Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Narrative #2: The Jeweller's Loupe: Patience, Curiosity, and Care

In our second weekend of the HEAL EDUC 823 course, Professor Kathryn Alexander introduced us to the concept of Traxoline. Being completely unaware of what Traxoline was, I believed it to be some form of craft or artisan work based on the supplies laid on the table by the side wall in the classroom: some rocks, coniferous branches, foodstuff, small plastic objects, among other things. She introduced us to the concept with a short overhead introduction. It went like this:

It is very important that you learn about Traxoline. Traxoline is a new form of zionter. It is monotilled in Ceristanna. The Ceristannians gristerlate large amounts of fevon and then bracter it to quasel traxoline. Traxoline may well be one of our most lukised snezlaus in the future because of our zionter lescelidge.

1. What is traxoline?
2. Where is traxoline monotilled?
3. How is traxoline quaselled?
4. Why is traxoline important?

To read this, it comes across as terms that are jargon, specific to a subject area that looks a lot like gobbledegook to an uninformed learner. If I were to take this test, I could easily score 100% without even conceptualizing what Traxoline is, or how to apply it, or even being able to communicate a simplified definition in lay terms. I could regurgitate the answers to the questions, but I have frame of reference to how Traxoline fits in relation to anything else in my realm of understanding, because I do not have any prior background knowledge relating to Traxoline.

It is a simple, yet epiphanic discovery to be part of the realization of this activity: for a moment, as a learner whose profession is to be a teacher, I immediately become the student in my classroom. The ESL student, the student with learning difficulties or learning disabled, the student who behaviorally challenged, the student who is turned off by the format of the lesson, the student who attempts to win-at-all-costs-get-an-A for the sake of getting an A.

I am all of those in the moment of Kathryn's lesson on Traxoline. All of this is tongue and cheek really. At least, I hope it is.
The test does not matter. In fact, as a student, I do not care about it anymore after I get my 100% on it, and am ready to jump through the next hoop. As students we have proved that we can score highly on the test, and the teacher feels great because we all can demonstrate and understanding of Traxoline and its importance. However, none of us knows what it is, and we can only apply it in so far as the context of the quiz. We have no practical application knowledge of what Traxoline is. As educational psychologist Jerome
Bruner states:

"[I]t is only in the trivial sense that one gives a course (or a lesson in this case) to "get something across" merely to impart information. There are better means to that end than teaching unless the learner also masters himself, disciplines his taste and deepens his view of the world, the "something" that is got across is hardly worth the effort of transmission. (Bruner, Curriculum Studies Reader, 4th Ed. 79)

Kathryn was not trying to "get something across" to us with her Traxoline lesson. Instead, the process of leading us through the exercise placed us as student in role. We experienced what our kids go through in classrooms where they are immersed into learning for the test, rather than learning for understanding and inquiry. We embodied how a student feels and experiences their learning, and are active, reflective participants in the lesson.

Kathryn was actually taking us through a lesson about inspiring creativity and inquiry with a patient and careful approach. We were told to look, look again and draw what we see, taking a snapshot of our world using the Jewellers loupe in order to "deepen our view of the world" as Bruner suggests, by looking at the micro--our hands, fingers, skin, nails, rocks, caterpillars, wool. The ability to see magnifications of up to 5 times with the eye through one loupe, or 10 times with ones eye with two loupe, inspires and arouses a curiosity from the mundane and ordinary. A shocking realization of just what is taken for granted.

By changing focus from the immediate to the micro to the macro and back again and again and again, certain discoveries were made. My hand made apparent to me with more depth via the jewellers loupe: regeneration was constantly happening. Smooth skin on to the naked eye revealed its damaged nature. Dirt in the cracks, beneath the surface blood vessels were abundantly clear. The balance of the past and present developed through the lens. The loupe allowed me to see how we are embodied memory capsules--our bodies carry with us the past through a perspective of the micro.

Observation: We can never really have clean hands.

The process of exploration, as it is clear the process of learning taking place takes precedence here, rather than the "getting of something across":

1. Visually explore the object with the loupe
2. Put pen to paper
3. Loupe, look, draw

After that happens, the keys to the lesson are in the Private Eye 3 questions:

What does it remind me of?
What else does it look like?
Why is it like that?

From this examination of the ordinary, it is key to write down the key questions about what makes the micro so interesting: as each class member examined something unique and different, the exchange of ideas and concepts began to flow in the class as we shared what we saw.
Go slow, look, revision, imagine, draw what you see, change the scale with the two loupes

And I made my observations:

The calm within as I engage my small world of the rock--
And scar
The lines of the small
--a mountain in reduced form
The peaks summited, takes shape and form--
Coulees and canyons apparent through the naked eye
Each mark/crease indicated by rust, the darker inner untouched
Like the edges of the baseboard that never get attention from the vacuum cleaner
The whole, compressed together by separate parts
Forming a 5 part mosaic 
With near seamless construction
This only on one side.
The depth that only one can imagine presented before me

Looking deeply into what is presented before me, rather than dismissing what is on the surface, I am able to see the wonder in what is taken for granted. Imparting this patience, the detailed observation, and depth of inquiry and care is something I must now translate to my students in my classroom, with more care. It is difficult, it is hard work, but necessary.

It is for the curiosity of student learning. It is warming and inspiring. It is what learning must be about!

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Monday, 20 January 2014

Tensions Within the Classroom: Navigating my Teacher Persona, Student, and Curriculum

Today a student approached me with a question. It went like this:

Jason: Mr. Weiss?

Mr. Weiss: Yes, Jason?

Jason: Uh…can we borrow a gun?

Mr.Weiss Why is that, Jason?

Jason: It's uh… for our scene.

Mr.Weiss: I understand that. Why do you need a gun in your scene? These scenes are to be based on a significant life experience that we all shared at check in this morning? I don’t remember you talking about a gun. Do you normally have access to a weapon in your home life?

Jason: Well, no. But we just thought it would make the scene more interesting and fun if we used a gun at the end….

Mr.Weiss: Can you do the scene without using a gun, coming up with a less violent conclusion to your story?


Mr. Weiss: Do you think your group could come up with a scene with a less violent conclusion? This is the fifth scene you have develop with weapons being used.

Jason: Well, maybe, I guess. This sucks….what else can we make our scene about?……

The dialog presented is one that I have with my pupils on a near-daily basis. It stuns me to see a class of students who are in the midst developing their skills over a matter of a 5 month semester, continually making similar mistakes and slip ups, choosing inappropriate content, or changing assignments altogether to conform to their notions of what needs to be included in a Drama scene. The audience member is the one that is directly exposed to such baseless, aggressive behavior on stage. I cannot count how many times over my career that I have seen students (mainly grade 9 boys)  include inappropriate, mature content (violence, substance abuse and trafficking) in what they conceive drama to be about. By the time they are in grades 10, 11, and 12, the students work becomes more refined, purposeful, and thoughtful. The work begins to become more animated than before.

Tensions in my classroom

On a grass roots, frontline level, one source tension in delivering the curriculum stems from a combination of disappointment and exhilaration for the successes and failures of students. That these young students have chosen such mature content, even though they know and understand the boundaries established by the teacher, they continue to exhibit a lack of remorse, awareness, or show of sensitivity to the content they are presenting on stage. I hope for them that they might attempt to be, ironically, a bit less dramatic and more realistic in their scene content choices.
Being a Drama teacher, there are many forces at play in my practice, both internally and externally that lend to the tensions in the daily goings-on of my classroom. I have ministry-mandated curriculum that I must cover for my specific curricular areas I teach; I managed a class of (up to) 30 students from grade 8-12, three to four periods a day; I plan and develop my lessons to have the most impact on my students in helping educate, inform, and shape their world view; I deal with interpersonal conflicts between students; I deal with home-life issues. I strive to draw a group of diverse individuals closer together, day by day, in order to become a unified, accepting body of people who all work together for the group rather than for themselves. This is the ideal outcome for my classes, one that does not always happen.

The tripod: Teacher, Curriculum, and Students

The contact that I have with my students provides an opportunity for the learners to grow and transform socially in magnificent ways. Much of this relationship building comes from the interfacing of a number of things: curriculum, lesson planning, classroom management skills, prior experience, and my approach to the students all contribute to the learning environment. The kids bring ideas, a willingness to learn, risk taking ability, their own creativity and imagination, and their energy.  Marrying both my approach (the teacher) and the students' enthusiasm helps in the community building and partnerships that takes shape. What is produced is borne not only out of the curriculum, but is more products of the way the teacher acts as a medium for the curriculum, and how the students interact with each other, and imagine and create from the curriculum presented to them. It is in this space that a student's confidence begins to develop. On its own, the curriculum is an inert object or set of ideas. It takes both student and teacher to animate the curriculum.

The student as an increasingly confident young adult

My grade 9/10 classroom: a place where students are testing the waters of their skills. In the development of an adolescent, it came up in a conversation between me and a band teacher at my school regarding students and a lack of willingness to perform in their performing arts classes. We spoke about how we often see students at the junior grade levels lack the confidence to perform in acting and band.

Social, physical, and cognitive changes are happening for the adolescent students.  Changes in expectations on them within the family, their personal and social responsibilities, their exposure to multi-media, their smart phone and social media usage, and the parent child relationship all contribute to a child's sense of their place in the world.  They are constantly developing a wider global awareness that has one foot based in their childhood, and the other search for some stable footing on uncertain ground. Often time these students reflect what they see in the world, or from media, or what they are exposed to on a day to day basis.

I recently spoke with a parent of a former student of 5 years in my charge. I asked her just what did the performing arts do for her daughter. The typical pat answer, usually is something along the lines of how “it built her confidence”. I know that about the performing arts, and have seen it time and time again. I dug a little deeper. I needed to know how it built her confidence. I was looking for an answer from a parent’s perspective, not the answer that I knew from watching her grow as a human being over four years. The more projects she worked on, the more confident she became." My response to her was "How was the confidence built? How did that happen for your daughter?"
The parent thought about it for a minute, then said "As she developed through her adolescence, she was able to take on role and act as characters. Each time she did this, she began to sort out who she was not, at the same time understanding who she was." It was through this process of taking on role that she defined herself —a shaping of her-self and her identity.

In my classroom, my expectations for my students are high. Often times, I adjust my expectations for my students to their ability—I recognize that not all students start at the same place or have the same experience or levels of personal self-confidence.  I see this subject area as being personally and socially transformative—however, within each student, growth does not take shape at the same rate. Therefore, as I approach the learner in the classroom, tensions begin to rise to the surface. I realize the need for a tremendous amount of patience for the student in my classroom. This patience runs in relation to the work ethic of the learner—deadlines and assignment/ topic boundaries must be set and enforced, then adjusted to meet the level at which the student is at.
For the aforementioned student whose mother I spoke too, the growth was slow over time, yet once that student showed the slightest bit of proficiency, it created an opportunity to support that student in their learning.

Drama as a unifier

The elective nature of the course, along with the idea of student retention from year to year is something that I keep in mind when assessing, evaluating, and interacting with students at work. This seems to a tension that exists in the back of my mind. It is more of a guiding principle for my course: make the work light, fun, manageable, treat students fairly, and help them to see the possibilities that drama can have in their life. Students will, in turn, see the benefit for their lives, respond, and continue their education along a performing arts path. It could totally backfire on me—they could see the course as too light and end up feeling disengaged.

My job as teacher/facilitator then becomes one who conducts and moves the class along, attempting to achieve moments of unity within and trust within the group—of a shared, collective experience between students. I become a designer of memory making for these students, memories that they can hold on to and learn from, that will help open a door to potentially guide them throughout the rest of their lives. I really believe in helping kids see why they need to choose original, thoughtful, sensitive subject matter is important to not only their lives, and those around them. It is what is prescribed in our curriculum for the Drama classroom!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Film for HEAL: I Am by Tom Shadyac

On the weekend, in class, I mentioned a film on Netflix that deals with many of the issues and topics that we have been discussing in class. The film is entitled I Am by Tom Shadyac. It is a film that delves into the appetizers of the topics that we have sampled in the first semester.

I strongly encourage other HEALer's to check it out before we meet again. It is pretty cool!

Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Mane Event: Pedagogy between a trainer and a horse

10 years ago, my first principal at my first school in Surrey used to utter a proverb. The old adage "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make them drink" was often spoken by him to many that he worked with. 

He used to finish it up with the question:

" how do you make the horse drink?” leaving me at a loss. 

He would shortly thereafter provide the answer: "Salt the oats."

Monday, 30 September 2013

Balancing September

Trying to balance running and cycling... and family, and work, and M.Ed, and .........
This is a post that also appears on

September has nearly come to a close. It started with a Meet Your Maker experience, that was very, very enjoyable and disappointing all in one, and ends with a decision to can the cyclocross season altogether. Along the way included 45 hours of physical activity, nearly 370kms of running on the month, the start of the SFU HEAL Masters in Education, along with the September start up at school.

Finding Balance--the test of ones life:

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Exploring the Body and Mind: Making Connections

Think about the greatest moment in sport that you witnessed happening live, or even the most moving musical performance that had the pleasure of experiencing. Maybe it was the gold medal hockey game at the Olympics in 2010. Maybe you took in the Justin Timberlake concert this past summer (Timberlake is a quintuple threat--he can sing, dance, act, he is a comedian, and he is... a bit of a heart-throb. According to my wife. Yeah...that's it. My wife...)

Our SFU HEAL seminar discussions have revolved around many topics, but there is one main question of inquiry:

What is the connection between the mind and body. What is the relationship?

In our classes, HEAL candidates have taken part in many physical exercises and games. Our professor, Stephen, has challenged HEAL students with activities that, if practiced often enough, would help to rewire our bodies and how we use them. This, in turn, challenges our traditional movement brain routines. As a highly active person, I have difficulty moving my body in ways that are out of my movement pathway routine ( a la running trails or biking all sorts of different terrain). The familiar repetition I experience in those movement strengthens me to do those movements more efficiently the next time I do them again. Over time, I build fitness and my efficiency increases: exercise becomes easier if I do those movements

If I am not biking or running, I am engaging different muscles, some that may or may not be tuned to unfamiliar movements. These new activities and games in class take a bit of time to get used to, but with practise, I can figure out how they work to get by.

For years I have used similar games in my classroom for team and community building exercises, and to break the crippling ice of a classroom full of newbie drama 8 students. However, from my first class in the HEAL program, I am beginning to understand the value of such play activities as a link that connects the mind and body, and just how important that link is.

Rene Descarte, the father of modern philosophy, suggested that the body acts as a machine, and the mind controls that machine. Descartes believed that the mind and body were separate, part of a dualism the addressed in the 17th century. His notions of dualism far reaching implications to how we think and behave today. Our tempered, rational, cognitive, thinking mind has trumped our living in the moment, instinctive, reactive animal brain. Hooray for modern philosophy!!  We can rationalize! We can reason!! We are the pinnacle of all living beings. A win for the evolution of Homo sapiens!!

Or is it?

What we have lost in this Cartesian belief is the autonomy of, or connection to our body and it's ability to be guided by our heart--some may call it our gut--response to situations, and how and when we react to those situations.
Sport, the arts, music, play--all are platforms for us to be able to create, allow our minds to flow, and simply just be. At its best they allow us to exist and live in the moment, be guided by our heart, and perform with a vigor and vitality. Think of amazing performances that transcend what we think is possible for ourselves, and for humankind. Those performances keep us engaged because of the very nature that we cannot help but watch anything else.

Performances as the ones above are magnificent: highly rehearsed, planned, and executed, and very commercial. It is important to note that the connection of mind and body are simply not relegated to a made for TV event. We can experience this connection every day, if we allow ourselves the time to re-train ourselves to think less and act more.

Years ago, I studied at the Vancouver Theatresports League Resident Training Program. For those 6 months with VTSL, we were guided through some challenging yet very creative exercises to access the inner depths of our mind. Doing improv theatre for an audience is something that instantly forces a person to choose, react, create, and be all at the same time, without any thinking taking place, simply reacting.

My former university acting professor, Jim Hoffman, likened the act of improvising to a very simple relationship: Inside our head is a police officer. They are there to help us color in the lines, play by the rules, and allow us to think before we act. When training for improv, that little police officer has to take a coffee break--we must allow ourselves to become uninhibited, and feel while we perform. No offer in improv is a neither good nor bad--it is what we do with it.If a person thinks while engaging in improv, the moment passes, and the work falls flat. Shoring up the time between the idea and the reaction is key for getting quick--in improv it is fast, not funny, witty, thoughtful or contrived that works.

Don't think, do.

The best improvisers are ones who are quick, not clever. The funny, gut wrenching, tear jerking, and beautiful all come from how we interpret their behaviors, in the moment. Improv skills are developed much like muscular fitness develops...

On my way home from the second SFU HEAL session, this beautiful song soothed my soul as the sun was setting. The hauntingly beautiful chorus, in particular, capture my imagination. The connection between mind and body is never more present than when we are in the moment. Perhaps, as Lucinda Williams sings, that moment, our finest moment, is the moment when our time comes to pass......

Sorry to be a killjoy....our own mortality needs to be addressed, respected, and studied in my university studies. I look forward to digging deeper into this question of the relationship between our mind, and our bodies.

Can you think of a time when you experienced your body and mind working together in synchronicity? In posing this question to my students in my classroom, they concurred that the connection is strongest when doing something that they were passionate about.

Also, link a performance of greatness in the comments section below. I would love to have you share something you find to be simply amazing!