Each year, I choose a single word to focus on as my “one word.” I realize this might sound cheesy but I find it helpful. Having a single word helps me stay focused on a general theme for the year.
I typically create visual reminders. It might be a note card by my computer, a visual on my home screen, or an object that works as a symbol. For example, one year I chose the word “risk.” I had become risk-averse and I knew I was leaning too heavily on “best practices” while missing out on “next practices.” My word was “risk” but I jotted down the phrase “this could fail” as a permission to “fail forward” in my creative work and in my teaching.
One year, it was “present.” I entered the year overwhelmed by projects, deadlines, and commitments. I was about to write the final half of my dissertation and my teaching load was increasing as well. I found myself wanting to “fast forward” to June or July when things would slow down. “Present” was my one word. It was a reminder to embrace the moment, focus on the day ahead, and view it as a gift. This was the year that I started doing guided meditation (a practice that I still continue a few years later).
In 2021, my word was “grateful.” I was feeling worn down by the pandemic. I’d spent so many hours doing virtual workshops and keynotes and I missed face-to-face professional development. I knew masks were necessary but I was tired of masks and tired of social isolation. I missed concerts and live sports. With “grateful” as my word, I began the daily practice (or more accurately, the semi-daily practice) of a short gratitude journal.
Last year, I chose the word “experiment.” I wanted to try new things and treat each project as an experiment. A few of these were a total bust. I had the idea of “canine classics” where I illustrated classic literature with dogs. It sounded good in my head but, yeah, it wasn’t good. But it was also a year where I began creating new PBL curriculum and experimented with some new art projects. I tried out some new strategies in the courses I teach as well. It was a year where I pushed myself to learn new things and try new approaches. I kept this flow chart by my desk as a reminder that a “failed experiment” is simply the starting place for innovation:
This year, I plan to take some of those experiments and turn them into finished projects. That’s why my word for the year is “launch.”
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Launching into a New Year
About six years ago, I co-wrote the book Launch with my friend A.J. Juliani. We co-designed the LAUNCH Cycle as a student-friendly design thinking framework. Since then, I’ve given keynotes and workshops, written blog posts, crafted videos, and recorded podcasts explaining what it means to use design thinking within a PBL framework.
Design thinking is a human-centered approach to creative problem-solving. It is used in the arts, in engineering, in the corporate world, and in social and civic spaces. While there are many design thinking models, the LAUNCH Cycle is a student-centered framework you can use in any subject with any grade level.
It starts with Look, Listen, and Learn. The goal here is awareness. It might be a sense of wonder a process, an understanding of a problem, an observation of a natural phenomenon, or an awareness of a social issue. But it also includes empathy with a community. Sparked by curiosity, students move to the second phase, where they ask tons of questions, which leads to understanding the process or problem through an authentic research experience.
They might do needs assessments, conduct surveys, watch videos, listen to podcasts, conduct experiments, make observations, analyze data, do a video chat with an expert or engage in online research.
Students apply the newly acquired knowledge to potential solutions. In this phase, they navigate ideas. Here they not only brainstorm, but they also analyze ideas, combine ideas, and generate a concept for what they will create. From there, they Create a Prototype, whether it’s a digital work, a physical product, a service, a system, or an event. Next, they Highlight What’s Working and Fix What’s Failing.
Here, they view the revision process as an experiment full of iterations where every mistake takes them closer and closer to success.Then, when it’s done, it’s ready to launch to an audience. In this launch phase, they send their work to the world. Then, based on the audience feedback, they move into a new iteration, where they’re able to Look, Listen, and Learn all over again. When you combine design thinking and project-based learning, students engage in authentic projects that lead to deeper learning.
Throughout last year, I used this same LAUNCH Cycle for my own creative work.
On a student level, there’s something powerful that happens when they launch their work to the world:
But the same is true of teachers. I truly believe that we, as educators, need to have our own personal Genius Hour. When I engage in this creative work, I notice the following trends:
- It forces me to struggle with a new craft or concept
- I get to do creative work outside my normal domain of education
- I become more innovative in my teaching practice as I discover new ideas
- I become a little more empathetic toward my own students who are learning the craft of teaching.
And yet, this last December, I realized that I’ve been too timid with sharing my work. Every year, I write a new novel but I’ve only twice shared those works publicly. The first was Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard, that I co-wrote with my wife, Christy. The second was a free download about a superhero pizza that I shared as a freebie during the pandemic. I love to sketch comics but I’ve never shared that out with others. I think I’m still a little insecure about my ability as an illustrator.
This year, I want to share my more.
I have a series of projects I want to launch to the world. I’ve been designing PBL curriculum with A.J. Juliani. I am super excited about Boost PBL. We are hoping to get the beta version out in early February.
I co-wrote a book Different from Day One with Trevor Muir (we are currently editing it). It’s a book about innovative ideas and student-centered strategies for teachers in their first few years of teaching. We poured so much of ourselves into that book and I hope to launch it this year.
I have a bunch of new video writing prompts and other classroom materials I can’t wait to share as well. I’ll be sharing these resources on my Spencer Education page. Most of these will be a pay-what-you-want approach, where you can download them for free but you can also pay whatever you feel like to access them. Last week, I shared the SLIME Method goal-setting resource.
I have a work of fiction I plan to edit and send to a literary agent. I actually have to different works that I plan to revise and ultimately share with an agent. I have no idea if either of these will be published. However, I realized that fear of rejection has been the main reason I have avoided finishing those projects and sending them out.
While I’ll be sharing my finished products, I also want to share my journey, including those aforementioned failed experiments.
Sharing My Journey
When we wrote Launch, George Couros gave us some valuable critical feedback. He said, “The launch isn’t just about the finished product. It’s about the process. It’s about sharing your journey.” It had me thinking about my love for art as a kid and how much that stemmed from watching Bob Ross make happy little trees. Even now, at 42 years old, so much of what I watch on Instagram is people making art.
I’m reminded of this Austin Kleon quote.
I’ve been reluctant to share my creative journey because it feels a little boring. I tend to write about practical ideas and strategies you can use in your classroom. My goal is to send you something practical and usable.
I always have a nagging sense of, “Who would want to read this?” any time I share something more personal. However, the few times I shared something personal, I was surprised that it resonated – like this blog post reflecting on a recent car accident. When I shared a process-oriented blog post detailing how I create sketch videos, I was surprised by how many people shared it online.
This is why I want to share more about my creative journey. I’m not sure yet what this will look like but I think it will mean being more open and authentic in this space. I plan to share more of my learning process, including some of the projects that are more experimental. For example, I’ll be working on a comic strip called Cat and Doug about a dog named Cat (short for Catalina) and cat named Doug who have a human advice call-in radio show. I’m still playing around with their overall design but here’s my latest concept.
I’m not sure if I’ll be sharing these as reels, images, or videos. But I do know I’ll be sharing my creative journey via Instagram. So, if you haven’t followed me there yet, you might want to subscribe. I’ll be sharing my processes, my attempts, my failures, and my early work.
The following are a few places where you can find me. I’d love to connect with you in these spaces in 2023.
My YouTube Channel is where I be share my sketch note videos and writing prompts as well as some deep dives into concepts. Please consider subscribing to my channel and be the first to see my videos when they come out. Here’s an example of one of the video writing prompts:
I’ve been having so much fun on Instagram lately. This is where I’ll be sharing my creative journey. It’s also where I’ll continue sharing shorter written works that blend together visuals and text. Here’s what I mean:
View this post on Instagram
I’m thinking I might start posting more videos here as well. For me, Instagram is the most experimental space. I still don’t know what I’m doing there and maybe that’s a good thing. But if you’re on the platform, would you consider following me on Instagram?
My Facebook page is where I share things I find interesting (articles and resources). It’s also where I post shorter written works. I tend to write long form articles here on this blog and share those out on my podcast. But on Facebook, I write shorter pieces and I really enjoy the conversations we’ve been having in that space.
The Creative Classroom Podcast started out as a way for people to get my articles on the go. I simply read my blog posts aloud and sent it out on the podcast. Over the last few years, it has morphed into something bigger. I still do an audio version of my blog posts but I also interview experts on education, creativity, and design. A few weeks ago, I interviewed one of my heroes, Donalyn Miller. The episode will be coming out later this month. But suffice it to say, it was surreal to talk to her. I’m not sure if she understands just how much she shaped my own approach to teaching reading.
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