Creativity = Motivation + Discipline

All I need to write by Grant Snider


This post started as a quick reflection on my personal journal on Tumblr and why I haven’t felt like posting lately.


But the more thought and consideration I put into it, the more it seemed appropriate to write a more formal article to reflect on and share my creative process. I have always been frustrated with my creative output, and a self study was long overdue.

To begin my analysis, I reflected on my feelings. Sometimes I feel creative. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I feel motivated. Sometimes I don’t. I sketched a graph to represent these poles.



Next, I considered which activities seemed to align with different conditions. When I feel highly creative and highly motivated, it’s difficult to stop myself from creative work. However, when I feel neither creative nor motivated, even simple editing or organizing feels like a significant accomplishment.

But is my creativity at the mercy of my feelings? Do my moods really dictate my output?


That’s when I decided to get really geeky and gather some actual data by creating a Google Form for myself which I keep open in a tab on my smartphone web browser.




Over the past few weeks, I have diligently assessed my activities, resulting in some interesting data.


Mostly, I am curious to analyze these data to discover patterns. Do I follow my feelings logically? Do my activities influence my feelings? Am I wasting my most creative opportunities?

As this self assessment continues, I took some time to explore my creative history…


The muse is not a fairy

My first and most important lesson in creativity came from Jack Grapes, founder of the Los Angeles Poets & Writers Collective. In a writers’ workshop session, he described how it was a mistake to believe that creative inspiration is a phenomenon that ‘happens’ to us.

He instructed us to follow a creative routine: Write at a certain time each day. By doing this, we would train our minds to think during thinking time and write during writing time. Ignore spontaneous inspiration that leads to pulling over to the side of the road to jot down an idea you ‘don’t want to forget’. 


If the idea isn’t good enough to remember, it’s not good enough to drop everything to write down. Trust that the vast complexity of our brains will cooperate.


Connect socially

Jon Caliguiri, an old friend, also an alum of Jack’s writing courses, and long time creative collaborator responded to my post by sharing his Song of the Month Challenge:


‘I agree! Almost 3 years ago, a friend and I committed to writing and recording a song a month each.  We’ve been doing it consistently for that time and I haven’t missed a month aside from the “furlough” months we take off every year to reedit and tweak things.  It’s been the greatest experience and has helped my songwriting and recording immensely. It’s like a book club for rock and roll.’

Connecting with others in my creative work has always been a weak point for me. I don’t accept critique particularly well. I respond to critique terribly. I take great pride in my work, but ironically not enough to share with confidence. Often, my products are not shared until they are finished and my focus and energy have moved on to a new project. 

Perhaps the brilliance of Jon’s project is that it’s a concrete commitment, not a nebulous goal. What he’s making is not necessarily as important as his engagement in the process.


The product flows from the process, and the quality of the songs he has produced is clearly increasing as a result of his commitment.


Jon’s comments reminded me of a quote by Duke Ellington which I also referenced in the post, Exhibition: PBL To The Max!‘I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.’


Discipline

Arguably, the most important element of creativity is discipline. While I was studying music at The New School, my piano teacher, LeeAnne Ledgerwood, shared an important video which I published and commented on in the post, Bill Evans – Creative Process and Self Teaching. In the video, Bill insists that honesty and commitment are crucial to building creative fluency. An analytical approach that systematically builds skills lays the foundation for creative expression.

The more I reflect, the more the solution is clear. I need to set aside a time to practice creativity. As a teacher, father, and husband, that time can only be five o’clock in the morning. This wouldn’t be the first time to follow such a masochistic schedule, as I described in the post No Sleep November, but the purpose is quite different, more personal, and permanent.

Can I drag myself out of bed that early every day? Or perhaps a better question is ‘how?’ Nobody else is going to do it for me. Optimistic, the short video by CHris Jimenez, provides a succinct guide that is helpful for me.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/80037988


Perhaps if I can focus on going to bed well, I’ll be on my way to meeting the first goal of waking up in a good mood.


There have been two great graphics on creative routines published recently: The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People and When Genius Slept, both based on Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. Another resource worth exploring further is This Emotional Life guide to Creativity by PBS.


These are all great for entertainment and even inspiration. They may even lead to increased motivation. But they won’t finish a novel or My String Quartet.


The only way to achieve those goals is through discipline to commit to a regular work time and to muster the courage to share my works in progress early and often.

It’s going to hurt, but it will be worth it. 
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Making action visible in the PYP

Of the facets of the IB Primary Years Program, my Grade 5/6 class emphasizes Action by focusing on three elements from our school’s Mission Statement & Philosophy: ‘inspired’, ‘independent’, and ‘contribute to world peace’.

With this in mind, in the first week of school we discussed and agreed to a class identity: Uniters.

Rather than addressing my class as ‘Grade 5/6’ or ‘children’ or ‘hey you’, I say ‘Uniters’. Aesthetically, it’s a bit like being a team of superheroes. Compared to being called a number or being identified by one’s category, who wouldn’t prefer being called ‘Uniter’, ‘Peacemaker’, or ‘Humanitarian’?

The theme of ‘unity’ provides a rich context for inspiring, evoking, sharing, discussing, and reflecting on action. An emphasis on action will be particularly important in the spring when this class prepares their PYP Exhibition, a self-directed inquiry project with the ambitious goals of authentic action, community service, and engagement with globally significant issue.

Organizing

Along the LX Design line of inquiry, I realized that we need an interactive tool to document and share our ‘action’ in its various forms. At first I considered digital tools, but none seemed to provide the immediacy and high visibility required. Thinking of my wife, Yuka‘s ‘inspiration board’ at home, I wondered if a bulletin board would be best.

The following tweet from Craig Dwyer and the informative Action in the PYP document to which it links helped to stimulate my thinking further.

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The primary goal being to move students’ awareness from thinking about action to planning and doing, our classroom dry erase whiteboard would be ideal. It’s an easily accessible space, simple to edit, conspicuously located near the front door, and doesn’t get much use other than reminders and doodles otherwise. However, we also needed the capability of categorizing our actions and seeing them develop through different stages, sharing and discussing.


Although it would take a substantial amount of work, I set out to make a laminated paper graphic organizer. It was a bit of a tedious process, but therapeutic, and an opportunity to model independently and carefully completing a project for my students.


My first iteration had a fatal flaw in that the categories (thought, emotion, planning, conversation, making, reflection) did not properly evoke action. An ‘action’ chart should be made of verbs.

After disposing of two thirds of it, and having the presence of mind to ask a passing student to take a ‘working in progress’ photograph, I created a second draft with categories in the more satisfying ‘-ing’ form.


When various forms of action occur to us, we write them in the appropriate boxes. Weekly, we visit the chart and discuss its contents. Often, students have taken action to pursue their inquiries. In those cases, they generally move down the chart from ‘thinking’ or ‘feeling’ to ‘planning’ or ‘making’. Sometimes, they need help to continue their inquiries which comes in the form of advice, assistance, or even just a friendly reminder. There have even been a few cases of students being inspired to take up other their peers’ lines of inquiry.

It has also been useful for me as an organizer for action within our guided and structured inquiries. It has been effective to model the process of taking considered action and integrating our class inquiries with students’ independent inquiries.

Sharing

A new application of the chart is to share on social media via our class Twitter account:
I look forward to exploring this more, perhaps by tweeting to other classes directly or joining in existing ‘chats’.

Reflecting

In retrospect, I wish I had included ‘researching’ and ‘playing’ as categories.

It is also critical to revisit the chart regularly, as it is too easy to fill it with a few questions and forget about it.

Perhaps a more dynamic design is in order. Considering the meager utility the remainder of the white board gets, I’m considering making a new organizer that fills the entire board, includes additional categories, and has more visual appeal. Any suggestions are welcome!

How do you document and engage with the process of taking action?

How to eat sushi (like a snob)

A long time ago, I submitted my How to eat sushi (like a snob) ‘how to’ video to the Making Learning Connected Make Bank, a fantastic cooperative repository of accomplishment and inspiration. According to Terry Elliot’s post, the Make Bank is a Convivial Tool, and I agree whole-heartedly.

https://bartmiller.makes.org/popcorn/246k_

You may also find this article from The Creativity Post interesting: Seven Life Lessons From Making Sushi contains life and learning lessons from one of Japan’s most renowned sushi chefs, Jiro Ono.

If you’re hungry for more cat sushi pictures, please savor this post from Spoon & Tamago: Nekozushi | an absurd combination of cats and sushi.

Maker Club year 1

One year ago, I started a Maker Club at my school as part of our after school program. While maker spaces for older learners generally focus on robotics and digital creation, I believe that an elementary maker experience should start from concrete, physical creation. Most of our materials were donated by families, but we also frequently raid the school art supplies.

Based on my participation in the Learning Creative Learning MOOC in 2013, the initial guiding principles for our Maker Club were Independence and Social Creativity.

Independence

It’s critical that Maker Club have no assignments. The only requirement is to always be ‘making’. Imagining, researching, designing, sharing, and reflecting are all parts of the making process.

Maker Faire often includes digital production, as well as arts and crafts, engineering and construction, cooking, scientific experiments and demonstrations, and the visual and performing arts. There are no artificial limits.

For the first few meetings, there was a refrain of ‘What should I make?’, ‘What do you want to make?’. This dialog is indicative of empowerment. As young makers realize that they are in control of their learning in their maker space, their creativity is ignited.

In a sense, this is what makes a maker space. Of course, maker tools and materials are important, but most important is fostering an environment in which everyone feels safe to experiment and create.

Every maker must be encouraged to try anything, and indeed, ‘makes’ that fail are not failures at all. Failures are courageous learning experiences and opportunities to safely practice a growth mindset.

Social Creativity

Social Creativity is the notion that creativity is a social activity. Innovation by adapting existing ideas, sharing, cooperating, and collaborating respects the idea that creation is an act of communication.

Every week, we update a Maker Club Projects spreadsheet that both serves to document our activities and as an archive to inspire innovation and collaboration.

The framework for assessment in our Maker Club is from The Tinkering Studio’s Design, Make, Play and consists of the the criteria of Engagement, Intentionality, Innovation, and Solidarity. This rubric emphasizes process over product and social interaction over individual achievement. These principles guide me in my role as facilitator in coaching young makers.


Play, passion, projects, peers

The most recent iteration of the Learning Creative Learning MOOC introduced the ‘4 Ps’ of play, passion, projects, and peers. Mitchell Resnick also introduced the Creative Learning Spiral, which became the inquiry model for our Maker Club.


This model is exceptionally effect for maintaining makers’ momentum.


Gallery

Please enjoy these photos of various works in progress. All photos by Bart Miller (CC BY 4.0).

One ambitious maker, inspired by a Maker Faire video, attempted to convert her bicycle into a cupcake. The project proved to be too complex for the scope of our once per week club, but she did manage to complete a ‘cherry on top’ helmet.


A pair of makers surprised me with an impromptu hand puppet show!


One of my favorite makes was this mixed media artwork. I noticed a maker with a large piece of cardboard and a pile of assorted materials.

I asked, ‘What are you making here?’
She replied, ‘I don’t know, I’m just making it.’

That’s precisely the spirit I love to see in a maker space, and is a glowing example of creative learning in action.


A student asked, ‘Is it ok if I practice piano during Maker Club?’

Yes, it is very ok to make music in Maker Club.


Often, younger makers start with a familiar project, like making a greeting card. The exciting thing is the freedom with which they innovate and iterate. Arts and crafts lessons tend to be more structured, which is of course very effective for developing a particular skill. In Maker Club, we emphasize creativity over specific skill development.


One of the older makers inspired some first graders to decorate plastic bottle caps. Learning from each other and innovating each others’ ideas is an element of social creativity that comes alive in a maker space.


The classroom computers have quick links to various digital maker sites such as Scratch, DIY, and The Hour of Code


Yet another exciting development is makers using our club time to create for projects in their ‘regular’ class. Blurring the boundaries between learning in different settings is one of my driving goals as an educator. In the photo above, a maker begins work on a robot ticket booth for a classroom carnival.

If they start building cardboard ‘robots’, it’s not a huge leap to consider adding mechanical joints, gears, or motors!


Our Maker Club achieved a new level of complexity when a new member resolved to build a guitar. I was hoping that they would inquire into how to make it playable, but they were satisfied with it as is.


Making is messy. That’s part of what makes it fun and what makes the learning that happens in a maker space so authentic and deep. I’ve learned the hard way how important it is to have rather strict clean up procedures.


One rather reluctant maker jumped at the chance to dissect a donated broken DVD player. I suggested to use our camera to take ‘macro’ photos of the innards, and the result was an interesting blend of art and technology.

Starting Year 2

Happily, by adhering to the principles of independence and social creativity, a tremendous amount of positive momentum has accumulated.

Some makers have come and gone, choosing other options for their after school program.

But some have caught maker fever. They need Maker Club.

To express the feeling of this new year of Maker Club, please enjoy this poem:

Maker Fever

Fidget through meetings
sneak to prepare materials
anxious to maximize time.

Don’t ask to ‘use this’ or ‘make that’.
Don’t need permission
in our maker space.

Make things at school,
share them at home.

Make things at home,
share them at school.

Make anywhere;
share everywhere.

Quality increases.

Confidence
Time management
Social interactions
Friendship

Constructed understanding reflected in classwork.

Attention to details
Planning
Resilience
Mindset

We are makers.

We can make anything.

All we need is space, time, and stuff.
(stuff is optional)

We are makers.




Deeper Learning Student Work

Looking at student work

I’d like to share three pieces of student work, each of which shows unique applications of deeper learning.

Landforms

The first is a Grade 2 ‘landforms’ project. The task was to build and paint an island with landforms. The example shows a few examples of deeper geographical understanding, especially that the river is carved into the land, rather than simply painted on, and that it flows from the hills to the ocean.
However, it would have been better to provide greater opportunities to practice with the clay and paint in a creative way. The student’s reflection, ‘I could to better’, is very revealing of the fact that this little project utilized too many different, new skills. I should have planned a stand-alone art unit using these tools before applying them in this Geography activity.

It’s a great example of how thoughtful planning should authentically scaffold deeper learning, so that when the real tasks of the inquiry present themselves, students have access to a broad range of skills and knowledge.

Additionally, it was connected to a service-learning project focused on access to clean, fresh water, so the students had opportunities to transfer this learning to authentic situations outside of the school.

Fruit and Seeds

Next, also in Grade 2, in an activity to investigate, observe, and compare the seeds of various fruit, a parent volunteer and I sliced twelve different fruits and arranged centers with each around the room. Students used a graphic organizer to explore, draw, compare and discuss.
Is it deeper learning? I can say for certain that the students enjoyed the activity. This example is from a student who generally struggled to complete work, yet he managed to excel in this case. Referring to the Hewlett Foundation’s definition of Deeper Learning, I believe that this is an artifact of deeper learning for a seven-year-old, primarily due to the social, investigative, and integrated arts nature of the activity.
Perhaps it would have been deeper if there were a connection to a significant global issue, had been extended through an exploratory field trip, or led to an urban garden project.

Flying cars?

This final example comes from Grade 6 and our current unit of inquiry into the evolution of scientific understanding and its effects on people’s lives.
After a modeled inquiry into 3D Printing, students were tasked with researching an emerging technology and publish a blog post about it.

This student’s post shows application of a range of research, thinking, and communication skills. In particular, the student demonstrates growing awareness for digital publishing techniques by way of the embedded videos and text organization.

Finally, it is public and invites the reader to participate in the inquiry, which I think is a hallmark feature of deeper learning.

Reflection

Looking at student work, I think it’s important to notice that elements of deeper learning occur in almost every experience. The responsibility lies with, in the case of school, the teacher whose task is to design a learning environment that supports the various elements of deeper learning with balance and flexibility to be relevant to each individual learner.

Independent Inquiry: Origami

A group of students in my class is exploring the Origami Club website to learn to fold new and more complex creations. The site includes hundreds, if not thousands of designs with blueprint and animated instructions.

Connected Learning like this is very inspiring. They are utilizing the Internet to pursue their inquiry, using mathematical vocabulary in authentic contexts, cooperating by taking turns choosing which design to follow, helping each other, and enjoying themselves.

I’m interested to see if any of them take the inquiry further, perhaps by earning a DIY Papercrafter Patch or participating in an online community like The Origami Forum. As their teacher, it’s important to make sure that they have access to those opportunities, so I added links to the Independent Inquiry page on our class wiki.

The Evolution of Independent Inquiry

When I introduced Independent Inquiry in my Grade 4 class during the last school year, it was out of a desire to reinvent homework as a more relevant activity connecting learning at school with learning at home. The primary inspiration was the MIT Media Lab Learning Creative Learning course, and in particular, being introduced to Connected Learning.

Interest-driven learning comes as naturally to us human beings as breathing and scratching ourselves. The brain is made for it. We naturally seek creative solutions to problems and desire to learn what is useful and/or fun. I also became fascinated with the Maker Education Initiative and the implications of purposeful play for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education.

Why does school try to make learning so hard?

We began using a Google Form to reflect on our inquiries and holding weekly meetings to discuss the independent projects we were doing at home. Some highlighted projects can be found by searching the independent inquiry label here on Symphony of Ideas.

Soon after, I discovered Genius Hour. There were thousands of teachers around the world providing class time for students to pursue their passions and interests! Teaching at an inquiry school, I always provide time for independent research and autonomous learning opportunities, however, only along the lines of inquiry specified in our units.

The time had come to blow it wide open. I started a wiki to clarify purpose for myself and share with other educators, collect relevant resources and supporting articles, and publish my students’ reflections.
Starting this school year, and for the past three months, we have dedicated one to two hours per week to “indinq”, independent inquiry. The students operate on their own authority, with only suggestions or assistance coming from me. The only requirement is that they use our google form to reflect and document their activities.
The results have been impressive, including a pair who collaborated to create a robot using Lego MindStorms, a group who choreographed a dance routine to one of their favorite songs, an inquiry into improving basketball free-throw percentage, earning do-it-yourself badges, and exploring various web-based tools like Soundation and Mozilla Popcorn Maker to produce and remix original works of art.
Most of what I do these days during ‘indinq’ is document. I’ve created a notebook in Evernote for each student and take pictures, occasionally with brief voice comments, when I notice a student reaching a milestone, obstacle, epiphany, or when collaborations begin or end, or for just about anything, really. The atmosphere in the room is so electric, virtually anything is an assessable learning experience.

If I had to choose the greatest benefit of independent inquiry, I would say that it is relevance. Because the students are pursuing their own interests, their learning is always meaningful. The skills and attitudes they develop transfer fluidly to other activities and they take pride in sharing their creations with the school community.

To a teacher unsure how to start or reticent to release the reins in their classroom, I recommend to start with something structured and gradually let go. Trust your students to trust their instincts. They know what they need to learn. Let them.