Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Theme of Our Work

I studied math and computer science in college, not literature or writing. I have always loved  reading books of all types, though, and I have more recently tried my hand at writing fiction. 

One concept I hadn't considered much until I began writing is theme. Once I came to understand it better, I realized it was a source of most of my fascination with great stories over the years. It was a subtle, unstated message buried in every scene. It hinted at purpose beyond just the events I was reading or (in the case of my favorite movies) watching.

Here's a definition of theme from For our purposes, especially notice the sentences in bold.

"As a literary device, theme refers to the central, deeper meaning of a written work. Writers typically will convey the theme of their work, and allow the reader to perceive and interpret it, rather than overtly or directly state the theme. As readers infer, reflect, and analyze a literary theme, they develop a greater understanding of the work itself and can apply this understanding beyond the literary work as a means of grasping a better sense of the world. Theme is often what creates a memorable and significant experience of a literary work for the reader."

So I think of theme as a message the author is saying without saying it. It's the "why" woven through everything. I particularly like the idea from this definition that it can make a story memorable and give us a better sense of the world.

So when it comes to teaching like an artist, let's think about the theme of our work as educators. If you're a teacher, what is the overall theme of your classroom? If you asked your students that question, would they have the same answer as you do?

If you're a principal, what's the theme of your building? What overall message comes through the day to day routines and activities that take place through every classroom? What would your teachers and students say the theme is?

I would hope the theme of my work is that every learner (including those of us paid to be at the school) should find their passion and purpose, then do their best work from the energy they provide.

Some other questions to consider as we reflect on this:

  • Should we state our theme explicitly? Or should we do our best work and let those who benefit from it find the theme with their hearts? 
  • How can we know the theme we hope to convey is coming through? What indicators will we see and hear?
  • Is the message of my theme for every learner I encounter in my work? Is anyone being left out?
  • If the learners I work with are getting a different message from my work, how can I address that?

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

What Would Be Amazing?

This past spring, I asked if I could change my focus in the district where I work. For 14 years I served as the instructional tech coordinator. I wanted to emphasize instruction more, regardless whether tech was involved. I was glad to find the district administrators were open to the change.

So as I've been planning instructional coaching meetings with individuals, this question came to mind:  What would be amazing?

I have spent most of my career with "doing something amazing" as my end goal. But I learned that everyone in education has slightly to drastically different ideas of what "amazing" would look like.

What are some things that would happen in your district that would catch your attention as amazing? What would happen in your classroom that would make you say, "Wow"? What could your students do that would be labeled amazing?

I want to start conversations with that question. I want to learn if those amazing things they tell me would be done by the teacher I'm meeting with, by their principals, or by the students. Would other people think they're amazing? Would I think they're amazing?

Whatever the answer is, it won't be as important as what it reveals. Such an answer speaks volumes about things like:

  • What does quality work look like?
  • Who's responsible to make amazing things happen?
  • Who has to (or we think has to) do their part before we will move to do ours?
  • What really matters in the job we do every day?
For example, I worked with one teacher who dreamed up an impressive project last year when I challenged her to do something amazing. I fully expected to do all the dreaming myself, but she did research and came up with something that inspired another teacher from another district to do something similar

On the other hand, I've talked with some teachers over the years who imagine an amazing day as a classroom full of compliant students. Or maybe a test where everyone gets a high score. I'm not saying those aren't amazing things, but I'm saying a person's answer to the question speaks volumes about our starting place. 

If we don't ask, and if we don't identify these big differences in expectations, we very likely will assume we're all trying to get to the same place. We'll likely be upset with how poorly one thing is going, when others think everything is great.

So part of my reflection time this summer has been spent answering that question for myself. What would be an amazing result in the first weeks of my new position? What will be amazing at the end of first semester? Or the school year? 

Give it a try and see what list you come up with. Share it with your colleagues, and have them answer it too.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

What Dreams Do We Have for Our Students?

Over the past three weeks I helped our high school principal, Loren Dockins, with a vision setting activity that has been encouraging. I say that based on the responses we received and the excitement we have at continuing the work. We still have a lot to sort through and much work ahead on the overall plan.

I'll share the document we used and describe how we ran it below. I'll also explain why I think the starting point is so powerful. First, here's some brief background.

It's coming up on two years since our district first shut down due to COVID-19. Like nearly every school, the ups and downs of dealing with the virus has made it very difficult to focus on long term goals and overall direction. We wanted a course correction.

Loren and I met with Dr. Scott McLeod at the end of 2021. That led to some rough plans for activities to involve teachers in setting a vision for our high school. Dr. McLeod suggested we look at the Portrait of a Graduate website for ideas. I was particularly inspired by this article, Dream, Don't Fix, which I found on that site.

The article talked about starting with a dream instead of a problem we want to fix. That was interesting enough to me, but what really caught my attention was that dream was not our dream for us. It suggested starting with what teachers dream for their students.

For all the talk I've done the past 15 years about what's right for students, I don't think I ever articulated the dream I had for them. What do I want for the students who go through our school? Not just in some vague sense, but what would I say if I had to state it concisely? What do my colleagues and my administrators dream for them?

So from that article and all our discussion, I drafted three questions and ran them by Loren. We fleshed it out more together, then sent it to Dr. McLeod for feedback. He thought the questions were excellent. He reminded us that whatever we get back from teachers, their answers would help us know where we are at and what our next steps should be.

My suggestion for this activity was to require every teacher to work on it alone. We had discussed similar questions before in groups, but in retrospect, I didn't see much impact of those meetings. Loren agreed we needed to let each of them work alone. He sent this Google Doc (through Google Classroom) to teachers with very little additional information. Loren he only urged them to take their responses seriously. It was important to us that no one felt compelled to give the answer Loren wanted to hear. 

See the document for the exact wording of this questions, but here's a summary of what we asked:

  1. What is your dream for the students who will graduate from our high school?
  2. Considering the state of the world and changes ahead, what skills and knowledge will our students need to achieve that dream? (We asked them to list these things in specific areas, like academics or training, jobs and careers, etc.)
  3. Looking at your lists from Question 2, choose 5 - 10 traits that you think our students need.
  4. Rate how apparent each of those skills are in the members of our current senior class.
  5. What comments do you have about this topic or this activity?

Loren told me he was encouraged and excited by the results he received. I suspect teachers will also be very interested to see what everyone wrote. A lot more discussion is needed, but we plan to use the responses to define work for a committee tasked with setting a fresh vision for the school.

I passed the questions along to our middle school and elementary principals as well. The question will look different for them, but we all agreed it will be beneficial for similar work to be done there. 

I'll follow up with more resources and what we learned as our work continues.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Strengths, Weaknesses and Learning


I'm working with several teachers this year on what I'm calling a Go Beyond Challenge. It's about stretching rather than getting back to normal. I am sharing more about the ongoing work on my other blog.

For purposes here, to focus more on inspiration, I wanted to share some general principles I've keyed into while working on the projects. These are three things I hope to do for students, regardless of the class or the project.

  • Reveal their strengths - When I'm in the classroom, I'm looking for the chance to say, "Wow, you have a real talent for that!" I don't necessarily mean a talent for the course content. I'm looking for things like a student who has a good speaking voice in their podcast or the one who makes an impressive graphic for their video's title image. I am looking for examples of quality work I can share beyond the classroom.
  • Give them confidence to work through weaknesses - I once read somewhere that efforts to improve employees' weaknesses are not as effective as letting those employees work in areas of their strengths. Of course, in school we're focused on learning, so I hope students will do a little of both. When it comes to weak areas, though, I want to show students they can still succeed in spite of the weakness. Whether it's a skill they struggle with (math, drawing whatever), a work habit, or even a preference ("this stuff is boring"), I want to help them see that with extra effort and proper tools they can press past it and still do quality work. They don't have to rise to the top of the class in that area, but I want to make it clear to them it doesn't have to hold them back. 
  • Show them they can learn - Most importantly, I want students I work with to feel confident that they can learn. Confident, competent learners have an edge in our changing world. I want them to understand that and experience it. My usual way to do this is to provide ample time for reflection throughout the project. Good questions allow them to think about what they knew or thought before and after an activity. They also give opportunities for them to connect the content to their own experiences and opinions.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

8 Years of Teaching Like an Artist


A popular early post from my blog

In 2013 I started writing about teaching like an artist. It was such a time of refreshing for me. As I wrote in my previous post (which is several months old now) it has been more of a struggle to maintain the vision and keep this blog alive lately. 

The Way of the Artist, which I so often lifted up, is to dream big, do the work and share it. Looking at my creative pursuits, I haven't abandoned that. I just have lost the vision for teaching like an artist. 

Somewhat that's true because I have found some promising pursuits in other areas. I'm actually having a little success with game designs again. I've been writing fiction and loving it.

But I also have less vision for teaching like an artist because I don't know that it ever panned out. In terms of inspiring students and teachers, it didn't pan out in any big way. I wanted so badly to see that. I worked for it and expected it, just like you'd expect fire to spread if you dropped a match on a pile of newspaper. 

Instead, the routine of what school has always been won out. A year and a half of COVID didn't help, of course. But even before the virus gained attention on the horizon, I had nearly given up hope.

Last week I was talking to a friend about this. We were discussing just how much we can influence the drive that our students have to succeed. She told me she can't be that kind of person who gives up on trying. That's nice, I guess, but I'd really like to know. I like to be motivated by more than just my chemical make-up. Is it worth holding on, trying again, and giving up other things to do the work?

I told her that in the moment I usually find the energy to keep the dream alive. At school, when it's time to talk to students, yes, I try to inspire. It's much harder to get excited about that outside of school, though. I'm more likely to look back on 27 years of teaching and wonder if the others were right. Those teachers who lived by the contract, tried mostly to just meet the bare minimum, and spent every free minute doing what they liked outside of school, were they the smart ones?

I haven't given up. I look forward to some opportunities I know are coming in this new school year. But I have to consciously do that. I have to will it. Hopefully by year nine I'll have better stories to tell.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

The Challenge of Teaching Like an Artist

The past year was difficult for everyone. Not that it was any worse for me personally, or as an educator, but it did certainly pose a unique challenge in my line of work. As an instructional tech, I had built somewhat of a platform about teaching to inspire. It was the basis of my presentations and my blogs.

Inspiring? As any teacher will tell you, trying to do school in any way the past year was anything but inspiring.

It was exactly a year ago that we learned schools would be shut down in our state. I had been at an ed-tech conference the day before. It was supposed to take two days. Instead, they tried heroically to put together some virtual options for the first day and they canceled the second.

My school closed a day early, so we could get a plan together. I was very happy with what the leaders and teachers from our small district accomplished in a mere four days. By March 17th, we rolled out a K-12 plan to keep in touch with students for what we hoped would be just a couple weeks.

Of course, we never returned to school that year. In those weeks that followed, I learned just how far the teachers in my district were from actually making online learning work. That's not an insult to them. Most schools were in the same situation. I did think we would have been a little more prepared, given the twelve years I worked in the district to help them do just that. 

I still maintain that if we had been prepared, it would have given our students a huge advantage. It's a relatively small number, but imagine those students who already had the skills and discipline to learn on their own when schools shut down. When almost every student was facing a setback, it was an opportunity for them to forge ahead. 

While I'd never hope for (or even imagine) such a drastic turn of events that brought us to that point, I hoped I was helping teachers and students be prepared for such opportunities. Being able to learn is a necessary skill for success in today's world. We've known that for years. I hoped I was helping teachers help students get ready. Weeks on end of non-stop work in the district served only to remind me how badly I'd missed that goal.

Followers of my work might remember I was even finishing my 2020 edition of my Teaching Like an Artist Journal. Yeah, that never came together. I was hours away from having it ready, but it was the first of many "why bother" moments that followed.

I've posted three times on this blog in the past year (counting this post). In December the bill comes up to renew the domain. I seriously considered letting it go. 

I decided this won't be forever. If anything I ever wrote here mattered, persistence now will be required to find out its value. A mere three posts a year show that I didn't persist very well. For today, though, I've had the courage to try again.

I'll try again tomorrow, too.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Is It Worth Telling the Average Story?

Does anyone care to read a story about someone who decides to live a mostly normal life? Would you sit through a movie about a person who had big dreams, but ultimately life squeezed it out of them and they just went along with a dull day-to-day routine? I mean, maybe if the routine started at the very end of the movie, you might watch it. But what if most of the movie was about the uneventful life?

I wonder about this because stories are supposed to be relatable. And what's more relatable than being normal? But for some reason we prefer to hear about the special cases. The ending needs to stand out, or it wasn't worth our time.

And this also makes me think about the vast majority of us who don't have an amazing "dream came true" story to tell. See, for the "dream come true" story to be special, it has to mean most of us don't have one.

So if we take all those people without such a story, how many had big dreams that didn't come true? How would we know, since people don't care to hear those stories? 

Do most people with average stories simply not have big dreams? Or do they just learn to accept reality and stop dreaming? And are a lot of those people privately pretty bummed about the whole thing, but again, who wants to hear it? Do they just keep it to themselves?

I was thinking about this because of a project I didn't complete. Back in December I put a lot of work into an updated Teaching Like an Artist Journal. In my usual way, I was super excited about it. I was actually getting close to finishing it. I planned to do the final touches after a big conference in March, 2020. But that's when schools closed and I got crazy busy helping everyone teach online. 

I returned to the project a couple times, at least in my mind. But teaching seemed so different. I started questioning the value of what I had written. I eventually lost steam and haven't done anything else with it for almost four months now.

I read the introduction that I had written for the new edition and it took on new meaning, considering I didn't finish the book. Here's what I wrote:

There are times the artist considers throwing out the work. You might feel that way as you reflect on the questions [in this journal guide]. I know I did as I wrote them. But if you are reading them now, it means I didn’t give up. And maybe my small example (with the help of a little backstory) can be encouragement you need. 

So the finished book would have been a sign I didn't give up. But I didn't finish the book. Like a million other unfinished projects we could all tell about, I let it sit. Does it mean anything? Not much, if average stories aren't worth much.

As I reflect on this, here's my conclusion for now: We are pulled along by the happy (and special) endings we hear about, because we hope our own stories are not yet finished.

I'll try to get back to that journal.