Professional Autonomy and Development

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Following the acrimony of our recent job action in BC schools, I’m inclined to take stock of what may be considered ‘wins’ in an otherwise defeating series of events. Having seen the government come to the terms that it did in the end, it’s hard not to feel that the major motivation Peter Fassbender and Christy Clark brought to the bargaining process was to spitefully take almost ten thousand dollars from me and my colleagues.

Those were mortgage payments.

Student loans deferred.

It’s difficult to not see it as mean-spirited, is all.

Of course, the government’s representatives were asking for much more, and to have struggled to a draw against a government that pays no heed to repeated admonishments in the province’s highest court is a victory of sorts, even while it may not give teachers as much to show for their efforts in the strike as we may have liked.

A raise that keeps pace (or caught us up) with inflation would have been a start.

Meaningful reforms to class sizes and composition ratios would have been another.

That said, in our local agreement Coquitlam teachers did affirm our rights to professional autonomy by gaining further control of our professional development in Article F.22, which guarantees us the affordance of a Pro-D committee that has access to school-based funding, as well as the autonomy to determine and advise administration on matters relating to professional development. This contract language represents a progressive step toward greater teacher autonomy as we assert more control over our own professionalism, which both our union and employer agree is tied to ongoing professional learning.

From its guide to members, the BCTF recognizes the following principles of professional development:

  • Members have an ongoing responsibility to develop professionally
  • Members have autonomy in making choices about their own professional development
  • Professional development planning is guided by members’ needs
  • Professional development informs teaching practice and encourages collegiality
  • Professional development requires time and resources to meet members’ needs
  • Professional development incorporates a wide repertoire of teacher collaboration, mentorship, action research, workshops, professional course work, professional reading, peer coaching, and reflection.

The British Columbia Teachers’ Council similarly maintains the following Standards for Education, Competence and Professional Conduct, with respect to professional development:

Educators engage in career-long learning

Educators engage in professional development and reflective practice, understanding that a hallmark of professionalism is the concept of professional growth over time. Educators develop and refine personal philosophies of education, teaching and learning that are informed by theory and practice. Educators identify their professional needs and work to meet those needs individually and collaboratively.

Educators contribute to the profession

Educators support, mentor and encourage other educators and those preparing to enter the profession. Educators contribute their expertise to activities offered by their schools, districts, professional organizations, post-secondary institutions or contribute in other ways.

Taken together with our new collective agreement around professional development, these principles of professional learning create an opportunity to revisit our school’s culture around pro-d and create an emphasis around lifelong learning, collaboration, and accountability.

If the professional development committee is to take its place alongside the CTA representation and Collaborative Decision Making Committee (CDMC) as another avenue of representing the voice of our teaching staff alongside our local stakeholders, I suggest it establishes a mandate for individuals to create and maintain an individual growth plan, and initiates a process of collaborative inquiries extending from these stated goals. Such a framework could then be used to guide a school’s Pro-D committee in facilitating meaningful, relevant, personalized professional learning throughout the year.

Such a reform would mirror the emerging themes in educational research stressed in the 21st century (inquiry, personalized learning, collaboration), and furthermore reflects a professional expectation for teachers to continually engage in learning about and reflecting on our craft as educators. It is this expectation which differentiates us from what might be considered vocations, or merely more general ’employees,’ and is a distinction that is especially important to make following the protracted battle our profession has waged in the court of public opinion in British Columbia in recent years. Having defended and expanded our rights to autonomous professional development, we owe it to ourselves and the communities we serve to explore the potential of our own learning such that we might be able to better demonstrate – for one another as colleagues as well as the student and parent communities we serve – the value of our recent struggle.

In breaking down the notion of Autonomous Professional Development, we might glimpse the convergence of our rights and responsibilities as practitioners:

Autonomous 

Engaged in by me, and us as a community of individuals. Owned by the individual and the community.

Professional 

Highly skilled. Adhering to standards and expectations.

Each of these first two may be seen to be both rights and responsibilities, and the freedom encapsulated in our rights is proportional to a commitment in our responsibilities to continually develop our understanding of autonomy and professionalism.

In other words, if we expect ourselves to be autonomous and professional, our responsibility is to continually develop:

Develop our skills. Develop our community. And develop our profession.

This act of development is a constructive act, one which suits the principles of democracy that we are all – regardless of subject speciality – charged with teaching in our classrooms, and a process we are obligated to engage in as citizens in a democracy, as well as teachers, and professionals. And if we are to provide this type of learning in our classrooms, we should be engaged – and are compelled to be engaged, in the language of our own members’ guide and professional expectations –  in a similarly constructive development of our own practice and profession.

Throughout this process we are guided by the following questions:

  • What are you working on?
  • What are you trying to do?
  • What do you wonder about?

It is not acceptable to not have an answer to these questions, and for my part I am suggesting that we amend our policies and expectations around professional development at our school to reflect this attitude. To this end, I hope to see our professional development committee move to require teachers to submit a personal growth plan at the outset of each year that will help direct our school based Pro-D toward a collaborative inquiry framework to support teacher-professionalism and community-building.

Reclaim TALONS

Out Walkin'

While I attempted to introduce the new academic year in a blog post that wound up meandering into too many of my thoughts and feelings on the culmination of BC teachers’ recent strike action, here I intend to share my initial guiding interests and projects setting out into the 2014-15 school year. As I alluded to in my previous post on the dawning of September, I plan to continue my research into citizenship education as concerns digital pedagogy, curricular reform, and broader currents in educational philosophy.

In the last few years, I have become an admirer of Paulo Freire‘s notion of critical pedagogy, and try in my own practice, as well as my classroom constructivism, to create habits surrounding an ongoing praxis of reflection and action for myself and my students. Such a praxis suits the type of citizenship education Gert Biesta and others espouse as central to the emancipatory process introduced by Freire, and also aligns with many of the intentions of pioneers on the open web and in the digital humanities. In my work as an open educator this praxis also revolves between the theoretical concerns of pedagogy and the practical applications of these intentions.

Reclaim TALONS 

One such foray into the practical application of my research interests has me finally setting out on an adventure I have long-anticipated.

Since taking the TALONS communities onto the public web, first with Edublogs.org, then Wikispaces.com and free WordPress.com sites, I have largely pursued a narrative of online learning which focused on the skills and awarenesses required in the digital sphere. Working across these public platforms, my students and I have contemplated digital citizenship and storytelling, as well as had many opportunities to connect our classroom learning with a wider audience than within the school district’s information silos.

Each of these services – Edublogs, Wikispaces, and WordPress, among others – have afforded us the opportunity to dip our toes in the public web without first surmounting the limits of my own technological expertise around how to manage and administer our own classroom spaces and domains.

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 2.42.53 PMBut in the meantime, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know and work with a handful of innovators in higher education who have shown me the relevance of gaining such expertise, both for my own development as an open practitioner, and as an opportunity for the students I work with.

In his 2009 essay, “Personal Cyberinfrastructure,” Gardner Campbell presented an idea Jim Groom, Tim Owens and Martha Burtis have since ran with at the University of Mary Washington:

Suppose that when students matriculate, they are assigned their own web servers — not 1GB folders in the institution’s web space but honest-to-goodness virtualized web servers of the kind available for $7.99 a month from a variety of hosting services, with built-in affordances ranging from database maintenance to web analytics. As part of the first-year orientation, each student would pick a domain name. Over the course of the first year, in a set of lab seminars facilitated by instructional technologists, librarians, and faculty advisors from across the curriculum, students would build out their digital presences in an environment made of the medium of the web itself. They would experiment with server management tools via graphical user interfaces such as cPanel or other commodity equivalents. They would install scripts with one-click installers such as SimpleScripts. They would play with wikis and blogs; they would tinker and begin to assemble a platform to support their publishing, their archiving, their importing and exporting, their internal and external information connections. They would become, in myriad small but important ways, system administrators for their own digital lives.3 In short, students would build a personal cyberinfrastructure, one they would continue to modify and extend throughout their college career — and beyond.

In addition to building technical knowledge and skills required to exercise agency and voice in the post-Gutenberg age, students charged with the creation and maintenance of their own personal cyberinfrastructure would be engaged in learning across the disciplines of “multimodal writing to information science, knowledge management, bibliographic instruction, and social networking.” To read Campbell’s 2009 call for this type of university education strikes me at this stage in my research and interest in the digital humanities and citizenship education as the intersection of the two, and something that ought be explored at the highschool level.

By Campbell’s description, this discussion of a technology-infused education, is everything at the core of popular discussions of digital skills, literacy and citizenship. “If what the professor truly wants is for students to discover and craft their own desires and dreams,” he writes,

a personal cyberinfrastructure provides the opportunity. To get there, students must be effective architects, narrators, curators, and inhabitants of their own digital lives.6 Students with this kind of digital fluency will be well-prepared for creative and responsible leadership in the post-Gutenberg age. Without such fluency, students cannot compete economically or intellectually, and the astonishing promise of the digital medium will never be fully realized.

While Campbell admits that such forays onto the open web wait until students enter college, the intervening years in educational technology have only hastened the need for students to protect and manage their own data. In British Columbia, FOIPPA laws surrounding storage of student-data on locally maintained servers creates the need for many district’s and educators to work within closed or clumsy information management system provided by Pearson or Microsoft, where after spending millions for the software, the rights to the intellectual property of student work is retained by the company.

The same laws might be seen as the impetus for public school students in British Columbia to be educated in owning once and for all their digital selves, as it is in the interest of so-called ‘protection’ of this information that the laws exist in the first place.

Since the University of Mary Washington launched its own riffs on Campbell’s cyberinfrastruture in projects such as Domain of One’s Own and Reclaim Hosting, I’ve often mentioned to Jim Groom that I would love to bring what he and Tim Owens and Martha Burtis have created to the TALONS classroom. For only my own hestiation has it taken this long to bring the project about though, as Jim has been enthusiastic about the prospect from the first. Within a day of sending Jim and Tim an email outlining where I wanted to go with the TALONS data, the class site had migrated to its new domain (http://talons43.ca).

The journey had begun.

In the week since, I’ve also moved the open course Philosophy 12 from its old WordPress digs to a subdomain on the same site (http://philosophy.talons43.ca), and will do the same with the school’s open Introduction to Guitar closer to the spring. Tim and I have begun to see if data from the class’ years’ old subject wikispaces will easily migrate to DokuWiki apps residing on the same site (eg. http://socials.talons43.ca), and in the next few weeks the TALONS will be setting up their own blogs as extension of the webspace which they will use to chart their learning over their two years in the program. When they come to graduate from the program, and move into grade eleven and beyond, they will have the opportunity to take their data with them, transfer it to their own domain, and continue in their digital educations.

As the province begins to etch out its vision of personalized learning, I submit what comes of our continued experiments to the discussion of citizenship education in the 21st century.

Blogs as Documents of Learning

Documenting Learning. Electronic Portfolios: Engaging Today's Students in Higher Education

Giulia Forsythe’s visual notes on Tracy Penny Light’s session on Documenting Student Learning with Electronic Portfolios.

I started blogging with the TALONS class (since expanded to two) a little more than four years ago. In that time I’ve learned a great deal about the capacity for such digital publishing tools to help realize aspects of the larger purpose of schooling; part of this has come through developing my own informal network and community of practice constantly interrogating the same question, and lately has included both a graduate community of SFU diploma students, and my own masters cohort. Including my own classrooms, every learning space I move through is suffused with discussion and debate about the purpose of school.

I’ve written about this a few times on this blog, as a matter of fact. Back in May, 2009, I began documenting my Adventures in a Gifted Classroom by quoting Nabakov:

The only way back to objective reality is the following one: we can take these several individual worlds, mix them thoroughly together, scoop up a drop of that mixture, and call it objective reality.

For Nabokov’s objectivity to be realized though is to realize the paradox of Einstein’s relativity (one degree of separation between Nabokov & Einstein: a productive Monday morning!): the more we know about the object’s speed, the less accurately we know its location, and visa versa. Any definition we seek – for Truth in the religious sense, to the tenor of our elected officials and the implementation of our education systems – must be constantly reevaluated, re-calibrated and ready at every moment to be torn down to make way for the New.

And while I still agree with the general direction struck up now four and a half years (and a few hundred thousand words) ago, a quick survey of my blog archive charts the evolution of my theory and practice in the time since:

21st century Learner

Giulia Forsythe’s 21st Century Learner

Breakdown of Posts by Category (from a total of 224) 

As broad terms, Pedagogy and Technology might be expected culprits in a teacher’s blog these days (and I am more than a little glad to see Pedagogy edging to the win here… phew); but I think the focus on Learning Networks and Classroom Communities is more revealing about the larger purpose of schooling I’ve been uncovering in posts on grammar, music, and outdoor education these last four years.

Across these topics, I have striven to refine a pedagogy that empowers learners to take ownership over their learning. As published in my most recent post, I believe that:

the skills attending to student “ownership” of learning are essential elements in the ongoing creation and maintenance of a democratic society.

In four years of blogging, I’ve refined my process in cultivating space in the TALONS class for students to find what Clare found, back in 2009:

“Writing, I think is both a way to think aloud and preserve ideas I’ve come to a conclusion about in my head or random observations; the blog is just an archive in that sense. I also have a draft saved on my email account where I journal on-and-off, as well as a word document on my desktop, but I think the stuff on my blog is more developed in terms of exploring what I have to say. Sometimes when I post something, I secretly hope that other people will read it and offer their opinions, other times I forget about it as soon as I click ‘publish.’ Blogging provides a lot of revelation and I’m still guessing at its destination, but I do know that it’s going somewhere good.

Untitled

Revelation without destination strikes me as a noble purpose for a school system concerned with creating lifelong learners that shifts our focus from product to process. But even while this has been a foundational piece of my beliefs about education since I began teaching, I have continued to refine the role that blogs and the development of student learning networks and communities play in this process.

More and more, both as a reflective practitioner and someone trying to create learning spaces and opportunities for others, I think this revolves around the praxis outlined by Freire – and explored into more than one recent blog post here – of a cycle of reflection and action. Blogging – and tweeting, and taking pictures, and journals, and many other acts of preservation – creates an object of those experiences that can be viewed in reflection, and can be manifest in future opportunities as wisdom.

Ed-Tech and Media MOOC Invitation

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.

From Alec’s course invitation:

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.

The tentative schedule is shaping up as follows:

  • Welcome (Jan 13-19): Welcome Event & Orientation
  • Topic 1 (Jan 20-Feb. 2): Connected Learning – Tools, Processes & Pedagogy
  • Topic 2 (Feb 3-16): Digital Storytelling – Multimedia, Remixes & Mashups
  • Topic 3 (Feb 17-Mar 2): Digital Literacy – Information, Memes & Attention
  • Topic 4 (Mar 3-16): Digital Citizenship – Identity, Footprint, & Social Activism
  • Topic 5 (Mar 17-30): The Open Movement – Open Access, OERs & Future of Ed.

If you would like to be kept in the loop as the course comes around in January, enter your details in this form.

Sharing Classroom Practice

Open Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

Photo by @cogdog

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 congruent educational 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.

Or not.

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.

Are you, or your door, open to the possibility?

Learning Analytics in #Philosophy12

Visitors to the Philosophy 12 Blog since September 2012

Try as we (or, most of us) might to convince ourselves that we’re only blogging “for ourselves,’ there is a certain pleasure derived from looking into the view-counts, clustermaps,  and other user data that most of our blogs and sites are keeping track of for us. Knowing that there are specific people out there reading our words, watching our videos, and learning our songs always seems to push the envelop of what else we might put out there onto the web, and what reaction it might illicit.

But there is another layer to the data that shared sites are silently tracking and recording for us that offers another glance of our digital learning environments. Looking back at the first month of activity on the Philosophy 12 blog, I’m beginning to see a whole different purpose to these stats.

For instance, which posts are generating the most conversation?

Who are we reading?

Who are our most prolific commenters? (Interestingly enough, three of the top seven commenters this week are open participants, learning alongside us for no credit.)

Stephen Downes: Prolific like Batman

Who are we reading?

Philosopher Viewing

Now, all of this could very well be nothing more than the ego stroke that goes along with realizing that rings in our imagination to the tune of Muhahaha! but data sets like the above (and these are just the ones that come with a free WordPress.com blog) can help sift through the firehose of web-generated course content and help facilitators and learners alike zero-in on not only those hotbeds of conversation, but perhaps also (to follow the metaphor through to its logical conclusion) those embers needing a little more oxygen to reach ignition.

I know that there are folks like George Siemens, and Philosophy 12 guru Mr. Downes, who are blazing trails in much larger learning environments than ours, nurturing the burgeoning field of Learning Analytics (or Educational Data Mining). But I wonder – as much of the Philosophy 12 experiment has made me in the last few weeks – about the applications these environments might lend K-12 education. I’m also curious:

  • Are statistics like these informing/driving/related-whatsoever-to learning in your classroom(s)?
  • How might the gathering of such information change classroom practices in the future?
  • Is all of this just a big distraction from attending directly to student-learning?
  • Bueller?

Syllogisms, Reasoning & Logic with Batman

Matt Henderson: Teaching ourselves to Last Forever


Indulging in some gallows humour over Twitter Monday morning, one of my colleagues east of the Rockies and I were consoling D’Arcy Norman after hearing about his Member of Parliament Rob Anders’ remarks concerning the death of NDP leader Jack Layton by highlighting a few recent antics of our own elected representatives:

My local MP, caught in a less-than-completely-truthful attack of Vancouver’s mayor, opted instead of acknowledging his error to shout down the opposition member bringing it to public attention and to further degrade the mayor on the floor of the House of Commons in the process. Matt’s MP accidentally divulged the email addresses of 1,500 constituents in a mass email.

Giulia Forsythe then joined the pity party and suggested that the three of us should run for office if we’d like to read fewer news stories that make thinking people cringe, if not downright ashamed of the deeds and statements carried out in our name during these days of our more perfect union.

To which Matt Henderson replied, “I ran as an MP in the last election and my class acted as my campaign team.”

Wait, really? 

I’ll forgive Matt for not touting this remarkable project too loudly at Unplug’d this summer – aside from being in another chapter group than me, he’s a self-described “observer,’ more comfortable with a sharp and subtle observation than holding court around a dinner table or campfire, perhaps. But the video he shared with D’Arcy, Giulia and I describing the process of his run for office, recorded at last year’s TedXManitoba, more than makes up for his reticence in Algonquin: it is a hilarious glimpse of Matt’s unique self-deprecating humour, passionate intelligence and innovative pedagogy that should be required viewing for history teachers at any stage in their careers.

Matt’s magic three elements of relevant, revolutionary pedagogy involve classrooms becoming places where learners collaboratively construct their own truths and are encouraged to apply this knowledge in their real communities, and where teachers chiefly concern themselves with enabling and creating these environments of autonomy.

A perfect example of bearded men thinking alike, among other things. Cheers to Matt for such an ambitious an rewarding project, and sharing it with the audience at TEDx, and beyond.

Carrying Stones

Voyageur at Unplug'd 2012
Photo by @cogdog

I arrived at Unpludg this year without a finished draft of my letter.

Either out of procrastination or by an unconscious but deliberate choice, I made the journey east resolved to not panic about not having completed my draft and to try my best to remain open to the vibrations of the moment over the course of the weekend, to soak the experience in, and use the time set aside for peer editing with my group to finish the song.

Our songwriter, Bryan

Earlier in the week, I had sat at my kitchen table looking out over Burrard Inlet strumming the familiar opening chords of G major, D, and C, singing I’m gonna write myself a letter…  until I settled on the opening groove of the song. Pretty quickly I had scribbled down the opening two verses and had a chorus that scratched at a theme of a collective voice emerging from so many individual journeys out toward the Edge.

My own curiosity about this year’s event, now expanded to include international participants, centered around what a diverse selection of passionate educators (to quote Rob Fisher from last year, “People who care about education so much it hurts.”) might create in a mosaic of their voices. Last year this had seemed easier, as our focus was the ‘limited’ prospect of a Canadian identity, and I wondered what my role would be an a conversation about about a more diverse voice.

UnPlug'd 2012 Visual Notes

@giuliaforsythe's visual notes

It wasn’t that Unplugd this year wasn’t still a heartily Canadian affair, with Ontario and educators from across Canada, not to mention the Edge hosts and Voyageur, the Six String Nation guitar, playing a role in welcoming our friends and colleagues from the United States and Australia. Thursday night’s reception in Toronto, culminating in a presentation from Jowi Taylor about his journey to collect the artifacts composing Voyageur, a guitar made up of mythically charged Canadiana – Trudeau’s canoe paddle, the Golden Spruce, Maurice Richard’s Stanley Cup Ring – provided an opportunity for the story of the guitar to begin the weekend’s conversation about people and place.

Being asked to play a song on Voyageur was an honour that was both invigorating and daunting, as I knew in some ways the performance would serve as a sort of host’s welcome to our international friends and local guests. But I had little idea the emotional weight such a guitar could bear. And when the story of Jowi’s journey to have the Voyageur built wound to a close, I was overwhelmed at the prospect of having my voice, and my words, spoken through this mystical object, joining in the chorus of the pieces making up the guitar, as well as the thousands of people who have held it in their hands, and contemplated their own relationship to the country and one another through the songs Voyageur has helped them sing and hear.

Needing a few minutes to settle myself at the front of the room and hopefully provide some context for the song I had chosen to sing, I talked about the idea of Canadian soul homes, and that truths are woven in places where people are living, as Martha reminded us in this year’s opening circle, “at the pace of creation.” I had arrived in Toronto the day before having brought a stone I picked up in the estuary of Noon’s Creek near my house, a barnacle encrusted river rock forged a hundred million years ago in  Heritage Mountain that now lolled in my neighbourhood’s high tides. Thinking about how I’d found the stone earlier in the week on a low neep tide that in the fall will be carrying streams of salmon home to spawn in the creeks where they were born, and that I was now being given the opportunity to make music by playing notes that would resonate through the sacred wood of the Golden Spruce struck me as especially moving in that moment.

 

 

As it turned out, leaving my letter unfinished was the right choice.

I think about writing songs a little like archaeology: once the hook – a riff, lyric or chorus – is discovered, the rest of the song is usually nearby, obscured just below the surface of sedimentary dust. They are like puzzles, where a songwriter creates an opening image, or symbol, builds upon that theme by creation tension (either literally or musically), and then resolves that tension for their audience.

Going into the weekend, I had written the first two verses and a chorus for my letter-song, but couldn’t have written the third verse (the resolution) before Thursday night, or the rest of Unplug’d had played out. The tension of the song was created out of my own question about the experience: what would this group come together to say? I would need to write the song, and capture it, from the middle of the experience.

Writing a song on Voyageur

On Saturday afternoon, my editing group of Donna Fry, Marci Duncan, and Gail Lovely sat on yoga mats in the upstairs studio of Points North, and I played them the opening verses of the song. We had saved the song for our last edit, and had spent the day  up until that point contextualizing the meaning of each of our letters through the stories we had told one another and our emerging reflections on what the experience was teaching us. Jowi Taylor was gracious enough to let me enlist the powers of Voyageur in the composition, and he joined us for a conversation about authenticity, and truth, and the role of music, metaphors, and symbols in our collective storytelling while I sat cross-legged with the guitar in my lap.

Like each of the songs I played on Thursday night, “Carrying Stones” turned out to be a collaboration, like all art and stories are, really. Jowi and Voyageur gave me most of the words in the third verse.

The rest of the Unplug’d participants helped set it to music.

You can continue to join in the song by playing along to the lyrics and chords I’ve posted here.