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Hello, I'm John.

I like to make stuff.

About Me

After eleven years as a middle school teacher, I am beginning my journey as a Professor of Instructional Technology in Oregon. I'm also a keynote speaker, author, podcast host, and educational technology developer.
Email: john@educationrethink.com
Twitter: @spencerideas
Podcast: Classroom Questions
About Me: My Story
John Spencer

Every child is a maker.

I want to see kids embrace creativity. As a teacher, this meant murals, documentaries, STEM camps, and coding projects. As a dad, this has meant elaborate pillow forts and home-made pinball machines. This is also why I co-wrote Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and co-founded Write About.

Latest Articles



What is content curation? Why does it matter to teachers?

The term "curate" has become a buzzword in education. I've seen it referenced in TEDx Talks and tossed around in Twitter chats. A few years ago, the term "curation" would have conjured up images of art galleries but now I associate it with conversations about the future of education.

And yet . . .

I'm really drawn toward an archaic definition of the term. It originally had a much more earthy, even gritty, connotations. Some linguists tie it back to the Medieval Latin word curare, which meant “to cure an illness.” It had a connotation of providing loving attention and management. The word “curator” goes back to the word curatus, which meant, “spiritual guide,”or “one responsible for the care of souls.”

Over time, this word morphed into an intense care and love for a particular subject, knowledge, or set of artistic works. A curator is one who collects and manages information with a passion and love for the subject. Which is a wonderful endeavor. But I've noticed that some of the best curators are able to tap into that original sense of being “one responsible for the care of souls.” As teachers, this is what we do. We help students grow in wisdom. We're curators.

This is something often overlooked in the conversations about education and curation. I hear people talk about the need for students to be curators of content in an age of information overload. I've heard people say things like, "the teacher is no longer the source of information now that students can curate it themselves." This is typically accompanied by the term "guide on the side" to describe a teacher's role.

While I see some validity in this sentiment, I think it proves that now more than ever, teachers need to be curators. They need to be geeking out on their subjects. They need to help students figure out where to go. Yes, they might be "on the side," but they are still guides, helping students navigate the terrain for the first time ever. And that's precisely what a curator does.

What does curation typically look like?

Content curation begins with an intense love of the content. Think of gallery curators. They get giddy over the seemingly random (and yet almost impossible to replicate) approach of Jackson Pollock. However, they can engage in a two-hour discussion the relationship between kitsch art and postmodern philosophy.

Curators have a holistic, connected knowledge combined with thoughtful commentary. While there is an overlap with criticism, curators are more likely to geek out on the subject in a way that is explanatory instead of evaluative. This is often combined with a desire to make a work accessible to the public. So, while they are gatekeepers, critics are the ones shutting the gates while curators are often the ones who open the gates and convince people to come inside.

If all of that seems too abstract, here are a few things that are a part of the curation process:

  1. Searching for Content: The best curators are the ones who can find content that not everyone notices. This is what makes Maria Popova of Brain Pickings so amazing. She has this way of finding content that people are missing, looking in places we've overlooked. 
  2. Consuming Content: The best curators are able to collect and consume great content. It’s not mindless consumption. It is mindful and relaxed but also sharp and analytical, either. One of the things I’ve noticed about great curators is that they scribble notes all over the margins of books and yet they feel the complete freedom to skim and skip when necessary.
  3. Organizing / Managing Content: Curation often involves placing content into categories or themes. The best curators are able to find connections between seemingly opposite artists, ideas, or disciplines in ways that make you think, "Man, I never considered that."
  4. Adding Commentary: Curators rarely write long, in-depth explanations of the content. There’s typically a certain clarity and brevity in the commentary they add. When done well, a curator almost seems invisible, moving along the snippets of content. And yet, over time, you begin to appreciate the subtle personality and voice of a curator.
  5. Displaying the Content: Content curation has the end goal of getting great content into the hands of a larger audience. It is deliberately others-centered, even when the curator is introspective. Sometimes, the goal is to provide a set of practical information into the hands of readers. Others are more about offering something intriguing, even if it’s not inherently practical.

Favorite Education Curators

The education blogging community doesn't have a strong curation element. Most of us are writing reflective, persuasive or practical blog posts. However, a few bloggers have nailed curation.

  • Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day: I’m not sure there is a curator who is more prolific than Larry. He does a great job of finding relevant content, organizing it by theme, and adding just the right information to tie it all together.
  • Hack Education: Audrey Watters covers everything from technology to policy to social movements. She's constantly tapping into so many different sectors with a critical eye and tying it all together with sharp and witty observations. Some of my favorite posts she’s written included excerpts from books and articles that I hadn’t even considered reading before. 
  • Autodizactic: Zac Chase is a curator in his approach to Instagram, Twitter and blogging. He'll often underline a passage and write a note on the side. Although his posts are often reflective rather than explanatory, read through it a bit and you’ll see some amazing curating going on.
  • Dangerously Irrelevant: Scot McLeod has slowly shifted his blog into more of a curation blog, offering explanatory notes and then finding snippets of interesting thoughts on education from all over the Internet.

Favorite General Curators

These are my favorite curation blogs connected to art, literature, creativity, and productivity. I don’t follow music, food, or fashion curators, but there are some great ones out there as well. So, here are my favorite curation sites:

  • Farnam Street: Shane Farnam has a description on his blog, “I want to go to bed each night smarter than when I woke up. I also want to live a meaningful life and become a better person." 
  • Brain Pickings: Maria Popova is amazing. If you want a glimpse into her process and her personality, you should check out her interviews on the Tim Ferris Show.
  • Fast Company: Although they are technically a magazine with full articles, they do a wonderful job of curating a diverse range of topics within creativity.
  • Open Culture: I love the way they find seemingly random free items from our culture.
  • Mental Floss: Like Fast Company, Mental Floss is actually a magazine. However, they often curate information in a way that makes it deliberately popular. They use catchy titles and listicals in an approach that is the complete opposite of Brain Pickings. 

Other Curation Platforms

While all of my examples are curation blogs (I am drawn toward blogs as platforms), I have seen some great examples of content curation happening on Pinterest and EduClipper. Both tools are created with visual curation in mind. For a glimpse at a multi-disciplinary education Pinterest board, check out Angela Watson’s curation style.


How I Learned to Embrace Critical Feedback

I open the Google Doc with a sense of excitement. As I scroll down and read through the comments, I find myself jotting down notes, nodding my head and saying aloud, "I never considered that."  It strikes me as odd that I would enjoy this process. See, yesterday I asked some of my favorite social studies and language arts teachers to tear apart the week-by-week plan I created for one of the graduate classes I'm teaching. At one time, I would have hated this process but now I see it as a valuable way to see blindspots, mistakes and new possibilities.

So, here are the phases I went through as I ultimately learned how to embrace critical feedback:

Phase One: Avoiding Critical Feedback

When I was a new teacher, I hated when visitors came into my classroom. I would make up excuses for my discomfort. Things like, "the kids act different when strangers or present," or "the class feels crowded and I can't be myself." While some of that was true, the reality is I was scared. I was terrified.

I was an insecure mess and, as a result, I projected an image of perfection. I exaggerated how great things were going. I avoided asking for help when things tanked. I straight-up lied a few times when I was in a group I wanted to impress. I couldn't bear the thought that people would see me for who I really was: a young man trying my hardest to figure out the difficult craft of teaching but tripping up by my own imperfections.

The truth is I would get angry when people gave me critical feedback. I would take it personal. I would want to argue it, like I was defending a doctoral thesis. I pushed away some amazing teachers that I could have learned from because I was too insecure to let myself be known.

Phase Two: Accepting Critical Feedback

I'd love to say that I learned to accept critical feedback when I grew as a teacher. However, that's not how it worked. I became more confident. I improved in my craft. I even had moments where I blogged about my mistakes. But I still projected an image of perfection. I still felt the need to impress people. So, even when I was less insecure about my identity as a teacher, I was still insecure as a person (something I still battle, though less so over the last few years). This insecurity kept me from being truly known and, as a result, kept me from asking for critical feedback.

But then something happened. I started doing creative work and I realized something. You can't fake something you make. You're stuck with it. Whether it's a drawing or painting or story, at some point your work will be judged. Faced with this reality, I realized that I couldn't create a mask. I wanted to my work to improve. So I began asking for critical feedback.

The process was terrifying. I remember getting angry or feeling crushed by constructive criticism. But I also realized that none of their feedback changed how they viewed me as an artist or a writer. I remember one moment when my wife had given some feedback on a novel and I thought, "Man, I feel crushed" and then realized how ridiculous that metaphor was. I wasn't crushed. The feedback wasn't crushing at all. It was helpful. It was the very thing needed to improve as an author.

Phase Three: Embracing Critical Feedback

In this phase, I actually begin to embrace critical feedback. It's been a natural part of every creative project I've done in the last two years. Bob, Brad, and I have used specific, targeted critical feedback in the development of Write About. AJ and I have specifically sought out critical feedback in our development of a personalized professional development platform; often saying things like, "rip this apart for me." Christy and I, in planning our latest novel, have both scheduled times where one person simply offers feedback while the other listens.

In each of these cases, the critical feedback only works because I trust the other person. That's a critical component. There are people who go through life tearing others down. They delight in ripping creative work to shreds. Screw them. Their opinion doesn't matter. However, there are people with knowledge and wisdom who can provide amazing insights and their feedback can prove invaluable.

Final Thoughts

It hasn't been perfect. I still get insecure. I still have times when I don't want any critical feedback and I just want something to say, "John, this is awesome." However, I am finding myself drawn toward this third stage.  And here's the thing: when I am able to seek out critical feedback, I'm able to be more honest and vulnerable with people I care about. This leads to a deeper trust and a closer relationship. So, not only does my work improve but so do my relationships.


Creative Work Is Slow at First

Over the last few weeks, I've enjoyed experimenting with illustrated videos.  Here are three of my examples:

One of the questions people ask is, "How did you make these?"  This is often followed up by a second question, "How long did it take?"

That second question is tough. Embarrassing, even. When I did the Life is Epic video, it took me five hours. The other two videos took closer to two hours each. What I want to be able to say is, "Yeah, I can knock one of those out in half an hour."

I'm dealing with a similar experience in planning out my college classes. I'm used to planning quickly. Suddenly, I'm trying to wrap my brain around what it means to give homework (something I haven't done in seven years) and how to plan out an entire semester into eight different four-hour blocks. I'm working with new standards and new expectations and a new age group. The end result is that I'm slow.

I contrast this to the act of writing a blog post, which usually takes me ten or fifteen minutes. I don't agonize over word choice. I don't plan out an outline. I'm not methodical. I'm quick. And here's the thing: when I force myself to slow down, the quality actually suffers. I blog best when I blog quickly.

So, this has me thinking about what it means to encourage creativity in the classroom. We use terms like "maker mindset," but we miss the fact that creative work often starts out as slow, messy, and inherently frustrating. There's so much fear and reticence when you are starting out. You're constantly monitoring and adjusting. You have no sense of workflow. You stumble around. You take too many breaks. You give up too easily only to turn around and stubbornly stick with something that will never work out.

Over time, though, you get faster. You don't need to monitor and adjust quite so often. You reflect while working rather than waiting until afterward. You learn those tiny skills and mental habits that initially trip you up in the creative journey. Then, one day you realize, "I'm actually pretty fast at this."

The same thing happens with students. There's a certain creative fluency that simply takes time to master. For all the talk of "life hacks" and "productivity hacks" and "growth hacks," this isn't something you can hack. You just have to walk through this phase. It's messy and it's slow and sometimes it's frustrating. But it's vital for growth. Things are slow at first.

I'm not suggesting that speed is a bad thing (unless by "speed," you refer to the drug -- which is most certainly a bad thing). Sometimes people glorify working slowly and miss the fact that some of the best creative types work quickly. After all, watch a five-star chef and you'll see that speed matters. Watch a master teacher and you might realize that she knows how to plan an entire unit quickly, making split-second decisions that seem to come out of nowhere. See a muralist and work and it might look frantic (even if it is calm and mindful). But what you miss in the process are the hours a chef spent awkwardly chopping carrots or the half day a new teacher spent scribbling notes of project ideas or the slow and clunky brush strokes a muralist used before ever getting the permission to paint an entire wall.

So, back to the classroom. If we want students to hit a place of creative flow in life, we need to give them time to experience this phase of being excruciatingly slow. There's no shortcut. There's no scaffolding that will let them bypass it. They simply need more time. And given the breakneck pace of school, this notion of deliberately embracing huge, inefficient blocks of time is a foreign idea. Maybe it's time we slowed down a little.


What if we treated teachers more like professors?

Note: I've been adding more videos to my YouTube page, including two recent illustrated writing ideas. Check it out and if you like what you see, feel free to "like" the page.

I knew something was different when I asked our secretary about signing in and signing out. She laughed aloud and said, "We trust you." This was the first of many moments I had this week where I realized the level of trust was different in higher education than what I had experienced while teaching at the middle school level.

Don't get me wrong. I had leaders who trusted me. In fact, I've remained great friends with two of my former administrators who had trusted me as a teacher and sought me out as a thinker. However, I never felt that sense of trust from the system itself. I've spent the last eleven years filling out lesson plans according to the district format, signing in and signing out when I left somewhere on a prep period, and jumping through the hoops of incessant new initiatives.

So, after my first week as an Assistant Professor in the Graduate Teaching and Learning program, I have been struck by the difference in trust and professional respect I receive. I'm sure a part of it connects to the institution (our university has a very democratic approach to leadership). However, I have a hunch that my experiences fit within a general trend in higher education toward respecting and trusting the professional expertise of professors.

Take the concept of collaboration. In the past, collaboration was more like cooperation. We would take the district-assigned curriculum maps, divide up our work and create common assessments. It worked efficiently, but it rarely allowed for conflict or for creativity. Suddenly, I'm working with people in developing programs and designing classes. So, what would it look like for schools to allow teachers to collaborate in a way that actually allowed teachers to own the entire teaching process?

Or consider the role of research. As a teacher, research was almost always something invoked (quoted like the Bible) with little explanation of context or methodology. I contrast that to higher education, where I am expected to do research and engage in scholarly work. Not only that. We also debate research and how it applies to the classroom setting.

Another contrast is the role of assessment. In our education department, we are encouraged to use authentic, performance-based assessments. We're not stuck with kill-and-drill multiple choice tests. Moreover, the role of assessment is different. We view it as a way to provide extra support for a student. Nobody needs to teach to the test because our scores aren't used in our evaluations. Our school's success isn't based upon their scores. So, not only are the tests different but the philosophy of assessment and the policies around assessment are different from K-12 as well.

There are some drawbacks to the professional trust. Universities still have professors who relish in giving low grades and making students cry. We still have professors who stand up and lecture for hours. However, those things still happen in K-12 education as well, with or without the professional trust.

What Would It Take?

It has me wondering what it would look like for K-12 education to treat teachers more like professors. What if we respected the professional identity of teachers? What if we trusted them to make more of the policy decisions? What if we allowed them to collaborate in a way that went beyond the trivial? What if we trusted them to do their jobs? What if we took some of the bureaucracy off of their plates and allowed them to wrestle with research?

It would require a few radical changes including:

  1. More prep time. This might require a different model (shorter days or larger classes) and with that model would come some difficult decisions. 
  2. Better assessment practices. We need to embrace alternative assessments. However, this begins with giving teachers the permission to try new practices. Which leads to the next point . . .
  3. Different assessment policies. We need to quit judging teachers based upon test scores. The same goes with the way we rate schools. 
  4. More opportunities for teachers to be the thought leaders in our institutions. I find it sad that many of the conversations about the future of education fail to include teachers. I find it sad that teachers are rarely asked to be the keynote speakers. 
  5. Allow teachers to make more of their own decisions in the classroom. 
  6. Encourage teacher collaboration that gets to the core of teaching. In other words, let the teachers design the curriculum maps and assessments. Let the teachers develop the lab schools that lead to district research. 
  7. Create moments where teachers can pursue scholarly research. Provide lab schools where teachers can engage in action research. Give teachers mini-sabbaticals to write books. Celebrate when teachers are published or when they are asked to speak professionally. 

I get it. There are some distinct differences between K-12 and higher education. Professors have fewer hours of in-person teaching time. We also play a different role with an audience that isn't captive. And yet . . . I can't help but wonder if maybe education leaders could learn something from the respect and trust that many professors experience.


The Five Phases of Being Connected

Matt Miller wrote a great post about phases of using Twitter (through a quarterback metaphor). So, I thought I would share my own journey. 

The other day, I found myself lamenting on the way Twitter feels. "It's not what it used to be," I pointed out.

"It's become toxic," he said, pointing to examples of ridiculous misunderstandings, bold statements about what people should or should not post, trite fluff being retweeted left and right, and skirmishes about copyright.

But as we began talking, I remembered the metaphor we were first engaging with the education community on Twitter. We all pretty much compared it to a cocktail party. Maybe the cocktail party has gotten out of hand. Or maybe Twitter has become more like a street corner overrun by hooligans.

Or maybe not.

I started thinking about the conversations I had six years ago. They were loud. They were contentious. They were the conversations that challenged my thinking -- even when they lacked nuance. At the same time, there were the hyper-professional tweets and the brand-building and the app-smashing and . . . pretty much everything else you see on Twitter right now.

So what changed?

In my case, the initial cocktail party meet-and-greet led to a few close relationships. We've become friends. We've become partners on big creative projects. Twitter is still there, still functioning as an amazing meet-and-greet. But I'm there less often because the nature of the relationships has changed.

So, it has me thinking about phases I've gone through in being a connected educator (feel free to mock me for using that term):

Phase One: The Meet-and-Greet 

I first checked out Twitter because someone somewhere told me it was a good idea for bloggers. So, I figured I might as well check it out. In this phase, Twitter functioned as a cocktail party and I felt bewildered and confused. Why were people using the @ symbol? Whey were people using the pound sign all the time? How did the conversations work? Why were people talking to each other when they barely knew each other? I was lost until a few people went out of their way to welcome me.

Phase Two: A Place to Hangout

After awhile, I began coming back to Twitter. I began to recognize people. I started looking forward to chats. If it had begun as a meet-and-greet, being connected now felt like showing up to this place where everyone knew my name (not really, but I just wanted a thinly veiled reference to Cheers). Or, better yet, it was like a staff lounge where no one complained about kids. As I engaged in conversations, I started shifting to the next phase.

Phase Three: A Personal Learning Network

I remember a time when my network was small enough and active enough that I could post a question like, "What is the best way to teach linear equations?" and get an answer from ten different folks on #mathchat. I loved the access to experts in so many different fields. It was more than that, though. I loved the conversations we had. Sure, some of them now seem repetitive. But here's the thing: they felt new and fresh and different to me. We could talk about rethinking assessment or getting rid of homework. So, it wasn't simply a place to get practical ideas. It was also a place to hash out ideas and experience important paradigm shifts.

However, I began to experience some of the limitations of Twitter. I started seeing the darker side of groups ganging up on each other. I started realizing that some of my most retweeted tweets were insipid one-liners with little meaning behind them. I also had a thirst for deeper connections. I wanted a safe place to be vulnerable and that's tough to do in 140 characters. I started meeting certain people at conferences and following up with them later on Google Hangouts. We eventually grew into friends.

Phase Four: A Community

As these friendships grew, I found myself being vulnerable. A Sports Vox Group gradually transformed from a silly place to talk about football into a place where I could share what was really going on in my life. And many of those people are now a part of a running group (where we keep each other accountable to stay healthy) and a blogging group. The categories are almost irrelevant. We're friends sharing life together. We had grown into friends in the last phase but now we had a shared space and a shared vision.

In my case, I found that Voxer works best for a few reasons:
  • the closed nature makes it more intimate, meaning I don't have to worry about how thousands of people might interpret a single sentence
  • the lack of 140 character limit means we can talk naturally 
  • the addition of audio means I get to hear the people around me 
I guess what it comes down to is this: when I want to publish my thoughts to the world, I blog. And, though blogging has social elements (like commenting) the focus is largely on publishing. Voxer, by contrast, feels more like a social space that I inhabit. It has more of a sense of proximity.

Phase Five: Making Stuff Together

Being connected is now less about broadcasting bold ideas to the world and more about making stuff together. It's how I ended up co-creating Write About with Brad Wilson. It's how I ended up doing a podcast with AJ Juliani. It's why I've been co-writing books with Pernille Ripp and Trevor Muir. A few years ago, I needed to talk about what I believed. I needed to experience paradigm shifts. But now I'm at a place where I'd rather focus on solutions. I'd rather make something that a teacher might be able to use.

I still hangout on Twitter. The cocktail party is fun. But I don't find myself drawn to it as often. The relationships have changed. I've changed. And that's okay.

This is why I ultimately won't criticize Twitter. I won't mock chats. I won't say that a person should use it more personally or professionally. We're all trying to figure out what it means to be connected. No, scratch that. We're all trying to figure out what it means to connect -- in life and online.


Seven Ways to Break the Consumer Mindset in Schools

For the last eleven years, I asked my students to fill out a survey about how they use technology. Although I am now teaching university students, I think I'm going to do a similar survey. The questions are both about technology use (have you ever edited a video online?) to attitudes (what is the purpose of a smartphone?) to beliefs (how are devices changing human communication?)

The results always feel depressing.

  • 100% have watched a video online or with a device
  • 96% have played a game online or with a device*
  • 82% have used Facebook
  • 8% have created a slideshow (PowerPoint, Keynote, Google Presentation)
  • 2% have written a blog post
  • less than 1% have edited a video
  • less than 1% have edited audio
  • less than 1% have coded
  • less than 1% have created a visual model

When I look at the data, I notice a trend. Students have never used their devices creatively. They have the power to capture and tell a story but they don't. They have the power to connect to an authentic audience, but it's not happening. They have the potential to build models and design products and turn things from wild ideas to tangible realities. However, it's not happening.

Students Are Consumer Natives

For all the talk of "digital natives," the truth is that my students come to class as consumer natives. They have watched videos and played video games but they have never created a video (fully edited) or a video game. They listen to music but they don't know how to play an instrument. True, there are pockets of students who do amazing videos and post them on YouTube or who have found an audience for their work on Wattpad. However, they are the outliers.

This isn't an indictment on this generation. The truth is we live in a consumer culture. The iPhone is a consumer device. Most apps are designed to make our lives faster, easier and more distracted by amusement.

Furthermore, students attend consumer-driven schools. Ask parents about the meaning of school and the most common answer is to "prepare them for the future." Press harder and it becomes, "prepare them for better jobs." We use language like "delivering content" when describing the act of teaching and learning. There's an unspoken metaphor that students receive a lesson, use what they learned and transfer it into a diploma or a degree.

Students inhabit a consumer culture. They learn in consumer-based schools. It is no wonder, then, that students have little to no experience using technology creatively. And yet . . . watch a five year old with free time. Check out the wild imagination. Notice the sheer amount of creative play involved. Give them a set of crayons and paper (without the directions to color within the lines) and see what happens. It proves what we know to be true: we are meant to be creative.

Seven Ways We Can Break the Consumer Mindset

It is deeply human to create. It is part of what makes life amazing. So, how do we get students to shift from a consumer mindset to a creative mindset? Here are a few ideas.
  1. Focus on now rather than the future. The consumer mindset treats education as an investment in the future. On some level, this is true. Education does empower people for the future. However, when we treat it as an investment commodity, we risk missing out on the moment and if we're not careful we slip into a frenzied mindset asking, "What are they missing that they might need? What have we failed to cover?" 
  2. Slow down. I've met many teachers who say, "I would love for students to be making things but we simply don't have time." When I look at many curriculum maps, I'm not surprised. Most curriculum maps aren't maps at all. Rather than inspiring people to choose a journey, they present a rigid route defining the destination, the route, and the pace. So, take things off-road. By combining standards and by thinking well about time management, we can still follow the standards at a pace that allows for creativity. 
  3. Find a framework. I'm a huge fan of the design thinking cycle because it provides a clear framework for creative work. 
  4. Change the structures. The grading system, physical classroom structures, and behavioral management systems are often built around a consumer mindset. By changing these structures, we can foster creativity rather than simply deliver content. 
  5. Encourage risk-taking. When students treat education as a consumer commodity, they are motivated to do less in order to achieve more (more bang for the buck). They are also less likely to take a creative risk when it might lead to a lower score. Teachers can be a powerful force in encouraging creative risk-taking.   
  6. Provide independent, choice-driven project time. In other words, try out Genius Hour, 20% Time or whatever term we are calling it right now. 
  7. Realize that it's an evolution. Some students are already creative. However, for other students, there are stages they need to go through in order to grow. That's okay. Give them time to evolve in their creative endeavors. 

*I'm not sure which kid it was who hadn't played a game on a phone, but that child is missing out on one of the greatest things in the world: Crossy Road.


Life Is Meant to Be Epic -- A Reflection on Fatherhood, Teaching, and Life

Here's the transcript of the video:

It was about eight years ago when the alarm woke me up at 3 in the morning. Except, it wasn’t an alarm. It was a newborn baby and I couldn’t calm him down. I remember turning to the computer and realizing that I still needed to finish an assignment for my master’s class.

I remember thinking, “Life will be better when this phase is over.” When we have more money. When the kids are older. When I have a master’s degree.
But as my son calmed down and fell asleep on my chest, I realized something. Life wouldn’t get any better. Life couldn’t get any better. Easier, perhaps. More orderly, maybe. But not better. Because nothing could be better than this.

I’ve been thinking about that moment and that lie that sneaks into my life . . . the one that starts with “life will be better when ______.” I think it comes from this mistaken notion that a “better” life is the one with more comfort. It’s the idea that life is meant to be a vacation – and that if I just do the right things now I can relax later.

See, it works something like this: When you are in high school, you can’t wait until college and then you can’t wait to get married or start a career and then you can’t wait to have money or a house and then you have kids and you can’t wait for the kids to get older and then you can’t wait to retire and then, at some point, you grow older and you can’t wait at all. You’ve run out of waiting.

But what if that’s not how life is supposed to work? What if life is meant to be a story? Not just any story. It’s meant to be an epic story. The good life is one with a real conflict that requires courage. It’s meant to have characters that you love and couldn’t imagine losing. It’s meant to be grounded in a setting where you feel the grass beneath your feet and you know that you have a place where you belong. It’s meant to be lived with bold themes.

The beauty with epic stories is that they aren’t comfortable. They aren’t easy. They are forever riddled with conflict and with imperfect characters. But they are also filled with everything that makes life worth living: passion, love, courage, purpose.

Don’t get me wrong. Vacations are fun. There’s nothing wrong with a break. But life isn’t found there. Life is meant to be epic.


Mistakes Are What Make Growth Possible

My son decided he wanted to make something similar to an erector set. We basically put together PVC pipe, bricks, and anything else we could find to get a metal ball to make it into a bucket. On the surface level this looks easy. However, if the pipes wiggle the wrong way, it totally fails.

We tried.

We tried again.

We tried ten more times.

Then another ten times.

We tried until he was nearly in tears as the ball got stuck and any sense of progress we had made seemed to regress. After going back inside and getting a drink of water, we tried ten more times. Then another ten times.

On the seventy-seventh try, it worked. Here's the video:

So, it has me thinking about perseverance and the concept of "grit." The general narrative is that we should push kids to keep trying and that eventually they develop "grit" through the sheer grind of trying and trying and trying. Push for higher standards and tell kids to keep working until they get it. It will be boring and hard and painful, but ultimately it will be worth it. The grit narrative tells students that "failure is not an option."

However, I don't think that's how perseverance works. I don't think it comes from a dreary place of high-stakes accountability. I think it happens in creative moments like this afternoon. It starts with choice and agency. Kids want to create something because the task is deeply meaningful to them. Next, they move incrementally with the absolute permission to make mistakes. There are no grades, no drills, no boring moments of "just get this done or else."

It's counterintuitive but choice, agency and fun are all critical elements for helping students develop perseverance. It's part of what I love about the design thinking cycle. Students begin with engagement and desire and move into inquiry and ideation. Teachers allow for extended time for prototyping, testing and revising -- without grading anything.

Here, mistakes are expected. In fact, they are a critical part of what makes design projects work. Kids walk into it knowing that they won't get it right on the first time. That would actually be boring; like jumping to the top level on the first turn of a video game. When kids do design projects, they know that each mistake is a chance to figure out what works and what doesn't work.

It has me thinking about the concept of a growth mindset. When students have the permission to make mistakes, they begin to define success as growth and learning. They recognize that failure isn't really failure at all. Ultimately, they become less risk-averse. They try new things . . . even if it means trying for 77 times before finding success.


An Open Letter to My Daughter's Kindergarten Teacher

To Whom It May Concern:

So I don't really know you yet but let me just say ahead of time that I'm terrified. It was the same way with my older two kids. I'm worried about whether my daughter will make friends and whether or not she will feel like she belongs. She can shy. I worry about her getting into trouble. She can be strong. I worry about her love of learning. I've seen some kids lose that over the years in the face of the standardized system.

But the truth is I'm also hopeful. In fact, I'm more hopeful than I am terrified. Because here's the thing: even in the face of testing and college and career readiness (because, you know, at six years old you'd better be prepared for Harvard) I know that most kindergarten teachers are brave. Behind the warm hugs and the happy face posters and whatnot is a tenacious side that says, "Not my kids. They will be known as a person and not a number." That's the crazy thing about kindergarten teachers. They have this inner ninja that treats the job like a mission.

So, with that in mind, I just want to say thank you ahead of time. Thank you for the fact that you will make her laugh and smile and relish in the joy of learning. Thank you for the fact that you will let her play and make and learn along the way. Thank you for the bizarre miracle that occurs (yes, I know it comes from technical expertise) where she will leave at the end of the year as a reader. Thank you for the field trips and the read alouds and the fact that you will make a trip to the library feel like a trip to the candy store. Thank you for learning her name in the first week and for taking the time to know her story and her personality and her identity.

I'm not sure what this year will bring but if it's anything like it was with my sons, I will be amazed by how much she learns and how much she enjoys the process. I know that there are days when you will be exhausted. You will have demanding parents. You will have ridiculous policies. You will have teacher shortages and unfair pay. You may have moments when you question whether or not it's all worth it. My hope is that you will know that you are appreciated. You do amazing things every day. You're pretty awesome like that.



Want a more creative classroom?

Check out some of these resources.

Free Course: Getting Started with Design Thinking

The design thinking cycle is a powerful way to get people thinking creatively. This free course helps teachers develop a plan for using design thinking in their content areas.

Classroom Questions Podcast

AJ Juliani and I started a podcast that focusses on thinking creatively about our classroom practices. Our goal is to keep it fun, practical and accessible.

Video Series: Getting Started with Design Thinking

The design thinking cycle is a framework used in business, in the arts, and in social and civic spaces. Learn the basics of design thinking in this self-paced video series. Check it out on my site or on the YouTube playlist.

Wendell the World's Worst Wizard

Students from around the world have been inspired by this story about a non-magical wizard who becomes the unlikely hero through the power of creativity and robotics. We also have free teacher resources to inspire a maker mindset in all students.

The Creative Classroom Toolkit

This free resource includes practical strategies for classroom instruction and assessment. It includes out-of-the box strategies, activities and lessons you can implement from day one.


Are you a teacher, leader, or parent interested in creativity and learning? Join us every Wednesday night at 7:00 Pacific for #createchat, a discussion about how to develop creative spaces in schools.

Professor of Instructional Technology
I want to see kids embrace creativity. As a teacher, this meant murals, documentaries, STEM camps, and coding projects. As a dad, this has meant elaborate pillow forts and home-made pinball machines and the story of non-magical wizard who makes robots. It's also why I co-founded Write About. Interested in having me speak or consult on design thinking and creativity? Visit my speaking page and fill out the contact form at the bottom. I'll get back to you within 24 hours.

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