School Politics

Participation Inequality 90 9 1

Image courtesy of Christopher Allen on Flickr.

It is a common sentiment that schools ought be apolitical spaces, despite the fact that in policy, curriculum, and objectives they cannot help but exist in political reality. In the resultant power dynamic that confronts us as professionals, even reluctant teachers engage in a struggle for agency and voice in working for what we believe are the best interests of our students. As union members and public employees, our contract negotiations, and evolving role in society is regularly part of the broader political dialogue that surrounds schools, whether in our neighbourhoods, newspapers, broadcast media or holiday dinners.

Our efforts to work alongside our colleagues and cultivate the spaces of public education take on political dimensions in other ways beyond the classroom, as well. As the Canadian Multicultural Act puts forth, our pluralist democracy is only realized through “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society.”

However, even while we are each ensured this right as citizens of Canada (a right reinforced by the collective bargaining power to resist provided with our union membership), the structural inequalities present in society manifest themselves in our classrooms, and are similarly recreated among school and district staffs.  Intersectional privileges and marginalization lead to working environments which have largely been established (and continue to be maintained and administrated) by those who have been the beneficiaries of the system as it exists.

Administrators and trustees, board office employees and superintendents, department heads, increasingly essential Parent Advisory Council leadership, union representatives and other decision-making committees in a school or district tend to skew toward those who share a collection of unearned privileges: they are disproportionally male, often white, and possess a particular confidence and conversational / social capital. Among those who are not male, or caucasian, there is often a shared economic class (even among teachers, who share a pay scale but emerge from relatively diverse economic backgrounds), or level of education. Recent immigrants are at a disadvantage in acquiring these attributes (which can be acquired), and can be delayed in attaining positions of influence or power; as in all aspects of social life, those who are not comfortable or confident vocal participants in larger groups are underrepresented in the collected culture.

At this disempowered end of this spectrum of influence we generally see an over-representation of the young, new Canadians, visible minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, people with more challenging social-economic backgrounds, and women.

And yet, the Multicultural Act promises not only a national aspiration toward “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society,” but demands that Canada “assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.” We are not merely assured this right as citizens and educators in Canada, but also challenged to continually strive to expand the circle of participants in our emergent national narrative.

It may be easy to see that this ought be our intention as teachers orienting our schools and classrooms toward citizenship, and providing a democratic education; however it is important to consider the role we each play in cultivating the public school space as one which seeks to eradicate the inequalities which prevent “all participants” from contributing to “all aspects” of community life and identity.

Fortunately, there are many avenues and opportunities for these inclusive dialogues to take place, and which ought be embraced by those looking to work toward social justice in our schools, for our colleagues as much as our students: professional development, collaborative decision making, departmental, committees, union volunteerism, and social planning groups offer official channels for discussion and dialogue that includes the possibility of all voices. Beyond these our hallways and staff rooms, intramural pitches of competition and picket lines offer an informal space of interaction that can foster collegiality and consensus that enables our capacity to collaborate as professionals.

Across these settings there are inevitably those whose voices are heard above the rest, and we needn’t take anything away from those possessing the ability to influence; but we are not practicing democracy if we do not work to correct a system of interaction in which many are disproportionally voiceless.

Epistemology, Pedagogy and Democracy in the Digital Age Bibliography

The Virtual Self @nora3000 at #Brocku [visual notes]
The Virtual Self, visual notes by Giulia Forsythe on a talk by Nora Young at Brock University March 2013 (Learn more about Giulia’s amazing Visual Practice here).

It has been a treat to delve deeper into the web of scholarship that charts the intersection of so many different philosophical inquiries that concern pedagogy as a branch of the digital humanities these last few weeks. The metaphysical and epistemic questions that guide our social, ethical and political discussions around the larger purposes of curriculum cast an incredibly broad net, but are undeniably arising out of the digital revolution in communicative technology we are living through. And so my bibliography covers a lot of ground:

  • What is knowledge in the digital age? How is it attained, where does it ‘live’?
  • If in fact knowledge has changed, how should we go about teaching in this new era?
  • And how do these shifts in knowledge and social processes affect the nature and purpose of citizenship?

Answers to these questions lie in fields of sociology, philosophy, political science, and education, but I have tried to locate and share readings that plot the intersection of these topics as relates the narrower field of ‘curriculum.’

Andreotti, V. d. O. (2011). The political economy of global citizenship education. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 9(3-4), 307-310.

Biesta, G. (2013). Learning in public places: Civic learning for the 21st century. Civic learning, democratic citizenship and the public sphere.

Biesta, G. J. J. (2012). Doing Emancipation Differently: Transgression, Equality and the Politics of Learning. Civitas Educationis. Education, Politics and Culutre, 1(1), 15-30.

Downes, S. (2012). Connectivism and connective knowledge: Essays on meaning and learning networks. National Research Council Canada, http://www. downes. ca/files/books/Connective_Knowledge-19May2012. pdf.

Feldman, S. B., & Tyson, K. (2014). Clarifying Conceptual Foundations for Social Justice in Education International Handbook of Educational Leadership and Social (In) Justice (pp. 1105-1124): Springer.

Garcia, J., & De Lissovoy, N. (2013). Doing School Time: The Hidden Curriculum Goes to Prison. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 11(4).

Howard, P. (2014). LEARNING COMMUNITIES AND DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP IN ONLINE AFFINITY SPACES: THE PROMISE AND THE PERIL. INTED2014 Proceedings, 5658-5658.

Khoo, S.-m. (2013). Between Engagement and Citizenship Engaged Scholarship (pp. 21-42): Springer.

Lentz, B. (2014). The Media Policy Tower of Babble: A Case for “Policy Literacy Pedagogy”. Critical Studies in Media Communication(ahead-of-print), 1-7.

MacGregor, J., Stranack, K., & Willinsky, J. (2014). The Public Knowledge Project: Open Source Tools for Open Access to Scholarly Communication Opening Science (pp. 165-175): Springer International Publishing.

Martin, C. (2011). Philosophy of Education in the Public Sphere: The Case of “Relevance”. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 30(6), 615-629.

Monteiro, H., & Ferreira, P. D. (2011). Unpolite Citizenship: The Non-Place of Conflict in Political Education. JSSE-Journal of Social Science Education, 10(4).

Queen, G., Ross, E. W., Gibson, R., & Vinson, K. D. (2013). I Participate, You Participate, We Participate…”: Notes on Building a K-16 Movement for Democracy and Social Justice. Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor(10).

Rice, J. (2013). Occupying the Digital Humanities. College English, 75(4), 360-378.

Schugurensky, D., & Silver, M. (2013). Social pedagogy: historical traditions and transnational connections. education policy analysis archives, 21, 35.

Sidorkin, A. M. (2010). John Dewey: A Case of Educational Utopianism. Philosophy of Education Archive, 191-199.

Sidorkin, A. M. (2014). On the theoretical limits of education Making a Difference in Theory: Routledge.

Siemens, G. (2014). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age.

Talisse, R. B. (2013). Sustaining democracy: folk epistemology and social conflict. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 16(4), 500-519.

Willinsky, J. (2013). Teaching for a World of Increasing Access to Knowledge. CALJ Journal, 1(1).

Précis: A Critical Consideration of the New Pedagogy in its Relation to Modern Science

Dr. Montessori in the garden of the school at Via Giusti. Image courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania

Maria Montessori presents a critical consideration of the “New Pedagogy” (1912) by discussing the advent and implementation of the “scientific pedagogy” that took root in Italy around the turn of the 20th century. Montessori’s critique focuses on the shortcomings of scientific pedagogy to address the human subjects (and observers) involved in the study of teaching and learning.

In establishing her critique, Montessori finds fault with an overemphasis on the instrumentalization of pedagogy which comes at the expense of a more authentic manifestation of the spirit of learning. This spirit of learning is connected throughout her argument as part of the same pursuit of knowledge that has sustained human progress since the beginning of civilization. She cites examples of rigid student desks and behaviourist means of doling out rewards and punishments as elements of “scientific pedagogy” that run counter to the spirit of discovery that is central to learning.

For a new pedagogy to emerge within this context, Montessori argues that teachers ought to be prepared to engage the act of teaching as one oriented toward “a conquest of liberty” that provides an education in which pupils are seen as future agents of human regeneration. To this end, she proposes educationists elevate the study of pedagogy to that of its own scientific exploration: part of the larger narrative of human progress that is embedded within the histories of science, technology, and the broader humanities, and yet informed by its own unique contexts and possibilities.

Montessori, Maria George, Anne E. (Trans), (1912). The Montessori method: Scientific pedagogy as applied child education in “The Children’s Houses”, with additions and revisions by the author. , (pp. 1-27). New york, NY, US: Frederick A Stokes Company, xlii, 377 pp. doi: 10.1037/13054-001

Why Picket

On the picket

On the picket with my mom and sister.

Hey all,

As we get toward the end of our first week on the picket line, I wanted to take the opportunity to invite the discussion of how we might share ideas to maximize our efforts in what could be a crucial week of negotiations between teachers and the government.

I realize that some of you may not be enthused about the prospect of being pilloried in a sandwich sign while you’re asked to pace in front of your job site for a few hours every day, and know that not everyone is the sort of extravert that is able to jump into these sorts of things easily, even when they agree with the cause. But I would point out that the purpose we are serving on the picket line is twofold:

  • We are refusing / preventing work normally done on our work site to apply pressure on management / government at the negotiating table;
  • We are building public awareness of key issues which greatly undercut the government’s steadfast narrative of greedy teachers demanding more free massages and “more than twice the raise any other union got.”

*cough* despite not coming off two years’ of zeros as teachers are. 

To these two purposes, I would argue that our attention while on strike is much better utilized if we focus on the second of these two goals. In most industries, a union withholding its labour penalized the owners financially as capital is prevented from moving and thus accumulating value. To most employers, this financial pressure can create an immediate effect; we saw this in action when the truckers’ union at the Port of Vancouver went on strike earlier this year, effectively shutting down a major port of trade, and were granted a deal in less than a week. But as the withholding of our labour actually saves the government millions of dollars a week, we can see that merely closing our work site created minimal (in fact opposite) leverage for our union in its negotiations. If we stick to this course of action, the government would have little incentive to not let the strike drag on until October until we’re broke enough to accept a deal that would negate all of the work, sacrifice and difficult choices we have made to get us to this point.

What matters, it seems to me, and could help us greatly in our cause as our walkout goes into a second week before summer vacation takes the public eye away from our negotiations, is the raising of public support for our struggle for a fair deal in this round of bargaining. Part of the way we do this is by positively representing ourselves and our intentions while on the line. How we interact with traffic, pedestrians and other working people in our communities goes a long way in establishing a public perception of our union and its efforts that many of us have long-wished was more a part of the face of the BCTF. For better or worse, while we are ‘on the line’ in front of our schools, we are who our neighbours are seeing as the union they keep hearing about on the news these days. They could drive by and see a bunch of folks socializing in lawn chairs with their signs propped up against the tent-les; or they could see an enthusiastic team of teachers actively courting their support and solidarity.

By all means, take some time to get warmed up. Bring a lawn chair to rest your feet or back, and catch up with your colleagues. Play a guitar. But each shift should be making a concerted effort to connect with the people driving and walking through our neighbourhood. You’d be surprised the effect of an engaging smile and a wave from a passing stranger, let alone fifteen.

Eye contact creates empathy and respect between people, even when they disagree. Pour on the kindness to those with stern glances, birds or words. Reasonable people can disagree, and these interactions allow people to take a stance on the issue of our negotiations. For my part I can say that in our weeks on the picket so far, these have been many, many more honks, waves, thumbs-ups, solidarity-fists, and smiles than there have been their negative counterparts. And as the government continues to stonewall progress on a labour-disruption that – for the moment – impacts every corner of the province, the imbalance has only grown. This groundswell of support is our only means of influencing government’s posture at the bargaining table, and we should actively continue to court it across our lines this week.

To this end I compel you to demonstrate resolve to stand together as a school against an imposed contract that would not only perpetuate the injustices of the past, but would further degrade the conditions of our province’s schools.

Not everyone feels as passionately as I do, perhaps, and I think that’s fine. A union is intended to be an expression of democracy, and the differences in our opinions make us stronger, not weaker. But at the moment we are on strike, the result of just such a democratic expression of the membership, even if you voted (or would have preferred to vote) no. If you are disconcerted by the hope of having ‘gone out,’ I would further add that the duration, not to mention the end results, of our current job action could depend on us maximizing our efforts to engage the public while out picketing.

If you are unconvinced, try driving by a school with a handful of teachers picketing from lawn chairs. Then drive by Charles Best as their entire staff is marching the length of Como Lake Avenue with their signs asking the province for A Fair Deal. Drive by Gleneagle during any shift many of our recall teachers are out there, and I would bet that it becomes a little harder to dismiss our union as an unreasonable party to an eternal gridlock in BC education.

Our energy line has pioneered a few new picket moves this week, and will be exploring more original material next week. Mike and others have supplied new and creative signs for our zone on Landsdowne. And there is talk of a ‘costume’ day on the line next week.

As the kids in my neighbourhood keep asking me in their scrawled hop-scotch courts marking the days of their newfound summer vacation, to boot: why don’t we have any sidewalk chalk out there? 

We aren’t on strike because we’ve lost or are losing. We’re on strike because we still might win. But what there’s left for us to win might have to be won this week.

So let’s make it count.

See you out there,

Bryan

On Reconciliation

Courtesy of Wikimedia.org

“There isn’t a profession in Canada that shouldn’t be required to understand the aboriginal experience.”

So says the Commissioner of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission yesterday, a statement that will likely rankle those in Conservative conservative circles, but which I believe may not go far enough in addressing the Commission’s mission and mandate.

From the Commission’s Interim Report in 2010:

“We will reveal the truth about residential schools, and establish a renewed sense of Canada that is inclusive and respectful, and that enables reconciliation.”

Lately immersed in Paulo Freire‘s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, this mandate to establish a renewed sense of Canada that is inclusive and respectful strikes me as narrowly placed on “professionals,” and more appropriately perhaps expanded to include all Canadians. Because wouldn’t establishing this “renewed Canada” stem from everyone on each of the sides of our nation’s “solitudes” understanding the experience of the Other(s)?

Isn’t this what is meant by “reconciliation”?

reconcile verb [ trans. ] (often be reconciled)

restore friendly relations between : she wanted to be reconciled with her father | the news reconciled us. 

cause to coexist in harmony; make or show to be compatible : a landscape in which inner and outer vision were reconciled | you may have to adjust your ideal to reconcile it with reality. 

make (one account) consistent with another, especially by allowing for transactions begun but not yet completed : it is not necessary to reconcile the cost accounts to the final accounts. 

Freire says that “the raison d’être of liberation education […] lies in its drive toward reconciliation. Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.”

“The truth is,” he says, “that the oppressed are not ‘marginals,’ are not people living ‘outside’ society. They have always been ‘inside’ – inside the structure which made them ‘beings for others.’ The solution is not to ‘integrate’ them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become ‘beings for themselves.'”

Now, he is speaking of teachers and students and oppressor and oppressed almost interchangeably here based on the premise that the traditional “banking” model of education, in “attitudes and practices, […] mirror[s] oppressive society as a whole.” Following with this idea, our schools should then be tasked with understanding the breadth of the Canadian experience: aboriginal, French Canadian, female, new immigrants, our Anglo-European fore-bearers, and all points between and beyond.

There can be no greater national import, it seems, than reconciling these disparate threads into a Canadian identity that each of us can say represents us. 

Which is something you can be opposed to, I guess… no doubt there are those folks out there who believe that a society is established by the “winners,” and that the “losers” should “move on,” or “assimilate” or… starve?

But I would inquire as to the logic behind such a disagreement; based on what grounds should we be opposed to reconciling the myriad interpretations of our history, or our future?

Each of us has out own view of this story, this much we can hopefully agree is true; but the leap we make when we discount others’ interpretations of a shared reality is domination by definition.

There is only one type of fascism, and it is exactly this prohibition against disagreement. Somewhat naturally then, I would argue that this type of domination is antithetical to the idea of Canada we are taught to celebrate in our socials curricula, national holidays, and – before the recent rekindling of our obsession with the military – museums.

Here the argument revolves around the value of diversity in a culture; if there is no value in diversity, I suppose, by all means: let those who can’t adapt rot. But then, this is decidedly not how our country chooses to represent itself in its laws, civic institutions, or national character.

Doesn’t our work as citizens in such a country then revolve around creating a narrative that allows for the continued expression of the country’s diverse elements?

If not this, then what?

“Diversity for diversity’s sake,” one of my colleagues said to me the other day, “is meaningless.”

But this is patently false; in fact, diversity in a population is an evolutionary necessity. Homogenous populations are ill-equipped to adapt to environmental, social, economic or other changed: when cultures become too similar, in other words, they face a higher risk of extinction.

Diversity for its own sake then is actually an imperative element of survival, making its cultivation and celebration all of our responsibility; but only if you believe that the laws of nature which govern all other life on earth apply to us as well.

Which of course is something you can choose not to believe, if you like. But you may encounter some difficulty in reconciling that belief with your experience of life here on earth. This failure to reconcile reality with our inner lives and beliefs is a process known as epistemic closureit may please you to know.

But it is the essence of dogma, not philosophical discourse:

The point of philosophy is not to have a range of facts at your disposal, though that might be useful, nor to become a walking Wikipedia or ambulant data bank: rather, it is to develop the skills and sensitivity to be able to argue about some of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves, questions about reality and appearance, life and death, god and society. As Plato’s Socrates tells us, ‘These are not trivial questions we are discussing here, we are discussing how to live.’

An Ethical Online Course

Jesse Stommel has a great article at Hybrid Pedagogy on the ethos of participation in hybrid or online learning environments.

“The best online and hybrid courses are made from scraps strewn about and gathered together from across the web. We build a course by examining the bits, considering how they’re connected, and creating pathways for learners to make their own connections.”

The description echos the image created by Davie Cormier in this helpful MOOC primer video, and the idea of “pathways” is something I’m thinking about with Philosophy this semester. But he presents a twist in cultivating unique pathways within the hybrid classroom, and the notion that:

“Hybrid classes demand an even more complex architecture, requiring consideration of the physical space(s) we’ll work within, the virtual space(s), as well as the various ways we’ll move between the spaces. When we build a hybrid class, we must consider how we’ll create pathways between the learning that happens in a room and the learning that happens on the web.”

He outlines a few examples that start me thinking about how well the Philosophy 12 blog – or the TALONS blogged spaces, for that matter – connects to the learning conducted in our classrooms and within other physical space. And I think that a few of the questions I’m driving at in my Learning Project musings may lead me to consider ways and means to support and enrich these digital spaces.

Well-prefaced advice from Jesse in this regard:

“The single best tip I have on this front is to avoid the ping-pong ball effect, in which the teacher responds to every (or nearly every) comment made by students with immediate correction or affirmation. This very quickly reinforces a hierarchy in which students are constantly looking to the teacher for approval. Ignore any “best practices” or “quality assurance” measures that encourage the teacher’s voice to dominate online discussion. Model thoughtful engagement and responsiveness with several well-placed comments/questions and leave space for the learners to follow suit.”

Neatly aligning with so many different things I’ve been reading these days, he ends here, which if you don’t go check out the piece in full, should situate you in the heart of the matter:

“Most importantly, educators at every level must begin by listening to and trusting students. This means building space in every course for students to reflect upon the course’s pedagogy — an ongoing meta-level discussion of learning with student voices at its center.”

Teachers and Ritual Power

Notable class of 2012

Andrew B. Watt struck me appropriately on the Sunday night before Night of the Notables with a post – you would do well to read in its entirety here – that makes a great many points that each are deserving of attention and reflection. But there are a few that I want to highlight here.

 I had an unexpected bonus conversation with my friend C.T. today, which revolved around some of my favorite topics: magic and the ability to change consciousness; the passion for creating art; the mysteries of saints; and the power of teachers.  During this last part of the conversation, we segued to a discussion of the challenge that some teachers put forward — which is that, in an effort to advance their own work and career and power, they wind up trampling on the capacities and capabilities of their students. Indeed, the teachers reap the rewards of the students’ labor, and the students take on the negative consequences of the teacher’s own bad work.

I’ve long admired Andrew’s blogging and the breadth of knowledge and opinions he brings to a range of mutual topics of passion like history, politics, teaching, philosophy, as well as an often fearless interrogation of his practice. He was one of the first people whose blog I subscribed to, and someone who I’ve kept in loose touch with online over the past four years, reading one another’s blogs, offering the odd comment, and feeling sometimes like he’s a colleague who merely works down the hall (if that hallway reached Connecticut). 

This year we discovered that we shared a birthday, and Andrew spent it tweeting me pictures and commentary from the Metropolitan Museum in New York City while I hosted a barbecue in my Port Moody backyard.

Andrew B. Watt is all kinds of awesome, if you didn’t already know.

And so the point that Andrew’s raising is something that I consider seriously, and one I’ve considered alongside Klout scores and notions of celebrity in the era of the blogged classroom. But he takes it a level (or several) deeper:

We were talking about it in a magical/spiritual context. We’d both read a book recently in which a magical society’s inner circle of adepts was teaching rituals to their outer members which made the members feel powerful, but was in fact transferring power to the adepts… and shifting a lack-of-power onto the the students… not merely lack-of-power, but in fact negative-power.  A learned helplessness.

This is something that I think my TALONS colleagues and I are constantly in negotiation with: trying to figure out where to draw the line between at various times leading, supporting, facilitating, or merely observing the learning in our classroom, and interjecting ourselves too much into the process. If the outright goal isn’t to graduate participants in the program capable of owning their own goals and the action required to attain them, it is to at least introduce them to the ways in which such ownership can be attained.

This involves the difficult notion of ‘letting go,’ of occasionally allowing kids to fail, and then to frame these experiences as opportunities for future growth.

As much as parents or teacher/facilitators can position themselves to aid in the learner’s success, in the end the impetus for success rests in their hands. School should be about the creation of opportunities for students to realize and seize their own opportunities, and I look forward to the pillars of the TALONS program as treasured rituals of passage in the life cycle of the class: the Fall Retreat, Night of the Notables, cultural outings, the Adventure Trip, In Depth.

There is the artifice of tradition, and the singularity of the present moment in time, crystalized between the held gazes of the current participants.

But Andrew frames the question in an interesting way to consider:

 One of the things that magical teachers do (which exoteric/ordinary teachers like myself and many of my readers do not do) is give their students rituals to perform for their empowerment and spiritual growth.  C.T. had attended a workshop in which one of the presenters pointed out that some of these rituals do what they say they do — they empower the performers of the rituals so that they experience spiritual growth.  But, C.T. said that the presenter also warned about the opposite — rituals that disempower those who perform them, such that they think they’ve made spiritual progress, but in fact they have actually inflated their egos and empowered the teacher who has given them nothing of real value.  Meanwhile, the teacher gains power from the ritual performed — they get a toehold in the mental and emotional framework of the student, and the student is more inclined to treat further ‘empowerments’ as worthwhile and valuable, even as they are disempowered to seek further growth elsewhere.  Insidious.

Only mildly crushed by the prospect of not being considered a ‘magical’ teacher, I am keenly interested to think about how to bring about rituals that ’empower the performers of the ritual so that they experience spiritual growth,’ how to put the choice to act – or not – in the learner’s hands and see what meaning they can make of the experience.

How is it that we go about creating learning that is magical and transformative?

Whether growth is spiritual, intellectual, social, or emotional is, if the experience is crafted just right, up to the participant in the moment itself; where the teacher should find themselves in all of this a precarious balance, I think, and indeed, “one of those deep imponderables that can really roil the soul of a teacher and make them question the validity of their career.”

And perhaps, it is the one deep imponderable that drives all of the others.

Passing the Torch

I liked this idea Elaan posted from a pro-d conference that many of our district’s middle school teachers and admin are attending in Portland. Aside from puzzling me as to whether or not the 90s really are alive there, this reminded me of something that happened in the TALONS classroom last year:

For the new myths to be written, in other words, the old myths need to make room for them. And while there is a great empty space where the banner used to hang, there are already plans for its quotes and paint-stained hand and footprints to be deposited and scattered about the cupboards and closets of the room so that the ghosts and wisdom of TALONS past will still be speaking to us.

 

The last day of school, in fact, has in the past few years evolved to include the traditional closing circle, as well as speeches and ceremonies thanking the grade tens for what they have meant to the room, and wishing the grade nines the best as they set about inheriting the mantle of program leadership.

Two months later the process starts all over again. From Jeff’s blog, this September:

That’s what I wanted to replicate during this [retreat.] I wanted the grade 9s to feel as comfortable around us grade 10s just as Alvin did for us. I knew that there needed to be somebody in our cabin to take on Alvin’s role and I did my best to welcome the grade 9s and answer their questions. Even though we all come from different schools and different backgrounds, I just wanted to show that there is one thing we all had in common – we are part of the talons family.

 

The other night, I came upon a few TALONS alumni awaiting the Six String Nation presentation by Jowi Taylor, madly scribbling and filling a sheet of paper with a rhizomatic frenzy that I was told was an attempted visualization of “A TALONS Family Tree.” The resulting diagram had four tiers, reaching former members of the program now in university, the armed forces, or working through a gap year, and even as a somewhat preposterous enterprise – “Who do I marry?” someone shouts from the concession being set up in the kiosk nearby at one point. “You marry [so and so]. But you’re also kind of married to [so and so].” – there is something deeply meaningful, and more than a little poetic, being negotiated in the process.

In a chaotic web involving a few different colours of pen and pencil, different personalities, social bonds and archetypal tendencies serve as the forefathers and mothers, elder cousins and brothers and sisters, of their manifestations in the current group.

The visual effect is messy in the beautiful ways of spider webs and neural networks. Fundamental questions about what constitutes a community, and the possible roles in its creation are being interrogated, and the result is a contribution to personal folk lore and heritage that is passed between the hands of learners in the program, where everyone passes through the stages of newcomer, apprentice, leader, expert, and wizened elder between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. 

With the onset of the Eminent Person Study, there have been a few opportunities for the program’s alumni to provide input into the process as their younger counterparts set out on one of the year’s early rites of passage. Liam, Jonathan, Andrew and a few other alumni made themselves available as practice interview subjects a few weeks ago, and Iris, Zoe, Toren, Chelsea and Richard (grade elevens) have all come by the TALONS classroom to check in with various members of the class on their project progress or offer input into classroom discussions.

Part of this, they tell me, is that they miss the classroom. Its energy, the people. But what their presence and contribution to the classroom environment communicates to the current members of the program is that their present station in the chain is something to be missed, and that it is something to be held closely.

Storytelling as Learning Tool

On Monday I’ll be giving a brief talk to the Langley cohort of Simon Fraser University’s Learning & Teaching with Technology Field Program about Personal Narratives as a framework for learning. Not particularly adept at the nomenclature surrounding and separating ‘frameworks,’ lenses, methods, and mostly considering myself self-taught when it comes to this stuff, I have long-found stories to be a vital part of my teaching bag-of-tricks, and will be sharing some of what I’ve found along the way with the group. As an introduction, I’ve shared the following post on the class’ Posterous account, but it’s private; so I’ve shared it here in the hope that those of you out there – who have really done all the teaching in this supposed ‘self-teaching’ I’ve been doing – might leave us a comment, a story, a link to some reading, or pass this post along to someone who might. 

Why Sharing Our Stories Matters: Story by Bryan Jackson from unplugd on Vimeo.

As a means of collecting some of the supplemental material I would attach to a discussion of Personal Narratives and Storytelling in the classroom, I thought I would put together a post here that you may find useful in extending the conversation post-“Institute.”

As a general introduction, the above video is a story I told in a canoe in Algonquin Park last summer at the Unplug’d Education Summit. The purpose of the “un-conference” was to bring together educational stake-holders to synthesize our individual essays (each filling the blank in the title, Why _________ Matters) into a book organized by thematically grouped chapters. You can download the e-book here, and learn more about this year’s event at Unplugd.ca.

While the whole process revolved around a socially constructive framework, my essay centered around the idea that “Sharing our Stories” matters: that each of our individual truths construct a shared “truth” or objectivity; and that if we follow this through to its logical conclusion, the skills required to realize, share and synthesize our stories become essentials in creating a healthy culture (democratic, social, educational or otherwise).

From both a personal and pedagogical perspective, this aspect of joining the personal and the collective through stories holds great interest for me, especially as we consider that our digital tools provide ever-more opprortunities to share unique pieces from our individual corners of the world with tribes and swarms and communities beyond our own local geography. Indeed:

…our understanding of authorship is, at the present time, caught between two regimes: one a system of knowledge production informed by Enlightenment-era notions of the self, the other is a world of “technologies that lend themselves to the distributed, the collective, the process-oriented, the anonymous, the remix.” As we step into the future increasingly governed by the latter, we move, in some ways, back to an earlier era: a move away from a culture of isolated reading — the individual reader, alone with a book or a screen — towards a more communal engagement, the coffee-house or fireside model of public reading and debate in which literary culture historically originated. Long before print culture, storytelling was not a solitary experience but a group event. Houman Barekat on Planned Obsolescence 


In its more classical sense, education concerned itself almost exclusively with Aesthetics, or the “broader sense” that Wikipedia describes as “critical reflection on art, culture and nature. Educators today would do well to be aware of an emerging New Aesthetic (which is described here in a specific fashion that need not be completely digested or accepted to be relevent to our discussion).

Simply put, the New Aesthetic concerns itself with how the digital world and the real world are starting to overlap and intermingle in interesting, routine and unexpected ways.  As search engines, online ‘bots’, spam generation engines, online mapping tools, google street view, machine vision and sensing technologies proliferate, our everyday life in the western technologically advanced world is starting to bristle with new types of augmentation and hybridity. Interview with Bruce Sterling about the New Aesthetic


As we move into next week, I hope we can play around with some of these emerging tools to begin to tell our own stories and begin to create possibilities for storytelling (digital or otherwise) as a means of individual and collective learning in your classrooms.

The main point I like to stress in talking about storytelling in our emerging media/digital landscape is that despite our new modes of communication, the act of telling our individual and communal stories is fundamental to the creation and maintenance of our culture and in this way is at the center of what education strives to achieve.

As one of my teaching idols told me on the day he retired, “Any class you teach is just another opportunity for kids to practice forming communities,” a sentiment I find myself agreeing with more the longer I teach, and a process in which I find stories increasingly fundamental.

 

Why Learning Outside Matters

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Having spent already more than five days this September immersed in the outdoors with separate TALONS groups on Fall Retreats in Howe Sound and Sasquatch Provincial Park, I have been thinking lately of the importance that learning in the outdoors plays in a 21st century education. Opportunities for relevant, authentic learning experiences in the outdoors are able to powerfully combat the disconnect with the natural world that is arguably at the heart of many challenges facing future generations, and which much classroom learning is ill-fitted to provide today’s learners. Outdoor education is specifically poised to provide experiential lessons in:"What we haven't done yet, is have a dance party." - Owl

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

As one of the pillars of the TALONS Program and Betts Autonomous Learner Model, the Fall Retreat is constructed from the ground up out of opportunities for group development and community-building, self-discovery, and authentic experiences involving teamwork, problem solving and personal reflection for each member of the community. With trust that time spent establishing group and individual goals and roles in the community pay dividends in learning later in the academic semester, TALONS learners traditionally spend September forming committees to deal with the various elements of trip-planning and implementation joining the program’s new grade nines with grade ten mentors, committee chairpersons, and project managers who consult with teacher-facilitators in bringing the trip to fruition. While fulfilling the class obligation to the Ministry‘s Leadership 11 IRP, the Retreat orients TALONS learners within the ethos of the program and establishes the introductory norms of the new peer group while immersing them in relevant example of real-world goal setting that culminates through the trip’s three days.

Dinner Retreat Shopping

As with many other TALONS undertakings, a glimpse into a Retreat or Adventure Trip meal provides a window into the value of student-centered learning, as learners consult previous years’ menus and shopping lists to decide on final recipes and supplies, arrange for shopping trips to Costco, cookies parties at home and schedules for food prep & delivery once we’re in the field, all before the trip even begins. Trip food needs to be accounted for within the class’ budget (provided to parents by the student-run Finance & Forms Committee), and accompanied by a list of requisite cooking materials (facilitated by the often-sprawling Equipment Committee).

_ALB6055Once on the trip itself, involved committees are responsible for the scheduling, preparation, delivery, and cleanup of the meal, which can involve any combination of volunteer-forces the class chooses to muster up. The incentive of natural consequences (We don’t cook, we don’t eat. We don’t eat (or clean up), we don’t have a campfire.) powers the need for collaboration and communication from start to finish, and fosters relationships and trust within the class community. Bread is only broken once everyone has been served, and it is customary that a few words of wisdom or thanks are shared before the meal commences, and the din of conversation engulfs everyone and everything.

Weather

DSC02264On the west coast, the idea of rain in September is something of an inevitability to the extent that the advent of sunshine on a September Retreat is akin to winning a meteorological lottery of sorts. Survival – or at the very least, comfort – in British Columbia’s natural elements depends on an ability to prepare and share a stable shelter with one’s fellow travellers. Whether in the form of maintaining a fire in the wood-stove for the drying of constantly sodden clothing, or the 4am gusts of wind and rain that find friends arguing with half-hitch knots and headlamps in the middle of the night, the ordeal of an adventure in the woods is an omnipresent demand to see opportunity in crisis, and the glass as half-full (or, more appropriately, overflowing).

The forests of the west are green and snow-capped as a result of the winter winds that buffet our coasts with rain that allow the salmon to swim home, and to deny the necessary beauty of the rain is to deny this place we call home. There are, as my friend Andy Forgrave reminds me, “Two kinds of weather: memorable, and forgettable,” and the rain that seems to find us every year on at least one of our trips is at times of either sort.

“There is also that little-mentioned third category,” Andy adds, however. “Dry.”

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Games

The Albatross LungeWithout the distractions of iPods and text messages, Facebook or television, it never fails to amaze me how quickly TALONS and other teens assemble into naturally occurring orbs of conversation, laughter and friendly competition that (for Dean Shareski) coalesce on beaches, in forests, and on water. With a fire roaring in the wood stove, and voices echoing in the second-growth cedar and hemlock, a group passes more than an hour dissecting the intricacies of a riddle. The same woods are freckled with games of Camouflage, and Ninja. Russian card games. Twenty-five person rings of Stella Ella Ola.

These songs and games are generally learned in elementary, or middle school, and are the stuff of our children’s learning rituals of play – they exist in every corner of the world, and in many cases (I’m sure) mimic one another. That they spring up in BC’s forests, or in hotel lobbies in Cuba, places where we might find ourselves pining for a sense of identity or home, shouldn’t surprise at all. We often think of our culture as being made up of the songs we sing, and the stories we tell; but it is startling to realize that our repertoire of games and riddles is a shared story as well.

Hiking

Looking out on the Salish SeaIn the years that I have been with TALONS, we have hiked on the west coast of Vancouver Island, in the forests of the Lower Mainland, North Shore, and Fraser Valley, as well as across peaks in the Gulf Islands. We have covered urban and rural terrain, wilderness and back countries with go-gear, water bottles and enjoyed countless hours of meandering conversations and Ninja-breaks along the trails and pathways of our provincial and regional parks in rain, sunshine, and fog, wandering for hours only to arrive in campsite we left that morning. Bonds are formed on these walks that are cyclical odes to the journey being important above the destination, and the company we keep mattering much more than what we might be doing with it.

Sometimes, it is enough just to walk.

Night Solos

_ALB6107“How much of our fear of the dark stretches back to our evolved relationship with so many years spent living in the dark?” Mr. Albright asks me during one of our hikes around Hick’s Lake this weekend. The night before, we had marched the class out into the forest surrounding the campsite to participate in a “Night Solo,” where each member of the class sought out a solitary space at a distance (from the teachers’ lantern) of their own choosing. And with lights out we sat in inky silence for more than ten minutes, listening to rain pelting the upper canopy of forest. Our hiking conversation that following day had shifted to human beings’ relationship with fire (learned relatively late in our development as the species homo sapiens sapiens, or, to interpret the Latin, the Wise One).

“If you can imagine what it would have been like to be a human, or one of our earlier ancestors who lived in a world that didn’t yet know fire,” I told the class before we went out into the woods on the evening following the hike. “What you feel as an instinctual rejection of the dark is part of that history, and our story as people. Listen to it. Be with it.”

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. If a more apt metaphor for the autonomy that TALONS espouses exists, I’d love to hear it.

Temperature Reading

Toward the end of every evening around a TALONS campfire, once the songs have all been sung, and our solitudes have been confirmed in the surrounding forests, it is a nightly tradition that the group concludes its evening by offering each member of the class the opportunity to offer a rating for the day accompanied by a brief reflection on the day’s events. Time for laughter, learning, or the airing of grievances, I have seen and witnessed moments of the most awesome honesty and collective triumph in these circular conversations, as each day adjourns with an affirmation of the wisdom that we all might:

Look well on today, for in its brief course lie all the variation and realities of your life – the bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of beauty. For yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow a vision. But today well-lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope. 1

  1. M. Wylie Blanchet’s The Curve of Time