Talons’ Showcase of Learning: American Revolution

declaration-of-independence

It seemed a natural extension of the type of learning we put to use in class every day: research and communication, collaboration and presentation.

In encountering the context of the American Revolution, and interpreting not only the Founding Fathers’ possible intentions in creating the Declaration of Independance as a political document, but also a living document, and record of human progress, the class wrote a series of their own Declarations of Independent Learning.

A common theme that arose in these statements of purpose was the opportunity for TALONS learners to document, record, and showcase their learning for posterity, their peers, and the extended audiences of their blogs. In assessing the amount of the course content absorbed, and creating an opportunity for an individual synthesis project on a finite timeline, we set out to redefine the history test: an open-computer, Google-able, tes- errr… Showcase of Learning.


At nine in the morning last Thursday, with a blanket of wet snow covering the Lower Mainland – leaving one student to ‘telecommute,’ and complete the test from home – I shared a Google document with the criteria supplied below. They were able to communicate via the chat feature on the document, and in other ways that could be shared publically (Etherpad, or otherwise – no Facebook chat); talking to group mates, and other people in the class was permitted, so long as it didn’t interfere with anyone else’s ability to work productively (another common theme in many Declarations of Learning).

On laptops, with textbooks, and pre-prepared notes, the class had seventy-five minutes to make use of any resource they could muster in responding to one of the quotes, cartoons, or critiques below.


Talons Learners have the right to showcase their learning

TALONS Constitution, written into law November 2010


Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western World, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest through which the events of current history are presented to us.

Noam Chomsky – The Responsibility of Intellectuals (1966)

Respond to one of the statements below to demonstrate an understanding of the colonial context of the period (conditions leading up to the revolution), an introduction to the source of the quotation, and connection to our present understanding of history, and current events.

Your response may be in the form of a blog post, Prezi, Slideshow, or other animation that must be linked or posted on your blog, and must include the following:

  • Title: a statement of purpose, or thesis
  • Links to at least two of your classmates’ blog posts about the American Revolution, or the nature of Learning Rights
  • Links to three outside sources
  • Two quotations (from either of the above)
  • An image (to ensure Nick will read the results)

Select one of the following artifacts, reflections, representations or quotations on the American Revolution for discussion and presentation.

Examples of Talons’ responses can be viewed on the exemplar page of the class’ Socials Wiki.

The rubric below was also attached for reference.

  • Boston Massacre

(originally by Paul Revere)

  • “History affords us many instances of the ruin of states, by the prosecution of measures ill suited to the temper and genius of their people. The ordaining of laws in favor of one part of the nation, to the prejudice and oppression of another, is certainly.”

Benjamin Franklin

  • “We have here a forecast of the long history of American politics, the mobilization of lower-class energy by upper-class politicians, for their own purposes. This was not purely deception; it involved, in part, a genuine recognition of lower-class grievances, which helps to account for its effectiveness as a tactic over the centuries.”

Howard Zinn

  • Benjamin Franklin at the Court of St. James

Benjamin Franklin at St. James Court

  • “They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Ben Franklin

  • “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.”

John Adams

  • “The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.”

James Madison

  • The able doctor, or America swallowing the bitter draught

The able doctor, America, swallowing the bitter draught

  • “If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.”

James Madison

  • “No more, America, in mournful strain,
    Of wrongs and grievance unredressed complain;

    No longer shall thou dread the iron chain

    Which wanton Tyranny, with lawless hand,

    Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.”

Phyllis Wheatley

  • “It does not require a majority to prevail but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set bush fires in people’s minds.”

Samuel Adams


Exceeds Expectations

Meets Expectations

Barely Meets Expectations


Colonial Context

Response provides engaging and well-supported context to relate significance of historical figures and events. Response provides adequate context to relate significance of historical figures and events, but may lack specific detail and authoritative support. Response attempts to provide context and relate the significance of historical figures and events, but may contain flaws in logic, or  lack supporting detail.

Source of the Quotation

Response introduces author or source and is able to compellingly relation their bias and perspective to revolutionary and modern events. Response introduces author or source and is is able to relate their bias and perspective to revolutionary and modern events. Response may attempt to introduce author or source, but does not clearly relate bias or perspective to revolutionary or modern events.

Connection to Modern Politics or Current Events

Response draws multi-faceted connections to modern history and/or politics, and demonstrates a unique correlation between past and present. Response draws connections to modern history and/or politics, but may not demonstrate a unique correlation between past and present. Response attempts to draw connections to modern history and\or politics, but may not demonstrate a unique correlation between past and present.

WikiBooks Publishing Project

Ksan, British Columbia
Ksan, British Columbia

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

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

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

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

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

Sgang Gwaay
SGaang Gwaay, British Columbia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Rash of Ravishing Student Blog Posts

Whistler Wonderland

Saturday March 6th

The class’ blog feed swelled this weekend with a range of posts (and comments) on everything from our city buses, to the recent Olympics, to novel study reflections and in-depth updates. At a concert Friday night and skiing Saturday, it wasn’t until Sunday (after a late breakfast over which a friend and I (correctly) picked all five ‘major’ Oscar winners without having seen any of the films in contention) that I made my way into Google Reader with any purpose to begin reading the burgeoning exploits of the class’ writing.

As the briefest of introductions, the TALONS have been blogging a lot lately: their novel study assignments include six different blog posts; an ongoing in-depth project requires blogged updates every two weeks; and of late many of our grade ten students have joined in the globally interactive Student Blogging Challenge. This all atop the mountain of posts being compiled outside the requirements of the classacademic concerns, not to mention the wide range of comments from acquaintances near and far.

In addition to the many links above, here are some highlights of the weekend’s work:

Saskia on growing up by the sea, and the parallel world in Snow Falling on Cedars:

I grew up with the sea, tasted its salty breezes and threw rocks into its seeweedy depths. A small dirt path concealed to all but those who knew of it led from the bottom of my cul-de-sac to a rocky outcropping where the tide washed in. Here, in the placid waters of my early childhood, I combed the beach for sea glass and pottery chips, swam to barnacled and grassy islets, and let the summer sun crust the salt to my legs.

The Islanders on San Pedro too lived by the sea. But their’s was a wild one. The sea washed through the pages of Snow Falling on Cedars. It soaked the story in storms and mystery and defined the rhythm of the islanders’ lives. San Piedro was an island of “damp souls” with a “rainy, wind-beaten sea village, downtrodden and mildewed.” The sea wind gusted through the town, “making its single traffic light flail from side to side” or causing “the town’s electrical power to flicker and stay out for days.” Yet the beaches glistened with “smooth stones and sea foam” and somehow it managed to retain a “brand of verdant beauty.”

Donya looks at the difference between her definition of “Friend” vs. Facebooks‘:

Your definition of a friend: “Oh sure I’ll talk to you behind a screen but I really dont have the social skills to come up and talk to you in person” or, “Hey! I saw the back of your head as you were leaving school one day! I should probably add you!”

My definition of a friend: “Hey Donya! So we’re still meeting up for the movies on Friday right? I cant wait to spend some time with you!” and ” Oh hi Donya. I heard you were sick, so I picked up some candy on the way home for you :) Candy can fix anything!”

Kiko ponders solitude with Holden Caufield:

The traffic through the park slowed down, until I felt like I was the only one around, outside of the occasional car that drove through the calm in my head. I went through every song I’d memorized, and I looked around, watching the sun as it fell behind the bare branches of a tree off in the distance, the darkening sky, and the unchanging and, at the time, empty park. Nonetheless, I continued playing, and though only myself and the air around me received my music, the aloneness of the moment made me feel…quite content.

Justin dissects the meaning of Mockingbirds (and Finches) in Harper Lee’s classic novel:

Mockingbirds have also been referred to in the real world by Charles Darwin as a prime example proving his theory of evolution. This is also why Atticus, Jem, Scout, Boo and all the other mockingbirds in this story are starting the “evolution” of Maycomb society to become more peaceful and tolerant. Before the Finches, one would assume that the town of Maycomb were unanimous in their dislike of Black people and religious beliefs. In comes Atticus and his children, and suddenly there is a different opinion forming in the town. People like the Finches are still a minority in this book, but it starts the evolutionary chain for Maycomb, from where they were then in the 30’s to modern day 2010. Though the story of Maycomb County ended in 1935-ish, our society today could still benefit from more evolution in terms of racial tolerance and equality.

Katie reflects on the contribution public transit has made to our class’ blogging (and links to many of her classmates’ posts inspired by bus and train travel):

One day back in November, I barely missed my bus, and as a result I spent a solid 20 minutes alone, just watching the rumbling clouds go by. I remember that moment for some reason, I remember thinking about transit and how intricate the system was. I thought about the peace that the bus brought me (usually anyways…). I got home and proceeded to write the first of many non-mandatory blog posts. So, in a way, the bus got me started writing. Whether it’s stillness or talking that I find when I bus that day, it results in the same thing: thinking. Often, after that comes writing.

Jordan relates a less-than-normal trip home from work on Friday night:

At this point, my mother comes running up to the car window and I throw her the phone.  I sit in the car and watch as my mother stands between the girl and the road, talking to the 911 dispatcher.  I realize that this girl is not hurt seriously.  She sits up onto the curb and continues to wail and laugh and cry, all at the same time.  My mom tries to help her up but all the girl wants to do is flail her arms and yell profanities.  My mom puts the cellphone away, and stand protectively over the girl, to make sure she doesn’t try to run on to the road again.  The downed girl’s friend is standing off to the left side, talking about how she doesn’t want the police to come.

Ariana on Holden Caufield and the smokers by the bus stop:

They slouch behind the back gate of my high school with sagging pants and sagging faces. I see them as I leave for the bus stop, right hands holding cigarettes, left hands draped in their pockets. I don’t stop to wonder what they’re thinking: the divide between us is palpable and, following a strict, unspoken code, we avoid eye contact.

I broke the rules once. As I stood under the bright winter sun waiting for the 97 B-Line, a stream of smoke floated to settle above my friends and me.  The smell was the same one engrained into my memory of my grandmother and into the tablecloths we inherited from her after she died of lung cancer. I turned towards the boy and his cigarette.

“Will you please stop smoking upwind of us? Do you know that what we’re breathing in has twice the amount of nicotine as what you are?

Louise contemplates the terrible beauty that gives life its meaning:

All these things will be gone, maybe in a few minutes, a day, a month, a year, decades, or hundreds or thousands of years. The sun will sink into night, the eagle will die, the shell will crumble into sand, the diamonds will fade, the glacier lakes will dry, my friends will pass on, and the hurricane will disperse. They will be gone. Perhaps others will take their places, but it won’t be ever the same again.

However, I’ve seen the burnt and cracked trunk  of a lightning-struck cedar covered with heavy moss and Dead man’s beard. I’ve seen the the skeletal, bleached-white trees that will never flower or bud again. I’ve seen the crushed feathery wings of a baby robin in the middle of a parking lot with its body gone. I’ve seen the bloody salmon struggle up the rapids, torn and dying.

Perhaps not everyone would find all these scenes attractive, I see a terrible beauty in them. The struggle that these living things were once subject to breaks my heart a little. The vulnerability and emptiness of these things, gone and broken down by time and accident radiate coldness and bleakness.

The RSS Feed for the rest of the class’ blogging can be found here. We also have syndicated our comment feed, which can be followed here. Students’ Clustermaps are filling with dots from all over the world, and our comment feed is increasingly bearing the stamp of a globally connected classroom, a trait many in class would like to expand upon.

To those who have not yet, don’t be shy: Join the conversation! Comment, link to us, and enrich the TALONS learning! And to those who have: thank you for supporting, listening and teaching 30 young learners (that total includes my teaching partner and I), who are indebted to you!

Andrew B. Watt’s Essay Encouragement

Writing Essays

One of the teachers I seem to visit with the most regularity doesn’t work at my school. He doesn’t even live in Vancouver, or British Columbia, or Canada. But I read about what goes on in Mr. Watt’s classroom through his blog – which I have mentioned thinking quite highly of elsewhere in these pages - and appreciate the parallels that often crop up between our two classrooms, even though they’re on opposite seaboards.

One such parallel arose this week, as each of our classes were working on historical essays in class. And while I may not have experienced the same angst expressed by Mr. Watt on this occasion, I still thought it would be valuable to ride his coattails in presenting this slideshow he made to help his students with historical writings.

And while my class is now benefiting from Mr. Watt’s help, I implore them – via their blogs – to help right a wrong he wrote about here. In posing the question “What’s wrong with the Edublogosphere?” Andrew replies as follows:

I think the biggest difficulty is that there are no prominent student bloggers writing about education, of which I’m aware.  There isn’t a vast crowd of students telling us what we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong, or even if we’re going in the right direction.

If someone has some student writers, who write about their educational experiences, to recommend — please pass them my way.

For that matter, I think it’s important that we start encouraging our students to look at, and respond, to some of the big names in educational blogging, so that we begin to get a sense of who really is on the right track to understanding what “the kids these days” are all about.

Of late I have been thinking about the possibilities of truly open-learning. Inspired by the likes of Andrew, and people like Alec Couros, Dean Shareski, Ira Socol and Shelly Blake Plock – each of whom have been involved in broadening the reach and breadth of our classroom, and directly or indirectly helped TALONS learners explore and expand on their individual learning experiences – I am always on the lookout for opportunities for the class to engage in a more global conversation about their education.

And now they speak to Dean’s audiences, and Shelly’s students, and are read by teachers in China, and on each of the continents. They write about music, and history, and running, and the Olympics (and the Olympics, and the Olympics, and the Olympics and the Olympics), and they continue to define themselves in conversation with those in their local, as well as global community. The people from outside the classroom who find their work and thoughts are each at different times teachers; and likewise do many of the TALONS no doubt become teachers, mentors, and sources of light for others immediate and afar.

So I am proposing to the TALONS class that you answer Mr. Watt’s call to become those Prominent Student Bloggers, to engage with voices in the Educational Blogosphere like those listed above – but also Will Richardson, Karl Fisch, David Warlick and others – and help shape the direction of education as you are experiencing it. In countless conversations in our Coquitlam classroom, your input is the strongest aid in developing an approach to not only your individual, but your collective learning, and I don’t see how this shouldn’t be the case on a much larger, and more effective scale that is becoming available to us.

After all, if Mr. Watt is going to be your teacher (for instance, he has a bevy of essay-resource materials available online), he may as well have the benefit of you being his.

Novel Study Preview

collection of old hardcover booksThis week the Talons English class will be embarking on a novel study in a manner different from what we have explored in the past. Previously, the group of 28 students – completing requirements for English 9, 10 and 11 at the honours level – has undertaken the study of a single book that has provided fodder for class discussions, group work, and personal as well as critical essays. This time around the class will tackle a range of novels selected from the traditional thread of English literature, as well as a few dealing in more contemporary topics and themes.

To foster and encourage diverse student communication during the unit, the class will be using a blended means of blogging and commenting, creative and critical written pieces, as well as student-led group and class discussions, with the overall hope to build a knowledge and appreciation for reading, as well as the manipulation of language and narrative as art: a representation of the self and culture, as well as historical artifact. My hope, as stated in my new year’s post, is to communicate an honouring of these traditions of literature, and our cultural necessity for stories, written or otherwise, in forms as diverse as our imaginations will allow.

The books available for study this spring will be:

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
(Eng 9 \ 10)

Online Text

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.
Earnest Hemingway

Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland
(Eng 11)

Ask whatever challenges dead and thoughtless beliefs. Ask: When did we become human beings and stop being whatever it was we were before this? Ask: What was the specific change that made us human? Ask: Why do people not particularly care about their ancestors more than three generations back? Ask: Why are we unable to think of any future beyond, say, a hundred years from now? Ask: How can we begin to think of the future as something enormous before us that also includes us? Ask: Having become human, what is it that we now doing or creating that will transform us into whatever it is that we are slated to next become?
Girlfriend in a Coma

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
(Eng 11)

The Catcher In The Rye

I read “The Catcher in the Rye” the average number of times for a young person my age—which is to say, every few years between when I was sixteen and twenty-six or so. When I was about twenty I read the rest of the books and stories, and when I began to teach, about ten years ago, I usually included a Salinger story in every syllabus, usually demonstrating the use of dialogue to illuminate character. His is still my favorite dialogue, the dialogue that rings truest, that’s at once very naturalistic and musical; it’s really remarkable how difficult it is to do what he does between quotation marks.
Dave Eggers

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
(Eng 9 / 10)

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
(Eng 9 / 10)

Online Text

I’d recommend Little Brother over pretty much any book I’ve read this year, and I’d want to get it into the hands of as many smart 13 year olds, male and female, as I can.

Because I think it’ll change lives. Because some kids, maybe just a few, won’t be the same after they’ve read it. Maybe they’ll change politically, maybe technologically. Maybe it’ll just be the first book they loved or that spoke to their inner geek. Maybe they’ll want to argue about it and disagree with it. Maybe they’ll want to open their computer and see what’s in there. I don’t know. It made me want to be 13 again right now and reading it for the first time, and then go out and make the world better or stranger or odder. It’s a wonderful, important book, in a way that renders its flaws pretty much meaningless.
Neil Gaiman
, author of Sandman and Anansi Boys

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
(Eng 11 / 12)

Though the courtroom setting defines the present in “Snow Falling on Cedars,” David Guterson’s finely wrought and flawlessly written first novel (he is the author of a book of short stories and a guide to home schooling), this meticulously drawn legal drama forms only the topmost layer of complex time strata, which Mr. Guterson proceeds to mine assiduously through an intricate series of flashbacks. Thus testimony slides ineluctably from merely verbal recollection into remembered incident into fully realized historical narrative — past events told from the numerous characters’ points of view with all the detail and intensity of lives being lived before our very eyes.
New York Times Review of Books

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
(Eng 11)

Marjane Satrapi’s ”Persepolis” is the latest and one of the most delectable examples of a booming postmodern genre: autobiography by comic book. All over the world, ambitious artist-writers have been discovering that the cartoons on which they were raised make the perfect medium for exploring consciousness, the ideal shortcut — via irony and gallows humor — from introspection to the grand historical sweep.
New York Times Review of Books

Think Different (Or: Do as we say, not as we do.)

The other night my teaching partner and I, along with two of our students, gave a brief presentation to our local School Board Trustees outlining the basic tenants of our Autonomous Learner Model-inspired two-year gifted students program. At the conclusion of our small talk, our superintendent offered praise to our learners’ poise and confidence in following the Mayor’s presentation to the daunting group of elected officials, and noted that our district, and public education in general, is headed in the direction of the type of differentiated instruction paramount in the TALONS classroom. Needless to say, in an age of consistent, and staggering, budgetary shortfalls in our local school districts, it is encouraging to hear positive words from the top of our local school organizations, and to know that we are ahead of the curve.

I heard one of our vice-principals say last week that, “My daughter’s not an identified gifted student, but that’s the type of learning I want her to be doing.” (Students must be designated as ‘gifted’ and so-eligible for our district’s Student Services funding to be able to apply to TALONS.) And I agree with him; it’s not that our model would only work with gifted learners. (Indeed, George Betts intended to have the model extended to students with learning disabilities and the general population of schools.)

When I teach courses to the general student body at our school, I use the same guiding principals as I do in a class where each of my 28 students has an Ministry of Education required Individual Education Plan (as they do in the gifted program). According to my course evaluations, the high achievers learn more than they would in a class they might have otherwise aced; and the low achievers tend not to fail with the same regularity. When they do, in fact, I would chalk up much more of their inability to succeed in the classroom setting to such poor prior experiences with any of the following: English, learning, teachers, or education in general (my students are generally 14 or 15 by the time they get to me, and hence have some fairly entrenched habits and perspectives). I failed one student in all of the 60-some students I taught through English 9 last year: the straw that broke his academic back was a report – oral, video, written or in a form of their choosing – on the touring schedule of the student’s favourite band. More differentiation (or less) would not have been likely to affect the outcome, I doubt.

Really, how could one fail in a system that is based upon working toward an individualized set of goals in relation to the mandated government curriculum? Yes there will be shortcomings in ability, prior knowledge, or other limiting factors. But how well are our schools prepared to create the type of learning, and learners, we claim to seek on a daily basis?

Heidi sent me the video at the top of this post on Twitter the other day, asking if the TALONS students had seen it. And they may have: it’s a popular tv spot for a company that has seized the modern zeitgeist to create revolutionary solutions to Herculean problems, featuring counter-cultural icons who have defined the last fifty years in areas from science, to politics, to arts and music and the ongoing struggle for freedom.

When I look out across my class on a given afternoon, I am constantly witness to the germination of passions and ideas that could well become the embodiment of Apple’s urging, to Think Different. Our students are lucky to be in a classroom where such diversity is encouraged. But I wonder how well they would be served in many other ‘average’ classrooms (which I am quick to point out are not always the result of poor teaching or under-qualified teachers, but the constraints placed upon our modern classrooms), and to answer that question, I look to the educational experiences of the faces in the clip attached above, many of whom no doubt learned to become those “crazy enough to believe they could change the world” not because of their education, but in spite of it.

Albert EinsteinFrom Wikipedia – Einstein clashed with authorities and resented the school’s regimen and teaching method. He later wrote that the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning. In the spring of 1895, he withdrew to join his family in Pavia, convincing the school to let him go by using a doctor’s note.[7] During this time, Einstein wrote his first scientific work, “The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields“.[15]

Bob Dylan - From NNDB.com -  Late in 1959 Dylan enrolled in the University of Minnesota, but his love of music soon overpowered any academic ambitions and the following year, after spending a summer in Denver honing his stage persona, he dropped out and moved to New York to immerse himself in its incipient folk-revival scene. While in New York he also sought out his hero Woody Guthrie, spending as much time as he could at the ailing musicians bedside.

Martin Luther King, Jr.From Wikipedia – skipped ninth and twelfth grade and entered Morehouse College at age fifteen without formally graduating from high school.[10]

Richard BransonFrom Wikipedia – Branson has mild dyslexia and had poor academic performance as a student, but discovered his ability to connect with others.[6]

John Lennon (with Yoko Ono)- From Wikipedia – Lennon failed all his GCE O-level examinations, and was only accepted into the Liverpool College of Art with help from his school’s headmaster.

R. Buckminster FullerFrom Wikipedia – He was expelled from Harvard twice: first for spending all his money partying with a vaudeville troupe, and then, after having been readmitted, for his “irresponsibility and lack of interest”. By his own appraisal, he was a non-conforming misfit in the fraternity environment.[2] Many years later he would receive a Sc.D. from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

Thomas Edison - From Wikipedia – In school, the young Edison’s mind often wandered, and his teacher, the Reverend Engle, was overheard calling him “addled“. This ended Edison’s three months of official schooling. Edison recalled later, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.” His mother homeschooled him.[2] Much of his education came from reading R.G. Parker’s School of Natural Philosophy and The Cooper Union.

Muhammad Ali - From Wiki Answers – Muhammad Ali dropped out of Louisville Central High, a local basketball power, finishing 369th of 391 seniors in the class of 1960, and often traveling to fight on weekends.

Ted TurnerFrom Wikipedia - Turner initially majored in Classics. Turner’s father wrote saying that his choice made him “appalled, even horrified,” and that he “almost puked.”[8] Turner later changed his major to Economics, but he was expelled before receiving a diploma for having a female student in his dormitory room.[9]

Maria CallasFrom Wikipedia – Initially, her mother tried to enroll her at the prestigious Athens Conservatoire, without success. At the audition, her voice, still untrained, failed to impress, while the conservatoire’s director Filoktitis Oikonomidis refused to accept her without her satisfying the theoretic prerequisites (solfege). In the summer of 1937, her mother visited Maria Trivella at the younger Greek National Conservatoire, asking her to take Mary as a student for a modest fee.

Mahatma GandhiFrom Wikipedia – In 1885, when Gandhi was 15, the couple’s first child was born, but survived only a few days; Gandhi’s father, Karamchand Gandhi, had died earlier that year.[9] Mohandas and Kasturba had four more children, all sons: Harilal, born in 1888; Manilal, born in 1892; Ramdas, born in 1897; and Devdas, born in 1900. At his middle school in Porbandar and high school in Rajkot, Gandhi remained an average student academically. He passed the matriculation exam for Samaldas College at Bhavnagar, Gujarat with some difficulty. While there, he was unhappy, in part because his family wanted him to become a barrister.

Amelia EarhartFrom Wikipedia – Amelia and Muriel (she went by her middle name from her teens on), remained with their grandparents in Atchison, while their parents moved into new, smaller quarters in Des Moines. During this period, Amelia received a form of home-schooling together with her sister, from her mother and a governess. She later recounted that she was “exceedingly fond of reading”[18] and spent countless hours in the large family library. In 1909, when the family was finally reunited in Des Moines, the Earhart children were enrolled in public school for the first time with Amelia entering the seventh grade at the age of 12 years.

Alfred HitchcockFrom Wikipedia – Hitchcock was sent to the Jesuit Classic school St Ignatius’ College in Stamford Hill, London.[6] He often described his childhood as being very lonely and sheltered. Hitchcock left St. Ignatius to study at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation in Poplar, London.[12] After graduating, he became a draftsman and advertising designer with a cable company.[13]

Martha GrahamFrom Wikipedia – While the social status in which she was raised contributed to her access to education and refinement, it would also work against Martha. As the eldest daughter of a prominent physician, and a Presbyterian family, Martha was strongly discouraged from considering any career in the performing arts.[citation needed]

Jim Henson - From Wikipedia – In 1954, while attending Northwestern High School, he began working for WTOP-TV creating puppets for a Saturday morning children’s show. After graduating from high school, Henson enrolled at University of Maryland, College Park, as a studio arts major, thinking he might become a commercial artist.[6] A puppetry class offered in the applied arts department introduced him to the craft and textiles courses in the College of Home Economics, and he graduated with a B.S. in home economics in 1960. As a freshman, he was asked to create Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV. The characters on Sam and Friends were already recognizable Muppets, and the show included a primitive version of what would become Henson’s most famous character, Kermit the Frog.[7]

Frank Lloyd Wright - From Wikipedia – Wright attended a Madison high school but there is no evidence he ever graduated.[3] He was admitted to the University of Wisconsin–Madison as a special student in 1886. There he joined Phi Delta Theta fraternity,[4] took classes part-time for two semesters, and worked with a professor of civil engineering, Allan D. Conover.[5] In 1887, Wright left the school without taking a degree (although he was granted an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University in 1955).

Pablo PicassoFrom Wikipedia – the family moved to Barcelona, with Ruiz transferring to its School of Fine Arts. Picasso thrived in the city, regarding it in times of sadness or nostalgia as his true home.[7] Ruiz persuaded the officials at the academy to allow his son to take an entrance exam for the advanced class. This process often took students a month, but Picasso completed it in a week, and the impressed jury admitted Picasso, who was 13. The student lacked discipline but made friendships that would affect him in later life.

It’s not that they were each rebels, renegades or educational outliers: Martin Luther King and others were academically as endowed as many meeting with success in our modern schools. But how well are our schools and present-day classrooms equipped to produce the types of thinkers listed above?

What grade would Bob Dylan be getting in your class?

Twitter Week for BC Educators

This afternoon I was sitting in the wonderfully rustic Minnekhada Lodge, discussing Formative Assessment with my colleagues for our school based professional development day. And as the day drew to a close, and our pro-d hosts encouraged the “continued discussion” of the day’s aims, I thought, “How I wish that everyone at our school used Twitter.”

If everyone at my school used Twitter, each of our individual voices could continue to be lent – even with minimal frequency – to the conversation surrounding our staff’s development. As classroom educators we are often Minnekhada Lodgestarved for dialogue with our colleagues, whom we often work within mere meters of and yet never engage with each others’ practice. The most valuable members of our learning networks are those with whom we share a personal connection, and this is easily (and perhaps most productively) forged with members of our school and district communities.

And so this afternoon I was happy to begin a week of Twitter education for BC Educators, where 150 of our province’s teachers and administrators (and others?) have come together to begin a dialogue uniquely possible through the use of the microblogging tool. The brainchild of James McConville & Grant Potter, the week promises to be an engaging opportunity to expand our local community and its conversation online.

Register now by clicking this link, and follow the conversation on Twitter under a search for #edtechbc!

Eminent Person Wrap Up & Student Examples

As the final week of our class’ Eminent Person Study draws to a close, my RSS feed from our blogs has filled with reports on interviews, summaries of learning centers, reflections on the Night of the Notables itself, and the students’ work continues to astound. Though the grade tens in the class are busy at work drafting a letter to future participants in the project (on how to best tackle the intrinsic curriculum in such endeavors), I am taking this opportunity to share the collected triumphs of our students’ work. If the grade tens’ letter will cover the intangible, I propose that this post serves as a collection of the tangible results of this year’s project.

Enjoy!

Learning Centers

We say that it’s “not your average poster,” when we talk about learning centers. But even when the traditional posterboard comes into play, the results are seldom conventional. Students’ centers are set up during forty-five minutes of gallery viewing on Night of the Notables, and their authors are encouraged to engage their audience in conversation – about their learning journey, about their eminent person’s life and works – or activities – building parachutes with materials available to Leonardo DaVinci, posing for Rolling Stone cover photographs, or walking a mile in the shoes of a blind librarian.

Some excellent examples reported on thus far:

  • Kiko’s Les Paul-itoriumWith the excellent added-touch of an authentic blacktop Les Paul.
  • Andrea’s “Secret Room”To represent the compartment in her Eminent Person’s Dutch home which sheltered escaping Jews from the Nazis, Andrea had guests squeeze into a similarly shaped (and scaled) hideaway and endure the cramped space, too many arms, legs and strangers’ breathing (not to mention audio recordings of shouting Gestapo officers.

Speeches

It has been mentioned on this blog the momentum the class’ grade nines gave to the proceedings on Night of the Notables. As well, the grade tens’ dedication to helping one another form compelling, vivid speeches – and having drafts of their own work available almost a week before Wednesday evening’s presentations – brought an element of teamwork and unity to the proceedings that contributed to master turns of rhetoric and oratory as students took on the following notable personalities:

There is no shortage of other great pieces of student work on the class’ efforts to obtain interviews, construct learning centers, and otherwise reflect upon the rigors of the project to be found on the Shared Feed of the class’ blogs (especially as the examples here merely represent the early-submissions and work will continue to be added to the RSS feed throughout the weekend). I am still planning to post a collection of interview summaries once they are completed, but this could – in the interest of time – be left to the EminentPerson tag on my Delicious Account, where I have been compiling student examples throughout the course of the project.

Once the grade tens letter is posted, we will ultimately have bid adieu to the Eminent Person Study for this year, and the watershed occasion it has marked, and embark upon – as Andrea so eloquently put it – “the next project:”

Representing Democracy: an Introduction to Revolution, Confederation & Collaborative Research, Writing and Performance.

To find your own way…

“To find your own way is to follow your bliss.”
Joseph CampbellUnique Beauty

This past week I have had the supreme pleasure of witnessing a parade of grade nine eminent person speeches, each of which utilized a unique perspective and inspiration of creation that is the mark of a supportive cohort of learners and has set a remarkable tone for the grade ten’s presentations next Wednesday evening. As the grade nines are challenged to speak about the life of their chosen person from the perspective of a someone who would have known their eminent their subject, a crucial brainstorming decision each of them faces is finding the most compelling perspective of narration. This year has been especially exciting as we have witnessed the following:

  • A fevered argument between the Dukes of Florence and Lion who each argued opposing sides of Niccolo Machiavelli’s legacy and legitimacy.
  • Florence Nightingale‘s mother discussing the various means of disappointment her daughter’s career choice of nursing brought her.
  • Testimony on the tumultuous, but always respectful relationship FDR shared with Winston Churchill.
  • A touching biography of Annie Leibovitz narrated by the lens of the camera that captured John Lennon’s final afternoon, and sold millions of Rolling Stones.
  • A vivid narration of escape as related by a slave freed alongside Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad.
  • A young girl’s dying words in the arms of Mother Theresa.
  • The story of Craig Kielburger’s first visit to an African village, as told by a young boy (or girl?) in the village.
  • A seething business-biography of Walt Disney narrated by his former partner (and creator of Mickey Mouse).
  • Mohammad Ali’s childhood friend casually relating his often-interrupted lifelong friendship with Cassius Clay.
  • Isaac Newton’s greatest exploits described from the perspective of the apple which hit him that fateful day.
  • A telling of Jules Verne’s feisty childhood through the eyes of his father, who never quite accepted his son’s career choice.
  • A heartfelt letter from Princess Zhara to her father, spiritual leader Aga Khan.
  • An argument between a teacher giving a lesson about Hellen Keller to the constant interruptions of a blind student lamenting who resents her connection to her historical counterpart.
  • And a tale rich in sibling-rivalry related by Greek poetess Sappho’s brother.

Tree ringsIt was great to see so many of the grade nines taking risks with 8 – 10 minute speeches (a daunting prospect in itself to many people much older than 14) in so many different ways. At the conclusion of each address, the class would discuss the speaker’s successes and ways they could improve in future speeches. Many of the grade tens were able to offer personal connections in their constructive criticism, and at the end of speeches today, once all fifteen grade nines had completed this most formal of the program’s rights of passage, the class recognized the camaraderie such feats establish in a learning environment. As the grade nine’s have completed this dry run at the project’s speech, the grade tens look ahead at a journey that began roughly this time last year, sitting in the same chairs in room 204.

Over the Remembrance Day holiday many of the grade tens posted drafts of their speeches on their blogs, and with co-operation forged Canadian Scottish Marchpastunder the weight of being faced with the same daunting task, the responses were thoughtful, gracious and constructive. Next Wednesday evening, one senses, each of them will not be addressing the library from behind a podium on their own, but with the support of their classmates, parents, teachers and alumni who each share in the celebration of their achievement.

So while I wish the grade tens well on their final weekend of preparation, I congratulate the grade nines on the week they have produced. Each of you has achieved something of which you can be proud, and laid the groundwork for not only this year’s Night of the Notables, but next.

Comprehensive Assessment and the Meaning of Grades

Survival of the Fittest

On the same day that I lost an lengthy post on my experience with comprehensive assessment as a means of focusing classroom learning around the engagement of each student’s role in the group, Dave Truss used as inspiration for his post, Chasing the A, a link to an extensive student blog post: Why our education system is failing. Written in the fiery throat of youth, it is a lengthy tirade against competitive education with an emphasis placed upon the lifelong implications of bad grades:

Education is about unleashing one’s confidence. Education is learning from failure. Education is growing from experience. Education is discovering your passions then pursuing them.

Education is not rote memorization. Education is not analyzing books that have no meaning to you. Education is not wasting your time on subjects you hate. Education is not being paralyzed because your afraid to fail.

In his comment to the above post, Dave makes a case for the intrinsic human compassion schools must foster is compromised in lieu of competition:

Marks seem to take our attention away from what matters. I find it funny that we can assess young kids without grades and then around Grade 3 we suddenly start indoctrinating students into the paradigm of good marks = success…. and the really important things we learn in Kindergarden about sharing, respecting and loving one another, as well as communicating how we feel and getting along with each other, suddenly takes a back seat to achieving some sort of success beyond these things that really matter.

My own remarks, as posted as a comment on Dave’s Pair-A-Dimes Blog, are these:

Amen, to both of you.

Teaching the TALONS we espouse that real learning can seldom be measured by something so crude as numbers, and make a distinction between marks-for-report cards and expectations that go beyond the curriculum on a personal level: the real challenges in our class – as the real challenges of life – involve reflection and risk, a personal investment that is not met where there is a tangible fear of failure (with ramifications that could ruin into “YOUR ENTIRE LIFE!”).

When posed with the inevitable report card, I have found that comprehensive assessment activities have been the most effective in personalizing and empowering learning, while giving an honest reflection of the student’s comprehension of the government’s outcomes. I have students discuss how they went about learning about the topic, sharing strategies and taking ownership over the process. Those who invest throughout the project rise to the occaision, when they must speak to their committment to their learning,and can refer to specific examples of their engagement, while those who may have passively studied only textbook and peer-generated notes package will contribute less to a conversation about ’shared’ learning.

Which all works fine and well in a classroom where the students are peers for two years, who share responsibilites for class trips, events, and community service projects. While some more linear thinkers balk at the idea of self-assessment, and student-created criteria, I tell them that they will only have teachers for a few more years: at some point they will need to know themselves when they have done a ‘good job.’ But in a ‘mainstream’ honours class I taught this past school year, creating such an environment of collaboration and risk-taking among a class of students one year from graduation (a class which yeilded one of my all-time favourite student quotes: A girl in the class showed me her report card, bearing marks in the upper 90s through three courses (chemistry, biology, and PE) and a 92% in my English course. “I know this isn’t my best class,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s my 92-class.” Sigh.). Conversations were guarded, and essay topics seldom shared; more than once a week – even several weeks from report cards – I had discussions with individual students concerned about their grade; report card times were a flood of offers to ‘make up’ marks, ‘rewrite,’ and on and on.

In my opinion, grades spoil the true potential of student learning. Having seen many of my friends, intelligent, ambitious, creative and successful friends make liars of many of our teachers, counsellors & administrators, I feel strongly that what we choose to measure in school is a far cry from what we seek to achieve.

Thanks for making me realize this is not my lone opinion!