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John Spencer

Teacher. Speaker. Author. Incessant doodler.

I like to make stuff.


About Me

I'm a teacher, author, keynote speaker, and incessant doodler in Phoenix, Arizona. Here's where I share my thoughts on teaching, learning, and the creative journey. Feel free to contact me:
Email: john@educationrethink.com
Twitter: @spencerideas
Podcast: Classroom Questions
About Me
John Spencer

My Passion for Creativity

I want to see kids embrace creativity. Over the years, this has meant mural painting, documentaries, STEM camps, and coding projects.

It's also why I co-wrote Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and co-founded Write About. I am convinced that design thinking can thrive in every content area.

Latest Posts

RANDOM IDEAS ON LIFE, TEACHING, AND THE CREATIVE JOURNEY


4/22/15

Why My To Do List Had to Change (And What I Did About It)



I love projects. I love planning and building and making. I love dreaming up a new thing and then seeing if I can learn how to make it. I love the moment when I step back and look at a finished product and think, “I can’t believe it turned out like that.”

However, if I’m not careful, I can forget that life is more than a series of projects. If I’m not careful, I find myself diving into multiple projects and getting lost in the making stuff only to realize that I am productive and creative and lonely. Often, it’s because I have underestimated how much time a project will take and overestimated my ability to get stuff done.

I hit this point recently. After releasing The Fireproof Teacher, I started working on a TEDx outline and plowing through the chapters in a book I'm writing for Corwin. I was also writing articles for the Susan Cain blog (due out soon). In the midst of this, I decided that I needed a site redesign and then when I wasn’t satisfied with it, I decided to add a second redesign.

On top of that, I realized that I had underestimated what Write About would mean. A year ago, I viewed it as a small side project. Now I’m realizing the time and commitment it will take to help ensure that this business is successful.

So, about a week ago, I looked at my to do list. It was growing like a hydra – packed full of things that were urgent but not necessarily vital to the life I wanted to live. I stared at this list and realized that I had five urgent items that I needed to do and yet it had been three evenings in a row where I hadn’t played at all with my kids. At first I thought, “Well, I’ll just push through a short period of being busy so that I can relax later.”

Then it hit me. There will never be an un-busy “later.” There will always be a new project. There will always be a new opportunity. There will always be "just one more thing." Always. But my kids won't always be kids.


So, I did something different. I added to my to do list. I know this sounds counterintuitive but I added new items that truly mattered. I added items like “Go on a walk when the kids go to bed” and “play astronaut with Brenna” and “kick the soccer ball around with Joel” and “draw something with Micah.” Next, I put these items in the "urgent" side of my to do list.

After a few days of this, I found myself turning down a few opportunities that came up. I gave myself longer deadlines on things like books and articles. I figured out ways to automate some of my work for Write About. I blogged a little less frequently (I think I wrote 2-3 posts last week) and found myself stepping away from social media unless I really had something to say. I took all notifications off my phone and deleted the Facebook app.

I have a lingering thought that I’ve always known to be true and yet somehow still manage to forget:

I have never regretted a moment spent outside. I have never regretted a game of catch or a pillow fort or a leisurely hour listening to a longwinded description of a day at school. I have never regretted a game or astronauts or ponies or a meandering science project. Those are the things that make a life epic.

4/21/15

Why Consuming Is Necessary for Creating

I have never met a musician who says, "Yeah, I don't really like to listen to music."



Note: This post is heavily influenced by William Chamberlain's post. He is one of the deepest, most genuine people I know. 

I often hear the mantra, "Kids should be creating, not consuming." It's a comment people make when talking about gaming, maker spaces, STEM labs or STEAM labs (or METS labs -- the kind that start out great and end up failing). I've heard this phrase in keynotes and Edcamps.

I get it. 

Kids need to make stuff. They need to design things. They need to be creative. I'm passionate about all of those things. Whether it's blogging or documentaries or murals or coding projects, I've always geeked out about design thinking. 

And yet . . .

Every person I know who does creative work is also a wise consumer. I've never met an engineer who says, "Screw reading and research. I just want to make stuff." I've never seen an artist who says, "Yeah, I don't really like galleries or canvases or any of that. I just like making things." I've never met an author who says, "You know, reading just isn't my thing." 

The truth is that consuming well is a part of how we develop a taste for what we like. It's part of how we gain information. It's part of how we fall in love with an art or a science or a craft. And it's not just true of adults. I see it with my own kids. They nearly always want to paint or sculpt after going to a museum. They often want to write their own stories after reading novels. The same is true of my students. The act of creating is often the result of consuming. 

In many cases, the work starts out as derivative. They see something awesome and say, "I want to make that, too." But then something happens. They find a voice or a style or an approach that is distinctly theirs and over time it becomes more and more refined while also become more and more their own. 

I noticed this trend when listening to the Tim Ferris Show. One of the common themes I notice among incredibly creative people is that they are also consumers. Big time. They read like crazy. They often watch more movies than you would think. But they do these things with a certain mindfulness and intentionality that I want to see with my kids.

So it has me thinking about the claim that "Kids should be creating, not consuming." I'm not sure I agree with that statement. 

The truth is I want kids to consume. However, I want them to consume well. I want them to consume with intentionality and mindfulness. I want them to consume with wisdom. I want them to consume with a gratitude toward the craft. I want them to consume in a way that leads to interest and passion. I want them to develop a taste for quality work in whatever field it is they are geeking out about. 

What I don't want is blind consumption. I don't want them to consume without thinking. Instead, I want them to think well about what they consume, why they consume it, and whether or not that's something they want to make on their own. 

4/20/15

Does This Impact Student Learning?

How much time are we wasting chasing after phones?



I have a reputation on campus as the “fun teacher” or the “loose teacher” or the rebel who doesn’t follow rules. I find this odd because my class is pretty quiet. There’s usually a gentle buzz while the students work. It’s relaxed, yes, but there is also a high level of engagement. When I’m talking, the devices are down, the class is silent, and most students are giving eye contact. There are clear expectations and students almost always follow them.

Despite this, I am still considered “loose” with rules. I don’t care if a student has a cell phone out. I hardly notice a dress code violation. I don’t have a rule on the number of times a student uses the restroom in a week. When a student is hungry, I allow him or her to walk away from the computers and eat something. I’m sure my students chew gum based upon the wrappers I’ve seen in the trash.

It’s not that I try to be defiant about school rules. It’s just that I’m more concerned with whether or not students are learning than whether or not they are hiding gum in their mouths. I would rather track progress toward mastery than track the number of times someone needs to use the restroom in a week. As a student walks into my classroom, I am not paying attention to the color of a polo shirt. I’m usually saying, “Good morning” or “Good afternoon,” or “How did your volleyball game go?”

The bottom line is this:

If I’m thinking about rules, the first question should always be “Does this impact learning?” If the answer is no, then chances are it’s not important.


I can’t help but wonder how much time is wasted when schools focus on discipline issues that have nothing to do with student learning. I’ve seen teachers take ten minutes to force a class to march silently in a row until they “get it right.” I’ve seen stacks of detention slips for every student caught with gum. I’ve seen ridiculous power struggles that began with a question of whether jeans were truly navy blue or if they were, indeed, black.

But it’s more than just wasted time. When we focus on trivial rules, we send students the message that compliance and triviality are more important than relationships and learning. We create climates of incessant nagging. The end result is a quiet rebellion among students or a loss of agency in one’s learning.

4/15/15

Five Types of Creative Teachers



I often hear people describe a certain type of teacher as being "so creative." That teacher developing lessons from scratch is "so creative." Or that teacher who turned a boring spelling activity into a vocabulary karaoke game is "so creative." Or that teacher with the thematic classroom bulletin boards is "so creative."

Sometimes, this term has a negative connotation. "His desk is messy. He's one of those creative types." Other teachers nod their heads. Or maybe, "She's one of those creative types who gets angry when she is forced to teach someone else's curriculum."

But I've been thinking about creativity a lot lately and I think we tend to have a narrow view of the creative potential at a school. It seems that creativity is often viewed as a teacher who is artistic. The creative teacher is the one who is doing things wildly different. And sometimes "different" shows up just like that with air quotes.

However, from my experience, creativity can manifest itself in different ways on campus. So, here are five types of creative teachers that I've noticed. I'm guessing there are other types that I might be missing.

1. The Artist

This teacher loves to create things from scratch. It's less about systems or structures and more about designing actual content that kids will love. It isn't just the lessons or projects. The walls are often covered with things created by the teacher or students. For this teacher, creative autonomy is vital and discussions about data or systems feels cold and sterile.

2. The Geek

This teacher is creative in the sense of being fascinated by stuff and constantly working to tweak things. Systems and structures are as fascinating as ideas and content. This teacher wants to make something new but also wants to explore existing models and monitor effectiveness with data (albeit data that is actually accurate and meaningful). The Geek might not always look creative compared to the Artist because the new things he or she creates don't always have an overtly artistic flair. However, he or she is just as much a maker and a creator as anyone else.

3. The Architect

Like the Geek, the Architect loves making new systems. There is often a combination of bold ideas mixed with a love of theory and understanding of pre-existing structures. However, in many cases, the Architect isn't viewed as being a "creative type" because he or she relies on the collaborative work of other creative types. My current principal is like this. He is able encourage and inspire others to do creative things by setting up structures to make it happen.

4. The Engineer

This type of teacher tends to focus on fixing problems. So, the history text sucks? How can we fix it? How can we add something new? What can we replace? There's a sort-of Mythbusters hypothesis-testing that drives the creativity. Unlike the Artist, this teacher doesn't have to reinvent the wheel every time. If there's a great resource out there that works, why bother make something new? After all, the creativity is found in the constant sense of trying, testing, analyzing and refining that goes on with the Engineer.

5. The Hacker

While the Artist often thrives in creating something new within the system, the Hacker is a little more subversive, actively working against the things that are broken in order to create something better. The Hacker finds creative ways to turn things upside down. Sadly, in many systems, the Hacker is seen as destructive and people miss the creative work being accomplished.

Final Thoughts

So, as I look at my school, I see teachers that fit each of these categories. In some cases, people are both (i.e. The Geeky Artist or the Hacker-Engineer). And I'll be the first to admit that categories and labels always break down at some point. However, there is value in recognizing the diversity in the types of creative teachers that exist at a school. The best communities I have seen are ones where people respect the creative contributions of all teachers -- even if the style or approach seems odd.

4/12/15

Phoenix, Portland, and the Creative Power of Limitations

Phoenix doesn't have Voodoo Donuts. That's a shame.


There's a deeply cultural idea that freedom and opportunity are the key ingredients to creativity. We use terms like "think outside the box" to describe the wild ones who abandon (or even blow up) the systems and make something new. We tend to view creative types as trailblazers going out and doing things that are radically different. In education, it's the idea behind Genius Hour and un-schooling and open designs and personalized learning.

I see a place for space and freedom and opportunity. However, I've been thinking lately about the creative power of limitations. Instead of thinking outside the box, it's the idea of repurposing the box. It's the idea of working inside of systems in ways that people don't expect. It is the notion that maybe the way to look forward is look backward and recover something that we lost.

It has me thinking about cities. I live in a place where buildings are regularly demolished and replaced by whatever the newest trend has to offer. It's a place where growth continues to the furthest area of the wilderness; a city of massive, sprawling suburbs, each master planned to offer a better experience for homeowners. Phoenix is a place built on space and freedom and novelty. And yet, it is one of the least creative cities I have ever seen.

I contrast this to a city like Portland. It is a bastion of weird. It is a place packed with creative energy. And yet, Portland is a landlocked city where growth has to happen inside the box. It's a place where old factories become artist lofts. It's a city where an old church or school becomes a place with craft brew. Whereas Phoenix razes buildings to embrace novelty, Portland repurposes places while embracing all things vintage and hand-crafted.

In other words, Phoenix is a place of endless possibilities and the end result is an enormous, bland, sprawling master-planned city. Portland is a land of limitations and the end result is a bastion of creativity.

I get it. Portland isn't for everyone. People mock it for all of its conspicuous and sometimes even pretentious hipsterhood. But it is also a place where creativity thrives due in large part to the fact that it is less about thinking outside the box and more about repurposing the box. It is a place where the limitations have becomes an asset and where being landlocked and anti-growth has led to a growth in creativity.

photo credit: Voodoo delish via photopin (license)

4/10/15

That's Not Why We Make Things



Maker spaces, design thinking, and project-based learning have somehow become trendy lately. While I find it exciting that certain things that were once considered obsolete or even vintage are now being revived, I can't help but cringe at the defense for why we need makers.

I hear phrases like, "We need to raise up the next creative class" or "Seventy percent of the jobs our students will work don't even exist yet." That last statement feels odd because it is never given with context and seems wildly speculative. It's a bit like saying, "Ninety percent of fairies don't exist." And given our collective inability to get an NCAA Tournament bracket right, I can't help but think maybe the entire global economy might be a little too complicated to predict accurately.

But it's more than that. There seems to be this driving idea that creativity and innovation will work as the ultimate drivers in keeping America's economy strong. It's the idea that if kids can master coding or hook up wires to bananas, maybe, just maybe, we will get a few more years as a superpower. This is often coupled with a fear that if we don't fix the system kids will be woefully unprepared for jobs . . . that don't exist yet.

What if that's the wrong focus?

Right now, I teach programming and logic. In the past, I created maker spaces. I've always pushed design thinking and slowly evolved into a deeper understanding of project-based learning. But I don't do it to prepare kids for jobs that don't exist yet. I don't do these things to strengthen our economy. I don't do these things out of fear that my students might get screwed up.

I encourage creativity because it matters - not to the world or to the future or to the economy, but to the students. Right now. In this moment, it matters. And it matters because we are naturally creators. We are makers. It's part of what makes us human. It's part of what makes life worth living. It's not a new thing and it isn't suddenly important just because factories are being shipped away. Creativity has always mattered and it always will.

When kids are designing a video game or making an arcade out of cardboard or building a circuit board, they're not thinking about how we can beat China. They're not thinking about a job that doesn't exist. They're thinking about the joy of making stuff. Ultimately, that's why we make stuff. Because, it's fun and it's human and it's a part of how we learn.

photo credit: Arduino Day at WeMake via photopin (license)

4/8/15

The Power of Student Conferencing


It's funny how much can be accomplished with a simple five-minute conversation. It can be a chance to guide students in self-reflection, help provide needed advice, or work provide a chance to review mastery of standards. This is why I tend to schedule short, five-minute conferences with students in each class period. If you're interested in the Five-Minute Conferencing System,  you can download it here and pay what you want (from free to whatever you feel like paying).

The concept is simple. I plan out three to four mini-conferences per class period each day. This generally allows me to meet with each student individually once every two weeks. To be honest, it's been harder for me to do conferences this year because I have been distracted. I'm going to start back on conferences today.

Back when I taught self-contained (all subjects to one group) I met with each student once a week. I knew I could spare 30 minutes a day spread out in order to see every student one-on-one each week. I found the following things to be true:
  1. I get the chance to know the students on a more personal level. This allows for a better approach to differentiated instruction.
  2. Students feel known on a deeper level, which then increases trust. This, in turn, leads to a higher level of student self-efficacy and helps prevent discipline issues. But it's more than that. Before doing one-on-one conferencing, I was accidentally ignoring some of the quiet kids who were doing just fine in class. This helps guarantee that I meet with each student.  
  3. Students are empowered to ask questions about their work and to reflect upon both the product and the process. My students tend to know how they are doing in my class because of the weekly conferences.
  4. This saves time for me. Every conference is essentially a chance for ongoing formative assessment. As a result, I spend less time grading (especially leaving feedback on student work).
  5. It allows me to thrive as an introverted teacher. I need this time one-on-one with students because the large crowd can feel exhausting.

How to Approach It

Here are some of the practical / logistical things I have found with this:
  • Find the best moments where kids can be talking to each other while working independently. This allows for the class to work at a buzzing, not-too-loud noise level while I talk to students individually. I find that the warm-up and project times work best for this.
  • Find the right location. I have a spot in front of the board where I have a standing center. I look out at the class and stand directly next to the student in the conference. We share a laptop computer screen as we discuss the questions.
  • Give students specific days when they know they will have a conference. This allows students to feel prepared ahead of time.

The Three Types of Conferences

The following are the three types of conferences I use with students:
  • Advice Conference: This conference is all about learning specific skills that students are missing. Each student must ask the teacher a series of questions based upon an area where he or she is struggling. This is a chance for targeted one-on-one attention and explicit help with a strategy. Students guide the process, tapping into the teacher’s expertise. This has the added bonus of encouraging students to embrace the idea that mistakes as a part of the learning process. It sets up a classroom culture where every student must be humble enough to admit that they are still struggling in some area of reading.
  • Reflection Conferences: Instead of telling students what to do, the goal is to draw out student reflection. The teacher uses a series of reflective questions to lead students through the process of meta-cognition and into the setting and monitoring of goals. As the year progresses, the teacher asks fewer follow-up questions and the students begin sharing how they are doing without the aid of pre-chosen questions.
  • Assessment Conference: Unlike the reflection conference, the focus here is less about reflecting on the process and more about students judging their own mastery of the content. We use the Standards-Based Assessment Grid (attached to the resource you can download) as a way to figure out the level of mastery on particular standards.


Feedback Conference
Reflection Conference
Assessment Conference
The Focus
Targeted help / instruction in specific areas of reading
Guiding students toward self-reflection
A conversation about the mastery of standards
Role of the Student
Ask questions and seek out specific feedback
Answer questions and reflect on his or her learning
Talk about progress toward specific standards
Role of the Teacher
Answer questions with accuracy and precision and allow for students to practice a strategy under supervision
Ask questions, paraphrase answers and guide students toward self-reflection
Asks questions about progress and share information based upon evidence of student work.
Further Application
Students leave with actionable steps to fix a particular work
Students can select the strategies and plan for future improvement based upon self-reflection.
Students can figure out what standards still need to be mastered and how to get there
Role in Cultivating a Growth Mindset
Every student has a chance to admit to failure and learn from it
Every student has a chance to articulate areas where they are growing and where they still need to grow
Every student is able to realize that there are as many retakes as necessary until they master the standards




4/6/15

Should We Focus on the Process or the Product?

Often the destiny drives the journey.



When I first dove into project-based learning, I remember saying, "It's not about the product. It's about the process." I wanted students to love the journey and appreciate every part of it. I wanted to see what skills they developed as a result. I wanted students to make sense out of what they did rather than simply assess what they created.

However, I've been rethinking this lately. I like to make stuff. I enjoy the journey. I love the process. However, in just about every creative endeavor, it has been the product rather than the process that drove me. It was this picture in the back of my mind of what I wanted to make. The focus was never on the journey. It was always the destination.

If anything, I've found that the process changes depending upon the product. The journey is always unpredictable but the destination is something that remains fixed. 


For example, when writing a novel, I have a process.  I have a set of outlines that I created. I have character studies that I create. I have a set time when I sit down to write. But those are bound to change depending upon the place the story takes me. I am constantly writing, rewriting and revising in a way that feels messy. But it doesn't matter. The focus isn't on the process. It's all about the story and how it turns out in the end.

Similarly, when working on Write About we had a process starting with sketching out plans and doing market testing. However, our goal was always the product. It still is. We want to make this digital publishing platform as good as it can possibly be. The process matters but it's secondary to the product.

So what happens when a product tanks? We're supposed to learn from the process, right? It's all part of the journey. Except, here's another reality: when you pour your heart into a project and it turns out bad, it sucks. You learn from it. But more importantly, you learn from the product. You look at what didn't work and you make something better. It's a humbling, almost soul-crushing thing. And it almost never ends with, "Well, the product isn't great but the process was nice."

It has me thinking about classrooms. I think there's a place for thinking about the process about the product. This is true with a math problem, for example. It's also often true when kids are doing research and the process can help them explore and discover what their product will be. I think there's a valid place for starting with a process to build the knowledge that will lead to a product.

However, when pushing design thinking or project-based learning, I'm wondering if maybe we need more of a focus on the product and less of a focus on the process. I'm not suggesting the process doesn't matter. But it seems like the product should be driving the process and not the other way around.

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4/3/15

Why I Do the Same Student Projects Over Again



I once gave the advice to new teachers that they should rip apart their lesson plans at the end of the year. I said something to the extent of "If you're doing the same unit in two years that you were doing this year, you are making yourself irrelevant."

It was an arrogant, bold claim coming from a mindset that we always need to be pushing harder, working tirelessly and trying radically new things all the time. Be innovative. Be bold. Be wild. Break out of the factory walls of industrial education and whatnot.

I get it. We need to be trying new things. But there's this other side that also matters. We need to be evolving. We need to be refining our craft. Yes, I want to try projects that are entirely new just to see if it works. However, there's also a place for taking what didn't work and fixing it. There's also a place for taking what worked and improving it. And there's a place for taking what is working well and tweaking it.

If it truly is about refining craft as teachers, there's something powerful about a time-tested project that teachers modified year after year. I get it. Each group is different. The times change. And yet, there's something to be said about things that are classic and sustainable. A great project is a great project. There's something powerful about taking what works and modifying it based upon the identity and interests of each new student I get.

Right now, I'm doing a project that is time-tested, another that is a revision of a past project and then one that is entirely new. I have a group of students working on a blogging project. I knew ahead of time that it would work. I've spent ten years refining the process with students. I have another project, the Scratch Video Game Project that I'm revising based upon how badly it tanked last year. It's still far from amazing. I'm still reflecting on all the screw-ups I'm making along the way. I'm about to start a global collaborative project that I've never done before.

If I want to be creative as a teacher, I think I need a mix of all three types of projects. The first kind improves my craft and quality while keeping me confident. The second kind helps me to think reflectively and learn the art of fixing what's broken. The last kind humbles me and reminds me that I'm still figuring out how to be a teacher after eleven years.

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Creative Work

Here are some of my projects.


Write About

I co-founded Write About, a digital publishing platform with custom groups, a suite of teacher feedback tools, and hundreds of audio-visual writing ideas.

Classroom Questions

AJ Juliani and I started a daily podcast that answers real questions from teachers in a short, fun, and practical way.

Free Course: Getting Started with Design Thinking

I am currently working on a course to help teachers use design thinking across all content areas. Look for it this summer! Sign up ahead of time here.

Wendell the World's Worst Wizard

My wife and I wrote a book about a non-magical wizard who becomes the unlikely hero who must save his enchanted village with the power of creativity and robotics. It's been a surprise success, with classrooms all over the world using it as a read aloud.

Pay-What-You-Want Resources

I have been releasing one free resource per week to all newsletter subscribers. Once the schoolyear is over, I plan to add these to a pay-what-you-want resource page.

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John Spencer
I'm a speaker, author, and teacher in Phoenix, Arizona. I want to see kids embrace creativity. It's why I co-wrote Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and co-founded Write About. It's also why I want to think creatively about teaching and learning.I want to see kids embrace creativity. It's why I co-wrote Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and co-founded Write About. It's also why I want to think creatively about teaching and learning.

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