As a young child I spent most Sunday mornings sitting in a church pew next to my parents. Now as you might imagine, Sunday sermons were not the most stimulating environment for the 10 year-old version of myself. Entertainment was a must, and in those prehistoric days iDistractions did not exist. My Mom’s answer was art. She would always hand me a couple of colored pencils or crayons, a church bulletin and tell me to start drawing. Now, if you’ve ever spent any time drawing, sketching, painting, coloring, etc. you know that the process is full of false starts and frustrations. Most people avoid art because their significant efforts are rewarded with awkward shapes and terrible color combinations. Even in our earliest years failure is a feeling that we try to avoid. Those Sunday art sessions were full of mistakes and frustrations. I can vividly remember making a mistake, looking at my mom in frustration, and quitting. Fortunately, my mom does not understand the word quit. Rather she would dispense a pearl of wisdom that has forever shaped my approach to life. To my frustration she would respond, “There are no mistakes in art, only opportunities for creation.” The truth of this statement is profound on many levels. As a young child it kept me drawing, a stray line just become a path into the next part of the picture. As an adult the mantra has given me the freedom to explore the boundaries of educational practice.
If you think about it, education is one big art project or experiment. The process requires continual reflection, creation, and experimentation. At the beginning of each year I tell all of my classes that they are my project for the year. Once they’ve been put on notice I’m given the freedom to try just about anything that I like with the intention of engaging students in some new or exciting way. It’s my mother’s wisdom that drives me in these instances. So many teachers are afraid to try new things because it might not work out. The class session could run off the rails and descend into a pile of chaos. OR it could go beautifully with engaged students, deep conversations, and interesting projects. The teacher will never know until they step out and give it a go. As a side note, I must take a moment to recognize that for an experimental approach to succeed, a safe and supportive environment must be created for the student.
A willingness to step out into the unkown is what sets artists apart from the rest of society. Sure, they may have a few more skills with a paint brush or the Adobe Suite, but what really sets an artist apart is the lack of fear of failure. In reality, most innovation processes are proportionally more failure than they are success. Creative types are willing to give anything a go. If it works, EXCELLENT! If it doesn’t, oh well. The project was a learning opportunity. Take something from it. Move on. If education is to move forward more teachers will need to adopt the artist’s mentality. To move away from a fear of failure and forward into messy creation and experimentation. Teachers must realize that innovation and excitement lie outside of the realm of the comfortable. Leaping off into the unknown is one of the things that can make teaching an incredibly exciting endeavor.
For me, this year has been a year of stepping out and trying new things. First, let’s take a look at AP Biology. Going into the year I knew that I wanted to explore the potential of a student-centered, flipped classroom. Enough education jargon for you? As I conceptualized the course I saw class sessions where I was merely a resource, where students worked collaboratively, taught one another, and ultimately internalized lessons. My intention was not to abdicate teaching responsibility. Rather it was a recognition of the reality that so much more information sticks when one teaches it than when one hears it. So, I told AP Bio that they were going to be my experiment and I went about creating as many challenges, scenarios, and activities as I could possibly conceive. Here I stand at the end of the year not having lectured once, confident that many of them passed the AP Exam, and with several of the students saying that their whole perspective on science changed as a result of the course. To be fair, the members of AP Bio attacked my experiment wholeheartedly. Not once did they question my methods or intentions. Rather they took on the challenges and often pushed them beyond their logical end. There were many days when an idea did not work out as I had planned. In those cases, we engaged in a debrief session, figured out what didn’t work, and I made notes for next time. Inviting students to engage in the reflection and feedback process is one of the most important components of the creation process. AP Biology showed me the value of treating students like adults and trusting them with their own education.
AP Biology was a known experiment, I had a substantial amount of background knowledge on the topic. Disease and Society, on the other hand, was a complete unknown. In the spring of 2012 I was asked to create a course in Public Health. Beyond what I’d learned from teaching my AP science classes, I had no knowledge of the field of Public Health. An incredible internship last summer with North Carolina Prevention Partners provided substantial help, but in the end I was still on my own. While writing the course I decided that the best approach would be to invite students into the exploration with me. I told them at the beginning of the year that we would be learning together and that we would do so using the practices of Project Based Learning. So, I constructed 6 driving questions and we leapt in. Each unit was structured around a driving question that asked students to produce some product as a response to the question. My biggest takeaway from this class is that interested students create incredible work and actually enjoy learning. Think about it, as a student, which would you prefer, 2 weeks of sex ed or 2 weeks creating a PSA and infographic about the TRUE cost of one careless night? Education can be fun for both teachers and students if only we allow it to be. The formation of this class had many of those mistakes lead to creation moments. In the end, however, what began as a loose idea in the brain became a beautiful sculpture of student artifacts, websites, schoolboard presentations, and engaged students.
In the end, my hope is that more teachers will be willing to step outside the bounds of their prescribed curriculums and pacing guides. Ultimately classrooms resemble the people who are leading them. If teachers are not willing to explore boundaries and create, with the knowledge that they could potentially fail, students will not be willing to do so either. FAILURE IS OK, if a lesson is learned and progress is made. So, to all of my students, thank you for being willing to be my ongoing experiment this year. Thank you for trusting me enough to dive into my activities. Thank you for putting yourselves out there. Thank you for exceeding my expectations at every turn. To any teachers that may be reading this. Try to start thinking like an artist. Start small. Try one new thing in your classroom. Push the bounds just a little. Be honest with your students. Let them know that you are experimenting and invite them into the process. Embody the spirit of the artist and fearlessly explore the boundaries of what is possible, because we all know that education needs more artists.