Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Dr. Seuss-Style

I subscribe to a writer whose inspirational posts I find rewarding and thoughtful. Last week, James Clear posted an article about Dr. Seuss' writing strategy called The Weird Strategy Dr. Seuss Used to Create his Greatest Work. It's about the bet Dr. Seuss made to write a children's book using only 50 different words and how there is great creative value in limitations and restrictions. That best-selling book of course was Green Eggs and Ham. Over a few days, I found myself thinking about the implications of this idea on the lives of teachers. We have time restrictions galore, but I wondered how--in a world of more, more, more--we could use material/physical restrictions to maximize our teaching creativity.

In my younger years, I used to move a lot. I've lived in various cities in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and I even spent a year in Las Vegas. One thing you learn from moving so much is to use the experience to condense and refocus. In particular, my move to Las Vegas was a filtering experience. I moved with only a van-full of personal possessions. It was an opportunity to really whittle down the nonessentials and determine what it was that I really needed to keep with me. (Luckily, I wasn't attached to any big pieces of furniture. I could not make that move with only a van-full of items now.) The experience of "cleaning house" was liberating, and I felt open to a world of new learning experiences and possibilities. It also helped me recall some valuable memories that were buried under piles of the mundane.

I had a similar experience a few years ago when I changed classrooms. I took the time to filter through materials and focus on what to keep and what to get rid of. Getting rid of the clutter helped me regain my focus and course correct my teaching.  I had boxes of materials for projects that I hadn't done since my second year teaching--Gone! I had old lessons plans from classes I would never teach again--Trashed! I even found a crate full of student papers that I couldn't bear to throw away because they had worked so hard--those kids have since graduated!

Let's face it, teachers are packrats. We keep student work, we print off possible lessons, we get great ideas but never see them through. We get free materials (or can't resist shopping at back-to-school prices) and think we'll eventually find a use for them. We have lessons or strategies that we've used for a long time without seeing the same positive results we may have initially experienced, but we can't bear to get rid of them. We hoard; we're hoarders. And it's all of these things pressing down on us that keep us from being creative. They are distractions and the best thing we can do is scale down to eliminate them.

Winter break is the perfect time for a mini scale down. Challenge yourself: get rid of half of the stuff in your classroom that is not being used right now. What, half??? Yes, half. Filter it out, keep the exceptional, and scrap the rest. Give yourself a chance to get creative. Or, if that doesn't work for you because you just can't bear the thought of throwing things away (hoarder! it takes one to know one) then pick one thing--lesson, material, whatever--and figure out a way to use it the first week you come back from break. Better yet, make a list of all the things you haven't used, and figure out how to use them, one per week. If they are just sitting there--and this goes for ideas, too--then they're taking up space. Get rid of the clutter and find the creativity. Use it or lose it.

If a masterwork of children's literature is the result of limiting oneself to writing with only 50 different words, imagine what you can do by scaling down your classroom clutter. In the process of selecting the best materials, strategies, and lessons from the results of years of collecting, you might just find--or create!-a teaching gem.

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