Thursday, February 27, 2020

No One Could Blame You

Last year I read a tip on the Faster to Master site has been helpful. The author suggested reflecting on your wins from each day. I've been terrible about doing it on a regular basis, but I've been more conscious of the wins since then. I want to share a story about one of them.

The win is what mattered to me, not the details of the surrounding story. So forgive me if I'm being vague about what might seem like the juicy parts. I'm trying to be brief and avoid naming names.

Last month I'd been dabbling in fiction writing and (as always) reflecting on how we can use those same ideas to make meaningful stories in our lives. At this time I was thinking about theme as opposed to the plot of the story. What would be a good theme for a story? What's the theme of our lives?

One morning before work I was musing on all that. I considered a story with the theme of pressing on when the going is tough. (I didn't say I was a very original fiction writer.)

I had time for no more details than this:  At a key moment, someone would say something like, "No one could blame you for giving up. But maybe that's why the choice has come to you."

That seemed potentially epic, so I wrote that down just to remember it. Then I went on with my day.

Two hours later I was helping a teacher prepare for student presentations in one of our collaboration areas. We were chatting about work as we set up. We've known each other for years and we usually talk openly. I mentioned a particular task I was consciously avoiding at work. In fact, I probably said I refused to do it.

Without explaining, she well understood my resistance to the task. It was because of an awkward moment that happened in a staff meeting months earlier. That's the part of the story I won't elaborate on, but we've all been in staff meetings. You know about awkward moments, right? I'll just mention "power struggle" and "poor communication" and leave it at that.

Probably every person who was in that meeting remembered the moment. I bet most of them would have caught my implication that it was still an obstacle for me months later.

Then after I said I wouldn't do the task anymore, this teacher said the thing that caught my attention.

With a knowing chuckle, she said, "No one could blame you."

Well, there it was. No one could blame me. In that second my life intersected with the fiction I dreamed up earlier. What fool would I be if I didn't act on it?

I decided I better talk to the principal and make plans to do that that task I'd been avoiding. A few weeks later I did it, in front of the same staff, in the same place as the awkward meeting. Though I didn't mention any of the backstory, I'm sure at least four of us in the room understood the significance of my brief presentation. 

I don't know if the particulars of those events will ever matter or if anyone will remember them besides me.

I do know I was paying attention and I didn't give up. That's a win in my book.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Seeing Our Lives as Stories That Matter

Here's a powerful video I came across over break that I think every teacher should watch as we head into 2020. It's about a story I've referred to several times here and on my other blog. It's about how Erin Gruwell used the power of story to reach students that most other teachers had given up on.   

It happened nearly 30 years ago, but she's still telling the story and inspiring the new teachers she trains.

I'm sure many factors in Erin's classroom were different from where you teach. I know they're not exactly like mine. The world has changed in a lot of ways. But the principles that led to her success come through: 
  • Everyone has an important story worth sharing for the sake of others. 
  • Amazing things can happen when we are fully committed to a mission. 
  • It won't be easy.
I'm glad to see this story told well in about an hour. Please consider watching it, even if it's over a few sittings. It also has several shorter clips you could use in class or with your staff. Click the image below or click here to visit the page on

Friday, January 3, 2020

What do we mean when we say it's all about relationships?

It's common now to hear that teaching is all about relationships. I certainly agree, for many reasons, positive relationships are more important in the classroom than ever. At the same time, I hear this so much, even from people on all sides of other issues. That always makes me wonder, do we really agree on what it means? Do the same images come to mind when we hear, "It's about relationships"?

In person, at conferences, at work or through blogs and Tweets, I get the impression most understand these "relationships" to be a sort of openness and friendliness between the adults and students in the school. We chat with kids. We know what their home life is like and what their hobbies are. Though most won't say it, sometimes it comes close to sounding like the students should see us as a "fun" or "cool" people.

Whatever is meant and whatever comes to mind, I fear the rallying cry is ambiguous enough to be largely ineffective. Some hear it, forge ahead with confidence that they they already get it, and nothing changes overall. Other teachers, especially in secondary grades, can be overwhelmed by what the phrase brings to mind. How could they ever have the required meaningful relationships with their 120 or more students?

So this is my attempt to clarify what I mean by it. As an instructional leader writing it here publicly, yes, I am suggesting it as a useful standard for others. It comes with 25 years of experience in education, but also with the open admission that I have much to learn. I'd be glad to hear from others.

This certainly shouldn't be seen as playing down the importance of relationships or somehow lowering the standard for their quality. I just believe the serious work of education (that which teachers are being paid to accomplish and students depend on for future success) deserves more careful attention be brought upon all of our popular phrases and trends.

I suggest the defining characteristic of an effective teacher-student relationship is the trust the student has for the teacher. And I'll add two thoughts to be sure the focus is on student learning:
  • The students must trust they are accepted by the teacher as capable learners. (That is, they know the teacher believes in their ability to learn. See my previous post about a powerful study on this topic.)
  • The students must trust the teacher's motives are for the good of the students.
That first aspect addresses the idea that, as some say, "Students need to feel liked by their teacher." I've certainly seen that with my own students over the years. Chatting about their personal interests, asking how the game went the night before and being sensitive to matters outside of school are essential. Ultimately there's a job to be done in school, though. We must use those interactions to lay the foundation for trust that increases the chances the real job will get done.

We know a teacher can tell a class, "I believe in you," from the heart every day, but many struggling learners don't naturally feel they are part of the intended audience. They won't hear the message until they also feel they belong. Recognizing them as individuals and showing we care about their personal lives lends credibility to the words. 

Then the second aspect requires the teacher to be open and sold out on the value of what he or she is offering the students each day. In the pursuit of preparing the younger generation to someday take the wheel, a compliance-based approach to school often rears its head. Teaching becomes a power struggle as the adults in school demand a level of respect and other behaviors, always proclaiming that the students will need those someday on the job.

While there's certainly truth behind the approach, it increasingly is not an effective way to sell the learning. I'd suggest the power struggle is a sign that trust is lacking in the relationship.

What if we instead look for ways to show with our lives that we know something valuable about being successful? Can we be open about our personal lives in ways that look appealing to the diverse students we teach? Be real so they trust us and the value of what we're trying to teach. I think this type of trust what people are observing when they say effective teachers are liked by their students.

So I probably won't just say, "It's all about relationships." I'm more likely to say, "Tell students we believe in them and act like it until they believe it too." 

I hope no one thinks I'm saying that makes the task easy. It will always be a difficult part of what it takes to teach in today's world.

In the way of some final practical advice, I can only suggest that you lay the foundation for the message from the first time you address a class. When it was my first day as the teacher and now, when I'm working with the regular teacher for a project, I let students see how and why my work excites me. I look them in the eyes and I tell them how the task at hand will make them successful. One on one, I try to always treat each with kindness, behaving as if I have their best interests in mind as we head into the challenging task of learning together. 

I'll be glad to hear any comments in support of, against or in addition to what I've said here. Please leave a comment below or let me know by email.

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.