Cobden High School was replaced by a brand new school, Opeongo in 1968. It was built half way between the village of Cobden and the village of Eganville to the west. The two small communities had been ardent sports rivals for years and neither would agree to put the school on the other’s turf. The result was that teaching and administrative staff as well as students all had to travel by car or school bus to get to the building smack in the middle of a farm field. It added 10 miles to my commute each way and some students also had to travel about 40 miles to get to school.
But it was a marvellous place. There were good facilities and its first principal, Don Whillans, supported all kinds of innovation and continued on the job until his retirement in 1986. The second year after the school opened he agreed to program an extra unit of English for the entire eleventh grade as an experiiment. We taught six week modules in various subject areas in rotation. The department head was delighted to spend six weeks solely on grammar and usage; I taught a unit of improvised drama. The assistant head who had started the ball rolling on the experiment offered a unit entitled, Understanding Media and Marshall MacLuhan. Regular English classes were also branching into new territory where the lyrics of Sgt. Pepper competed with Tennyson and Browning.
When I began to teach a novel to a regular class, one student came to me and asked to beg off because he had read it and wanted to do something different? “What do you want to do?” I asked. “Make a movie”, he replied. “How will you do that”? It turned out that he had already conscripted a part-time technical assistant to help. The latter was finishing up a couple of credits and the principal had astutely hired him to be the media person, who would deliver projectors to the classroom all ready to go. Since most of us didn’t have a clue as to how to run a projector, this saved hours of rewinding and repair. The technical assistant also had a movie camera.
The student conceived of a film that would support tourism at a nearby First Nations Reserve. His plan was to visit it and interview its residents. Of course he had never been there and the scene that met him was not one that inspired tourism. He stuck with his original script but what the camera caught was totally different. It was the best example of irony that had ever entered my classroom. When the time came to show the film to the class, they were riveted. The camera man also filmed the class as they watched it, and filmed them again as they watched themselves watching. The process would have continued indefinitely but we eventually had to stop.
What I learned was the opportunity to step back and let students learn by themselves. I was reasonably good learner in my own right but I was also a conventionally trained teacher, I had not been taught to trust that others could learn by themselves just as competently. I have often wondered whether the two film makers went on to professional careers, but whatever happened they certainly benefited then from being set free of the normal classroom requirements..