Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Finding the Heart of Nonfiction

Sharing a few highlights from Finding the Heart of Nonfiction.

If students are writing a "research report" or any informative writing, they must figure out how to transfer knowledge so readers can grasp, understand, and even experience the information (Heart).

The passions of the writer must come through to support the wonder and awe of the reader (Heart). 

Humanity and warmth are the essence of good nonfiction.  Do the words sound like they were written by an author?  Does the text have a voice?  Do the words invite the reader in?  do they make the reader feel passionate about or interested in a topic that she didn't care about before? (Heart)

Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud.  Get their voice and their taster into your ear- their attitude toward language (Heart).

Similarly, when I write nonfiction I try to communicate ideas, information, and facts by painting images with words- scenes that the reader can see in his mind, scenes that show rather than tell information (Heart).

No matter what the subgenre, a nonfiction writer's goal is to help the reader experience what he is describing.  Rick Bragg, a journalist for the New york Times, gives his advice to young writers:  "I tell people to always be looking.  I know that sounds a little absurd, but you just keep your eyes open, soak in how something smells or tastes or sounds (Heart)."

The doorway into a writer's experience is through the physical world.  Nonfiction writers use sensory and descriptive words that can make the reader see, touch, hear, smell and even taste (Heart). 

Creativity Inc.

Sharing a few highlights from Ed Catmull's Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration .

What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.

Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.

Several phrases would later be coined to describe these revolutionary approaches—phrases like “just-in-time manufacturing” or “total quality control”—but the essence was this: The responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee, from the most senior manager to the lowliest person on the production line. If anyone at any level spotted a problem in the manufacturing process, Deming believed, they should be encouraged (and expected) to stop the assembly line. Japanese companies that implemented Deming’s ideas made it easy for workers to do so: They installed a cord that anyone could pull in order to bring production to a halt. Before long, Japanese companies were enjoying unheard-of levels of quality, productivity, and market share.

We realized that our purpose was not merely to build a studio that made hit films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions.

Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture—one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality, and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable that became—wasn’t a singular assignment.

Because too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.

Find, develop, and support good people, and they in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas

We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. And this is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process—reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul.

Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality). And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning, I also acknowledge that acknowledging this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to screw up our understanding of its worth. To disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognize both the reality of the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth

Experiments are fact-finding missions that, over time, inch scientists toward greater understanding. That means any outcome is a good outcome, because it yields new information. If your experiment proved your initial theory wrong, better to know it sooner rather than later. Armed with new facts, you can then reframe whatever question you’re asking

While experimentation is scary to many, I would argue that we should be far more terrified of the opposite approach. Being too risk-averse causes many companies to stop innovating and to reject new ideas, which is the first step on the path to irrelevance.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Fostering Creativity

I came across three videos which call into question whether we are fostering  spaces in our schools where creativity can flourish. In the first two videos both students raise concerns about public education and whether the traditional structure, which still governs how students progress through a K-12 system, stifles creativity and never truly embraces individual interests.  The third video talks to the idea of following a personal passion.  The joy with which Clark Little talks about his passion for shooting waves is infectious.  I often wonder about what the outcomes would be if the focus were more on helping students pursue a passion.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Idea For Next Year

Yesterday was the last day of school for students and teachers until September.  Before teachers walked out the door I shared the following post with K-5 teachers from Fast Company on how making connections fosters creative thinking.

"that knowledge alone is not useful unless we can make connections between what we know. Whether you use the terms “knowledge” and “experience” to explain the difference or not, the concept itself is sound.
Lots of great writers, artists and scientists have talked about the importance of collecting ideas and bits of knowledge from the world around us, and making connections between those dots to fuel creative thinking and new ideas."
Over the past year, K-5 teachers have started to reflect on the elementary school experience and begin to wonder whether what else could occasion for students.  A common thread amongst elementary school teachers is trying to cultivate interdisciplinary learning environments.  To an extent, the departmentalization of subjects exists in our K-5 classrooms.  Teachers would like to explore how to break down barriers between subjects and fuse disciplines together.  I thought the article from Fast Company spoke to the need to develop integrated experiences for students and shared it to further reflection over the summer months.
Last night I received the following response from a 1st grade teacher.
I loved this. Here's an  idea for the elementary principals per this article: Distribute small spiral flip notebooks and shiny new pencils to all staff members at the first faculty meeting to encourage the practice of recording ideas. Have staff members share their ideas  at the beginning of staff meetings.
As much as I push for the use of technology as  vehicle to exchange ideas between colleagues, I appreciate the simplicity of providing teachers with a blank notebook and inspiring the idea within our staff to record what one observes/dreams/thinks and more so what one wonders.  It would be intriguing to have a significant mass of teachers and administrators commit to journaling next year and to periodically share random or not so random thoughts with one another. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


From Stanford 2025 Project:


Stanford also revolutionized the transcript, an obsolete, retrospective, and metadata-poor record of time spent, rather than skill or knowledge acquired. 

It was replaced by the “skill-print,” a unique, living artifact of competencies that became a coveted tool for employers to assess the potential of a candidate. Stanford students were aggressively recruited for their versatility and their ability to learn and adapt as rapidly as their companies and organizations evolved. 

Though many students continued to work within existing organizations, the majority began charting new career paths and defining new roles that did not exist when they entered their undergraduate experience.

The rallying cry upon the inception of this paradigm shift was “Get off your axis!” AXIS FLIP: It’s not what you know. It’s how you use it.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Worth Reading...

Passing along a few interesting posts.  

1. Looking at Student Work With MathMistakes.org (Reich)- Harvard ed professor talks about cultivating in future teachers a desire to examine and talk about student work.  This is more than just glancing at student work but developing a meaningful professional conversation around student product.

In my Introduction to Education class, one of my goals is for students to get a sense of the value of looking at student work. Not just glancing at it, reading it, or grading it, but really trying to understand what we can learn about students' thinking by examining their performances. 

2. Pace Final- a final exam from an AP Lit teacher.  I appreciate the reflective presence embedded into this final exam.

Create a product of your choosing that demonstrates what you've learned about yourself, about how learning/understanding/education works, and about others this year in PACE. Apply vocabulary from this year into your final product and create something worthy of being displayed and discussed. Additionally, complete the graphic organizers based on the reading choices provided to you and be prepared to participate in a graded class discussion of your projects, the readings, and the year in review.

3. Greater Possibilities (Richardson)- continuing on the theme of making class a place where students get to work on things that matter.

As usual, Gary is spot on here. Last week during my Australia visit, I was asked on a panel how we prevent kids from being disruptive or off task when every one of them has a device in the classroom. I think the questioner was almost shocked when I started my answer by channelling Gary, saying “I don’t think we give kids enough credit in their ability to stay focused when they’re doing work that matters.”

4. You Can Always Add.  You Can't Subtract (Meyer)- providing space for students to ask questions and to define a problem themselves as opposed to having a text book or an adult do it for them.

In sum, much of the problem has been pre-formulated, which is a pity, seeing as how mathematicians and cognitive psychologists and education researchers agree that formulating the problem leads to success and interest in solving the problem.
So again I have to remind myself to be less helpful and be more thoughtful instead.

5. Catholic Prep Chain Helps Detroit's Minority Students Go On To College (Guerra)- approach taken to provide high school students with meaningful internships.

Four days a week, Idalis Longoria does what pretty much all high school juniors do. She goes to school, takes notes in class, hangs out in the cafeteria with her friends - but on the fifth day of the week - well that's when Longoria trades in her Catholic school uniform for a pair of light blue scrubs.

6. Schools Fight To Skip Standardized Tests, But Keep Learning Standards High (Kamnetz)- how one school district in Kentucky is by-passing standardized exams in favor of homegrown authentic performance-based assessments.  Please watch the case of the hungry hound...
One assignment in particular captured Swann’s attention. “The teacher asked the students to design an amusement park ride. They had all the math in there, and physics, and it just really sparked something in me: That math doesn’t have to be this boring class with lectures and standardized tests. I said, ‘Let’s take this back to Danville.’”

7. The Fire Hydrant Gets Its First Major Redesign in 100 Years- great little piece about striving to amke something better
Today's hydrants break, leak, and freeze, sometimes costing people their lives. The tamper-proof and incredibly durable Sigelock Spartan, designed by a former New York firefighter, is intended to work when people need them.

8. Amazing Perspective in GoPro Videos (Fryer)- "I have seen the GoPro camera and been a little more aware of it because how our church videographers have used one in the past few months to create some pretty stunning perspective videos about individuals. This video from GoPro, however, takes the idea of first person perspective to a whole different level."

Friday, May 30, 2014

Look Up

In regards to what is shared below, as educators, we are challenged to manage or better mentor students when it comes to technology.  In a curriculum evaluation session with teachers today we discussed the idea of establishing as a department goal, the need to create classrooms where a sense of wonder exists- where students stop and think about the world around them and wonder about what they observe.  I see a connection with this article.  While the ability to connect in and out of the classroom is important, it is also vital to have our student think about the things they notice.

Look Up. Effective technology use is knowing as much when to drop it, as to use it.
"Where we leave out all the bad bits, show no emotion…" A poem about real world empathy, being in the present, shutting down that screen... after you've watched it on YouTube, of course.
The point made here, though, is an interesting one when we reflect on the design thinking process and why it seems so powerful for learning, and is clearly distanced from "innovative technology use" when we see it used in schools. If anything, the key parts in the process - defining and reframing problems, ideating solutions to them, and soliciting and acting upon feedback, have nothing to do with a screen. There's great design research showing, too, that technology has failed to step up yet to the complexities of the real world thinking that our brains go through when trying to make sense of complex information in order to define a problem, or ideate a solution (e.g., Dorta, T., PĂ©rez, E. and Lesage, A. (2008) - The Ideation Gap).
So, yes: look up, don't let the world pass by. Observe it, note the normal, embrace the differences and happenstance, create something new with someone else.