Monday, December 31, 2012

Today's Reads

Work vs. Creative Labor

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus--these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it's harder to quantify... Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms -- these are labors.

Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule.

[Hyde closes with this striking footnote.]

There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labor. When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, therefore, creativity is automatically devalued every time there is an advance in the technology of work.

That great passage comes from Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.

"Labor has its own schedule."  I love that line.  Perhaps that's why I can never (ever, ever, ever) stick to  a rigid syllabus.  When things get cooking in the class, we go with it - to hell with what we had planned next.  Likewise, when I discover something on Twitter in the morning or a student brings in an interesting youtube video, we deviate.  And I wouldn't have it any other way.

So what's the true difference between work and labor in the classroom?

That's a tough one.  Personally, I have observed my Lit & Lang 9R class go through this.  For most of them, the blogs we created for their free reading books were labor.  When students were creating their blogs, they were inventing and creating.  In great spurts students were engaged and creating.  Now, contrast that with more of the traditional rote learning I do (for examples TONS of worksheets and test prep), they are - for the most part - obedient, silent, and working.  But I don't think they'd describe that work as labor at all.

How can I have the best of both worlds?


This is preaching to the choir here --

Writing is thinking, right?

I think we can all agree on that (especially us English teachers).

Yet, how often do we actually write?  Dare I say, how many English teachers really enjoy writing?

Rarely. Or few.  (well, that's my personal take)

Thus, teachers and students should blog.  Regularly.  If for nothing other than practicing their craft.  Or showing their love for writing.

Here are other reasons to blog (the last one is my favorite, but they are all great reasons to blog).


This is awesome.  A letter from a mother to her 13 year-old-son upon giving him his new iPhone for Christmas.

While I don't agree with all the conditions on her list, I think some are excellent.  And if you share it with your kids or students, it certainly should spark an interesting debate.


Here is Randy Nelson, former Dean of Pixar, explaining what schools have to do to better prepare students for the workforce.  Lots of interesting ideas here.


More about Pixar's incredible surplus of creativity.  Is it luck?  Or do they have the perfect conditions to inspire a surplus of creative and innovative ideas (and people)?

Ed Catmull, explains the conditions that make creativity and innovation the standards at Pixar -

Here they are:

* in order to produce a breakthrough, you need numerous people from numerous disciplines working together.

* you need to take risks, and in doing so, you need to know how to handle the fear of taking risks.  (think of Pixar - Wall-E goes long periods without any dialogue at all, and it is a sly take on our modern lifestyles.  That's taking a risk.  Here's another - when Pixar decided to do a sequel to Toy Story, they had a problem, their team was all working on A Bug's Life.   Disney, who was cofinancing Pixar, wanted them to do what Disney did with a lot of their big hits, release a sequel right to DVD (think of The Lion King 1 1/2, or Aladdin: The Return of Jaffar).  These were cheaper to make and not nearly as good as the originals.  Well, Pixar wanted none of that.  They wanted a sequel that was worthy of the original and not just done to appease the audience and make money.  As Catmull puts it - We realized early on, however, that having two different standards of quality in the same studio was bad for our souls. So they had to form a whole new creative team to develop Toy Story 2.  That's a huge risk.  But it made all the difference.)  - I love this line from Catmull -  If you want to be original, you have to accept the uncertainty, even when it’s uncomfortable, and have the capability to recover when your organization takes a big risk and fails. What’s the key to being able to recover? Talented people! Contrary to what the studio head asserted at lunch that day, such people are not so easy to find.

* Smart people are far more important than great ideas.  It's the people, after all, that produce the ideas.

*  You have to have excellent leadership.  (in other words, know who your "A-Team is").  As Catmull puts it - If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up; if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something that works.

I think this is why PD in education is often a sham.  If you don't have an A-Team of teachers, giving them SMARTboards or iPads or laptops will not elevate them to A-Team status.  And I think that's often why PD fails - it's just giving good ideas (usually good ideas) to B or C Team teachers.

* Creativity takes personal sacrifice.  The only way Pixar was able to save Toy Story 2 was by rejecting mediocrity at great pain and personal sacrifice, we made a loud statement as a community that it was unacceptable to produce some good films and some mediocre films.

As a result of this, Pixar was able to set one level of excellence for everything.  All films have to live up to that.  And while I certainly have my favorite among the Pixar films (namely, The Incredibles, Toy Story 3, and Finding Nemo), I can't deny that they are all excellent, even if there are some I don't particularly care for (Monsters Inc. and Cars 2).

*  Give Power to the Creatives.  Catmull explains: Our philosophy is: You get great creative people, you bet big on them, you give them enormous leeway and support, and you provide them with an environment in which they can get honest feedback from everyone. 

How can we do this with our classes?

*  Have successful creative leaders.  What does it take for a director to be a successful leader in this environment? Of course, our directors have to be masters at knowing how to tell a story that will translate into the medium of film.

Now my question is, how can we relate this to teaching?  What does it take to be a successful teacher?  Is it the ability to engage students?  It is the ability to take an abstract concept and relate it to the real world?  Is it the ability to inspire students?  Whatever it is, it seems to me that it goes beyond content knowledge.

*  Catmull says that this all culminates into what he terms "The brain trust."  That is his creative team and all eight directors.  This next passage is so good, I copied and pasted it all into here.  If you read it, keep in mind the question, what would school look like if we structured more of our classes (or units or lessons) like this?

When a director and producer feel in need of assistance, they convene the group (and anyone else they think would be valuable) and show the current version of the work in progress. This is followed by a lively two-hour give-and-take discussion, which is all about making the movie better. There’s no ego. Nobody pulls any punches to be polite. This works because all the participants have come to trust and respect one another. They know it’s far better to learn about problems from colleagues when there’s still time to fix them than from the audience after it’s too late. The problem-solving powers of this group are immense and inspirational to watch.

After a session, it’s up to the director of the movie and his or her team to decide what to do with the advice; there are no mandatory notes, and the brain trust has no authority. This dynamic is crucial. It liberates the trust members, so they can give their unvarnished expert opinions, and it liberates the director to seek help and fully consider the advice. It took us a while to learn this. When we tried to export the brain trust model to our technical area, we found at first that it didn’t work. Eventually, I realized why: We had given these other review groups some authority. As soon as we said, “This is purely peers giving feedback to each other,” the dynamic changed, and the effectiveness of the review sessions dramatically improved.

*  Open communication.  Anyone at Pixar can help solve a problem.  Now this could be disaster in a school.  But if the proper climate existed, where I wouldn't get angry or feel like someone was intruding on my classes if they said, "Kurt, I know you send your kids down to the media center once a week.  Is that really the best use of that time?"  The important factor for Pixar is that they can work together.  They don't have to go through a "chain of command."  They can solve problems.  I'm afraid sometimes there are too many divas in education to let that happen.

*  It must be safe for all to offer ideas.  I'm happy to say, relating this back to LHS, that our PLC reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team has helped this.   One of my favorite quotes concerning the crushing of creativity is about how during periods of strict orthodoxy, innovation is stifled.  But in times of open culture, innovation and creativity thrives.

Just imagine if colleagues were brave enough to do this in school (or if we allowed students to do this - even if it meant taking a business class over to an English class and sharing ideas): We’re constantly showing works in progress internally. We try to stagger who goes to which viewing to ensure that there are always fresh eyes, and everyone in the company, regardless of discipline or position, gets to go at some point. We make a concerted effort to make it safe to criticize by inviting everyone attending these showings to e-mail notes to the creative leaders that detail what they liked and didn’t like and explain why.

*  Breaking down the walls.

First, Pixar demands that their workers stay close to the academic front.  That means taking classes and publishing.

How often does this happen in high school education?  How often do we read The English Journal or seek to publish our work and ideas (even if it's just in the form of a blog, Tweet, or FB post?)?

Second, Pixar has an internal university: We try to break down the walls between disciplines in other ways, as well. One is a collection of in-house courses we offer, which we call Pixar University. It is responsible for training and cross-training people as they develop in their careers. But it also offers an array of optional classes—many of which I’ve taken—that give people from different disciplines the opportunity to mix and appreciate what everyone does. Some (screenplay writing, drawing, and sculpting) are directly related to our business; some (Pilates and yoga) are not. In a sculpting class will be rank novices as well as world-class sculptors who want to refine their skills. Pixar University helps reinforce the mind-set that we’re all learning and it’s fun to learn together.

At LHS we have a real vehicle for this.  It's our "Common Prep" program where often faculty members have the chance to share some of their best practices or areas of expertise with the rest of the faculty.

*  Pixar conducts "postmortems" after every film start with A Bug's Life.  They access ruthlessly.  Feedback is essential, even if it's just what  are five things would you do again and what five things you would do differently?

* Pixar puts an emphasis on fresh blood.  The problem isn't getting new, creative people.  The problem is getting them to buy in.  When you come to a successful institution like Pixar, you often suffer from "in-awe-of-the-place."  Pixar works hard to fix this by making sure their culture supports everyone speaking up and sharing their ideas.

The other problem they have is when a new person comes in and they run in to the concept of "That's not how we do it here."  Pixar, because it's open to trying new things and staying fresh, they don't have to deal with this problem often.

There you have it.  Now that doesn't sound so hard does it?

Here are Three Things That Will NOT Transform Education.

These are from one of my favorite education bloggers, and they are quite interesting.

Here are the three things --

1.  Flipping the Classroom.  Really?  This is all the rage!  So why will it fail?  Mr. Couros points out that if all flipping the classroom is having kids go home and watch videos, then what happens to the real rich classroom experiences?  What if a kid is taking Comp II, American Lit, Chemistry, and American History.  So does that mean she has to spend two or three hours watching videos?  How is that going to be effective?  I thought in the 1980's the craze was to have students watch less TV?  What happens if a student - who would struggle with the material in class, struggles with it while he is watching it?

Here is his alternative -- If we really want to talk about “flipping” the classroom, students should, as Shelley suggested, be creators of content, not simply consumers.  The flip should happen that classrooms arelearner focused, not teacher focused.  Although I am sure that the “flip” has its place, it is not something that will transform education, nor should it.

(Personally, I think this alternative is exactly what we could be doing with our kids on a regular basis if we went 1:1)

2.  BYOD - controversial.  Isn't it?  As a teacher who uses a lot of technology (the majority of which is supplied by the school), I see this as a nightmare.  What happens if the devices can't run iMovie or bring in viruses?

Again, here is Couros' alternative -- Ryan Bretag shares the idea of “Combine Our Devices”, where students would have the opportunity to bring in devices, but also be ensured that there is a consistent device in the classroom.  This would be beneficial to students, staff, and the school community as a whole, as there is some consistency in what is provided and prepared for, with the option of also bringing in the device that best suits the need of each individual learner.  Honestly, it is hard for me to believe that with a $249 Chromebook available, that schools can not make this happen within a year (proper WiFi must be implemented along with other elements to school infrastructure).

3.  Student Surveys.  Simply put - we don't often use the results properly.  Or we don't allow change to happen based on the results.  Or we don't have a valuable cross section of the student body to give their opinions.

Here is his alternative: Instead of simply asking kids big, general questions, why not show them some possibilities of what school could look like and what school is now.  As educators, we have to dig deeper into what can be and try to show kids a preferred reality and get their feedback on what they think of it, how to tweak it, and how it will suit them.  If a kid says we should have Facebook in class, do you think a reluctant teacher is going to start implementing that the next day?  If we can show a student what we can do with technology and how it can improve your learning, and then ask them for feedback on that idea, you are more likely to have both staff and students excited about the future of their classroom.  People weren’t demanding an iPhone before it existed, but when it came out, feedback certainly helped to shape future generations of the device.


This is one amazing kid right here.  Wow.


Old school vs. New school.  I love this final statement

Bottom line: In order to improve our current educational system we must be able to adopt elements of classical education into our modern school system.  Teachers must be allowed to connect with their students and foster a deeply personal sense of curiousity about the world around them while giving students the necessary skills to exist in modern day society.  Technology, such as Learning Management Systems, will allow our teachers to reach more students quickly, efficiently and safely.


Worst Skiing Lesson Ever

I don't know what the hell "Pizza!  Pizza!  Pizza!" is supposed to me.  I don't know if it's a skiing move (obviously, I don't ski) or if it's the reward the kid is going to get if he/she survives the run.  But what the heck is this guy thinking sending a novice skier down a rather steep hill?  It sure doesn't look like the bunny hill I cut my teeth on at Bemidji on our sixth grade ski trip!

And when we get angry at these millennial or Gen Y students, just remember who raised them!


Granted that this study is done for Israeli students, but if 94% of them are on Facebook during class, what percentage of US students are on it?

That means, and I'm stealing this from a quote I found at the beginning of the year, if you can't be more entertaining and engaging and interesting than the devices in your students' pockets, then you don't have the right to be up in front of them.


One final info graph!  Have a great new year.

No comments: