Taking Chances at Sea and in the Classroom

Today’s blog post is about… you guessed… taking chances. It’s scary as a professional to also be a risk taker, yet I’ve found that it often leads to my best moments as a teacher. A few years back I took a chance and decided to take a year’s leave of absence so that I could work on Class Afloat, a school based on a tall ship called the S/V Concordia. We sailed around the Atlantic with gr. 11 and gr. 12 students for ten months, visiting nearly 20 countries. It sounds like an awesome adventure — and it was — but more importantly it was a risky move for a guy who didn’t know the first thing about sailing, or teaching classes like Multi-Media while working on a ship without the internet. Class Afloat became one of the most influential experiences I’ve ever had as a teacher, forcing me to get out of my comfort zone, to make my teaching more authentic, and demanding that become adaptable and open to challenge and change. Connections with students were fostered through our shared experience of learning, being open to trying new things, and not being scared to show our vulnerabilities.


How am I taking chances in my teaching now? Well, I’m not climbing aloft to unfurl the sails at 6am, that is for sure. I’m trying something new in my grade 12 English course, and it revolves mainly around voice and choice. I’m attempting to co-construct the course with my students; a course that I have never taught before, only dreamed about teaching.  We are focussing on the genre known as “New Journalism”, primarily non-fiction long form essay writers, starting with Truman Capote, and moving forward to writers like Chris Jones, Jon Krakauer, and Sebastian Junger. I wanted students to have choice in who they read, what they read, and how they showed their learning. Down the road I’d like to create an iBook that houses all of the course materials, but for now, I’ve chosen to release them into the crazy world of online reading, mostly on their own. It creates a sense of vulnerability for me as a teacher because I’m no longer the sole holder of knowledge. I’ve let go and, instead, I’m focussing on skills rather than content. Is it working?

At this point students have chosen who their focus writer will be and what platform they will use to create an E-portfolio on that writer. Most have chosen to create a community on Google Plus, which has me pretty excited. The long term plan is students will identify the particular style of their writer of choice and emulate that style in a pastiche non-fiction essay on a topic of their choice. In addition, they will be writing reflections and critical analysis essays on different pieces by their writer of choice. I’m hoping to get a conversation going on Twitter about how their writer is relevant in today’s world. Everything will be published to their portfolios and, hopefully, we can share those portfolios with the outside world.

Gr. 12 English - Community - Google+ 2015-10-31 11-56-23

I don’t have an exemplar portfolio to show them. I’m not familiar with all of the individual writers that my students have chosen. I’m struggling to ensure that deeper learning is happening by giving them the rhetorical tool-kit to deconstruct and approach a piece of writing. Recent assessments for learning indicate students don’t have a great handle on that tool-kit.

Taking chances in the classroom means for me, relinquishing control. I look forward to updating this blog with the outcomes of my students’ work. Until then, keep the ship pointed into the wind.

5 thoughts on “Taking Chances at Sea and in the Classroom

  1. Wow Hurley! Co-constructing content and, I’m guessing, criteria, creative application, reflection (self-actualization?)? Looks like you’re heading straight for the top of Maslow and Bloom. You’re killing it.

    For sure man, it’s within those risks that life and learning are so alive, and thanks for the peak into your life. I guess the trick is similarly positioning our students. What does that mean? Disrupting routine, expectations? Maybe setting targets/posing challenges that are beyond what they think they can meet? Maybe it’s in allowing them to define their exploration – not just in what they’re learning, but how they’re expressing it.

    So cool Hurley.

  2. What a great adventure Brent! I think you’re really on to something here… What about breaking it down to learning goals?

    You should touch base with @lmcbeth and how she’s using DocAppender – you’d love it and her feedback turn around is at times less than 5 minutes… It’s amazing!

  3. Brent,
    co-creation is the first step towards reimagining the classroom and students as a co-learning relationship space.

    One thing that you may want to consider is joining with other English teachers/classrooms on Twitter. @sthomas @amacinnis come to mind for sure. I’d love to put you in touch with my English teachers as well. Would it have to be grade specific?


  4. Brent — indeed, the co-creation model beautifully supports the larger shift at TCS to student-centered learning. Thanks for being on the leading edge!

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