What Am I Doing Here?

So a few months ago I told you that I was not going to be posting on this blog anymore; I was moving to a new website named after my company, Project: Preschool. My intent was to export this blog to that website and keep things going there, but somehow it never felt right. I never got that done. I got a few things moved over, but not the entire blog. After much introspection, I decided to continue my blogging efforts here. After all, I have my entire blog history on this site. This is where I started. This is where I can see how I have changed my thinking in the many years since I started.

So what caused all of this? What am I really doing here? Well, being in introspective person that I am, I really started examining where I was going and what I was doing. I haven’t been happy in the classroom in quite a while, which is a shame because that is where my passion has always been. I have been pounding away at the professional development business with a little bit of success, but I’m not sure what kind of gains I have been making with anything because the business is still very new. And exhausting. I mean really, when we get right down to it, starting a new business is one of the most stressful and exhausting things you can do, especially if you have a full-time job as well. And I realized that somehow my priorities had gotten mixed up. Somehow the business became more important than the classroom. I think I know how it happened: when you are an assistant teacher in a classroom, you don’t have quite as much responsibility for the direction of the class or how the classroom is going to look or anything like that. That is where I started with this new job and because I didn’t have the added responsibility of being in charge of the classroom I put the business at priority number one. Of course, it had been a big priority before that, when I was so stressed out at my other job. Anything to get out of there, right? At least, that is how I felt. I wanted to grow the business so that I could stop working for other people and be my own boss. And that is great, if that is what you want to do. But in the middle of all this stress I lost sight of the classroom, which was where my passion started. Heck, that is where my passion is – I just didn’t realize it for all of the stress. The business was always supposed to grow organically from what I was doing in the classroom. The classroom was always supposed to come first. It didn’t end up that way. It ended up with me being completely stressed out about slideshows and presentations and did these people like what I was doing and what am I going to do to market this thing and what product am I going to produce next and how fast can I get it put together.

STRESS!

I hated my job in the classroom. I’m not sure how much I liked the business. Don’t get me wrong; I love doing the workshops. It is all of the work that I have to do to get the workshops and after the workshops that I don’t particularly care for. And I started thinking about what was going on. Why did I hate the classroom? I used to love the classroom! I used to get up every morning fired up to go to work and play with the kids and explore things and do things and I didn’t care about the money. I just wanted to work and play and explore. And I did. And I loved it.

What happened?

I lost sight of what was important. I lost sight of my love. My love for the theories of education and creativity and curiosity were replace by books about how to grow a business. If you are like me, those books aren’t nearly as interesting as the theories of education and creativity and curiosity. I just got rid of a huge pile of those business books this weekend in an attempt to get back to what is important.

I don’t know what is going to happen with the business at this point. I love doing the workshops and I don’t see me stopping at this point, but I don’t see the workshops happening the way that they have been. I don’t see the marketing happening the way that it has been. I see me getting back to what is important to me: the classroom. And I hope that you will stay with me on this journey as I continue to push forward into the things that are truly important.

Perseverance

Today I watched a child working with some boards to create some ramps. It was quite a system that he set up:

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At one point, he had a really hard time balancing the boards on the different cones and objects that he was using for that purpose. I watched him closely to see if he would get frustrated, but he simply kept right on working and adjusting, trying to get everything to fit and stay the way that he wanted it to. When he was done, the results were very impressive.

I have watched children like this for a while. When they are creating and they are really in that creative zone, they don’t seem to get as frustrated as they would if they were being asked to do something or if they aren’t in that zone. They work harder and smarter and really focus on what they are doing. They don’t really give up until they get so frustrated that they have to walk away – and then they walk away. They don’t fuss or cry or scream, they just simply walk away.

The differences in attitude between the children who get in this zone and the ones who don’t are so astounding to me. I experiment with different materials in the classroom all the time to try to find things that allow children to enter into this state of focus. Open-ended materials, loose parts – these are the materials that guide children into flow. They are much better than the plastic toys that most manufacturers market as the best toys for children. Children don’t need fancy toys to create. They simply need real, found materials, some time, and some patience from us. When they have those things, they have super-focus and the perseverance to build amazing structures, all on their own.

Rediscovering My Passion

One thing that I’ve learned from years of teaching is, when stress and burn out hit it is time to slow down. In some cases it is time to stop. Like now. Now would be the time for me to stop and take a good hard look at what I’m doing. What am I doing? I switched jobs because the stress was killing me. Now I am in a low-stress teaching job, one that has been much more enjoyable than where I came from. I have been trying to write a book, but I’m not getting much enjoyment out of that right now. Am I doing what I want to be doing?

The answer is no. I am not doing what I want to be doing. I want to be connecting more. I want to get back to my passions of creativity and curiosity. I enjoyed blogging and writing about creativity and reading and studying about it also. The stuff that I have been blogging about has been great and it is important in the classroom, but everything that I have been blogging about is applicable to the one goal that I have always had in the classroom: to inspire creativity in my students. The problem that I have had is that I have overlooked this goal and focused on the nuts and bolts. I am not a nuts and bolts kind of person, and the approach that I decided to take on these blog posts has been driving me crazy. It is time for me to take a step back, stop, and tie all of this back to my main love, creativity. I love watching students be creative. I love encouraging them to find creative solutions to problems and to be innovative. I love providing them with materials and watching what they do with them in their own creative ways. I love talking to them about a new topic and finding out all of the creative things that they think about the topic, and then going out and learning more about the topic with them. I love it, and it is time for me to recognize that this is where my passion is. It is time for me to take that into consideration no matter what I am writing or doing. No matter what I write, it has to be me, and there is nothing more me than my ultimate passion.

A Clash of Philosophies

Today I went to visit a school. I had visited it before, and came away with the feeling that it was a very nice school. This is a school for early childhood students, ages 2 through kindergarten. The directors are very nice and extremely proud of their school. They should be proud. Their school has a reputation for being one of the best early childhood learning facilities in town.

During my visit I asked the director about their educational philosophy. “Oh, we are very academically oriented,” she stated. “Our pre-k is usually reading by the time they move on to kindergarten.” Indeed, a glance around told me that they are very academically oriented. There are very few toys in the classrooms, and a lot of tables and chairs. I recalled that during one of my previous visits the director mentioned that they only get the small amount of centers materials out to play with when their state consultant comes to visit. During our discussion about educational philosophies the director said, “I know that there are a lot of centers out there that are more hands-on…manipulative-based…” She was searching for a word. “Free play. They are more centered on free play. I have found that a lot of chain centers are like that. Are you like that?”

I said, “Yes, I teach through play. Hands-on, project-based learning. I write workshops designed to teach others how to teach that way as well.”

Her demeanor towards me changed almost imperceptibly after that. It was almost as if she felt that I had been contaminated by them. Those play-based educators who have no idea what they were doing because all they do is let the children play all day. Do their children read? Before kindergarten?

When I left the center, I felt disheartened. I understand that the directors of this center have the freedom to have whatever kind of center that they want, and the parents of the children enrolled there have the freedom to have their children in whatever type of program that they want. However, I know from educating myself on developmentally appropriate practices that children who are in a play-based program develop better social skills, creativity, problem-solving skills, and other life skills better than schools that simply focus on academic achievement. The school’s enrollment is quite high; the director said that most of their classes are full, which means that a lot of the parents in this area value the academic approach for their children.

It is all about value, after all. The directors of this school and the parents who enroll their children value academic achievement above all else. And as a culture we have been taught that academic achievement has to be valued in order to have a successful life. But the tides are turning. Innovation, creativity, and the ability to problem-solve are valued more by today’s businesses. Innovation, creativity, and the ability to problem-solve are best learned through playing with ideas, developing strategies through brainstorming with others, and using imagination to create. These skills aren’t built through simple academic instruction.

I remember a boy who was in my class at the age of two. He was bright and precocious, creative and full of fun. He had a wonderful sparkle in his eye and a curiosity that ensured learning. He left my class and enrolled at this school. He came to visit a few months after he left, holding a worksheet that he wanted to show us. The sparkle that I had so loved about his eyes was gone. I have never forgotten the change that I saw in that child from just a few short months in a purely academic environment. His parents were proud. I was shocked.

As I said before, it is all about values. His parents obviously put more value in the academic education than the building of creativity, imagination, and social skills that the play-based environment provided. Some parents do. Perhaps most parents do. Our culture has taught them to.

Thinking About Art

On Tuesday, I am presenting Project: Preschool’s inaugural workshop series: Encouraging Creativity in the Classroom. I am super excited and nervous about it, as it will be the first time that I have presented my own material, outside of this blog. I have no doubt that everything will be fine, because I have spent the past two days making sure that everything is prepared. I even found a huge technical glitch today that I thought had been resolved months ago – I am definitely learning the lesson about checking behind myself.

Over the weekend I have had a thought bouncing around in my brain. It never really rested and solidified until today. I was thinking about children and art. Since the workshop is on creativity (and I am working on another one related to art in the classroom) I have planned for participants to complete an art project. But in the beginning, I had prescribed what they were supposed to create while doing the art. The thoughts that bounced through my head were questions about why I was structuring the workshop activity in this way, especially since I am discussing the points of motivation having to do with autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Obviously, prescribing an end that participants should meet would give them a purpose, but I’m not sure that is the type of purpose that I am going for. It doesn’t give participants autonomy, because I am telling them what to create. I guess I could argue for mastery, because participants would get better at creating whatever it was that I told them to create, but to what purpose am I telling them to make it?

If you are confused yet, I am sorry. But the entire thing made me stand back and take a hard look at just what exactly I was calling “open-ended” or “child-centered” art. Of course, sometimes when we do art, we do have to prescribe an end. But for most art projects, simply giving children materials and letting them create at will teaches us a lot about their interests and their character. It also shows us what skills they have and what they need to work on, and gives them the freedom to experiment with tools and materials in ways that interest them.

I’m sure that I will be thinking and talking about this subject more after my workshops. One of the cool things about teaching is that you are able to learn as much as you are able to teach. I am looking forward to learning more from other teachers while we discuss different aspects of creativity, and I am looking forward to diving deeper into the activity that we call art.

Keep Brainstorming

This is the sixth in a twelve-part series based on an article by Michael Michalko entitled “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking.” You can view the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth parts by clicking on the links.

My first idea was to offer live workshops for teachers. It was a good idea, and I am still putting it into action. My next good idea was for online workshops. I have that idea waiting in the wings. I have thought of many great ideas for expanding the scope of Project: Preschool, but since the business is still a baby, it isn’t ready for any of these ideas yet. I have been brainstorming about workshop topics, and constantly making the ones that I have already thought of even better.

I keep brainstorming and thinking about the direction I want the business to go and the ways I can create something tangible for it. Michalko does a very good job in his article listing some of the possibilities that were there for other inventors, but weren’t pursued until later, by other people. The key is to never stop thinking about what is possible, about what directions you can take an idea, and about how you can make your ideas better.

This goes for the classroom as well. As teachers, we should never become complacent about what is happening or what is in our classrooms. Classrooms should be dynamic places, constantly changing to add new experiences to children’s lives. We should always be thinking about how to improve upon what is there and how to tie each area of the classroom to what is currently being learned. And if we get a new and better idea than the one we had before, we should use it, because children deserve our best ideas.

We should also be encouraging children to build upon the ideas that they have. It seems sometimes like they do this naturally, but it is our job to make sure that they never get out of the habit of trying to improve upon the ideas that they have, or to pursue any idea that they have.

Imagine the Possibilities

This is the fifth in a twelve-part series based on an article by Michael Michalko, entitled “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking.” By clicking on these links, you can view the first, second, third, and fourth posts.

Possibilities are everywhere, and your mind is capable of coming up with a lot of ideas and possibilities. Michalko urges us not to discard any idea on the basis that it might be too far out there to achieve: “When trying to get ideas, do not censor them or evaluate them as they occur. Nothing kills creativity faster than self-censorship of ideas while generating them. Think of all your ideas as possibilities and generate as many as you can before you decide which ones to select.”

In my classroom, I have come up with a million ideas. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if…” is how the idea usually starts, and then I brainstorm ways to make it happen. Some of my ideas are way out there and some of them are more low-key, but I always take each one into consideration – especially since I know that any idea can be altered if it has aspects of it that may not work. I have been grateful for the co-teachers that I have had that have been the voice of reason from time to time, and I have learned a lot from ideas that I have implemented that had unintended consequences that I could learn from. Creativity and learning is a process, and censoring ourselves in the middle of that process may mean that we don’t learn as much about what could be as we could have. And it may mean that our children miss out, as well.

We need to pass the skill of brainstorming ideas on to our children in the classroom, too. We need to let them know that it is okay to have some wild and crazy ideas, because through those ideas come the gems that mark real creativity and innovation. We need to respect them enough that we don’t censor their ideas, and teach them how to turn those ideas into methods and ideas that work. This is problem-solving at its best, and the businesses of today are looking for people that know how to problem-solve in these creative ways.

So go out there and imagine the possibilities!

 

Imagine What You Want to Create

This is the fourth in a series of posts based on the article “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking” by Michael Michalko. Here are the links to the first, second, and third posts.

Your brain has the ability to learn from scenarios that you imagine. In the last post, we talked about how you have to practice being creative in order to do it, and in order to do that you must have vision and determination. According to Michael Michalko, “You can synthesize experience; literally create it in your imagination. The human brain cannot tell the difference between an “actual” experience and an experience imagined vividly and in detail.” This means that your brain can learn from the experiences that you actually imagine happening. This can train the brain to think in relation to that being your reality.

All this time, all of these self-help gurus have taught us that visualization is a powerful tool in realizing our goals. But the way that the brain operates, we can use our visualizations in practicing to be creative. Imagining what we want to accomplish helps build the same pathways between neurons as actually sitting down and working to be creative every day.

So why shouldn’t we just imagine ourselves creative? Because even if we imagine a scenario all of the time, there is nothing like actually living it. We don’t get the same kind of thrill from a visualization because we aren’t there, actually creating something. I have talked before about how addictive creating and working can be. Visualization is the same in some sense, but it doesn’t have nearly the power behind it as the feeling one gets when they have actually created something of value. Visualization is an important part of getting to that point, but it should not be the only way that one goes about working their creative muscles.

Training Your Brain to be Creative

This post is the third in a series based on the article “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking” by Michael Michalko. You can view the first post here and the second post here.

Whenever you are in the process of learning something, you are training your brain in that area. New connections are made between neurons in your brain, strengthening your ability to accomplish the tasks that you have been practicing. While we think about practicing in order to increase our ability to do things like play sports or musical instruments, it also helps to practice other skills that we want to learn – even being creative.

Like a lot of people, I used to view myself as someone who isn’t creative. I looked at things that other people created with envy, wishing that I could be that creative. It took me a very long time to realize that I could be creative like that. The two keys that I found: a vision and determination.

I started out with a vision. Because I have done so much independent research into learning, thinking, education, and creativity, I felt that I could offer my knowledge to others. I created a vision of what it would look like to offer workshops to other teachers so that I could pass on my knowledge to them. I broke down the vision into pieces and tried to figure out what I needed to do to make each piece happen.

Then came the determination.

I had to MAKE myself do something toward realizing that vision. Every day. I couldn’t skip a day, or I would get lazy. My brain would stop coming up with ideas. I would stop trying to figure out how to implement them. I would stop imagining the end result. I would stop dreaming. And working.

I set a goal every single day, and set out to accomplish it no matter what it took. Some days were harder than others. Stress gets in the way sometimes. I have two kids, a full time teaching job, and I am going to school part time, so finding time to plan workshops gets tough. But the motivation is there. I love the vision and the knowledge that I have. The idea of sharing that knowledge with others inspires and motivates me. Working every single day toward realizing that idea and that vision has made it easier to do. I am now in the marketing phase for my first workshop, to be offered in a face-to-face (as opposed to online) format. Every time I hit a new phase, I have to push myself again. Each phase is harder than the one before, but each phase brings me closer to realizing my vision.

It takes work and determination to put forth the effort to train your brain in anything. Many of the people who have written about creativity say that creating a routine is essential. It helps to train your brain if you have a routine, and it helps keep your brain involved in the process if you take time to be creative frequently.

Everyone has the capacity to be creative. The key to training yourself to be creative is to find your passion, and then use your vision and your determination to work on that passion.

Creative Thinking Is Work

This post is the second of a twelve part series based on a post about creativity by Michael Michalko.

I saw a very interesting video last night. In it, a boy named Jacob Barnett gave a TEDxTeens audience some insight into how to be creative. In his very young way (he is 14), he told the audience to stop learning and start thinking. Now, this is a boy who was put in special education when he was younger. His parents were told that he was autistic and would probably never talk. Since he had that diagnosis and was put in less restrictive learning environments, it gave him time to think about other issues. Now he is filling out college applications and having Princeton physics professors trying to disprove the work that he is not only doing, but publishing research papers on.

There is a disconnect between what learning is and what thinking is. This disconnect is caused by the nature of our education system. Jacob Barnett encourages teens and others to stop learning for twenty-four hours and start thinking about something that they are passionate about. He recognizes the motivators: the ability to autonomously think about something that you are internally motivated by because of passion. 

He told a room full of teenagers to stop leaning on others for their knowledge and start thinking for themselves.

Doing this is hard work, especially if you haven’t done it before. However, once you begin to allow yourself the time and  attention that it takes to immerse yourself in your passion, it spreads through you like some sort of disease – only much, much better. Your brain begins thinking and making connections, and it is an exhilarating feeling to know that your brain has the capacity to do that much, to make that many connections. It is addictive; I would rather spend any vacation time that I get working on the ideas that I put forth in this blog or researching other ideas to put forth or present than do anything else. Because of this addiction that I now have, I am working harder than I have ever worked in my life and am busier than I have ever been in my life.

Creative thinking is work. It is hard work.

I have created many things. Many workshops, many blog posts. Most of the workshops that I created before were not that great. Some of my blog posts aren’t that great either, but I keep typing away because it is what I am passionate about. I work hard every day to create a workshop that will be inspiring and will allow participants to learn in their own unique way. It takes a focus and a passion and a patience that I didn’t know that I had. But I do, and you probably do, too. Find your passion and the rest will come with it.

This same type of focus and passion are necessary for an effective creative classroom environment. I am constantly changing things in my classroom to find out what works and what doesn’t. I work hard to apply the concepts that I discuss here in the classroom environment to make sure that they work. I have to be patient, because sometimes results don’t come right away. I have to be flexible, because sometimes the children have a different agenda than I do. And I have to be focused; I can tell when I didn’t plan very well. The children can tell, too. There is not a moment in my classroom when I am not working. Even when the children are sleeping, I think about incidents that happened throughout the morning, what they mean, and how to extend learning because of them. I think about individual children and what I need to do to help them learn. I think about class projects that I want to do. I plan how I need to change materials around the classroom to help them learn different things. Teaching, like learning and thinking, is dynamic. It should always be working and evolving, never sitting still.

Creative thinking is work. I am working harder now than I ever have in my life, but I love every second of it.