourselves.

I can identify with the pressure to compete and maintain a high level of physical fitness and precision – not unlike dance, or gymnastics – through my track and field career, both in high school and university. Especially when I was younger, I was seized with a dreadful panic and anxiety before the start of races; for the first few years in track (ages 11 – 13), I participated in mostly field events. It wasn’t until the farther side of adolescence let me ‘grow into my body'(and develop a fledgling sense of coordination between my mind and extremities) that I became ‘elite,’ you might say, challenging for the provincial title in my event (the 800m) in grades 11 and 12, and shopping myself to various American universities.

But even then, and no less so once I went on to the NCAA, or in three consecutive national junior finals, doubt and anxiety were familiar competitors on the track, in addition to the call to test my own physical limits, and stare down my fellow racers in a gut-wrenching war of wills that lasted less than two minutes.

The day before what was to be one of my best college race – an 800m final at Duke University, in North Carolina – my coach introduced me to Don Paige, a coach from Villanova who had at one point held the world record in the 1000 yards, and was ranked #1 in the world in the 800m in 1980, the year the US boycotted the Olympics.

We sat in the steep grandstands watching the 1500s, and talked about race strategy: how to run the perfect 800. Don talked about his missed Olympic opportunity, and how he had partially orchestrated a showdown with the preeminent middle distance runner of the time, Sebastian Coe (who held the world record in the 800m for some twenty years; I knew more than one runner with a SebCoe tattoo: he is a legend), and beat him, running the fastest time in the world that year, and earning a spot in history.

Next to winning a head-to-head showdown with one of the greatest runners in history, my race at Duke seemed like child’s play.

But it was also essentially the same opportunity: to test myself under the best conditions, to set myself up for success, and do what I had to do, succeed or fail. Don Paige had beaten Sebastian Coe, and sat talking about my race the next day as if there was no way to even look at it as something other than an opportunity.

After piecing together my strategy with Don, I felt a sense of proximal greatness to this man, who took winning for granted because the thing he was most interested in was seeing what he could do.

On Duke’s Gothic stone campus, in the athletic complex belonging to the lore of Cameron Center, and Krzyzewskiville, it was difficult not to do the same.

On Saturday I was in the “B” final, and stood on the infield grass and watched Otukile Lekote run the fastest time in the world that year moments before my race.

When it was time to step out on the track, I calmly found a place in the middle-to-end of the pack, knowing it would be at least a lap before I made any kind of move, and in that time the runners at the front would have shown their hands, declared their intentions for the race.

Don and I, and my coach from Arkansas – a genuinely beautiful person who had no small hand in making my life what it is today – had talked about always having another card to play, as late in the race as possible. And I waited through 450m of the race before making my way toward a position in the pack where I could play mine.

The key to this, we had agreed, would be the critical third two-hundred, where an 800m runner classically falls apart, after a scorching opening lap, or overextends him or herself, leaving nothing for the home stretch. My goal was to apply pressure in the third two hundred, but leave myself enough of a “hand” to play, or extra gear to enter, in the race’s final turn.

Dukes stadium

Duke's stadium

After the pacesetter had dropped out, leaving him in the lead, this is what Paige had done to Sebastian Coe in 1980:

“At 200 meters, Sebastian Coe jumps. I’m amazed at how fast he is. He’s a half-step in front of me, but I don’t want him to get too far in front. We’re stride-for-stride. With 50 meters to go we’re dead even. I’m thinking we’re gonna tie. We both lean at the tape, he pats me on the back, I pat him on the back. I look over at my teammates and give them the thumbs-up. I knew I won, and Sebastian knew he lost.”

On the backstretch, I passed two thirds of the field, and was gaining ground on the leaders as we rounded the corner where I had talked to Don the day before. With two hundred meters to go, I gradually unleashed my kick and had gained on the leaders by the time we entered the home stretch, where I passed them and won the heat, leaving my ‘final card’ to be the effort I put into logging the fastest time I was able to run during university, 1:52.65, which for three year’s was my school’s record.

That was ten years ago; I couldn’t likely run an 800m in under 2:20 today.

And that is in some ways saddening, because I never did become the Olympian that I thought I would at eighteen, and I am detached from the world of sport such that Googling the names and dates that accompanied this comment brought back pangs at nostalgia for a nearly forgotten period in my life (both athletics, and my time in Arkansas).

But in a lot of ways, running, and competing at an elite level, opened doors both physical and personal in my life that led me to where I am today. If not for running, I wouldn’t have gone to Arkansas, wouldn’t have become an injured athlete who took a scholarship, and internship with the Boy Scouts, where I discovered teaching, music, and nurtured and explored a love and energy for the outdoors, literature and philosophy.

If my body had performed differently, and I had continued on at an elite level – as some of my friends, and former teammates have – I am sure running would have left me with the same lessons:

  • that you can’t control much but your own preparation, and commitment to your own goals
  • that to be great requires a denial of negativity and worry about how things might turn out, and an ability to just do what needs to be done
  • that we are stronger than we realize
  • that we are all in the same boat

And so I don’t regret not becoming, or staying great, at sports, not so long as I continue to apply the same lessons, and put forth the same degree of commitment to making myself better, and rising to challenges as they happen, and that I set up for myself to grow.

The lessons of your in-depth, dancing, TALONS and life beyond, are pieces of the same course of study, and we are greater always with the most difficult of lessons. Being as honest as you have been with the challenge you are up against, and all that it entails of who you are, is a grand step in conquering it and fulfilling your potential, as a student, dancer, and human being.

Do not let anxieties of what will be get in the way of the already challenging task of accomplishing something amazing. You have the opportunity to participate in the creation of something that is the essence of creative beauty, as well as the fulfillment of tireless hard work and precision that – succeed or fail – will be worth it if it is engaged in to its fullest.

If you give your best effort to anything, for any length of period, your time is never wasted, even if all it does is lead you to something completely different.

If you’ve made it this far into the comment, I thank you for letting me prattle on and tell this little piece of a story I had almost forgotten. Thanks for sharing this struggle to define your in-depth for yourself, and making your own lessons ours, too.

I can’t wait to see the depths your study takes, both as a physical, and personal test.

Any post that yields a comment that is this long, is irrefutably a great post. My apologies for there being so many words, Kelly; suffice to say that your thinking put me at a loss for the right ones, and the ones I could find multiplied.