“Moments happen quickly, and changes come slowly.”

Summer school

The title of this post, and its contents are synthesis and reflection of my thoughts while reading James Nahachewsky and David Slomp’s book chapter “Sound and Fury: Studied Response(s) of Curriculum and Classroom in Digital Times,” originally published in Beyond ‘Presentism’: Re-Imagining the Historical, Personal, and Social Places of Curriculum (2009).

Similar to Borges‘ introduction, “like all men, he was given bad times in which to live,” we find ourselves in complex times that have yet undeniably coalesced into a present “moment” that might be described as a Digital Age. The arrival of these digital times has arrived with

“a shift in perspective that recently has thrown many modernist educational boundaries and underlying assumptions into doubt – including constructs of learner and teacher, and schooling itself (Gee, 2004; Knobel & Lankshear, 2007). This shift is due, in part to young people’s own fluid, de-territorialized meaning-making afforded by the consumption and, perhaps more importantly, the production of digital texts.”

Nahachewsky and Slomp present the problem of how confronting these new realities of the digital age reveals a contradiction in that “digital texts, as created by young people become sites of action and agency [while] Arguably, brick and mortar classrooms are not.” The language arts, the authors note, are uniquely situated to reveal the particular opportunities such times present the study of pedagogy, as new media arise, changing the relationships between students, teachers, and even broader educative communities beyond our institutions. Using the shift brought to text by the digital age as a corollary, the authors begin to outline a structural transformation that is beginning to be seen in literacy education.

“The spaces of classroom and educational digital texts create complex dialogic ‘contact zones’ (Bakhtin 1981), where we may witness the representation of learner, teacher, and curriculum in interesting, complex, and non-traditional ways.”

Highlighting the example of the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol for Collaboration in Basic Education, Nahachewsky and Slomp note that democratic governments have engaged the collision of the 21st century and its burgeoning technological revolution to provoke discussion around the revolutionizing of curriculum itself, though the section of the paper begins with a quote from Jerome Bruner’s Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (1986):

“Language- can never be neutral, it imposes a point of view not only about the world to which it refers, but toward the use of mind in respect of this world.”

Because while the governments of the western provinces strive toward a collaboratively determined common curriculum that will best prepare young Canadians for the digital and globalized 21st century, “The primary issue the Ministers [of education from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon and the North West Territories] identified in the agreement was the need to optimize the limited resources of the provinces in improving education [emphasis from the original].” The point of view “imposed,” and which frames the narrative of educational reform contextualizes the task as one of necessity rather than aspiration.

One needn’t suggest that fiscal responsibility shouldn’t constitute an aspect of educational discourse; but by beginning from this foundation, the “authors” of our curricular narratives – granted such voice by the democratic processes guiding public policy in Canada – limit the possible iterations of curriculum that might better contribute to education’s guiding purpose(s) than those created solely out of financial necessity. With the broad focus of literacy, the authors summarize the purpose of language learning expressed in the WNCP, which presents literacy as a tool:

“To facilitate thinking, define culture, develop personal identity, build interpersonal relationships, extend experience, facilitate reflection, contribute to a democratic society, construct and convey meanings, and facilitate metacognitive awareness.”

But while even optimists among us might appreciate these strokes of application that these democratic processes have sketched out on our collective behalf, the authors emphasize what is not included in this discussion of education’s future, what is not part of the narrative authored on society’s behalf: “the question, To what end?”

“…to what end do we use language to facilitate thinking or to construct meaning?”

In other words, what is understanding? And what is it for?

The affordances of new media in these digital times has further contributed to the disruption of the narrative of the singular author, a process that has been at work throughout the modernist period and which dates back to the Enlightenment period. Such philosophical movements are congruent with Bruner’s suggestion “that our use of language has a constitutive role in creative social reality and concepts of our selves.” 

To paraphrase Michael Wesch, our digital times present us with the opportunity to witness Marshall McLuhan‘s edict that “we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us,” in real time, largely through the critical study and experimentation with different forms of texts encountered in the language arts classroom. Indeed, Nahachewsky and Slomp point out that “this has important implications for the culture of education and the concepts of self that teachers and students co-construct.”

As the revolution of text online has challenged the notion of a single authorial rendering (even of an original work or act), so too might the digital age present the opportunity to consider the direction and construction of meaning to be a collaborative act between students who are guided in this process by a teacher. However well intended, our present schools are places where

“students are seen as participants who are given a role as ‘performing spectators who play out their canonical roles according to rule when appropriate cues appear.”

Bruner notes further than “this role causes the child to only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it.” However much this framing might offer a shift in perspective to today’s educators, it has been more than one hundred years since Maria Montessori lamented that while “it is true that some pedagogues, led by Rousseau, have given voice to the impracticable principles and vague aspirations for the liberty of the child […], the true concept of liberty is practically unknown to educators.” (Montessori 1912)

More than one hundred years ago, Montessori wished

“to direct the teacher to awaken in him[self], in connection with his own particular field, the school, that scientific spirit which opens the door for him to broader and bigger possibilities. In other words, we wish to awaken in the mind and heart of the educator an interest in natural phenomena to such an extent that, loving nature, he shall understand the anxious and expectant attitude of one who has prepared an experiment and who awaits a revelation from it.”

However as we look to the educative narrative presented in Canada today, we might note the Federal Harper Government’s discussions of scientific discovery have similarly limited its scope to invest “scarce resources” in research that offers a practical return on investment, thus affirming the broader cultural narrative of perpetuating an infinite growth economy as our highest purpose.

As it is in education, the question To what end? is not included in the discussion of why we ought pursue scientific discovery (if not to achieve predicted economic outcomes), and the omission represents an abandoning of principles around which our cultural, social, artistic, political and moral traditions each originate and continue to revolve, those traditions which coalesced and were articulated during the dawn of the era of mass-printed texts.

Following the invention of the printing press, Europe witnessed the transformation of its public sphere(s) (Habermas 1991), with paradigmatic shifts visited upon religion, politics, science, philosophy and the arts. The ability of greater and greater numbers of people to encounter and freely share new ideas delivered a cataclysm upon the singular narratives of public affairs constructed with absolute power by monarchs and churches, and is the overarching arc of justice which guides foundational schools of western philosophical thought to this day. Broadening the base of authorship in the creation of a collective narrative led directly to the transformation of the existent structures of the preceding paradigm.

We might learn from these events, as the advent of our modern, digital technologies presents what may constitute an analogous ‘moment’ of cultural revolution where the discussion of what might be is at least as relevant for discussion as the prospects of what must be. In fact, we have learned much from those who sought to uphold the mantles of chalice and crown throughout the various Enlightenment revolutions employed various arguments to make their case, and should proceed skeptically with those who would tell us what “must be.” With the traditions of scholarship and tools we have acquired in the age of empiricism, the test to establish what “must”…

must be of the strictest rigor.

In the meantime, it is equally important that modern educationists explore and discover what can be, as it is central to the task of creating a fuller perception of nature and humankind which the traditions of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and political philosophy demand of us.

This Talons Believe


This Talons Believes by Bryanjack

As this part of the ds106 class comes to a close (sort of) I have repeatedly pondered the role audio for me plays in my life and that we have done great things in this class expanding the community properties of sound and I am so thankful for that. Sound has so many wonderful uses, and I think in this class we have wandered into some fantastic places with it. I want to sit with all of you and make art. Todd Conaway

Agreeing with Todd entirely, I synthesized some of my teacher feedback from the few-months old This I Believe essay project into a 20′ radio show that sewed different elements of the class’ recorded writings into my larger essay about what we learned we believed. Still a few steps away from offering a weekly radio show, or media share of the collective lessons learned in the Talons classroom, but one closer. Enjoy!

Tell this story.

Morning Class Retreat

Talons talking erratically

In brainstorming a way to synthesize the myriad tangents and threads being pursued in our recent study of rebellion and revolution in Egypt, as well as 1860s Manitoba, I wound up writing what began as a challenge to myself, and the Talons, to boil down the human affinity for stories of power, rebellion and freedom, and became much more something of a spoken-word take on history, storytelling, and the very purpose of life itself.

Sometimes, it can feel as though the objective of a lesson – so often a shared synthesis of ideas that comes from everyone pulling in the same direction, as we say in Talons – is elusive to even the instructor, or facilitator, whose job it is to bring about and make meaning – data – for the concerned parties (learner, teacher, parent), until each group’s unique questions can be asked, and looking ahead at the next few days and a wrapping up of the unit on Canadian rebellion, I struggled to answer a few of the ‘regular’ questions:

  • What to make of the course material (in this case history)?
  • How to connect it to our modern experience?
  • How might this unit / project connect to the group’s collective and individual self?

In this case, I was trying to make the study of history connect with the class’ consistent call to actualize ourselves in the learning environment, and personal lives as students and citizens, and in some small way perhaps echoing Jim Groom’s call to:

...make open education in praxis fun, accessible, and basically rock!! DS106 is the beginning of this movement, and it isn’t about me, just look around ds106. I mean people all over the world are doing Colleen‘s Playlist Poetry assignment, she is shaping this class not only by her willingness to create and participate, but by our ability to connect that urge with many, many others who share her desire. That is the beginning of a new dynamic that is not simply transactional. The idea of creative teaching hopefully re-imagines that locus—and I need to spend some more time framing this out more because I know it’s right. I feel it deeply in my heart of heart’s, and as Gardner notes in the discussion above, it is time to reinvest our hearts in the process of teaching and learning—I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment and I want to make it so.

I wanted the Talons to take their reading and evolving understanding of our national, and current, history, and give it voice in whatever way they might see. But it can be difficult to generate this type of inspiration without a concrete goal, or set of instructions. My vision, though complex and potentially multi-faceted as the personalities and perspectives in the class, and across the world, was simple at its heart: I wanted the class to tell the story of Louis Riel, and the Red River Rebellion, and in doing so tell the story of our class, each of us, in encountering our history, and one another, at this moment in our shared development.

What else is there in life, really?

I was inspired and enthralled in this idea, as well, by my recent drive-time listening to the Radiolab podcast episode, “Who am I?” delving into engrossing scientific radio journalism in support its episode’s thesis: “The self is a story the brain tells itself.”

RadioLab.org – “The Story of Me”


p style=”text-align: justify;”> And somewhere in there, in reflecting on the recent action research of the class’ blogging community, and the developing narrative of the class’ collective, and individual successes and struggles, I thought that the best outline I could offer the lesson and upcoming group project was the simple challenge of the brief essay I had written the night before. It is – to date – the strangest introductory material I have given to a history class.

Louis Riel by Bryanjack

Tell this story.

Rebellion, oppression, the will of humans to be free. We are taught the nature of history, and government, communication storytelling in the name of a pursuit of knowledge, of ourselves, and the breadth of our nature to be capable of making something, and living the best life we can. If each person who was given the opportunity to express their perspective in life did so, with the tools at their disposal to record and publish their thinking across distance and time we might know some fraction of the truth in a world inhabited by a people whose singular defining characteristic is to staunchly resist the very changes which contribute to our progress. But these struggles each represent a powerful theme in and of themselves about the truth of humanity’s story: that an indominable human will inevitably overcome a beaurocratic means of suprressing it; that new ideologies can shatter the expectations and realities of the old; and that an age committed fervently to its ideals is rife with the opportunity to be exposed by people few and brave. And we well these people’s stories, and attempt to in some way understand them and the moment they ineherited, and chose to stand up, and not submit to the expectations and realities of their day, so that we might recognize, in our own selves, and our own times, those things for which we need to stand up. Throughout history, we read of continuous examples of peoples who have through violence and ignorance have had their rights supressed by regimes both tyranical and democratic. When people have acted in haste or fits of passion, incorrectly, this has resulted in many deaths. Our present moment asks that we stand and be counted as lives lived to the best of our honest knowledge about what our actions mean. We study the lives and times of men like Louis Riel to know what others have been willing to stand for, when doing so has not been easy. Because it never it easy, and surely will not be when it is our turn, whether we are standing for our lives, our minds,or own opinion in a world where everyone’s from New Orleans’ orphans to the Kings of Spain, is exactly equal.

A Week without Technology

Telramen op de bank in de klas / Counting-frames in classroom

Essential classroom technology

A few weeks ago, I wrote:

I would also be interested in establishing a school learning community that values face-to-face dialogue, debate, and experiential, first-hand learning for students and teachers alike. If we are to ask that our students are committed to the present moment of their current learning, why shouldn’t we expect the same of one another?

Blog Post as Essay: Cell Phones in the Classroom
Wederopbouw: provisorisch schoollokaal / Improvised classroom, shortly after the War

How much has changed since this photo was taken?

After writing that post, I thought about the possibilities of setting up this ultimately face-to-face school environment that would not only challenge those of us who rely on futuristic technologies – iPhones, laptops, projectors, etc – to rethink our jobs as facilitators of classroom learning, but also give those who would ban cellphones in their classroom a greater context to appreciate the current, rampant rate of technological progress.

I thought that a week without technology – without email, photocopiers, announcements and overhead projectors – would be a bounding step forward in establishing a truly local school community, and a rallying point for digital natives, and immigrants.

  • Why not turn such a week into a fundraiser, a way to promote awareness about our dependence on technology, and question our relationship with our digital (as well as other) tools?

As he has a habit of doing, Ira Socol is a few steps ahead of me:

Let’s try a week without clocks and bells. Few technologies interrupt the learning process more, and limit learning to “the shallows” more, than the school timetable. And few things belittle students more – or expose our hypocrisies more – than bells. They are not just Pavlovian, they are unfairly so. Kids are “late” when the bell rings, but teachers often insist that they get dismissal power, meaning bells are only significant when they can punish students. So take a week. Cancel the start time and the finish time. Abandon the class schedule. Let students pick which of their classrooms they want to be in – and when. Let kids spend a day working on one thing, or five minutes, whichever they need and want. Let them eat when they want, use the toilet when they want, debate Shakespeare when they want. See what happens. Our school schedule was invented by Henry Barnard to train kids for industrial shift work. Is that what are schools are still designed to do?
Speelplaats van een Rooms-Katholieke school / Schoolyard of a Roman Catholic school

How it could be.

Let’s try a week without desks and chairs. Pile them all up in the corner and ignore them. Let kids bring what they need to make themselves comfortable. As I asked one school district: “Do any of you have furniture like this at home?” The chair and desk, that contribution of William Alcott in the 1830s, might have made sense then. But we have central heating now, and carpets are available everywhere. And pillows are cheap at Ikea – so are lapdesks. And kids would rather be comfortable. And… teachers might find themselves worrying a whole lot less about controlling how kids sit in their chairs. Let’s try a week without books and paper. We know how many of our kids struggle with reading and writing – the physical acts. The word decoding, the holding of the pen, the traditional keyboarding – these things are our primary creators of disability. So let’s get “Socratic” for a week. Lets get fully digital (adaptable text, speech recognition) or simply verbal/audio. Let’s talk and listen. Let’s think out loud and work on auditory memory. We might see a whole new set of student skills rise to the top with those “Gutenberg technologies” stripped from our kids’ lives. We might see a whole new kind of learning.

Essay as Blogpost: Cellphones in the Classroom

Captured buskingBusking captured by cellphone.

As even the devil might need an advocate from time to time, I thought I’d offer a few points in support of delaying the rounding up of the school’s cell phones and putting the kids who use them in camps where they might better concentrate. An unfortunate wordplay that evokes a similar (if heavy-handed) connotation of totalitarianism run amok as in the oft-cited observation, the only institutions who ban cellphones are the Taliban and highschools .

While they may present a different set of challenges for today’s educators, cell phones and mobile devices are a part of the world we live in, and should be a part of the education we provide today’s students.

Cell phones are distracting. They can isolate people, be used to bully, gossip, buy or sell drugs, commit other crimes, prorogue Parliament, call in bomb threats, cheat on tests, procrastinate, plan the next 9/11, etc etc etc. There are plenty of reasons for teachers to be leery of such technology coming through their doors, being used under their classroom desks, or being flipped open anytime one of their students is in “the bathroom.” As well, in training our students to enter the workforce we will do them many favours by instilling in them the ability to discern between times when it is appropriate to be engaged with personal technology, and when it is not. I certainly don’t want the fine people who pump my gas, serve my fries, and are otherwise working for (or with) me in the face-to-face capacity of many service sector jobs using a cellular or smart phone while they’re at work. If I ran a factory, hired manual labour, or even dealt in certain collaborative fields (business, creative arts, think tanks, etc), I might be so inclined as to institute a no-cell phone rule, as they would likely impede the nature of the work my colleagues or employees are engaged in.

TALONS consult with local blogger Amber Strocel

TALONS consult with local blogger Amber StrocelBut even then, there would likely be exceptions, and if I wanted to be a co-operative boss rather than a prison warden, I probably wouldn’t make my employees empty their pockets before they came in to start the day, and it will be a while before I do the same to my students – TALONS, guitar, or otherwise. But that may be me; I realize that I might be in the minority. But I would also be interested in establishing a school learning community that values face-to-face dialogue, debate, and experiential, first-hand learning for students and teachers alike. If we are to ask that our students are committed to the present moment of their current learning, why shouldn’t we expect the same of one another?

In fact, I suggest that if we’re philosophically against the ills that our mobile devices provide the educational landscape, I would await the outcry that would ensue if our administrators collected our phones, laptops, tablets, and other technologies that distract us every morning, things that get in the way of our more personal human interactions, and that make “cheating” (emailing resources, helpful material and maybe even email threads like this one to one another) all too easy. If the school is a no cell phone zone, it should be a no cell phone zone for all; otherwise, the logic of a school wide ban for Students Only doesn’t add up for me.

If the ban is only going to apply to students, the more moderate approach of a classroom-by-classroom basis, allowing each teacher their own classroom management strategy, is far-better suited to the central beliefs of a profession based in the diverse subjectivity of human experience. Personally, I can say that banning cell phones at our school would unequivocally make me, my students, and my classroom(s) less productive.

Guitar students take down their homework
Guitar students take down their homework

My cell phone is how I check my email, maintain a calendar, record student presentations, skits, and songs, take pictures and movies, as well as play music, videos, and podcasts. My phone is my primary connection to Google, Wikipedia, major newspapers and blogs, as well as a global network of educators, researchers and thinkers that share their wisdom, learning, resources, and classrooms with me and my classes in kind. I try to model optimal, yet responsible use of my personal technology, and I expect the same of my students. In turn their phones allow handheld access to more useful and current information than is in our textbooks (blasphemy!), communicate with one another, seek input from peers who may be elsewhere at the time (home sick, appointments, family vacations, on off-block, etc), consult expert authorities on subjects we study, and record speeches, songs, videos, podcasts, and material to study later (lectures, debate, conversation), in addition to viewing, reading, or listening to supplemental material from numerous sources to support what we are learning about in class.

By no stretch am I saying that this is how your classroom should look, feel, operate or anything else; how you teach your learning outcomes is your practice – this is mine (though granted, as a language arts and history teacher, the ability to communicate and decode text-based information is central to learning outcomes in both curricula and inherently involves more of the sorts of things PODs make possible). Ban cell phones, laptops, carrier pigeons, calculators, GPS, pens, smoke signals or anything else you think takes the focus away from your lessons. But my classroom would suffer if you would have your values imposed on it, just as yours would likely suffer if the reverse were true.

I am also, while I’m at it, not advocating for any sort of laissez-faire, anything goes policy toward my own or my students’ mobile devices in class. Q and I lectured and facilitated classroom discussions for more than two consecutive hours today, and only saw one cell phone the entire time. We don’t allow iPods, cell phones, watches or any digital technology other than cameras on our (single or multi-day) field trips. During these times when our priorities are to be engaged with one another and our environment, it is made clear that these devices serve no worthwhile purpose other than to detract from meaningful present experience. I think it is important to stress the value in “unplugging” to our students – and remember it ourselves – as a means of maintaining a sense of attention literacy in an increasingly busy information landscape.

A Talons Desk
A Talons Desk

But there are countless other times when cell phones are an invaluable, free resource in which our classrooms, offices and the rest of the developed world are suffused. When looked at as an opportunity, rather than a threat, modern mobile devices offer possibilities for student engagement, collaboration, and learning that are staggering.

Each of the classes we teach can reasonably expect to contain nearly a class-set of the following, at no cost to us, the school, district or Ministry of Education: video and still-cameras, mp3 recorders, internet browsers (that open, load and surf faster than many of our school computers), communicative networksthat involve 99% of our school community and well-beyond its walls, personal calendars, organizers, note-takers, tutors, tutorials, stopwatches, calculators, RSS readers, image and video-editors, as well as instantaneous communication (Facebook, Twitter, email) that is the hallmark of a burgeoning Information Age.

Being able to use these technologies may not be appreciated by service-oriented employers whose workers are paid by the hour, but they are already workplace essentials in many sectors, as it is seemingly impossible to find professions within an information-based economy where the leveraging of the internet, mobiles, laptops, and social networks is not a basic requirement.

To neglect this fact would be irresponsible if we believe our jobs hinge upon preparing tomorrow’s workforce.

Kids texting while a teacher is talking, or while the class is supposed to be working, is an issue of manners, or alternatively one of classroom management, and we are free to teach either of these in any number of ways that doesn’t involve our school making cell phones illegal (unless, like I say, we go full-bore – I’d be into that experiment).

The TALONS in their natural habitat.
The TALONS in their natural habitat.

It never worked for prohibiting alcohol, censoring free speech, implementing abstinence education, or waging a War on Drugs.

Why would it work for cell phones?

I only offer my thoughts as respectful counterpoint to a wave of emails that seemed to slant toward a “Get rid of ’em!” approach that would impede the great learning I see these devices enable every day. It’s not a matter of better or worse; the way each of us teaches with respect to these devices is merely different.

A final realtime example: I posted on Twitter (from my phone) that I had received emails from multiple colleagues cheering for the banning of mobiles at our school, and asked my assembled network for links to resources discussing the advent of hand held technologies in the modern classroom. Within a few hours, I had several responses (including a few from current or former students at our school) that shared insights like recent grad Kassie Wasstrom’s (and were likely typed out by thumb on a phone’s keypad or touchscreen):

“We need to focus on the positives. I have a couple of profs that encourage us to bring iPods, iPhones, etc, because they help stimulate conversation.”

Errin Gergory, a teacher from school district 74 in Northern BC, sent me links to the following interviews with SD43 teacher Sonya Woloshen (supplied via Coquitlam teacher and principal (currently residing in China) Dave Trussyoutube channel):

I also received a link to this exhaustive debate of the pro’s and con’s for either banning outright or promoting responsible use of mobile devices from one of my current students, as well as a link to a TED Talk I blogged about last January, Stefana Broadbent’s Democratization of Intimacy:

At the end of that post, I think I manage to sum my thoughts up better than I have here:

“It is not a matter of banning cell phones, or even giving them a constant working purpose in our classrooms (such that they are not idle and hence a distraction, or even to meet students “on their turf”), but rather, a focus on raising learners – and to continue in Broadbent’s vain: citizens – that exist within the emerging fluidity of the 24/7 social media cycle, and yet are empowered by its capabilities to unite, and connect, rather than cowed by its vapid and addictive lesser qualities.”

Parisian Love

After a few days of waiting to see what all the fuss was about, I finally saw Google’s Superbowl commercial. I had read Ira’s account of the narrative based in a series of Google searches, and was intrigued by the charm of the commercial is in its brisk, simple rendering of narrative through the universal ‘lens’ of Google searches. And there is the connection to Michael Wesch – of The Machine is Changing Us fame – and Marshall McLuhan carried in the youthfully eclectic and seemingly unconscious use of Google to:

… fully explain the full reach of our contemporary information gathering tools, from the academic to the frivolous, from the mispellings (“louve”) to the mis-searched (needing to add “France” to Paris is one search), from the maps to the photos to the comments on a location. This, for all those wondering what “students need to know,” is what students need to know.

Wesley Fryer asks the following question on his blog today:

It would be great to see students use this method of “storytelling via screencasted Google search queries” to tell other stories. What story would you tell? If your Google history could talk, what stories would IT tell?

And I think that this could \ should only be the beginning of our use of digital forms and perspectives to tell our stories. As Wesch declares modern media and its mediums of Google, Twitter, Flickr and a host of other 2.0 tools capable of shaping the possibilities for community, for identity construction, and ultimately for self-awareness, I can think of no more straightforward statement of education’s purpose than these three goals.

I am having the socials students tell digital stories this week, in Biopic film trailers, and campaign videos for Napoleon, and geographic public service announcements. And in the meantime, the class blogs are humming with reflections and assignments solicited as well as unassigned. All of which have resulted in a strengthening of the class’ internal relationships, but also its individual voices. Blogs and a variety of forms thus far – performance, writing, music and research – have lent the class opportunities to tell its own stories, in its own voice(s).

With the continuous advent of new communicative technologies becoming the norm, and mastery of an ongoing and fluid range of tools following suit, it is an exciting time to deal in exploring narratives and self-expression with young people (they’re the ones who know their way around the tools anyway).

Think Different (Or: Do as we say, not as we do.)

The other night my teaching partner and I, along with two of our students, gave a brief presentation to our local School Board Trustees outlining the basic tenants of our Autonomous Learner Model-inspired two-year gifted students program. At the conclusion of our small talk, our superintendent offered praise to our learners’ poise and confidence in following the Mayor’s presentation to the daunting group of elected officials, and noted that our district, and public education in general, is headed in the direction of the type of differentiated instruction paramount in the TALONS classroom. Needless to say, in an age of consistent, and staggering, budgetary shortfalls in our local school districts, it is encouraging to hear positive words from the top of our local school organizations, and to know that we are ahead of the curve.

I heard one of our vice-principals say last week that, “My daughter’s not an identified gifted student, but that’s the type of learning I want her to be doing.” (Students must be designated as ‘gifted’ and so-eligible for our district’s Student Services funding to be able to apply to TALONS.) And I agree with him; it’s not that our model would only work with gifted learners. (Indeed, George Betts intended to have the model extended to students with learning disabilities and the general population of schools.)

When I teach courses to the general student body at our school, I use the same guiding principals as I do in a class where each of my 28 students has an Ministry of Education required Individual Education Plan (as they do in the gifted program). According to my course evaluations, the high achievers learn more than they would in a class they might have otherwise aced; and the low achievers tend not to fail with the same regularity. When they do, in fact, I would chalk up much more of their inability to succeed in the classroom setting to such poor prior experiences with any of the following: English, learning, teachers, or education in general (my students are generally 14 or 15 by the time they get to me, and hence have some fairly entrenched habits and perspectives). I failed one student in all of the 60-some students I taught through English 9 last year: the straw that broke his academic back was a report – oral, video, written or in a form of their choosing – on the touring schedule of the student’s favourite band. More differentiation (or less) would not have been likely to affect the outcome, I doubt.

Really, how could one fail in a system that is based upon working toward an individualized set of goals in relation to the mandated government curriculum? Yes there will be shortcomings in ability, prior knowledge, or other limiting factors. But how well are our schools prepared to create the type of learning, and learners, we claim to seek on a daily basis?

Heidi sent me the video at the top of this post on Twitter the other day, asking if the TALONS students had seen it. And they may have: it’s a popular tv spot for a company that has seized the modern zeitgeist to create revolutionary solutions to Herculean problems, featuring counter-cultural icons who have defined the last fifty years in areas from science, to politics, to arts and music and the ongoing struggle for freedom.

When I look out across my class on a given afternoon, I am constantly witness to the germination of passions and ideas that could well become the embodiment of Apple’s urging, to Think Different. Our students are lucky to be in a classroom where such diversity is encouraged. But I wonder how well they would be served in many other ‘average’ classrooms (which I am quick to point out are not always the result of poor teaching or under-qualified teachers, but the constraints placed upon our modern classrooms), and to answer that question, I look to the educational experiences of the faces in the clip attached above, many of whom no doubt learned to become those “crazy enough to believe they could change the world” not because of their education, but in spite of it.

Albert EinsteinFrom Wikipedia – Einstein clashed with authorities and resented the school’s regimen and teaching method. He later wrote that the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strictrote learning. In the spring of 1895, he withdrew to join his family in Pavia, convincing the school to let him go by using a doctor’s note.[7] During this time, Einstein wrote his first scientific work, “The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields“.[15]


Bob Dylan From NNDB.com –  Late in 1959 Dylan enrolled in the University of Minnesota, but his love of music soon overpowered any academic ambitions and the following year, after spending a summer in Denver honing his stage persona, he dropped out and moved to New York to immerse himself in its incipient folk-revival scene. While in New York he also sought out his hero Woody Guthrie, spending as much time as he could at the ailing musicians bedside.   Martin Luther King, Jr.From Wikipedia – skipped ninth and twelfth grade and enteredMorehouse College at age fifteen without formally graduating from high school.[10] Richard BransonFrom Wikipedia – Branson has milddyslexia and had poor academic performance as a student, but discovered his ability to connect with others.[6] John Lennon (with Yoko Ono)- From Wikipedia – Lennon failed all his GCE O-level examinations, and was only accepted into the Liverpool College of Art with help from his school’s headmaster.   R. Buckminster FullerFrom Wikipedia – He was expelled from Harvard twice: first for spending all his money partying with a vaudeville troupe, and then, after having been readmitted, for his “irresponsibility and lack of interest”. By his own appraisal, he was a non-conforming misfit in the fraternity environment.[2] Many years later he would receive a Sc.D. from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.   Thomas Edison From Wikipedia – In school, the young Edison’s mind often wandered, and his teacher, the Reverend Engle, was overheard calling him “addled“. This ended Edison’s three months of official schooling. Edison recalled later, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.” His mother homeschooled him.[2] Much of his education came from reading R.G. Parker’s School of Natural Philosophy and The Cooper Union.   Muhammad Ali – From Wiki Answers – Muhammad Ali dropped out of Louisville Central High, a local basketball power, finishing 369th of 391 seniors in the class of 1960, and often traveling to fight on weekends.


Ted TurnerFrom Wikipedia – Turner initially majored in Classics. Turner’s father wrote saying that his choice made him “appalled, even horrified,” and that he “almost puked.”[8] Turner later changed his major to Economics, but he was expelled before receiving a diploma for having a female student in his dormitory room.[9]


Maria CallasFrom Wikipedia – Initially, her mother tried to enroll her at the prestigious Athens Conservatoire, without success. At the audition, her voice, still untrained, failed to impress, while the conservatoire’s director Filoktitis Oikonomidis refused to accept her without her satisfying the theoretic prerequisites (solfege). In the summer of 1937, her mother visited Maria Trivella at the younger Greek National Conservatoire, asking her to take Mary as a student for a modest fee.


Mahatma GandhiFrom Wikipedia – In 1885, when Gandhi was 15, the couple’s first child was born, but survived only a few days; Gandhi’s father, Karamchand Gandhi, had died earlier that year.[9] Mohandas and Kasturba had four more children, all sons: Harilal, born in 1888; Manilal, born in 1892; Ramdas, born in 1897; and Devdas, born in 1900. At his middle school in Porbandar and high school in Rajkot, Gandhi remained an average student academically. He passed the matriculation exam for Samaldas College at Bhavnagar, Gujarat with some difficulty. While there, he was unhappy, in part because his family wanted him to become a barrister.


Amelia EarhartFrom Wikipedia – Amelia and Muriel (she went by her middle name from her teens on), remained with their grandparents in Atchison, while their parents moved into new, smaller quarters in Des Moines. During this period, Amelia received a form of home-schooling together with her sister, from her mother and a governess. She later recounted that she was “exceedingly fond of reading”[18] and spent countless hours in the large family library. In 1909, when the family was finally reunited in Des Moines, the Earhart children were enrolled in public school for the first time with Amelia entering the seventh grade at the age of 12 years.


Alfred HitchcockFrom Wikipedia – Hitchcock was sent to the Jesuit Classic school St Ignatius’ College in Stamford Hill, London.[6] He often described his childhood as being very lonely and sheltered. Hitchcock left St. Ignatius to study at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation in Poplar, London.[12] After graduating, he became a draftsman and advertising designer with a cable company.[13]


Martha GrahamFrom Wikipedia – While the social status in which she was raised contributed to her access to education and refinement, it would also work against Martha. As the eldest daughter of a prominent physician, and a Presbyterian family, Martha was strongly discouraged from considering any career in the performing arts.[citation needed]


Jim Henson From Wikipedia – In 1954, while attending Northwestern High School, he began working for WTOP-TV creating puppets for a Saturday morning children’s show. After graduating from high school, Henson enrolled at University of Maryland, College Park, as a studio arts major, thinking he might become a commercial artist.[6] A puppetry class offered in the applied arts department introduced him to the craft and textiles courses in the College of Home Economics, and he graduated with a B.S. in home economics in 1960. As a freshman, he was asked to create Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV. The characters on Sam and Friends were already recognizable Muppets, and the show included a primitive version of what would become Henson’s most famous character, Kermit the Frog.[7]


Frank Lloyd Wright From Wikipedia – Wright attended a Madison high school but there is no evidence he ever graduated.[3] He was admitted to the University of Wisconsin–Madison as a special student in 1886. There he joined Phi Delta Thetafraternity,[4] took classes part-time for two semesters, and worked with a professor of civil engineering, Allan D. Conover.[5] In 1887, Wright left the school without taking a degree (although he was granted an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University in 1955).


Pablo PicassoFrom Wikipedia – the family moved to Barcelona, with Ruiz transferring to its School of Fine Arts. Picasso thrived in the city, regarding it in times of sadness or nostalgia as his true home.[7] Ruiz persuaded the officials at the academy to allow his son to take an entrance exam for the advanced class. This process often took students a month, but Picasso completed it in a week, and the impressed jury admitted Picasso, who was 13. The student lacked discipline but made friendships that would affect him in later life.

It’s not that they were each rebels, renegades or educational outliers: Martin Luther King and others were academically as endowed as many meeting with success in our modern schools. But how well are our schools and present-day classrooms equipped to produce the types of thinkers listed above?

What grade would Bob Dylan be getting in your class?

Is Social Media a Fad?

I tend to side with bloggers like Dave Truss and Shelly Blake Plock, who see the advent of social media as a revolution in authorship that is transforming the way the world exchanges information. Whether politically, academically, or economically, information and access to it, and the ability to process it meaningfully – never mind the opportunity for everyone to create it – translates swiftly to power, and today’s technology is creating a tangible shift that is being felt in each and every field, not least of these: education.

There are some staggaring statistics in this short video which make the case that social media is the greatest shift since the Industrial Revolution.

Access and Interviews (a story & some tips)

NinstintsTime and again I have confirmed my assumptions that asking kindly generally grants one access to opportunities normally beyond their reach. Stating my intentions clearly, and declaring myself a passionate and self-directed person, I have found repeatedly that people are willing to help out if the request is framed appropriately.

An example: A few years ago – after reading this book – my sister and I decided that we needed to go to the Queen Charlotte Islands. But after completing preliminary research we found that many areas of the islands we finswould want to visit – UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hotsprings Island, Tanu, Skedans and a host of other former village sites – were all but inaccessable without boats (either kayaks or greater, and a good deal more ocean knowledge than either of us possessed). Signing up for guided expeditions could cost thousands of dollars (as would the required kayak-purchases and requisite certifications), and yet we remained undeterred. I spent an afternoon on Google finding the email addresses of nearly every guiding outfit operating in the islands, and sent them all this email with our resumes attached:


I have sent you this email in inquiry of volunteer positions with your expedition(s) this summer. Based in Coquitlam, British Columbia, my sister – Melissa, 22 – and I – Bryan, 26 – plan to spend much of August in Haida Gwaii, and would be interested in exploring with you if such an opportunity might exist. I have attached our resumes and enclose these words of introduction on our behalf in the hope that they might deem us worthy additions to your group’s experience in the Charlottes.

At present I am a teacher in the Coquitlam School District (#43), where in my first year I am teaching grade four (social studies and art), as well as music, to students grades kindergarten to five. My journey toward education in this present capacity was born out of experience in the outdoors of the American South, volunteering and then working at a Boy Scouts of America summer camp in the Arkansan Ozark Mountains. For two summers I served as certified aquatics director, overseeing activities in our reservation’s pool complex and at the lakefront; my duties included managing a staff of ten and teaching canoeing, sailing and rowing, as well as swimming and lifesaving skills to approximately thousand Scouts in three years.

During my first year as aquatics director at the Gus Blass Scout Reservation (now Camp Rockefeller), Melissa joined our staff as a volunteer assistant director. A long-certified lifeguard in British Columbia, my sister’s experience in education stems from her work as a diving coach with our local swim club. At Simon Fraser University, she has studied Biology and will complete her degree this spring. Melissa’s focus has been marine biology and botany, which she supplemented with a 2006 summer semester at Vancouver Island’s Bamfield Marine Sciences Research Center. A recent interest has been sparked in her study of ethnobotany, and the relationship between our province’s first peoples and its indigenous plants, specifically traditional ecological knowledge.

At the end of our term at the summer camp, Melissa and I flew to Toronto and began a cross-country road trip that has set the tone for our summer activities since. We have enjoyed outdoor experiences that have led us to our present stations, and will inevitably be headed to the Queen Charlotte’s this summer in the vein of past August on the Sunshine Coast’s Nelson Island and in the forests of the island’s west coast. (To view the exploits of these adventures, see the various albums of this Flickr page: www.flickr.com/photos/bryanjackson/.) We are seeking an experience this summer in British Columbia’s holiest of places, and wish to lend any services, be they culinary or first aid (we could both become certified at our own cost if need be) in nature.

It is our sincere wish and hope that whatever we might do to aid in your group’s experience in the magical reaches of Gwaii Haanas would be appreciated in the most heartfelt manner, and we would invite further conversations about how this might come to pass if it should suit you. We are each outgoing young people with a flare for teamwork and adventure, and our credentials I hope speak to our ability to act as competent, valuable volunteers.

In addition to my email address, we can be reached at the following: 604 555-0000, or Melissa’s email: ______________

It would be a great pleasure to hear from you, Sincerely yours, Bryan Jackson

A great many of these email met replies which very apologetically outlined a variety of reasons they couldn’t help us out. But one company did reply, bluntly stating:

You can work for us and go along on some trips if you would like. Call us when you are here. Heron.

Driving PollyI had already read about Heron in Ian Gill and David Nunuk’s photojournalistic book Haida Gwaii: Journeys through the Queen Charlotte Islands. Raised in Rose Harbour (and on Hornby Island) Heron Weir is something of an emblem of the islands – his mother still lives at Rose Harbour year-round, easily one of the most remote places in coastal BC – and runs the still-locally-owned Moresby Explorers, on whose behalf he extended his brief invitation to Melissa and me. Lo, Our Ride Arrives

And sure enough, when we arrived, Moresby Explorers gave us food to eat, a roof over our heads, and – in exchange for our services doing dishes, making lunches for tours, and tagging along as extra hands on day-trips to refuel vehicles, pick up guests at the airport and ferry and other odd jobs as they crept up – passage aboard zodiac, kayak and float plane through, across and over the expanses of Gwaii Hanaas National Park Reserve and into some of the world’s most revered places.

Murchison Island SlumberAll of which would have cost a lot, you know, unless we asked. So it’s a good thing we did.

I’ve brought this up, as I generally do in class, to introduce students to the idea (and the ease, really) of calling, or emailing strangers in the hopes of obtaining an interview, a mentorship, or a favour with regards to their upcoming Eminent Person Study. Historically a hurdle for students in our program, it cannot be overstated the authenticity contacting a ‘real life’ expert lends to this type of research, less so for the information obtained, and more for the lesson that such requests, when worded correctly, are often granted.

With that, here is the advice I am including in the handout outlining the interviewing aspect of the upcoming project. As ever, feel free to add your own means of contacting expert assistance, or help clarify what I’m getting at here via the comments.

Find out who it is you need to speak to

Universities (and their web pages’ staff directory) are a good place to start, if your Eminent Person was involved in academic pursuits, or left their stamp on world history. In other fields, Wikipedia articles are often cited extensively (look at the bottom of the article), providing original source material for information: locate the authors – professors, journalists, etc – and see if they can provide insight (either becoming the interviewee themselves or pointing you towards your eventual subject). Also, if your person’s namesake or field of work is represented by a non-profit organization, such as a foundation or charity, seek out its director of communications, or public relations: they are literally paid to handle requests such as yours.

Show yourself to be serious, prepared and grateful for the help

  • State the purpose of your contact up front: I am _______________ and I am doing a research project on the life of ______________.
  • But avoid being blunt The above should take more than one sentence, and can include information you have already found on the person, or the field, a summary of how you found the person, or some background on the rationale behind your choice of Eminent Person or the project itself.
  • Humble yourself Be accommodating in setting up the interview, such that all the person must reasonably consent to is answering a few already-prepared questions. Acknowledge clearly – repeatedly – that your interviewee is going beyond the call by granting you some insight. Thank them for their time, even if they can only help by providing you with more phone numbers, emails and people to contact in their stead. Politeness (and here we will include grammar, spelling and formal language) will go a long way here.

Synthesize the results

What did you learn? What perspective or angle did your interviewee provide on your Eminent Person? How does this ‘stack up’ with the rest of your research? What do you need to know next? How will this information find its way into your project?

And of course: You should contact your prospective interviewee well in advance of needing the information. This will allow you to not be pushy in arranging a time to meet, talk on the phone, or receive an email.


On Seeking Eminent People

Every year our class participates in an Eminent Person Study to fulfill components of English and Socials curriculum. As well, the project’s culmination in the Night of the Notables, where our grade ten students (the class is almost evenly divided between grade nine &  ten gifted students who attend our school from all over the district) become their studied people and answer questions in a 30 minute wine-and-cheese style banquet, and then deliver brief addresses – remaining in character – on any aspect of their eminence or life for peers and parents, as well as friends, teachers, administrators and the odd school board trustee.

Needless to say it is a big night, and one of the rites of passage in our two-year program (along with the class’ Fall Retreat, In-Depth Study and Adventure Trip) that calls upon our students to truly explore their potential in the face of hesitation, fear or momentary lapses in confidence. As with these other keystone hallmarks of the program, the Night of the Notables dates back to the original incarnation of gifted education in our district – a locally developed curriculum I was lucky enough to be a part of in 1994-1996 – and the resources handed down to our classroom: yellowed pages of brimming binders, contain programs for the evening dating back to the early 1980’s.

In my own participation in the project, I remember my own teacher going into detail as to the importance of the young women in our class studying eminent females, citing the lack of Herstory (a term I was hearing for the first time at fourteen) in our classrooms and media and a handout I photocopied yesterday.

But since I have been teaching the program – the last three years – I have noticed an increasing fervour around the notion of females wishing to study men. Though a certain amount of this has much to do with the gulf of understanding that exists between any adult and teenager (where each believes they are acting reasonably and rationally, and yet comes across to the other as someone born quite literally yesterday, without prior experience in human interaction),  I marvel at the energy with which their opposition to studying eminence along gender lines grows.

This year there are four students (out of 28) wishing to study eminent people of the opposite sex; three females wishing to study men, and a young man wanting to study a female. In my estimation it is the highest number yet.

Knowing that a good many female students historically faced with the prospect of studying a historical person will (reflexively?) select a male is a matter of historical authorship than a lack of female accomplishment, I generally approach such ambitions by proposing that the student make a case for the person in question as the best available choice.

Criteria arrises out of many things: chiefly, the potential to teach the student about the world, the nature of giftedness, and achievement based on one’s own individual measurement of success. Even in other cases – if I feel a student’s choice is arbitrary, or hastily made – I follow a similar line of questioning. But gender, as an identifying characteristic and means by which our society continues to intrinsically marginalize women, remains a major factor in the selection process.  The research on this is extensive, and it is astounding on many levels that nearly every female in my class (with any prediliction for debate) so vehemently opposez the recognition of different cultural expectations for women.

It could be a matter of age, my teaching partner and I agree. As does The Happy Feminist, who blogs:

Back when I was an adolescent, I militated against the idea that the lack of female role models in certain disciplines is a problem for young girls.  I felt vaguely insulted at the notion that I was expected to identify only with people of the same sex as I.  At thirteen, when I had to write an essay about my role models, I made a point of including Leonardo da Vinci as well as Elizabeth I.   I felt that there was no reason I shouldn’t be just as inspired by or identify just as strongly with a man of achievement as a woman of achievement.

And so inevitably I am “pitched” female studies of the likes of Walt Disney, Marilyn Manson or Charles Darwin, and have yet to rule against the students’ final decisions, one way or the other.  Merely, I make a practice of asking the students wishing to cross the gender line demonstrate passion for their choice in writing or conversation, a description of one of the following:

  • A letter or essay outlining the student’s choice as the only acceptable person worth studying; or
  • A list of five people of the student’s gender who could be considered members of the same field as the original selection, and why they are unacceptable for study. 

I tell them to enter such discussions knowing that I will be supporting the women on their lists because I believe it is important for them to have strong female role models. And yet  a group of a dozen or so (most of whom have no vested interest in the cause as they are studying members of their own sex, but who – as do nearly all of my gifted wonders – rabidly devour any and all topics of debate and argument at all times) hang around until four debating the motivations and underpinnings of my seemingly Draconian and arbitrary regulation.

But it is not all so bad. I tell them that in the end the choice is theirs; I only want them to make their decision with consideration of as much surrounding information as they can, and to make the one true to themselves. Sometimes it even works out.

Resources for Seeking (Female) Eminence

Women’s International Centre | Biography Index – Women’s International Center [WIC] was founded in 1982 as a non-profit education and service foundation [501c3] with the mission to ‘acknowledge, honor, encourage and educate women’. Since its inception WIC has fulfilled its purpose in many ways. Beginning in 1983 the LIVING LEGACY AWARDS began to ACKNOWLEDGE, HONOR and ENCOURAGE WOMEN.

Canadian Mathematical Society | Women’s Biographies – Many biographies of women mathematicians may be found at the extensive History of Mathematics collection, at St Andrews University, Scotland. Others (many modern) are listed at the Women Mathematicians Project, at Agnes Scott College, U.S.A. 4000 Years of Women in Science lists several women mathematicians (with photos). A few biographies of women mathematicians have been published in mathNEWS, the University of Waterloo Faculty of Mathematics student newspaper. A text called Math Odyssey 2000 by Clem Falbo for a liberal arts course provides a few others. For a print listing, see Biographies of Women Mathematical Scientists and History of Women in Mathematical Sciences from the Women in Math Project (directed by Marie Vitulli). Another list: Distinguished Women of Past and Present: Mathematics, a collection by Danuta Bois. 

The Collective Biographies of Women –  This is an exhaustive annotated bibliography of the more than 930 books published in English (in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere in the Anglophone world) between 1830 and 1940 that collect three or more women’s biographies. Two selective chronological bibliographies feature all-female collective biographies published before 1830 and after 1940 (the list is exhaustive through 1950). These books, written by more men than women, feature a surprising range of historical, legendary, literary, or biblical subjects, of many ages and lands and many kinds of achievement.

 Know of any resources that would be of further use to this discussion? Add the tag eminentperson to any Delicious bookmarks to share!