A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to meet a handful of local talented musicians in an afternoon session I delivered at the inaugural Port Moody Youth Arts Festival, where through the course of an afternoon we would set out to write a song. In addition to the afternoon workshop, my name was slated for half an hour as the opening act of the evening showcase, and I hoped that I wouldn’t be standing on the stage explaining a failed effort.
I prepared the sparest of materials to make the most of our time during the afternoon, and spent my energy providing the space and the canvas, along with whatever emerging know-how I’ve gained in the last year about what makes songs come together and what they require to be performed convincingly I could. Fortunately, the Port Moody teens who had signed up for the workshop were exceptionally talented writers, musicians, collaborators, and performers.
The workshop was scheduled for the top floor of City Hall, a vaulted dome ceiling befitting our quaint suburban capital with a veranda that offered a view of Inlet Park, the rec center, and public library. It seemed a dignified place to be crafting a song out of the ether, and even if this went unspoken, the group set about searching for riffs and opening hooks, imagery and themes in pairs and individual spots around the space with diligence and urgency. At fifteen minute intervals, the group met as a whole to share the pieces they had come up with, and teach them to one another.
Eventually, the collective settled on an opening verse by a marvelous budding singer-songwriter named Julia, and while she retreated to the patio to extend the verses and lyrics, the rest of the group experimented with various other instrumentation that began to bring the song to life: acoustic guitars, bass, ukelele with slide, drums, a twelve string.
As a few of the participants were called to the stage to soundcheck their own band, Julia, Mickelvin, and Patrick worked to develop a chorus with transitions and complimentary guitar licks that built a musical tension throughout the song, and it was quickly typed up and photocopied in the library downstairs. There were a few last minute run throughs in the evening light of the floor-to-ceiling windows, and at five o’clock we broke for dinner.
The evening showcase was set to begin with us at six-thirty, and the group had yet to play the song on stage. But after a handful of run-throughs after dinner, the mood was relaxed while the newly minted band hung out with the evening’s emcees and the other acts, picking at pizza and veggie platters before being called to the stage.
I introduced the group and provided a brief summary of the day’s events, and then scurried into the audience to record video as the troupe proceeded to bring the house down. In a scaled down version of the Thirty Person Rock Band Project, the workshop was a success for the way it allowed the individual talents of the participants to shine. Julia, Mickelvin, Patrick, Theo, Ian, Isaac, Jonathan and Michael came to the session open to who they might meet, and what they might be able to make together.
They all rose mightily to the occasion.
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.
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?
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.
Imagine a life where possibilities are opening at a speed that veers unpredictably between exhilarating and terrifying. The familiar, precisely because it’s familiar and safe, still tugs at you, but even so, you want out because your old life constricts as much as it comforts. Besides, your social milieu, which often feels like an endless struggle to achieve, or resist being slotted into some arbitrary niche—pretty, ugly, smart, dumb, athlete, klutz—is changing fast. You feel driven—by inner need and outside pressure—to make choices. Meanwhile, the manipulative, often harsh, powers that be, who created the larger world they’re busy shoving you into, have clearly not done a bang-up job of it, either in their personal lives or as part of society. And they want you to get out there and ﬁx their mistakes—just at a moment when worry over the imminent demise of their entire socio-economic structure is never far from the surface. It can be cruel and scary out there. Dystopian, even. Chances are, anyone not imagining this life, but actually living it, is a teenager.
In some ways, I guess it is natural that the TALONS class would incorporate into its evolving storytelling and myth-making the influences of dystopian literature, fan fiction, and the classic zombie film. In the background of the class’ study of novels, history, and current events, math and science, the approaching Adventure Trip (constituting the class’ Leadership 11 Final Exam), the class blog has become the setting for unfolding video, and literary riffs on the classroom setting, as well as TALONS characters enacting both a five part series of zombie films and an epic, multi-authored fan fiction bringing the Hunger Games to the afternoon corhort.
There is no avoiding the violent nature of the Hunger Games, and each post begins with a variation of the following caveat:
(Warning: The following post depicts scenes of violence, using fictionalized examples of real people. Please do not read if you might find any of this offensive / disturbing. This narrative is for educational purposes only. Any references and ideas taken from the Hunger Games trilogy are the strict property of the brilliant Suzanne Collins).
But what I find remarkable about the TALONS versions of each story – and perhaps what constitute each genre’s appeal with today’s young people – is an awareness and an articulation of the human qualities that perpetuate our survival in desperate times, whether in real life, a zombie movie, or young adult fan-fiction. Each are excellent examples of using an existing structure of genre or plot-line to tell a story that is uniquely personal.
Check them out (and don’t miss the informative ‘Legend‘ to help see into the intricacies of the class dynamic at work in the story):
The platforms stilled, each tribute squinting in the sudden light, trying to adjust to their surroundings. They were standing in the middle of a field of grass, an enormous ancient stone city before them, practically crumbling before their eyes. Behind them was a forest, thick with every kind of tree, green and lush with life. The tributes looked around, dazed by the beauty of their surroundings. For a moment, all thoughts of death and murder disappeared out of their heads, but seconds later, the gong sounded and each tribute shot off their platform, scattering in all directions.
“There are no friends in the Hunger Games.” Part II
Morning came and Bronwyn wasn’t prepared. She had hardly slept that night after yet another cannon had roared, causing her to wonder who had died this time. She exhaled softly and packed up quickly, sliding down the tree ready for day 2. The moment she hit the ground, she heard the sound of feet running. She ran and leapt behind a bush, peering through and seeing, to her surprise, Leanne. She was standing in the middle of a clearing, holding a badminton racquet. Bronwyn frowned. A badminton racquet? What kind of a cruel trick was that? But suddenly, the small hole Bronwyn had been staring through darkened as someone stood in front of it.
“What was that?” Part III
Chelsea climbed up the tree, searching for a place to stay. Sean climbed close behind, trying not to look down. He didn’t know why he had saved Chelsea, but he had. Shaking his head, Sean called up to Chelsea that he had found a branch. Swinging sideways, Sean landed on the branch and pressed himself against the trunk, closing his eyes and listening for any noises. Instead, the anthem played and Sean blinked and looked up at the darkened sky.
About half an hour later, Alisha was happily roasting several chunks of meat over a spit. She leaned forward and studied them carefully, inspecting them and making sure they were cooked thoroughly. Then, with quick and precise hands, she whipped out a handful of Japanese Yew berries and stuffed them into the meat.
Humming to herself, Zoe loaded up Jonny’s crossbow, and crouched down, lying on her belly and began to aim. Alisha had been right. Only one could win.
Tonight you reigned in triumph, and I hope that you each savour what this experience has revealed of the possibility you hold within yourselves. You will know success in this life for what tonight has taught you about the personal nature of success, the irrationality of fear and the necessity of friendship. Do not despair that you only get to experience the tonight’s of life but once apiece. They are only tests to give you strength for the examinations you will be soon be free to embark upon under your own steam. We owe it to the present moment, and to our present selves, to live as the sum of our experiences, and with tonight you mark certainly that you possess the raw material to write your own life’s work of eminence. I stand in awe at your strength and determination to courageously explore, discover and express your unique voices in this world.
I talked the other night, at the conclusion of this year’s Night of the Notables, about our relationship with the dark. I alluded to our recent practice of Night Solos, and how they put us in touch with an elemental piece of ourselves that comes with an immersion in a solitary unknown. It seemed a natural connection to make after watching the same group of TALONS become transformed on a stage they shared in fluid harmony that transported and transfixed an audience made of the class’ extended family community.
Parents, friends, alumni, administrators and school board trustees, a scattering of internet radio listeners from across the continent, and graduates of a program that has roots in our district back to the mid 1970s – all gathered to indulge and rally around spectacle that this year’s cohort inevitably finds to represent their admiration and investigation of a kindred spirit, someone who “left a ding in the universe.”
In many ways, this has always been the story of Night of the Notables. But this year has seen the TALONS program run with two full grade nine/ten cohorts totaling 56 learners. In the seven years since I attended the first incarnation of the district gifted program’s as a new teacher who gave one of my future colleagues my TOC card, we’ve all come a long way through this week, where the gallery walk and “cocktail” hour was barely enough time to scratch the surface of each of the TALONS interactive and illuminating learning centers, and the grade tens were briskly off to the theater for the presentation of speeches.
A traditional rite of passage for the grade tens, this year saw the formally individual podium speeches transformed into two half-hour series of interwoven monologues, each presented in the characters of their eminent people.
“The unknown isn’t as mysterious as we might think,” I borrowed from Stephanie‘s address as astronaut Roberta Bondar before continuing on about sitting alone in the dark.
“If we’re all sitting in the dark alone, we can explore and discover that unknown – which is all that any real learning is – just like we can give speeches, and create something new and magical and precious and ours, if we are supported by each other, all sitting in our own dark.”
The people on stage the other night were able to do it because everyone in the audience was up there with them, whether they were sitting in the dark as peers, or mentors, alumni, parents, and whether they did their sitting five years ago, or will years from now.
“That which you create,” Jonathan Toews wrote in his Notable address in 2010, speaking as IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, “Is yours to rejoice in.”
I was thrilled to present my first-ever webinar this weekend to the excellent Classroom 2.0 Live series, where I talked about teaching TALONS, and what I’ve learned about using digital storytelling and web2.0 tools to support our unique learning environment.
In addition to the above video, a LiveBinder collection of the links shared within the session’s chat is preserved here as well.