5 Lessons from the Ed. Collabitat Rockstars

If you want to be a rockstar educator, you need good role models, so listen up!

For the past 2 months, a group of intrepid teachers and I have been exploring the roots and fruits of creativity in a space at UMSL named the Education Collabitat.  Over that time, a few important lessons have been made clear.  Some of these gleanings came from the assigned readings, and some of them came from the participation of fellow educators, but all of the following insights have been powerful revelations for me, serving to (I hope) establish a foundation and a context on which to build new understandings and new practical applications in the years to come.

So, without further adieu, here’s a few of the shiniest nuggets of wisdom I’ve gathered in my time at the Ed. Collabitat:

1)  Jarvis James:  Let It Fly!

The first couple of meetings of this cohort were like my worst nightmare come to life.  I loathe ice-breaker games.  Utterly loathe them.  Most of the reason for this feeling comes from the context in which I’m usually subjected to them:  Building PD Sessions.  As a part of the regular, hectic to and fro of the school day, these activities seems such a waste of time.  “I have papers to grade, dammit!” is my battle-cry, so when we started playing catch with invisible balls and paper-rock-scissors, my stomach dropped.

Then came the mash-up.  As we each wrote our creativity-defining words on the colored construction paper, folded them, and began the business of silently arranging them on the ground, I became instantly appalled.  “Why?”  The question paralyzed me, so harried was my search for meaning.  I feigned participation for a minute, then stepped back to let the folks who seemed to have a plan work it out.

As I watched the activity evolve in to the third dimension, I became increasingly blocked.  What in the hell were they doing now?  And why?  WHY?  Finally, after all the words had been folded and stood on end, everyone stood back in reverent silence at what we had done.  An air of deep significance settled in on the group.  Eyes flicked nervously to Drs. Cordova and Balcerzak, looking for approval.  We all held our breath a moment longer . . . and then it happened.

From above and to my right, a pink paper airplane came sailing—an emissary from outside this circle of confusion and uncertainty carrying with it a message of force, direction, and lift.  It landed clumsily amongst the folded words, knocking a few of them aside, interrupting the obscure pattern on the floor.

There was no pause.  The circle immediately erupted with laughter (myself included).  It was the perfectly absurd ending to an activity which, at least for me and up to this point, seemed mostly meaningless.

In that moment, and as I followed the ensuing discussion during which our leaders and my colleagues unpacked the activity and tried to make meaning from it, I became aware of something important.  Jarvis’ anarchistic, avionic antics showed me that this would be a place where individuality would be accepted, enfolded in to our discussion.  He showed me that laughter and critique were both fair game here.  He reminded me that breaking the silence, cutting through a system that seems misguided, opens doors for others.  The moment reminded me that, as educators, we are in the business of change—for our students, for ourselves, and for our communities—and that, when we feel inspired, curious, or adventurous, we cannot afford to be afraid to let one fly!

2)  Matthew Syed:  We Can All Bounce!

Our cornerstone text for this early part of the semester has been Matthew Syed’s Bounce, a book which has solidified for me an understanding of how and why “talent” emerges in learners.  Reading this book, reflecting on its contents, and discussing it with colleagues has taught me that improvement is universally possible.  There is none of us who has reached a peak.  This is true of my struggling students who have not thus far had the platform they needed to push and grow their literacy skills.  This is true of my high-flyers who, in appearing to master the game of school, are starting to believe they’ve been there, done that, and that there’s nothing new under the sun.  This is true for me, as a teacher, who as of last year was starting to stagnate, settle, and sell myself and my students short.  And this is true for our nation of schools searching for ways to improve our product and better serve students and communities.

If the way forward seems difficult, or even impossible, Syed’s reflections remind us that, despite that appearance, it is not.  All that is required is exposing one’s self to new inputs—instruction, feedback, and purposeful practice—and remaining open to change.  Because improvement is change, and change is creativity.  Creating something new—a new direction, a new model, a new method, etc.—is all about integrating new understandings in to what we previously understood as true and good.  For my students, for me, what is needed for progress is a strong sense of purpose, an open mind, and a willingness to fail.

I have all three of these things.

I am ready to bounce.

3)  Dr. Ralph Cordova:  Walking the Walk

This is going to come off as brown-nosing, but I don’t care.  I have praise to heap, so heap it I shall!

Week by week, Dr. Cordova has practiced what he preaches.  That is to say, it’s clear that the way he’s designed and taught this class is informed and inspired by the very things we’re learning.  Starting by opening the door for empathy, he helped facilitate experiences that promoted that stance toward each other.  This has been the grease that my slightly rusty wheels have needed, making dialogue with my classmates more open and productive.  Anyone who doubts how our experiences have opened the way for more authentic conversations should think back to our first night together back in August:  “The Interview”.  Compare that night, how we sat around the table stewing in our own uncertainty and will to impress, to our most recent class meeting, so full of laughs and smiles and honest sharing, and I’m fairly certain you’ll see what I see:  Namely, that the experiences we’ve had together have created a foundation perfect for building new and creative ideas.

Once the mood was properly set for creative collaboration, we launched forward in to an individualized exploration of a few anchor texts.  This approach, which melds both a common source of input and the diversity of our own opinions about it, has provided the perfect balance for new and creative thinking about our practice.  In as much as my quiet reflections and writings have helped to concretize my own ideas, my conversations with classmates have opened new possibilities.  For example, as we prepared for our interviews and shared our questions with each other, I “borrowed” several questions from my conversant which I hadn’t thought of myself, and in the end, these questions led to some of the more interesting answers I got from the interview.

I can see how our process of generating questions last week to explore an area of need in our professional worlds is linked in with the design process of “needfinding,” and it’s been very interesting to be working through the process ourselves while at the same time learning about it in the abstract.  The power and adaptability of this approach is clear, and I can’t wait to learn about it in greater detail and start incorporating it in to my own practice.

4)  Chef Jeffrey Seaborn, April Burton, Gilbert Chlewicki, Kristi Litton, et al.:  Creativity Abounds!

You may not know these folks unless you travel in their circles, but make no mistake about it:  These.  Are.  Rockstars.  In addition to the physically present educators, a whole slew of other “creatives” have entered the Collabitat in spirit, as it were, summoned here by each of us in an effort to explore some concrete examples of creative thought and action.  The range of examples and the unifying threads between their stories made one thing clear to me:  Creativity abounds!  Whether it be a teacher, a chef, or a traffic engineer, wherever there is a will toward improvement and a passion for learning, there will always be creativity.  This is as true behind the screen of a computer as it is behind the grill as it is behind the big desk in our own classrooms.  We—each of us—has the capacity to innovate and explore new ways of doing, knowing, and being.   Which brings me to the final rockstar of the post . . .

5)  Me:

When I examine my experiences in the program so far, I can see a growing complication, a problematizing of the word “creativity”.  When I started, I thought it was something only artists possessed, and that it was a largely inherent quality.  As I continue on this journey, however, I have come to understand a few things.

a)  I am creative as all get-out.  I never would have said that a few months ago, but now I can see it: I make hundreds of creative decisions every day, and have made many thousands of them over the course of my career. In the ways I solve problems both human and content-related, in the ways I plan lessons, in the ways I compose curriculum, I am a very creative individual.  Creativity is in the doing, not in the being.

b)  I’ve gotten more creative the longer I’ve taught.  As the rote aspects of the profession carve their way in to my days, I have more processing power available to problem-solve and reconfigure. What’s more, I can continue to grow as a creator of content and experiences for my students. Sky’s the limit.

c)  My own creativity has been fostered by others, and I can do the same for other teachers and students around me.  There are certain conditions that ripen creative thought more effectively. I can become more aware of these conditions, and then create them both around myself and around my students.

d)  Being a rockstar requires courage.  Creative ideas often get pushback at first (from within and without), but fighting through that resistance is the only way to change and improve.

The above-listed rockstars and I are starting to build a platform on which that kind of progress can thrive:  A place where mistakes are opportunities for further learning and discovery, a place where action and design is rooted in empathy, a place where learners follow the path of their own identity and passions while at the same time becoming exposed and acclimated to new knowledge and skills.  I’ve always suspected teaching was more art than science, and this new way of thinking about what I do is helping to confirm that suspicion.  Now I see that teaching and learning is essentially creative, and that, as educators, our #1 job is to find the best ways to honor that fact.

How Fashion Can Make You A Better Teacher

Teacher turnover has become an important topic in recent years. In his article Revolving Door of Teachers Costs Schools Billions Every Year, Owen Phillips shares the startling statistic, within 5 years, “nearly half of those [new] teachers will transfer to a new school or leave the profession altogether.”


Why is this happening? What is causing teachers to burnout within the first 5 years of their teaching?


Many teachers credit a stifling environment due to implementation of high-stakes testing, No Child Left Behind and the Common Core as major culprits. U.S. News and World Report  cited a lack of creativity as being detrimental to teachers and students referring to it as “The Long Death of Creative Teaching.” Gone are the days of teachers being referred to as artists who craft and create a rich and engaging curriculum. This has been replaced with scripted curricula and “math-in-a-box” programs that tell teachers not just what to teach but word for word, how to teach.


So how can teachers begin to find their creativity and bring this back into the classroom? How can students be taught the required curricula while also learning to think outside of the box themselves?


The answer might lie in one of fashion’s greatest icons, Isaac Mizrahi. Long known for his daring and creative approaches to fashion, Mizarahi is the first to admit that he is no expert. He cites inspiration as the main driving force of his creativity. He can find this inspiration anywhere, “A lot of my designs come from mistakes and tricks of the eye.” Perhaps his most important comment regarding inspiration can lend well to the new scientific approach to developing a standard curriculum for all students, “It does not come for me from research.” This is one of the biggest arguments of teachers of the Common Core. No elementary teachers were on the board that created these standards. The standards were largely created by University academia who viewed the creation from a research standpoint, rather than an educational one.


The reality is that there is little an individual teacher can do to get rid of high stakes testing or curricula purchased at a district level. But, there is something she can do to change the individual experiences of the children in her classroom. Rather than trying to change the entire curriculum, teachers can find inspiration in their day to day lives and use this as an enhancement to their lessons. Mizarahi finds his inspiration from everyday occurrences such as light, movies, people walking down the street, and astrologers.


Often times, teachers put an undo amount of pressure on themselves trying to be the best. Mizarahi explains that he never goes out to be the absolute best. He tries new things and, “I don’t say it’s good, I just think it’s not boring.” Perhaps this lesson from one of the fashion world’s most creative designers can realign teachers’ expectations. Rather than making a goal of designing the most engaging and creative lessons, first, attempt to make it “not boring.”


Do you think Isaac Mizarahi is right in his approach to inspiration? Should teachers first try to be the best or should they first strive for simply “not boring”? How do you bring your own ideas of creativity to the classroom regardless of mandated curricula?

Blog Post

Six Ways for a Teacher to Connect with Students:


Why would it be essential for students to have a comfortable, working, rapport with their teachers? Initially it may be difficult for the teacher to consider the importance of teaching through relationships, because many teachers may come from a generation where these relationships between student and teacher were virtually nonexistent and completely professional; drawing a clear line between the teacher and the student.  It is important for teachers to understand why it is important to create a comfort level in the classroom where students can safely thrive through being themselves and accepted what ever their style of learning.  


Have a sense of humor:


When teachers smile and laugh with students, there is an instant form of connection.  Humor in the classroom can help students feel more comfortable and open for learning.  It can also be a great way to shift emotional gears when a student may have had an unfortunate event prior to walking into the classroom.  Anytime there is a positive emotional connection like humor, the content the teacher is conveying is much more memorable and more inclined to stick!


Connecting to students my help students to connect with each other:


There may be times a teacher has a difficult time in the classroom because students may not be connecting with one another or even more simply, they may not be kind to one another.  The lack of kindness and empathy between students can be a huge distraction in the classroom.  Teachers may not think of themselves as a facilitator of relationships; however, when there is a social vibe in the classroom there can be a sense of family where acceptance, community, and a comfort level which can open students to more effective learning.  


Be aware of a student’s discomfort:


It is important to scan students for behavior which may indicate they are uncomfortable.  Students who are uncomfortable will not be open to learn and may be fixated on their discomfort.  Examples to look for in students are tiredness, hunger, or restlessness. Recognizing and talking to each student about their discomfort simply shows them you care.  The remedies for these minor difficulties can be simple from a quick drink of water, running a short errand for the teacher, a small snack, stretching, or allowing the student to stand.  


Talk about what is going on in YOUR life!


Students like to hear about how the teacher’s weekend was, what they like to do, and stories they may have from when you were their age.  This opens a window of opportunity to become familiar with the teacher as a person and someone they can more easily relate to.  Students may have a desire to connect with the teacher’s hobbies, and family even if they don’t have the opportunity to experience it first hand.  Students, especially young ones, often picture their teacher living at school!  When they imagine their teacher in more traditional settings it makes teachers more approachable and easier for the students to relate to.  


Teacher’s, don’t be perfect:


Teachers are always thinking of how to improve the student’s performance and what skills they may be lacking in.  Additionally, other students, in many cases,  are aware of strengths and fragilities of their fellow classmates.   Students, however, find it very interesting and appealing when they know teachers may have their own struggles and similar problems.  When teachers are able to communicate comfortably skills and traits they are improving, it models a behavior for the student to be comfortable with any areas of needed improvment they may have.  Sharing imperfections may help students to be comfortable with their flaws more openly.


Illustrate to students how much they are valued:
Tell students as a group and individually you believe in them.  They need to hear they will make a difference someday, and their life has a purpose along with they will be successful.  Ask the students how they are, what they need, and what their opinion is. Tell them you value what they have to say and their opinion matters.  Find out what their plans are.  They will feel appreciated and want to excel even more.  

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