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.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Open Door

I had one of those moments this week when I feel both the excitement and terrifying responsibility of my job.

We started a new semester with the Communications and the Media class. I've written a lot about it on my other blog. I enjoy it immensely. If only we had a class like that when I was in school!

So I came in the class to give my usual pep talk. I explained the importance of being able to communicate with video and how tech allows us to be creative and reach many people. 

I talked about opening the door of opportunity. I told them I'm waiting for someone from our school, possibly that very class, to accomplish something big. I want them to discover their talents and passions as they use digital tools to reach many people in ways they never dreamed. 

I assure them this has nothing about getting an English credit. It's about personal potential and being amazed at how much we can do. I think only in epic. 

After my short intro I gave them a survey so the teacher and I could divide them into different jobs by their interest. Before I saw the results from the survey I talked with her about a couple characters in that class that I suspected could be hard to motivate. One I knew, the other not so much. Already both of them had been resistant to something she asked of them the day before. 

I looked through the surveys. Both of those students indicated they were interested in being on a tech team. One picked the live video announcements and the other chose our roaming "features and on-site" crew. 

The thing is, for both of those teams I listed an option of "not interested in this group". They heard something in what I said or saw something in our previous school news program that sparked their interest. 

I find that so encouraging that these guys, both hardened by a routine of assignments and tests for credit, had at least an inkling of interest in creating something to show the school. At the same time, it is frightening that now I have to do my part with these two. I mean, they might give up at the first frustrating tech challenge. We always have some. Could I really help them see learning can be life changing?

I have to trust we were not brought together by accident. The job I have has always felt like a gift. I believe the things I told the class about the door of opportunity and their potential. I believe they have a purpose to achieve and the technology can make it happen. 

We will see how it goes. 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Is It Worth Giving Up a Weekend?

"Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, you ought to set up a life you don’t need to escape from." -Seth Godin

I've worked as an instructional tech trainer for ten years now. I've learned many people just assume technology should save us time. It's so obvious to them that it goes without saying. The automatic question in their mind is How can this thing help me save time or make my job easier?

When the tool looks complicated instead, or if the resulting project we could complete with it seems too daunting, well, why would anyone bother with that?

Of course, a lot of tech does make life easier and it gets jobs done faster. But for all those people using tech to save time and make it easy, there are a few who see what amazing things can be accomplished with tech plus hard work.

Why settle for average?

The most memorable projects I've done exhausted me. They surprised me with how much work they involved. Like the time I gave up most of my holiday break editing the music videos I made with fifth graders, they can make me wonder if I'm crazy.

But that's what it takes to accomplish something amazing.

And we do all want amazing, don't we?