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It was more than a month ago now that I attended a Glen Hansard concert in Toronto, but something he said between songs still reverberates through my mind on a regular basis. If you’re not familiar with Glen and his music from the Oscar-winning film, “Once”, the resulting duo ‘The Swell Season‘, or even The Frames (the Irish band he founded and led between 1990-2006), suffice it to say that he is a special performer. His connection with his audience is so pure and his stage presence is unassuming and genuine–simply mesmerizing! After guiding the crowd at The Music Hall through the singing of backing vocals on a solo performance of “Back Broke” (YouTube video linked here) he complimented the audience and remarked that the aura in the room felt “like church, without the church.” I wholeheartedly agreed.

I couldn’t help but explode the implications of that statement over the days that followed. I assume we can agree that congregational singing is relatively scarce in our 21st-century society; it rarely goes on beyond the confines of church buildings–and at times, concert halls–yet when presented with the opportunity to collectively produce a joyful noise, we eagerly accept the challenge and the result is beautiful. I dare say there’s even a connectedness that results, due in no small part to the charisma and prowess of the leader (in this case, the esteemed Mr. Hansard). If we extend the simile even further, we might conclude that with or without the ‘church’, we all possess an innate desire to worship (someone or something). I doubt very much that Glen felt ‘worshipped’ on this particular night or wished for his adoring fans to relate to him in such a way, but by likening the solemnity and unity brought on by the shared production of music to a church-going experience, he offers us an interpretative lens through which we can better understand our relationship to him and those seated around us.

Two weeks removed now from my most recent long-term teaching assignment, I feel as though I am finally in a position to reflect on what I believe was a positive educational experience for myself and ‘my’ students. At first, it was painful to bid farewell to the wonderful group of 9th-grade students I had helped usher through the first days of highschool, and leave behind an ambitious group of 12-graders that I desperately wanted to encourage and equip for the bright post-highschool futures they’ve begun to pursue! Now, I am grateful for the time we spent together, in a humble classroom, united by our common–often undetected or unexplainable–desire to learn. For me, at least…it felt like school, without the school!

I mean not to suggest that the structures and co-participants that comprise a school building and community are or should be absent. In fact, they are integral and welcome, especially in these early years of my career where the support of colleagues and the predictable routine of school life are consummate lifesavers! I merely intend to suggest that once the door closes to that classroom and we consent to learn together for a period of time, it is as if all else fades into the background. We may not have even realized that we had this innate desire to ‘sing’ with a group, but as more of us give it a try, exciting things start to happen!

Jabiz Raisdana (@intrepidteacher) does an excellent job of giving shape and substance to the abstract dynamic that we enjoy as educators when a classroom environment just works! In a brief talk he recently gave at Learning 2.012 in Beijing, he outlines the importance of deliberately breathing life into the physical and online spaces that are so often ‘dead’ if left unmodified and untended. We invite students into these spaces, beg them to engage with us and learn with us, but fail to realize that we are responsible to establish (at least, initially) environments where students feel confident and comfortable expressing themselves honestly and creatively. The successes he shares verify that once our students begin to cultivate and own their learning environments, the boundaries inhibiting self-expression and creativity vanish.

My physical classroom ‘space’ was far from refined, and the online spaces within which we interacted were only beginning to blossom, but I believe that the fruit to which I bore witness in a mere 7 weeks resulted from the fact that students knew that our classroom was a place where ideas and thinking were prized above all else, and their personal contributions were valued enormously as together we sought to improve our skills and arrive at greater understanding. Course content was not a means to an end (required, dull, and arbitrary) but a pathway to relevant, tangible knowledge about the world we inhabit. Whether we were analyzing a seminal work of literature, identifying the building blocks of a meaningful story, or decoding the influences that inform our identities, we charged ahead with purpose and conviction. Risk-taking was celebrated and challenges bravely accepted.

I understand that this all sounds relatively vague and idealistic thus far, so permit me to be concrete and specific:

  • I applaud the students who were willing early-on in our time together to articulate a moral viewpoint and respectfully challenge the opposing views of others in the class.
  • I salute the reluctant writers, who typically responded to weekly writing assignments with fear and trembling, but eventually were willing to share their work online with their classmates. The praise you received for your efforts was well-earned!
  • I acknowledge the reluctant readers who demonstrated that they are absolutely capable of reading on a symbolic level.
  • I am impressed by the poetic language, insight, and wit that populated the creative dramatic works I was privileged to read.
  • I am extremely proud of the class who prepared themselves for a challenging in-class essay and skillfully argued their interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most complex plays!

Schools are not buildings but communities of people in pursuit of common goals. It is possible to do school without ‘the school’. When you’re fortunate enough to teach in a school like Galt Collegiate Institute (GCI), there is no desire/cause to dissociate one’s classroom from the school in which it resides, but I relish the moments when our classroom–the ‘school within the school’–was all that existed. I am convinced that the classes I surrendered will continue to flourish under new leadership and my sincere hope is that the mutual respect and unity among students will strengthen and their passion for knowledge will increase!

I recall part of our conversation as the three of us travelled home from Toronto after Glen’s performance in late September. My friend Chelsea (@MissusRoy) thoughtfully commented that at times it appeared as if Glen had such an “intimate connection with the band that it felt like we were intruding”. At times, perhaps, it felt to the onlooker like a band performing only for themselves out of sheer love for the sound they could produce collectively. Perhaps that’s why we were so thrilled to enter in and participate; it was clear that all involved were savouring each chord and note! I remember my clichéd response, something about how Glen and his band ‘left everything on stage’.

Clichéd though it may be…I hope that I ‘left everything on stage’ at GCI for the betterment of the students! I enjoyed the music we made together.