Thursday, September 1, 2016

Where Has all the Creativty Gone?

Today was the first day of my Small Business Startup class for the year.  This class is a semester-long elective offered by our Innovation department.  While the students are a mix of sophomores, juniors, and seniors, the majority are seniors (10/15).  To set the tone for the class, I began with a creativity challenge:  30 Circles, which I borrowed from Tom and David Kelley's Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All.  I gave each student a sheet with 30 blank circles and these instructions:  "You have 3 minutes to fill in as many of the 30 circles as you can.  Go."  

What I expected to see the students do was create things with the circles:  baseballs, emoji, snowmen, clocks, spirals, etc.  That's what the adults in the Curriculum Committee did several years ago when we were challenged by two students.  A few (maybe 3) students did this.  The rest literally FILLED IN the circles--they shaded them, scribbled in them, and colored them so the circles were no longer empty.

My goal had been to give as little instruction as possible to see what the students would do with the circles.  But after I saw what so many of them did, I wished I had given a different instruction.  I wish I had said, "Do something with/in these circles."  Then maybe they would have tapped into their creativity more readily and gone beyond the literal filling in of the circles.

On the other hand, the prompt I used did reveal the sad reality that our oldest students (and some of our brightest) have forgotten how to be creative.  They have lost their courage to create, and instead they wait for specific instructions and a list of requirements.

This was further reinforced by the next activity we did.  I gave each student a STACK of sticky notes (I mean at least 10 per person) and a Sharpie and asked them to complete this sentence:  Entrepreneurship is...  I encouraged them to write multiple responses and then post them on the board.  Most students wrote ONE response and posted it.  I looked around the room, gathered myself, and provided a bit more direction.  "Ok, now push yourself to add another--think creatively--try a metaphor, a name, a color..."  Dutifully, each student filled out one more Post-it and added it to the board.  A few (remember that handful from earlier?) added more than one additional note.  Why, given a stack of sticky notes and positive encouragement from me, were they content to add only two ideas to the board?  First day of school sluggishness?  Nerves?  Maybe.  But more likely a lack of creative thinking.

So, while my class is entitled "Small Business Startup," it could really be called "Creativity Startup." I'll be on a quest to help my students rediscover their creative potential.  And I'm glad to do it, although I wish I didn't have to.  I know our students are passionate creators as children--from junior kindergartners up through middle schoolers, their creativity is on display each day at school. Where does it go by the time the are seniors?

I know I'm not alone in this work--what are you doing to reignite your students' creativity this year?  And what can we all do to prevent the systematic undermining of creativity in schools?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


Time to fire up the old blog...

I had to heed Scott McLeod's call to name the education lies we have yet to overcome.

5 Things We Need to Stop Pretending:

  1. That the curriculum we have identified is the right one.  There's so much more to learn than what we currently value in school. 
  2. That kids won't work if they don't receive grades.  Feedback doesn't have to be in the form of a score.
  3. That field trips and other learning out of the classroom are a "loss of class time."  Aren't they learning from the real world?
  4. That kids can't, don't, won' their own learning.  They might, if we let them.
  5. That this divide is untouchable:  elementary teachers teach kids and secondary teachers teach content.  This statement is only as true as we allow it to be.  If secondary teachers taught more like elementary teachers, we might have more joyful, curious, independent students.
There are more, but I'll stick to the 5-item challenge!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

I've Been Blogging Somewhere Else!

I haven't been writing on this blog much this year...but I've been busy creating, moderating, and occasionally posting on my class blog.  It's all about my Small Business Startup class and how the kids are doing. Take a look at it--follow our progress there for the rest of the school year!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Infographics Revisited

Several years ago I wrote a post about infographic creation tools. I have been creating infographics ever since as a loyal user   Yesterday I decided to try a personal infographic generator,, to see how it can bring a resume into the 21st century. I'm still playing with the format and the content, but it seems to be a nice way to capture the traditional elements of a resume in a more graphic way.

See my "infographic resume" here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

My Visit to The Children's School: a Day in the Life of Progressive Elementary Education

On an a beautiful day in late October I was lucky enough to visit The Children's School in midtown Atlanta. My dear friend Melissa set up a great day including a visit with fourth grade, pre-K, pre-primary, the counselor, specials (music and PE), and a full tour of the whole school, its faculty, administration, and students.

As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, there's nothing as valuable as visiting another school to discover new ideas and best practices as well as to reflect on my own school, philosophy, and practices.  In this post I'll only describe what I saw and thought about The Children's School, a PK-6 independent school serving approximately 400 joyful students. For the basics about the school, check out their website.

Observations about the Space

TCS makes the most of its space. This is an urban campus, so space is limited. But kids have many outdoor spaces to play.  It is clear, right away, that play is a critical part of the school's philosophy and the children's experience. There are several play structures, fields of varying sizes, small gardens, and picnic tables. While children have two scheduled recesses, they often go outside more frequently, either in their own campus or across the street at the amazing Piedmont Park.  They also regularly eat lunch outside.

The campus feels like a tiny village, with an enclave of houses clustered together to form the academic space. "Homey" was the first word that came to me when I began touring the inside of the buildings. Classrooms are designed for kids--the rooms are filled with comfortable furniture and accessories, crafting and tinkering materials, books, hands-on manipulatives, and student work.

And there are no traditional desks--a clear sign of the school's identity as progressive and student-centered.  In one classroom, 4th grade teacher Jocelyn showed me the chairs her students made for Maker Faire that then became their classroom chairs; students designed and built their chairs based on their learning styles and interests. This is a perfect combination of play, passion, and purpose. 

Even the adults have their needs met--at TCS I saw 3 standing desks and IdeaPaint on many walls.  Comfort allows for passions and productivity to thrive.

Observations about the Culture

Children here are expected to live the school's core values. From the youngest students on up, children learn to sort out their differences, celebrate their acts of kindness, empathize with others, and respect one another's differences.  Everyone at TCS goes by their first names; children cheerfully greet their teachers by name and often with a hug. Hugging, I learned, is a TCS tradition.  I happily received several throughout my visit.  Other traditions highlight the social curriculum, such as the use of the heart pillow to sort out differences, pom poms to fill small buckets when they've done a "baboomba" (something that makes their heart feel good--they've done something nice for someone else), and a common understanding of their Building Character and Community values.

Kids are engaged in interesting and practical learning in a trusting and warm community.  From organic gardening to circuitry to rock-wall climbing to writing personal narratives, kids were engaged and challenged in ways that match the school's mission.

 I'm so glad I had the chance to spend time at TCS and see how their mission, to enrich minds and inspire dreams, comes to life.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Summer Reading

photo credit:

The beginning
Many years ago, when Three Cups of Tea was sweeping the world (in a good way at the time) I encouraged my school to try a whole-school summer read.  The opportunity to read one story at three different levels (Listen to the Wind for lower school, Three Cups of Tea Young Reader's Edition for middle school, and Three Cups of Tea for upper school) was so exciting.  We could unite around one topic, centralize our philanthropic efforts, and move away from the notion of summer reading as getting a jump start in the English curriculum.  It was wonderful to have a shared experience as a school, and I would consider that summer reading a success.

The journey
Over the years we have tried several iterations of the whole-school summer reading idea.  We have not had another opportunity to read the same story across three divisions, but we have read about common themes.  One year we selected one book for each division, which was also fairly successful in terms of providing a shared experience, albeit divisionally. 

But we worried about providing books that would be interesting and accessible to all students; the one book for all concept was outstanding for building community but not for building readers.  So we tweaked the model again, devoting the summer reading to one core value (honesty, compassion, respect, responsibility) and generating lists many books long for each division.  For two years we also included movies on the list.  Once we did that it was clear that the mission of summer reading, or summer learning as we then called it, was to serve as a spark for an ongoing thematic conversation throughout the year.

Those of us on the committee knew and understood these shifts.  We regrouped every year to select the theme, review our purpose, and read like crazy.  Unfortunately, few people beyond our small group had any idea what we were up to.  And it seems that the parents of our students were the most excluded in understanding. We have fielded many questions from about our book selections and about the assignment in general to signal that we need to have a wider, more substantive conversation this year.

Now what?
It is time to iterate again--and as my twitter handle (@bookcrusader) intimates, I'd like to bring the conversation back around to how our summer reading program can nurture and inspire readers.  It's time, in my opinion, to figure out how to help our younger kids celebrate the joy of reading and our older kids rediscover it. 

From looking back on this 7-year summer reading journey, I can tell that we've been floundering to ask the right questions, to really identify the problem, and to "think like freaks" about how to find the best solutions.