On Memorable Learning

Untitled

Whether working with the TALONS, philosophers, or the #IntroGuitar community, I am fortunate to get to spend a good deal of time planning lessons and thinking of learning experiences that are not only ‘memorable,’ but hopefully also: personal, meaningful and – optimally – transformative. I would agree with a definition that sees learning as Jeanne Ellis Ormrod describes it:

“A long-term change in mental representations and associations due to experience[.]”

The theoretical approaches that I bring to this view of learning are largely inspired by constructivism and sociocultural theory, as well as the networked processes at the heart of connectivism. Defined in this week’s EDCI 335 reading, constructivists:

suggest that people create (rather than absorb) knowledge from observations and experiences.

More and more I have come to see both the ‘hidden curriculum‘ and the provincially required curriculum as bound to Foucault’s vision of Enlightenment, which should not be considered:

a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”

I’ve come to think that memorable learning resides in such “experiments with the possibility” of going beyond our limits, when we are able to experience transgression of our boundaries and the potential and peril that such risk-taking involves.

Last spring I reflected on the work of:

Gregory Bateson, [who] describes these learning opportunities as “breaches in the contextual structure,” whereby individuals gain an understanding of the process involved in implementing “corrective change in the system of sets of alternatives from which choice is made.”

This sort of “third order” thinking is driven by a confrontation with “systemic contradictions in experience” (this is taken from University of Virginia prof Eric Bredo); to the outdoor educator, this double bind is represented by the necessity of learning to provide both the freedom to explore, as well as the structure and guidance that creates safe opportunities for growth.

Gardner Campbell points out that learning in this capacity puts participants – teachers and students and parents alike – to vulnerability. “It puts the self at risk,” he says. “The questions become explosive,” and “involve “the kinds of risks that learners, at their best, will be willing to take.”

It is a vision of learning that I think goes beyond the mass concerns of institutional education obsessed with accountability, but speaks to John Dewey’s dual intentions for public schooling:

    • To transmit the facts, dispositions and cultural heritage society considers to be of value; and
    • To raise a younger generation with the skills, persistence and ingenuity to transcend our historical moment.

In addition to being encultured to the traditions of our society’s ideals, meaningful, memorable learning is what Richard Dixon meant when he told me that

“Every class is just another opportunity for young people to practice forming communities.”

Untitled

The British Columbian outdoors have lent themselves admirably to this task:

We walked out into the woods and within minutes were greeted in our silences by the persistent hooting of an owl presiding over the camp for the duration of our solo. Scattered across the forest floor, in a blackness that enveloped all but the distant moon shining off the lake below, the owl rang its voice across the treetops, cradling us all. When I called out finally for the solo to end, seconds swelled and stretched in silence as no one wanted the moment to be gone.

Our ambition as TALONS facilitators is often to nurture these individual worlds, where everything needed for survival, or even thriving, is brought along in backpacks and the people assembled in a given place. Enjoying the peace of sitting in the woods at night alone, a serenity connected to the most basic of human fears of loneliness, made possible in the company of trusted peers.

IMG_0061

As have the annual rituals provided by annual TALONS events and adventures, when the (two grade 9/10 cohorts) each set about “creating something that is honest, magical, and their own.” On a night like the annual Night of the Notables, for instance:  

There is prolonged  thunderous applause. Standing ovations.  In all, it is quite a thing to see happen. Truly. Even if it is hard to say just what it is that happened up there on that stage and in the halls of our school tonight.

Because just as it feels a little bit my own, how I take in the night’s triumph against the backdrop of those that have preceded it, how everyone in the room experiences the evening is measured against their own sense of the vulnerability felt by those in the present ‘hot seat.’ From the college kids in the back to the grade nines sitting in the second row (to the teacher grinning in the balcony), everyone in the TALONS orbit has gathered to give it up for those whose task it is this year to set aside their fears, come together as a group, and dare to do something exceptional.

Something exceptional, like forming a band and playing your first gig just after locker cleanout on one of the last days of the school year:

On the last day of class, many of the Bears made a point of hanging around for a few minutes to take pictures with one another, shake my hands and otherwise linger in the magical atmosphere the guitar classroom had been transformed into by their efforts.

“This class was more than a class,” one of the young men who was graduating told me on his way out the door. “Just what it was, I’m not sure. But it was pretty great.”

Or teaching fellow singers in a Cuban fine arts school the English pronunciations in their new choral number:

What each of these learning opportunities have in common, I think, is that they put the student/learner at the center of the experience, where their individual perception of themselves or their world is expanded somehow. They perform feats not thought possible beforehand, or experience “breaches in the weave of contextual structure”:

  • Swimming in the ocean before breakfast,
  • Capping a night by first experiencing bioluminescence, or
  • Learning what part they can best contribute to a group.

Those are the sorts of things that lead to long-term changes in mental representations and associations. 

That is learning.

Bootlegs Volume 1: the Soundlab Sessions

Admittedly, this is the Casa (not Soundlab), but that is the 12 string Grant was playing in the Soundlab recordings).

Originally dropped in Alan Levine’s Storybox, which I think was supposed to remain a one-stop shop for media content, Grant Potter and I recorded a bunch of songs sitting around the Soundlab kitchen table back in September of 2011 that I’ve played on #ds106radio a time or two, but thought I would share here. I’ve spent the last week assembling different pieces of music, writing and presentations to be collected and shared on a separate page of this site with the hopes that assembling these works in such a way will lead me to the ‘next’ place in each of these extra-curricular directions.

As a kick off, and look back, at some of the music I feel fortunate to have made in the last year, here are a few choice cuts from the Soundlab Sessions, with Grant Potter.

Weighty Ghost (Wintersleep cover)

Dreams (Fleetwood Mac cover)

Hungry Heart (Bruce Springsteen cover)

I like Trains (Fred Eaglesmith cover)

Me and My Bike (Sweet Cascadia cover)

Fashionable People (Joel Plaskett Emergency cover)


Looking back at the Bears Thirty Person Rock Band Project


You can check out the Storify tracking the Social Media progressions of the project here.

In what unconsciously turned out to be a culmination of the Fall’s Learning in Public project, guitar class this spring challenged a group of individuals to create and rally around a mutually agreed-upon idea for a new kind of class activity. Nothing overly complex, the Bears became an elemental symbol around which we were able to create a basic, guitar based rock and roll band that brought diverse classroom traits and talents to the forefront of our daily work.

Let me state here that I have little formal training as a music teacher, have never really played in a band (save a few student groups where I served much more an eager sponsor-teacher than bandmate), let alone led one, and had no idea throughout the process whether the endeavour would be successful, let alone what direction it might take on a given day.Initially, the class formed into small groups that functioned as committees responsible for various elements of the band’s life cycle: project management, branding, media, songwriting, arrangement. What the band became, every step of the way, would be built out of an individual and collective commitment to the cause: that of the continual creation of the band.

Not that these aren’t all things I was and am passionate to discover. This year my own musical growth has snowballed toward just such a learning opportunity, allowing me to frame my role as ‘teacher’ during the process as that of ‘lead learner,’ something we hear and talk about a lot as teachers, but which can be difficult to create deliberately. In this case, my purposeful treading of water mostly consisted of the necessity of keeping the project moving forward the only ways I knew how: creating opportunities for each of the committees, and the individuals composing them, to imagine a possible next step for the project, and then motivate and guide them in carrying it out.

This all being said, the success of the band was in the hands of the class as much as I could make it; I made an agreement with them – not unlike one that I feel like I make in most classes, but in this case it was explicit: so long as we all acknowledge that we can create something special here, I am going to hold you to the goals that you each set for yourselves to be a part of that process.

Whether we are successful or not has less to do with my expectations of the individuals in my class than my facilitation of the learning experience, where ideally each learner holds themselves to their own expectations.

What I’ve found that this ‘agreement’ helps bring about is an environment that is able to capitalize on the unique talents in the room. Once the band got going, people learned to arrange mic cables and amplifiers to maximize the effect of our sound; others wrote songs, led rehearsals, and created a logo for the newly minted Bears (that we eventually screened on T-shirts); various members of the band ran around with a videocamera, or various iPhones and iPads, to record and document the process, and on the second to last day of the year – following the chaos of locker-cleanout – we promoted and played a gig in the front entrance of the school that people had been alerted to by awesome hand-drawn fliers (complete with QR codes linking to the band’s Facebook page).

All of this happened in five weeks, during which I was away for a week on a TALONS class trip, and many members of the class were preparing to graduate high school. Like Ray Manzarek said of the year he and Jim Morrison formed the Doors, “we had a strange visitation of the energy,” an energy that is the intangible vibration of musical community and communication.

I start each guitar semester by telling my classes that humans evolved a wiring to participate in music; that our ability to stomp our feet, beat drums or chant in concert and unison literally set our ancestors apart from others who might not be so in tune (pardon the pun) with one another, and that communicating in music established the pathways and connections in our brains that eventually allowed us to develop language, and begin to know ourselves and one another in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.

On those first days of guitar every semester, we usually begin by snapping our fingers in time with one another, or passing bean bags through the air to a shared rhythm to learn one another’s names. I tell them that the ability to sync up like this is so innate that a person will be able to more exactly join in rhythm with another person than with a device like a metronome, and that when we make music with others, we are communicating in the oldest of ways, reaching back into the fabric of what makes us us, and creating something that is in ways universal, and at the same time deeply personal.

There is a momentum to performing live music that members of the group need to each be responsible for, the essence of musical connection that allows other players, and an audience to participate in the raw energy that the intersection of rhythm and melody is capable of creating.

This is a skill only learned by doing.

In the video of the Bears final performance, the band struggles to hear one another in the fray and excitement of the crowd and the moment, and the bass and drums are a bar ahead of the rest of the band until the first chorus. They/we work this out though, and as “We are the Bears” reaches its musical climax – in the moment between Sarah calmly saying, “Step away, bro,” and Kevin’s blistering guitar solo kicking in – the monthlong project’s goal is realized: the band has created a moment of visceral rock and roll, and brought it to their audience.

For the students in the band – not to mention their teacher – this is an incredible power to discover, and begin to wield, something I talked about with Brian Lamb and Giulia Forsythe after this year’s Northern Voice jam-after party in Vancouver: how to collectively keep the ball – the energy, the timing, the essence of a song – in the air between so many different hands, and how this is a visible skill when playing or watching music, but finds its way into so many different aspects of life, learning and the relationships we form with other people.

On the last day of class, many of the Bears made a point of hanging around for a few minutes to take pictures with one another, shake my hands and otherwise linger in the magical atmosphere the guitar classroom had been transformed into by their efforts.

“This class was more than a class,” one of the young men who was graduating told me on his way out the door. “Just what it was, I’m not sure. But it was pretty great.”

Hopefully we all spend the next little while trying to put our finger on just what it was, and how we can each do it again.

We are the Bears

THE BEARS final-1 The Bears | We are the bears by GleneagleMusic

Now that we have come to the final week of the semester and school year (where did it all go???), the Thirty Person Rock Band Project, since baptized as the Bears, is trying to make its various pieces “land” in time to showcase the fury of the past few weeks’ endeavour: to make rock music.

As a group, we’ve been working on an aesthetic: amidst countless jams, we named the band, developed a logo, flyers, dance moves, and set out to write a song around a bass riff developed by the original Bear, Florentine.

At present, we are preparing to showcase our work this Thursday in a brief set to be played in the parking lot after the second-to-last 3pm bell of the year rings.

See you there?

The Bears in their Natural Habitat

In a year that has seen much public discussion of the teaching profession in British Columbia, it’s important to do a few things every day to remind ourselves that we are incredibly lucky to do this job. This spring’s Thirty Person Rock Band project has made for many such opportunities, and with four weeks of school left, it feels constantly like we’re just beginning. It’s a good place to be.

The Thirty Person Rock Band

Among the more ambitious spontaneous projects I’ve attempted as a teacher, the 30 Person Rock Band project came out of a conversation with my guitar class about what our next endeavour should be: songwriting, another recording of individual or group progress, a performance, or… something a little bigger. Something we’ll discover as we go, together.

So to start, we are asking for input: we don’t yet know even what we don’t know, and in the interest of finding a suitable starting point, we are hoping that you might help us with the initial creation of individual and collective responsibilities. We’re hoping that, whether you’ve played in a band or not, you might be able to help us delegate responsibilities to make the 30 Person Rock Band Project a collaborative and successful undertaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Namely: lead a rock band.

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