Essay as Blogpost: Cellphones in the Classroom

Captured buskingBusking captured by cellphone.

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

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

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

TALONS consult with local blogger Amber Strocel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Talons Desk
A Talons Desk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would it work for cell phones?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In search of the elusive Eminent Person Interview

Macleod's Books

Macleod's Books

When I began teaching TALONS (2006), the requirement for learners’ Eminent Person Studies to make us of an interview with an expert presented an age-old sticking point. Documents in the program binders inherited from teachers of the original, locally-developed gifted program supplied handouts and tips for students conducting their first interviews (back then, only either in person or by phone), that went so far as to include a practice interview with a parents of one of each student’s classmates.

As a former student in the older program, I remember The Interview retaining an ominous hurdle in my young education. I was jealous of a friend whose parents had raised him ordering their pizzas, and fielding solicitor’s calls, and in doing so given him the casual ability to speak with confidence to adults, strangers, over the phone. My fear was apparently widespread, as a very slim minority of my first students reported successful interviews with experts they had contacted outside their or their parents’ sphere of personal connections.

Even through last year, this amount of apprehension about garnering an expert-interview was considerable enough that we dusted-off the Practice Parent Interview (and may yet again this year in some capacity) as a means of raising the level of comfort and confidence before setting out to tackle their Eminent Person interview (a 50 mark component built into the class’ research of their studied person).

However coincidentally – as I don’t think the parent-interview was solely responsible for the result – last year also marked a steep increase in the success rate in our expert interviews. Experiences like Andrea’s became more common:

This year is different even though my person isn’t as well known and I wasn’t very optimistic. I first started by e-mailing the Corrie ten Boom museum in Holland to get the dimensions of the Hiding Place where she concealed the Jewish people in her home. Because I am an English speaker and wrote my question in English they redirected my email to Emily Smith in San Diego who volunteers at the museum in the summer and wrote the book “A visit to the Hiding Place-The life changing experiences of Corrie ten Boom.” This book that she wrote is only available online, but Emily Smith gave me her personal address to send the money order to because she check her work mail only twice a month. I ordered the book to help me with my project and I got it a week ago and it is filled with many pictures and personal items which I could not find anywhere else. Last week I also realized that I need to serve Corrie ten Boom’s favourite food at the Night of the Notables and none of her books mention anything about what she enjoyed eating I decided to email Emily Smith again. The next day I received a reply not only mentioning her two favourite foods but with links to recipes I can use to make them.  

Today in class I asked how many people had independently contacted and conducted conversation with an expert, either in person, by email or other means, and nearly everyone raised their hand. Four years ago this number would have been one, or two, out of a class of thirty.

How much does this owe to the culture of learning developing in a classroom that has been evolving as a continuous 9 / 10 split since 2005?

How much does it owe to the evolution of my own pedagogy in relation to technology and student learning networks?

And how much of this is the observation of the tidal shift in how the emerging generation, who views technology as an underlying fact of life, rather than ornamental, or merely entertainment, can use technology to empower individualized learning?

This year there are already a great many examples of TALONS learners taking their quest beyond the school’s walls and even Canada’s natural borders, and coming home with excellent primary or secondary source information from a global field of experts. Like Andrew, they are getting better at leveraging the web for their own personal study:

I decided to try contacting the authors of the people who wrote books about [Tim Berniers-Lee], ones that I had taken out from the VPL.  The first name I typed into Google was Robert Cailliau.  I read the Wikipedia article on him and realized that he had actually helped Mr. Berners-Lee develop the Web.  And so I went about trying to contact him.  I used the links at the bottom of the page to find his home page, and from there his e-mail address.  I sent him an e-mail, explaining who I was, and what the project was about, and my request to send him a few questions.

Such efforts – in Andrew’s interview, Jenna’s discussion with NYU professor Brooke Kroeger, and Richard’s pending email interview of Tony’s Blair’s biographer – are examples of a rise in digital literacy that will likely provide a firm foundation in developing this month’s Eminent Person Study 1.

For this year’s TALONS learners seeking their first interview, here are a few pieces of advice shared on TALONS blogs in the past year, and links to several of the letters which yielded successful interviews (Successful interview letters: Louise, Saskia, Donya, and Ariana).

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

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

Interviews are very valuable. Go the extra mile to get one.

  • Send lots of emails so that at least a few are likely to reply
  • Send emails to different types of people related to your eminent person ( a variety of perspectives helps)
  • Ask questions in your email that couldn’t be found online. If they think you are interviewing them so that you don’t have to do any research of your own, they won’t answer.
  • Do a phone interview if you can because you will get much more information and much more detailed information. I wasn’t convinced at first but am now definitely sold on the merits of phone interviews.
  • Prepare lots of questions for your phone interviews (at least 20-25)
  • Research your interviewee ahead of time so that you can ask better questions
  • Compliment your interviewee’s work in you original email and during your interview
  • Say lots of thank yous at the end of a phone conversation.
  • Send thank you letters immediately after your interview as it shows a lot more appreciation that an email two weeks later.

On Sunday, I sent off e-mails to curators at 7 different art galleries. Yesterday I came home to three replies.

  1. Show that you spent time and effort on your e-mail. If you do this people are more likely to spend time and effort on their reply back.
  2. Explain about yourself and the project you are undertaking. (I think half the reason I got such a long reply back from the Phoenix Art Museum was because the curator grew up in Victoria.)
  3. Demonstrate that you researched your topic well before coming to others for supplementary information. This way, it doesn’t appear that you are asking questions with answers easily available online or at the library.
  1. For more reading on the Eminent Person Study, including links to examples of speeches and learning centres, see last year’s Night of the Notables wrap up post

KAPOW: Sir Ken Robinson Blows Donya's Mind

After watching Sir Ken Robinson‘s latest incarnation as the subject of an RSA Animation, Donya was compelled to commit herself to bringing about an education revolution:
I believe this is what I want to be when I grow up… if that makes any sense. I want to be a meaningful part of this education revolution! EVERYONE (not just the students in the TALONS class) possesses the skill and capacity to achieve. The current education system doesn’t promote that anymore. A lot of the students “learning” in a “run of the mill” education system are not reaping the benefits that they rightfully deserve. If technology and other aspects in our life have changed so much, why didn’t education?

Read more of Donya’s musings on the future of her own education on her blog Sunday Morning Revelations

Did the author of the Golden Spruce comment on two TALONS' Posts?

BCIT Woodlot

BCIT Woodlot

Sometime Thursday evening, my phone buzzed with an email from Jonathan telling me that I should check Veronica’s blog, as “it look[ed] like John Vaillant commented on her chapter three post.”

Veronica’s interpretation of Grant Hadwin’s close friend (and backwoods competitor) Paul Bernier outlined him as the by-now-traditional character of a sidekick:

All classic heroes have sidekicks, so naturally, Grant Hadwin should have one too – in the form of Paul Bernier. Bernier strikes me as kind of an underdog to Grant Hadwin. Maybe it’s just how the story is told in The Golden Spruce, but the author makes Bernier seem inferior to Hadwin. I think that this is maybe to more thoroughly develop the character of Grant Hadwin. Anyways, from the quote “We’d run in the bush; we’d race each other. He didn’t like to lose.”, I assume that Bernier probably lost most of the time, so most the glory was taken by Grant.

And at present it indeed appears that Mr. Vaillant has somehow discovered and commented on the post:

Hi Veronica; I think your interpretation is a good one, based on the limited info you’ve got to work with. when I interviewed Bernier, I got the same impression you reflect above, and I think he’d probably agree. But, in the long run, Bernier may have been the stronger, more together person, able to manage the conflicts that the logging industry can present to a person. Very best regards, John V.

By the time I arrived at school the following morning, our newest commenting benefactor had apparently visited Meghan’s post about Loggers and Depression:

Loggers are talked about as replaceable and expendable. “Accidents were so common in the early days that if a man was killed on the job his body would simply be laid to the side and work would continue until quitting time, when a boat, plane or runner might be sent to notify the police.” Imagine seeing the man you shared breakfast with stabbed through the stomach by a massive branch, and then just having to move him to the side only to late have to drag him back to camp like a sack of flour.

Vaillant offers his agreement of Meghan’s appraisal, and an interesting possible extension of research:

BCIT Woodlot

BCIT Woodlot

Hi Meghan; thank you for posting this thoughtful (and well-supported) opinion. Personally, I think you are right on the money, but as you can imagine, not a lot of loggers go into therapy and it’s not a job, or a culture, that lends itself to introspection! Though there are some notable exceptions. It would be interesting to see what doctors and clergy in logging communities would have to say about this. Best regards, John V.

Doubtlessly a busy man with a new book out, it would be great to be able to verify if the comments were indeed the work of our author.

And if it is, Veronica has already jumped at the next question.

TALONS Launch class blog, continue Defying Normality

Defying Normality

Defying Normality

The TALONS have spent the last year with students – and teachers – adopting the use of individual student blogs, publishing writing and other media for projects and self-initiated posts to the public web in growing leaps and bounds. What at first was not without its tough-sell moments – encouraging young learners over the barrier of putting their school work “out there” for all to see – quickly built momentum with few looking back.

This blog though….It’s going to be a journal in a very different way. It’s public, and not necessarily about me, but perhaps more about how I view things. I am curious to see how my blog turns out. I believe it will be a place to discover, but also create. So here goes…. Katie’s Walking on Sunshine

First week Icebreakers

The class used their blogs to:

At the conclusion of their grade ten year in the program, a group of English enthusiasts even set up their own extra-curricular blog within WordPress and have published some twenty posts since school let out in June. Initially established for eight friends to stay in touch and preserve their summer memories, Frozen Tic Tacs has lived on into the new academic year.

This blog ended up even being discussed when the 8 friends were talking about their upcoming summer adventures sometime in March. That lead to a dream to do something like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Unfortunately, there were no jeans that could fit us all, and T-shirts were out of the question of the no washing rule. Plus, the mailing would be a difficult part too, so we came up with the idea of a blog. From that, it just stretched on until it became what it is today. Why the Frozen Tic Tacs

Howe Sound by Voyager Canoe

Howe Sound by Voyager Canoe

Last year, my blog functioned as the hub for information about class activities, assignments, outings and highlighting exemplary student posts, a process that placed my writing and input much closer to the centre of the class’ learning than I often try to be in my general teaching. Though I relished the opportunity to highlight the class’ work, and present class assignments as model blog posts in terms of using hyperlinks, images and embedded media, I knew that a collective class blog would do a much better job at creating a learner-centred publishing process.

Not only would students be able to vet, edit and publish their opinions of the best of the class’ work on a variety of subjects, but my own blog would be left to take more the role of a mentor or model’s than that of a traditional teacher dispensing gold stars and patted heads.

The trial first year in the Great Blogging Experiment left me with an appreciation for two key elements in the blogging process:

  • the cultivation of an authentic, global audience
  • the drive to create ultimately student-owned learning.

And so a few weeks ago I approached this year’s grade ten TALONS to see if they would be interested in starting, from the ground up, a central class blog. The response was brisk and enthusiastic, and in the past two weeks, the grade tens have taken polls to name and design the blog, chosen WordPress as platform and even learned a few bits and pieces of CSS coding, sought out other blogging classes to establish a blogroll and community of like-minds, invited local blogging mavens into our midst, and published an introductory post and About Page.

This blog is a way for us to let you all know what we are up to, and it is a great way to connect with other student bloggers. We each individually have our own blogs, but this is more a way for us to collectively share our ideas with the world. You will see posts about anything under the sun, be it a bus ride or a novel reflection. Just like no two T.A.L.O.N.S. students are the same, no two styles of writing, or posts will be the same, so check back frequently to see what is new in the T.A.L.O.N.S. world.

Visit and Subscribe to Defying Normality Blogging out of Bounds

The TALONS meet Alec Couros, via Skype

On Tuesday afternoon, a group of TALONS students had the opportunity to visit a classroom at the University of Regina. Professor of Educational Technology Dr. Alec Couros extended an opportunity for classrooms to connect to his, via Skype, so that his class of student-teachers could gain first hand responses to their questions about the use of technology in working classrooms across the globe. Throughout the day classrooms from across Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia participated in video chats with Dr. Couros’ students in Saskatchewan, and at 2pm, a select group of TALONS – all of whom blog, Tweet, and live Facebook-savvy lives of “regular” Skyping with Dr. Alec Courosteenagers beyond their academic use of the Internet and computers – contributed first hand knowledge of what works, what doesn’t, and what they would like to see when teachers set out to implement different technology into the classroom. Dr. Couros’ classroom was projected on the wall of Gleneagle‘s office conference room, and the TALONS were broadcast in real time halfway across the country, allowing for shared learning and collaboration newly available to today’s students.

WikiBooks Publishing Project

Ksan, British Columbia
Ksan, British Columbia

One of the surprises of last year’s socials units was the TALONS class‘ foray into publishing with Wikibooks. After more than a year spent within the confines of our district’s SharePoint Wikis and discussion boards, Wikibooks offered our first opportunity to publish and participate in a global dialogue of meaning, history, and identity.

This collective Wisdom of the Crowd is the appeal and power of crowd-sourcing; but the rabid tenor of many Wikipedia debates and discussions – not to mention the oftentimes thoroughly vetted and polished nature of Wiki articles concerning subjects covered in high school – makes venturing into that community a difficult proving ground for young students. Unless students are to be contributing coverage or information on an as-yet-undocumented subject or event – unlikely given the topics covered during the Socials 9 or 10 curriculum – participation in Wikipedia can be a difficult place to start.

Fortunately, the range and reach of Wikimedia Foundation‘s projects extend to include Wikibooks, a subject-by-subject collection of textbooks open to user-editing. Where similar articles – concerning Louis Riel, and the Red River Rebellion, as well as information about Canada’s various First Peoples – on Wikipedia were (more or less) “complete,” I was able to find – to my great surprise – this time last year, that many entries corresponding to our mandated curriculum under the Canadian History text were blank. The class broke up into research groups and “adopted” pages on different groups of First Nations, geographic regions, or notable events and issues in Canadian history.

When we set out on the project many students were surprised that they were “allowed” to use Wikipedia at school, as in so many classrooms even touching down on the “world’s most-cited web page” is forbidden as a blanket policy to combat fears that students can too easily directly plagiarize Wikipedia’s answer to many questions asked as homework. And it is not that this never happens; students make use of Wikipedia and Sparknotes by default to answer traditional questions based around extinct modes of obtaining information.

But what if classroom projects and student research could ask “bigger” questions than when did it happen? or who was there? What if our assignments could facilitate students justifying their interpretations of history’s influence on the present moment and culture? And help them engage in this discussion with the world outside the classroom? To even begin such an endeavour, when faced with the prospect of setting out to research and discuss topics quickly glossed over in the narrow perspective of the classroom text, where would one find a better compendium of source material than Wikipedia?

Sgang Gwaay
SGaang Gwaay, British Columbia

What emerged in the course of publishing, far from an exercise in redundancy (merely copying text from the original Wikipedia articles to the empty Wikibooks pages), was a learning experience encapsulating literacy skills emerging as essentials in the evolving information landscape. Students tracked source material ranging from interviews  to academic papers, and collectively authored a first perspective in knowledge on their subjects. Students were forced to consider multiple sources in developing their own perspective on the complex questions of the Canadian Identity: the purpose of our history curriculum beyond what is written in the course’s prescribed learning outcomes.

During the project, students were not able to cite Wikipedia as a direct source, but encouraged to use it as a starting point toward authors of work on subjects referenced in the articles as a means of providing their published work with the strongest support possible. Students asked questions of experts from all over North America, read widely and were introduced to a variety of issues on the recommendation of public servants, non-profit organizers, academics, and politicians. In the end each group published theirs as a first perspective (in terms of the Wikibooks project) on the information of the day concerning a range of topics on the Canadian Identity. The work had to be cited and written in accordance with Wikibooks’ authorship guidelines, and opened the class’ work to the response and criticism, but also the benefit, of global study on the unit’s subject. From a pedagogical standpoint, the rigour and validity of the class’ use of Wikipedia (and reaching beyond the textbook in general) provided an experience richer in critical analysis and personal investment than many read-and-test units covering the same material.SGaang Gwaay

One student-solicited interview resulted in University of British Columbia Aboriginal Education professor Mark Aquash offering to spend an afternoon discussing the many tough questions surrounding Canada’s First Peoples that our texts (and oftentimes our teachers) are not well-enough prepared to confront. At the conclusion of the nearly two-hour dialogue – which covered the misunderstood labels of native, Métis, Indian, First Nations, Inuit, as well as contemporary conceptions of aboriginal land claims, reservations, education and welfare in the first person – a grade nine offered the following realization that I believe our texts are seldom equipped to facilitate:

All of [most] people’s anger and discomfort about Canada’s First Nations issues boils down to difficulties understanding the different ways our cultures view being human.

Of course, the statement is much bigger than a Canadian issue, and speaks to the extrinsic purpose of our education to teach empathy and understanding across the diverse cultures of our increasingly connected human experience. Thus the underlying purpose I hope the publishing project enables is to broaden the scope of the class’ discussion of our upcoming unit. I have been seeking classes or groups of aboriginal youth (wherever in the world they might reside, Canada or otherwise) to collaborate throughout the past year with the hope of working together to establish a dialogue or publication of student research and study of our local, yet universal history. I am excited to see the TALONS’ blogging network extend and to begin to see other examples of classes sharing their learning through social networks and blogging.

With respect to our First Nations unit specifically, I have only established a few “leads” in connecting our classroom to another in order to discuss this aspect of colonial history, something I think speaks to the pervasive lack of interaction and understanding between First Peoples the world over and European (or other) colonialist nations in the Americas, Africa, Polynesia, and Australia. Delving into the history as we are taught it with the intention of authoring a contemporary narrative of Canada’s struggle to implement a truly multicultural society seems a good place to start though, whether we have company in this endeavour or not.

Many of the TALONS students are participating in the international Student Blogging Challenge this spring, and there is a momentum building around the shared experience that modern communication can offer. With this call to action, the class’ study of its upcoming history chapters is an opportunity to produce a collaborative effort to start a global dialogue of our relationship with this place in Canada, and the world, in this moment in time.

Talons debate the "Good" Books

My Favorite Book Shop .........As the TALONS Novel Study has progressed, I have waited for the discussion of six diverse novels – listed here – to begin to overlap into a meaningful discourse of the nature and the value of literature. Yesterday in class I asked a question posed by Clare and, to some extent, Kiko, on their blogs recently, hoping that across generations of literature there might be a common thread or reasoning behind our study of the Great Books. Clare asks:

So if Catcher in the Rye is no longer making us re-think society as it did in the 1950s, does that make it less important?

Similarly, Kiko wonders about the nature of treading the trampled ground of books like Catcher or Lord of the Flies:

How many people had done that before me? Is the size of that number a good thing, or a bad thing? Why does this matter to me at all? I have a slightly different perspective on everything than everyone else in the world.

Being that each of these questions meets an answer in a subjective truth (excellently supported and given context in a comment by Michael Kaisaris), I reposed them to the entire class the following afternoon, creating a stir that boiled over into a debate that not only continued in the classroom long after the 3 o’clock bell, but in a Facebook thread that appears to have consumed many members of the class throughout the evening.

Here are the highlights of what was discussed: Book Worm

The question I want to put out there is “What makes art great?” Great art is something that makes a person feel. If a person is making connections, predictions, having intuitions, thinking, or especially feeling emotion, the art is important. If a reader feels stronger about Twilight than Romeo & Juliet, I think that may also be the greater art. At least, to that select individual.

Katie

I agree that fan fiction has significant relevance to our society and that, in a hundred years, it could be very useful to understand the values and what not of society today. However, I do not offer it the same “importance” (although maybe we should find a less subjective word) than, say, a Douglas Coupland book. While I suppose one could argue that each would provide an equal understanding of today’s culture to future generations, one can’t argue that they would be of equal value to a person’s philosophical concept of the world and their position within it. By reading fan fiction, I doubt anyone would learn more (that isn’t to say that there is nothing one would learn) about themselves or gain much insight into our fundamental raison d’être than by reading a Douglas Coupland book or other piece of “good literature.” There is a reason it is called that and fan fiction is not. “Good literature” challenges our ideas and society’s rules more so than fan fiction ever could. It is because of this that it is more important.

Saskia

Were both forms of writing made equal though? Both were created by a person who wanted to express themselves and they way they saw something. Shallow or not, both fan fiction and literature were written by a person who was passionate enough about something to write it down and take the risk or putting it out where the world can access it.

Katie

Importance, in my opinion, is related to how much a work influences society, not how much it reflects the society of the moment. Take Catcher in the Rye, for example. It was revolutionary at the time it was written and changed the way people thought about teenagers. Even today teenagers who read the book can identify with Holden Caulfield. He certainly influenced my perspective on my own teenage angst. Has Twilight influenced society other than to increase the sale of vampire t-shirts and create great fodder for jokes? I don’t think so. Katie brings up the point about people who love Twilight getting more out of it than literature. Maybe they get more enjoyment out of reading Stephanie Meyer, but they aren’t getting more understanding of the world or getting any new opinions to consider.

Ariana

I think almost all literature is about their philosophical concept of the world and their position within it. When people write, their morals, beliefs, ideals, ideas, opinions, personality and themselves are written in. You can’t write anything without that, whether it is shallow or not. Even jobro fanfic represents that. What the writer thinks about the world and their place in it as a jobro fan.

Louise

There are certain ways you can look at things like fan fiction and see what it says about society, but on the other hand, there are works of art that I believe are more important to society and literature as a whole, things that will ‘stand the test of time’. I think it all boils down to one thing: If we were to keep, say, ten pieces of art, from any time period, which would they be?My Favorite Book Shop ......... The ones that changed society the most, the ones that made people stop and think and realize what is really happening, either in their time, or in the past. I think what really makes art great is that it can say something that people will look at and feel something about, whether it’s a personal connection or a greater understanding of people and/or society.

Kiko

It would all come down to who was picking. Everyone would chose 10 different pieces and then this argument would go world wide. We would no longer be the only ones debating over “fluff” versus “literature.” Yes, you would pick the ones that have contributed to society the most but even if you instantly ruled out fan fiction, Twilight, etc. How would you finalize your top ten picks of art? Why is one classic book more important than another? “…we can rate it’s importance in terms of the impact on society. ” Won’t each individual have their own thoughts and feelings on how each piece of art has impacted society? It still boils down to perspective. You could argue this until the end of time. Everyone sees things differently gets something different out of everything they read.

Katie

In the end, it is the affect a book has on all of society or the majority of society that determines where it stands and whether it will be remembered as a book of great importance. Reiterating some of what Kiko wrote, it the ones that made society as a whole stop and think, the ones that changed society’s perspectives (in the present or the past) that will last. Fan fiction or other fluff, though it may somehow be very important to an individual, does not make the cut.

Saskia

I don’t think anyone writes a book thinking that it’s going to change society. I agree with Louise that they write it to say something for themselves and if it ends up being important enough to change a reader, then that’s great. And if it resonates with a lot of people, then I guess it might change society a little, but I don’t think many books have changed society; people don’t read books and instantaneously change.

Clare

Reading Is Fundamental “There are two books that I’ve read in my life that disturbed me in such a way that I felt they literally shook my faith in humanity. ‘Blindness’ was the first and ‘Oryx and Crake’ by Margaret Atwood was the second.” Dave Truss left this comment on my blog post about Blindness, and I definitely agree with him. Books do change people. They change how one views society, how one perceives life, how people think… the list goes on. Maybe all books don’t, maybe no book you’ve ever read has changed you, but some people are heavily influences by books.

Kiko

These books didn’t change society by themselves. However, they definately contributed to that change in a big way. Look at Kiko’s post above. Let’s take banned books for example. Why have books been banned throughout history? Because they deal with issues that governments or schools don’t want people to consider. If books had no profound impact on the opinions of the nation, there would be no point in outlawing them. I don’t think anybody would ever consider banning Twilight because it doesn’t challenge anybody’s faith or bring up any revolutionary ideas (not to say that all books need to be banned to be considered “great”).

Ariana

As for Twilight…
  • putting others before ourselves
  • love is unconditional (however cheesy it might be)
  • being perfect isn’t as great as it might sound
  • people are not always what they seem
  • perfection on the outside does not always mean perfection on the inside
  • with great power comes great responsibility
  • It’s okay to lean on people for support
  • stereotypes/ don’t believe everything you read (about vampires for instance)
How this would fundamentally change someone…
  • changed way some people saw themselves. Before, they might have considered themselves “average” but now they are more confident in their right to talk to someone they’ve previously admired or even been intimidated by.
  • effected how people viewed their problems (angst), ability to speak to others about them
  • made people realize they could be accepted even if they deviate from the norm.

Katie

If you look deep enough you can find themes, even meaningful themes, in any novel from fan fiction to Twilight. And maybe these themes have an affect on people. However, I disagree with the word fundamental. While the great works (such as those mentioned earlier) take on new ideas or new perspectives that shifted the way people saw things, the themes you listed in Twilight are not new. They appear over and over in almost every novel you read. There is no fundamentally different or thought-altering idea in Twilight and that is one of the many things that separates it from other literature.

Saskia

But ideas are used over and over again and maybe the 500th time it is used it makes a difference. Yes the ideas in Twilight aren’t new but they were also read by many many people who have in some way been affected by those ideas.

Andrea

A classic work should say something of value and draw attention to fundamental human problems. It should support or condemn a point of view. That means saying something more significant than: “Vanilla ice cream is indescribably amazing,” even if that statement is true and will maybe cause ten people who have never tried vanilla ice cream to visit the grocery store. The message doesn’t have to be new, but it should at least take a new angle or provide new evidence.

Ariana

It’s about whether some books are greater, or more important to society, than others. Also, I think we need to get away from some random person in some obscure place. For a book to be considered “great,” it needs to effect a substantial portion of the population. One person doesn’t make it or break it.

Ariana

It’s not about a book being great? Then what is great literature? I don’t think that anything has to impact society. It’s the importance we’re talking about, not the impact. We’re all random people in random obscure places.

Louise

Louise, that blew my mind. I am sitting here at my computer, feeling like such a random person in a random obscure place.

Katie

For many people Twilight was one of the first books that they actually enjoyed reading; that was the case with many people I knew in middle school and for them Twilight was a good book because they hated reading as then they found a book they could actually enjoy so they probably got a lot more out of the book than you or I did.

Andrea

As Andrea mentioned with Twilight and I can say with Harry Potter, those books are the reason that a lot of people came to enjoy reading – I would consider that a huge impact and thus, “important.”

Clare

Stalin once said that “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic.” Well, I say “If a book is bought and read by a million people, it’s a best seller, whoop-dee-do. If I read a book and enjoy it, it’s a divine miracle.” The ability of a book to affect many people (society) doesn’t make it a good book in an individual’s opinion. Millions of people bought The Da Vinci Code but I recommend reading Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Why? Because my in MY opinion it’s better. This may be different for different people, and they may say my book which ain’t a best seller sucks because it wasn’t economically successful. This brings me back to the fan fiction/fluff vs. classics/non-fluff. If people can connect with the writing, then the literature has done it’s job. If teenage girls can connect with Jonas bros, then that’s them, and the fan fiction didn’t fail in communicating a message and representing that segment of society. It seems to me that these days (modern times) with the internet, TV, face book, and all that what could have been great pieces of art are melted and conformed to something that would sell well, and thus receive marketing and cast a wide net for audience. Small things and exquisite literature that probably won’t sell well are discarded for conformists. This is quite disturbing in that the conformist stuff are what our era will be remembered for.

Steven

Depending on who you are you will get different things out of different literature. Overall, society might deem some books as having more to offer, but it is still up to the individual to decide and/or discover what they value the most. In school, it is beneficial to study some of the same novels that humans have labeled as ‘important.’ However, every person is unique therefore no one has the right to judge what importance they find in the art they see.

Katie

Keeping up with the TALONS

Algonquin Park HDR

And these paintings are not landscape paintings. Because there aren’t any landscapes up there, not in the old, tidy European sense, with a gentle hill, a curving river, a cottage, a mountain in the background, a golden evening sky. Instead there’s a tangle, a receding maze, in which you can become lost almost as soon as you step off the path. There are no backgrounds in any of these paintings, no vistas; only a great deal of foreground that goes back and back, endlessly, involving you in its twists and turns of tree and branch and rock. No matter how far back in you go, there will be more. And the trees themselves are hardly trees; they are currents of energy, charged with violent colour.

Death by Landscape Margaret Atwood

During this past week’s study of short stories, our class has delved into more than one class-that-runs-past-the-bell in dissection of Canadian works, Margaret Atwood’s “Death by Landscape,” and Alistair MacLeod’s “To Every Thing There is a Season.” Beginning with the discussion of the each story’s basic literary pieces – its characters, conflict, plot, setting and point of view – the class has ranged in conversation of the Canadian identity, the nature of growing up, the importance of stories, and literature’s ability to illuminate who we are as individuals, citizens and members of the human race. Beginning today though our class began to merge this conversation with the online – technology supplementing face to face instruction, dialogue and interaction – and moved to the students’ blogs, with each student posting a defense of their theme statement for MacLeod’s Cape Breton Christmas novella “To Everything There is a Season.”

But this is only one way our class is engaged in social networking and online dialogue. The means of this digital conversation: