Many thanks to Ridge Wilderness Adventures for arranging our travel, meals and many of our leadership opportunities under the human steam of our own paddling in Voyageur canoes, and a truly memorable British Columbian experience.
“People who hear about the types of trips we take with young people invariably have two responses,” I told the class just over a week ago. “They either say, ‘You’re crazy,’ or ‘Wow! How lucky are you to have such a job?’”
I understand each of these responses.
Maybe we are a little crazy: we leave our own lives, families and friends for days at a time to immerse ourselves in the frenetic energy of adolescence, to keep in tow the patience to teach and see our endeavors large and small through to their conclusions. All the while, we know in the back of our minds (and occasionally the front) that the calamity that can find us out of doors can range from the frivolous to the total.
It’s true that there are a million reasons to keep learning indoors, and to not take these opportunities, given the potential costs and risks. But there are ample amounts of good fortune that accompany these risks and the investment of our free-time. There are gains to be made in connecting with our environment, as well as with one another, that are sorely worth pursuing in educating today’s young people.
Gregory Bateson describes these learning opportunities as “breaches in the contextual structure,” whereby individuals gain an understanding of the process involved in implementing “corrective change in the system of sets of alternatives from which choice is made.”
This sort of “third order” thinking is driven by a confrontation with “systemic contradictions in experience” (this is taken from University of Virginia prof Eric Bredo); to the outdoor educator, this double bind is represented by the necessity of learning to provide both the freedom to explore, as well as the structure and guidance that creates safe opportunities for growth.
Gardner Campbell points out that learning in this capacity puts participants – teachers and students and parents alike – to vulnerability. “It puts the self at risk,” he says. “The questions become explosive,” and “involve “the kinds of risks that learners, at their best, will be willing to take.”
In the outdoor setting, the potential for transcendant learning meets the spectre of negative possibility, that we might meet the very worst.
However, in this setting, as Gardner Campbell again points out, “All the bets are off. Even the bets about the bets being off.” And so it came to be that on Monday morning we were having the following conversation:
“There has been a breakdown in the trust between you and us,” we told the class just before breakfast. “And between yourselves and one another.”
“We have to go home.”
The first of the parent drivers were arriving and waited in their cars while the initial shockwave unfurled among their children. Tears were shed and Individuals sat with pancakes on camp plates in their laps while others paced or leaned against their parents’ cars and picnic tables. Where traditionally the Adventure Trip ends in similar tears and shuddering embraces – a mix of celebration and mourning at the passing of the precious cultivating in TALONS’ two-year cycles, here the class parted shocked at the sudden passing of the next two days’ potential.
Paul Tosey talkeds about Bateson’s systemic change as a confrontation with “the significance of metaphor at the root of perception, and the profound potential for learning should such metaphors change.” In a certain light, the crisis and the opportunity presented here each revolve around individual connections to (and interpretations of) the group’s collective mythology, and the growing need for current and future participants to renovate and write a new narrative.
“The group feels broken,” a student told me Monday morning before leaving, to which I said that the events and actions expressed on the trip were “the symptoms, not the break. Whatever has been broken was that way before we came on the trip.”
In the coming days and weeks we will begin to undertake the processes of seeking out the root causes of these breaks, and do what can be done to move forward in creating new symbols and understandings of just what it is our shared experience has meant, and will mean into the future.
It is after all, like everything else, an opportunity for learning.
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.
I’m happy to report that the fruits of last summer’s Unplug’d 2012 event have emerged as a fabulous mosaic of letters, songs and stories written and published in Algonquin Park over a weekend in August.
Thanks to Rodd, Ben, Zoe, Kelly, as well as Todd & Martha for putting together and hosting another stellar incarnation of Unplug’d, and to the other faces in the above image. It’s great to read and hear each of your words and stories again, and to be able to share them.
Major themes arising from these goal-setting sessions addressed:
Generating momentum at the beginning of a unit / week / class meeting: using hook-questions, soliciting initial opinions, and establishing a pace that invites broad participation and thinking.
Show people that their responses are relevant and valued within the discussion:
Make connections, follow up, refer to visual notes; demonstrate an appreciation of ideas.
Isolating the key issue, taking what has been said, and synthesizing the main question, issue, or key idea.
Guiding the discussion or lecture with questions and participant-responses, and discovering what types of questions or comments offer the most substance?
Connections to past (or future) discussion points,
Inducing conversation, laughter, ease and comfort.
Allowing for quad/small group chats.
Posing questions generated within the moment.
Providing or soliciting visual notes.
Framing the topic or issue within the group’s existing understanding.
Involving the reluctant speaker by experimenting with the questions being asked, the format of the discussion, or style of engagement and individual participation.
On Monday there will be a traditional exam on the topics covered, and reflection assignments intended to synthesize personal and group learning about the skills and dispositions required for fruitful constructivist learning; it seemed appropriate to attempt to summarize my own observations of the unit.
Stars: Hospitality, Participation & Humility
Each of the different discussions, debates and activities that the quads arranged found unique avenues toward involving a broader range of their classmates in a negotiation of understanding of the topics.
The different role-plays, mock-Parliaments, and small-group discussions created diverse entry-points and opportunities for quieter individuals to engage with their own thinking, that of their peers, and the new comprehension of the topics that came out of the process. The group’s and individuals presenting material or discussion points on the various topics were consistently humble in their own interpretation of the facts, and were quick to invite multiple perspectives into the conversation.
Wishes: Deliberation, Mindfulness & Hope
Going forward, for my part I would like to focus on building on cultivating greater mindfulness and deliberation by exploring the different ways that individuals can document and share their individual understanding (beyond classroom dialogue) in the hope that our time spent in discussion can go beyond the initial concepts to ask more philosophical, or related questions on the topics covered.
I think this synthesis of ideas beyond basic understanding will ask for a more consistently mindful approach to the class’ collective goals. This will require not only that discussion-participants raise the intensity and attentiveness of their own engagement with their ideas and one another, but that our moderators and classroom leaders are able to recognize and articulate the group’s learning intentions with clarity, and provide the modeling and facilitation to bring these goals about.
While I, myself dislike mind maps and being assigned to take notes, I enjoy writing down things. Little epiphanies I’ve had from the last two years are literally written all over my pieces of note paper and for me this is the most effective way of learning. Yes, I can admittedly say that if I’m given free reign on a lined sheet of paper while people are talking, I may not listen to the entire conversation and yes, I may spend 25% of the class trying to finally figure out how to perfectly draw a human head, but I do listen.
The way this had been phrased during the afternoon conversation was as a goal for each participant in the class’ conversations to create an Artifact of Process: a drawing, a list, a learning statement; a question, a tweet, or a blog post. Something I have been particularly better at this year (so far) has been in keeping a coherent daybook of lesson plans, to-do lists, brainstorms and notes on various talks, Youtube sessions, and Philosophy assignments.
While many of you who find yourselves here may already been in the loop on this, I wanted to take the opportunity to invite readers who may not be yet to participate, lurk, or test the digital waters of an open online learning experience being offered by some of my internet colleagues in the new year. Alec Couros is a professor of Educational Technology and Media at the University of Regina, and one of the pioneers in delivering online and blended courses in an open online format. He and the other course facilitators constitute a veritable constellation of educational innovators and are hoping to bring their shared expertise to the facilitation of an online learning community publicly on the open web, free of charge.
Think of #etmooc as an experience situated somewhere between a course and a community. While there will be scheduled webinars and information shared each week, we know that there is a lot more that we will collectively need to do if we want to create a truly collaborative and passionate community.
We’re aiming to carry on those important conversations in many different spaces – through the use of social networks, collaborative tools, shared hashtags, and in personalized spaces. What #etmooc eventually becomes, and what it will mean to you, will depend upon the ways in which you participate and the participation and activities of all of its members. Let’s see if we can create something that is not just another hashtag – and, not just another course.
Each of the topics will run for approximately two weeks, and class meetings and materials will be archived and posted to be digested on your own schedule if you like. In operating as an ‘open’ course, you can determine your own level of participation, and come and go as you please, truly. Stick around for the conversations, readings, viewings and/or assignments that are relevant to you, and don’t feel bad about tending to your ‘real life’ responsibilities as you must. What may be of perhaps greatest value in participating in the course is gaining personal experience and connections in an online learning environment, and gaining valuable experience with a community of passionate newbies, not to mention very generous experts within the field.
I’ve had the good pleasure the last few years to have been able to enrich my personal learning network, as well as add to the constellation of thoughtful individuals that interact with my classroom(s) through the DIY magic of distributed web radio. Even casual readers of this blog will recognize the religious fervour that has often attended to my posts about the magic of #ds106radio, an organic offshoot of the Digital Storytelling course DS106 run out of (originally) the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia, as well as (these days) a host of other institutionsaround the world. In addition to becoming at various times my own open-mic coffee shop, where I’ve written, rehearsed and workshopped almost every song I’ve ever written, DS106Radio has also played frequent host to many a TALONS lesson, field trip, celebration, and a regular spate of Gleneagle’s Music Department showcases.
In the last week, I have been talking to a few of the administrators in our district about the how and what of distributed web radio, and in an effort to collect some of the power and relevance to K12 learning such a setup could offer us, I wanted to share some of what I’ve been able to be a part of because of this wonderfully easy, open-source technology solution to building community and communion around shared sound.
But first, a little history.
The following audio documentary was recorded with a few of the people who had seen DS106Radio grow out of a conversation around a dinner table into a powerful node in each of our networks. Here you’ll hear GNA Garcia interviewing Grant Potter, Guilia Forsythe, Alan Levine and myself about how we’ve seen the radio evolve and effect our lives and professional practices. Alan points out near the end that without the inception of the radio, we wouldn’t even know each other, which, given the amount of time, face-to-face or otherwise, we’ve spent revelling in one another’s company over the past two years, is a humbling thought. (That’s Zack Dowell providing the acoustic musical bed; Jason Toal provided the actual bed.)
But without veering too wildly into my own personal affections for the station, I want to focus here on sharing the ways I’ve explored in bringing my various classroom spaces, and beyond, to the web, often using free software on my laptop, or a $6 app on my phone. It is my hope that with a few examples to get things rolling, we might see some momentum around sharing audio in Coquitlam classrooms.
Almost as soon as we figured out how to ‘go live’ from my laptop and iPhone, my music classroom became a regular performance space for my guitar students, and then a host of other interested individuals to share informal jams, songs and laughter with an audience that just as quickly fell into the habit of tuning into the sounds of the school’s music wing.
Since then we’ve broadcast almost every one of the concerts at Gleneagle live onto DS106radio, sharing the ephemeral sounds of the performing arts with an international audience who can recognize our lead trumpet players and vocalists by the tenor of their solos, and who know that in Coquitlam, there are some crazy-talented kids that love to share their art. How many schools or districts can claim the same notoriety? (If they can, I would bet they’re spending more on marketing than we are.)
Class Activity as Public Learning Project
Last spring, a guitar class I was teaching took on the grandiose endeavour to convert itself into a Thirty Person Rock Band, a process that in addition to being shared on Youtube and Instagram, was conducted almost entirely live on the #ds106radio air, where people were able to tune in and play along with our rehearsals, band meetings, and triumphant last day of school show in the Gleneagle foyer. Our listening audience served as mentors, cheerleaders, and a reflection of the raw energy the creation of live music can bring to a community, and shared in the celebrations at the end of the term.
It was a great pleasure last year to share in a day of #RadioforLearning with #ds106radio K12 sister-station 105theHive, where my guitar class joined in a day of cross-country broadcasting with classrooms in Ontario and northern Manitoba. As the Hive’s rolling live broadcast took reading exercises from rural Ontario north toward Hudson’s Bay, Gleneagle’s Music Department shared its guitar presentations with an audience that wound up reaching listeners in South America, as well as Hawaii.
Essay Feedback as Podcast
Back in 2011, I brought the audio elements of DS106 into the TALONS classroom as part of our This I Believe essay unit where, in addition to submitting individual essays as recorded spoken word pieces, the class collaborated to remix and synthesize the different threads into larger audio compositions.
In an attempt to fold my essay feedback into the process I had asked the class to engage in, I created my own synthesis of the collective learning into a twenty minute radio show of my own to serve as feedback and commentary on the larger lessons of writing and storytelling that I saw in the group’s essays.
Field Reports & Outdoor Education
Some of the most powerful learning opportunities we bring to our students happen outside of the classroom, on field trips or other opportunities for place-based learning that are effectively captured in photographs and videos, perhaps; but these events and experiential learning also opportunities for capturing vital audio artifacts that might otherwise disappear into the ether.
Remixing the Class Discussion
Just this past semester, one of the #Philosophy12 students recorded a few days’ worth of investigating Epistemology, and the notions of Opinions, Beliefs, and Truth, and posted the files for download on Soundcloud. As a possible extension of these open educational resources, I thought I would try my hand at remixing the contents using the GarageBand app on my iPad. The cognitive value in sifting through an hour of recorded audio to pull together a narrative, or logical argument is something that I found both incredibly challenging, and entirely relevant given the emerging digital landscape of the read-write-sing-remix web, where the original artifact of learning is further-evolved to include new reflective perspectives.
Everything above is just the beginning…
I’ve tried to pull together as many different examples as I could over the course of a few days, but there may be a few notable broadcasts or events that I’ve neglected to include here. GNA Garcia used to broadcast concerts and conversations from her job at a highschool in Philadelphia. And the Hive folks have been creating live and canned shows for almost a year now (!). Matt Henderson started a terrestrial radio station with his kids in Winnipeg, and I’m sure there are other folks out there podcasting, sharing Audioboos, and finding other ways to explore the power of audio in their classrooms.
But I hope what I’ve shared here can serve as a catalyst and motivation for folks in my own back yard who may want to jump into an experiment with a Coquitlam branch of web radio over the course of the next semester. I’m hoping that local English, Music, Journalism, and other teachers start getting their phones out, warming up their GarageBands and Audacities, and seeing where our own digital campfire might take us as a learning community.
A few colleagues at my school and I are looking to arrange a simple format that will allow a group of committed teachers to drop in on one another’s classes – either while on prep time or covered by another staff member – and to basically know that if our colleagues’ doors are open and the moment is right, would it be all right for someone from the group to visit, and see what’s going on?
Could we observe, jump in, or teach alongside them?
You know: can we visit?
These visits could be brief, and only a few minutes, or last as long as they need to. What the process requires to get started is to see if enough people are interested in being involved in seeing where the idea might take us as a group. While being arranged as the most informal of “Learning Teams,” we are not as concerned with creating a tangible output as we are with creating a shift in our community’s habits of practice, with the hope that such a change could foster immediate benefits in student learning by creating opportunities for:
Meaningful Connections with a variety of adults
One of the chief researched pieces of evidence about the effectiveness of ‘character’ education, and the building of a respectful and empathetic student population is that the cultivation of a variety of meaningful connections to positive adult role models promotes a necessary sense of responsibility and accountability. By following up with our current and former students in one another’s classes, and perhaps seeing them demonstrate a separate skillset than we might have seen in our own subjects – not to mention forming new connections to students we haven’t taught yet – we hope to promote an environment that might create a more interconnected community in our school’s hallways, and possibly allow for a different groundwork for this spring’s (and future) Grad Transition Exit Interviews.
Modeled interest in one another’s areas of passion and expertise
A time-honoured conversation among teachers in which I’ve noticed a sharp uptick over even the last few years has been around student-engagement and passion for course material (or, rather, the lack thereof). While I might usually chalk this up to the type of learning being conducted in school bearing little or no relevance to the learning students (or even adults) engage in outside of school, I also wonder:
How much of the passion we might have for our subjects is reflected in the culture outside of our classrooms?
How are the various lessons of our individual disciplines supported and reinforced in one another’s classrooms?
What are the implicit messages students receive about the skills and values we say we are trying to teach, by not modeling it ourselves?
How does our English coursework support the thinking we are trying to promote in Math?
What skills are your students bringing from their elective courses into your history class?
Our hope is that by making consistent appearances in one another’s classroom spaces that we will be reinforcing our explicit goals of promoting lifelong learning and critical inquiry, as well as making visible to our students the implicit regard and respect we have for one another’s role in the learning process as a congruenteducational experience.
Demonstration of a community of learning
Most of you who will have read this far may agree that our intention in our classrooms is to create a ‘community of learning,’ and for our students to thoughtfully engage in creative, collaborative activities and ‘construct knowledge,’ whether by using digital technology or the horseshoe their desks are arranged in to share their ideas with their peers. Along with asking kids to “Think Outside the Box” without an example of what this might mean, we similarly limit the potential for collaborative problem solving when we do not engage with and learn from it in our own practice. It is important, as noted above, that we model this behaviour for our students, but also engage in it ourselves so that we might become better guides to them throughout this process.
Additionally, there are implications for our own practice that I feel so many of us say we want, and likely spend our careers trying to cultivate to varying degrees of success, but which is difficult to bring about. By this I mean things like:
Practicing ‘Open’ Behaviour
People we generally refer to as ‘creative’ will often tell you that it is not an innate skill or genetic gift, as John Cleese says in an excellent lecture on the subject (that you can watch here): “creativity is not a talent; it is a way of operating.” Being open with one another about how we go about our teaching will have the immediate effect of informing how we see our own practice: offering a point of reflection, an opportunity to collaborate, or…
… well, nothing.
Not everything leads to something else, and the ability to ‘think outside the box,’ as they say, has to come as a result of the ability for things to fail, for things to be picked up and ultimately discarded, and is generally brought about by people being open to all of these possibilities, not just the ones that we’re able to prove or demonstrate coming to fruition.
Creating Community Connections
We are hoping to enact a grassroots change of culture that existed in the cafes of Europe at the dawn of the Enlightenment, and is part of the workday at Google (where 20% of employees’ paid time is spent on projects of their own design, irrespective of their failure or success). Because while this spirit of openness and collaborative inquiry might exist in your corner of your school at the moment, I don’t think it is controversial to say that this isn’t an area our buildings thrive in school-wide, and that efforts to change this culture at staff meetings, pro-d and staff get-togethers are isolated opportunities that are ill-equipped to affect a change in the habits we each bring into work every day, and which we could all do more to reflect upon, interrogate, and look to change going forward as individual schools.
Because we’re more than OK if others have got enough going on, or appreciate the ability to have their door shut and teach. I don’t think anything less of someone who might delete our invitation out of hand (or even those who might have moved on back there in the first paragraph). But I talk to enough people about enough of the above on a regular enough basis – and hear the familiar refrain that “that wouldn’t happen here” – to know that some people might want to email me back and see where we might take this initiative this time around, who might want to let interested teachers know when they’re going to be having presentations in your class, or debates, or experiments that we might like to watch, or who might want to watch similar things happen in other classrooms.