Adventures in Blended Learning

John A. Skype

As I mentioned in a brief thank you to Alec at our last class meeting, in many ways it feels as though I’ve been taking his course on The Blended Classroom for a few years now.

When I joined Twitter back in… can it really have been 2009? Alec was one of the first people I followed. Along with Will Richardson, Dean Shareski, Sylvia Martinez and a host of others who have spoken with us or been name-dropped throughout our time together this semester, Alec has helped form and inspire many of the ideas that have driven my blended practice in the years since, a journey that has been charted across the near-300 posts on this blog, as well as in other online spaces, physical artifacts, and dialogue with peers, colleagues and students.

Along with Dave Cormier I am interested in the blurring of the boundaries between formal and informal learning, and seek to integrate a more rhizomatic approach to institutional learning that makes use of the sprawling inquiries I have engaged in during my time as an open online educator. While it may be more chaotic, and difficult (if not impossible) to direct, this more organic approach has challenged me to make meaning of diverse experiences and connections in a manner which is far more in line with socio-cultural trends at the heart of the digital age and 21st century.

As a reflective practitioner, this has allowed me to plot a uniquely personal course of study that is relevant to my own interests and passions, classroom communities, and emerging perspective on my place in the world as an educator and member of the human project. But it has also offered the opportunity to engage in the type of emergent meaning-making that has become central to the philosophy of education underpinning my work as a graduate student. Taken together these experiences have influenced the type of learning opportunities I strive to create for my students, as well as the type of learning I hope they are able to engage in for themselves once they venture beyond the school.

This semester my own learning has met the gentle structure provided by Alec’s class and branched in what may be considered three overlapping directions: theory, practice and reflection.

Theory

I began my theoretical work in January with a look at the potential for Collaborative Inquiry to address teacher professional development interests, as well as put educators into the experiential role of learners as members of a community:

With increasing classroom needs, revolutionary changes in technology and information literacies, in an evolving culture dealing with widespread anxiety and mental health concerns, classroom teachers and extended school communities confront diverse language language needs and an increased awareness around gender and sexual identity, among other unique challenges. In British Columbia, public schools face the additional challenge of an ongoing and tempestuous negotiation between different stakeholders over curricular reform, teacher-contracts, and the role of education in society.

The convergence of these myriad adaptive challenges – “for which the necessary knowledge [does] not yet exist.” – seem an appropriate place to engage a process of collaborative inquiry which allows participants to “adopt new values and beliefs.”

In addition to the value that it might add to teacher-development and learning, this type of collaborative inquiry is in line with a conception of citizenship that is coming to ground my academic work around civic education. As the emergent view of knowledge described above may be seen to, the challenges presented by multiculturalism in pluralist democracies highlights the tension between creating and maintaining institutions that can bring about outcomes truly constructed out of their (ever-changing) constituent parts.

An ongoing theme in my work on this blog, the problematic view of emergence is described by Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta:

“If we hold that meaning is emergent, and we insist on a strict interpretation of emergence (i.e. what emerges is more than the sum of its parts and therefore not predictable from the ‘ground’ it emerges from) then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerge in the classroom becomes problematic. In other words the notion of emergent meaning is incompatible with the aims of education, traditionally conceived.”

Sigal Ben-Porath presents a potential resolution to this paradox in the form of Citizenship as Shared Fate, wherein “citizenship education ‘seeks forms of attachments, belonging and commitment that would enable children to become positive members of diverse communities of fate.'”

Such a citizenship, and thus citizenship education:

“aims to recognize differences in values, outlooks, language and preferences while developing institutional and conceptual concepts – particularly civic and political ones – in which different communities can develop ties and shared practices.”

Practice

In building on these theoretical underpinnings (among others), I sought during this semester to engage in my own professional learning, as well as facilitate my various classroom-activities, with an eye toward exploring the digital applications of these ideas in the service of both individual and community development.

Guitar

(One of) My own learning project(s) during the term took on the challenge of musical performance, both in my guitar classroom and the school community beyond, a process I documented and reflected upon in a series of posts both here and on the #IntroGuitar site:Murder at the Witch's Tavern

In addition to this somewhat formal performance (as well as those which will follow throughout the semester), I also took a stake in a fundraising evening of murder-mystery dinner-theatre for our drama department, writing and sharing a series of expository songs during the hastily produced play performed for local parents, colleagues and community guests.

In each of these examples, my aim was not only to develop and reflect on my own growth as a musician, but to engage in a process I regularly ask of my students so as to both cultivate empathy for the discomfort that often accompanies learning as well as share an example – successful or not – of stepping into Vigotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development for students and colleagues alike.

For my guitar students especially, whom I ask to document and reflect on their musical learning regularly, sharing my own journey as a guitar player is an integral part of cultivating an open course community within the structure of a for-credit classroom. Part of the ‘open’ ethos of the blended #introguitar environment creates the course site as a space for our students to cultivate and share their own narratives of learning among members of the class, but also those beyond.

But these individual and collective artifacts of learning also stretch beyond the classroom, leaving a lasting community of practice that is accessible – as the three iterations of the course that have used the course are – to future students of guitar, at Gleneagle and beyond.

TALONS Socials

The same might be said of the praxis of reflection and creation I have attempted to instigate in the TALONS Socials learning this semester, where members of the class have been asked to document various aspects of their learning: in blog posts, Tweets, pages of notes, and recorded class discussions and role plays.

With assignments separated into summative presentations and assignments, reflections and self-assessments, as well as documents of learning in progress (questions, notes on discussions, journal entries, marginalia in various readings, assigned and otherwise), the TALONS Social Studies semester orients itself toward students taking ownership over their own encounters with the course’s Ministry-mandated prescribed learning outcomes. Through a range of class activities and assignments, each is charged with the collection of various artifacts of learning that will be used in the creation of midterm, as well as final syntheses of learning, where these articles will serve as evidence that the curriculum has been encountered, critically interrogated, and integrated into their own emerging understanding.

Daily homework, if not otherwise specified, reflects the values of ongoing personal inquiry and is geared toward the TALONS being successful in what has become known as the Philosophy Pop Quiz:

  1. Did you read material for today’s class meeting carefully? (No – 0, Once – 1, Yes, more than once – 2)
  2. Did you come to class today with questions or with items you’re eager to discuss? (No – 0, Yes, one – 1, Yes, more than one – 2)
  3. Since we last met, did you talk at length to a classmate, or classmates about either the last class meeting or today’s meeting? (No – 0, Yes, one person – 1, Yes, more than one person – 2)
  4. Since our last meeting, did you read any unassigned material related to this course of study? (No – 0, Yes, one item – 1, Yes, more than one item – 2)
  5. Since our last meeting, how much time have you spent reflecting on this course of study and recent class meetings? (None to 29 minutes – 0, 30 minutes to one hour – 1, Over an hour – 2)

Working toward the highest possible class average score on the above quiz, the traits and habits required for daily success can become part of the cycle of personal learning without falling prey to being too prescriptive. The synthesis of a collective voice out of these various inquiries and encounters with the common course of study are able to become the task of the social curricula.

This has been particularly evident in the class’ recent study of Canadian Confederation, where an experiment in social media role-playing has built upon the debates and discussion various historical characters have been waging in the face to face classroom, realizing that multicultural difficulty:

“…to ‘teach’ toward these myriad truths is at once a curricular requirement and Quixotic pursuit, revealing the tensions of education for citizenship in a pluralist democracy, asking How do we create unity and cultivate diverse perspectives?

“In interpreting history, as well as our present moment, students ought be engaged in rehearsing this act, and with the dramatic role play the answer offered to the pedagogic problem lies at the heart of narrative.

“Of sensing an individual’s arc at the centre of a multitude of shared and individual lives.

“Of constructing ‘we’ out of many ‘I’s.

“Whether face to face or in the online sphere, this is the task of schooling in the multicultural society.”

Reflection

Perhaps apart from both the theory and practice summarized above, the learning engaged in on this blog regularly ventures into more personal reflections and syntheses of learning that go beyond the collection of classroom experiences or theoretical readings and attempt to articulate something of a larger polemic on the state of educational or cultural affairs.

In the past few months, these posts have charted a variety of themes encountered in my weekly wanderings, including some thoughts on the nature of Learning on (and of) the Web, My life as the Music Department Digital Archivist, and Teaching in the Patriarchy. On a more personal note, I looked back on more than a decade spent with the work of Ernest Hemingway.

Each of these musings serves to help synthesize and express an emerging interpretation of various themes in my teaching, learning and life, harkening back to an image I used in a post last December on Course Design and Narrative Discovery, where data is transformed to information, to knowledge, to wisdom.

By engaging in this open manner, and publishing this work and these thoughts alongside the TieGrad cohort which has inspired many of them in the past two years, each of these experiences – and their corresponding posts – represents at once the wisdom of today as well as the points of data that will be made into new meanings going forward.

In a way it’s been the lesson I’ve been learning from Alec for years, while at the same time a culmination and synthesis of everything I’ve been learning the whole time.

Just as learning should be.

Social Media/Studies

UntitledIn addition to more critical efforts to conduct inquiries into history as it intersects with our present landscape, the TALONS class has come to embrace dramatic efforts to enact and recreate history in their social(s) learning. Whether engaging in a mock trial of King Charles II, or making impassioned speeches as characters in the French Revolution, such theatrical turns have traditionally made for memorable classroom moments.

A few years ago, a group of TALONS grade tens approached me to see if they could ‘pitch’ a unit plan for our upcoming French Revolution study: in blog posts and classroom activities, members of the class would each adopt a character from the revolutionary period, and strive to realize and represent diverse perspectives on events in 18th century France.

In the years since, the unit has evolved to include Twitter, as well as a series of improvised discussions, debates and addresses – all in character.

Thus the class is able to imagine and take in the passionate decrees of a young Maximilien Robespierre:

In the future I believe that it is not enough for the monarchy to only lose a portion of its power. France should be a country run for its people by the people, a democracy! At this moment I do not have enough political power to share my views in such ways, but in time I shall express my desires. One day I assure you, I will find a way to improve the lives of the poor and to strike down those corrupt from power.

And see the story through to his betrayal of Georges Danton, who addresses his friend:

I curse you.

We once had, if not brotherhood, at least mutual understanding. We were creating a France that our children would be proud of. I know not when your idealism became madness but I must have failed to see the signs, because I was not prepared for all the murders, and all the terror that you instilled into this country.

Robespierre, you will follow me into dissolution. I will drag you down screaming, and we will fall together.

In addition to these perspectives developing on individual blogs in monologues and comment threads, classroom time is spent charting the development of significant revolutionary events against characters’ reactions which are presented in improvised debates or speeches. And the dialogue continues on Twitter, as each character adopts an avatar to not only promote and archive their blogged artifacts, engage in dialogue with their allies and nemeses, and exercise their own democratic rights in carrying out the final assessments in the unit:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.38.18 PM

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.39.55 PMSensing that there might be a popular uprising against a tyrant teacher bent on sticking steadfast to an arbitrary deadline, I asked to see a show of support for the idea:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.43.23 PMThe idea was taken up quickly.

By philosophers:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.42.33 PMThe King of France:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.44.41 PM

Feminist leaders:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.45.54 PMAnd even the farmers:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.47.26 PM

At the culmination of the unit, each of the TALONS delivered a final address that looked back on their contributions to the revolution, and how they might have done things differently with the benefit of hindsight. And while each member of the class was only tasked with creating one unique angle on the historical events being studied, the effect rendered by the series of addresses on the unit’s final day presented a nuanced and multidimensional look into the various subjectivities that (might have) helped shape the revolutionary period.

From each of their perspectives, what the French Revolution might be about would likely sprawl in a dozen different directions: a part of a historical march toward justice; political reform; a spark in the narrative of female activism; the story of scarce resources driving extreme behaviour. And to ‘teach’ toward these myriad truths is at once a curricular requirement and Quixotic pursuit, revealing the tensions of education for citizenship in a pluralist democracy, asking How do we create unity and cultivate diverse perspectives?

In interpreting history, as well as our present moment, students ought be engaged in rehearsing this act, and with the dramatic role play the answer offered to the pedagogic problem lies at the heart of narrative.

Of sensing an individual’s arc at the centre of a multitude of shared and individual lives.

Of constructing ‘we’ out of many ‘I’s.

Whether face to face or in the online sphere, this is the task of schooling in the multicultural society.

On Playing Guitar

Brian and Bryan Jam

Photo courtesy of Alan Levine

As a sort of follow-up to my last post, I wanted to share some responses I had for a few questions one of the TALONS asked me as part of his own In-Depth Study Research.

1. How long have you been playing the guitar?

About thirteen years… I think.

2.At what age did you first start playing?

I first borrowed a friend’s guitar in the spring of 2003, I guess. So I would have been 22, or thereabouts.

3. Do you believe learning to play the guitar has benefited your life socially / physically / mentally?

Absolutely socially and mentally.

There are probably physical benefits – better hand-eye coordination or dexterity with my fingers and such – though I don’t know if these are beneficial other than in playing guitar.

As for socially, I’ve made a lot of great friends and shared a lot of interesting experiences with people I wouldn’t have found myself connected to if not for having been what can be called in some ways a musician. Beyond personalities, or senses of humour, or our unique interests, upbringings, or even the music we like, I’ve always found people who play music – whatever kind of music it is – easy to talk to, hang out with, and – naturally – play music with. I’ve played music with strangers on the street in Cuba, Croatia, and France, talked for hours about favourite guitars with friends of my parents, and spent weekends improvising with people I’d just met without so much as a word having to be spoken.

Even when I was just starting out, I’ve found that once you have enough skill to participate in communal music-making (even if it’s just plucking the same note or strumming the same chord along with a few friends), you have been allowed into some other plane of conversation with people – a conversation without words, but also a conversation without distinct points of view. In a verbal conversation, one person talks, then another, then the other again, and in doing so their unique perspectives are shared; but in music, the two ‘perspectives’ are essential components of the other, if that makes sense? My guitar solo cannot exist without the underlying chords, whose pacing and volume are reacting moment-by-moment to the energy, tones and volume of the solo. And that’s just with two people: as drums, or bass, or vocals or other instruments are added to the fray, this sense of a collective voice only becomes richer.

I think this sense of communication I’m trying to describe benefits both the social and the mental, though, because these experiences not only forge deep connections with the folks I’ve shared them with, but also have opened my mind to what it means to listen, and interact, and communicate with other people. Once you’ve experienced these sorts of things – an epic jam session, or a memorable performance, or just creating something out of nothing, even by yourself with your guitar – it is impossible to go back to having ‘un-experienced’ them; each leaves you fundamentally changed, however minimally, and changes the course you might take going into the future. I’ve left a lot of different sessions of playing with people thinking, “Why don’t I do *that* more?” And I always rededicate myself to finding more places and people to play with – it never stops.

4. What are some of the skills developed from playing guitar?

Listening is a big one, whether it’s to the people you’re playing with, or even songs you’re hearing for the first time or the millionth. It’s fun when you start to realize what’s going on ‘inside’ some of your favourite songs, and why it is you like them – a chord change, perhaps, or the way the lyrics fall across the rhythm of the song; and similarly, sometimes songs you thought were catchy fall apart when you learn how to play them, which can be disappointing, but leads you to other, more interesting music hopefully.

Beyond listening, I am also able to hear better, which is actually different than listening. I can hear subtle differences between notes and chords, can tell when things are out of tune – and even which string it is, generally – which I couldn’t do back when I began. I’m also able to distinguish what singers are saying now that I know how to breathe and sing and strum as the same time, and how the different instruments are interacting in ensembles.

5. How do these skills/benefits benefit/apply to your everyday life?

I think quite a few of these skills transfer over to everyday life, both in tangible, specific ways: I know a lot about different songs, how they are put together, and the people that made them, for instance, which finds its way into a lot of my work at school (and not just in guitar class); and my relationship with language has changed I think, as well, and I unconsciously try to make things more musical, direct, or poetic when I write or speak, perhaps.

But I think the benefit of playing music that most broadly transfers over into ‘real’ life is the sensibility that goes along with many different aspects of music. In looking over my answer to your third question, I like to think that this constructive sense of conversation or working with others influences every aspect of my life and relation to other people: everything one does with other people is an opportunity to build something – a conversation, a relationship, a professional project, or piece of art. And so because I know that these types of interactions are possible, I find myself approaching almost everything I do with the same sense of experimentation and expression.

6. Any other habits/effects that came from guitar?

The guitar is a dangerous tool for relaxation and procrastination, so not all of the habits and effects it yields are necessarily positive! I’m sure there are plenty of things I could or should have done some days than play guitar for half an hour (or three hours), and that’s not always the best thing to do. But I am glad every day that I stuck out those first few months (or years, if you ask my roommates or family members who heard me back then), until guitar became the thing I wanted to do when I got home from school or work. Once it became The Thing I wanted to do to unwind, or have fun, or challenge myself, I don’t think I could have ever gone back to being someone who doesn’t play guitar.

Hopefully you find the same soon enough.

An Open Learning Project

Letter Song by @bryanjack

Photo courtesy of Giulia Forsythe

Each spring the TALONS undertake an In-Depth Study, a five month “passion project” wherein they are asked to document their growth and learning toward personalized goals in learning a skill or craft. There are two universal goals for the In-Depth Study:

1. Know something about everything and everything about something.

In school you are usually taught about many subjects.  In this project, the goal is to learn a great deal about one field of activity, usually not available in a school setting.

2. Learn what others tell you is important and learn what you decide is important.

In school you are told what to learn and how to learn it.  In this project, you will decide in what field and with what strategies, you will become an “expert.”

Along with the Fall Retreat, spring Adventure Trip and the fall’s Eminent Person project, the In-Depth Study constitutes a significant pillar in the TALONS Program that, because it is predominantly designed and facilitated by my teaching partner, hasn’t been much documented here. Though in past years I have undertaken a couple of different learning projects that have seen their way onto my blog:

Learning Pearl Jam’s “Daughter
Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
Banjournal

This year, as part of Alec Couros‘ appearance in my University of Victoria #tiegrad cohort, I have the opportunity to combine a few different aspects of my course work with my classroom teaching this spring. For Alec’s EDCI 569 class (The Distributed, Blended & Open Classroom), we are tasked with engaging in our own learning projects, as well as participating in an open online course or community. And as they have in the last few years, these new academic requirements find a worthwhile conspirator in our Music Department‘s #IntroGuitar class.

I’ve taught #IntroGuitar now at our school going on five years now, but only in the last few has the course opened up to facilitate music-making, teaching, and collaboration to a wider community of open online learners. There is a perfect marriage of sorts between the type of discovery-learning that attracts people to an instrument like the guitar, and the type of ethos espoused in the MOOC movement. As Dave Cormier says, “you can choose what you do, how you participate, and only you can decide when you’ve been successful, just like real life,” teenagers have been learning guitar in this personalized and peer-to-peer fashion as long as the instrument has existed. Even my own playing has followed this path, beginning in the early days of the social web when guitar tabs seemed to have already have leveraged the constructivist potential of the read-write web in ways other communities would adopt across the last fifteen years.

But these online resources – much my early learning took place before the advent of YouTube – were only part of the course of my life with guitar, as a year into the project I moved in with another beginner with whom I was able to commiserate over barre chords and blues scales. Even better, this roommate had a friend who played in a band, and he and his friends served as early mentors who were able to rapidly advance our learning.

Since those early strumming days in Arkansas, I’ve expanded my inquiry into music by writing songs, playing with groups of friends, and a few informal performances. But as happens in the lifelong learning of a thing – and in lifelong, personalized learning in and of itself – the process of discovery and progress can only continue so long as the learner is able to continually synthesize and build on prior learning. And in recent years, I’ve been fortunate to explore successive challenges with supportive peers and mentors in a variety of settings.

I’ve collected a brief summary of these learning communities here:

DS106 Radio

In the spring of 2011, the brainchild of Jim Groom and Grant Potter began as a means of sharing course work created in Jim’s Digital Storytelling class at the University of Mary Washington, and quickly spawned and supported a community of educators / music-makers who began using the distributed web radio station to share live rehearsals, themed shows of covers, and recorded original works. And for the next couple of years, the station became a digital version of my own coffee-house open mic: I would play new songs, covers, riff on others’ material, and listen to my friends when they would take over the airwaves.

Out of this digital community have come countless opportunities to jam in face-to-face rehearsal spaces and kitchens, living rooms and campfires in the years since, including up to a few weeks ago in East Vancouver.

Unplug’d

Bryan Six Nation Guitar V2In 2011, and again in 2012, I was invited to participate at the Unplug’d Educational Summit on the edge of Algonquin Park, where I was able to meet many of my online colleagues in a natural setting, and share a host of songs – Canadian-themed and otherwise – with educators from across Canada and around the world.

At the 2012 Summit, with Jowi Taylor and Voyageur the Six String Nation guitar, serving as the weekend’s welcoming keynote, I was invited to deliver what I consider my first “real” performance for guests at the summit hotel in downtown Toronto. And over the course of the weekend I was able to share an original song I wrote that weekend – on Voyageur – with participants at the culmination of the weekend. (I’ve written a longer post about this experience here.)

The Judy and the Town Sessions

A few summers ago, I set about assembling a few former students whose band had recently lost its lead singer (to a road trip back east, nothing tragic) to act as my own supporting group to work out a few of the original songs I’d written in recent years. Having always written and played on my own – solo acoustic, with the exception of some of the DS106 Radio jams – I had begun to hear the songs I was writing in fuller resolution, with drums, bass and more guitar to fill out an emerging aesthetic in my mind’s… ear. And while the Judy and the Town sessions were cut short as more members of the band eventually joined their lead singer back in Montreal, these recordings offer a warm reminder of the potential for my quiet solo songs to take on a life of their own in the hands of others.

Georgia Straight Guitar Society

This past fall, I was fortunate to join one of my dad’s friends and a colleague from school at the annual Fall Jam hosted by the Georgia Straight Guitar Society. A weekend retreat at a 100 year old camp in serene Crescent Beach, the Jam featured musicians from all over the Lower Mainland – and beyond – and offered an opportunity to participate in songwriting circles, endless middle-of-the-night jam sessions, and a Saturday night concert, where I again tasted the joy of bringing one of my songs to life with the help of talented friends.

He not busy being born is busy dying.

This summer I will turn 34 years old, and with these minor triumphs listed above the compulsion arises to continue to raise the stakes in my musical life.

To scare myself, if only a bit.

Because along with Dylan’s line about being busy being born, I’m reminded of Brene Brown, who offers the inspiration that our vulnerabilities are often the fear that keeps us from accessing our potential. And so the next place to take my guitar playing and my decade-plus inquiry into music, by looking back at the narrative thus assembled…

…is performance.

In his final address on the Tonight Show, Conan O’brien talked about people who asked him about his secret to success “like asking someone how they got struck by a meteor,” so unique are the pathways which lead us to exceptional personal achievements. But he did add that the thing he had always tried to do was “always put myself in a situation where I had no choice but to be great,” and I’ve always thought about this when faced with the opportunity to perform.

I surely haven’t ever always been great. But when I haven’t been I have most assuredly learned a lot about how I should proceed next time, and looking ahead at a spring that has already yielded a few opportunities to hone this emerging skill, I am grateful for the push offered by my classes’ Learning Project / In-Depth Study.