Saturday, November 30, 2019

Starting at the Heart of the Experience

In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder's popular book on writing hit screenplays, he suggests testing a great movie idea by focusing on one key moment. But this won't be a key moment from the movie.

Instead, he says to imagine two people deciding which movie to watch. One of them (looking at all the options) pushes forth the title of the movie in question. The other says, "What's that about?"

That is the moment (just before the possible ticket sale) where blockbusters are born or where they flop. The screenwriter should craft the short sentence he or she would want to be used as the answer to that question. It should hint at the intriguing action, drama or comedy featured in the movie. It also has to make listener to wonder, "How will that turn out?"

Build the screenplay from that short answer, because that's the moment of truth.

I've heard similar suggestions from experts in game design, an area I know more about. It's common now to talk about early design goals based on what you want the players to experience. After more than 25 years of making games, I hadn't explicitly done that. It's so easy instead to get hooked on an appealing idea and never clearly state why anyone else would care to play it. Yet in reality, it was experience that I was really hoping for.

Educators can learn from these two examples as well. When I look back at the thousands of lessons I led in my classroom or for adults, I see a lot of ideas that excited me at the time. That energy helped me to deliver the lesson or activity with more enthusiasm, no doubt. But how often did I think of it from the learner's perspective?

What was happening in my students' minds? What did they come into the room with, from their recent conversation at home to all the previous years that shaped their expectations of school?

Derek Muller has an excellent video about how so many new, promising tools have failed to transform education over the years. At the end he points out, "What really matters is what happens inside the learner's head."

John Hattie, after his countless meta-studies involving hundreds of thousands of students, concludes teachers need to see learning through the eyes of their students.

I would guess most of us judge an effective lesson on the things we see in the moment. We look for students who are on-task, doing what we asked of them. We have a mental list of what we want to see and what we don't. That might include certain answers on a worksheet or test. It might be a minimum average we expect from the class on our quiz.

While those are important, necessary things, is it possible to see them and still miss the goal of helping all of our students learn? My own experience in the classroom requires me to answer with a resounding YES!

There's still so much I'm learning about this and I can't offer a lot of suggestions. I will say my own learning over the years has required deep thinking about a subject. I've needed time to grapple with problems and work through misconceptions. I'm not a fan of superficial activities that turn learning into a distracting game or that introduce complicated, time consuming tech tools and procedures.

Beyond that, I will just offer some questions to consider when designing a lesson:
  • Which lesson should I (re)design first with this focus on experience? A favorite? A weak lesson? A standard that is fundamental for many others or something that is not as important?
  • What experience would help my students learn what I want them to?
  • How can I increase the chances that they will experience that? Consider what happens before and during the lesson.
  • How will I assess whether the experience and the learning took place?
  • What reflection and discussion needs to take place after to solidify the learning?

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Show Your Work - Inspiration from Austin Kleon

The past year has been a rough one for me in a lot of ways. If you follow my work here or over on my ed-tech blog, you'll know the work output really dropped.

Recently I was reminded of Austin Kleon's book, Steal Like an Artist. It was a huge inspiration to me six years ago as I was forming the thoughts that birthed this blog. 

I decided I needed another boost, so I finally read his follow-up book, Show Your Work.

Like his first, this was a quick read and I highly recommend it if you're into creative work. Some of the ideas certainly aren't as fresh as when it came out, but it definitely kick-started my interest in getting my work out there.

I loved this one quote especially, as it strikes squarely on my "teaching like an artist" rally cry. Kleon is talking about art as a story. He quotes another author first:

Author John Gardner said the basic plot of nearly all stories is this: 

“A character wants something, 
goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), 
and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw." 

Then Kleon adds his thoughts:

I like Gardner's plot formula because it's also the shape of most creative work: 

You get a great idea, 
you go through the hard work of executing the idea, 
and then you release the idea out into the world, coming to a win, lose, or draw. 

Sometimes the idea succeeds, sometimes it fails, and more often than not, it does nothing at all.

If you've been to any of my conference presentations the past four years, you've most likely seen my slide where I define "the way of the artist". I call it the three no-so-simple steps to inspire:

Dream big
Do the work
Share it

As I said, the past year has been hard. Seeing Kleon's statement parallel my own observations is a small thing, but helpful at this time. I'm not ready to give up yet!

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Blessings or Curses

Not sure about all artists, but a lot of us find ourselves in that place where we can't tell our blessings from our curses. Is it a gift or a burden?

It reminds me of something I read about Johnny Cash. In the non-stop schedule of rising fame, someone gave him pills to help him cope. When he first started using them, he was thankful for them. They helped him do what he loved. Then in time they nearly destroyed him.

Drug addiction is generally recognized as a bad thing, but I'm thinking of the grip of things more subtle.

Is the endless stream of ideas a gift, providing a bounty worth sharing? Or is it a winding river pulling us uncontrollably past all the things that really matter? Does my ability to think deeply about something give me insight or make me miss so much life?

In good moments it works the other way too. We're thankful for the trials, once they fuel a passion for the good of others. Or the re-framing and re-creation brings healing.

Maybe any reflective soul who puts their heart into their work must come to this place. 

Do we embrace this thing or run from it?

Will one more week of working on this or thinking like this finally yield the breakthrough? Or has it already led me too far off course?

There's no end of advice from others. 

"Know when to let it go." 

"Never give up." 

It depends who you want to listen to, I guess.

I can think of times in the past when it was a spiritual experience. It felt like an answer was given or I felt led by Someone. Other times (like now, if it's not obvious) I doubt myself too much to recognize the truth from the lies. 

If I had to help someone else in such a place, I'd say only this. Trust there's purpose and keep moving. There will be times of wondering, but thank God when (whether a blessing or a curse) it's obvious.

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.