2/9/16

Puppy Monkey Babies and the Problem of Trying Too Hard

There are some things I can't un-see no matter how much I try. The Mountain Dew "puppy monkey baby" commercial is toward the top of that list. And yet . . . I get what they were going for. They wanted to be weird and quirky and fun. What they created was just kind-of creepy.

But the issue wasn't that they had created something odd. After all, Adventure Time is built on being unabashedly odd. Bowie was weird and we loved him for it. I don't think it was the quirkiness that bothered me. It was the sense that they were trying too hard. It was the kind of advertisement that seemed to be the product of groupthink -- or, rather, focus groupthink.

Trying too hard.

It's the same kind of reaction I had when I saw Hillary Clinton trying to dance on Ellen or when Marco Rubio recited the same line robotically again and again in a debate. It's the same thing you feel when you see someone trying too hard to impress a crowd at a party. It's the awkwardness you feel in an interview when someone is trying too hard to sound smart and it just looks desperate instead.

This has me thinking about all the times I looked like I was trying too hard. As a first year teacher, I tried to hard to relate to my students and I just came off as looking more hopelessly uncool. The same thing happened when I wrote a sequel to Wendell the World's Worst Wizard, and my wife said, "It just feels like you're trying too hard." It's the same thing that happened years ago when I was first dating my wife and I awkwardly asked her if she would be my girlfriend and everything about that encounter screamed out, "Dude, you are trying too hard. Just chill. She likes you. She really does. But please don't be like this."

And yet . . .

Just about any time you do something that matters, you try really hard. You spend hours prepping for a talk. You rework a draft over and over again until you're ready to publish. You put on your best suit for a job interview. You may give off a casual air, but the truth is that you've labored at your craft to get to that point. Okay, then at what point does it become "trying too hard?"

I have a hunch it comes down to insecurity. What we mean when we say, "You're trying too hard," is that you're trying too hard to be what you aren't. Whether it's a monkey-baby-pug or a repeated line in a debate or an awkward dance on the Ellen Show, there's something intuitive that we sense when someone is overcompensating. It's like over-seasoning a dish because you're afraid you burned the meat, when, in reality, the burnt ends actually taste fantastic.

And the thing is, we're all guilty of this. That's what makes these moments so awkward. We've all hit moments of insecurity where we suddenly make things worse by trying to be smarter or funnier or whatever it is we're being when what the world needs in that moment is you. And that's the real tragedy of these moments. Instead of being authentic or transparent or even vulnerable, we try too hard and the only thing people can sense is the desperation of the insecurity.

The only answer is authenticity. When you're being authentic, you're confident in yourself. You're content in who you are. So there's no need to over-season things. You can work like crazy on a project and it never looks like you're trying too hard, because there's a connection between your identity and what you're making.

So, it has me thinking about creative classrooms. I've had moments when kids were trying too hard. These were the moments when a work tanked, because students were scared and insecure and feeling too pressured by the need to make something amazing. Maybe it was a presentation where they tried hard to be funny and no one laughed or they tried hard to sound smart and they sounded arrogant or they tried hard to be creative and the work ended up being a baby-monkey-puppy kind of mess.



What can we do about it? Here are a few ideas:

  • Create a safe place to make mistakes. I very rarely "try too hard," when I think mistakes are okay. 
  • Allow students to make things that fit their identity. 
  • De-emphasize creativity. Treat creativity as a process of experimentation rather than a goal you strive to attain. 
  • Keep things low-stakes instead of high-stakes. 
  • Let students determine the audience. If they want to publish to the world, great. If not, let them decide. 
  • Make more stuff. Sometimes the only way to get past the "trying too hard" stage is to make tons and tons of stuff until you don't feel like a phony anymore. 
  • Be vulnerable as a teacher. Model this for your students. 

There's no guarantee any of this will work. We are human. We are weird. We are awkward. We will all bumble our way through projects, trying too hard when we feel insecure. But the more we are able to make things out of a sense of contentment, the better we will be at avoiding this "trying too hard" mindset.



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2/2/16

Are Students Getting the Chance to Develop Creative Endurance?


I'm sitting at a computer, staring at the flashing cursor. I know it's not sentient, but I swear it's taunting me. "Just go on with it. Try and make something."

I'm in the third hour of a project. It's a free design thinking challenge that I'll be releasing soon. I've already finished with the fun part. I've created a fast-paced sketchy video along with an interactive notebook for students. However, this part is different. It's the teacher side of the resource. It requires me to think differently than I did as a teacher (where I preferred to create my own lesson plans). It requires me to make fewer assumptions about the audience. This is part is tedious and slow. It's the kind of detail work that's hard for me.

And so, I plug away at it. When I'm finished, I will have spent eight to ten hours on something that looks like it took an hour to make. By contrast, the student journal and sketchy video took a grand total of two hours. Tomorrow morning, I'll get up early and spend half an hour creating a multi-lesson slideshow and it might take me forty-five minutes tops.


The Power of Creative Endurance

I mention all of this, because it reminds me of this idea of creative endurance. See, I can spend three hours without a break creating a sketchy video. I can get lost in a world of my own creation, writing fiction for a full day. However, I have a hard time writing instructions. I struggle with the notion of audience and purpose and making things explicit when it's a lesson plan or a syllabus.

I'd love to say that it's all about big picture or details, but that's not exactly it. It's actually more about creative endurance, and, more specifically, creative fluency.

Nobody tells you this, but when you first start making stuff, you're really slow at it. You're also really bad at it. So, you're both bad at your craft and you're slow. Genius combination, right?

However, somewhere along the line, you get faster. Then, at some point, you realize that you're crazy fast. You're the chef you can chop an onion in a four seconds. You're the writer who crafts a draft in a month. You've become that person.

There's this sense of automaticity to it. You aren't second-guessing every move. You have a sense of what you are doing and where you are going. It's not emotionally exhausting and it's not mentally exhausting. If anything, it feels normal.

But when you're new at something, it's slow. It's painful, even. You suck at it. And when you realize you suck at it, you feel defeated. You second-guess every move. You are thinking so intentionally about every step that you sometimes feel like you are going nowhere. Over time, though, it becomes the backdrop. You've moved past the mechanics and you know what you're doing.

It's a bit like driving a car. Remember when you sucked at driving? Remember when your heart would race if you went on the freeway? Remember when you had to tell yourself to turn on the turn signal? Well, that's what it's like when you are new at a creative process. You're suddenly the pimple-faced new driver trying to avoid an accident.

I mention this, because I notice students who have never hit a place of creative fluency. They have no creative endurance. They give up quickly. They get frustrated too easily. They need too many instructions. But, honestly, it's because creativity has always been icing on the cake (which, honestly, is precisely what makes carrot cake a cake and not a loaf of zucchini bread). It's always been a "when we get to it" activity. It's been the culminating project. Then suddenly you have students who struggle to get anything done. However, it's not laziness. It's actually the byproduct of rarely getting the chance to make anything.

The hard part is that there is no easy answer. The only way you learn to drive is by driving. The only way you get endurance as a runner is by running. And the only way you get endurance in creativity is by making more stuff. So, maybe that's the simple answer. Students should spend less time testing and more time making.
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1/31/16

Why Vintage Tools Totally Belong in a 21st Century Classroom


Skip past these words and jump to the video. Seriously. I've been having way too much fun making these sketchy videos and I think the message comes across differently in a visual format. 

With the click of a button, I can send my work to the entire world. It can feel empowering. I tap a screen and suddenly my ideas can reach a larger audience.

But what if that’s not always ideal? True, audience matters. But so does solitude. There’s power in disconnecting and creating art for an audience of one.

See, when I’m publishing to the world, I’m thinking about how my work will be perceived. I want people to love what I made. So, I’m sharpening my ideas. I’m reshaping my words. At times, I grow risk averse.

I start caring too much about what other people think.

And it makes me less creative.

But when I’m alone, I can make mistakes. Big mistakes. Nobody knows. Nobody cares.

This is why I journal.

My journal is a forest filled with scribbles and sketches and wild ideas sprouting everywhere. I can go anywhere and nobody knows. I can dance and sing and yell. I can wander and wonder. I can take a creative plunge into the unknown. Everything is an experiment.

That’s the power of journaling. It’s this secluded space of creativity. And this space, as low-fi and personal and constrained as it may be is often the exact thing I need to take creative risks.




Vintage Tools in Modern Classrooms

I believe in the power of student blogging. However, I also believe in the power of student notebooks. I love seeing students craft documentaries through multimedia editing tools. However, when I taught science and I wanted students to learn the art of observation, I had them use colored pencils and plain white paper.

This is why I love cardboard and duct tape. Don't get me wrong, a 3D printer can be a fantastic way to teach prototyping. However, if you want to embrace a maker mindset, cardboard and duct tape are powerful tools. There's something about the simplicity and malleability of the materials that lead to creative breakthroughs for students.

I'm also a fan of journals, or interactive notebooks. I know, I know, people mock journals in light of digital tools. However, when students can create pictures, concept maps, and diagrams, they are often creating content in ways that are too cumbersome with a tablet or a laptop. It's no surprise that sketch-noting has grown in popularity. There are things you can accomplish with your own two hands that you can't do with a template or an app.

True, I love seeing students code. However, I also love seeing students engage in debates and mock trials, singing in the choir, playing an instrument, or doing live theater. I love seeing schools that have gardens. One of the things I love about Tim Lauer's Instagram feed is the sheer number of pictures that take place at the Lewis Elementary School garden. It's a reminder that in a techno-digital age, there is value in feeling the dirt between our hands and watching life grow from virtually nothing.

That's ultimately why I want to see schools embrace the vintage as often as I embrace the latest technological developments. It doesn't have to be either/or. I want to see kids publish to an audience. But sometimes I want that audience to be an audience of one. I want to see kids code. But I also want to see them draw and write and color. I want to see kids create multimedia content. But I also want to see them make stuff with cardboard and duct tape.

I want to see them geek out on the latest gadget, but I also want to see them set the gadget down and geek out on what they're making with their own two hands.

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1/27/16

What Two Cooking Shows Taught Me About Design Thinking

I love geeking out on the creative process. I love seeing the connections I experience in teaching, in writing, in developing web platforms, and in making sketchy videos. However, I also enjoy thinking through creativity in a context that's foreign to me.

See, I'm not much of a cook. I can make an insanely good salsa and a pretty good marinara sauce. However, I don't understand the art or the science of all things culinary. And yet . . . I've always enjoyed watching cooking shows in the same way that I enjoy watching a baseball game or a home renovation show. I love seeing how other people make things.

So, I've been thinking about two cooking shows that differ sharply in their creative process.

The first show is Chopped. Here, three contestants face off in a timed event to win the prize as the best chef. It's sort-of a tamer, faster version of Survivor - one where nobody is eating bugs. Contestants must use the items in their baskets to create a recipe in a short amount of time.  

When I watch Chopped, I am reminded of the power of creative constraint. The chefs are stuck using select items and they're forced to develop a recipe in a matter of minutes. The end result is often a creative fusion of flavors that they might not have attempted if they had spent days developing the recipe.

However, there's a dark side to this creative approach. The pressure from the time constraint and the competition often lead to ridiculous mistakes. Suddenly, an accomplished chef forgets to close the freezer door and the entire dessert fails miserably.

Enter America's Test Kitchen. Here, the approach is the complete opposite. Instead of creating brand new recipes, they take failed recipes and fix them. Instead of being forced to use specific ingredients, they test out tons of different ingredients, saying essentially, "Why not? It wouldn't hurt to try." Rather than testing out a recipe in a matter of minutes, they spend weeks perfecting one specific recipe. And, unlike the cutthroat competition of Chopped, their cooks work collaboratively.

Both shows incorporate design thinking in different ways. The first uses active prototyping, but still begins with empathy and moves into ideating, prototyping, revising, and ultimately launching (a phase that's rarely included in design thinking diagrams but is still a critical part of the process). The second is a much more comprehensive, slower design thinking approach that incorporates more research and deeper revision. The first is more about creating something entirely new from scratch. The second is all about revising and refining.


So, it has me thinking about these two approaches to creativity and design thinking. Chopped is all about constraint and the America's Test Kitchen is about slack. I think they're both necessary in design projects. Sometimes, creative work involves embracing limited resources, limited options, and limited time in order to create something unique. Other times, creative work thrives in a loose atmosphere with a slow, systematic process of experimentation.

In fact, there's a time and a place for using both approaches on the same project. NaNoWriMo is sort-of a Chopped approach to writing a first draft. And it works. However, authors often "leave the freezer open" in the initial push to create something within that deadline. So, at that point, they can embrace an America's Test Kitchen approach to revision.

It has me thinking about how I use design thinking in the classroom. We often do a single-day or even a one-hour design challenge to get students thinking about the design process. In these moments, I want them moving quickly into prototyping. However, students might spend another three or four weeks on a longer, more deliberate design project that involves every part of the cycle.

Both approaches work and both approaches are necessary.

So, what are some ways you've used either constraint or slack to boost creativity in your own work?

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1/26/16

Sketchy Video: There Is No Instruction Manual

Hey, I took a blog post from a few days ago and turned it into a sketchy video. I plan to use it with my students tomorrow night.

I figured I would share it here as well.


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1/25/16

Nine Free Video Writing Prompts to Spark the Love of Writing in Your Students

I believe that writing should be fun. It's not merely a functional activity we have to get through in life. I believe that persuasive, informational, and functional writing should be as fun as writing a story. I believe that all writing is inherently creative and that you can easily embed design challenges into writing (which I included in my latest illustrated writing idea).

This is why I love creating video writing ideas. I used to hand students paragraph-long writing prompts and it felt overwhelming. However, when I first created an illustrated a writing prompt, students were instantly engaged. It was not only more fun. It was also a chance to see and hear the writing idea in a new way.

For this reason, I'm posting all my video writing prompts from the most recent to the oldest. My goal has been to create at least one per month and already I'm above that pace. I watched the videos yesterday and noticed a cool progression in the quality of my doodles and in the level of animation in each video.

You can find them all in this YouTube playlist. They are totally free to use in your classroom. If you find them helpful, the greatest way to pay me back is to try them out with your students and to like the videos, leave a comment, and subscribe the channel.





















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1/23/16

There Is No Instruction Manual . . . And That's a Good Thing


Often, in working with pre-service teachers, someone will ask about the "right" way to do something. The educational system throws around words like "best practices" and "highly qualified," but it doesn't really work that way. There is no guidebook or instruction manual or how-to video for how to be a great teacher, because ultimately teaching is a craft.

The hard part is that it takes years to perfect. The process is often messy and confusing. There are so many moments where, as a teacher, you'll doubt yourself. You'll get frustrated. You'll feel like improvement is slow. It's harder, still, when you screw up. I still cringe at the moments when I yelled at a class or shamed a student and I'm still amazed at how quickly students forgave when I apologized.

And yet . . .

All of those mistakes were a part of learning the craft.

That's the beauty of it. There is no instruction manual. There is no codified list of best practices. That means you get to explore like an astronaut. You get to experiment like a scientist. You get to design like an engineer. You get to make like an artist. Like any other craft, it takes a lifetime to perfect. There's no point where you "have arrived." But there shouldn't be. As a creative teacher, you're always exploring, always experimenting, always innovating.

I feel weird writing that, because I'm a professor and not a K-12 teacher. However, after teaching for three straight days and jotting down notes of what went well and what I would improve, I'm struck by the fact that I'm still learning this craft. I'm still growing. And it's so fun.


A Video Explanation

Here's my sketchy video on this topic. I've been creating a ton of videos. You should check them out on my YouTube Channel.



Are You a Creative Teacher? If so, this might be for you . . .

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1/20/16

Thoughts on Art, Creativity, and Legacy

I'm not the type who gets super-emotional about the death of famous people I've never known. I didn't cry at the death of David Bowie or Alan Rickman.

And yet, I'm thinking of David Bowie and the absolute permission to be weird. There were so many Bowie songs I never got and probably never will. I'll never really connect with anything New Wave. But that permission to be strange was so vital and somehow Bowie's music was the best place for me to discover that. I get it. Bowie was deeply flawed. But I loved - absolutely loved - the way he talked about art and identity and the permission to be odd. I connected with those ideas when I was 13 and I connect with them now at 35.

Be wildly and unabashedly different.


I'm thinking about the death of Glenn Frey right now and I'm flooded with memories of my dad playing the acoustic guitar on our living room shag carpet as we sang "New Kid in Town" and "Take It Easy" and "Peaceful Easy Feeling." I'm struck by the power of an artist in the way they can not only step inside someone else's world but also create memories that will stick with another person forever.

So, there's this deeply humbling realization of art and creativity and legacy. I'm struck by the idea that there are things you believe to your core that you can't explain in a tweet or a blog post. They have to come out in a story or a song. And sometimes you don't see the impact of those words, but that doesn't become any less powerful.

One of the highlights of last year was getting the chance to read the last chapter of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard to a group of students and to realize that they had spent weeks living inside a story I had crafted. It was humbling and powerful and amazing. I never want to forget that.

So, it has me thinking about the classroom. We use terms like "team-building" and "classroom community." But, on some level, we are authors engaging in world-building. We are poets reflecting truth and expanding worldviews. We are artists provoking thoughts and asking questions.

We are musicians in a never-ending jam session, trying to draw out the creative potential of each student. We are David Bowie giving students the permission to be different. Last night, I taught a class with pre-service teachers who are brand new in the program. It felt like a jam session and it was cool to watch future teachers find their voice.

And, just like any other artist, we, as teachers, have this humbling opportunity to enter into our students' lives and be a powerful part of each student's story.

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1/19/16

Think Inside the Box - The Power of Creative Constraint



Think outside the box. It’s a popular idea. It’s the story of the lone artist going away and making something radically different. But what if that’s not always the case? What if creativity isn’t always about thinking outside the box? What it involves thinking differently about the box?

Ever watched a child play with a refrigerator box? It becomes a car, an airplane, a robot suit, a table, and a tunnel. Think of Minecraft or Legos. They are basically variations on stacking boxes. And yet, the simplicity and lack of options actually unleash the power of creativity.

This is the idea of creative constraint.

It’s the notion that innovation happens when you run into barriers that force you to find a new route; that creativity often involves problem-solving and systems-hacking. Yes, creativity can mean an empty canvas or a blank page. But it can also be a roll of duct tape.

Think of Camden Yards or AT&T Ballpark or Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. These places are creative because they were built around quirky spaces. Similarly, chefs have developed some of the most creative recipes when forced to use specific ingredients. Or think of the Apollo 13 engineers who helped the astronauts back to Earth with limited time and resources. Creative constraint is what makes Vine videos and 3 Chord Punk and live theater so fun to experience. It’s also why the plot constraints of the hero’s journey led to the epic Star Wars trilogy.

The point is, life will hand you boxes. But every box is an opportunity to be more creative. It’s all about how you think about it.

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