Sunday, December 8, 2019

I'm Bad at Endings

I was reminded this past year that I'm bad at endings. Closure and conclusions don't come easy in a lot of my projects. So many times for this blog I've jotted down an exciting idea, started thinking it through, but ultimately abandoned it when I couldn't bring it to a nice conclusion.

When I launched this blog in 2013, I also started writing a Teaching Like an Artist book. It was a fascinating project, full of everything I learned and was learning about teaching. As you might have guessed, I couldn't finish it.

I realized something then that this past year really drove home to me. I'm usually most excited by what something could be rather than what it is currently. I'm living a few months or years ahead of the moment.

Working towards the goal fires me up so much that the present situation doesn't matter much. 

Six years ago I probably knew this, but I saw it mostly as a good thing. As for the book, I just decided I wasn't ready to finish it yet. I needed to give it some time and eventually the powerful stories I needed would come together. I had very little doubt and lots of seemingly encouraging hints to pull me along.

I was just getting started with conference presentations and some exciting changes on my regular job at the school. It felt like everything was coming together, pointing to a message people needed to hear. All the lessons that brought me there, well, they were good. I just needed more time prove it, when all those budding possibilities came to fruition.

It got a lot better before it got worse. Then, about two years in, some things began to unravel at work. I didn't mind too much. None of it had to do with me directly and I still had my side gigs. My training work, my writing and my music ministry at church were only looking up. I kept at it (wondering only sometimes if I was crazy), still expecting overall I'd have some amazing results to show for it.

I coasted two years on the enthusiasm and blessings from that period. I received the Excellence In Education award, met a lot of great educators around the state and made some good friends on the worship team I led. But I'm bad at endings and I can't make a good conclusion out of it now.

In late 2018 a couple events took place in the same week that crushed me. I was completely blindsided and it has taken a year for me to fully realize just how devastating they've been. I don't talk about the details much with others. When I do, people don't seem to understand. There's no reason they need to. It's been my puzzle to work through.

The point here is that those events proved fatal to what used to be my endless assurance that I was onto something. Those things I always looked forward to as the circumstances around me were difficult? Well what if they were just figments of my imagination? What if those promising possibilities I saw were just hallucinations?

I ignored those thoughts for quite some time, but I couldn't ignore them anymore when 2019 rolled around. Now I should note that almost no one has noticed any change in my behavior since these things happened. By most outside standards I've continued to do fine. Inside, however, I've been drained of energy. I've struggled giving anyone advice, especially my own two kids or my wife. I haven't been experiencing a life I'd wish on anyone. Yet I find myself in the world of education, where I'm supposed to be helping teachers and students be successful.

It's a hard thing to look back on a career or a personal endeavor and realize the best moments are behind me. What's worse is to realize I never even paid enough attention at the time to enjoy those best moments when they happened.

So I'm bad at endings. I don't know how (or if I should) work out an ending for these things and let them go. I don't know which ending to work toward in the life that's now before me. I have discussed these things with a few close friends and family members. The range of suggestions I received are so vast there haven't been any clear answers.

And of course, I don't know exactly how to end this post! I wrote it to get some thoughts out and to explain a little why content here has been so sparse. If this isn't the end of the story I started here six years ago, then in time it can be important look at the reality of teaching, learning and living like an artist. I won't venture to guess which is the case.

I'll just leave it here and maybe in time I will have an answer.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Starting at the Heart of the Experience

In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder's popular book on writing hit screenplays, he suggests testing a great movie idea by focusing on one key moment. But this won't be a key moment from the movie.

Instead, he says to imagine two people deciding which movie to watch. One of them (looking at all the options) pushes forth the title of the movie in question. The other says, "What's that about?"

That is the moment (just before the possible ticket sale) where blockbusters are born or where they flop. The screenwriter should craft the short sentence he or she would want to be used as the answer to that question. It should hint at the intriguing action, drama or comedy featured in the movie. It also has to make listener to wonder, "How will that turn out?"

Build the screenplay from that short answer, because that's the moment of truth.

I've heard similar suggestions from experts in game design, an area I know more about. It's common now to talk about early design goals based on what you want the players to experience. After more than 25 years of making games, I hadn't explicitly done that. It's so easy instead to get hooked on an appealing idea and never clearly state why anyone else would care to play it. Yet in reality, it was experience that I was really hoping for.

Educators can learn from these two examples as well. When I look back at the thousands of lessons I led in my classroom or for adults, I see a lot of ideas that excited me at the time. That energy helped me to deliver the lesson or activity with more enthusiasm, no doubt. But how often did I think of it from the learner's perspective?

What was happening in my students' minds? What did they come into the room with, from their recent conversation at home to all the previous years that shaped their expectations of school?

Derek Muller has an excellent video about how so many new, promising tools have failed to transform education over the years. At the end he points out, "What really matters is what happens inside the learner's head."

John Hattie, after his countless meta-studies involving hundreds of thousands of students, concludes teachers need to see learning through the eyes of their students.

I would guess most of us judge an effective lesson on the things we see in the moment. We look for students who are on-task, doing what we asked of them. We have a mental list of what we want to see and what we don't. That might include certain answers on a worksheet or test. It might be a minimum average we expect from the class on our quiz.

While those are important, necessary things, is it possible to see them and still miss the goal of helping all of our students learn? My own experience in the classroom requires me to answer with a resounding YES!

There's still so much I'm learning about this and I can't offer a lot of suggestions. I will say my own learning over the years has required deep thinking about a subject. I've needed time to grapple with problems and work through misconceptions. I'm not a fan of superficial activities that turn learning into a distracting game or that introduce complicated, time consuming tech tools and procedures.

Beyond that, I will just offer some questions to consider when designing a lesson:
  • Which lesson should I (re)design first with this focus on experience? A favorite? A weak lesson? A standard that is fundamental for many others or something that is not as important?
  • What experience would help my students learn what I want them to?
  • How can I increase the chances that they will experience that? Consider what happens before and during the lesson.
  • How will I assess whether the experience and the learning took place?
  • What reflection and discussion needs to take place after to solidify the learning?

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Show Your Work - Inspiration from Austin Kleon

The past year has been a rough one for me in a lot of ways. If you follow my work here or over on my ed-tech blog, you'll know the work output really dropped.

Recently I was reminded of Austin Kleon's book, Steal Like an Artist. It was a huge inspiration to me six years ago as I was forming the thoughts that birthed this blog. 

I decided I needed another boost, so I finally read his follow-up book, Show Your Work.

Like his first, this was a quick read and I highly recommend it if you're into creative work. Some of the ideas certainly aren't as fresh as when it came out, but it definitely kick-started my interest in getting my work out there.

I loved this one quote especially, as it strikes squarely on my "teaching like an artist" rally cry. Kleon is talking about art as a story. He quotes another author first:

Author John Gardner said the basic plot of nearly all stories is this: 

“A character wants something, 
goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), 
and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw." 

Then Kleon adds his thoughts:

I like Gardner's plot formula because it's also the shape of most creative work: 

You get a great idea, 
you go through the hard work of executing the idea, 
and then you release the idea out into the world, coming to a win, lose, or draw. 

Sometimes the idea succeeds, sometimes it fails, and more often than not, it does nothing at all.

If you've been to any of my conference presentations the past four years, you've most likely seen my slide where I define "the way of the artist". I call it the three no-so-simple steps to inspire:

Dream big
Do the work
Share it

As I said, the past year has been hard. Seeing Kleon's statement parallel my own observations is a small thing, but helpful at this time. I'm not ready to give up yet!

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Blessings or Curses

Not sure about all artists, but a lot of us find ourselves in that place where we can't tell our blessings from our curses. Is it a gift or a burden?

It reminds me of something I read about Johnny Cash. In the non-stop schedule of rising fame, someone gave him pills to help him cope. When he first started using them, he was thankful for them. They helped him do what he loved. Then in time they nearly destroyed him.

Drug addiction is generally recognized as a bad thing, but I'm thinking of the grip of things more subtle.

Is the endless stream of ideas a gift, providing a bounty worth sharing? Or is it a winding river pulling us uncontrollably past all the things that really matter? Does my ability to think deeply about something give me insight or make me miss so much life?

In good moments it works the other way too. We're thankful for the trials, once they fuel a passion for the good of others. Or the re-framing and re-creation brings healing.

Maybe any reflective soul who puts their heart into their work must come to this place. 

Do we embrace this thing or run from it?

Will one more week of working on this or thinking like this finally yield the breakthrough? Or has it already led me too far off course?

There's no end of advice from others. 

"Know when to let it go." 

"Never give up." 

It depends who you want to listen to, I guess.

I can think of times in the past when it was a spiritual experience. It felt like an answer was given or I felt led by Someone. Other times (like now, if it's not obvious) I doubt myself too much to recognize the truth from the lies. 

If I had to help someone else in such a place, I'd say only this. Trust there's purpose and keep moving. There will be times of wondering, but thank God when (whether a blessing or a curse) it's obvious.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Thinking About Fun and Fulfillment

My wife recently went on a two week mission trip to another country to work with kids in an orphanage. Due to security, the visit had a high degree of secrecy to it. The conditions there (though improving) were still deplorable.

I was telling a colleague about it and she commented, "That doesn't even sound fun!"

I assured her my wife didn't intend it to be fun. Of course, she knew that and I'm sure her statement came out that way only because it was a passing conversation. This post was not sparked simply because she said the word "fun". That came to mind, though, as I reflected on my recent efforts and the conversations around me.

For a couple other reasons, this was a tough week at work. Sometimes the challenges can make me wonder if I'm doing something wrong. Am I making it harder than it needs to be? This is especially true when others seem to be having a lot more fun.

Is there an important job at hand or should I just lighten up?

I mean, it's always easy to point to someone else and blame them for how things are. If they'd carry their weight, this would be such a pain, right? Why should any of us work harder than they are?

You can only do so much.

You have to take care of you.

Got plans this weekend? Just two more days!

That doesn't even sound fun.

It's tough to keep a straight course when my job requires me to converse with people on both sides of the divide. Sometimes I'm with people who look at the mission and together we feel we're making progress. Other times I'm the one laughing the least and have nothing exciting to share about the most recent weekend or vacation. ("Well, I updated those spreadsheets and made a couple tutorials....")

If I only had myself to think about, this would be easier. It wouldn't be the first time I'd throw my own heart and soul into a cause that's probably already beyond lost. I'm okay with hoping against hope.

But my job also requires me at times to teach young adults what it takes to succeed in life. I have my own two kids. I don't want to mess them up with my poor judgment in these matters.

I have to lead and (though it seems silly to say right now) inspire adults. Who am I fooling? Myself of them?

So this morning I reflected on all this. I wanted to write something, maybe just for my own notes, to sort it out.

I (once again and for the moment) concluded that fun can be a cheap substitute for fulfillment. Maybe not always, but maybe more than ever we settle for it when we could have had more in time.

"At least you had fun," we say.

This morning I'll keep going and I'll hold out for fulfillment even if it's not fun. I'll even do it with some enthusiasm.

Even if it seems I'm the only one.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Theme vs. Plot in Life

I was reading Write or Wrong, by Dirk Manningthis morning. I've been into comics the past few months and vaguely considering writing one (or five, depending on the day). I was intrigued by the author's advice early on. He proposes that most aspiring writers get too focused on plot when it's the theme that will set their work apart in the vast ocean of comics.

Plot is what happens in the story, but theme is what the story is about. 


While plot is essential, the theme the plot is set in capture the hearts of many more readers.

He uses the example of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Almost everyone knows the highlights of the play's plot. What rich themes can we see woven through it, however? He lists:

  • The destructive power of love
  • How far people will go to escape fate
  • Sins of a father passed to the sons
  • Individual rights versus society's norms
He claims the themes make it timeless. What I find interesting, though, is that a lot of people probably read or watch that story, they might even enjoy it, but not everyone really thinks about the theme. It's the invisible message you might feel strongly, yet never put into words.

It's like knowing the lyrics to a favorite song, singing the melody, but never considering the chord structure and rhythm that ties it together.

I've written about viewing our lives in terms of stories before (see here and here). It's something I frequently consider, but Manning's thoughts on theme opened my eyes to a deeper level. 

Most people are caught up in the events of their lives. We could say it's the plot. It's what happened or what's happening. 

But what is the theme of our lives? Do we even have a theme other than what we impose upon it? If so, is it important to recognize it?

I'll leave it at that for now. I have some thinking to do.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

5 Questions to Help You Reflect on the Past School Year

By this point in June, many teachers have wrapped up their latest school year and are enjoying a relaxing summer. Our school year ended two weeks ago and I've been doing some reflecting on it.

For me it definitely was not one of the best in my career. Still, there were some extremely positive moments and I learned a few important lessons. In an effort to clarify and remember, I came up with this short list of reflection questions to work through. I hope you also find it helpful.

1)  How did the past school year compare to the ideal one I hold in my mind? 

Before answering, reflect on your picture of the ideal teacher having a great year. Common advice I get from many colleagues is to "be realistic", essentially prompting me to loosen up on those ideals. Well balance is important, I think we can gain a lot by mining those visions that drew us to the profession.

When comparing your ideal to the reality of the past year, don't just think of it overall. Write down the highs and lows that come to mind. When were things closest to the ideal? What stands out in those times? When was it furthest away? Why?

2)  What was the best thing I learned this year about being a good teacher?

Maybe it jumps right out at you, but in my case I had to start listing things. I thought back over the months and jotted down notes. There were lessons I would have forgotten had I not plumbed deeper.

Make a list of things you learned or things that you knew but that were made more real to you. Pick one or two that you think are most important. It's a good exercise to state them succinctly. If you can take the time, make a post about it and share it on social media.

3)  What habits, practices or resources need to change so my upcoming year will be better?

As I said, the past school year was a challenging one and I found myself abandoning a lot of practices--or at least vowing to in my frustration. If it's not working, why would I keep doing it? Right?

There's no doubt there's a time to let things go or to break patterns. But sometimes it's better to make some adjustments to them. From specific lesson plans to daily habits or even colleagues you hang out with, what are some changes you could make?

Of course, I don't mean to imply you can fix everything with some changes. Not all the less than ideal (or outright dreadful) aspects of a school year are within your control. Identify those too as you reflect.

4)  What should I stop doing?

Are there things you need to let go entirely? If you decided in the previous question that some things were beyond salvaging, list them here.

5)  What actions can I take between now and the new school year to make it my best year ever?

I wouldn't get too hung up on the goal setting, but it is important to set direction and some deadlines. Along with any plan, set a time in three or four weeks when you can review your list and see if you're making progress.

If you found this helpful or if you have any reflection practices you like, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an email to let me know.