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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: My Story
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



Teacher Appreciation: The Two Teachers Who Encouraged Me to Be Creative

In this post, I tell the story of the first time I got to do a truly creative project as a student. This is something I'm passionate about, which is why I'm offering a free, short course called A Beginner's Guide to Design Thinking. Spaces are limited, so sign up now if you're interested.

It began as a project about baseball but ended as a lesson on creativity.

From the outside I didn't look like a student who had given up on school. If anything, I looked engaged. I raised my hand in class. I completely my work. I earned mostly A's and a few B's.

But I wasn't engaged.

Not really.

I don't blame my teachers, either. They tried their hardest working within the system that existed. The truth is I had amazing teachers who taught me most of the necessary skills I needed. I still have fond memories of certain lessons and field trips and novel discussions.

No, the real problem is that I didn't fit in with the system. I wanted to draw pictures and write stories and make things instead of filling out packets and doing reading comprehension questions. By middle school, I had resigned myself to the reality that I would have to limit creativity to the one quarter a year when I got to take an art class. So I tuned out and carved out a world of my own in my mind.

However, in eighth grade, I had two teachers, Mrs. Smoot and Mr. Darrow, who were both my coaches in the National History Day competition. That year, in the midst of the hardest year of my education (dealing with bullying and having a friend commit suicide) I felt known. I felt valued. I felt trusted. But the truth is that I felt known, valued and trusted by other teachers throughout the years.

What made this different had more to do with the learning.  It was also the first time that I felt empowered to do creative work for a real audience. I had never experienced project-based learning and suddenly I had the tools to breakdown tasks, organize ideas, and plan something out. I had never experienced true research and suddenly I was getting a chance to interview former Negro League baseball players. I was a shy kid who was suddenly interviewing strangers. I hated the sound of my own voice and yet I was now speaking in front of a large crowd.

I don't think I realized it until later, but this was the year that I saw firsthand the power of creativity in learning. It wasn't always easy. I remember being in tears over the fact that things weren't turning out right. I remember moments when I wanted to abandon the project altogether. But it was creative -- and that was something that had never been true for me in school before. Creativity had always been something I kept on the side -- something that I had hid on the back of math packets. For the first time ever, my creative work was affirmed and even celebrated.

As I look back at my eleven years of teaching, my hope is that I have been able to do the same with students. I hope I have carved out spaces where creativity can thrive.


5 Tips for Student Portfolios (and a Free Portfolio Project Download)

In my last post, I wrote about what happened to student engagement when I taught a class with no grades. When I mention my thoughts on alternative assessments, the most common response I get is, "Then how do you assess student work?"

One way is through student conferencing. Another way is with student portfolios. I'm a fan of using ongoing portfolios as a way to help students reflect upon both the process and the product. Teachers can carve out time at the end of a unit for students to modify their portfolios based upon new levels of mastery. However, I also see value in students create an end-of-the-year or end-of-the-quarter portfolio.

Five Tips for Student Portfolios

  1. Have students select the work on their own but provide an easy space for them to access all of their former work. It shouldn't feel like a chore. 
  2. Ask students to reflect on both the process and the product. Use reflective questions to guide the process. 
  3. Allow students to choose the medium. If they want to create video or record audio to do their reflections, then that might be the best option. 
  4. Ask for different types of work. I have students select work that proves mastery but also work that shows how much they have grown. 
  5. End with final steps. I love having students create some kind of goal for how they might use what they learned in the future. 

Download the Free Digital Portfolio Project for Students

So with that in mind, I'm sharing my Digital Portfolio Project. Click on the previous link and you can download it for free. If you don't have access to digital tools, you can modify it to do a physical portfolio. I hope you find it helpful.


What happens to student engagement when you take away grades?

Student engagement is on my mind right now due, in large part, to the month-long Classroom Questions podcast series I just finished with AJ Juliani. If you haven't subscribed to it on iTunes, you might want to give it a whirl. Which leads me to my second point. Look for an all-day summer online workshop on student engagement. I'll be sharing the details soon. 

What happens to student engagement when you take away grades?

The short answer is "nothing."

You can go ahead and quit reading the post now. I know. Shortest. Post. Ever.

My third block class is my intervention period. I have students for three to four weeks at a time and design projects that are meant to provide enrichment or support with particular standards. We have no grades in that class. We have no district assessments.

Conventional wisdom suggests that student motivation would stop in that class. After all, with no grades or points or badges, what is there to make students get their work done? The short answer is, "nothing." The class has nothing in place to make a student finish the work. I know of a few intervention teachers who tell students, "I'm still grading this" or "This is pass / fail and I can fail you." But I don't have anything like that in my class. Kids know that we don't have any grades and they still work.

On the other hand, they aren't necessarily working harder or staying more engaged than students in my graded classes. I still have some kids who tune out. I have kids who are slow to get to work. I have kids who don't care in the moment. This sort-of surprised me because of what I have read from the anti-grade folks. Take away the behaviorism and make it meaningful and kids will naturally want to learn. Engagement will be a non-issue, right?

Not really. See, the things that cause students to disengage exist in both classes. There are kids who get bored. There are kids who are hungry. There are kids who get distracted -- if not by something in the class than by something in their world. There are kids who find a specific task too monotonous even when it's part of a cool project. There are kids who get frustrated and want to give up.

I guess this shouldn't surprise me. I battle all the same issues in my own learning. My mind wanders when reading a book. I get frustrated when writing a novel. I hop onto Facebook when there's a line of code that I can't crack. These things are present in project-based classrooms, whether grades are present or not.

The Real Difference

While engagement remains the same in the two classes, there is a distinct difference. The students in the non-graded class are far more creative. Part of it may be the relaxed vibe of the classroom. A grade-free room tends to feel a little less like school. But I have a hunch that there's another reason.

Kids aren't concerned about compliance in a non-graded classroom. Don't get me wrong. There are deadlines. There are creative limitations. There are routines. I believe that limitations can be a part of what makes creativity thrive. However, when grades are gone, students are less likely to worry if they are doing things the "right" way.

I'm not hearing questions like, "How much do I need to get an Exceeds?" or "How much do I need to do to be done?" I'm also not having students call me over and say, "I'm I doing things the right way." In other words, students are far less risk-averse when grades are a non-issue.

There's a freedom to make mistakes so long as they are making something. This, in turn, leads to positive risk-taking and helps create a growth mindset. Without the fear of getting a B instead of an A, students are trying new things. They're doing things differently.

So, while engagement is fairly high in both classes, creativity is thriving in the class without grades.

Looking for More?


Eight Free Photo Sites That Require No Attribution

I'm a strong proponent of respecting copyright. I think artists deserve to be paid for the work that they do. I'm also a fan of using Creative Commons photography in my blog, on my visual writing ideas, and in my presentations. In general, I use the Creative Commons Photo Search to search through Flickr (though sometimes Photopin works great, too).

However, I have also found that there are times when I want to use attribution-free photography. Typically, these are in moments when I want to know that I have complete permission to use the work in a commercial way (such as a keynote). These types of photos fall into the Public Domain / CC0 license. So far, the best overall search for these photos is on Pexels. However, there are a ton of great photos not included in the Pexels search.

1. Gratisphotography

This site, developed by Ryan McGuire, has a distinctly quirky, weird style. The pictures are random and highly expressive. I love using them to add an artistic flair to an inherently professional work. 

2. Unsplash

This is my go-to site. I love the artistry of the photographs. The site leans heavily toward objects and locations and has fewer pictures of people and there's no curation at all (much less tagging, searching, or sorting) but I love the photographs. 

3. Skitterphoto

Unlike Unsplash, Skitter Photo is organized by categories, which makes it easy to navigate. Plus, there are more pictures of people and a broader range of objects. The photos tend to be edited a little more and there's less of a cohesive artistic feel. However, there are some great pictures on the site.

4. Jay Mantri

Jay runs a Tumblr that has a Unsplash-like approach of adding seven new photos every Thursday. I love the variety and his eye for colors and textures. 

5. Pixabay

Pixabay has a massive database of pictures and it's easy to search. Unfortunately, the quality control isn't as good and you have to have an account to download photos. Still, I have found some gems within it.

6. Jeshoots

This site is packed full of sleek, modern pictures. It's easy to search and sticks with user-friendly categories (people, devices, etc.) The pictures tend to be closer to stock photography and in some cases there are spaces built in for editing (i.e. green screen for devices). 

7. Splitshire

The photos on this site tend to be higher contrast with darker colors, giving them an edgier feel. You get an interesting blend of the stock photo style with ones that are more abstract and artistic. The categories work well and I love the variety. However, the site can sometimes be slow to load.

8. Public Domain Pictures

This site has a large variety. However, there isn't as much of a quality control process in terms of image size or quality of composition. It's a place I go to when I haven't found something on another site. Just like Pixabay, it requires you to register in order to get the highest quality images.

Honorable Mentions:

The following are some of the sites that have public domain photos but have certain limitations as well.
  • Old Book Illustrations: This isn't really a photo site. However, sometimes it can be cool to add an old public domain illustration to a presentation. 
  • One Million Free Pictures: This site has some great pictures, but it's hard to navigate.
  • Morguefile: They have an interesting license that requires you to modify the photo. However, they don't require attribution.
  • USA.gov: There are some great photos here but you have to sort through a ton of stuff to find what you want. Also, there's a disclaimer that some of their photos might be subject to Copyright. 
  • My Public Domain Photos: While the variety is great, the quality of the photos really varies and there's not much of a process for sorting between which ones are great and which ones aren't.

Looking for More?

This is one of a series of blog posts I'm doing on the topic of getting started with teacher blogging. Please fill out this form and I'll send you details on the FREE Blog Like a Nerd webinar that I'll be doing with AJ Juliani. It's going to be awesome -- like bacon-wrapped bacon kind of awesome.


Five Ways to Create a State of Flow in the Classroom

We've all seen it before. A student suddenly gets "in the zone" in the midst of a project. (It's even better when it happens with an entire class.) Time seems to simultaneously slow down and yet speed up all at once. There's a sense of challenge and urgency but also a sense of relaxation. You can feel it intuitively. Something is different.

This state of optimal concentration is often described as "flow."

I experience this place most often in creative work. I get lost in what I'm doing. I seem to be "zoned in" to the code or the design or the plot structure. There's a sense that everything just fits right. Unfortunately, I see this happen more outside of the classroom than inside of it. I see kids hitting a state of flow on the basketball court or in theater or at a skate park.

I like the way Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,  author of the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, describes what “flow” looks and feels like:

The flow experience is when a person is completely involved in what he or she is doing, when the concentration is very high, when the person knows moment by moment what the next steps should be, like if you are playing tennis, you know where you want the ball to go, if you are playing a musical instrument you know what notes you want to play, every millisecond, almost. And you get feedback to what you’re doing. That is, if you’re playing music, you can hear whether what you are trying to do is coming out right or in tennis you see where the ball goes and so on. So there’s concentration, clear goals, feedback, there is the feeling that what you can do is more or less in balance with what needs to be done, that is, challenges and skills are pretty much in balance.

So, I've been reading up on the theory of flow and consciously trying to create an environment where this happens in my classroom. I'm still learning. I'm still trying to figure this out. However, I've grown passionate about this topic over the last two years. With that in mind, I've found a few things that seem to work in my classroom:

1. Slow down. Provide longer learning opportunities with fewer interruptions. 

In my first few years of teaching, I thought student engagement required an action-packed classroom. I didn't realize that my frantic pace was actually getting in the way. Students never had the chance to focus in a leisurely, relaxed way. Since then, I've realized it's less about action and more about suspense. If there's a true challenge that feels meaningful to students, they are more likely to stay focussed and get lost in what they are doing.

2. Provide the right scaffolding as you match the challenge to the skill level.

One of the key ideas in flow theory is that the challenge has to match a student's perceived ability level. Too often, kids give up because what they are doing is way too difficult and there is a sense that they will never learn it. Other times, students are bored and the excessive scaffolding becomes a hurdle they have to climb over. This is why I try and differentiate the scaffolding I offer by keeping it optional and treating it like something students can use rather than something they are required to use.

3. Provide boat loads of choices.  

It's not surprising that students hit a state of flow when they are out on the ball field or in a theater or while playing an instrument. Not only do they feel competent (because of the right amount of scaffolding) but they also love what they are doing. I can get lost in writing a novel. I will never get lost in the moment of fixing a sprinkler system. This is where student choice becomes so valuable. Students get to decide topics and tasks that fit their own interests.

4. Restrict the choices.  

This is the opposite approach to the last one. It's the idea that certain restrictions can lead to creative breakthroughs. I've seen students get into a place of flow because they are focussed on solving a problem using limited resources. Here, they discover that freedom and choice are not synonymous and that sometimes limitations lead to opportunities.

5. Integrate mindfulness and metacognition into the projects. 

I want students to know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing. This begins with students internalizing a rationale for the project. It has to feel meaningful to them. However, it also requires a state of mindfulness in the moment. I want students to be able to figure out the progress they are making in the moment and adjust when needed.

Looking for More?

  • We talked about this topic of flow on Classroom Questions. You can check them out on Episodes 25, 26, and 27.
  • Check out this post from AJ Juliani. I love what he has written on this subject.
  • I really enjoyed The Rise of Superman. It's a quick and accessible. I also loved Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, though it's a bit heady.  If you don't already have it, I highly recommend reading eBooks with the free Kindle Reading App. It's become a handy way for me to read books when I'm stuck in lines (instead of mindlessly searching through Facebook).
  • Finally, here's slideshow on a session I've given regarding the theory of flow. If you're interested in having me lead a training or workshop on this topic, please fill out the contact form at the bottom of this post. 


    Pay-What-You-Want Resources

    Each week, I will be posting one resource to this space. Simply click on the link and pay what you want. Free is fine (no guilt, no shame, I promise) but you can also pay what you want for a resource. If you are interested in getting the resources sent to your mailbox each weekend, simply subscribe to the newsletter.  Here is what I've posted so far:

    Alternative Assessments

    Creative Alternatives to Homework

    Parent Engagement


    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.


    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. 


    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.

    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.


    Are you a teacher, leader, or parent interested in creativity and learning? Sign up for my newsletter to get my latest posts along with a free weekly resource on creativity and learning.

    John Spencer
    As a teacher and a dad, I want to see my 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 help teachers create more engaging and creative spaces where students fall in love with learning. This passion is what has driven me for eleven years as a middle school teacher.


    Get in touch with me