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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 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 PBS.org.


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.