The best time to innovate

Earlier this month, I was looking at a blog by John Spencer, one of the authors of Launch, which is all about design thinking and integrating creative thinking into classroom activities.  The gist of the post was to give some ideas for a creative way to spend the last few days before winter break instead of showing a movie.  You can check that post out here: Ten Creative Alternatives to Showing Movies Before the Break.

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I’m sure you have noticed, when kids are given the opportunity to truly get immersed in an activity that they are interested in and motivated by, they get into this flow state where time just seems to fly.  Once in that flow state, they don’t want to do anything else.

As we continue to move towards more innovative practices in the classroom, it is my hope that we are truly giving students the agency and choice in what and how they learn so that those flow states happen more and more often.  At the same time, I know that there may be some among us that hesitate to dive into highly creative projects.  Maybe you don’t feel like your that creative yourself, maybe you worry about how to motivate the kids, maybe you worry that you don’t have enough time.

Today I’m going to look at one of those factors – time.  There have been many times when I have talked to teachers about some type of creative project that they are considering, and the response that I hear is “I just don’t think I have the time for this.”  Oftentimes those hesitations come from the fear that we might not be able to meet all our standards if we go outside of the box, other times it seems overwhelming to think about a day, or a few days, doing something other than the typical classwork.

Here’s my list of 4 times when it’s a really great time to try something innovative:

  1. Right before a break – Let’s be real, right before a break, no matter when it falls in the school year, whether it’s the three day weekend for Labor Day or President’s Day, a week for fall break or spring break, or a longer break right before winter break or summer break, we are all a little worn out.  Students, teachers, parents, administrators – we’re all looking forward to the chance to take some time away from school to recharge.  Often around breaks when I walk the halls, it’s a question of who is not showing a movie.  If we say we don’t have time to innovate, but we do have time to show a movie, I would like to challenge that thinking.  Before the next break, try something new and innovative with your class and just see how it goes.  If you’re looking for suggestions, the post from John Spencer above contains some really great activities that could be done in any classroom.
  2. The end of a unit – What happens when you wrap up a unit on a Wednesday or Thursday.  Do you dive right into the next unit, or do you do some sort of activity as a pallet cleanser?  That day or two after a unit could be a great opportunity to try out something innovative.  It gets you and your students out of the routine, which is a great way to increase thinking or learning.  Since I’m a runner, I think about it from the perspective of a training plan.  When I’m working up to my next half marathon, there are days where I will go for long, steady state runs to increase strength.  More often than not though, my pace is slower on those days.  A couple times a week I may work in a shorter session where I am doing interval training (moments where I mix some sprints in with some regular or low speed running).  While I generally run more miles on the long run days, I’m more tired after an interval training session.  I’ve taxed my muscles in a different way.  After a few weeks of the interval runs, I find that my pace on my longer runs starts getting faster.  Our brain can act like a muscle at times.  When you teach in a different way, you create new pathways in the brains of your students, which allows new learning to happen, and new ideas to stick!
  3. The first day back from a break So often on that first day back, your students are pumped to be back.  They are excited to see you, to see their classmates, and to get into the learning.  Instead of coming back and going right into the typical routine, switch it up.  Try some form of creative learning.  The fun that goes with these types of creative activities will have the kids begging for more!
  4. Any old time… Just because! – A while back I was reading a post – I honestly can’t remember who it was by – and the author said that the best time to try something innovative is right now.  When we get the desire to try something new, we are often tempted to wait for the better time – the end of the grading period, the start of the next semester, or next year.  The main point of the post though, was that if you believe that an activity would benefit your students, don’t you owe it to them to do it right now?  It was an idea that made sense to me.  The next time you see something that would be new and better for your students, go for it.  Don’t wait for later, just dive in.  What’s the worst that happens?  If it doesn’t go well, you’ve got a great way to model growth mindset.  And if it does, you’ve just created an amazing learning opportunity for your students!

So, what are your thoughts?  Do you have any additional ideas of when it’s a good time to do something innovative for your class?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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College and career ready

Think back to the beginning of your college career.  What did innovation look like for you?  What did technology look like for you?  What did learning look like for you?

I know what it looked like for me:

 

 

I’m sure that each of us could come up with a different description of what learning and innovation looked like at the beginning of our college career.  Then I think back to my 5th and 6th grade years.  The first time I remember using a computer was as a 6th grader.  Our school put in a computer lab that year as part of a remodel.  The only thing that we did with the computer was learn keyboarding skills (as far as my teacher was concerned, the computer was just a fancy typewriter).

Now let’s think about what innovation might look for our students after they graduate from college.  For those of you who work with kids who haven’t even hit junior high yet (like me), it’s kind of hard to imagine, right?  The sixth graders in my school will graduate from high school in 2024, and our fifth graders will graduate in 2025.  We could make predictions today about what specific skills our kids may need when they graduate, but knowing how much things changed between the time I was in 6th grade and when I graduated from college, and knowing that technology is accelerating at a pace much faster than it did during my formative years in the 80s and 90s, there is no way for us to be sure what specific skills our kids will need in terms of innovation and technology.

And yet, there’s always that idea that we need to “prepare our students for a successful future.”  Isn’t that what most teachers would agree is our goal?  So how do we do that when we don’t know exactly what our kids need to know?

Edutopia is one of my favorite social media follows, and this is what popped up in my Instagram feed the other night:

What strikes you as you look at that graph of job growth?  Look at the growth in the need for analytical skills and social skills, while there is a massive fall off in the need for an ability to complete repetitive tasks.  What are you doing in your class to explicitly teach social and emotional learning to your students?

Daily Quotes

Recently I was sitting in a meeting with a family, and the teacher of the student leaned over and said to the student “When you’re here, I’m worried about expanding your heart … and your brain.”  I loved how this teacher put the heart first, and how there was a pause before the brain!  In a world where the answer to almost any question can be found by looking on Google or YouTube, college and career readiness isn’t going to be defined by how many factual questions your students can answer.  It’s going to be driven by your student’s ability to be empathetic towards others.  It’s going to be driven by your student’s ability to see problems in our world, and collaborate with peers to find solutions.

I’ve recently been reading the book Creative Schools by Ken Robinson, and there was a quote that stood out to me:

Our communities depend on an enormous diversity of talents, roles, and occupations. The work of electricians, builders, plumbers, chefs, paramedics, mechanics, engineers, security staff,

Let us all remember that our students’ futures don’t necessarily rely on their ability to recite their math facts, to memorize 20 vocab words in this unit, to be able to identify all 50 states and capitals, or be able to list the names of the planet in order from the sun to the end of the solar system.  All of those things can be answered now, in most living rooms, by asking Siri, Alexa, or Google.  Also remember that academia may not be the path for every student who steps into your classroom.

There is such a diverse range of needs for the future that I believe the best thing we can do is to focus on those so called soft skills.  Take the time to model what collaborative skills actually look like.  Use a fish bowl activity where some students model while others observe, then have students both on the inside and the outside of the fish bowl discuss what went well and reflect on areas that they need to continue to grow.  If needed, as the teacher you should give them the feedback that they need to be successful the next time they are working collaboratively.

Help your students learn how to use technology to accelerate their learning.  It’s not just for consumption, but also for creation.  Allow them to notice real world problems, and then help them to figure out ways to solve the problems they notice.  Keep working with them on their communication skills – both written and spoken.  Find ways to encourage every student not only to speak, but to lead in the classroom.

As the Friedman quote above reminds us, we are preparing our students for an unknown future.  The constants for our kids will be collaboration, technology, problem-solving, communication, and the ability to be a leader.  As you plan your lessons, focus on those skills.  If you empower your students in all those areas, they will be ready for whatever the future holds.

Planting trees

8 years ago when my daughter was born, we planted a tree in our backyard. It was a Japanese Maple, and at the time of planting it only came up to about my waist. Unfortunately, we no longer live in that same house, so I am not quite sure exactly how tall that tree is now, but based on what I know about the growth rate of trees like the one we planted, it’s probably no taller than me. Given that amount of growth, I’m sure it only provides shade for a small section of the lawn. As any of you know, planting trees for your own benefit is a long-term project. The Chinese have a proverb that I believe says it best:

Chinese Proverb

Education can be a lot like planting trees. When our kids first come to kindergarten, they are a like a seed, and before long they begin to sprout. The amount of change that takes place in that kindergarten year can be truly impressive. Throughout elementary school, students develop much like that sprout, and by the time they hit the intermediate grades, they are a bit like a sapling. Those saplings are more developed, and beginning to look a little like a tree, but saplings still have a lot of development to do in order to provide meaningful shade.

One of our roles in education is to be like the gardener, and help each of our seeds grow into a mature tree over the life of their education career. There is an important thing to remember though – trees don’t completely mature in just a year. It takes time and effort to get them to grow.

In the house we live in now, there are 3 maple trees in the backyard. Two of them were already there when we moved in, and a third was added last summer. The tallest of the three is not even as tall as our house, and I didn’t even have to rake the leaves that were produced this year, I just ran over them with a mower. They don’t give off a ton of shade yet. At times that can be frustrating – especially on a hot summer day. Each year I have to trim back a little on the branches, but I know that trimming them back is sometimes the key to new growth.

I know that in time, those trees will grow and provide our backyard with plenty of shade. Two of them are close enough together that I may even be able to hang a hammock between them for some relaxation.

Just like those trees, our students don’t always come along quite like we would hope. Some of them are challenging, and we need to do work to help them to learn and grow as we would want them to. Some of them don’t seem to grow as quickly as we’d like them to. It’s easy to become frustrated when our students don’t get to where we “think” they should be, but we have to remember that the education of each of our students didn’t start with us, and it won’t finish with us. We get the opportunity to do the best we can with each of our students, help them to learn and grow the best that we can, and have the confidence that through our best efforts, they will continue to develop into the mature tree that we want them to be.

As I know I’ve shared before, I believe that every one of our students has a path to success inside of them. Sometimes it isn’t easy to see that path, but it is there. All we can do is to guide them along their path of development.