Are Innovative Breakthroughs Accidental or Do They Require Hard Work?

What do you think of when you hear the term, “Slam Poetry.” My early experiences with slam poetry were not very memorable and usually consisted of overwrought and angry performances. The point they were trying to make was lost on me.

Then, last year, Sarah Kay, a spoken word poet, presented at TED. I was immediately captivated by the words she wrote, the way she organized them, and the way she delivered them. In an instant, my preconceptions about spoken poetry had changed.

Those attending the Thursday session of the NAIS conference were lucky enough to hear her as the closing speaker of the day. Speaking to educators she began with a poem about learning and growing up in New York (it was much more than that).

After her poem, she addressed school leaders about the theme of the conference: innovation. Innovation wasn’t simply bringing something new to the class each day. Innovation required breakthroughs. She described that there were basically two types of breakthroughs. The first kind is one that is accidental. They’re breakthroughs that happen in a moment, or occur when you have an epiphany. Something that fundementally changes they way you thought – a breakthrough that alters a paradigm you once held on to strongly. The other kind of breakthrough she talked about is the kind that requires an incredible amount of effort and time – something you work very hard towards before reaching that breakthrough. Once you get there, these breakthroughs can change your life. Sarah also talked about how children tend to have much of the first kind of breakthroughs, those aha moments. Adults, however, start to forget about accidental breakthroughs and begin to value only those breakthroughs that require hard work. We value that we’ve made on our own because we recognize the hard work to get there. We also tend to dismiss a lot of our own outside-the-box ideas or those that are brought to us by others. Though we embrace children who ask “What if…” questions, we are quick to discredit adults who ask the same or have differing ideas. Rather than be open to a potential breakthrough, adults tend to shut those ideas down and move on with the paradigm they are already comfortable with. Schools across the country are notorious for this, making education reform very difficult. I am not naive. I don’t believe that every new idea warrants merit. But a willingness to listen to them before dismissing them is extremely important.

Sarah Kay also talked about her very first teaching experiences, and how she began from stumbling, falling, and failing to realizing how to deconstruct something that was second nature to her into smaller bits. She claims that whether they are breakthroughs that come through rigorous work, or are accidental, we as educators need to find the balance. We need to

“equip our students  with the skills they will need to overcome obstacles and meet challenges – and we do that through innovation. Through teaching them new ways to approach old problems and old questions. But it’s incredibly important that in doing that, we also make sure to teach them to stay open to the idea of accidental breakthrough – things that they cannot prepare for – only keeping themselves open to the possibility. And so, to do that, we have to live that ourselves.”

She talked about being flexible and the learning that happens in-between. A teacher may have spent hours preparing the best lesson, but if a student steers the class down a meaningful “rabbit hole,” you just might want to go there. For the learning that occurs during those teachable moments are some of the best.

Sarah Kay then ended with a poem about the first person who taught her what it meant to be an educator: her elementary school principal. It’s an incredible 7 minute performance and I highly recommend viewing it.

It’s amazing how the culture of sharing is catching on. For those who were not available to attend the conference that day, so many of these resources are made available. By clicking on the image below, you can view her entire 25 minute keynote.

Doodling Improves Comprehension

I haven’t posted a TED talk in a while, but this one is great short one.

“Studies show that sketching and doodling improve our comprehension — and our creative thinking. So why do we still feel embarrassed when we’re caught doodling in a meeting? Sunni Brown says: Doodlers, unite! She makes the case for unlocking your brain via pad and pen.”

 

What Can a Book Do?

It’s back-to-school time, and it’s always exciting and busy. I love this time of year, and this week has been a great one. We started our all-faculty gatherings this week. Though there’s a lot of work to do, it’s always nice to catch up with colleagues you haven’t seen over the summer and welcome new teachers, getting to know them a little better. It was also a great week as this blog was mentioned on cnn.com. I had never really been interviewed by the media before, so I wasn’t sure how I’d come across. It was a good experience, and I learned a lot. I was thankful for the first aid training we were required to take. I just hope I never have to use CPR on a child. There were numerous good moments this week, but I never expected it to end this way:

From Anita Silvey's Children's Book-a-Day Almanac

In 2004, one of my students announced that they would not be returning to our school. His family would be moving to Italy. As a farewell gift, I gave him the book Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, a children’s mystery that I thought he’d enjoy.

Almost 7 years later, while visiting Seattle, they paid a visit to the school today and presented me with a different book with the same title. It was a photo book of my former student and his younger brother in front of every Vermeer painting. Inspired by the book and taking advantage of living in Europe, they planned many of their vacations around where these paintings were kept and set on a quest to see all 35 undisputed paintings (the 36th is stolen).

It’s always great when former students visit and I get to find out what they’ve been up to. It’s also rather incredible to know a children’s book can inspire such an adventure. Looking through the photo book this evening and seeing a third grader grow into a tenth grader standing next to all those paintings was truly a special way to end the week.

 

Virtual Art

I finally had some time to play with Google’s new “Art Project” site where you can virtually tour 17 art museum around the world. I’ve been very fortunate to have been to 10 of those, and it’s never the same as standing in front of an actual piece and viewing it in person. I’d rather my students actually go and see a piece of art in a local museum or gallery in person. Field trips are an essential part of learning, and while many schools are cutting back due to the recession, many can be had for free. Nonetheless, I have to say that it’s an amazing website and the virtual tours seem like their ‘street view’ in Google maps. Most of the top artworks are available, and if you have a google account, you can start your own collection and save them in the cloud. Unfortunately, there are a few disappointments. One of the biggest impacts I had viewing art was in Madrid, at the Museo Reina Sofia.  It was Picasso’s painting, Guernica. That painting is not available for viewing. Each museum only has a few wings you can tour through. Nonetheless, it’s a great tool for having children respond to art when you can’t get to the Moma in New York, for example. Once you get deep into using the navigation and information tools in the side bar, it’s easy to get caught up in it. There are audio and video guides and notes, but best of all for many of the featured works: you can zoom in possibly closer than you could in the museum without setting off any alarms. Some of the high-res pictures are great for looking at detailed brush strokes. This article from the Boston Globe today about schools cutting back on field trips is quite sad. If the objectives of the field trip are clear, a lot of learning takes place outside the classroom.

The folks at Google are planning to add more museums and wings. And, should the Seattle Art Museum be added, it would be great to have a virtual preview of a place and then have them see it for real in person.  This youtube video below is a good way to get an idea and get started. How else could this be used in education? I look forward to hearing your ideas. I can tell you that this year, the simple ability to project and use Google Earth has made the concepts of continent, ocean, country, and even smaller divisions, much easier for all second graders to grasp, not to mention geographic vocabulary.

 

The Importance of Art in Schools

It’s surprising and disappointing how so many schools choose the arts as one of the first department to go either when times are tough or when they are pressured to increase their scores on achievement tests. It doesn’t take one long to find that these cuts are taking place all over the country: Fort Lauderdale, California (and that was in 2006 when things weren’t as grim) (here’s a more recent story from CA), and even as recently as this past week over in the UK. At least according to the Obama’s art-education platform, it states that …”we should encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education.” This article about the exhibit from the Seattle Times talks about the links art has to “math, science, literature, you name it.” I feel extremely fortunate where I work. When they designed the new school building, they had several local artists contribute to a few pieces around our campus.

Yesterday my students and I had a great day of art. One of Seattle’s local artists, Juan Alonso who created 5 pieces of abstract art around our campus came to talk to the students about what inspired him and about some of the process involved. He also started giving workshops to classes on abstract portraits. I can’t wait until it’s our class’ turn. What I love about abstract art especially is that it is open to interpretation unless the artist actually tells you what inspired him. The sculpture on the right sits in front of our school. I always pictured it as the font of knowledge or something to do with passion. Juan Alonso explained that when he thought of an elementary school, he thought of a child with arms reaching upward. Now every time I see it, I can’t help but think of that.

After our assembly, four classes headed to the Picasso exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. It’s the last week of the exhibit, and I have never seen the place that packed. Rather than battle the crowds and try to see all of it, our wonderful docent selected just a few. She had the kids full attention and began by asking them what they thought they saw. With this kind of open ended question, it was amazing how much effort the children spent looking at the painting, the colors, shapes, etc. and the thoughtful, yet out-of-the-box responses were inspiring. Asking children to inquire about art is no different than what we ask them to do in science. Much of the vocabulary needed to describe Picasso’s work is shared with geometry. Reading about his life and the times, learning about Spain and France, and writing about their experience are natural connections. Our docent was wonderful and asking the right kind of questions forcing the kids to think a little more critically rather than just come up with a one-right-answer response.

Of course, what I loved is that his art is celebrated for breaking the rules, for being a visionary and wanting to push boundaries in art, for leading change rather than following it, and working hard. Some of his paintings were based on hundreds of initial sketches. This exhibit also highlights someone who worked until he was 91. Noticing a couple of my children’s eyes light up when the docent pronounced that Picasso created his art as one would write a diary. You know the kids who want to draw before writing and those who prefer it the other way around. Why not celebrate both kinds of kids and be open to different ways of arriving at the same objective.

The children then took part in a workshop at the museum offered by a teaching artist where they created mixed media collages of portraits using the concept of viewing things from multiple perspectives. The results, though unfinished, were wonderful, unique, and more importantly something they were all proud of. Whether it be the performing or visual arts, schools must make room for it. Visual art promotes multicultural education, critical thinking skills, inquiry, creativity and innovation, math skills, science, literature, and so on.

The exhibit runs for just a few more days until the 17th of January and the museum has extended its opening times until midnight. This was one of those things that wasn’t part of the planned curriculum, but in my opinion, worth doing. It was my third time seeing this exhibit, and I was still awed. I hope some of the children were too. If you don’t mind crowds, you can click on the picture below which will link you to the museum’s website.

The Shadow by Picasso

I ♥ Picture Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have to add this book to my top 10 of 2010 list. I don’t know which book I’d bump out, but this one would definitely make my top 10 … A Sick Day for Amos McGee (Stead/Stead). Simple and sweet with illustrations that evoke picture books of the past. I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in creating caring classroom climates (I apologize for that alliteration. It was completely accidental).

Making Data Beautiful

Making sense of student ERB test scores on a spread sheet can be daunting for some, and after staring at those numbers for a while, make one’s eyes a little blurry. Turning those numbers or any kind of numerical data into something more concrete, like a pie chart or bar graph makes it much easier to read and grasp. Taking it one step further and pairing up with other data could reveal some interesting patterns. For example, with the test scores I mentioned, when comparing them to other schools, what if we were able to include data on the size of the school as well. Would the results change? What is the statistical significance when comparing a school with one class per grade to one that might have 10 classes per grade. Does the sample size change the data set in a way that might be interesting? There are many other ways one can think about data and there has been quite a rise in what is called an infographic: taking the data, adding some design to it, and representing it in a way that can be visualized so it can be easier to understand.

In his TED talk below, David McCandless draws interesting conclusions from complex datasets and pairing them together. So instead of looking at simply what country has the biggest military budget, he might pair that with the country’s GDP and suddenly, the results are quite different. He also has a blog worth checking out called Information Is Beautiful. It’s definitely worth checking out.