Big Bang 2017

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Things got real at the Improv Everything event on Thursday at Big Bang. 

July 24th to 28th marked the second Big Picture Learning conference, Big Bang, that our school has attended. As the Maples Met School opened its doors last year and now is expanding heading into September, this second conference was a brilliant time to connect with friends throughout the BPL network, to engage in deep conversations about student-centered learning, and to begin thinking about what educative experiences we want to create and foster for the upcoming year.

Big Bang is also a time for the faculty at the Maples Met School and the Seven Oaks Met School to get to know each other better and to learn from each other. The host city, St. Louis, was an outstanding venue to connect with themes related to reconciliation (it was hard to ignore the overwhelming celebration of Manifest Destiny), to poverty, and to the arts, innovation, and urban revitalization.

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The Maples Met and the Seven Oaks Met crew kidnapped Greg Young from Project Foundry and hit the streets of St. Louis!

One of the incredible highlights of the conference was the keynote discussion facilitated by BPL Co-Executive director Carlos Moreno with actor/artist/activist Wendell Pierce. Most will know Pierce from his incredibly impactful role in what might be considered the best television programme ever created, HBO’s The Wire.

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Photo form Big Picture Learning featuring Carlos Moreno on the left and Wendell Pierce on the right.

Pierce spoke at great length about his experience growing up in New Orleans and how this shaped the work that he does now. His message, bathed in historical thinking (be leery of those who ignore history), emphasized a need for social entrepreneurship, collective resistance, and a need for our schools to nurture the knowledge and historical thinking required to confront the very real forces determined to maintain an inequitable control of resources and the means of production. (Pierce did claim to be a capitalist and argued that “real” capitalism would create some sort of social justice through innovation. I wish there was time to have challenged this, as capitalism at its core is about the exploitation of resources, both human and natural.)

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Image created by Rachel Brian, an artist from Providence who created incredible pieces of art representing our discussions throughout the week. You can check her work out at: http://www.blueseatstudios.com

What was striking about Pierce’s positioning was one particular sentence: “There are those who do not have our best interests at heart.”

This sentence, which he used with intention throughout his conversation with Carlos, was perpetually scaffolded by linking cause and consequence of historical events and forces. (A brilliant example of the use of the Historical Thinking Skills.) The past 500 years of European oppression, imperialism, and genocide has created deep trauma and deep chasms in how we treat each other on this continent.

Pierce created a clear line of historical reasoning as he linked recent events in Ferguson and the ubiquitous murders at the hands of police in the United States to centuries of oppression. (Let’s not pretend that this profound marginalization has not and does not happen north of the 49th parallel. Canada just might be better at covering such marginalization up.)

From government, government agencies, corporate interests, and a constant desire to maintain the status quo, Pierce succinctly articulated the dark clouds which prevent many within our society from achieving self-actualization. (And I am absolutely checking my white, male, European privilege and understanding that I might be a cog in this oppression.)

If we bring things back to the local, what are the examples in Winnipeg and Manitoba where people most certainly do not have the interests of our learners at heart? Might it be with city zoning failures, the failed attempts to inquire into missing and murdered indigenous women, the elimination of funding to women’s shelters, the lack of desire to service railways to the north but to support further beautification of urban parks, or the elimination of lactation consultants and other essential health services?

These are attacks on our community’s best interest and the antidote is where Big Picture schools, or Met schools, are well positioned. With our focus on relationships, relevance, and rigour, our mission is to fundamentally expose our learners to how their lives have been interwoven in a complex trajectory and to question their purpose on this planet and this universe. That’s why we leave to learn, that’s why we connect them with powerful mentors in the community, and that’s why we base everything we do on critical ways of thinking and deconstructing powerful existential problems and questions.

As a faculty at the Maples Met School, many of our discussions leaving the conference in various airport lounges were based on empowering our learners — empowering them, as Pierce suggested, “to exercise their right to self-determination.” The challenge, as it always is, is to know as the adult when to shut up, step out of the way, and let the learner drive her inquiry and purpose.

This is the magic of BPL and student-centered learning — placing the interests and passions of the learner before anything else.

 

 

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Big Picture Learning and the Autism Spectrum

2542582474_7d6d27790c_oA group of educators, including myself, was invited last year to help create the second BPL school in Canada. There are two Met Schools now in Canada and they happen to be in Winnipeg in the Seven Oaks School Division. Our new school, the Maples Met School, began in September 2016 and it has been a brilliant experience.

One of the fascinating trends we have noticed as a faculty is that learners on the Autism Spectrum have gravitated to our model. Our neighbouring school (and our heroes for mentoring us this year!), the Seven Oaks Met School, has also noticed this trend. While this has been really exciting, I was underprepared and we needed to do some action-research on the fly.

I have taught Canadian History for the past number of years at an independent school, so coming into a brand new Met School with such diversity has been incredibly rewarding and challenging. That’s not to say that many of us have not encountered learners on the Autism Spectrum in our career, but within BPL schools and the Seven Oaks School Division, inclusivity is a central tenet.

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Karen Hiscott, Principal of Constable Finney School

Having said this, we had a tremendous amount to learn. By January, we were feeling pretty overwhelmed and we were equally frustrated at our collective inability to properly serve these incredible students. By chance, as things generally go, I attended a regularly scheduled monthly administration meeting.  At this meeting, a colleague of mine, Karen Hiscott, who was then the principal of Governor Semple School (She has moved on to be the Principal at Constable Finney School) was speaking to her research she had/has undertaken for her Master’s Degree thesis.

Karen spoke about how she had some profound experiences working with students on the Spectrum and this led to her line of inquiry and passion for working with learners with Autism. I immediately clung to Karen’s passion and wisdom and asked her to meet with our faculty to present some of her findings. Because she is awesome, she immediately offered her time and expertise.
She pointed us to several resources, but one of the most profound might be Barry Prizant’s book Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism. Karen’s research and Dr. Prizant’s book gave me a completely different understanding of Autism, where our learners might be at, and how our school might better nurture the amazing gifts and enthusiasms that our learners possess.
Through Karen’s research and dedication and Dr. Pizant’s years of experience, the Maples Met began and has begun to create an environment and educative experiences which seek to honour all our learners and also to nurture and respect those students on the Autism Spectrum.

We have failed many times and have had a few victories here and there, but one thing is for certain: Big Picture Schools are indeed ideally designed for learners on the Autism Spectrum.

At this year’s Big Bang (The Big Picture Learning network annual conference), I invite you to join our school in a conversation about how we create learning communities that are inclusive to all students. We will be sharing the voices of some of our students and their families about what has worked at our BPL school and what has not.

If you do decide to join us on July 26th at 1:30 pm (You can register using Guidebook), here are some resources that might prove valuable in preparation (Thanks to Karen Hiscott, Jennifer McGowan, and Dr. Tomy):

Prizant, B.M. (2015). Uniquely human: A different way of seeing autism. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Quek et al. (2012). Co-occurring anger in young people with Asperger’s Syndrome. Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol 68(10), pp 1142-1148.

Simone, R. (2010). Aspergirls: Empowering females with Asperger Syndrome. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.