Thursday, December 28, 2017

Teaching Like an Artist - After Four Years

It was the summer of 2013 when I wrote my first Teaching Like an Artist post on another blog. Those were exciting days as I clarified my vision, spread the word and heard from teachers all over the world who were encouraged by my work.

That simplified message quickly developed into "Say inspired to inspire others" and I boiled down the essence of The Way of the Artist to three "not so simple steps:

  • Dream big
  • Do the work to make it real
  • Share it
After four years of embedding this message in my ed-tech conference sessions, my blog posts and my job, I'm still a believer. 

Yes, in 2017 I openly wondered if I was crazy. Still, I know inspiration is what's missing in school and I know those ideas I was discovering are worth repeating. I still used those key ideas word for word in nearly every presentation I made in 2017. I'm always grateful for those insights and the blessing of seeing them connect with teachers.

But if anyone looked at this blog in 2017, they wouldn't know the message still excites me. I wrote only a handful of posts the whole year. And I'm sure even the teachers who work with my each week would think some of the fire has gone out.

 As an important reflection exercise and in case anyone cares to hear it, I wanted to think aloud about some reasons for this.
  • While the truths are vital, the delivery needs an overhaul. I started to see this in early 2016. I gave it everything leading up to a large conference presentation in March that year. It was quite positive, but it didn't catch on as I hoped. It was the best I could do at the one big shot I'd have, but it didn't connect with teachers in a big way. After that, I felt I was knocking on a door that had been closed. Again, the ideas need to be sold, but I haven't found the right package to grab attention.
  • I kept trying some tweaks on the delivery this past year, but admitted by the end of 2017 that most people don't get very excited about being "like an artist". Part of my initial excitement of these ideas was the realization that we're all making art in one way or another. That's a new idea to most people, though, and getting that essential part of the message through takes more than the one to three seconds I'm allowed to grab their attention. By the time I get to the important, practical insights, I've lost them. I might be able to repackage the ideas, but let's face it. The blog is called "Teaching Like an Artist"! It would have to be a complete restart and I haven't had the time or energy to do that.
  • And that's largely because life is steering me in a different direction. Practically speaking, this blog got less attention in the past six months because I've been very busy with an exciting ministry I'm involved with. Just like in the summer of 2013, I had a mini revival in August. It resulted in a bigger leadership role in the worship team at my church. The creative opportunities there and the far more significant results in the lives of the people I serve captivated my attention and energy. The work will not pay the bills, so I'm still working in education. I do still want to solve the problems in school and help as many students as possible, but there's no way around it. My heart has been set on worship. When I first started the Teaching Like an Artist series, I acknowledged right away that God is the great artist. I'm grateful for this latest surprise in His work.
I don't plan on shutting the blog down and I still want to keep the heart of the message in all my work in education. I still get excited when I read  the most popular posts (like this one) or my favorites (like this one). I start to dream big again whenever someone tweets the ideas out at my conference sessions. 

I want to continue the work if it's actually helping. I'm just not sure how to fit that in yet. For now, I'll keep my eyes open for opportunities rather than try to create them.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Just Watching

Before I say much about this, can we agree that it's possible to do too much of something even though that "something" isn't wrong itself? Like drinking a soda. I don't think anyone would say it's really wrong to have one now and then. Is it possible to have too much? Sure.

With that out of the way, I have been pondering something lately that, at first glance, will seem like no big deal. If I act like it's a big deal, some people might be offended. I'll proceed anyway.

Why do we stop doing things in life and instead start being content with just watching other people do them?

When we're kids, we act out what we see. We play house and pretend to have jobs, just because we see our parents do it. Kids want to act on the things that interest them. As they get older, this continues in appropriate ways. With sports, music, art and so much more, teens dabble in their interests. They want to do.

But it seems at some point the constant stream of opportunities to watch takes over and there's not as much time for do.

I suspect there's something going on in our brains that lets us identify somehow with the doing that is going on. We witnessed the big game, the amazing concert or the inspiring church service. Even though it wasn't us taking action, we were there and we saw it. We were somehow in on it. It's not the same, but it's enough.

And this doesn't even have to be real stuff we're watching. Fiction will suffice. An exciting story that never happened captivates our imagination for an hour at a time, week after week.

In a world that has mastered the art of grabbing our attention, this bears some honest reflection. Have we been content watching (or reading about) someone else doing something exciting instead of taking action ourselves?

If so, we are missing out and so are the people we could inspire.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Opening or Closing the Doors of Opportunity

I came across a fascinating summary of a study that was done in 2014. If I summed up the general finding, every teacher I know would nod in approval and ignore it. It's one of those things we know, but I think we forget how powerful it is.

This study really drove it home for me. I'm describing it as Jo Boaler did in her book Mathematical Mindsets. (It's also on her website here.)

Hundreds of high school students were given an essay assignment. The essays were read and comments were written on each one as to how the students could improve their work.

But half the students were given an additional sentence at the end of the feedback. They were selected randomly and the teachers did not know who received this extra sentence.

A year later, those students were receiving significantly higher grades.

So all the kids do this assignment, a random half of them get a single sentence added to their comments. No matter who those students have for teachers the next year, they are performing better.

What was this powerful sentence that made such a difference?

"I'm giving you this feedback because I believe in you."

Do you feel the weight of what that means for us? Doors of opportunity open and close as we communicate to students that we believe in them. Or that we don't.

Boaler explains that the point here isn't to start using that phrase like it's magic. Certainly it would lose its power. The point is that every student we work with must be convinced that we believe in him or her.

Here's the beauty and challenge--the art--of this: The ones who are hardest to convince are also the ones that could be most impacted. That's where we'll change a story and make an impact.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Finding Good Ideas

I'm always intrigued by the question of where ideas come from. Do creative people "come up with them" or are they discovered?

Here's a great TED Talk that addresses that question. It's from the band OK Go. They reveal the thinking behind their amazingly creative music videos.

Besides the points it makes about creativity, there is much to learn about making an engaging presentation. Students and teachers need to watch it.

And while we are on the topic, I'll give my own thought on whether ideas are created or discovered. It is (as you can see in the video, though it isn't explicitly stated) a combination of both. 

I liken it to building your dream house. The ideal location has to be discovered, but then a lot of design and work must follow to make it all you hoped for. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

What Are We Aiming For?

Here's a little thought exercise I've been considering lately.

Imagine your district or region begins offering a Teacher of the Year award. A list of qualifying criteria is sent out to schools--things that indicate the dedication and impact of an excellent educator. Seeing the value of this criteria, one-third of the teachers in your building are inspired to try to win it.

How (if at all) would things change in your building?

A more interesting question to me is why would things change?

Maybe in your case this wouldn't make a difference, but I suspect many schools are aiming for something less than that excellence each day.

Every person goes through the day with a (most likely unspoken) standard of what's good or good enough in the work he or she does.

Where does it come from?

Is it important to raise that standard?

What would it take to raise it?

When we measure ourselves against this standard in our heads, are we doing it accurately?

I think we spend our time on hundreds of other things to improve schools, but real change starts with these questions. Which would you add to the list?

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Why I Stopped Saying Learning Is Fun

I decided this year to stop saying learning is fun. I was preparing a tech activity for kindergartners when I decided to kick the habit.

I figured if it matters, I'd start out right at the beginning of the line. Grade 0.

I found the results encouraging, so I've kept at it.

Before I'm accused of heresy or (worse yet) being boring, I will point out a few things.

I love learning. I love what I get to do in education. I could say I often have fun learning new things and helping others to learn. I've seen a room come to life when I set students lose on learning activities I've created.

I'm also a game designer. People from all over the world have told me me about the fun they've had with my games. I've made money from fun, explored fun and created fun more than almost anyone I work with regularly.

But I made this decision to stop saying learning fun. I did it because words matter.

But why cut out the word fun? Don't we want kids to associate school and learning with positive words like that?

I gave it the ax because it's highly valued and too vague. That's a volatile combination. We could call "fun" the three-letter f-bomb.

In education, where stakes are high and time is limited, I see it as a dangerous risk I don't want to touch.

It's Highly Valued

In our culture, fun often becomes the ultimate measure of value for an activity. "At least you had fun," we say. While not a bad thing in itself, we know for a fact many people use that to write off harmful decisions they make. At the very least, it's also a justification for what was otherwise a waste of time.

Fun is a big deal to us and we want these school things to be associated with it. By saying learning is fun, we ultimately are saying it has value because fun has value. In the short term, when most of the class is smiling or laughing as the learning happens, it seems silly to be so concerned about this. But school and learning are long term affairs. Giving learning value because fun is valuable might have some serious consequences.

Even if we as teachers wouldn't word it quite that way, I'd bet money that's how a lot of our students hear it. And I'd also bet there will be times when learning isn't fun for them. What does that imply?

I actually value learning because it is a vital means in which we realize our potential. It is required for the journey to becoming the individuals we are meant to be.

That makes it far more valuable than fun.

Now, if I end up having some fun along that journey, bonus! Can we enjoy those times together without missing the point?

It's Too Vague

Then there's the ambiguity of the word itself. My friend Kory Heath is a game desire I admire. He says fun is one of those things people can't define, but they know when they're having it. Why analyze it beyond that?

But teaching is serious business and we should think about it more. As people, we have fun with a vast array of activities. But not all of us have fun with the same activities. I don't enjoy watching sports, for example, though many people can make a party out of it.

I have entertained hundreds of people with tabletop gaming events. I can't comprehend how a person wouldn't want to join us. But I know a few friends and family members who (though they love to have fun) have almost no fun playing games.

When we use the word fun in class, think of all the pictures that come to mind in our students' heads. What activities do they imagine? What excitement, laughter and other positive emotions are they thinking of?

Do we also imagine that the fun we regularly find in learning looks just like what they're imagining? I'm sure there are a few in every class who have absolutely no overlap between fun activities they dream of and what they experience regularly in school. That certainly becomes true as the students get older.

I am impressed with teachers who seemingly can make every lesson fun. The reality, though, is some required content is challenging and, at least to some students, uninteresting. It requires perseverance. And not every teacher is an entertainer. It's not a terrible thing to admit this:  There will be necessary, good lessons and maybe entire classes that students wouldn't describe as fun.

If we tell students learning if fun, do we risk making them feel something is wrong (with the class, the teacher or even themselves) when it's not feeling like they expect fun things to feel?

So You're Really Making This About a Word?

I can hear what some of you are thinking. I'm overreacting. Couldn't we just solve this by saying, "Learning can be fun." What's wrong with that?

I'd say that's a step in the right direction, but we can do better.

There are loads of carefully chosen, accurate words or phrases I will use to let students know learning is often an exciting experience. (That's one of my favorites, by the way.)

Depending on the age of the students, I might refer to it as enjoyable or surprising. When working through a tougher problem, I could say the end result is satisfying or rewarding. I'll talk about simply liking to learn or at least liking to learn certain things or in certain ways.

For younger students I might talk about that little bubble of joy that rises up inside when we discover something interesting or figure out something that used to confuse us.

In fact the more I thought about this, I actually started seeing how we use the word fun lazily. It's too easy to toss it around and attach it to class activities, knowing our kids value fun greatly. Even though we'd probably admit, everything that "fun" means to students simply doesn't accurately describe a lot that learning entails.

We know most high school students would never describe the regular routine of school as fun. "Boring" is far more likely, according to any study I've heard. I asked our students in a survey myself a few years ago and that's exactly the word that rose to the top of the list. No one I talked to about it was surprised. I'm convinced these points I've raised here are involved in that travesty.

If nothing else, every time I stop myself from saying learning is fun, I'm reminded of the weight of what we do. I'm reminded my words matter.

This past week I had to meet with a teacher in that kindergarten building. Many of those students saw me and asked excitedly if I was coming into their class to do another tech activity. From what the teachers have told me, all the classes loved it. Probably many of them would say it was fun.

But they didn't hear that from me.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Life and Song - Great video for writing prompts in music classes

I really enjoyed this TEDx Talk by Jon Foreman. He's a prolific songwriter and the lead singer of Switchfoot. I've been a fan of his work for years. Here he "dares" the listeners to live out their own unique songs.

I think it's worth watching all 18 minutes, which includes three songs. If that's too much, you could easily select key sections.

Depending on the curriculum, you can tie some written reflection questions to songwriting, thoughts on his performances (I liked them, but they're not perfect) or the students' favorite songs or artists. All of this, of course, would tie in or culminate in Foreman's call to find and live their song.

If you find this post useful, you might be interested in these:

Saturday, April 8, 2017

When You Wonder If You're Crazy

This is an honest post. As I set out to write it, I'm not sure it will end on a hopeful note. The best I can say is I'm not completely giving up. Maybe it can connect with another teacher who sometimes feels this way. Maybe it will provide contrast to a positive story later.

It's been a rough school year in ways I never anticipated. I decided last month (again) that as long as I'm in the district, I'm going to give it 100%. I'm going to keep believing even if I'm the only one.

So a couple weeks ago I signed up to present at the 6th Grade Orientation. It's the event where we tell the fifth grade students and their parents what to expect at our middle school. I wanted to talk about the exciting opportunities that our technology program offers students.

That Monday morning I was thinking about this when I heard Vicki Davis' interview with Angela Maiers. (If you only want something positive, stop reading and just listen to that. It's good.)

I love Angela's message that every student matters and her passionate talk in that interview was a bit of encouragement to me.

I actually had already considered using the quote that launched her mission (which I believe first came from Seth Godin.):

"You are a genius and the world needs your contribution." 

I tell that to students a lot when I talk to them about technology. It's a great starting point to grab attention, since they generally expect me to talk about apps, how to use Chromebooks and what will happen to them when they break the rules.

I decided to modify it slightly for my talk at the orientation. I wrote on the slide, "You have a gift and the world needs you to use it." As I developed my presentation, I have to admit I wondered if I still believed that for every kid. I considered leaving the quote out. Even moments before I spoke, I thought about deleting the slide.

But I left it in. I told them all--parents, students and the other teachers--that I believed it. I explained that technology offers connections that will allow students to learn and create so their genius can be unleashed in exciting ways.

I continued the talk, then ended with that same slide. Gifts, contribution, etc.

No one said a thing about it when I was done. To be honest, I didn't know if I encouraged anyone or if I looked like an idiot. I wasn't even sure anyone heard me, since the sound system wasn't great. .

The next morning, even before first hour, a couple teachers teased me about it. They weren't being terribly negative. To them it was just good fun, worth a laugh that Mike still thinks every kid is a genius. I expected that response, so it in no way hurt my feelings. I was somewhat relieved to know the sound system actually came through.

I told them it's what I have to believe if I'm still going to keep at it after all these years. For me it has been 23, longer than any of the others in the huddle. I think one of them sort of understood that I was taking it very seriously. She later said she was just kidding, so at least she was thinking about it.

I wish I had a better story to tell, but that's the real one so far.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Along for the Ride - An Analogy for the Classroom

When I was young, I lived about thirty miles away from Flint, Michigan. That's where we'd head every so often when my parents wanted to do some shopping. I remember my mom laughing with a friend once, saying even though she had made the trip so many times, she never could have driven there herself. She just trusted my dad to know the way.

Of course, as a kid I never gave the details of the trip any thought. I recognized some buildings and roads enough to know I was close to the mall. I couldn't have listed the names of the roads we took, though, or directed a driver how to get there.

My mom and I were along for the ride. We got in the car at home and out of it at the mall. Shopping was the goal.

As the title of this post suggests, I've found a strong parallel between travel and the classroom. I shared this with my teenage daughter once when she was struggling in her math class. It seemed to connect with her and (at least so far) it has been the last time she had trouble keeping up with that subject.

I told her about how some students think class is like just such a trip. Maybe we could imagine everyone on a bus going on a field trip. They all board the bus at the school, they all get out at the destination. They were along for the ride and they arrived.

In class, this amounts to listening to the teacher, maybe even taking some notes and doing an assignment. Their butts were in the seat, writing is on the paper and credit was achieved. In their minds, they arrived.

I see many students who genuinely believe that's all that mattered.

The problem with this, I told my daughter, is that the goal of the classroom is not just to arrive. It's that everyone and anyone on that bus would be able to drive there themselves. 

Getting to a place was not the only goal. The how and why of the route mattered too.

So consider how differently a passenger spends his time on a trip when he knows he has to drive it himself. He'd be paying attention to every turn, trying to remember street names and landmarks. He'd be asking the driver questions if he missed something.

I've been learning a lot about John Hattie's work lately and he gives us this insight on what a good learner pays attention to.

"Their role is not simply to do tasks as decided by teachers, but to actively manage and understand their learning gains. This includes evaluating their own progress, being more responsible for their learning, and being involved with peers in learning together about gains in learning." (From Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning)

So ask them regularly, are they along for the ride or preparing to drive the bus?

Sunday, January 29, 2017

5 Reasons Every Teacher Should Present at Conferences

Early in my career my mentor, Bernie Cunningham, used to arrange for those of us in the math department to present at the international Texas Instruments T^3 Conference. I was far from a model teacher, but Bernie would help me pick one or two innovative ideas I could share with others. Those excursions were unforgettable. I felt out of league at times, but we bonded as a department and our vision of what was possible was stretched.

That was many years ago and I've since moved out of the classroom, but I've continued the practice of sharing my ideas at conferences. I also always ask other teachers in the district to present with me. I've been surprised at times by their unwillingness to do so. "I'm not techy enough to be presenting at that conference," they'll tell me. Or, "I don't have anything other teachers would care to see." 

I can relate perfectly to what they're saying. I still feel inadequate. But I also have seen the many benefits of preparing a presentation and putting the work out there to the masses. All I can say is it's well worth the risk. And there's always someone who thanks me for sharing.

Recently I created this graphic to sum up some of those benefits. I'll elaborate briefly on each one below.

It's empowering to know you positively impact several classrooms. - You see yourself differently when you know other teachers have learned from you. The thanks I receive at the end of my presentation, or maybe weeks later after they've tried out the activities I shared, help me realize what I'm doing for my students is worthwhile.

Trying out your ideas with your class requires you to stretch. - Maybe I do this differently than most, but I usually submit a proposal to speak before I tried out my session topic. Or I should say, I always promise a little more than I've already tested out 100%. I tend to dream big on those proposals! When I find out my proposal has been accepted, I'm then committed to pushing the limits with that innovative thing I had dreamed up.

I remember a few years ago when I received a grant in preparation for the conference. I had to deliver on the promise, but I was sick to my stomach with nerves the day we had to kick things off in class. I'm happy to say the activity and the conference session turned out amazingly well. It turned out to be an exciting experience, but I would have missed it had it not been for that requirement to present.

You (and your students, colleagues and administrators) will know you're not just a good teacher in your classroom, your building or your district. - It is easy for a teacher to exist in a bubble. The standard of a "good teacher" is subject to our students' limited perspectives and our own limited view of the other teachers in our buildings. Giving something of value to even a small group of teachers at a conference puts those standards to the test. In fact, one of the reasons I submit my work for conferences is so I'm sure it's of value to educators beyond my district. The students I teach deserve such quality.

Students are motivated when they know they play a part in a larger work. - I love to tell students that we are trying out something that I will share with other teachers across our state. It adds a lot more excitement to it, especially if I'm not sure it will work. They love to see how the project turns out and invariably they ask me later how the conference went. Some have talked to me about those projects years later.

Your PLN will grow. - We all know one of the greatest benefits of conferences is meeting other teachers. As a presenter, the opportunity for networking is increased. First, you are immediately recognized as a teacher of teachers. Many times just the badge around your neck will mark you as a bit of expert. You'll have plenty of opportunities to chat with other speakers. That chance to share ideas, or maybe just some laughs, greatly strengthens the bonds of the virtual networking that can continue past the conference. Of course, mentioning your Twitter handle and other contact information during your session gains more followers and increases opportunities as well.

So I encourage every teacher to look for opportunities to present beyond their district. Partner up with someone else in your building. Start with a small conference. It will take extra effort and cause some extra anxiety, but the benefits can be life changing.