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I first wrote this blog post back in 2014. I was teaching 8th grade at the time and I wrote it as much for myself as for an audience. I’m reposting it now. 

“Dad, that’s not even close to proper first position.”

“Okay, show me ready position,” I answer.

“Ready position is for basketball. This is first position.” She moves my arms manually and we both look in the mirror. I look clunky and awkward, mostly because I am clunky and awkward. However, I am determined to learn the basics of ballet. If I can learn to catch my son’s curveball or maneuver around Minecraft, I can figure this out.

I realize that I won’t do a public performance, which is good news for the public. But it doesn’t matter. It’s the journey that matters. It’s the fact that my daughter gets to teach me something creative.

It’s about a month through the summer and I don’t really have time off. I’m teaching classes and doing my final leg of my dissertation. However, I’ve also carved out some time for a summer tradition of making something new. In the past, I co-wrote a children’s novel with my wife. I made another, goofier novel for my son (about a superhero taco who saves the city). I had a failed attempt at building a pinball machine from scratch. I started a garden. You get the idea.

Often, these creative works end up with a tiny audience of my family. In many cases, they are part of the creative process. We make things that are goofy and quirky and fun.

This year, I’m working on learning ballet and I’m also creating a comic strip about a rescue dog who believes it’s his job to train his humans. I need this creative outlet for a few reasons:

  • It forces me to struggle with a new craft or concept
  • I get to do creative work outside my normal domain of education
  • I get to bring my kids into the process
  • I become a little more empathetic toward my own students who are learning the craft of teaching.

So, even though my schedule is busy, I want to carve out time to make something new this summer.

You Were Born Creative

You were born creative. You learned to dance with reckless abandon. You made up songs without ever thinking about pitch. You drew wild pictures in bold colors in sidewalk chalk and crayons and sometimes you even used the living room walls as a canvas. You invented worlds that didn’t exist, friends that adults couldn’t see, and stories that went nowhere. You built cities out of Legos and robots out of cardboard. You set up experiment without asking yourself if you’re a science person or an art person.

Early on, the world celebrated with your creativity. Chances are your parents plastered each masterpiece to the fridge. They cheered at your songs. They loved your Lego cities – that is, until they stepped on the bricks in utter agony at two in the morning. In some cases, you might have had unsupportive parents; which would have been painful. They might have been busy or neglectful or maybe even discouraging of your creativity. But hopefully, you had someone in your life who encouraged your creativity.

But somewhere along the line, you lost something. You learned to be embarrassed of your dance moves and ashamed of your voice. You grew scared of speaking in public. You set down the chalk and the crayons and the pencils and relegated this to those with “real talent.” You bought into the lie that real scientists don’t do art and real artists don’t do science.

A little nuance here: it’s okay to grow out of things. It’s okay to reach a place where you’re just not that into mathematical theory or classical literature or crocheting unicorns. But this is about losing something deeper. Lost. Maybe that’s the distinction. It’s one thing to toss away something that doesn’t interest you anymore. But too often you lost some creative part of you because it was taken away and the culprit was shame.


So, what happened?

If your experience is anything like mine, there’s a good chance you ran into shame. Maybe it was an offhanded comment of a teacher or the overprotective advice of a parent trying desperately to shield you from failure. Maybe it was another student who you mocked your work. Or maybe it happened when you compared your work to others and never pulled out of that despair you feel when you see the chasm between your work and the work of others.

Brené Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection (this is one of my all-time favorite books): 

“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”

I wonder if shame does the same thing to creativity as well. It seems that shame makes you hide. It makes you quit. It makes you hedge your bets so that nothing goes wrong. Shame kills your dreams and dulls your imagination. It turns you cynical, making you the perennial critic that has lost the creative spark.


The Summer Maker Challenge

So, if you’re entering into the summer break, I have a challenge.

Go make something.

Here’s the caveat: it can’t be something for your classroom. It can’t be a unit plan or a project resource.

Find something creative that pushes you to the point of frustration. Learn a new craft. Learn to draw. Learn to dance. Learn to code. Learn to crochet. Learn to speak in front of a group. Learn how to build a deck or install shiplap (don’t ask me how I know that term). Visit a makerspace and make something ridiculous and weird.

Call it your own extended summer-long Genius Hour. Call it your defiant, “screw you” to shame.

As you learn and explore and make, consider showing your work. Check out the video below to see what I mean:

You can show your work by posting videos and pictures of your journey on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with the hash tag #teachermakers. If you’re curious what this might look like, check out Nick Provenzano’s blog (including posts like this one) and Instagram. Check out Kevin Hodgson’s blog, where he’s constantly showing quirky, creative, digital work. Check out Krissy Venosdale’s blog as she continues to explore the visual arts and design thinking.

I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, it’s easy to spend a summer learning. I’ll read books and plan out units. I’ll attend conferences, feeling inspiring keynotes and attending sessions where I jot down new ideas. But there’s something humbling about entering the creative struggle for a summer. It helps me gain empathy for my students who will be using design thinking in our class. It pushes me to take creative risks. It’s uncomfortable. Unnerving. But it’s also what makes me feel the most alive.

If you’re curious about a structure for your creative Genius Hour, consider checking out Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student. You can go through the LAUNCH Cycle on your own as you explore the ideas in the book and maybe even do a collaborative creative project with a friend or colleague.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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