On other new beginnings and other new beginnings’ ends…

Howe Sound

“Every man moves on,” says my father quietly, and I think he speaks of Santa Claus, “but there is no need to grieve. He leaves good things behind.”

From Alistair Macleod’s “To Everything There is a Season

At certain times in life, there is too much to rightly say – too much felt, experienced, too many lives intersected, relationships fostered, or memories shared. Attempts to set down thoughts and feelings at a time like this obscure anything that falls outside that declaration; people, sentiments, scenes, and places are erased not for their lack of importance, but because in trying to describe the wholewe inevitably lose sight of the infinite complexities that compose it.

That said, there are the statements of fact to be reckoned with, and with that in mind I do want to share that as of next year I will undertake a secondment as a Faculty Associate at Simon Fraser University, working as part of their professional programs to certify new teachers. For the first time in ten years I will be starting a new job, moving beyond the home and students and role I’ve known for the near-entirety of my professional career, and becoming again the New Guy, an apprentice green and young among my more seasoned colleagues.

These last few years I’ve found myself an experienced member of my school community: confident to speak up, take on leadership roles, experiment with pedagogy and assessment, to fight for my vision of equity and justice for my students and colleagues. But with this confidence I’ve also been struck with a sense of wanderlust. As nice as it has been to feel as though I have a handle on what I’m doing, a part of me has longed to leap into the unknown.

Firm in the belief that we are growing most when we are forced beyond our comfort zones, I began to feel that I had been pushing hard in a host of professional directions – union activism, curriculum development, professional collaboration – and that, in time, this pushing would take me somewhere beyond my local school community. Indeed I had enrolled in and completed a master’s program over the last few years so that such future doors might be open to me, should I seek them out, even without a firm idea of what these new adventures might entail.

To be sure, my work with the TALONS is and has been too good to be true. In its every iteration it is education as it could and should be: community-focused, experiential, authentic, and personal for teachers and students alike. Our students and their families are deeply supportive and committed to making our program reach ever more daring heights and achievements, and celebrate each cohort’s learning with enthusiasm and love that is infectious and inspiring. I have been fortunate beyond words to call this program home these last ten years, and have not taken the opportunity to step away lightly. No small part of me worries that I will never have it so good; but I know that such fears can too often get in the way of stepping out into those new frontiers that we will come to call home.

It is time to scare myself with uncertainty, lean into the discomfort of unfamiliarity, and know again the work that comes with breaking trail.

I would be remiss however if in this time of looking forward I did not look back at a few of the people and places that have given shape to my last decade, without whom whatever lies ahead would not be possible. Without whom the perspective that writes these words would not have come into being.

JAM #SQUAD

Q and Andy

Though they each deserve their own novels of gratitude and attempts to describe what it means to be both colleagues and family, a few words here must be devoted to my TALONS teaching partners, Quirien Mulder ten Kate and Andy Albright.

For her part, TALONS would not exist without Q. In the first it would not be a program in our district for gifted high school students; and in the second it would most certainly not exist in any of its current or future iterations without her superlative energy and devotion to students, learning, the natural world, and the purest ideals of public service.

Since I have known her (with every indication that the trend was established long before), Q has done the work of several people: teaching courses within and beyond the regular timetable, supporting extra-curricular events and activities on evenings and weekends, attending musical and dramatic performances without fail, completing a PhD while she taught summer and night school, volunteering at Wildlife Rescue, and working to support her parents, niece and nephew, as well as a host of godchildren. She is a paragon of productivity, cutting to-do lists to smithereens in the service of others to an extent I have trouble understanding, even while I’ve been able to study her at close proximity for a decade.

Team TeachingFew of us will do so much in our lives to improve the state of our communities or the lives of others as Q does in a month. It has been a densely packed, invigorating, evolving, reflective and critically educational ten years working alongside her, forcing me to stretch my weaker areas as well as to know my own strengths and how better to positively impact my communities of practice both within and beyond the school. Ours has been a relationship of compliments, where each of us has owned the skills and dispositions lacking in the other, and where a state of fluidity and trust has enabled us to grow a program and working relationship that pushes us each to become bigger than we are. I owe every moment of my TALONS experience to her superlative tenacity and devotion to making our program a reality, as do every one of the TALONS, past and future.

And where Q might exude a life lived to its full depth – with singular obsessions explored to their very essences and marrow – Andy joined our program for four years before retiring this winter to lend a sense of life’s breadth. Having come to teaching in his thirties, Andy had previously worked for years in group homes for people living with disabilities, played in bands in the British Columbian Kootenays, and travelled across Canada as a high school senior in a yellow school bus researching the heights of the rock era. He’s sipped Italian wine in Italy, slept under the stars in Oregon, and spent a good amount of his twenties in the Vancouver counterculture-enclaves of Kitselano, Squamish, and North Van before they were millionaire retreats and lucrative offshore investments.

Andy has read the “good” books, can quote Dylan (Thomas, or Bob), loves Monty Python, and frequently recites long passages of The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye. He and I spent a lot of time on busses, around campfires, and laughing at the stupendous incompetence of the local compliment of moving truck companies. We told one another stories, remembered old friends, and shared much of the time we were able to have with one another with a similar purpose: to let what would be emerge, and to determine its meaning and significance afterwards. Ever a calm and articulate force, Andy brought an intentionality and thoughtfulness to TALONS that balanced Q and I, and couldn’t help but influence my life outside of school.

Often in our talks late at night around the campfire – ostensibly keeping watch for TALONS wanderers who might be looking for some teenaged evening freedom – we would lie under the stars and Andy would remember stories about his long-passed friend, Mark, someone I never met but who infused our relationship with the knowledge that even once these moments were no longer – once we had retired, or moved onto other gigs, or whatever would yet transpire – our friendship and the memories of these golden, glowing years would continue.

Where each of my colleagues is concerned, they will be carried with me for the rest of my days. We’ve stood around many a smouldering campfire late at night, debriefing and discussing the day’s events, hiked mountainsides in torrential rain, and chased bears from our campsites together, all of which – and much more between – can only be known by those who will work with the TALONS.

DSC02137

The Woods

A good deal of my professional life since university has transpired in the woods. In fact, my first legitimate educational work was teaching swimming and canoeing, lifeguarding and sailing, as well as what might have been called outdoor leadership in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas at a summer camp for Boy Scouts. Having been awarded an internship to study the Scouts organization by working at the Gus Blass Scout Reservation in 2003, I returned in ’04 and ’05, and gained the teaching experience and other prerequisites to enter the PDP Program and obtain my teaching certification (without ever explicitly pursuing education as a career path).

I had always enjoyed camping, skiing, and swimming in lakes and rivers, of course. But partway through my time in Arkansas I began to take weekend adventures with a teammate (from Prince George, BC) into the southern wilds, and similarly started to lustily plan my summers home in BC with an extra fervour for the oceanside mountains of the coastal range. I started to read Walden, and Jack Kerouac, and non-fiction tomes by Sebastian Junger and John Krakaur while I starting to reach toward what lessons that the wildernesses of my two homes might have to teach me.

In a way, it was how I connected to British Columbia, even while living far from home: what makes the left coast special, to my mind, will always be the unique collision of mountains and the sea. And so while I roamed the south I kept an eye out for the woods and forests on the edges of town: my roommates and I took canoe trips on the White and Buffalo Rivers, we explored the Ozark National Forest, and made regular trips to the top of Pinnacle Mountain just outside of Little Rock.

Eventually I would be working for the Boy Scouts, and not long after that be in PDP, and then teaching the TALONS program, getting the job on the heels of volunteering on the program’s first adventure trip in 2006. The following year, I became a TALONS teacher and our classroom took to the hillsides of Eagle Ridge, and Buntzen Lake, the Fraser River and Harrison Hot Springs. Squamish. The Gulf Islands. The Sunshine Coast.

In our work, Q and Andy, and now Dave and I have been fortunate to act as ambassadors for the natural world, tour guides into botany, natural history, wilderness survival, and leave-no-trace camping. Our jobs take us into the backcountry, down rivers and over mountains, engage us in the most unique collaborations and problem solving situations. We have met the most wonderful people, and been involved in the most challenging pedagogies out of doors. And we have been fortunate to share our joy in living in BC with young people, who leave our program with a raft of experiential memories created in the magic of the coastal wilds: having learned, as one does, the most authentic lessons about life and the self that Mother Nature makes available to us.

TALONS Grade Nine Retreat

The Precious

“It’s not the end of anything: now you get to go out into the world and recreate this, whatever you think this is.”

TALONS grade twelve peer tutor Katie F, speaking to grade tens on the last night of the Adventure Trip in 2012.

There are a lot of educational buzz words the TALONS program has recognized in its evolving embrace of 21st century learning these last many years: place-based, inquiry, experiential, collaborative or community-based, as well as a host of others. There are myriad ways in which the Betts’ Autonomous Learner Model has bent and evolved to contain multitudes, and as I am fond of quoting Emerson, has proven time and again that “At the periphery there is infinite complexity, while at the centre there is simplicity of cause.”

The simplicity of cause that we have lived by these last ten years, which has infused the TALONS program and the lives of those who have passed through its two year cycle, has been the idea that while we all take part in the same basic structures and contexts of learning, what is learned is up to the individual. It is a prerequisite of emergent learning that what is learned arises from the uniquely individual contributions and perspectives of those involved, and cannot be predetermined.

We cannot know from year to year or cohort to cohort what will come about through the traditional pillars of a given TALONS year. The themes, jokes, stories, and lessons of each group are created and held onto by the individuals that pass through the classroom and our community; and while there are rhymes or echoes of the years gone by, each year has brought about completely new iterations of the TALONS community. No two experiences, individual or collective, has yet to be the same.

But there is something that runs through: a simplicity of unspoken cause that keeps our alumni coming back to our Night of the Notables or InDepth Celebrations, maintains friendships across university educations, and keeps us committed as teachers to sleepless nights in May and June, and tearful conclusions at the end of the year. A few years back this unnamed entity started being referred to as The Precious: that unknowable essence that first arises on the Fall Retreat, and fuels the enthusiasm of the Eminent Person Study, and culminates in the storm of April, May, and June (always pronounced Aprilmayjune). It is that feeling, known to those who have felt it, but which they cannot describe to outsiders. It is the reason that the frenzy of what may appear from the outside to be too much, too taxing, or too strenuous, is never worthy of regret.

As I began this post, I can still only admit that there is too much to say, really. There have been too many experiences, memories, and lessons along the way. Arguably it has been something that few will be able to relate to, but that those who know will understand without explanation.

I will defer here to a joke made of the attempt to sum up what TALONS means to those on their way out, and in addition to these near-twenty four hundred words, offer the reflections of our alumni, Liam, who said simply, “It was good.”

So good.

#Eminent2016: Why Bob? Why Now?

My goal is to try and stick to some sort of chronological ordering of the aging of Dylan in the images used in the creation of this project. Hence, this young shot of Dylan in his Greenwich Village folk days here at the outset of the project, moving toward his more current iterations as the study progresses.

Image courtesy of Rolling Stone.

After almost ten years at the helm of the TALONS annual Eminent Person Study, I decided to conduct my own study alongside this year’s classes. These posts will be collected here. 

Why Bob?

They say everything can be replaced

That every distance is not near

So I remember every face

Of every man that brought me here. 1

For a brief moment when I first thought that I would take on the Eminent Person Study, I initially declared my intentions to study Bruce Springsteen. In recent years my musical tastes and affection has leaned heavily toward the Boss, and I would relish the opportunity to delve deeper into his life and rock catalogue. But with Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize win I’ve been hearing a lot more Bob, reading various responses to his inclusion as the first musician to be awarded with the literary honour, and been coming reacquainted with my first true love (and one of Bruce’s, to boot).

Before Bruce, and Josh, and even Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there was always only Bob.

Why Now?

Image courtesy of Consequence of Sound

An artist has to be careful never to really arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere. You always have to realize that you’re constantly in a state of becoming, and as long as you’re in that realm, you’ll sort of be all right. 2

Back when I was a student in an older version of our district’s gifted program – the forerunner to TALONS that operated at Dr. Charles Best Junior High back as far as the late-nineteen seventies – our teachers would occasionally participate in the major projects with us: studying eminent people, or engaging in-depth studies to sing or sew, and creating their own inquiries, findings and meaning alongside us. This always seemed an exceptional example to me of what life might be as an adult: that we might go on, continuing to strive, and learn, and change markedly into our middle and advanced ages. But Q and I, as well as the other TALONS teachers, haven’t much made or had the time to engage in these sorts of pursuits as TALONS teachers in recent years.

It’s true, two of us have completed advanced degrees, a PhD and an MEd between us, and we regularly share our personal and professional struggles and triumphs in blog posts and classroom conversations about the nature of lifelong learning and aspiration. But engage in a project directly alongside our students, we have not.

Additionally, TALONS seems to stand somewhat perched at a crossroads in its continued evolution. Having doubled a few years into our run as a two-teacher, twenty eight student cohort, there are now four teachers and nearly sixty students these days, two of those teachers new to the program this fall; we’ve added courses in the senior grades, and are breaking new trails in Adventure Trips, and other aspects of our learning and organization all the time.

As well, I find myself nearly ten years into my career, with just shy of that time spent facilitating the TALONS learning across a variety of subjects. And with so much change arriving in the TALONS world, I feel compelled this year to strike out a little beyond my own comfort zone as an act of solidarity not only with my grade nine and ten students, but my new teaching partners. Our program is a place where adults as well as adolescents are challenged to grow and develop beyond what they may have previously thought  possible, and to be joining such a juggernaut of an ecosystem as ours must be an intimidating prospect.

Hopefully some of this process extends an invitation to them to join the ranks of public learning that makes our program unique, both for what it teaches the young people among us as well as those of us beyond the school.

But… why Bob?

It’s not a good idea and it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers. 3 

Around the time I was graduating from university, I had begun to play guitar with the idea that I might be able to expand the scope of my expressive capabilities into music. I would be earning my degree in Creative Writing (with a minor in French and an additional honours thesis on civil society and ideology around a Boy Scout summer camp that I had spent two summers interning for), and had written a roughshod novel during school, along with hundreds of other essays, newspaper columns, letters, and stories. But like Kurt Vonnegut wrote once, “virtually every writer I know would rather be a musician,” I had always been drawn to music, to the images and melodies that lit fires in undiscovered places in myself. And so I set about exploring my existing taste and experience in music through a borrowed acoustic guitar; when I moved home to Vancouver I bought my own and started unpacking the history of popular music from Elvis on forward.

I listened to the Beatles incessantly, and in chronological order. I watched the Anthology documentaries and began to untangle the thread of blues and rock that ran through Elvis, and Chuck Berry, and Johnny Cash. I began to see the tightly woven threads of the culture that connected Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg to Jim Morrison, and back to Robert Johnson. I’d had some experience with each of these threads in isolation: I’d studied the Beats ravenously as an undergraduate; that hasty youthful novel written in my third year bore an inscription from one of Jim Morrison’s poems; and I could talk for hours about the complimentary and divergent aspects of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones’ early aesthetics.

Untitled

Then my dad bought the Martin Scorsese documentary on Dylan, No Direction Home, and everything became obsolete. Here was the Rosetta Stone to synthesize and decode the American spirit that unified the story I’d been untangling for years. Here was an artist who defied category or classification, who by the time you had decided what to call him had morphed into something else entirely, who seemed to know his own voice and gifts so well for never claiming to understand them so much as the fact that he would never cease to explore their potential. With Dylan there were no lines, no titles, no boundaries, and I wanted that for myself.

I wanted, as I still do, to find what my vision and voice can see and say: to expand beyond what I’ve previously thought possible, and to create new ways of being for others to follow, which is Why Bob, Why Now.

  1.  “I Shall Be Released”
  2. No Direction Home
  3. Songwriters on Songwriting

On dipping a toe…

Reading...

Part of my summer plans to reread a few formative books of my university years. 

It’s been ten years almost since I consciously “outgrew” Jack Kerouac’s singular influence on my young mind. Having long exhausted myself of his optimistic early work, I petered out through Desolation Angels and Big Sur as Jack faded into alcoholism and a sense that, in repetition, the bliss of beat lost its lustre. I grew to think that perhaps this lack of depth was the cautionary tale of the Beats: that a slavish devotion to the sanctity of the Moment can blind us to exploring our future potential.

By the end of university (and since), I was looking for more in my life that Kerouac seemed to hold the blueprints to, and I haven’t looked back on him or the Beats (with the exception of Alan Ginsberg who, by living, has aged along with his work, a lot better) since.

So I might have approached On the Road with some skepticism that what had enraptured my twenty year old mind would convince my accumulated years (rest assured, I hear more judgement of myself here than of Kerouac). But I was immediately swept up in the warm weather freewheeling of the writing, and the fluidity of the early scenes.

Kerouac meets Neal Cassidy, and steels himself for the earliest of his ventures west with $100 in his pocket. From there we are in transport trucks’ cabs, the beds of pickups with nomadic labourers, and sleeping out in the open air on the high plains. It is 1947 and Kerouac and the characters populating these pages are huddled at the hearth of an energy that will come to set America aflame.

Mad Ones

Because even if it will prove eventually fatal, the romanticism, the reverance and revolutionary energy dripping from Kerouac’s descriptions in the early passages has taken me in a way I’m not even sure it did in my early twenties. To reread On the Road all these years later brings with it the expanded awareness of what the book’s ideas wrought in the larger culture, but also a more intimate sense of what notions and self I took from it, and having been running with ever since.

 

One of the things I remember being enamoured with as a young writer – to my benefit and detriment in equal measure, I think –  was Kerouac’s fervent devotion to the creation of a beautiful spontaneous phrase.

 

Kerouac's Rules for Spontaneous Prose

Following America’s Lost Generation authors, Kerouac and the Beats are actors in the literary folk tradition of Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie – little wonder On the Road had such a profound effect on Bob Dylan. Like Wordsworth, Kerouac’s work is not so much craft as it is a beatific exaltation of This Moment in Life, spoken plainly in the language of the people. Not to say this wasn’t also Hemingway’s concern; but one gets the sense that for him or Fitzgerald, there is an intellectual factor at work. In Kerouac, the mind is an obstacle to be overcome in deference to the Now, and the image Kerouac creates of Dean and their mutual quest is a story of saints engaging in communion with the people and the land  West, where the Beats introduce the transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson to the American Night.

Prophet

And while it might be easy to write off such sentiments as the definition of youthful idealistic hyperbole, I am still struck with how intoxicating it all is. That I remember reading good chunks of On the Road in the back of a charter bus taking my track team to Iowa lays my own experience on top of Kerouac’s descriptions:

As in a Dream

I forget sometimes that for five years of my life, I existed in a pretty solitary world. True, I was often surrounded by people; but in flying back and forth, bussing across the south and prairie states, running races and finding my way in school an life so far from home, my experience was mine alone and I was writing it in my own mind. With all that such an opportunity afforded me, I could have had wore idols than Jack Kerouac, who told me all about the pitfalls of the wandering life, all the while extolling the virtues of the truly beatific moments their could be exchanged for.

How many times in those years would Kerouac, if not able to offer advice, be able to say he’d been there?

 

I suddenly found myself in the street with no money. My last dollar war gone.” 

“It was sad to see them go, and I realized that I would never see any of them again, but that’s the way it was.” 

And yet how many times would I learn to know what he had been chasing: “The great blazing stars came out, the far-receding sand hills got dim. I felt like an arrow that could shoot out all the way”

Having met him again after so many years during these last few days in the first week of summer, it’s a joyful reunion.

Nowhere Everywhere

The Summer Book Project

Jack Kerouac Manuscript Photo in San Francisco Magazine

Photo by Thomas Hawk (click image to read the interesting history of this photograph)

For a formative period in my youth, I was made of books and words. Half a continent from home at the end of my adolescence, I filled the blank slate of my life in Arkansas with the stories and poetry of the literary zeitgeist of people like Jack Kerouac, Jim Morrison or Douglas Coupland.

Such was the impact and guidance of these written voices, I set out at twenty to contribute to the world the verbose favour my idols had given to me. I changed my major – from Biology to English – and began a journey inward, striving to explore and give name to that singular storm of experience and mind that was mine alone, and make something of the intangible mystery of life.

I wrote, and wrote. And wrote.

Journals, essays, stories, poems. Novels, nonfiction, songs and sharpie-scribbled graffiti on fliers and scraps of paper around my campus.

The arc of those years – from leaving home at eighteen for Arkansas, and returning home more than five years later – is plotted in ragged journals, floppy disks, printed pages and the highlighted passages of a few hundred books. And while I’m still very much the young man who worshipped Kerouac and Kundera, and Kafka, I’m more and more aware of the tuning of new pages into a different sense of adulthood than I’ve yet known.

I wonder what the thirty-two year old me would see in the self of ten years ago, and have been toying with an idea that might give some sense of an introduction between them: over the next ten weeks, I’m planning to go back through a few of those seminal texts, see if I can dig up my own corresponding writings of when I was reading them, and reflect on what the intervening years have wrought.

To keep the project focused and attainable, I’ve picked three books to re-read this summer, all of which lent considerable influence to my young mind:

I read On the Road during Christmas Break at home in the year 2000, Immortality while working at a Boy Scout Summer Camp in the Ozark Mountains in 2003, and One Hundred Years of Solitude sometime toward the end of 2004. Roughly coinciding with my time in university (1999-2004), I’m excited at the prospect of using at least some of my vacation time this summer looking back on those years when my reality was written in my own words, and the words of others.

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.