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My Guitar Class is More than a Class

It’s an environment for action, collaboration, and innovation to take place, and for this innovation to be owned by the individuals and groups that fill these spaces.
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The best advice about pedagogy I ever received came from one of my teacher-idols on the day he retired. Richard Dixon was the drama teacher at our school for more than a decade, taught in English classrooms before that, and was a jack-of-all-trades-and-grades teacher in B.C.’s north as a younger man. He was resolutely revered by his students and peers at every turn throughout his career; his retirement gala lasted over an entire June weekend in our school’s theater, and included songs, skits, speeches and one-act plays presented by students he had taught and people he had worked with going back thirty years and more than a thousand kilometers.

As a drama teacher, Richard employed the ‘black box’ theatre mode – sparse props and tech support, black backdrops and minimalism throughout – to bring life to his productions. He also wrote multiple original works for his classes to perform every semester.

Every. Semester. New plays, with roles and conflicts tailored to the individuals in his classes. They would rehearse for a few weeks, and then perform the plays, sprawling ensemble-monsters that spanned genres and themes from sci-fi to fantasy to slapstick to realism and back again, dealing with young love, fitting in, drugs and alcohol and the spectre of the future for parents and peers in matinees and evening shows where the students shone.

As a mode of teaching, Richard transcended innovationand went about continually inventing his classroom environment out of blank space and the unique personalities that filled it. And while many of these plays were banged out on a typewriter, and others were written into formatted word documents to be printed out and memorized, I always come back to believing that it is this type of invention and innovation our classrooms so badly need today, just as they always have.

What this process taught the students in his classes about themselves and one another, and their individual and shared roles in the world is something I doubt I have ever seen approached in other classrooms. As a mode of teaching, Richard transcended innovation and went about continually inventing his classroom environment out of blank space and the unique personalities that filled it. And while many of these plays were banged out on a typewriter, and others were written into formatted word documents to be printed out and memorized, I always come back to believing that it is this type of invention and innovation our classrooms so badly need today, just as they always have.

On his last day of school, Richard and I were talking about the new guitar class I was going to be teaching the following September, just down the hall from what would no longer be his classroom’s black box. I told him that aside from being excited at the prospect of the course, I didn’t know where I wanted to take it just yet. 

“The important thing to remember,” he said, “is that every class you teach is just another opportunity for students to practice forming communities.”

And I think that this is what the best teachers have always done for their students: invent the possibility for communities of trust, of empathy and learning to be formed in their classrooms. They create the environment for action, collaboration, and innovation to take place, and for this innovation to be owned by the individuals and groups that fill these spaces.

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And I think that this is what the best teachers have always done for their students: invent the possibility for communities of trust, of empathy and learning to be formed in their classrooms. They create the environment for action, collaboration, and innovation to take place, and for this innovation to be owned by the individuals and groups that fill these spaces. It took two years of teaching the guitar course after Richard retired, but I eventually stumbled into a project that allowed me to see the thin edge of the wedge to establish just this sort of collaborative inquiry and problem solving in our school’s Introduction to Guitar course.

With the idea having hatched on the morning’s drive to work, I proposed to my students that we transform the classroom itself, the time we would have each day while the class met, and the nature of the tasks the group undertook together to centre around the age old teenage compulsion to create and express a personal culture and community in rock and roll. As a music teacher by experiential training only (I don’t read music, have never played in a band, and have conducted the entirety of my musical studies as a self-trained adult), I would focus my attention as a teacher on structuring the early phases of the project, and use my tools as a group leader to help the various Committee Chairpeople and elected Project Managers accomplish their goals.

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Over the course of the last eight weeks of school – including a glorious month of June for the graduating seniors in the class – the group went about seeing what it might take, consulted with the people who might show us the way, and before our eyes brought The Bears into being. Various groups and individuals brainstormed prospective band names and logos, while others organized class votes and solicited songs and riffs that were brought to the wider group for rehearsal.

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A tech crew learned to run our school’s PA system and made notes for how to rig the band’s lead guitars (such that they could be heard above the twenty-odd acoustics in the group). There was a group taking video of all of it, a group screening T-shirts and drafting up flyers to promote the gig the Bears planned to deliver following locker cleanout in the school’s foyer on the last day of school.

After the dust had settled and we were storing the gear back in the class, many of the Bears made a point of hanging around for a few minutes to take pictures with one another, shake their friends’ hands and otherwise just linger in the magical atmosphere the guitar classroom had been transformed into by their efforts.

“This class was more than a class,” one of the young men who was graduating told me on his way out the door. “Just what it was, I’m not sure. But it was pretty great.”

I’m beginning to figure out to how to do what Richard did in his theatre class, and how to provide my own students with an environment where they might become the innovators and inventors of themselves and their own worlds, breathe life into their own ideas, and figure out how to take their communities beyond the sum of their individual parts.

And even while I might have my own suspicions about just what it was that happened that semester, knowing that some of those students will spend months trying to put their finger on just what it was, or that some of them might spend years reflecting on how they contributed to its success, and that a few might even spend their lives figuring out how they might do it again is an inspiring thought.

It’s a thought that makes me realize that I’m beginning to figure out to how to do what Richard did in his theatre class, and how to provide my own students with an environment where they might become the innovators and inventors of themselves and their own worlds, breathe life into their own ideas, and figure out how to take their communities beyond the sum of their individual parts.

Because it’s innovation like this that’s been at the heart of our story as a species since it began, and one that should never be far from our classrooms as we go about preparing tomorrow’s minds.