The Art of Stillness

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we teach technology skills to kids.  More so, how much that has changed.  When I think back to my first year of teaching, in a classroom with just one computer and printer, I don’t recall more than small group web quests, the occasional math game students could play, and the biggest display we had in class was an overhead projector. I blinded myself. A lot. Just me and my marker smeared hands.  The next level was a 2:1 classroom with desktop computers. We created movies. We recorded podcasts. We used websites to explore and learn.  We also played games to practice skills.  I can remember someone popping into my public school classroom of 28 kids, all on a computer, staring at a screen, playing a game and he exclaimed, “Wow, this IS the future. They are all SO engaged.”  I can also remember thinking, they are NOT engaged.  I was horrified.  The movies we made? That was true engagement. The research the kids did to prepare. The stories they wrote. The scripts they recorded. That was engagement and collaboration at it’s finest.  Those kids, a classroom mixture of special education, gifted and talented, and some students in both categories… they taught me HOW to teach.  It was the year I learned to get out of their way.   The year I took a backseat in the car that they were driving… fingers gripping tightly, tires screeching at times, but their journey.

Just a few years later, or maybe more than I want to admit, the landscape of technology in the classroom has shifted.  Those giant desktop computers that I couldn’t see around are now small, mobile laptops.  The iPad or tablet fits in hands and allows creation to happen at numerous levels. The movie that previously took days to render now can be easily customized with fancy kid-created music and published in a heartbeat.  A quick share. There’s now the ability to capture anything and everything.

Technology is portable. TV is flashier. Everything in our world moves, beeps, jumps, zaps. It’s no wonder that fidget spinners were recently born.  Gifs. Videos. Clicks. Rinse. Repeat.

But there’s a new art to it all. The art of stillness.  We are living in the time with the GREATEST creative potential on tiny devices in our hands and pockets.  But our imagination will always be the very thing that provides the greatest potential.  Slowing down, listening, thinking, and dwelling on a thought is an important skill.  Iteration of a design takes time, persistence, feedback, and resilience.   Clicking and tapping often doesn’t take much thought, it’s often a knee-jerk reaction.  A mere fill-in-the-blank exercise. Stillness and wrestling in your mind? It forces you to be uncomfortable with your own thoughts.  It also forces you to realize that you may indeed be wrong.  That uncomfortableness contains all the ingredients that stoke a creative fire.  It’s messier than clicking and tapping.  More humbling. Far harder to clean up.  But you know what?  It’s necessary and far more rewarding. Deeper.  There is no undo button.

Did you know the Saturn V rocket that got man to the moon did so on the technological power of a dollar store calculator?  Those who made that rocket wrestled with that problem. Tried. Failed. Rose up in resilience.  Literally watched unmanned crafts explode on launch pads over and over and over.  All along, they practiced the art of stillness.  Listening.  Reflecting. Thinking. Solving. They were working without the undo button.  They only had each other and lots and lots of practice.

Not every lesson will lead us to the moon, but I hope our kids can slow down and experience the stillness of deep thought.  There’ll be no pop up or gif to tell them to listen. It will be up to them.  Self-reliance in a world in motion. Imagination set into orbit and us along for their journey. Their small steps tomorrow might just be a giant leap for the future.  And if we’re not careful, we’ll all be too busy clicking and tapping to discover it.

When Companies Come Calling

This post may not be a popular one and may even offend some. That is not my intention. I’m only speaking personally about what feels right for me as an educator and want to dig deeper into the topic on this recent NYTimes post. .

First of all, I get it. In the world of education, teachers are often undervalued, taken for granted, and those that take the risk to do something innovative? Prepare to take that path alone in your school or district. Schools around our country are limiting travel experiences, taking away professional development funds, and often struggle to purchase the latest and greatest devices… or even ones that work.  It’s a true fact, not even an exaggeration.  And I feel bad for complaining, because the schools I’ve been in, urban, suburban, and rural, still likely had more than many.  I’ve worked in schools where I was not allowed to travel out of state or attend any conferences and I was always desperate to push my thinking and learn.  It’s why I fell in love with edcamp and connecting online in the first place.   But the atmosphere online is not what it once was.

As it turns out, teachers also have an incredible passion for their work, for their students, and will do just about anything to be sure they can provide for their students. Even when that means spending their own money or taking their own spare time to make it happen.   Even when that means accepting offers and becoming a part of something bigger than your classroom or school.   One minute nobody wants to hear about your new idea, the next you’re signing a non-disclosure agreement and giving input on products you use with your students.   It’s easy to see why someone would be drawn in.  Like a moth to a flame… we fly toward the light.   Especially if we feel at all like that light will burn brighter for our students.

Imagine how things get complicated when companies make offers like, “We’ll send you to ___ conference.” or “Promote this on your blog, we’ll pay you.”   Or, “Here, sell this resource you created on our site and give us 60% of your profits.”  It’s not hard to understand why this is lucrative.  Every company has an Ambassador program now – it’s so overdone it’s becoming the norm. I mean, as teachers we’re often excited about our ideas– like kids-on-Christmas-morning-excited. Find an audience that shares our enthusiasm? We are so in. All in. Like, completely.

You mean someone will PAY me to talk about this product?  Someone will PAY me for my idea?   The dark side to this?  Either sell your idea, or I can guarantee you, someone else will.  They’ll take it, package it, and profit.  It’s happening. It makes you wonder, should I have been selling this myself?  It makes you feel like you are less of an educator because you are choosing not to sell your ideas or monetize your blog. You are just you – not a brand – and you constantly have to ask yourself, is this enough? Am I making the right choice for myself?  Should I be selling more of my ideas? If I do sell this, who owns it – my school or me? Should I be saying yes to that book offer?  If I create resources for my classroom, who owns them? Do I need to use my own device on my own time? Should I put these posters online and sell them so I can pay for my child’s college fund?   So many questions, so many complicated answers.

But there is one question that has an easy answer…

Who is truly benefitting in all of this?   At first, it may seem completely that the teacher is. It may seem, on the surface like a win win.  You scratch the company’s back, they’ll scratch yours.  That it’s all set up to benefit learning. That these companies are “celebrating teachers” and providing a platform to “make extra money.”  But, a deeper look?  Businesses are. Free advertising, teachers sharing experiences at less of a cost that traditional methods of “spreading the good word” about the product?  The teachers are hooked – making money and supplementing already stretched tight income, earning free things for their classrooms because they love their kids.

When I see a company offering to celebrate and empower teachers, I’m leery.  We are in the midst of an era defining social media use.  The advertising game is constantly evolving.  The internet allows EVERYTHING to be monetized.   I’ve done the class Twitter account, had experiences where my kids tweeted with an astronaut, people around the world, and built relationships with other classes from our small town.  I could tell you a million great stories about the joyful experiences we’ve gained.  I even met one of my very best friends because of a shared experience with a space shuttle launch.

But I can tell you, the bottom line is, I’m not a brand. I’m a person.  And if I ever feel that that’s not enough, I shouldn’t be in this field.  Because the truth is, it’s harder enough to become who you truly are meant to be, without trying to be a brand, too.  And at the end of the day, I’m just not sure the payoff is big enough for our kids in our world.  And that will always be my bottom line.

The Tides of Online Learning Have Turned… What’s Next?

When I think back to my first year of teaching, I remember visiting forums like Proteacher and Teachers.net.   I had a tiny classroom website that was full of animated gifs, way before gifs were cool and probably, admittedly, long after gifs were no longer cool.  I even bought a fancy domain, BeeYourBest.com.  Geeze, this makes me sound old. The site was built with Geocities which was part of Yahoo.  I was also ALL about my quiet line and collected homework that year, but that’s a whole different post for another time.

I remember falling in love with the way technology allowed me to connect with others who shared my interests.  I remember feeling *alone* in various schools, because typically, the person trying to do something different isn’t always welcome. It’s not popular to talk about, but it’s reality.  Get a compliment from a principal in some schools and you’ll never want to walk the halls again, without getting “a look.”  I was once even told I was “putting on a dog and pony show” in my classroom.  If you teach creatively, you will take your share of heat.  But, I could connect with others teaching creatively online and they were just as likely to help me as I was to help them. It was a beautiful thing.  There were Nings. There were forums.  There were chats.  There were even blogs that started and the websites eventually evolved into interactive places where posts were shared, discussions were held.  People’s attention span to a discussion stayed the course through disagreement, through questions, and through thinking. Through the hard parts.

Along came social media. The blog, shortened in format, became 140 characters.  Instagram and Facebook became quick photo shares. It became easy to grow a huge network of other educators. Clicking ‘like’ and leaving comments.  It was glorious really.  Empowering to feel like you were leading others as they were leading you.  You were never alone and the learning never slept.  Neither did I. I remember when Twitter first started.  I remember one of the first times I really connected with other classrooms.  I immediately was drawn in by the power… asking questions and getting answers. Reading the tweets of others who pushed my thinking.  There was this reciprocal of open sharing.   The truth is, the friends I met during those early days of Twitter are deep, deep friends today. People I see in person, people I treasure as friends.  The relationships built in the early sharing of Twitter were strong, real, and awesome. The power of the PLN was a real thing. “Personal Learning Network”

But the surface overshadowed it all.  Personal has become more promotional. Get a like. Share it out. Retweet it. Collect followers.  Recreate it and sell it (It’s happening, you know it.) Discussions aren’t as common.  Companies and Kickstarters have come after MakerEd with a club, relentlessly beating the great fiber of the message out of the work done by greats like Seymour Papert.  And it drains the authenticity from the pool that once was so refreshing to swim in.  When you want to discuss what prototyping looks like for second graders, and someone tweets at you to buy their “new kit,” it takes the depth right out of fixing the problem.  The truth is, we can’t reflect truly in just 140 characters at a time. Real growth is a slow process that will take time. So. Much. Time.

Along came edcamps and reminded me of the value of in person discussion and reminding each other of the passion and joy.  But 15 or so Edcamps later, I’m left wondering… what can this model do for us in education as we continue to grow?  Where does selling fit in with sharing?  For sure, there are still many, many people who need to be exposed to the unconference model of edcamp. But, what’s beyond that? Could there be more? 

Yes. For Sure.

So what is next? Things have continued to change. The monetization of the internet has made connecting’s purpose change for many.  I’m not saying that if that’s your choice of work, it’s a bad thing. I’m just saying it’s no longer what I am looking for.  My job is teaching. My heart is in a classroom, working directly with kids and teachers.  I know, for a fact, unless I get an offer to go to the Moon for NASA, it is exactly where my heart will *always* be.   The things that keep me awake in the middle of the night are questions I have about making learning better, making school more, improving the student experience, making sure creativity really does reign supreme in a learning environment, and taking kids and teachers to the next level… whatever that looks like, becomes, or is.  The nitty-gritty of real, raw learning IS the sweet spot to me. And there is nothing that can replace it.  I’m continually on a mission to rescue the eight-year-old-me that was bored in a classroom as a kid. THAT is my purpose.  When I support a teacher in encouraging her kids to take risks or support kids in building a cardboard mountain, those are my “likes.”

This is probably the end of this blog. I don’t even know if anyone will read this, but the truth is, I’ve always written this for me anyway. Things I need to think about. Ideas in my head. Sharing I need to get out.  But, this too has run it’s course.  If I cut out all of the stuff… the Twitter chats that churn around the same ideas, the blog posts I spend time writing, the amount of time I spend reading about new ideas well before I take time to fully iterate the old ideas?  The truth is, I can’t do it alone. I mean, granted, I am NOT alone in my own school and work with some great people. But there is something special about connecting with others in your specific field from OUTSIDE the perspectives and views of your own school that is a beautiful thing.  It allows us to churn on the ideas we want to refresh, reform, and reinvigorate. And I still want to connect the way I have always enjoyed.

So the thought is there.  A small group of teachers, in the nitty-gritty day to day of working with kids and creativity. A Slack group? Private so we can share openly, but small so we can personally get to know each other.  A Google Hangout once of a month to inspire, laugh, openly share, and connect our classrooms in some projects throughout the year.  At the end of the year?  We find a great beach house or ranch on AirBnB for us to split the cost, fly there, and just hang out for a weekend.  The last three times I’ve attended ISTE, it was the in person chatting with friends that I loved the most.  Why not just cut out the trillion dollar conference expense and split a house. A Retreat to celebrate growth. It would be like an Edcamp that lasts a whole weekend. At a beach or a ranch with a great pool.

I have many questions…

  • What size should a group like this be?
  • How can we keep the focus on our needs? (Creativity. Kids. Learning)
  • Do I go old school with a paper journal?
  • How can we insure growth and push our thinking?
  • Do we need a book study of the original greats in learning? Monthly themes?

I don’t have the answers. None of these ideas are new, but rather a re-prioritizing of time, tools, technology, and building relationships. This idea is still in the incubator.  I’m throwing this out there to see what happens.  Like a seed tossed in the wind. Maybe it will grow and something will happen. Maybe there will be blooms.  As I look at what lies ahead for the school year, I hope there are blooms. I also hope there are others willing to take this journey through the weeds with me.  Because the truth is, by connecting deeply, we can make ourselves, our classrooms, and each other… better together.

Or maybe I just drank too much coffee this morning.

 

Creativity Unleashed…. Meow Wolf

A dose of ultimate creativity…. I visited with my family was Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, NM.   A bowling alley converted to an immersive art experience. It reminded me of everything that is important to me.  When you visit, you enter the House of Eternal Return, a literal house inside the building.

Once inside the house, you see a seemingly “normal” home. But moments later, you realize, this house is anything but ordinary. A fireplace leads to a mammoth skeleton. A fridge portal leads to a long hall.  A sparkly blue tube inside the washing machine leads out to the treehouse.  Every corner is filled with creativity, wonder, and imagination.  You don’t ask why, you just enjoy it.     

If you look closely, you can see my daughter climbing out of the dryer, the fireplace we all crawled into, and the chandelier that caught my eye, a bit Chihuly gone awry.

    

Inside the fireplace was a magical mammoth skeleton with musical bones. The colors changed and the bones could be played with a mallet. My daughter is over my shoulder, tap, tap, tapping away.

     

Through the fireplace portal, past the mammoth, you find the same layout as in the fish tank in the living room. Below, left, is the fishtank, and right? A lifesize walkthrough.  The colorful branches were definitely one of my favorite parts.

The treehouse. Parts of it reminded me of St. Louis’s City Museum.  Some of the mushrooms were musical and the leaves were laser cut paper. The lighting was magical.  I can’t even really explain it. That’s how I know it was so awesome.

I never once asked “Why?” walking through the house. It was like being sucked into another world, one where imagination is the most important thing and you just accept it, are delighted by it, and moved internally in a way that you can’t describe in words.   We need more of this in our world and in our schools. For sure.

More Photos from MeowWolf. 

Past the Edge of the Comfort Zone

It is often said that we need to get out of our comfort zones as teachers and learners. It’s true.  The struggle, the messiness, the uncomfortableness is where we truly learn.  When we step back and reflect on what went right and what went wrong, we dig in and we figure things out.  We cannot do this alone.   I’m convinced it’s impossible.

Through my years, I’ve been in different places.  I’ve been in situations where I was the one of the only people in my school working on something.  It’s awful.  To be the only person passionate about “a thing” that you believe in can be lonely, maddening, and downright disheartening.   It can make you feel like you are alone.  Like your passion doesn’t matter.  It’s what drew me to Twitter so many years ago and my PLN became the family of support I needed to keep pushing me forward.   Connection for growth.  Through conversations and learning, I’ve realized there are tons of people in education that feel this way.  People who feel far less than empowered to make change.  People buried in data and negativity.

Right now, I’m in a different place. A place where I’m part of a team. And it’s changed everything.  People to share ideas with, notice joy with, and people who will brainstorm with me when something doesn’t work out. People who feed me ideas.  People I laugh with on a daily basis.  People that I trust enough to share my own ridiculousness with.  People that share their mistakes with me.  People to ask me questions that I hadn’t considered myself and people who expect me to grow.  People who are working hard everyday to make the world better through making school the best it can be.  People who do everything for each other that we expect our kids to do in a learning community.

Then, I look around at all of the products flying around education. Programs to subscribe to. Certifications to earn.  It’s noise. So. much. noise.  It’s the promise of making education better through a quick buy. And I can’t help but think about what truly needs to happen.   We have to change ourselves and how we do things to truly empower our kids and our future.  We have to be willing to fail.  We have to lean into the messiness that lies outside of our comfort zones. We have to be willing to be seen, authentically, and we need to be living breathing examples of growth mindset.

It’s like the difference between fast food and eating raw.  We think we want fast food because it’s good, and it will change things on the surface, right now.   Feed us. But it’s not going to lead to long term satisfaction. Guides and packets are not the way to the future.  Doing activities and buying STEM in a box isn’t the answer.  They might change your day, but they won’t change the course of learning that’s needed.

We need a revolution.  We are the revolution. Creativity for all.   Deep learning and thinking. Human Connection. Community.  The right kind of school for every single learner, big or small.  The kind where each and every teacher is valued as a learner and a human being, just as we must value and honor the needs of each and every student.

And my brain hurts when I think about it. Maybe because I’m afraid it won’t fully happen. Maybe because I don’t want to be the person who doesn’t have all the answers. Maybe because fear is louder too many times.  But, there’s hope. Knowing, in the deepest part of your heart, that the thing that matters to you most is a thing that some kid, somewhere, needs. That? It’s a flicker of hope.

And I think back about this team I’m part of.  I think about a moment where they all just showed up.  With a Sharpie Bouquet (literally) and support during one of the darkest days of my life. The day I returned to work a few days after my dad passed away, a day that also happened to be my 40th birthday.  It didn’t feel like a day to celebrate. And yet, there they were, at my door, reminding me that I was not alone in that moment, nor any day, no matter how terribly dark something might be.  Like little rays of sunshine picking me up when I didn’t even want to admit I needed to be.

And then I realized in order for us to really change school and learning environments, we have to be willing to change ourselves first. Human nature will always gravitate toward the thing that is easy.  In reality, that’s so dangerous. That is not what our kids need experience with in school, and it’s not what is going to get us to be the kind of education system we need.   Creativity can’t be the afterthought because for some kids, it’s the air they breathe.  It’s inside each and every single one of us, and only real change will release it.  One flicker of hope away from being uncomfortable and making change happen.

 

 

 

Never Truly Gone

It’s been two months since I’ve wanted to blog.  It’s also been just over two months since I lost my Dad.  The irony of it all is that one day before he passed away, I wrote “Hands up,” in honor of turning 40.  And I thought I had life all figured out.  Then, just about 24 hours later, I sat in a hospital waiting room, staring down at my yellow converse, and feeling like the smallest person in the universe. Helpless.  He was gone and there was a hole in my heart bigger than anything I’d ever known.

If I look back in my life I see my dad painting a larger than life giant Smurfette on my wall when I was six. I see him building me a tv stand out of a metal trash can when I decided to make my bedroom look “industrial” at 13.  I can also hear the sound of his tools hitting the ground as relentless disease hammered away his ability to hold them in his hands and do what he loved. But in that sound, I never heard frustration.  Only optimism.  He somehow always worked through whatever it was, picked the tool back up, or figured out another way.  His outlook is something that I will forever look up to like I’m still nine years old.

So for two months, I haven’t written. Not trying to forget, but trying not to think about how final it all was. That night was so final. Final. It was and still is like hearing the tool drop on the garage floor. Knowing the ding means something bigger than you can comprehend. In the same way that he taught me lessons when he probably didn’t even realize I was paying attention, I thought about how he always handled everything with a sense of laughter and persistence, a sense of creative optimism that I can’t even explain. But I know it, because it feels like an old familiar warm blanket. Wrapped in love. And that is the very thing that I will continue to try to be good at in my life, because in that small way, he will never truly be gone.