The TED Series

Who is creative?  If we were to list all of the people we believe fit the description, what would we find as the common thread?

Today marked the third in a series of one-hour seminars I offered within my district centered around TED talks.  Each session was purposely kept to an hour: twenty minutes for the TED talk, and forty minutes for discussion and commentary.  I wanted to kick-start conversation around two topics: creativity and motivation.

The first session featured the old standby with Sir Kenneth Robinson’s “Are Schools Killing Creativity?” which to my surprise, not a lot of my staff had seen.  Regardless, I wanted to show it to begin the conversations around what we do as a system to creativity within children.  The second in the series was actually not a TED Talk, but the RSA video of Dan Pink’s explanation of what motivates people in organizations (I just couldn’t show the TED Talk–he was kind of creepy in it).  This last one featured Elizabeth Gilbert’s views on our relationship to the genius during the creative process.

Throughout the three sessions, internally I kept pulling to draw relevance to the work we do with students.  I was constantly asking myself “how will this relate back to the classrooms and schools they work in?”  and it wasn’t until the discussion following Gilbert’s talk that it really clicked for me.

When is the last time teachers were given some play time?  When were we given an hour to just let our minds be elastic and think some really crazy thoughts about the world around us?

That’s what these three were able to do, in my view.  The group, especially in the last two sessions shared insights and battled with themselves and others in the room about ideas that I am sure were not discussed at the lunch table in the faculty room any time recently.  We played with dangerous ideas like eliminating grading systems, allowing students to determine pacing on projects, and giving faculty the ability to design their own staff development days.  We also challenged each other’s ideas of what it means to be “creative”–is it a mindset, different vision?  is it a work ethic?  is it the ability to fit square pegs in seemingly round holes?

Regardless, it was a pleasure to listen and engage with the groups throughout, and I fully plan on doing this again.

Image Credit: “January 25th 2008 – The word for the day is ‘knowledge’, pass it onfrom Stephen Poff’s Photostream

Heidi Hayes Jacobs: Curriculum 21 Essential Education for a Changing World

On my desk yesterday sat an unwrapped copy from of Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ latest book “Curriculum 21 Essential Education for a Changing World” my monthly gift from ASCD. In all honesty, I immediately balk at most things labeled with the ordinal number “21” as a result of its saturated use in educational circles these days. Rarely does a memo leave the offices in Trenton without mention of this initiative or that program designed to incorporate the 21st Century in some manner.

I am just a little over the term, that’s all.

Being that today is a day of airports and the requisite time-suck that they, and the airlines, put you through, I knew that I’d have time to get through some of the book on the way down. My intent was to use some of it as a springboard for FETC, as some of the themes presented are concurrent with some of my aims at the conference.

The book is laid out in an interesting format, in that Jacobs is the editor, but the first four chapters are hers. Following her are chapters from: Stephen Wilmarth, Vivien Stewart, Tim Tyson (of Mabry Middle School fame), Frank W. Baker (who is also creating a ton of great content over that the Making Curriculum Pop Ning), Daivd Niguidula, Jaimie Cloud, Alan November, Bill Sheskey, Aurther Costa and Bena Kallick.

Since this is mid-flight, and I am nowhere near through the entire book, I thought I’d start with some reactions to the first chapter authored by Jacobs. The thrid through fourth chapters dealing with the structural change to schools and curriculum at the systems level, also Jacobs’ chapters, I’d like to treat on their own, especially after some of the sessions I plan on attending tomorrow.

“The good old days are still good enough.”

In chapter one, I enjoyed the three myths that she believes need addressing when talking about school reform, especially curricular reform. The first myth is a sentiment anyone involved in moving schools and districts forward encounters on a daily basis. Very much the same as the TTWWADI mentality, this one extends beyond schools typically and into the community that surrounds it. There are methodologies that are timeless in education, and there are those that are fleeting. Without careful examination and experimentation with these ideas, we lose the ability to know what works best in given situations. Schools or communities, Jacobs states, are “shackled by memories,” and many times paralyzed by the insecurity of change.

“We’re better off if we all think alike–and not too much.”

The second myth addresses what Jacobs calls “America’s love/hate relationship with being educated.” The myth, is as unsettling as it is hilarious. The glorification of the self-made man who rises out of poverty with little or no formal education to millionaire status is revered among the general population of the United States. Jacobs points to Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason,” here with its examination of the fracturing of American discourse into factional discord, whereby thinkers surround themselves with those who share their own ideas. This for is evidenced by the consistent battle between the viewers of Fox News and those of every other major media outlet. We now have the ability and what’s worse, the desire to surround ourselves, rather insulate ourselves with those who think like us. What is missing and necessary in any future of curricular change, according to Jacobs, is a return to active, open discourse between factional thinkers. We were founded amid chaos, and our students need to understand that disagreement is not disloyalty.

“Too much creativity is dangerous–and the arts are frills”

Even though we have much data showing the correlation between study of the arts and music and future academic success, as a society we marginalize the study of these disciplines in times of extreme panic or budget shortfall. Jacobs looks to Dan Pink to help characterize the future skill-set of the 21st Century worker (ugh, I used it as an adjective). Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as this: an original thought or idea that has merit. In that capacity it cannot be limited to the realm of arts and music. We don’t have innovation fields like accounting unless there is someone who sits in his or her chair and conceives of a whole new way to crunch numbers and manipulate their trade. Eliminating or denigrating arts as “frills” does a complete disservice to the students we teach today who will become tomorrow’s leaders.

Picasso’s Guernica

I have been spending so much time with the art teachers in my district lately putting together their curriculum, and beyond the fact that my vocabulary is increasing exponentially (terms like gesso, tragacanth, brayer, and fresco are now commonplace for me), it’s been an incredible insight into a very different view of education.  They differentiate by default, and the rest of us struggle to change to it.

In many ways, I am beginning to see the realities of what people like Daniel Pink and Sir Ken Robinson keep talking about.  Art is essential to how we behave as citizens and as society.

So when Marcy Webb posted this the other day, I had to put it up here too.

There is a Growing Demand for Meaning Among Teachers

At least that is what I am seeing from my limited point of view.

Today was marked by our annual New Teacher Induction meetings where we work with our first-year staff on method and practice.  It’s always an eclectic bunch, as we always have a nice mix of veteran teachers who have changed districts mid-career and recent college graduates.   The perspectives range from those blinded by the frustrations of working with students for the first time to those who’ve been through their share of the trenches.

Today’s theme was supposed to be Non-Linguistic Representations and how we can use them to aid students in accessing learning via more than the traditional input of chalk, talk, write and remember.  As usual, when a lesson goes the way I want it to, or better yet, in a direction I did not anticipate, it leaves me with more to learn than those who were originally considered the students in the equation.

In introducing the theme, I asked them to read and discuss (we used body voting to have them split the room apart–which do you prefer Starbuck’s or Dunkin Donuts?) a recent post on Scott McLeod’s page in which he quoted Robert Fried’s The Game of School:


What sprang out this small quote from both veteran and new teacher alike was an overwhelming sigh of relief that someone had verbalized this in such a manner as this.  From pre-school teachers to senior level math teachers, the value of the three key words in this quote: curious, confident, enthusiastic, drew response.  Whether that passion from the students was for math, writing, reading, or science, did not matter to them.  They wanted the gestalt for their students, and they really wanted it.

I can’t say I was surprised, as getting our teachers out of the classroom is difficult to do–they are passionate and committed to what they do; they common phrase among our high school staff is “you’ve got to be in it to win it.”  What surprised me most was the demand they placed on making sure we help them teach students meaningful things that they will use and that make sense in their lives immediately.   Breaking away from this discussion was difficult, and it ran way over the time we allotted for it in both sessions, but we knew there would be more time for this discussion.

Sir Ken Robinson’s work has been making the rounds lately, and I am a sucker for his 2006 TED talk regarding creativity and education.  This group, I was sure, had not heard this yet, so I paired it with a short excerpt from Pink’s A Whole New Mind, and asked them to do some synthesizing: take Robinson’s contentions about the role of public education in regards to creativity, take Pink’s assertion that we need an integrated mind for the future, and come to a new understanding about your own practice and your own understanding of what your students need.

What we got never materialized into a whole group discussion, but in moving between the groups, I caught people talking like their hair was on fire in some instances.  This day struck a chord, at least with me, and I’d love to solicit some feedback about the day in the form of an exit card (probably should have thought of that beforehand).  How did it relate to non-linguistic representations?  Not as cleanly as I would have hoped, but in discussing the need for students to access information visually, use mental imagery, and portray their understanding of concepts in visual as well as verbal/linguistic forms, our groups were able to see the need for strong non-verbal learning.

Ad Revenue Matters to You

I’ll admit that my inner geek drives the direction of my reading lately; I tend to read Techmeme as often as I read Edutopia. However, one of my all time favorite reading topics has always been the direction and drama associated with mainstream media and its delivery to consumers. Odd, I know. Most people would say they love to read trashy novels, or scan baseball scores (which I often do), but not this guy. Give me an opinion piece about the future of participatory media, the changing of the guard in the newsroom, or something like this one from the New York Times:

For newspapers, the news has swiftly gone from bad to worse. This year
is taking shape as their worst on record, with a double-digit drop in
advertising revenue, raising serious questions about the survival of
some papers and the solvency of their parent companies.

and I am like the proverbial pig in…well, understood.

I don’t know if this story piques my interest for the usual reasons, but I know that it makes me begin thinking about the world that I am helping teachers prepare students for. It’s topics conjure up all kinds of reminiscences from last summer when we were all struggling to shrug off Andrew Keen’s attacks on connective writing and citizen publishing, and it calls to light the profound changes in literacy many of us have been discussing for several years.

Connection to Teaching and Learning

Often, I’ll find myself looking out at the vast expanse of my RSS reader and see similar topics being bandied about, and articles debated back and forth between individuals much smarter than me, and I’ll wonder where my connection back to the classroom teacher is–where is the correlation between George Siemens and the work he does, and the elementary teacher I work with who wants to differentiate instruction? Many times I find myself at a crossroads wondering how to find common ground for the theoretical applications I see, and the practical situations that teachers live through.

This article in the Times, amazingly, though obscurely, shows me a connection. When we look at the trends, just in the last two years (ad revenue dropped 8% last year, and is already down 12% from that number), that tells me that the sellers/advertisers are following their buyers/consumers eyes.  With that, come so many negative consequences:

  • assimilation of major newspapers or ownership groups perhaps taking away a decidedly local flavor
  • massive job losses in the printing industry
  • ink-stained elbows on Sunday mornings

The last bullet above, while in jest, does reflect some sentiment that, if you dig on Nicholas Carr, you might agree with.  We aren’t interacting with print media as often as we used to, and what effect will this have on our ability to read deeply?  Moreover, the real impetus behind my writing this tonight was to truly ask myself what are we preparing our students to consume?  Is literacy solely the manipulation of a texted page, or does it involve, as the article hinted at, the ability to decipher and decode the “vastly more choices” that online advertising offers to sellers?

So, I look at the classrooms I’ve been in this year and wonder, are we doing all that we can to prepare our students for a world with decidedly less printed paper than our own?

Positive Consequences:

Here’s another discerning thought that rises from this: how can we pull positives out of this development?  As with any technology, it’s social ramifications are natural offspring.  In this case, I see a lot of good coming out of the move to online news consumption:

  • smaller ecological footprint: fewer papers, fewer trees, fewer inks, fewer distribution trucks
  • more opportunities for connective writing
  • greater opportunity for dialogue between writer/publisher and reader through comments and forums

Erica had just reminded me of Pink’s book yesterday as she wrote about being able to finish it on her way out to San Jose for the Google Teacher Academy.  What this exemplifies is the shift away from one mode of production, to another that will involve some creative thought processes and a distinct need to train people in how to produce this new product.  It’s examples like this one that really make me analyze what we are asking our students to do in our classrooms;  are we preparing them for the classified ads of the future?