Thursday, March 20, 2014

I am a Tree

This post was written on July 10, 2012. 
I've started on the road to get a Masters in Education degree. It's an interdisciplinary degree, and my first year is Creativity in Educational Practice.

In our introduction course, which was just a week long and finished today, we learned about the fundamentals of creativity. We were also invited to experiment with our own creativity, so we could experience what our students go through when we ask them to be creative. We had two major projects: a personal metaphor, and a collaborative creative project.

I want to share my personal metaphor. Quite simply, I think I'll just post some photos and the explanation I read to the class as I shared today, and let that do the talking. If you have questions about the process, fire them my way!

Quotes that speak to me or help me define myself.

Oddly and Trotsky are near my tree.

I am a tree. I'm not an apple tree or an oak tree or a birch tree. I'm an idea tree. Here's how I work: I draw my nutrients not only from the prairie that surrounds me and is a part of who I am, but also from the many thoughts and inspirations that I draw to me.

My bark is black, grey, and white. The black absorbs ideas. The white shines them back to their thinker, illuminating the idea in a new light for them. The white is where the children reside. The grey is the most interesting, as there's a little of each - absorption and reflection - happening here. Ideas swirl, marinate, and evolve here.

My leaves are the colours of the rainbow. I am a colourful tree, not willing to blend into the background. My fruit are not edible, in the traditional sense. Worlds and words hang from my branches, and all the best ones, the ones that most resonate with me, are here. The people who wrote and said these words are wise, and their words hang here to show the importance of such things. Words are permanent, and can bring so much joy, insight, and meaning to the reader.

My branches shelter creatures. The birds sing their sweet songs, which reverberate through my branches and trunk, shaking me right to the core. Their music changes me, and makes me feel emotional and free. Creatures of all kinds are nurtured by me... they seek my shade and comfort, and also appreciate my generosity, taking my fruit when they need it.

There's also a quiet spot hidden in the centre of my branches. It's a spot no one ever sees, but it's there. It's a place of introspection and inner life. It's a thoughtful place. It's a lovely place.

I'm an idea tree, and I'm strong and grounded. I'm determined and I'm dependable. But most of all, I'm hopeful - when my fruit falls, and gets sent out there into the world, it's a beautiful thing!

Monday, August 26, 2013

This is Why You Need a PLN

A Professional Learning Network is your personal network of people and organizations that push you and support you to be a better teacher. I have a great PLN on Twitter, but I also have an amazing, supportive, creative group of women that I text with almost daily. I met these six women in my grad studies last year in our cohort for Educating for Creativity. What's amazing about them is that they constantly push my thinking to make my teaching as creative and effective as possible.

A PLN can include people you know in real life as well as networked educators. Your PLN could include your colleague across the hall, or your colleague across the world. All help build a network to make you a better teacher.

Here's what happened to make me write this post. After reading Teach Like a Pirate this summer, and pondering NoTosh's Googleable vs. Non-Googleable questions, I took a critical look at my grade 7 Social Studies curriculum. I sorted it into Googleable and Non-Googleable outcomes (Alberta grade 7 Social Studies teachers, if you'd like this document, please find it here). I discovered that except for the Skills and Attitudes, as well as the Front Matter of the curriculum, most of the specific outcomes for the curriculum were Googleable outcomes. For instance, "Who were the key figures in the French exploration and settlement of North America?" or "What was the role of Chief Tecumseh in the War of 1812?" So I was presented with the problem of how to ensure this curriculum was addressed, without spending too much time and effort on outcomes whose answer could be found by a quick Google search.

So, I also read Role Reversal this summer, and author Mark Barnes writes about how he has his students do a year-long writing project where they write a diary from the perspective of a person sometime in the past. I took his idea of historical fiction and went through my curriculum and pulled out all those outcomes that would otherwise involve very low-level thinking skills, and drafted an assignment.

This is what I came up with:

Then I shared it with my group of creativity ladies and asked for feedback. Trina responded.  She had a couple of items of constructive criticism for me. She noted that if she were not a confident writer, she might be completely scared by the subtitle "a year long writing project." She also said that there were a LOT of choices for topics, which may be overwhelming to kids. Both very good points.

So I revamped it. I changed the layout. I taught myself to use Adobe Illustrator to make a more visual arrangement. And I changed the way the topics were presented. I grouped them based on interest. I think the result is much more accessible and way more fun.

I still need to play with the Illustrator file a bit. I think some of the words are hard to read - I love that font, but I might have to change it. But here it is for now.

I'm excited about this project because:
1. Students will be immersed in writing ALL year long.
2. Students will get to delve deeply into a time period from Canadian history that interests them (hopefully).
3. In all the peer editing, students will get to learn about each others' topics (AKA: students will teach each other about these very specific outcomes from the curriculum).
4. The level of thinking required to write historical fiction is much MUCH higher on Bloom's taxonomy than finding out how Chief Tecumseh was involved in the War of 1812.

So. Moral of the story: I'm probably preaching to the choir here since the majority of the audience of this blog comes from Twitter, I think, but! If you don't have a PLN, get one! Build one! Use one! You'll be a better teacher because of it!

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Uncommons

Ideas come together when you make connections. To make connections, you need stimulus. Here's how it worked for me this time: I read Dave Burgess's brilliant book, Teach Like a Pirate. I was struck by this quote:
Provide an uncommon experience for your students and they will reward you with an uncommon effort and attitude.
Then I skimmed a link someone posted on Twitter (I forget who, otherwise I'd credit) unrelated to education. It was about business, actually, and the gist of it was for businesses to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes them different.

Then I read this brilliant list called 101 Teaching Tips, Secrets, and Ideas for 2013 from TeachThought, and clicked on a link in it to The Importance of Branding Your Classroom.

That's when this happened:
Photo credit.

These three pieces of inspiration were unconnected, yet my brain was able to take them and use them as inspiration for a good idea.

Here it is:

My classroom will not be called "Ms. Quinn's classroom" or "Room 7-134." It will be called,

The Uncommons will be a place where uncommonness is valued, where being different is not only accepted but celebrated. We will celebrate how each of us is different and encourage it with the motto "Be Uncommon," and we will look at how important figures in history have been uncommon. I have been trying to come up with some great ideas on how to make pre- and post-Confederation Canadian history intriguing, relevant, and fun for 11 year olds. And I think this lens of "the uncommon" might work. Who stand out as Canada's Uncommon?

Not only this, but the experience they will have in my classroom will be like anything they've ever experienced in school before. I will be fun, creative, and engaging. They will love to be there. This is not your common desks in rows kind of classroom.

I want to get that banner printed on foam core and posted above my classroom door so each student will be reminded of our mission every time they enter the room.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Creating Space for Creativity

In September, I want to start my year with all desks pushed to the sides of the classroom, and all the chairs in the middle. I want to challenge my grade 7s to an interesting task: design our classroom.

But I don't want them to be constricted by traditional concepts of what a classroom is. I want them to do an inquiry into "What kind of space would help us be creative? What kind of space will help us learn creatively?" I want them to design my classroom into a space that is comfortable, inspiring, innovative, and creative.

I want them to discover Reggio Emilia's The Environment as the Third Teacher. I want them to look at interesting work spaces, like Google, Pixar, and Facebook:

Google, from here.
Pixar, from here.
Pixar, from here.
Facebook, from here.
I want them to be inspired by beautiful learning spaces.

A beautiful school, from here.
Open learning space, from here.

Space is a huge factor in creativity. Stanford's even wrote a book about it. I have a copy of that book (it's great!) that my student-designers can use as a resource. What I haven't really been able to find yet is a good resource in kid-language that explains how space affects learning.

I found this video, which explains the space concepts of campfire, watering holes, and caves. But it's aimed more at architects and designers. I need something more kid-friendly. Maybe I need to make it?

Through my reading and learning this summer, and especially having read Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom, I am coming to a place where I am going to pretty much eliminate whole-class instruction. I am trying to figure out how to manage my students' learning within that kind of setting. I think that having different "zones" in the classroom for different purposes would work well.

One zone I really want to include is a Makerspace, a place with organized materials where students can prototype their ideas. I want pods of comfortable seating. I want a place where I can do mini-lessons with small groups. I want a classroom library & reading zone. I want flexibility. I want to get rid of my teacher desk (inspired by Joy Kirr who switched her teacher desk into a student station). I want places for independent, contemplative thought. I want each student to have a personal zone, too, where they can keep their materials. This is a seriously big "want" list! I think it's possible. There's a lot of stuff we could get for free or cheap to make this happen. 

The thing about it, though, is I need the students to do this learning and create the designs. This has to be their space. This has to be their creation. If it isn't, they won't take care of it, and they won't have ownership in it. And it will become a disaster. Plus, the inquiry learning they could do into what makes a creative learning space will set the foundation for the creative learning they'll do the rest of the year.

So. Now what? I need your help! If you have any resources on innovative learning spaces that might be useful in my students' inquiry, send them my way! Thank you very much in advance!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Seven Strands of Creative Development: Generation & Experimentation

This is third in a series of posts about the Seven Strands of Creative Development: Self-Instigation, Research/Investigation, Generation, Experimentation, Analysis, Creative Sustain, and Collaboration. These strands were pioneered by Robert Kelly in his book Educating for Creativity. I definitely recommend you pick yourself up a copy.

Idea generation is where the possibilities come out. Generation is about growing ideas and creating possibilities. This strand is closely linked to Self-Instigation. Like instigation, the more possibilities the students come up with here, the more chances they have to find a really interesting one. There are differences between these two strands, however. In instigation, students are creating a pre-inventive structure - possibilities for a project or creation. In generation, students are moving into their inventive structure. They are finding ways to take this idea and put it into action.

Possibilities, diverging.

This is the reason why the experimentation strand is grouped with the generation strand. In order to see if their ideas are feasible, students need to take their thoughts and put them into action. In Design Thinking, this is called "bias towards action." What this means is you really have to try it before you'll know it will work! Prototyping an idea is an example of experimentation.

One of my students was attempting to make a stop-motion animation using a Lego minifig. It took multiple attempts to figure out how much he could move the minifig so that its movement was fluid when the film was run. Each time he tried a different rate of speed, he was actually prototyping his idea.


Generation and experimentation work together as a cycle. Generation is when students diverge with ideas and explore possibilities, and then converge on one idea to prototype it and experiment it. Students get into a rhythm of: Think --> Try --> Fail --> Fix --> Repeat

They troubleshoot when ideas don't work as planned and try new solutions to their problem.

For his 20% project, one of my students was trying to create a generator. He tested several different dowels and magnets to see what size and strength he needed. The majority of his project was spent in this cycle of diverge and converge. Ultimately, he was not able to complete his project, but spoke eloquently about this process of prototyping and going back to the drawing board when things didn't work as planned.


Many students will go through this process without even realizing they're doing it. Bringing attention to the process will make the divergent-convergent pulse a more meaningful part of a creative exploration.

Edited to add:

In order to think creatively, a student needs to switch back and forth between divergent thinking (exploring the possibilities) and convergent thinking (settling on one idea, or combining several ideas for a route to pursue). An analogy is Open and Closed thinking. Divergent is Open (looking for options) and Convergent is closed (choosing one path).

The thing that's important about this is that to sustain creativity for a long period of time, a pulse should emerge between divergent and convergent thinking.

To put it in practical terms, here's an example:

In 20% time, a student wants to design a robotic machine.
First, she diverges when she thinks of all the different things her car could do. It could go forward, it could go backwards, it could have a "hand" to pick things up, it could use sensors to avoid driving over certain colours, etc.
So then she converges She decides she wants it to drive forward, have a hand to pick things up, and be able to sense the red blocks she wants it to pick up.
So she moves to prototyping. She programs her robot to drive forward, then tests it. It works.
She adds the robotic arm. She tests it again. The weight of the arm causes the robot to fall over.
Now she's tasked to fix her design. She goes back to diverging. She thinks of how she might fix her design flaw. She thinks she could make the base of the robot heavier, or she could make the hand lighter, or she could scrap the arm, and try something different.
She converges when she tries to add weight to the bottom of the robot by adding more wheels.
She tests it. It still falls.
Time to diverge again. She redesigns her arm so it uses less parts. She tests it. The robot doesn't fall over.

She will repeat this process through her attempt to program a sensor that would sense the colour red, and cause the arm to reach and pick it up. This problem-solution, open-closed pulse is what drives her to sustain this creative project.

In explaining this to kids, I think the Think --> Try --> Fail --> Fix --> Repeat explanation would make sense to kids. Just making them understand that their journey to find a solution is not and should not be a smooth, straightforward one would be an important message for kids to know.

If they don't have to go back and try something over, they're doing it wrong! If this happens, they're converging too much, and aren't opening new possibilities. If they converge too much, their creative thinking is limited and they're shutting down potentially great ideas. One of the pitfalls students can get into when they're doing creative work is choosing a path that's too easy. They need to know that creative work is rigorous, and that by diverging, they are opening themselves up to great ideas. But they still need to converge sometime! We all know those creative people who have amazing ideas but never act on them? They can't converge. Converging is needed to push work forward and create something tangible.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Seven Strands of Creative Development: Research/Investigation

This is second in a series of posts about the Seven Strands of Creative Development: Self-Instigation, Research/Investigation, Generation, Experimentation, Analysis, Creative Sustain, and Collaboration.

The Research strand of creative development is all about fueling fire. Inspiration can come from many places, and in this strand, your students need to seek it out.

The biggest trap kids get into in this strand is copying. They see something cool, and they decide to replicate it. The more we can push kids past this imitation the better. Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as, "the process of having original ideas that have value.” Imitation is not original.

Investigation can be both inspirational and practical. In Genius Hour/20% Time, kids could get inspired by sites like Pinterest or Etsy, looking at neat projects others have done. They could read Fast Co Exist to learn about really interesting innovations happening in all kinds of fields all over the world.

I taught an option class last year called Innovation & Technology, and kids used an amazing site called DIY to focus their work. On DIY, kids choose challenges based on personal interest, and create pieces of work to complete the challenge. As they do challenges, they earn badges, sort of like a virtual Boy Scouts. With each challenge, there are links to videos and sites of both kids and professionals who have completed the challenge. These videos and links were incredibly inspirational to my students trying to decide what to try. I have to admit, though, that many did just copy what they saw others doing. I needed to work really hard to push my students beyond that.

Through the Looking Glass
Research can also be very practical. In 20% Time last year, one of my students wanted to write a blog about basketball. She spent a good chunk of time looking at different blogging platforms, and deciding which one would work best for her. These practical considerations were very important to the success of creation.

In the subject areas, research can also involve discipline research. If students are, for example, creating something in Social Studies class related to the European Renaissance, a good understanding of this period in history would be important. We did a Renaissance Faire when my students studied the Renaissance last year, and two of my boys decided they wanted to learn about swordplay. They researched Renaissance techniques in sword fighting, taught themselves how to do it, and then demonstrated their new skill to others at the Renaissance Faire.

The curious thing about the Investigation strand is that it's highly personal. I'm currently reading Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess, and in it, he writes about he bought a Honda Odyssey and then all of a sudden started seeing them everywhere. You know how that goes, right? You learn a new word, and then suddenly you see it everywhere? It was there all along, of course, but because it comes to your consciousness, then your brain starts picking it up. Research and Investigation works in much the same way. Just exposing yourself to everything you can about a topic or an idea will help you see things you didn't see before, and will fuel the idea generation strand coming up next.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Seven Strands of Creative Development: Self-Instigation

This is first in a series of posts about the Seven Strands of Creative Development: Self-Instigation, Research/Investigation, Generation, Experimentation, Analysis, Creative Sustain, and Collaboration.

Over the next while, I'd like to explore the Seven Strands of Creative Development. Again, these are proposed by my professor and creativity guru, Robert Kelly, in his book Creative Expression, Creative Education, and continued in his second, brilliant book about creativity in education called Educating for Creativity. Understanding the seven strands will help you, as an educator, to guide your students and push them past barriers that might get in the way of them being creative. This would be particularly good to know if you do 20% Time or Genius Hour with your students.

Self-instigation is a shift from teacher directed to student directed learning. Self-instigation means students are coming up with the topics, ways of learning, and ways of demonstrating their understandings. It inherently has an element of personal relevance to the student. Students mine their passions, strengths, and curiosities to self-instigate.

Probably the biggest pitfall you'll run into with the self-instigation strand are students who are used to knowing the outcome before they begin. They are unused to being the one making the decisions about what they will learn and how they will do it, and are unsure how to begin. In 20% Time, asking students about their "blue sky" ideas is a good way to get them out of this negative space and into a positive, optimistic one. You can ask, "What is something you've always wanted to learn?" or "What is something you've always wanted to do or make?" or "What's a problem you want to solve?"

Next, you will want to help them grow their list of ideas. Another pitfall at this stage is early closure, where students come up with a good idea and want to stop there. Push them. Help them understand that the more ideas they have, the better their chances are they're going to come up with something truly fascinating. I'd like to experiment with this in my Humanities projects next year, and have students come up with three really good ideas for a project before settling on the one they're going to pursue. Too often in my classroom, kids would receive a project and then decide immediately what they wanted to do. I think many opportunities for creativity were probably stifled right there. Explain to kids that their original good idea will still be there when they're done, but you never know what might come up in the meantime! No harm in exploring other options!

One of my favourite ways to have kids grow their list of ideas is through speed dating. In that model, they steal ideas from each other, and it's a good thing! Giving away ideas to each other helps build community, and also helps those students who are really stuck. Anytime they hear something they think is a good idea, or any time something someone else says sparks a new idea in them, they add it to their own list. By the end, their list will be much bigger than they started with, and for most students, they will have tapped into some much more innovative ideas than they started with.

In the end, after the students go through their idea-generation phase, you may still have a few who really can't identify their passion. There were four such students in my class during 20% time this year who fit this bill. So I brought all of them together, and we just sat down and chatted. I asked them questions, like, "When you feel the best, what are you doing?" and "What are your talents?" and "What are you curious about?" Just that one-on-one time helped these students settle on something they were happy to spend a semester learning about.

Self-instigation is definitely possible in the other 80% of your day, too. There may be more constraints, but often constraints actually help students be creative. For example, in our final project, students were given some options, but there was also something that read, "Got a better idea? Propose it." They had a clear objective (constraint), which was to explain, using Humanities, science, and math concepts, how an environmental or cultural shift would impact the worldview of a people. Within that constraint, though, there was plenty of opportunity for self-instigation. And our students, having spent the entire year in project-based learning, ran with it. We got some ideas out of the students that were way better and more intriguing than the options we gave them. My favourite was, "What if the continents drifted to create another Pangaea?" Such an interesting idea!

Self-instigation is a skill that needs to be practiced, but one that really pays off - students are way more engaged in their work, because it's something they thought of, something they really want to learn about and do. Right there, you've got two of Daniel Pink's three conditions for motivation: purpose and autonomy (mastery comes later). What a way to start off a learning experience!