050: The Power of Imperfect Action in the Classroom


You know that feeling you get when you consider trying something new? You're a little excited and a lot worried. Maybe you want to learn French, but you immediately decide you don't have time. Or you want to take a dance class, but you think you don't have enough background for "Beginning Dance."

It's easy to get paralyzed by that feeling, and tie your own feet together. Easy to feel like you need to do a few months of research before making a decision, comparison shop for hours before choosing a new item for your home, read a half dozen pedagogy books before trying a new strategy in your classroom.

Except... who has the time?

Today's podcast (and post) is all about taking imperfect action when you feel stuck. Because in the end, any good action moves things forwards in your classroom, even if it's not Pinterest-perfect.


If you're ready to find out how to move past the paralysis and into new creative classroom options, this (50th!) episode is definitely for you. You can listen below, or on iTunesBlubrry, or Stitcher. Read on for the written version.




Eighteen months ago, I decided to start a podcast. I was so busy that listening to audio classes and podcasts was the ONLY way I could learn anything new. I imagined so many teachers out there in the same boat, teachers I wanted to support in their creative work.

I had a microphone left over from a video project I had done years before. I googled "How to start a podcast," and a few weeks later I posted my first episodes to iTunes.

I could easily have gotten held up in the details. Did I need some kind of special soundproofing in my office so you wouldn't hear the giggles of the girls in the dorm on the other side of my wall? Should I have had a professional design my podcast image? Did I need to advertise for my "launch" so that I would rank higher in iTunes? Did I need to learn to mix music and add sound effects and find sponsors?

Not really.

I decided the most important thing was just to try putting it out there.

Now, fifty episodes later, I've gotten to interview so many teachers and authors from around the country who I truly respect. I've watched joyfully as the podcast's downloads number has risen to thirty-five thousand. I feel so happy when I read a new review, and imagine that when I sit alone in my office late at night with my microphone, I am able to help change the path of a classroom somewhere out there in the world.

Imperfect action is everything.

I've been reading the book Finish, by Jon Acuff. He talks about cutting goals in half and choosing what to bomb. He shares that the heavy majority of goals never get completed. His words really struck a chord with me. It's easy to dream of revolutionizing a class curriculum, changing everything to be more student-centered, more efficient with technology, more engaging in terms of discussion, projects, and reading.

But when it's already eleven pm, you had string cheese for dinner, and you just finished grading your papers, is there time for a revolution?

No. But maybe there's time for a small step. An imperfect action, but an action nonetheless.

When I was a first year teacher, I received a packet of information at a retreat session for us newbies. Inside were a few examples of discussion charts for a method called Harkness.



I was intrigued by what I saw. A round table discussion method? Maybe it could help me get my students to participate more, because I felt pretty dominant in my "discussions" in class.

I read a little more online, watched a youtube video or two. Then I photocopied the discussion charts, marched into every section I was teaching, and unveiled a one month experiment to dive head over heels into Harkness.

Was I truly prepared? Did I know what I was doing? Not really. But I was excited, and I had some knowledge. I learned as I went, alongside my students. One class took to it immediately. One class took to it slowly. It was a bit disastrous in two others, but they got onto the tracks after a few weeks. Their issues propelled me into more research, and I kept adding ideas and strategies to the mix. After one month every class was doing pretty well with Harkness, and I knew I'd never look back.

The next summer I attended the Exeter Humanities Institute and dove deep into the strategy with the fine teachers there for a full week. I also met my husband there. Over the following years I taught hundreds of students how to talk to each other. How to really listen. How to respect each other's views.

Harkness became deeply important to me. I began teaching other teachers how to use it at conferences small and large. I wrote about my experience with it for Independent School Magazine a couple of years ago in a highly personal article called "Learning to Share."

What if I had waited, that day when I first saw the charts? What if I felt I didn't know enough to experiment in my classroom?

I can think of so many times I took imperfect action in my role as an educator (and I bet you can to!). There was the night I combed the internet for hours trying to figure out how to connect my students to poetry. Just before midnight I discovered poetry slam, and fell down the rabbit hole of spoken word websites and slam videos. Five days later, I watched four classes of students host their very first poetry slams. Was it because of my expert leadership? Nope. But I did have a lot of enthusiasm.

During one difficult season in my teaching job in Bulgaria, I just couldn't figure out how to help my students enjoy reading in English. I discovered Nancy Atwell's work with reading workshop, read one of her books, and turned my curriculum over to choice reading for a few weeks. From there I built an independent reading program to go alongside our class novels, tweaked and adjusted it over the years, and was soon presenting the method to a packed house at the CATE annual conference.

My first reading library in Bulgaria. 

Then there was the time I suggested all the tenth graders at my school produce their own podcasts as an interdisciplinary project between our English and history classes. Long before I ever started one of my own, I acted as a cheerleader for those kids. I didn't know the first thing about audio recording, but I knew they did. And I knew the internet would be there for us when we had questions. Listening to the way they wove together their interviews, their thematic bridges, their music, I couldn't have been happier I decided to unroll that project despite the gaps in my own knowledge.

It's amazing what small steps can accomplish. You don't have to know it all. You don't have to have all the research. You don't have to take a theater class to encourage your students to act, be a filmmaker to help your students start a youtube channel, or know how to paint to help your students create a mural. You just have to dive in. Take imperfect action. See what happens.

Because as educators, we learn as we go. We respond to our students' needs and adjust as we see what is working. We read more as we have time. We ask colleagues and compare experiences. We snatch a few minutes on our commute to listen to a podcast on the subject or ask a question about it in a Facebook group before bed.

That's just how life is. If we wait for perfect, we wait forever.

Have you ever watched The Great British Baking Show? My husband and I are addicted. We love to see what home bakers come up with as they are challenged to make Swiss rolls, wedding cakes, donuts, and more. They prepare as they can in the week before the challenge, in the hours they can snatch before work and after the kids go to bed, and then they do their best. The world watches and loves them for their efforts. What if they were to scared to try, knowing they weren't "masters" of the food they would be challenged to make?

So here we are. Today I challenge you to put your fears aside and dive in. To try the new things you hear about in education, even if they don't go perfectly. Even if they aren't Pinterest-ready. Host a book tasting on the fly, then improve it for next year. Introduce your students to sketchnotes, whether or not you own any gel pens or fancy notebooks. Try an escape room, even if you don't have time to learn much about codes or order any padlocks. Introduce your reading program, even if you're still stuck in the middle of Reading 180, Readacide, No More Fake Reading, or The Reading Zone. Don't wait.

Fifty episodes later, I'm glad I googled "How to start a podcast." It's been an amazing eighteen months, folks. Little did I ever think I'd have my own theme music. Thanks for joining me for the ride.



Want to celebrate episode fifty with me? If this podcast has given you some worthwhile takeaways this year, I'd love for you to leave a review. It just takes a minute.

2 comments

  1. Wow, it's so wierd how serendipitous this post was for me! I teach in a different subject area but imperfect action is an exactly perfect solution for me. Thanks for your willingness to help other teachers out with your blog posts - they're "perfect!" 😁

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    Replies
    1. Melissa, that makes me so happy to hear! I'm really glad you found some freedom to act here. And thank you for telling me, you made my night!

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