Episode 028: Creative Classroom Inroads with John Spencer

John Spencer is leading education in a direction I want to go. Whether he's sharing "10 Creative Risks to Take with your Students this Year" via podcast, or adding video writing prompts and maker challenges to his youtube channel, I'm interested in everything he puts out into the teaching stratosphere. 

Once a middle school teacher who carefully wove creative practices into his packed schedule wherever he could, John Spencer now teaches teachers. In his own words, "I want to see teachers unleash the creative potential in all their students so that kids can be makers, designers, artists, and engineers."

I couldn't agree more.

I read John's book, Empower, over the holidays this year, and every single page made me happy. It's about a mindset shift in the creative teaching world from engaging our students to empowering them to learn and do what they truly care about. 

I recognized so much of my own teaching journey in what he described. The incredible amount of work required to differentiate every project and outline dozens of specifications so that students would produce just what I hoped. The exhaustion of my teacher song and dance to be constantly introducing something new, something amazing, something my students couldn't help but love doing under my careful supervision.

There's no doubt I spent my first years as a teacher passionately pursuing engagement, not empowerment.

But as the book goes on, John Spencer and his co-author, A.J. Juliani, introduce a variety of ways to transcend this exhausting teacher-focused style. Because although we teachers who have done it think we are teaching in a way that is student-centered, there is an option that is far more empowering for us and our students. The option to truly turn things over to them. To build structures and springboards that allow them to pursue their own passions, using the tools and skills of our discipline to make an impact on the world.

As I finished Empower, I was anxious to learn more and dig deeper. Lucky for me, John had agreed to talk with me on my podcast. 

Leading up to our interview, I especially wanted to focus on the ways teachers could take small steps towards more creative, empowered classrooms. It's so easy to feel overwhelmed by new teaching philosophies, or to feel trapped by the system at your school. That's why I started off by asking John about a story he once told in his podcast, a story about finding "the wiggle room." 

I think you're really going to enjoy this episode. You can listen below, or on iTunes, Blubrry, or Stitcher.

Here's a little outline of what we talked about, in case you listen when you can't take any notes. I know that's aways me! First the visual, my own sketchnotes version of our conversation, and then the print outline. 

We started by diving into the concept of WIGGLE ROOM. So many teachers feel frustrated, locked into teaching systems that seem to have no room for creativity. 

"There's almost always more freedom than we think," said John, then shared several examples from his own teaching. 

In one course, he had a rigid mandatory language block with his ELLs, but he was able to teach all the skills required by having his students do inquiry-based podcasts they called "Curiosity Casts." 

In another, he transformed a mandatory grammar hour replete with workbooks to a Genius Hour project in which the students learned the skills by writing their own "Geek Out Blogs." 

From there we began talking about his book Empower, and about an amazing metaphor he used to describe the various methods of teaching. 

  • Baskin Robbins Teaching: The 31 Flavors. Teachers do the work, providing students with varied and engaging lessons. 

  • Coldstone Creamery Teaching: Personalized Learning. Students have lots of choice but it is all highly programmed, they do not control the process.

  • Froyo Teaching: Students have lots of control over both process and content. 

As we dove deep into Froyo, John reiterated that "empowering students is NOT extra work." It's unpredictable, full of adventure, exciting. 

Next I asked how teachers might begin to dive into this realm of empowered learning. 

John suggested starting simply. After all, "it's a process!" He suggested choosing one area of your curriculum and one project.

For example, take a wasted day, in which the nature of your school calendar is going to dictate that not much is accomplished. Try out a wonder day

Or launch a genius hour project and try "geek-out blogs." 

Maybe give maker challenges a try. 

There's no need to rewrite everything you're doing. Just experiment. Try one thing and see how students like it. See how you like it. See if you are indeed able to cover the standards you need to cover while also empowering students to pursue their own passions a bit more. 

We also talked about design thinking, and how it is actually a very natural fit for the ELA classroom. 

"Students should be designing something," he said. "They should own the entire process." 

In essence, the design thinking model he described included four steps:

1. Questions
2. Research (this is key, and the part that suits ELA classrooms especially well)
3. Ideate
4. Present / Launch

And the secret sauce is empathy. Students must be thinking deeply about the audience for whom they are creating. 

Finally, we talked for a moment about the charge to teachers John once made on his podcast, to change the narrative of our schools to be more positive. 

Everywhere I look in schools I see amazing teachers doing amazing things, yet the phrase I so often hear is "our struggling schools." Ick. 

While there may indeed be bureaucratic struggles, testing struggles, financial struggles, and political struggles, there are also incredible things happening, and our news media isn't telling that story. So let's tell it ourselves. 

Start telling the world about the amazing things happening in your classroom in your social media. And use the hashtags #applaudingourstudents or #greatkidsgreatschools so we can all come and celebrate with you. Because we ARE the change we want to see in the world, and it's time to tell everyone. 

Ready to learn more about John Spencer and his work? 

You can find his amazing blog right here, and then I suggest sprinting (virtually) straight over to his youtube channel over here. After six or seven productive hours watching all his videos, you'll be ready to subscribe to his podcast on iTunes here. Or you can always find him on Twitter or Facebook

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