About a year ago, in the midst of a number of hallway conversations related to Ken Robinson, Andy Warhol’s factory, talent shows and theatre troops, the idea for the Putman Creative Labs was born. The driving question was, how can we leverage, honour, and encourage the creative capacities of our students?
The Creative Labs project began by simply opening up our library one noon hour a week with an invitation to students to “come in and use our equipment to create podcasts, movies, posters…anything you like!” The only rule was that students couldn’t use the time to work on their homework or class related activities.
Today, the Creative Labs runs five days a week. Here’s a video I shared with the school community to give them a glimpse of the lab:
Less of me, more of them. A guest podcast by one of my favourite educational commentators, my son.
I love the notion of universal design in theory and in practice. Lately, a number of initiatives at Putman have started to really bloom and I thought it would be worth shining a light on the hopes and the outcomes of some of these projects. The cool thing about these initiatives is that the original focus was on positive outcomes for one or two students.
- My amazing VP brought in the Roots of Empathy program. The hope was to garner a bit of buy in and develop some empathy in one of our more disengaged intermediate students. The outcome has been the creation of a 20 or so strong student community of learners. Our one student has become a contributing member of this group and now has many entry points for positive interactions with a healthy social circle.
- Another amazing teacher started a breakfast club. The hope was to provide a few students with a healthy start to their day. The outcome has been more akin to a healthy start for the larger school community. By 7:50 a wonderful mix of staff and students congregate in our cafeteria. Our chief custodian acts both as lead coffee maker and cafe d.j. The founding teacher plays quarterback and organizes her group of volunteer staff and students to feed the masses. Staff wander in and out to socialize with students and pour themselves a cup of coffee. Students swing in for a muffin (homemade by another spin-off group started at the breakfast club) and a glass of milk as they congregate at the tables to work on projects and socialize. A project originally intended for a few has become a wonderful part of the Putman school culture.
- I will write in more detail about the Putman Creative Labs at a later date but for the purposes of this post I will provide a summary. The hope of the lab was to create an organic space where students could come together, use school equipment, and create. The only condition laid out for this open space was that students needed to be creating. It was not a space to work on homework but a space to explore and create. The original hope was to bring together a handful of students. The outcome of the project has far surpassed our original expectations. The Creative Labs are responsible for the birth of hundreds of comics, dozens of podcasts, 2 early stage rock’n roll bands, a photography club (with professional photographer as mentor), at least 2 movies in production and more. The kids are learning from each other and building their own capacities for skill sets that are transferable to the classroom. Although we haven’t been keeping stats, I would estimate that almost 3/4 of the school has come to the Creative Labs.
I would love to hear more stories of universal design in action!
Thoughts on Collaboration or All Roads Lead to the Beatles
I just got done watching this awesome doc, Composing the Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney 1966-1970, on the latter part of the songwriting collaboration between Lennon and McCartney. It got me thinking about what an interesting beast collaboration can be and also about the conditions that support creativity.
I would never claim to be any type of an expert on the inner workings of the Beatles at this time in their career but a few things are plain to see for me: (1) this was a time of great stress and pressure for the individual members of the band (2) they had experienced a relative degree of failure in terms of public acceptance of their work (e.g. Magical Mystery Tour a bit of a bust, comparisons to Jesus etc…) and (3) this was a time of explosive creativity and innovation…easily my favourite period in their history…hmmmm…stress + failure = explosive creativity and innovation?
I think the message that I get from this reflection, and the parallel that I can draw when looking inside our own organization is this: when individuals learn how to work together (and see the successful outcomes in this work), when they have confidence in what they are doing (a by-product of earlier success) and when they have a clear purpose, I think that a real resiliency is developed.
As leaders, we need to shine a light on the successful collaborative practices that are going on inside our classrooms and hallways (however big or small). Appreciative inquiry provides a wonderful framework to find and honour this collaboration. We need to provide opportunities to cultivate collaboration whether it be through classroom setup, timetabling co-planning etc.. and we need to always bring the focus back to what matter most….kids.
Like any relationship, the inner-workings of our school communities can be filled with times of stress and times of failure. It is imperative that we celebrate each other’s successes and maintain a clear focus on what is working to improve learning opportunities for our students.
So there I am, doing a classroom visit at a neighbouring school on a mission to talk Mathematical problem solving. There may have been a few too many adults in the room as I am not sure who was doing more observing…the students or the visitors. After the novelty wore off the students got down to work on some collaborative problem solving relating to the relationships between circumference and diameter of a circle.
I made my way into a corner to casually observe two boys who were seated beside the teacher’s desk (judging from some of the cracks I heard the boys make, this may have been intentional seating). The first boy grabs a measuring tape, marks the circumference and creates a circle….a brilliant first move. He then looks at his partner, looks at the paper in front of him, abandons the tape measure and starts to write the symbol for pi down a few times. A few more jokes follow and a few more uncomfortable pauses as they realize that I am watching them watch me try to look casual.
The other boy then turned around and pretended to sneak a look at the paper of the group adjacent to them…brilliant second move! They exchange a few more laughs and throw a somewhat guilty glance my way as they get back to staring at their paper and doodling more pi symbols.
These two boys got me thinking about the importance of developing and nurturing a type of qualitative faith in our students. If these two intermediate students had gone with their gut instincts …used the tape measure to rough out a circle…grab some ideas from a peer…they would have been half way done the problem in a manner that would be applauded in many organizations. I only wish that more people had the sense of play and interpersonal zest that comes so naturally to many of our students….it also made me wonder how our classrooms and schools have often become stiflers of this instinct instead of cultivators…
Lest you think that I have a passion for both brushes and beakers, I thought I should spend a post reflecting on what inspired the name of my humble little blog…please excuse the excessive use of the phrase “I believe”…this may read a bit like my philosophy of learning…
We often hear the expression “teaching is both an art and a science”. I believe that everything that goes on in a school community can be classified as either an art or a science…or a bit of both!
The art of learning is our ability as a school community to intentionally harness the human potential of our membership (staff, students, parents, outside community). How are we honouring the passions, interests and learning styles of our school community? How do our processes and practices allow opportunities for our school community to take part and to take risks.? How do we intentionally foster an environment that allows a light to be shined on the passions of our members? Ideally, a focus on the art of learning leads to school community steeped in engagement.
The science of learning is our ability as a school community to transform and harness the passions, interests and learning styles of our community in ways that lead to positive academic outcomes. What are the best practices and PD opportunities (with a nod to Shannon Smith‘s recent blog post, “What counts as professional development?“) that we are fostering to improve student achievement? What are the processes in place that set up ideal conditions for high yield strategies like co-planning, moderation and active reflection? Do school improvement plans set up high expectations for students? Are practices and expectations aligned just enough to ensure all students a safe network of supports and high expectations across the grade levels? Ideally, a focus on the science of learning leads to improved academic outcomes for all students.
This rather basic balance has become one of my reference points when considering new school initiatives and reconsidering/reflecting on past and present processes and initiatives.