Creativity: the cure to “you don’t know what you don’t know”

You don’t know what you don’t know.  And ignorance is not necessarily bliss.  How do we encourage our students (and even ourselves) to push past this block and discover what lies beyond?  

I visited NuVu yesterday for their Student Exhibition Night and was blown away by the young people whose excitement, passion, and willingness to talk about the design process was exquisite.  They spoke about projects they had developed–like a mechanism to help seniors stand up (as opposed to rocking back and forth in hopes of creating momentum to propel oneself out of a chair).  They shared stunning wearable art designed in collaboration with Heidi Latsky Dance–a company who celebrates diversity in its members–both disabled and not.  They created a Door Bot that opens doors for those bound to wheelchairs. 

In short, I was impressed.  The real bang came the next day, though, when I was able to chat with three girls involved in the designing of costumes for the dance company.  One student was from a public school and one from a private–two girls who had clearly developed a friendship through their work together.  We spoke about the transition to NuVu, and what challenges they faced.  Here’s what they told me:

“We just had to figure it out.”

“Coaches would lead us in a studio for a few hours and then they’d say, ‘Okay, now go do it.’ and we were like,’What?! I don’t know how to do that…”  And here’s the beauty:

the coaches didn’t tell them.

Crazy, right?!  How many times do your kids pester you for answers and  you finally give in and tell them just because it’s easier or you don’t want to listen to them whine anymore?  (Okay, maybe it’s just me.)

But that’s not happening at NuVu.  Students are figuring shit out.  And they’re designing prosthetic hands, interactive clothing that celebrates and brings attention to those lost to police brutality, interactive marketing tools…

Knowing my own tendency to “over help” and thereby cut off at the knees my own kids’ persistence, I pushed on this idea.  I wondered how they retrained their brains to adopt a new sort of thinking.  “What did you do when you were asked to brainstorm in a studio?”  The girls laughed, recalling their first studio where they would throw out an idea followed by an immediate discrediting–“oh, that will never work…”  They identified how short-sighted and self-limiting they had been, and how long it took them to develop the skill to think big, to dream the impossible in order to scale it to possible.

This is the beauty of design thinking, and why I think we need to embrace it regularly in our classrooms.  Being brave enough to dream the impossible, to share it with a group, and discuss how it might one day become something…that’s the magic of learning.  When we are so afraid to fail all the time, how might we redirect?  Might we start with our old habits of self-limiting narratives, and push past them to something else?

Authentic project-based learning (like what’s outlined in the Buck Institute’s HQPBL framework) is one way forward.  

If we want to graduate creative students who demonstrate skills, are truly lifelong learners, and persist as a matter of course, project-based learning is a clear path toward exactly that.  

If you’re not sure, take Sinek’s advice and step outside your box for a few minutes before you return to your classroom.

Empathy & Engagement: finding light in the darkness

“She’s just…gone,” she said to me, and I felt her energy–a sadness fueled by intense empathy–and I empathized in return.  So many feelings–pride that we have teachers like her who stop into the office before 8 a.m. to check on students’ well being, sadness that we have students who surf couches and show up hungry, hesitation in my response as I tried to remain open to her tears and find words to fill the space where there were none to reassure.

Empathy is powerful.  It can lay you flat out if you let it, and it did that to me today.  There were tears, those I usually keep boxed up in a tight container, that flowed freely out the sides.  I let myself truly feel for others, and yes, it hurt.  And in our current political climate, I find myself drawn back to empathy time and again, trying to make sense of things I do not understand.

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I don’t understand why some students must find ways to ask if we might have some food to spare–using humor, usually–because they struggle to quiet rumbles of hunger.  I don’t understand why students have to live in unhealthy circumstances beyond their control at home, and then come to schools where their voices are rarely heard there either.  I don’t understand why some teachers find it so difficult to build real relationships with students.

 

In tandem with the scant hours of fall daylight, there is darkness in school.  But in this darkness, I seek the bright spots.  One to note:

we have shifted our priorities this year to make time for things that matter,

one of them being time for students to explore personal interests.  On Thursdays, students participate in a 45-minute workshop designed expressly for discovery and exploration.  Here’s what some of them had to say about the experience:

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Encouraging, right?  Vermont says we must personalize learning, and so we create a schedule in partnership with students that prioritizes time for them to explore passions.  In some instances, it becomes the highlight of their week.  It has other unintended and serendipitous consequences: students create new friendships based on common interests; they feel valued and mitigate their stress; they discover new interests that inspire them.

In short, we strengthen culture.IMG_1217

Empathy requires that you feel, and that’s scary for some (including me).  Without it though, we find ourselves in tragic situations.  I believe our schools should be places of comfort, inspiration, and belonging.  Connecting with students, personalizing the school experience, valuing their voice…they aren’t extras.  They’re the very foundation upon which we build strong schools, and it’s time we prioritize these shifts.  We live in a world where school isn’t just school anymore; it’s the therapist’s office, the doctor, the parent, the family.

Let’s embrace what empathy can teach us about becoming the teachers that students need us to be in this present moment.

 

 

Hypocrisy 1; Equity 0: epic parenting dilemma

So my own hypocrisy smacked me in the face today.  Hard.  And I have to come clean if I’m to have a prayer of working through the existential crisis that’s unfolded in the last 24 hours.

I thought that one of my core beliefs centered around equity : all students deserve access to opportunity.

But when push came to shove for me last night, I failed as a human for what I tell myself was a trade-off as a mother.  I chose to advocate for separation instead of for equity in hopes of sheltering my child from exposure to what I perceived as a possibly harmful environment.  Maybe my child felt better in the short term, but what have I taught him for the long haul?

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Everybody struggles.  I’m struggling with this.  I’m looking at my own background, remembering my roots and considering how they shape my current reactions.  The daughter of a truck driver, I grew up with a father who freely embraced the f-bomb as every part of speech (and in just about every sentence).  Sidesplittingly funny with strong views on everything from politics to the Yankees, his language always threw me.  Language was at the heart of my discomfort in both of these situations–listening to my father and the potential for that kind of language to surround my son for four nights.   I’m all design thinking and empathy in school, but I didn’t honor that here.

But what if…it didn’t look like that?

What if my son had the opportunity to build bridges instead of be sheltered?  What if he learned some empathy himself?  Might there have been long-lasting positive effects?

When does fighting for equity outweigh concerns as a parent?  

Does it?

 

 

Photo credit: Volkan Olmez (Unsplash)

 

 

Spirit animals & the power of reflection

While I would be proud to present my spirit animal as the wise owl, the shrewd wolf, or the majestic eagle, I share a far more ridiculous reality: SQUIRREL!  No, really.  It’s SQUIRREL!  It’s my inspiration junkie self finally coming to terms with the beauty of this animal in its abrupt pivots, its nimble movements over unstable terrain, its rapid adjustments and keen senses.  Squirrels are adorable bundles of explosive energy and it’s difficult to predict where they’ll go next.  I’m down with that, and it took a trip to SXSWEdu and a chance meeting of a fellow SQUIRREL! for me to identify and embrace this fact.  I understand its significance and importance in my life, and now I have an answer when someone asks that most revealing of questions as a conversation opener.

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Look at this guy…so ready to go get ’em!  Photo: Anthony Intraversato

All this erratic squirrel energy demands balance, and that prompts me to reflect on reflection.  I’ve pondered the place of reflection in the new educational landscape, and part of my struggle remains the time it takes to sufficiently reflect.  Who has time for reflection when you could be DOING something?!  Then my mind goes all John Dewey on me and I remember my wits:

“We do not learn from experience.  We learn from reflecting on experience.”

He’s looking all Uncle Sam with a pointy finger in my mind, but okay.  I believe this.  Reflection is important.  And our students do not have a firm grasp on what it means to reflect.  (Honestly, they’re more SQUIRREL! than I am.)  While co-teaching our Exploring Education class, Pat LaClair and I found ourselves mired in attempts to help students reflect.  We failed.  Often.  We started by asking thought-provoking questions.  We shared examples.  We asked what our students thought about their experiences and then we asked WHY?  Why did they feel this way?  While we eventually made some progress from relatively shallow answers to more in-depth thought, I was left with two observations:

1. reflection is absolutely imperative to deeper learning.

2. we need to vary our approach.

How might we do that?  Some moments of inspiration hit hard last week while I was in a workshop at SXSWEdu led by  Dan Ryder and Amy Burvall.  The two have created an incredible collection of activities in Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom that promise to develop metaphorical thinkers, and I believe that this is one way forward with reflection.  In a world of SQUIRREL! type thinkers, these activities are quick, fun, and genuinely compel students to reflect and think deeply.  With Legos.  And Oreos.  Check out our exercise in representing a social issue with Oreo:

That toilet?  Come on!  Brilliant.  We had two minutes and an Oreo.  Take a second (SQUIRREL time) and consider the kind of thinking one has to engage in to bring to life this simple creation.  It’s metaphorical, right?  And metacognitive.  It’s creative, and it’s deeper than even a thought-provoking question might elicit.  While I believe that written reflection is integral to learning, we need additional formative opportunities to help students move toward deeper reflection.  With short activities such as these (heavily weighted with fun), students can begin to develop the kind of mindset that deep reflection requires.

Dan and Amy: thank you for pulling together an amazing collection of “reflection recipes.”  It’s perfect for this SQUIRREL! and I know it’s going to be spot-on for those in my class…now what was that about design thinking, deeper learning, and wait, SQUIRREL!

Dan & Amy’s book can be found on Amazon.

Confessions of a first-year teacher (20 years later)

jeremie-cremer-4419 Jérémie Crémer

I should have taken a few years off after college and done some traveling, exploring, and growing up,

but instead, I landed my first teaching job.

I thought that getting a job was the next logical step in the whole new world of adulting, so I took the first offer that came to me.  I was to be one of four teachers on a freshmen “team” teaching high needs students and providing the wraparound support they needed.  These students hated school, weren’t accustomed to success, and just wanted to get through the day.  Fresh off my student teaching experience with college-bound juniors and a short gig teaching motivated ski-racers, I was sorely unprepared for this first real gig.

In short, they ate me alive.  But let me back up a minute and tell you a couple of things about myself: first, I’m 5’2″ (on a good day–maybe with my clogs on), have the nasally voice of a prepubescent teen, and have a pixie-like face.  I blend easily with a crew of high school students.  But at 22, I didn’t want to blend.  I wanted to differentiate myself from my students, because I thought that teachers had to be separate if they were to be respected, and how could one teach in a class without some semblance of a line between teacher and student?

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Okay, maybe it wasn’t this bad.  But you see how clear the roles are??

So I trucked myself to Barbara Moss (I’m dating myself, and also admitting my poor fashion sense…I’ve improved, I swear) and bought as many dresses as my meager salary would allow, bought my first of many pairs of clogs, and refreshed my make-up supply (minimal is an ample description).  I wore my long, blonde hair in a tight bun at the base of my neck and tried to act professionally, which at the time meant following the lessons of my mentors and establishing strict ground rules with my students.

I wasn’t fooling anyone.  Those students knew that I was in over my head, and much to my surprise, many of them tolerated it.  They endured my vocabulary lists, listened to me “go over” the readings from the homework they didn’t do, and failed test after test that I gave them.  In our team meetings (teachers, not students–we hadn’t figured that out yet), I defended my grading policies of creating a system that rewarded only the hardest worker (read: student who completes all required tasks) and penalized those who didn’t.  I asserted that I had high expectations.

Really, I didn’t have a clue about education, learning, or what those students needed.  So hung up on my own need to establish authority, I failed to see my greatest strength–I was only seven years older than my students.  I could relate to them in ways that my mentors could not.  I could leverage the small gap in our age to help them learn.  The adversity they dealt with in their everyday lives (broken families, homelessness, drug issues, teen pregnancy, etc.) couldn’t hold a candle to what I was trying to teach them about literature, and I missed the boat.  I wasn’t even in the same sea.

To those students, I want to say I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.

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It took a while for me to loosen up in the classroom, but I did begin to get a clue the following year.  Assigned another challenging group of sophomores, I started to let down my guard ever so slightly.  I took the time to talk with each student; I showed films that took me out of my comfort zone but engaged them; I started a mountain bike club to share one of my passions.

Through these small risks, I built relationships.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized the importance of doing so, but I did see improvements each time I invested in them.

Adversity is a teacher in and of itself.  The situations that new teachers face–isolation, unmotivated students, cluelessness about school culture–seem to be the norm.  How I wish I could go back to those days and help those students in my classes–help them see that their opinions matter, that there is more to life than homework (but reading a good book is one of life’s pleasures), that they could learn to be better communicators without writing the standard five-paragraph essay multiple times in a semester.  I wish I could go back to my former self and give permission to lighten up.  But I can’t.  What I can do, however, is do right by the students I have the good fortune to teach now.  I invest in relationships with them.  I blur the line between us–recognizing that it’s not sacrificing respect but building it.  I take risks in an attempt to reach them, to challenge their thinking, and to lead them to new learning.  I get it now.  I’m pretty sure.

Game design & Proficiency Assessment: LUHS students capture the adventure of the Renaissance

Are games really a viable option for assessing student learning?

The social studies department recently invited me to a meeting to deliberate this question.  Lively discussion ensued about how one might really assess learning by asking students to create a game.  Among the comments were these:

  • There is already a great game out there about trade.  Maybe we should just have them play Catan (formerly Settlers of Catan).
  • How much time is this going to take?  A test will only take part of the period.
  • I don’t know how it will look.  What do I tell students if they ask me questions about how to design a game?  I’m not sure I know how to do that.
  • And finally: we agreed to try this.  Let’s do it and see how it goes.

I understand the fear.  It is disquieting to ask students to do something that you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with yourself.  But.  BUT.  Sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do, and you agree to figure it out together.  (See Innovator’s Mindset: risk taking.)  Here’s the thing: games are a second (or first?) language for our students.  They speak game fluently.  They know health; they know roles; they know many things about games you’ve never heard of.  The most important thing you need to know as teachers?

Students love games, and they can and will take your content and turn it into a game if you give them the time and some guidance.

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Trade routes & settlements: a game board in design

“I get it,” one teacher said to me when I walked into his room later that week to find groups in deep and eager conversation about their game design.  He looked at his room full of engaged–no, empowered–students, looked at me, and said, “I see what you’ve been trying to do.”  I’ve been working to help teachers take games seriously over the past couple of years, and it’s a goal often lost in the proficiency/personalized learning shuffle.  The real work has been in showing teachers that games aren’t something in addition to the changes they are making to implement Act 77; they ARE the change.  Just one piece, but one that deserves attention, because

games and game-like learning are excellent vehicles for meaningful content delivery and assessment.

Take the social studies proficiency that was the focus for this unit: P.I. 9 (Economics): I can analyze how economic globalization and the expanding use of scarce resources have contributed to conflict and cooperation within and among countries.  Perfect platform for a game, right?  Yes, Klaus Teuber already created something awesome, but let’s see what the students can do with this.  

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Classic Monopoly remade: Renaissance resources dictate a new take on an old favorite

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Candyland revamp: the Renaissance magic is in the cards

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Playtesting a take on Trivial Pursuit

While some students modeled their games after board games we know and love, some embraced their creativity and truly went rogue.  One group created a game where Heaven and Hell were the ultimate end–dictated by choices and currency exchange, often connected to churches.  (Interesting social commentary, too.)  Another group created a game based on settlements and trade routes whose success is dictated by not only the resources accrued but also by luck and happenstance.  While I reminded students of the importance of starting any good game with the ultimate learning goal, I also asked that they elect one member of their group to be the “fun police” (originated and coined beautifully by the Institute of Play).  They had a great time creating game mechanics that left players “dead” or headed back to start because of plague or other catastrophes.

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Bad eggs lead to death.  Good life lesson?

 

Sure, the games look good.  But are they good?

What are students really learning through game design?

Let’s talk about the proficiency first.  I took a stroll around the room of game designers and asked them to tell me how their game would teach players about scarcity, trade, conflict and cooperation.  Yes, there were blank stares.  But when I prodded a bit further, every student was able to explain in vivid detail how their game play addressed exactly those concepts.  Whether it was the act of trading resources of varying value, losing valuables to thievery during the New Age and gaining advantages as the culture shifted, or dictating card values based on resources, the students were able to explain how players would engage with the content.

A quick google form to garner feedback and reflection post-game creation also allowed students to reflect on the proficiency:

proficiency reflection

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Travel through the Ages: resource allotment from Renaissance to Reformation

That content holds a place in students’ overall education, but in my mind,

the true power of game creation is in the focus on transferable skills.

Here’s what two students had to say about how game design helped them practice communication skills:

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And problem solving:

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Is it worth the time commitment?

If you want students to delve into deeper learning, you have to provide the time and space for them to do so.  While you may not know how long it will take, or how it might look as things unfold, or if you’ll have the answers students seek, I implore you to

 give yourself permission for things to get messy

for there are tangible rewards on the other side.  Take the risk.  Cannonball.

 

Resources:

Institute of Play’s Game Design pack : in-depth game design guide brilliantly designed & executed

Game design handout for students : the handout used by the social studies department for this unit.  Thanks so Amanda Denison for creating it!