Singing Taylor Swift Songs

Introductions, Gender, and Amplification

Every year in #introguitar (an open online guitar class I teach at my school, and which you should totally enrol in as a non-credit participant) I ask my students and our open learners to introduce themselves and their intentions to the group in a brief video. And rather than rehash a template video of my own from ages ago, I appreciate the opportunity as a student of music to focus my learning about guitar from semester to semester in new video introductions.

In past years I’ve worked to learn skills and techniques around lead playing, band-leading, and performing, documenting my growth in subsequent videos and reflections throughout the year.

This year, I’m taking my work in guitar in a direction slightly away from the guitar itself, and toward the conversation about gender, inequality, and diversity in the wider culture of popular music; I’ve resolved to only play songs written by women.

A while back I read about journalist Anil Dash’s experiment to only ReTweet women for a year, an experience that made him more mindful of the voices he amplified on social media:

Based on my experiences, my recommendation to others is simple: Give it a try. If you’re inclined, try being mindful of whose voices you share, amplify, validate and promote to others. For me, it was giving a platform to women where I wasn’t able to mansplain the things they were already saying, but instead just sharing out their own thoughts in their own words. It may be by issue, or by identity, or by community, or some other consideration.

Troubadours and Teen Idols

Caption courtesy of RadioTexasLive.com

Along with inspiring the mournful western aesthetic of my university days, Ryan Adams wrote some of the first songs I learned on guitar (he also inspired the bad versions of Wonderwall I still play around campfires), and has been an artist that I’ve grown alongside for more than ten years as we’ve each experimented with bands, folk music, and life beyond our devil-may-care early twenties. His work of late has been especially sharp, I think, too; “Gimme Something Good,” and the rest of his self-titled album last year contain layers of guitar excellence and timeless hooks that are among his best.

Last year, word began to spread that Adams had set to recording a cover of Taylor Swift’s recent blockbuster, 1989; my worlds were colliding.

As a guitar teacher in a high school the last six years, I’ve been no stranger to the evolving songwriting career of Ms. Swift. Seldom in my tenure in #introguitar have I walked past an interesting turn of phrase, guitar riff, or chord progression to not be told upon inquiring, “That’s Taylor Swift.” Around campfires and in the park behind my parents house during the summer, the choruses of “Love Story,” and “You Belong with Me” have become generational anthems that are tattooed on suburban boys and girls alike.

There is doubtless something there.

Exhibit A in why I want to start calling #introguitar “Campfire Practice”

A video posted by Bryan Jackson (@bryanjack) on

Pronouns and Performing Gender

As long as I’ve enjoyed Taylor Swift’s tunes – and I have quite earnestly enjoyed them, making them a staple of class guitar playing and pieces to deconstruct as exemplars of composition – I’ve never truly played or performed any on my own. There have always been reasons for this, but I can’t say as though very many are very good.

Sometimes the key is too high, or the melody too…something. Sometimes the dance beat is too difficult to recreate on a single guitar. Sometimes they’re written too explicitly from a female or feminine perspective. None of which in itself is a big deal, but contributes to enough awkwardness that I don’t wind up learning the songs to a degree where I play them for other people.

Historically this has been true nearly across the board, with a few pop songs by female artists making ironic appearances alongside Notorious BIG covers once it’s late enough into the night or the jam. The list of songs written by women that are part of my repertoire is pretty weak, if not non-existant.

On a certain level, this is a matter of taste, sure. Why shouldn’t I play what I like to play? What’s easy to play? That feels like me? However, on another, I share the songs I play with a lot of people; I teach young people about the culture of musicianship, songwriting, and developing one’s own voice, both as an interpreter of other people’s songs, and a writer of originals. To present only my own perspective, or one which makes me comfortable, seems unfair to the myriad ways my students perceive and approach the world, and their music.

This is why I’ve decided to spend my time playing music for school this semester playing and performing songs written by women. I’m not play it ironically, insulating myself from whatever vulnerabilities arise in the performances with humour or distance.

And I’m going to leave the pronouns the same, because if it makes me uncomfortable to sing about Taylor’s “Stephen,” or about “his hands [being] in my hair,” I do enjoy the ability (one might say privilege) of challenging that discomfort so that it’s more acceptable for young men who know all the words to Taylor Swift, or Beyonce, or Lady Gaga’s songs to take the stage and belt it out.

Because these songs weren’t written as larks, or trivial, or silly: they were and are manifestations of tone,  character, and theme. They are expressions of an aesthetic in the tradition of songsmiths, where male voices have been disproportionately taken seriously as a matter of course by virtue of arising from male mouths.

Even Taylor Swift’s own songs became more highly regarded by critics once Mr. Adams had sung them. Ian Crouch at the New Yorker (which reviewed Adams’ record, but not Swift’s) wrote:

If anything, Adams’s version of “1989” is more earnest and, in its way, sincere and sentimental than the original.

There are a bunch of men’s songs I’ve shared and performed and taught the class in the past, and no doubt there will be in future semesters. But not because they’re any more sincere, authentic, or otherwise superior to any woman’s music.

And if that’s the case, I’d like to work to balance my catalogue of songs accordingly.

Room for Improvement: If and when we do Eminent again…

Slide14

Before the new year, I compiled a host of the TALONS‘ responses to reflective prompts on their work created during the Eminent Person Study, highlighting the means and methods they employed to create stellar examples of public speaking in their Eminent Addresses. Being able to have each of these reflections assembled in one place – thanks to Google Forms, and a bit of code that helps display the various responses – creates a different type of feedback that allows us to glimpse the how of what is inevitably a successful aspect of the project.

When we are successful, it appears, it is because we put an exceptional amount of work into the product: we rewrite, and edit, and draft, and rewrite again. This sort of work is generally undertaken with the help of supportive peers and parents, and presented alongside a cohort of individuals similarly striving to achieve something grand. These are important insights to hold onto as we look ahead at creating future memorable learning opportunities for ourselves and future classes.

Perhaps equally as inviting is the opportunity to investigate what happens when things could be better, though. And so now later than intended, but still hopefully of value to the class and readers of this blog, here is the flip side of the Eminent data.

During which assignment do you feel you created work you believe could be improved?When it comes to work the TALONS would have liked to improve, the results are more divisive than when asked about where they believed they had been successful. Where a majority of the class felt that their Eminent Address had been the most successful, different aspects of the project reveal themselves as areas for future growth.

Among the contenders are the Interview and Night of the Notables (either on the night itself, or capturing their work in a follow-up blog post), followed closely by Document of Learning, and Introductory post.

Traditionally, the prospect of obtaining an ‘expert’ interview on a related topic to one’s Eminent Study has proved a sticking point for many TALONS over the years, so it is perhaps unsurprising that it should lead the field for this particular question.

This grade ten response distills much of what generally constitutes this difficulty:

The problem with my interview was that I couldn’t get one. If an assignment like this ever comes up again, I would be sure to contact more people (even if there is only a slight chance they would be able to help with my research), and to contact people earlier on. 

Indeed, whether or not an interview can be obtained is generally the result of having cast one’s net wide enough, if not allowing enough time for meaningful responses to be offered.

A grade nine echoes this sentiment:

I feel like I could have sent out my emails earlier, so I’d have an interview by now. I was procrastinating on my interview and sent my emails rather late. I also could have emailed more people because I think most of the people I emailed didn’t see my message or they just didn’t want to respond. 

However, even with enough time and emails heading in the right direction, one of the grade nines cast more specific advice for themselves forward toward next year’s study:

Next time, I will prepare for my interview as early as possible, and send more convincing emails that will increase the chance of me getting an interview. Having conducted some research on how to form emails, I want to: 

  • Make the title / subject line less vague, and keep it short
  • Write less text, as people are lazy and won’t want to read all of it
  • Avoid lengthy introductions
  • Compliment the reader
  • Use bold / italics to emphasize important points

However, even when successful, this grade ten was able to take away valuable lessons from the experience:

Although I did end up conducting an interview, I later observed that my questions might have garnered more of a helpful response if I had chosen a specific and narrowed topic. For this assignment, the questions that I asked could elicit a very long and extensive response, and because I asked so many of these kinds of questions, it became difficult to delve deeply into one specific area, as the interviewee felt the need to address all of the questions. In the future, I would try to narrow my questions to the most important area of study for the purposes of my research and understanding. 

In the cases of other aspects of the study the TALONS would like to see improved, a common thread that emerges in reflection is the race against time. As in the interview assignment, many members of the class can likely empathize with their classmate who wrote,

I feel that I definitely could have done a better job with my [Document of Learning, Library Field Study, Biblography]. But, unfortunately, Night of the Notables crept up on me and I had to put all of my efforts into [my Speech, Learning Center]. 

Even when it came to Learning Centers, this sentiment is likely familiar:

I believe I did fairly well with my Learning Center. However, I believe it could be improved the most out of all of my assignments because since it is such a big assignment there are many places where it could be improved. I would firstly start my learning center sooner, for I had to work well past midnight many days in a row leading up to NotN to finish it. 

This grade nine agrees:

I was happy with my Learning Center, however I believe that I should have put more time, effort and thought into the creation and presentation of it. 

As does this one:

The one thing I would have liked is for more time. Between juggling math, the environmental project, being project manager, elective homework, and extracurricular activities, starting my learning center was slowly making its way down the list. 

Which is a real-world application of the experiential learning TALONS is proud of providing: we often choose which of our tasks will garner our utmost effort, and occasionally even large projects – or aspects of complex projects – don’t get the amount of time or effort we feel they deserve in a perfect world.

Time is, in the world of work as in life, unfortunately a scarce commodity, and we are each tasked with making decisions about how we allocate it. And I doubt that as an even trade, many of the TALONS would exchange success in their Eminent Speech for a more successful turn in one of these other aspects of the project.

However, the sensation that we have not used our time wisely this time around can often be the best impetus to using it differently in the future, and for those who this year felt that their swap wasn’t an even trade (inasmuch as they didn’t spend time on their speech instead of other eminent assignments), I would hope that this sentiment leads to a more informed use of time in future opportunities.

Blog as Prologue

Evening Meeting

Upon completing my undergraduate education, I toyed briefly with the idea of heading directly into my Master’s, though at the time it would have likely been in American literature or an MFA program in fiction writing than the course I’m currently following. Then again during my course work to obtain my teaching certificate, I considered accepting the invitation of one of my professor’s to pursue a doctorate in Fine Arts Education.

However, apart from the timing and other opportunities that kept me from continuing my studies at either of these junctures, I knew in the back of my mind that I would be best suited to continue my formal education if I were able to bring a crystallized vision of why my studies would be of value – to me or anyone else. Ever charmed by a holistic philosophy, I often do my best work when that work can intersect with personal passions, causes and ambitions.

My graduate studies would organically come to pass as my theories and practices – in life as well as work – came more clearly into focus and alignment with one another, as I am confident to say that they have of late.

This process, almost in its entirety, has evolved and emerged in some two hundred and seventy posts which find themselves in the pages of this site. In striving to define my own minute corner of the universe, my hope all along has been to register my perspective among the collective narratives of the communities to which I belong.

Back in 2009, I began this site by asking What is School’s Job? and invoked a Nabakov quote that has inspired me to explore and document my own perspective in the posts since, as well as my burgeoning graduate degree:

Indeed, this subjective life is so strong that it makes an empty and broken shell of the so-called objective existence.  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

Whether in blogged reflections, artistic challenges, or academic work, it is contributing to this conception of greater human knowledge and objectivity that continues to inspire me to push publish, and share my thinking with a wider audience. In the intervening years since that initial post, I’ve come to have a clearer sense of where my perspectives on educational theory and practice might best be put in the service of our shared educational reality, and have been doubly inspired by my initial graduate studies to expand my perspectives on each.

In considering the intersection of cultural epistemologies, ethics and social and political philosophy that constitute curriculum studies, I have come to focus on aspects of learning design and student ownership and engagement with learning through the lens of citizenship education. However, even as these interests have sprawled in the last several years, I have been driven to see them coalesce around the type of “simplicity of cause” that Ralph Waldo Emerson discusses, wherein “There is at the surface infinite variety of things; at the centre there is simplicity of cause.”

In documenting and reflecting upon outdoor education, collaborative inquiry, classroom discussion, digital media or learning through the arts, I’ve found these complexities to be grounded in the view that democratic freedom depends on a broadly engaged citizenry. Such a broadly engaged citizenry demands that schools provide students with experiences in constructing their individual and collective perspectives on community, thereby learning to better contribute as individuals to those communities.

Such a focus provides an ample platform to go about forming a problem statement for my Master’s research, as well as directing a question toward addressing it in future posts and papers. However, while each new representation of these questions, theories or experiences contains the potential for what yet may come, it stands among the prior formulations of itself, and in these multitudes is contained the essence of my thinking.

As a jumping-off point as I set out to synthesize my own thinking on citizenship education, it is important to consider the course of experiences which have brought me here. And by briefly tracing this arc of narrative learning, I hope to bring the larger themes of my own research and experience to bear on the discussion going forward.

Back in 2010, replying to a staff email thread at my school on the nuisances of cell phones, I argued for the citizenship benefits to technology in the classroom:

“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.”

Reflecting on the merits of outdoor education a year later, I highlighted the ability of experiential learning in the woods “to provide experiential lessons in:

  • Realizing that we are a community.
  • Experiencing our place in the (local) natural world.
  • Learning self-reliance and accountability.
  • Living in the moment.”

While I wouldn’t be reading the paper for three more years, it is interesting to see the intersection of many of the notions expressed in this post with Daniel Shugurensky’s ideas about citizenship learning which

“generate[s] public spaces of social interaction in which discourse is based on finding agreement, welcoming different points of view, identifying the common good in a myriad of competing self-interests, searching for synthesis and consensus, promoting solidarity, and ultimately improving community life.”

In 2012, the opportunity to engage in my own community of practice at the Unplug’d event in Algonquin Park provided an opportunity to engage in my own experiential learning about the creation of an educational culture indivisible from the shared perspectives of a community of individuals.

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.

Building on my Unplug’d experiences, the work I was doing in my own classroom(s) became more and more oriented toward an aspect of digital citizenship I have come to see as an area of potential when looking at technology in learning: openness.

“whether it’s blogs, wikis, podcasts or campfires; videos, GIFs, or walks in the woods, the story of human progress, and knowledge, is about learning to adapt to these “breaches in the weave of contextual structure,” something that the Internet has brought us in spades. That we should be using it to capitalize on the greatest capacities we possess – creativity and self-expression, community-building and collaboration – seems the most genuine of purposes for classroom learning to take on, and something I’ve found in educational opportunities that thrive because of an attitude of openness.”

It is this ethos of openness and participation where I see my areas of focus and scholarship being of value, as my work in a variety of learning environments has offered a glimpse of enthusiastic cohorts of young people exploring and reflecting upon unique courses of study. As Simsek and Simsek note, the “democratic values needed for the citizenship are not different for new literacies. Many democratic values could be acquired by new literacies.” In fact, they point out that “New literacies are prerequisites for digital citizenship.”

Whether in the gifted cohort I team-teach in Coquitlam, the open-online Philosophy or Guitar courses I facilitate, or broader contributions I have offered to the digital and face-to-face experiences of my students and colleagues, I feel uniquely poised to chart a course of personal and collective development of ideas about citizenship in my corner of the world. And it is here that I would like to begin my Master’s research.

In future posts, I plan to chart and document the evolution of this scholarship as an extension of the prologue offered here.

Course Design and Narrative Discovery

Image courtesy of Michael Kreil on Flickr.

Now at the mid-point of my third pass at our open online Philosophy 12 course, I am finding different ways to bring about the salient outcomes which have arisen in the last few years. This is both a result of having observed and noted the successes and difficulty senior students have had with various concepts or ideas, as well as an improved familiarity with the connections and construction of meaning throughout the various units that constitute the course.

In just over four months, facilitating a highschool course which moves from the introduction of philosophy as a historical concept to logic, to metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, ethics and social political philosophy is a daunting process if each of these topics is viewed in isolation. Each of my first two turns with the course saw the units as individual spokes in a wheel that loosely surrounded the study and – as the etymologists remind us – the love of knowledge. However, toward the conclusion of last year’s course, I began to see the narrative arc of our study play out in such a way that has allowed me to facilitate the course in what I hope is a more effective means ofImage courtesy of Ken Douglas on Flickr. providing intellectual growth for enrolled students, and open online participants this time out.

What follows is an attempt to synthesize this emergent narrative.

Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry

Beginning with an introductory unit on Philosophical Inquiry, participants are asked to respond to the question, What is PhilosophyHere, we discuss the nature of exploring wisdom, knowledge, and our relationship with our experience. Each participant’s What is Philosophy assignment is shared with the group and posted to the blog, and will eventually serve as an initial snapshot against which later ‘check ins’ (in the form of a mid-term, and final presentation) will be measured and reflected upon.

Logic

In logic, Philosophy 12 participants are introduced to the structure of basic syllogisms and logical fallacies, and are asked to introduce and evaluate examples of arguments in popular or political discourse, or even their own lives. Having each arrived at slightly different subjective responses to the question What is Philosophy? and What is wisdom? logic arrives as the (still biased) instrument by which such subjectivities might be shared or debated among different perspectives.

Scientific Philosophy

Building on the biases uncovered in even our application of rigorous and rational logic, the class sets out to examine the different lenses by which philosophers have approached the nature of scientific objectivity, generally working toward a debate around the topic, Is Science Objective

Which generally works toward the consensus that no, no it is not.

Pic courtesy of Paul Frankenstein on Flickr.

Metaphysics

Where the course waters deepen quickly is with the onset of metaphysics, where the ‘first question of philosophy’ is addressed: namely, What is? Here the first three minor units culminate in an attempt to discuss an ultimately subjective topic within the confines of philosophical discourse. Fundamental questions about the composition and nature of reality are met with the rigors of applying a personal course of philosophical inquiry, an introduction to the logical underpinnings of various metaphysical themes and concepts, and the flimsy nature of what we might hold to be objective.

Metaphysical Inquiries

This unit in particular has evolved dramatically over the three iterations of the course. Beginning in the first cycle as a series of Pecha Kucha presentations on notable metaphysicians and how their ideas have contributed to our collective understanding of existence, the second cohort’s metaphysical study tackled a more constructivist approach and led to last year’s experiments with the Metaphysical Object.

This year the unit struck a balance between the highly structured and more open-ended, perhaps, as participants engaged in a collaborative inquiry of various interests and curiosities about metaphysics.

Epistemology

Having uncovered a personal course of inquiry, developed the means of formulating an argument, the nature of what can be known, and what there is (and then the question of what it might be like), epistemology provides another opportunity to synthesize learning from the previous units. Here the class was aided for the second year in submitting reflections on their learning through a Google Form which gathered not only personal evaluations and feedback on the unit plan and organization, but also generated insight into how the group might proceed as a collective into our next unit.

Image courtesy of Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig on Flickr.

Epistemology proceeds naturally from metaphysics, in this regard, and this semester presented the opportunity for participants to reflect back on their initial thoughts on philosophy, as well as the units since. In the reflection upon the learning conducted in metaphysics, this and last year’s cohorts have seen the onset of epistemology as a point when the class truly begins to create their unique collective narrative as they set out to build upon personal and group learning from the prior unit.

This approach delivers the prospect of the unit on knowledge itself as an opportunity for exploration and expression of how the group thinks about their own learning and development as individuals within a wider culture. There is a lot of reflection on the purpose of schooling that is created from outside, and the freedom to create purpose within those expectations from our classroom, and these talks are consistently inspiring and humbling to be privy to. (The second iteration of the course conducted many of these talks as live Philosophers Cafes as Google Hangouts.)

Coinciding roughly with the middle of term, the Epistemology unit this year served as an opportunity for participants to synthesize their thinking about their own knowledge, not only on the topic itself but their journey of discovery in the course since the beginning of the semester.

The assignment’s purpose is outlined below:

  • To state and support a proposition of personal knowledge;
  • To synthesize and reflect on course topics explore thus far:
    • Philosophical Inquiry
    • Logic
    • Scientific Philosophy
    • Metaphysics
  • To integrate existing epistemological ideas into a unique personal theory.
These Personal Theories of Knowledge have been collected here:

At this point in the course, we have answered the following questions:

  • Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry: How do we / how have others engaged in the process of philosophical inquiry? What is philosophy?
  • Logic: How do we / how have others communicated, represented, and argued to support their propositions? Is it possible to formally discuss questions which may not have answers?
  • Scientific Philosophy: Can science objectively interpret the natural world? Our inner worlds? How best should science be utilized by society, given its limitations?
  • Metaphysics: What is reality/consciousness/the self/experience? What is it like? How can we / how have others imparted, described or represented the answers to these questions?
  • Epistemology: What do I/we know? How do we know it? How do we know that we know it? What is knowledge? How is it created, shared, or replaced with new knowledge?

We are left with the culminating units on Aesthetics, as well as Ethics and Social & Political Philosophy, the latter two of which I am toying with the idea of merging into a single study on Justice, as it appears to be a concept uniting both ethical philosophy, and the political.

Having hopefully discovered working answers to the questions up to this point, we are left with the issues of:

  • Aesthetics, and the nature of feeling, and beauty, and aspirational experiences; as well as
  • Ethics, and the resultant question of all which have preceded it thus far: what is a good life? Given what we know, and how we know it, about our shared and individual experience of life within the limitations of this knowledge, how best are we to spend our lives? Which leads naturally to
  • Social & Political Philosophy, which is the theorizing of a workable system to represent the collective voice of a society or community with regards to these ethical questions about how we ought live.

And while I’ve taught this course quite similarly these last three years, the nuances of the story it is telling it continue to emerge over time as different hands and voices come to share their experience with the topics, and one another. In an embedded reflection of the course’s narrative arc and themes, perhaps this has been the purpose all along.

Reflection, Self-Explanation & Citizenship

MA Doodles

Analogue Notetaking

Reflection vs. Self-Explanation

One of the questions asked by a #TieGrad classmate during my presentation on the Self-Explanation principle was whether there was all-too-much difference between the practice of self-explaining and a more general reflective process. And while I might be more inclined to leave the definitive boundary-setting to those more versed in the theory, something that drew me to investigating the principle in the first place was the apparent overlap with many of my own practices revolving around critical reflection and pedagogy.

There does indeed appear to much overlap between the practice of guided reflection, the creation of objects of learning, and an ongoing critical praxis.

The benefits of guided self-explanation touted by the chapter in Mayer’s Principles of Multimedia Learning involve the following:

  • Repair mental models,
  • Identify previously held misconceptions,
  • and Make inferences between learning materials.

Further, studies have shown that

“When students are explicitly asked to make connections between sources of information while self-explaining, they are better able to integrate the information to form a more complete mental model.”

Self-Explanation & Citizenship

Slide20As I’ve described in other posts this semester, such a framework for learning suits the ongoing themes in my own theory and practice as related to critical pedagogy and citizenship learning, as it serves to provide a personalized outlet for meaning-making in a complex learning environment. Such a process seems poised to deliver the lessons requisite for students to continue lifelong learning beyond the school or institution and become contributing members of a just society.

Such a conception of democratic society is the same one introduced by John Dewey, nearly 100 years ago. Among a great many contributions to progressive education, Dewey prescribed schools (and curriculum) as the means by which the younger generation could become enculturated to the traditions, concepts and proficiencies society deems necessary for its continued survival and progress, as well as laboratories where young people could rehearse the formation of their own communities and societies, based on their own emergent values and principles.

This notion, that each individual has a role to play in society and that schools’ function is to aid in the full participation of each citizen, relies to a certain degree on the ability of students to become lifelong learners capable of enacting an ongoing critical praxis. The education of the self as a unique agent in society is a process that does not end upon graduation, and in fact demands an even greater ability to synthesize complex learning uniquely presenting itself to each member of the broader community upon entering the so-called ‘real world.’

That guided self-explanation might help enrich learning in a complex environment, and is most effective when used to support challenging, engaging, cognitively complex learning, presents such a principle as uniquely positioned to help K12 students develop a necessary skillset in the realm of citizenship education.

The Process behind the Product

The idea of narrating one’s work has more and more become central to my focus in crafting assignments and units that reflect a focus on process over product, even when a project or opportunity presents itself with a resolute product as finale. While each member of the community or classroom may pursue a unique pathway in their own learning, a few common, simple goals can help align collective efforts toward diverse, individual learning outcomes.

An example of this type of learning design is the TALONS Eminent Person Study, a traditional gifted students’ program “Hero Project” wherein each of the TALONS adopts a notable individual who has attained ’eminence’ in their chosen field, and prepares a research study on their life and achievements. There are several general expectations for each during the course of the project:

  • Introductory Blog PostSlide14
  • Library Field Study
  • Expert Interview
  • Document of Learning
  • Learning Center
  • Night of the Notables Reflection
  • Bibloggrapy

And yet within these individual assignments, there is the latitude for each to pursue an aspect of personal learning, whether related to Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goals, areas of passion or curiosity beyond the scope of Ministry curricula, or themes emerging within the unique community of learners. So while each of the above assignments is a marked component of the study, the unit’s assessment is weighted toward the insight and autonomy expressed in the blogged reflections and documents of learning created and shared throughout the process.

Eminent Evaluation 2014

Further, these open-ended reflections are supplemented by guided self-explanation prompts in the form of a summative evaluation via Google Form. Here, the TALONS are asked to reflect upon their own process of learning throughout the project – how they measured up to their initial goals, what led them to success, or how they would improve various aspects of their work – as well as summarize and state what they felt constituted the grand takeaways from the monthlong odyssey.

Here, the process of guided self-explanation is enacted to (ideally) synthesize diverse threads of individual learning, which will in time radiate into the collective themes of the community.

In reflecting on what made her speech this year her best work in the project, Alison noted,

First of all, this year I wrote my speech draft much earlier than the due date compared to last year. Due to this fact, I was able to receive a lot of great feedback from my peers during the writing process, which then allowed me to improve my speech even further. Once my draft was written, I was lucky that I had a lot of time to rehearse my speech. One step that led my speech to success during this stage was that I didn’t just rehearse the words, I also rehearsed body language and movement, and the use of the stage. Although I can’t accurately judge what I did on stage due to my nerves, through the feedback I received from peers, guests, and alumni I can think that I was one of my better works.

But beyond these questions of process, which are of great value from the standpoint of identifying and correcting previously held misconceptions or mental models (prized by the self-explanative educator, we are told), it is the parts of the survey which prompt students’ thinking about the synthesis of personal or collective themes which shine light on the particular nuances between the product-oriented outcomes.

What will you (or do you want to) remember about this project?

One thing that I would like to take away from the project, in addition to all that I learned about [my Eminent Person], is how closely the class supported each other in their own studies, specifically in the grade 10 speeches. Although Eminent is a very personal project, I enjoyed the process in which we came together to somehow connect our eminent people into one, collective sequence of performances. It allowed us to be aware not only of our own learning, but of the learning happening around us, and how it related to the common goals of the group. Seeing all of our speeches come to life on stage was also very validating for the work that we put in together.

I think I’ll remember a lot of the little moments. I think I’ll remember the moments of support backstage and in our huddle as well as moments of joy like when I was on stage and after when we were all running down the halls.

I will remember the experiences that I had to express my learning of my eminent person. For me personally, it was the first time I had gone to a university library to find serious sources. It was very interesting to see the endless amount of books. It was also fascinating to see the university lifestyle, and to think that I may be there in a few years. Another part that I will remember about this project is the learning centers. I thought that it was  fairly similar to a science fair, I was, for the most part, wrong. It was similar to a science fair in that there were stations, but different because of how we were encouraged to have an interactive element. Usually, people might have pictures or models, but we got to speak to the people, and have them experience our project more in-depth. I enjoyed these parts of the project.

I will always remember the freedom with this project. The outline for this project can easily be altered, and I feel that this leads to a more passionate project with students who are willing to learn about something they enjoy or care about. I had the choice of being whoever I found eminent and that is something I will always remember about Eminent Person Study.

Is Constructivism Possible?

A question I have been exploring in the past year has been whether or not constructivism is possible within institutional learning. We are torn, in schools, between the dual purpose of Dewey’s initial calls for democratic instruction, and teaching what society deems ‘required’ skills, facts, or habits, and creating a space for unique individual subjectivities to emerge within educative spaces. The contradiction which arises within institutional learning settings surrounds the notion that for truly unique subjectivities to be brought about, the perceived ‘objectivity’ of the instructor/facilitator/learning outcomes often unnecessarily limits these possibilities.

This relates to an oft-quoted edict of Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta on this blog, that

“if educators wish to encourage the emergence of meaning in the classroom, then the meanings that emerge in classrooms cannot and should not be pre-determined before the ‘event’ of their emergence.”

It is a difficult thought to wrap one’s head around, but one which is central to the aim of multicultural societies, where to foster broad diversity within a pluralist democracy citizens of countries such as Canada are tasked with

“[promoting] the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.”

Indeed, Osberg and Biesta write that

“In contemporary multicultural societies, the difficulty with education as planned enculturation lies in the question of who decides what or whose culture should be promoted through education. The problem of ‘educational enculturation’ is therefore of considerable concern to theorists grappling with the issues raised by multiculturalism.

“If we hold that meaning is emergent, and we insist on a strict interpretation of emergence (i.e. what emerges is more than the sum of its parts and therefore not predictable from the ‘ground’ it emerges from) then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerge in the classroom becomes problematic. In other words the notion of emergent meaning is incompatible with the aims of education, traditionally conceived.”

Thus while still nevertheless prompted to respond to the pre-defined outcomes of a project such as the Eminent Person Study, the TALONS are hopefully still yet encouraged to construct their own subjective perceptions of themselves within the learning experience. And so in answer to the following question, we find a multiplicity of responses:

If you had to describe your learning during the Eminent Person Study in one word, what would it be? 

If you had to describe your learning during the Eminent Person Study in one word, what would it be?

EDCI591: Self-Explanation Principle, Remixed

I was having trouble exporting this with sound for a while but seem to have it figured out finally. 

As I introduce in the video above, I selected my remix chapter for EDCI 591 (Multimedia Learning) based on the hunch that the principle aligned with my own views about critical reflection and learning, that the simple act of narrating one’s process can allow for meaningful personalized learning. So I set about the process of recording and summarizing my efforts to digest the chapter from Mayer’s text, the results of which are shared in the video.

In my reading, I found my initial expectations mostly met by the research collected in the chapter, as the broad trends show that in highly complex (see: authentic) learning environments, open-ended self-explanation can lead students to:

  • Repair mental models,
  • Identify previously held misconceptions, and
  • Make inferences between learning materials.

For my own part, I found the process of open-ended explanation of my emerging understanding of the topic to be supportive of each of these endeavors, which I discuss in the video.

A large part of the research highlighted in the chapter supports the efficacy of prompted self-explanation to support the learning of specific outcomes. If we imagine the different prompts falling on a continuum between open and closed, we see the former indicating a truly open-ended self-explanation process, and the latter being more specifically directed by the teacher or learning management system.

Much of the research shared in the chapter documents the success of direct prompts to facilitate the learning of specified outcomes. Open-ended explanations, for example, will not be as supportive in learning one’s multiplication tables, as a process where prompts direct the learner toward the salient areas of the problem to be solved.

However, an interesting extension of these findings is the role played by student engagement in the effectiveness of learning. And by introducing Chi’s ICAP Framework, we begin to see that while directed self-explanation may lead to the most efficient means of learning an educational program’s outcomes, more open-ended prompts may induce greater engagement in learning, thereby generating more learning.

Briefly, Chi’s (2009) ICAP framework 

classifies learning activities based on cognitive engagement and predicts that as student engagement increases from Passive to Active to Constructive to Interactive (I > C > A > P), student learning will increase.

The intersection of these points, for me, aligns with the role that critical pedagogy plays in bringing about meaningful learning in authentic, complex learning environments where outcomes cannot be foreseen, lessons are personal, and driven by the individual. And it is in this intersection that open-ended self-explanation can become a means of engaging an ongoing critical praxis for teachers as well as students.

Self-Explanation & Reflections on Metaphysics

What questions did you set out to answer during the unit?

Last year I started asking my classes to reflect on and assess their learning for projects and different units by responding to prompts through Google Forms. The ability to collect and synthesize individual and collective reflection on work and experiences just passed turned out to be particularly valuable, especially when looking back on areas of personal inquiry and narratives beyond the course content itself.

As a point of critical reflection between Philosophy 12‘s metaphysics and epistemology units, the responses to a variety of questions about learning offer an example by which to explore the Self Explanation Principle in Multimedia Learning in action. Chi and Wylie present prompted Self-Explanation Principle as

a constructive or generative learning activity that facilitates deep and robust learning by encouraging students to make inferences using the learning materials, identify previously held misconceptions, and repair mental models.

In supporting collaborative inquiry such self-explanation offers the opportunity for learners to define the terms of their learning, and examine the process of discovering what Freire called the “generative theme”:

The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics, the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality.

The nature of the metaphysics unit in particular lends itself to this discussion, and as respondents synthesize various aspects of their learning by defining their particular inquiries, they are fulfilling the first aspect of self-explicative learning: to make inferences using a variety of learning materials.

Where the form’s questions could do a better job, I feel, is in seeking to identify previously held misconceptions and repair mental models. While the questions do ask students to reflect upon the processes which led them to success in aspects of the unit, this before-and-after conception of understanding on the topic is not addressed.

Below you will find these personal reflections, as well as further feedback on the Metaphysics unit in Philosophy 12.

What were the main questions you set out to answer during the course of the unit?

What is actual being? How does consciousness work in terms of “self”?

Does “normal” exist? How can you measure normal? Who decides what is normal? Why do we prefer to have a standard of normal? Do we choose to be a certain way (free will) or are we normal as a result of hard determinism?

My main question that I set out to answer during this unit was: what is, what are, and what is nothing?

I didn’t have any specific questions I wanted answered, rather I set out in search of greater knowledge hoping that would uncover the right questions.

What are ideas? (As an extension, what Mapping dialogueis a number?) Where do ideas exist? Are ideas dependent on human thought? What is human knowledge? Is it objective or subjective?

I continued to be curious about why people strive to the furthest extent to obtain happiness.

What is the purpose of our existence? What is the true self?

How others perceive things and how it’s different for everyone.

Do animals share the same consciousness as humans? How do you define consciousness? Is consciousness linked to intelligence?

What is happiness? How do we achieve happiness? Is happiness our purpose?

Do animals have intelligence equal to humans? Should intelligent animals be viewed as equivalent beings to humans? Do animals (orcas, dolphins, etc) have a high level of consciousness and self-awareness?

Can we ever factually prove another beings existence? What is consciousness?

During which assignment do you feel you produced your best work?

What are you proud of in the work highlighted above? 

During the discussions I felt I participated well, especially during the thought experiment and the final metaphysics discussion (making connections). I felt I listened well to what others had to say and added my input when I felt the need to do so.

I think that during class I am able to contribute useful information to help further discussions, and help others and myself understand concepts better. If I cannot contribute in that way i sometimes like to play devils advocate and suggest something that I know will spark conversation or argument among classmates. this works especially well during ethical debates.

I feel that I did contribute to the class discussions by stepping up and moderating, as well as drawing lines to connect our topics together. That was the first time I have pseudo-moderated a discussion. There’s a first for everything.

The work that I wrote on the post for me was my better writing. I was able to put my thoughts into understandable words, unlike the class discussion where it was confusing for me to put words together due to so many other questions that have been asked. Metaphysicians

I think that my blog post gave a good amount of background and information, and then logically followed an argument to a reasonable conclusion.

I am proud of my participation in class discussions as I feel like I can often bring out a different view contrary to the beliefs in the class that are helpful in bringing about a better understanding of the material. I do so in a non-confrontational manner to invoke further questions, and to better the understanding of the topic at hand. As well, I feel like I can vocalize thoughts that other people may have trouble conveying.

Just bringing a new angle to class discussions. Trying to make sense of what we were talking about and maybe bring it down to an easier level of understanding. Also to simplify things we were talking about so they weren’t so daunting.

The reason I’m so proud of this blog post is because a spent a large amount of time researching my topic. I watched countless videos that allowed me to expand the knowledge I had. This helped me understand different viewpoints and created a more clear path to help me reach a satisfying answer to my question.

I am really proud of myself for fully summing up what I’ve learned in the past few weeks from this class while simultaneously expressing how I perceive life.

I am proud of this work because it comes from the thoughts within me that do not get to see the light of day very often.

I am proud that I was able to expand my ideas in my second blog post and make as much progress in my thoughts and ideas as I did. Though I did not come to a definite answer, I feel that some of the new questions I created are more beneficial than any answer I could have come to.

During which assignment do you feel you created work you would like to improve?

How would you go about improving your work highlighted in the previous question?

Next time, I would pick a broader topic to research and narrowing in as I go along with the second blogpost. As well, I would better formulate my question so it’s actually answerable.

Putting time and effort in the forms of blog posts, reviewing classmates posts, commenting, and research and posting of my own blog posts.

I think it’s important to share some insights to those who have related topics for a greater class discussion outcome. Therefore I should spend more time on others’ blog posts and comment based on my thoughts.

While most of my comments on Metaphysiciansclassmates’ posts were of good quality, I would have liked to gone more in-depth on some of them.

For others, I failed to respond to replies to my comments, something else that could have furthered my learning. I can improve on this in the future my taking more time when writing and responding to comments, treating them more like mini blog posts in their own right.

I wish that I had explained my ideas more. I felt that I gave a broad overview of my experiences in metaphysics, but did not give enough specific examples.

I could probably contribute to class discussions a bit more. I should also read more of the assigned readings and other unassigned readings so that I have a better grasp on the concepts, that way I can provide more insight throughout the discussion and more in the beginning of the discussions because it usually takes a while into the conversation for me to say anything.

I just wish I had taken more time to dive deeper into my topic.

I think I definitely needed to comment more, not less, and to have more effective comments. E.g. I needed to address the post more directly rather than modifying it in my mind as to create some sort of push back. I also need to read the posts more frequently, rather than relying too much on class discussions.

I will participate more in class discussions, put in my own thoughts to have them questioned or supported and built upon or build on or question someone else’s ideas or things they bring to discussions.

I can improve my participation in class discussions by coming to class with meaningful ideas and questions to share with the class. In addition, I can also try to think more quickly so that I can share a point before the conversation moves past the topic that I want to contribute to.

I had a lot of very good ideas and intentions behind my second blog post, but I was only able to capture snippets of them. If I had taken the time to structure, support, and find the right words to explain my post I believe I could have made it much more effective and meaningful.

Really taking the time to comment and reflect on others ideas and concepts so I can not only help them get a different perspective, but help myself understand more. Take more time out of a day to look at what people are posting.

I would have a more definite topic which I could talk about in more depth. I felt that I had little valuable evidence in my first post that helps me to prove my point. I also ended up disagreeing with this post in my second metaphysics blog post, so constancy would have been better.

I would like to be able to participate more during class discussions and really let my ideas be known to my peers. I will definitely be trying to speak up more during our next unit on Epistemology.

At the time I wasn’t very sure of the topic I wanted to pursue in Metaphysics. As a result, my first blog post did not really have as strong of a purpose as I would have liked. Instead, it touched vaguely on small aspects of free will. I definitely should have spent more time thinking about what I wanted to do.

I think I need to work on being more confident in my responses and comments to others. I often feel that if I leave a comment on someone’s blog post that they might be offended by what I have to say. I can work on this by typing what I have to say and posting it without thinking twice about it because I know that I would appreciate the constructive criticism.

Engagement with the unit

If you could keep one or more aspects of the Metaphysics Unit, what would it / they be?

I loved the group discussions we had on the topic. It was very a very effective way to help us understand the topic. It would also help us view different points of view about the topic and helped me personally expand my knowledge of metaphysics. It was easy, quick and effective. I could connect with each one of my classmates as they would share their thoughts on something, then we as a class would easily be able to interpret the topic and understand it much easier than if we were to look up the topic on our own.

I would keep the group discussions. They were very affective and I had achieved a greater understanding of others’ point of view.

I love thinking about how we could better our own understanding of ourselves. The thinking of existence, like solipsism and thinking about existence and how nothing can exist without something else.

I would keep the large class discussion that allows clarity and a path into the minds of people who created the blog posts.

I like the small group discussions, some large group discussions, and when we did the simulation. The small group discussions are good for people to share their ideas and really get into detail whereas the large group discussions are good for everyone to get their ideas out there.

I really enjoyed the discussions we had in this unit. They were very smooth and the amount of engagement the class exemplified was quite high compared to previous experiences. I feel as though this aspect of the unit worked very well, and is essential in making metaphysics more clear.

I really enjoy class discussions as opposed to independent study, I feel that concepts are much easier to understand when they can be portrayed by different people, or explained by different minds. Kelsey’s activity was fantastic.

The connecting of our topics. Although each class will have different ways of connecting them, I think that the act of doing so was very helpful in getting everyone as engaged as possible.

The freedom in choosing what you want to study is great.

I always like class discussions. Collaborating with others and working things out as a class seem to produce the best results. It helps to get different ideas and others helping you to better understand a topic.

I enjoyed our last classroom activity where we connected everyone’s different topics together. It was nice to be able to hear about peoples topics in person and to be able to have small debates with the class on different topics.

One aspect that I would keep regarding the unit is the way that me mapped our individual ideas together into one big picture. To me, it seemed a good method of connecting all of our individual points of study and giving each of us a greater view of the unit as a whole.

I would change it so we had more structured group discussions, as I remember when we were consolidating our ideas we spent half the class just deciding on /how/ to talk rather than actually talking about things. Although the experience itself was learning in managing people, I feel like the actual learning of philosophy was not effective.

I enjoyed the fact that the ideas we researched were so diverse, because I felt like people were more engaged when they could choose what they wanted to research. Personally, despite the fact that my topic was somewhat different to others’, I still enjoyed looking into it, possibly because it was so obscure. As well, the diagram of how all of metaphysics tied together in so many ways helped, because we got to see connections between things that we wouldn’t have expected, like perception and animal consciousness. I also enjoyed the chance to discuss my topics in larger groups before we discussed with the entire class, because small conversations with groups of three or four tend to run out of steam quickly, while talking with seven or eight people can go on for much longer and provoke more interesting opinions.

I would keep the large group discussions because I think that listening and contributing to what others have to say helped challenge my ideas and make it easier to create a path for my thoughts and new ideas. I like working with others because it helps me stay on track when some of my metaphysical questions become overwhelming.

At the beginning of the course, I was very skeptical about the blog. I had never used one before, and am not very technologically savvy. However, especially for this unit, I have found the blog a great way to share my ideas effectively and in an organized fashion. I would like to keep the class discussions where we connect all of our ideas. I think that its really engaging and helpful.

If you could change one or more aspects of the Metaphysics unit, what would it / they be?

More examples/videos involving metaphysical discussions. More ideas could have been fed for the students to ponder rather than us coming up with the limited ideas we had on our own.

Not to focus as much on the blogging aspect.

One aspect that I would change regarding the unit is having more engagements on the blog posts of others. While I did see many good comments on other people’s posts, due to the fact that some people posted late along with other factors reduced the amount of comments.

No class led discussions as I think they go off on tangents and are unproductive.

I’d love to have heard more of what other philosophers have said about metaphysics in class (then possibly discussed that). Just so we could expand beyond the specifics we’re researching and hear from the pros.

The only thing about the class discussions that I would like to improve on would be that during some of our class topics, we wouldn’t let some people finish what they were talking about and then someone else would talk about something interesting to them, and the past speaker would pay less attention because they wanted to focus on what they were still speaking about. That would lead to other problems such as getting off topic and getting somewhat frustrated with each other.

If I could change some aspects of the unit, I would prefer to have a teacher moderator for the discussions, because its easier to have a discussion when everyone doesn’t go off topic.

I would definitely change the amount of support around commenting on blog posts, as it seems that was more of a scattered activity. (It happened sometimes, but did not happen all the time) often conversation, unless mandatory was limited or ineffective online. Perhaps more structure is required in this area.

The only thing I would change is when we figure out who’s work related to others, that we would all split off into smaller groups so that the relatable topics would get even more clarity and the expansion of ideas would be even greater.

A better final showing of what was learned.

Narrow down a couple of topics and post a group blog based on the outcome that the specific group produce.

Probably the mini-group discussions. Those were not very well organized and some instructions were left pretty vague as well.

The only thing I would change about the this metaphysics unit is that I would have liked to have the teacher guide us through it more. Metaphysics is an extremely confusing topic, and I felt as though we needed that extra push from someone with more expertise to give us that head start.

It was almost so vast and mind blowing that I feel maybe we should’ve taken it in in smaller chunks, rather than just diving in and hoping for the best, it’s a very complex unit.

I would change the collaborative note-generation because sometimes it was difficult to see the connections between my topics and the topics of others. I thought that sometimes we went off topic when we were trying to find connections between each others topics. I thought it was most beneficial to choose one of the topics and discuss deeply about it.

However, this could have just be in my case and may have been very beneficial for others.

I would love if there were more student lead activities. I enjoyed leading the class in a thought experiment, and learned a lot from it. I feel my classmates would enjoy organizing and leading their own activity.

During some student mediated large group discussions, it would get a little messy and was sometimes counter productive. For example, during the first day that we tried to connect our metaphysics subtopics during a large class discussion it got a little counter productive when the mediators were trying to figure out the best way to group our topics. I think once our class finds the best way of mediation that could work, student mediation will be very useful but as of right now, we are still a little bit shaky. Maybe during our next class discussion, we can have people vote for our mediator and have the entire class discuss what we want out of our discussion that day. Sort of like setting a goal so we know where to go back to if we went off on an irrelevant subject.

Method of delivery: maybe more discussions that are based on distinctly different topics to start off with so we have a better idea of the concepts we’re supposed to talk about. If I were to change the metaphysics unit, I may have some specific branches of metaphysics to study and a list of philosophers we could use as resources. Additionally, I think that group presentations of concepts was very effective and I would use more of those!

What I would want to change about this unit was to make it less broad. I felt I could have gained more from this unit if I had more specifics to focus on and less information to wade through. There was too much happening in too little time. I felt that everyone was focused on their specific topics and that only in the last discussion were we really able to see the connections between everything.

On the Run

Start

On Saturday I ran my first race in more than ten years, finishing third in the Coast Mountain Trail Series‘ 13 kilometer Run Ridge Run between Sasamat and Buntzen Lakes in Anmore, BC. Having explored the trails of Bert Flinn Park above Burrard Inlet during the last year, I stumbled onto the CMTS a few weeks ago when a hike above the Sea to Sky Gondola coincided with the inaugural Sky Pilot Race in September. And after floating the idea to my recent running buddy, R (who ran his first marathon last spring), we signed up to compete in the shorter of the two courses being run Thanksgiving weekend (the other being a 25km tour of the Diez Vista Trail in addition to the ridge-line connecting the two lakes).

KM3

Having grown up on tracks and cross-country courses since I was eleven, I rode an athletic scholarship to Arkansas when I was seventeen. Down south I enjoyed a few successes, briefly holding my school’s 800m record, and was a member of a few national and conference champion relay and cross-country teams. Eventually though I ‘retired’ on the heels (or, shins, rather) of successive seasons ruined by injuries, and threw myself headlong into my academic studies, fortunately earning a scholarship there that allowed me to finish school in Arkansas and discover the path(s) that would lead me into teaching, outdoor education, and the intersecting life’s passions that have sustained me in the years since.

Since graduating in 2004, I hardly thought about running. And if I did think about it, or even found myself on an odd streak of jogging on the paths around the inlet near my house, I hardly thought of racing.

When my track and field days had been petering out, I struggled to find motivation to work my way out of injuries that had severely limited my capacity and potential as an ‘elite’ athlete. Having once been at least good, if not great, I had very little interest in fighting my way through the middle of the pack, and as I began to excel in my studies, my desire to compete slowly waned. And while I’ve generally remained an active person – hiking, participating in intramurals, biking to work and the like – I’ve remained apart from organized competition, leaving it in my ‘former’ life until only recently.

About a year ago I started running again, heading up the narrow trails above my house into the forests on Heritage Mountain. Beginning at a few kilometers, I started supplementing these jaunts in the woods with sessions at a spinning studio where I met local endurance-athletes, started to push myself beyond mere aerobic exercise, and began to talk about racing again.

I became reacquainted with the satisfaction of tired legs, the zen-like trance of the anaerobic threshold, and the no man’s land beyond what I knew was within my grasp.

With this all making its way about my mind on those runs, and increasingly in between, it was only a matter of time before I toed the start-line of a footrace once more. Because while I’ve done a lot of things in the time since I left the sport, many of which have opened my eyes, challenged me beyond words, or led me to new personal achievements or experiences, nowhere is the essence of a personal challenge more literally waged than in a race.

Snow Run

And if a race, why not a grueling tour of the local watershed?

Why not put the trouble of travel by foot to the rigors of the British Columbian coast?

Dirt, and granite.

Slippery cedar roots climbing incomprehensible inclines.

R and I paid our entry fees and scouted the course a few weeks before race weekend with equal parts excitement and giddy fear that the experiment might go horribly awry, that we would be sandbagged by the hills, or wind up wrestling one another to not shuffle in dead last. On a second trial of the course, a week before the Big Day, we became more familiar with the rigors of the Run Ridge Run, and talked about where we would conserve our energy, where we would try to push the pace, a race plan we followed almost exactly – if a lot faster than we bargained for – on Saturday.

Run Ridge Run Data

With the excitement of the start and the rush of the departing crowd, our first three kilometers (all relatively flat along the shoreline of Sasamat Lake) were more than a minute faster (each) than in our trials on the course. We bid our time heading up the ridge road, and then steeply up the single track section of trail leading up to the water station, drafting on the pace set by a runner in the 25k race. Cresting the hill, we recovered and descended briskly to Buntzen Lake, where we were able to log a few quick kilometers along the road before heading straight back up the mountain.

This ascent had been the concern of my pre-race anxieties, much due to our run the week before on the course where I soundly ‘bonked’ on the climb after a hard week of training on the Bert Flinn trails. But with a mostly restful week leading into the race, my legs were burning, but still able to meet the challenge of the steep and technical climbing over roots and rock back up to the ridge.

“That’s the ball game,” R said when we were (*almost) back to the water station atop the trail returning into the finish, where we pressed the pace against our knees and the soft single-track descending the ridge. Mist was hanging in the trees and beginning to glow with sunshine poking through the clouds.

Plaque

Not having seen anyone since we left our 25k companion on our way up the hill initially, we couldn’t tell where we were in the pack, but were pleasantly surprised to hear that we had arrived within a few minutes of the 13k winner, and come in third and fourth separated by only a few seconds.

In addition to the third place plaque and a pair of DryMax socks, I was also unofficially awarded “first place in the rocking beard division” by the MC.

Having arrived and warmed up in teeming rain, I drove home in the sunshine hooked (again) on racing.

Summer Book Project: Narcissus & Goldmund

Image courtesy of Solomon Says

I first read Narcissus and Goldmund ten years ago this February – finishing it at 11:33pm on February 16th, 2004 (the inscription in the back cover tells me). It’s likely that I was at my house on Barbara Circle, in Little Rock, an idyllic three bedroom where I spent my senior year of college. It’s possible that I was traveling somewhere with our track team, laying in the back of a team bus taking us north to the indoor tracks of the midwest, or biding time in a hotel or at one of our early season meets.

The note in the back of the book only gives the date and time.

I’d already read some Hermann Hesse by then – Siddhartha and Steppenwolfto be sure, perhaps even Demien (which I purchased at Little Rock’s fabulous Lorenzen & Co Booksellers). But after ten years, Narcissus and Goldmund has stuck out, somehow: there was something about this parable that effected the twenty-three year old me greatly. Delving into the passion at the heart of artistic expression, I recall the book presenting some sacred devotion to life, love and connection that however subtly contributed to the momentum of my post-collegiate years.

This past July, as I began thinking about these youthful books and first (re)read On the RoadI coupled Narcissus and Goldmund into a short list that I thought might capture the transformation that Literature had wrought on my young mind and life. The list included (or has grown to include):

Through On the Road I was heartened to discover in the text that neither of us had aged so terribly that the experience made me cringe. True, there was sadness where before I may have seen lust or excitement, fear where before there had been confidence. But alongside what Kerouac had to say to me at thirty two rang loud and clear the message he had for the younger Bryan, and it was a lesson I’m still grateful to have been taught.

With Hesse I had a similarly passionate relationship as a younger man, reading nearly everything I could get my hands on between the ages of twenty and twenty-five: Steppenwolf, Demien, Rosshalde, Siddhartha, Narcissus and Goldmund (The Glass Bead Game site on my shelf, a treat to myself for some future date when I can read a “new” book by a favourite long-deceased author). Each of them is dog-eared and wildly underlined; the’ve been lent to friends and frequently to students (especially a yellow and yellowing copy of Demien that is currently on a vacation with one of the TALONS alumni). Concerned as so many of his stories and characters are with discovering one’s passion, voice and place in the world, he is what I consider to be an essential voice for wandering youth.

But I’ve long held Narcissus and Goldmund somewhere above his other works – more profound, more lasting, or all encompassing. I’m not sure what, exactly, and so I sat down this February, somewhat coincidentally to see what all the fuss had been about all those years ago.

As in most of Hesse, there is the ring of a Jungian call to pursue one’s heroic calling in life that Narcissus presents his younger pupil Goldmund as he counsels him away from life at the seminary:

“Natures of your kind, with strong, delicate senses, the soul-oriented, the dreamers, poets, lovers are almost always superior to us creatures of the mind. You take your being from your mothers. You live fully; you were endowed with the strength of love, the ability to feel.”

Goldmund’s sensitivity is aesthetic, where Narcissus’ is logical, and the novel makes a case for the superiority of the former as we follow Goldmund away from school to bathe in the personal riddles of time and the nature of the self on a pilgrimage that may be characterized as spiritual without being religious.

There is an exaltation of mystery here that I no-doubt found inspiring as a fifth year senior looking ahead at graduation.

“Oh how incomprehensible everything was, and actually sad, although it was also beautiful. One knew nothing. One lived and ran about the earth and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pong, the eye of a person or of a cow. And sometimes it seemed that something never seen yet long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all; but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old and looked cunning like Father Anselm or wise like Abbot Daniel, and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening.”

In the spring of 2004, I was on the verge of graduating from university. I had lived in Arkansas for most of five years, beginning when I was scarcely 18, and the life I had established for myself in the south would soon be over and in many ways irretrievable. While this is true in some ways of all experience, leaving Little Rock brought with it the additional mourning that most of my friends from that time would be returning to their own home countries and cities across the States, and whether I was conscious of it at the time or not, I was comforted through Goldmund’s experience of death bringing his life into a crystalline focus:

“He thought that he, that all men, trickled away, changing constantly, until they finally dissolved, while their artist-created images remained unchangeably the same.

“He thought that fear of death was perhaps the root of all art, perhaps also of all things of the mind. We fear death, we shudder at life’s instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear. When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it is in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something that lasts longer than we do.”

Indeed, a journal entry from the afternoon of February 12th, 2004 – that was written on a charter bus taking our track and field team north to compete at an indoor meet the University of Iowa – is freckled with Hesse quotes, and captures a purely preserved expression of my mind at the time:

“We are in a western-looking saddle of the country, with sparse snow around the trees that flank farmers’ fields. It feels like Wyoming, the sun-bleached yellow terrain, mountainous as we run down the ancient Ozarks. Dirt roads and barns abound, as do the hawks riding updrafts against the dusty foothills, bullet holes against the blue sky.

“It is a place that lends itself to a trip through one’s mental landscape, and easy to become lost in your thoughts up here, and as we ascend a ridge-winding two-lane highway and climb above a soil-rich rolling valley – Marshall Welcomes You, the sign says – something says to me, Merritt, BC, and in a flash I see British Columbia. It is fleeting though and only a moment before the small-town churches and Missouri mom-and-pops begin to dominate the scenery, and Canada is an infinite ride away into the North.

“Home is both a million miles away and yet somehow coming closer than I care to have it. Anyone who cares to read these words will traipse through these last few dozen pages and tire of the time I have devoted to the loss and remorse the idea of leaving Arkansas has brought me. But it is something which weighs mightily upon me.”

As with Kerouac earlier this year, I am happy to find in the rereading of Narcissus and Goldmund that my younger self was fortunate to encounter an author and a companion such as Hesse. Goldmund confronts his own existential nausea with a devotion to applying his aesthetic sensitivities – as both the cause of Goldmund’s inspiration as much as it is his torment – to art that was able to capture “the solemn feeling of a rare and great experience which he might perhaps know one more time in the course of his life or which might remain unique.”

With so many of my own life experiences nearing an end, my anxiety was given solace in attempting to live with what Hesse called:

“A deep reverence, a great earnestness, and at the time a secret fear of the moment when this high, unique experience would be over, classified, swallowed by the routine of days.”

Reverence alone, Goldmund realizes, is not enough, however.

“In order to create a work like this, one had not only to carry images in one’s soul; one also had to have inexpressibly trained, practiced hands. Perhaps it was after all worthwhile to place one’s entire life at the service of art, at the expense of freedom and broad experience, if only in order to be able once to make something this beautiful, something that had not only been experienced and envisioned and received in love, but also executed to the last detail with absolute mastery. It was an important question.”

It is, and it’s one of many pieces of the book that struck me in 2014 as much as in 2004. Almost thirty three, I’m no longer looking out on adulthood as the Void Beyond University so much as I am poised between the path I’ve created of it thus far, and the possibilities it holds into the future. Ten years on from both Hesse and graduation, I have accumulated a good many of the life moments and experiences that will have cumulatively determined who I was in this life. And while my interpretation of the wrestling with that question may have shifted, it feels central to feelings about my self and life today as much as ever.

Like Goldmund, I have remained “in his dreams or his thought-filled moments of rest, overlooking a flowering or wilting valley, […] all eyes an artist.” With him I have “longed desperately to halt the gracefully drifting nonsense of life with [my] mind and transform it into sense,” though of late this has taken on a more intellectual aim than artistic.

Toward the end of the book, Narcissus directs me to consider the merits of complementing this pursuit with more art, and heart:

“Our thinking is a constant process of converting things to abstractions, a looking away from the sensory, an attempt to construct a purely spiritual world. Whereas you take the least constant, the most mortal things to your heart, and in their very mortality show the meaning of the world. You don’t look away from the world; you give yourself to it, and by your sacrifice to it raise it to the highest, a parable of eternity. We thinkers try to come closer to God by pulling the mask away from His face. You come closer to Him by loving His creation and re-creating it. Both are human endeavors, and necessarily imperfect, but art is more innocent.”

Because just as the more academic or reflective posts on this site are records of ideas and expressions of an evolving self, there are emotions and realizations captured in these aged books of both Hermann Hesse and my own ink that light the way to an understanding that yet eludes meaning, an exaltation of

“How mysterious this life [is,] how deep and muddy its waters [run], yet how clear and noble what emerge[s] from them.”

On motivating the Difficult Student

Brooke’s challenge post brought something to mind I’ve been struggling with myself in EDCI 335 this semester:

“In the coursework this term, and in my work, [I] feel like content and ideas are flying into my head, being held in temporary holding long enough to process it into a semi-reasonable response, and quickly vacating for the next piece.”

Having been curating a personal course of study online and in my classes informally now going on five years, the weekly demands of my Learning Design course have often felt like derivations from a larger arc of learning I am actively synthesizing in discussions, posts and reflection in the classroom and beyond it. While recognizing the benefit of encountering influence and dialogue outside my general sphere of inquiry, I have frequently struggled to successfully integrate the intended outcomes of the course with my own existing narrative of personal learning coming into this term.

My design posts, both on this blog and in our silo’d discussion boards have often only seemed loosely bound by the central thread at their centre – me. Generally I have made what feel like scattershot responses to questions and debates I am not meaningfully connected to, or are housed in terminology or semantic distinctions that I often have seen as problematic in my own thinking, and are interrelated only in so much as they correspond to a textbook whose author cautioned me that I “might not the target audience” for it.

It’s not that I don’t think there is value in exploring this conflict. Indeed, these epistemological and linguistic concepts of learning are aspects of any topic that I find interesting. Whether arts, politics or education, the construction and transformation of different epochs or paradigms cut to the heart of my foundational beliefs about life and learning, and are where my own philosophical values align with both my professional and personal learning intentions.

But as our units have progressed and each begun anew with the assertion of various contentious assumptions about learning and knowledge, I have felt constrained by the compulsion to reexamine these same premises in each new argument before presenting what would be my own interpretation of the topic or questions associated with it. This perceived distance from our covered topics have made me a poor contributor to the class’ various discussion threads and conversations and have left  me feeling generally that “Design Thinking” and I can just agree to disagree.

But here I am.

I continue.

Because I need the marks for this week’s assignment, and next week’s, and last’s.

Because I need to get a grade in this course that will allow me to continue in the next phase of my studies.

And because I’m driven by the fear that I will have not answered the question sufficiently, or might in exploring my own perspective on the topic be seen to be missing the point of the exercise entirely.

In and of themselves, these are grim motivational forces, it’s true. And at times they have brought about unfavourable turns of my student profile.

From an early age, I have possessed an anti-authoritarian streak that rejects anything that doesn’t yield personal relevance or connection before I can engage in it meaningfully. Similar to the gifted students I work with these days, I want to know why we’re doing this – whatever it is – before I can commit to doing it. And I want to ask questions about the meaning or the relevance of the activity itself often much more than I am ever willing to “just jump through the hoop” and meet the task head on.

But what might have seemed at younger ages as defiance or oppositional behaviour, I’ve come to believe is part of the spirit and tradition of intellectual and philosophical thought. In attempting to align a sense of my own epistemology with existing values of pedagogy, I feel only more firm in myself and confident to pursue and create such personal courses of study, even when it might not be the path of least resistance.

At thirty two I’ve come to feel more confident in my seventeen-year-old decision to include a satirical essay with my high school Graduation Portfolio that initially earned me a failing grade back in grade twelve. Responding to one of the topics, “How has your education prepared you for the future?” I took the opportunity to [sarcasm] graciously thank the school system for the opportunity to participate in the fledgling Career and Personal Planning curriculum [/sarcasm] in an essay that caught the eye of the teacher in charge of signing off on our portfolios. When my parents later demonstrated to an administrator that the teacher’s reaction to the essay had unfairly biased him toward the rest of my portfolio, I was issued a 50% and allowed to graduate on time in the end.

But I’ve been fascinated by this whole process ever since, and even more so now that I teach: why in the school’s opinion was it more important for me to be obedient, in that case, than to exercise my critical thinking?

And why did my school not look to engage me as a learner, rather than seeking first to punish me?

I can only assume that without my parents’ potential to embarrass the teacher and the school over the whole scenario, I would have been forced to comply with the their wishes and then either not graduate or submit a placative assignment. And while it’s not indicative of the entirety of schooling, and perhaps unfair to extrapolate based on a unique experience, the memory (evidently) guides me these days as both a teacher and a student.

As many teachers do, perhaps, I try to create learning opportunities that I would have seen as meaningful and thus benefitted from as a learner when I was a student. And the dual role created by Learning Design this semester has been eye opening as I reflect on my learning as a student when I’m  caught between the oft-quoted maxim that we should “never let education interfere with learning,” and the knowledge that there are certain responsibilities to be placated within institutionalized learning.

Somewhere between the chaotic wandering of rhizomatic learning and replicative-education there is a balance to be struck, isn’t there?

Or from circumstance to circumstance, will one always win out over the other?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking this semester about what motivates me to learn, and a lot of time thinking about what triggers these instances where my motivation wanes. I’ve been thinking about how our institutions are set up to deliver on their mandate to produce beneficial skill-sets and competencies in younger generations, as well as nurture a lifelong love of learning in each of them.

And I wonder if these two aims might be at odds with one another, somehow?

How do we engage in organic learning, learning that is propelled by the individual within the (perceived) contexts of its collectives, and yet which fulfills these external, institutional measures as well?

The teachers who have been able to connect to my ‘difficult’ student are hopefully the ones I embody in my teaching these days. From elementary school, to university, to teacher-training and the informal spaces along the way, these teachers have been able to frame opportunities for learning as personally relevant and meaningful to me, and have acted as mediators between me as an individual and larger institutional requirements, contextualizing these experiences in terms that arouse my own motivation to engage and grow with them.

If the work of teachers is ultimately relational, and relies uniquely on our abilities of empathy and creativity, this is where much of it resides.