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 better 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 pretty much means most of us don't have one.

So if we take all those people without such a story, I wonder 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 just not have big dreams? Or do they just learn to accept reality? Or are a lot of those people privately pretty bummed about the whole thing?

I was thinking about this because of a recent 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. 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.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

8 Lessons From the Pros - Master Class Takeaways for Teachers

Last year for Fathers Day I asked my kids for an all access pass to Master Class. You've probably seen the ads for the service. In it's many classes, experts in several areas tell you the secrets of their success. From writers to directors to performers, I was intrigued by so many different topics I had to just get them all.

So I watched several over the past year. I didn't take any careful notes, but it wasn't hard to notice patterns emerging across all the domains. I focused a lot on writing and film making. I sampled a number of music and performance lessons too, but I didn't complete any of those classes. I watched most lessons quickly, usually at 1.5 speed. It's not a great way to learn the details, but it helped me distill the ideas I'll share here.

While these lessons have helped me explore creative pursuits as a hobby, I'm intrigued by how they'll help me be a better learner and educator. For each takeaway below, I included at least one Teaching Like an Artist question for reflection.

Takeaway 1:  There is not a single process that leads to success, but there are principles.

Time and time again the experts, regardless of the field, would argue there's no one way to succeed. They'd describe their creative process, then make it clear that's just what worked for them. When they worked, how they got ideas, how they planned--all those things could change.

But through their lessons and stories, common principles for creative work did show through. Of course, the most principles that emerged are the things I'm listing here.

Teaching Like an Artist:  What essential principles do you follow to ensure you're doing your best work as a teacher?

Takeaway 2:  Find the passion.

Some instructors stated this explicitly. For others it just came out in their lessons. We have to find that thing we are passionate about. When it connects with our hearts, we find the energy to persist. You'll see throughout many other items on the list below, success is standing up again when others would have stayed down.

Teaching Like an Artist:  What is your passion for teaching? As I've asked other times on this blog, what made you originally want to teach? How do (or can) you keep that passion in your mind when everything falls apart around you?

Takeaway 3:  Find the story

As I said, I focused on writing and film making lessons, so obviously story would be a big topic. But story came to the forefront in the documentary, communication and advertising courses too. A powerful, unique story is the key for grabbing attention in our noisy world.

While they didn't always delve into what they meant by storytelling, a big theme was the interplay of desire and conflict. What did the person want (there's that idea of passion again)? What obstacle did the person faced? In powerful real life examples, Robin Roberts summed this up as, "Make your mess your message." (See my past posts about the power of story for how I've related story to learning experiences.)

Teaching Like an Artist:  Clarify you teacher story by considering these questions. What do you want as a teacher? What obstacles have you overcome to succeed it?

Takeaway 4:  Do the work.

A lot of this list focuses on the struggle to keep going, but this one is more about the mundane struggle. It's the battle you win that no one would care to hear about, the work you choose to do daily instead of ignore.

Almost all the lessons touched on it. For writing, the main thing was to set a regular time to write. From music creation to performing magic, it was the routine practice and the hours of searching for the better idea.

Authors would talk about the "marathon of the middle" and how they questioned the value of finishing their work. They emphasized the importance of writing anything, because even bad writing gives you something to edit. Word by word, page by page, they made sure to finish.

It seems so obvious to say you must just do it. Yet it makes all the difference between the dreamers and the people living their dreams.

I have done creative pursuits "on the side" all my life and crossed paths with people who aspire to do the same. It has astounded me over the years how many dreams and good ideas never came to fruition because the people didn't have the discipline to do the real work.

Teaching Like an Artist:  What regular, mundane tasks do you need to do regularly to make sure you become the teacher you dream of being?

Takeaway 5:  Be known for Something

No one said this explicitly in the Master Class lessons I watched, but it was driven home to me. I would find myself skimming bios of the instructors when I didn't recognize their name immediately. I was looking for a work they created that I'd recognize. If I found something, they instantly had credibility.

Furthermore, I loved it when the experts would share how they first got noticed. Dan Brown, for instance, talked about his first couple books that barely sold. But then when he wrote The Da Vinci Code, people knew his name and his previous books sold well too.

I heard a very successful game designer give this advice at the start of his talk once. Be known for something. Ideally it will be something very good, of course, but mostly just be known. Be that person who did the thing people heard about. Even if it's locally, stand out. Build from there.

Teaching Like an Artist:  As a teacher, what are you known for? What could you do that would "put you on the map", either locally, regionally or on a larger scale?

Takeaway 6:  You are your first audience.

I have heard this idea for years from experts in several fields, yet I struggle with it. It feels a little selfish at times, but there must be truth to it. Artists often say they make the work they'd love to see.

So writers write the book they want to read. Musicians play the songs they want to hear. I heard a comedian say he only knows what will make him laugh, so he pictures himself in the audience.

It's easy to get distracted aiming for the target audience, so this advice is one way to simplify the challenge. The beauty is eventually the artist discovers the work which resonated with him or her also resonates with others.

Teaching Like an Artist:  In what ways are you the teacher you always wanted to have? Are there other things you can do to better become that teacher?

Takeaway 7:  Failure happens.

I've had my share of disappointments in my quest to create. It meant a lot to me when I heard some Master Class instructors talk about the ideas that didn't pan out. They talked about their stack of rejection letters. Everyone has them. They are part of that conflict and obstacle that makes for a great story. The trick is to keep moving. Keep holding out hope.

In the victories, we find a story that can help encourage others.

Teaching Like an Artist:  What failures are part of your story? Which past failures can you tell about to help students or colleagues strive for their dreams?

Takeaway 8:  Listen to the problem, not the solution.

Only one or two instructors mentioned this, but it was a powerful insight for me. I think it was Aaron Sorkin who stated it most clearly. He said people will critique your work and tell you how you should have done it. He learned early on to hear the problem they were expressing, not their solution.

After hearing it, it was his job to decide if it actually was a problem and how he would solve it. Essentially the artist is the one with the talent to creatively address the problem. It has to be done in a way only he or she is capable of.

The world is full of armchair artists who love a chance to influence someone else's work. Part of the skill of a real artist will be filtering their comments and skillfully addressing the valid problems they point out.

Teaching Like an Artist:  Almost everyone went to school, so almost everyone thinks they know what teachers should do! We get "input" form too many sources. What filters do you use to sift out the feedback that helps you truly get better at your work?

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?