Gratitude

The Worst Presentation Ever!

I don't think you can appreciate the glory of life unless you can also know the dark side of life.     

- Bessel Van Der Kolk

If it was never dark, we would have no way of understanding what light was. If we had never experienced suffering or sadness, it would be hard to comprehend what joy and happiness feel like. If we had never been sick, we would take times of good health completely for granted. In order for something to be truly and deeply understood and appreciated by humans, we also need to experience its opposite.  

The negative aspects of things can be our best teachers, even if they are painful or difficult to go through. While they are not always enjoyable, these experiences often contain lessons that we might not learn as quickly or deeply another way, and the education we receive by going through the difficulties can often be much more powerful than the learning we might otherwise glean from more positive, "easy" experiences. It sucks, but it's true. Sometimes, when we are sitting in the middle of something painful, it is difficult to see how it will benefit us in the longer term, but looking back later, we can understand how the difficulties have made us smarter, stronger, kinder, and more resilient. Working through challenges can help us develop a sense of gratitude for the many wonderful things in our lives. 

All of the above are ideas I have been processing and pondering as part of the path my life has been leading me on lately.  I wondered if there were any lessons that I could take out of what I was learning in this part of my personal journey that could be applied in my classroom. I decided to try to put these concepts to use to help improve upon one of the more painful things I have had to experience as an educator: really bad presentations.

I am being somewhat facetious, and am not trying to minimize terrible life experiences by saying that what we feel while enduring a presentation with bad Slides or PowerPoints is on par with the pain we feel when going through something traumatic (although... I suppose it may depend who you ask! LOL). Nevertheless, I have heard people share feelings that mirror what I have heard others describe in terms of physical pain when they are anticipating, or have had to sit through, a presentation that is truly horrible.  I wanted to do my part to help improve my students' abilities in this area to prevent grievous potential injury to their future audience members, so I came up with an idea that I thought would help.

I recently went through part of a free e-course called "Designing Presentations" on the outstanding KQED Teach website. This course does a great job of leading educators through some modules that help with learning good presentation design. I was inspired by ideas from a resource shared in these modules and modified them to share with my students.  I have embedded the slides I adapted/created below. You can also access them here if you would like to make a copy.

Rather than show my students a good example of a presentation slide deck, I gave them exposure to one of the worst ones I could create - a total FAIL - with tips as to what was wrong and how to avoid the mistakes. It was tempting to then give them an assignment to create a really visually appealing slide deck of their own as a way of showing what they had learned, however, I decided to continue to let pain be the best teacher and challenged them instead to create a Google Slides presentation that was even worse than the one I had shown them.

I had no idea how much the students would love this exercise in failure and suffering! In some ways, it was "exciting" for them to feel like they were breaking the rules, and they were truly delighted by the pained sounds of their classmates groaning, cringing as they shielded their eyes from the horrible designs, colour combinations, and font choices that were shared. Pain and joy did not have to be separate. I dare say that the learning they got out of having to explain their appalling choices (and what made their decisions to incorporate them into their slides truly terrible) was exponentially more powerful than if they had simply created a "nice" presentation deck and called it a day. The value of the lesson actually INCREASED because we were actively making mistakes. Pain and failure for the learning win!

I really enjoy reading the work of Thich Nhat Hanh. In his book, "No Mud, No Lotus", he discusses how perspective can be powerful, and suffering and happiness are not separate. He says, "People often ask, 'Why do I have to suffer?' Thinking we should be able to have a life without any suffering is as deluded as thinking we should be able to have a left side without a right side. The same is true of thinking we have a life in which no happiness whatsoever is to be found... If there's no right, then there's no left. Where there is no suffering, there can be no happiness either, and vice versa." It doesn't have to be either/or. Pain and joy can exist at the same time.

None of us are able to get through life without experiencing pain, making mistakes, and suffering.  But by using these principles in the classroom to teach our students about better slide design, maybe.... just maybe... we can at least spare them the pain of sitting through any more bad presentations in the future!

Jay Shetty is quickly becoming one of my favourite media personalities online. If you still need more convincing about how failure and pain can become amazing catalysts for change, take a few minutes to watch the great video below. It's worth your time!

My Post (1).jpg

525,600 Minutes

“525,600 minutes. 525,000 moments so dear. 525,600 minutes. How do you measure, measure a year?  How about love? Measure in love.”

- Seasons of Love from the musical, “Rent

December is always an interesting month for me. While I prefer the summer months because of the sunshine, longer days, and many outdoor activities (especially lake kayaking!) to partake in, December always signals a time for getting still and quiet, reflecting on the 11 months that precede it, and thinking about the new year to come. It is also the month where my birthday falls, so in addition to starting a new calendar year, I am beginning another trip around the sun myself, causing even further desire for self-reflection, exploration of personal growth and goal setting.

2017 was an extremely difficult year for me personally. In addition to my own difficulties, I feel like there were a lot of challenges in 2017 for many people on our planet. I don't feel I am inaccurate in saying that I have very few friends, acquaintances or people who I follow through social media who would express that it was their best year yet; in fact, for many, the opposite may be true. Nevertheless, we have made it through to the end of it. We learn from both our successes and our challenges, and sometimes the most powerful lessons come from the most difficult of circumstances.  Here are some of my most important takeaways from 2017:

  1. I forgot that one of the hardest things about being a classroom teacher is the amount of sleep I lose worrying about the students in my class.

  2. Mindfulness and meditation practices can help you process and work through some pretty difficult stuff that medication cannot.

  3. It is ok to stop, breathe, and take time to take care of yourself.

  4. There are many people around you going through hard things, including the students in your class and school - and your colleagues too. Be kind to everyone.

  5. When you are really, really struggling, sometimes you are often surprised by the people who show up to support you that you never expected… just as you are sometimes bewildered by the ones who you thought would be there for you, but are not.

  6. Sometimes when things feel the darkest, you don’t have any idea how close you actually are to getting to the other side of the tunnel where the light is shining.

  7. If you are willing to be courageous, curious, and caring, you begin to realize that almost everything is figureoutable.

In addition to personal contemplation, this time of year is a great time to ask your students about their own reflections on 2017 and their wishes for the new year.  I absolutely love this article about doing a nightly debrief with your children at home, and have borrowed some of the questions to add to a quick reflection for 2017/18 printable (go to "File - download as - PDF document" for the most printer-friendly formatting.) I left it in grey-scale for photocopying purposes. You are welcome to use it with your own students, and I will be using it with mine.  I am not a gifted graphic designer, so if anyone wants to take this template and improve upon it, I would love it if you would do that and then please share it back with me: info@theglueedu.com, so I can share it here on the blog for others to use as well.  We are better together. UPDATE: Thanks to @mrmaltais for sharing his version of the above reflection printable.

One thing I know for sure: my life has been made better in 2017 through the incredible gift of connection. I am lucky to have so many rich connections with people - both face-to-face and online, and I can’t imagine having gotten through this year without them. I am always slightly mystified by people who still blame technology for disconnect between humans. So many of the people in my friend circles, my “tribe”, and my support networks have been those who I connect with from a distance, and this would not have been possible without the use of technology.  I cannot adequately express the gratitude I feel every day for the ability to spend time with these people via the use of the Internet and my technology devices.  It is possible to feel a dark, deep loneliness and disconnect with someone whose face you have an opportunity to see in person every day, just as you can experience absolute joy from a connection with someone who feels like sunshine to you, in a time zone 9 hours different from yours. It really is what you do with technology that matters.  If you are purchasing technology devices for yourself or others this season, please keep that in mind.  The best technology is that which allows you to create and connect, to share stories and support, and get to know and understand others better. There is no better gift than that.

As you think about the 525,600 minutes to come in 2018, how can you use your devices and Internet connection in the service of human connection?

Happy holidays and here’s to an amazing new year! 2018 is going to be the year that love wins. For me. For you. For all of us on planet Earth. I just know it.

Adobe Spark (6).jpg

A Catalog of Beauty

“I am not against critique, but the world’s need to nick pic everything is a dis-ease. What I crave is holiness. We are so far away from the heart, when only the head leads with only what is wrong. How about the million beauties you walked by today and did not see? Name them. The world needs/ I need your catalog of beauty. What is your catalog of beauty?”

- Glenis Redmond

I was excited to start the year with some photography projects. So were my fifth grade students.  They buzzed with questions and anticipation when they saw the kit of digital cameras arrive to our classroom from our district resource lending center, asking what I was planning for their use.  "I am so glad you are curious, " I responded happily and vaguely, much to their frustration. "I'm not telling yet. You'll find out soon".  I didn't make them wait too long. I was eager too.

Digital photography is a flexible medium that allows for a multitude of project options and opportunities for curricular integration. Photography is a great way to learn about elements of visual and graphic design, an amazing storytelling medium, and an incredible format for capturing thinking and learning in a visible way.  It's a great ladder into videography - another terrific format for developing creative muscles, and an excellent launchpad for discussion on digital citizenship and information privacy when talking about sharing work and peoples' likenesses online. Unlike my own early experiences with film-based cameras, the digital format is easy and inexpensive, there is no wait time to see what the photos turn out like, and you are not limited to 24 exposures on a single roll of film. It is easily accessible technology that almost anyone can learn to use successfully.

We started with a short lesson on some basics.  My friend, Nicole Dalesio, a talented educator and photographer from Los Altos, California, uses a great acronym that I shared with my students: SCARE. 

S - Simplify

C - Closer

A - Angle

R - Rule of Thirds

E - Even Lighting

I won't go into too much detail about what each of these terms mean in this post, but if you are interested, Stephen Davis gives a great description (and some nice project ideas) in this post from the CUE blog. We had some discussion around each of the above items, watched a few short, related YouTube videos to help with more in-depth understanding of the concepts, and then I let them loose on the school grounds to start snapping images. It was amazing to see what only 30 minutes of instruction around a few basic elements did to improve the quality of the photos they were taking. There was a high creativity factor, and everyone was excited and engaged. The students were proud of their work, and many expressed a wish to spend more time taking photos, or to at least plan another photo-taking activity for the future, when time constraints forced us to conclude our activity.

One valuable, and not often overtly recognized, gift of photography is that it can be an incredibly powerful way to be present and mindful, and to see things from a different perspective. My students were absolutely "in the moment" as they looked for beautiful and interesting things to take pictures of. They were willing to get on their backs or bellies and stand on top of objects to change their vantage point, and to see potential and art in the mundane things that we normally just walk past and take for granted. They were utterly and completely in the "now".  We had a good discussion about this upon returning to the classroom. I told them about how I have gone on photo walks during times when I am feeling stressed or worried - just me, my phone/camera, and my dog - in order to clear my head,  and stop lamenting about things that have happened in the past (which can lead to depression) or worrying about things that might happen in the future (which can lead to anxiety). Spending a small amount of time simply looking for beautiful moments to capture can be a very calming and effective mindfulness and gratitude practice. It always helps me feel better.  I encouraged them to try the same outside of school if they have the opportunity. 

As I was thinking about photography and the way it encourages us to be present in the moment, I was reminded of a passage from the talented poet, Glenis Redmond, that I have included at the beginning of this post.  I came across this quote on Rachel Macy Stafford's blog (which is a MUST read - so many beautiful stories that make you think and touch your heart) awhile back, and remembered it as I was thinking about writing this post. When I first read the verse, my breath caught - there was so much truth in these words. I felt happy when I recognized that my students and I were creating a catalog of beauty as we took our photos. We were noticing the "beauties" we normally walk by, and appreciating them fully, even if it was just for a small period of time. We were seeing with our hearts.  

I hope that we find more moments like this regularly throughout the year. Luckily there are other ways that we can continue this practice, even after we send the camera kit back to the lending library. We can use tablets, or webcams, or iPods, or phones. If I have even one camera that I can keep in the classroom, it can be requested for use by anyone who becomes aware of a moment of beauty that is just waiting to be noticed and captured into our shared catalog. We can use the same strategies without any technology simply by going on a walk and shaping our fingers into a rectangular "frame" and working hard to "develop" the image in our brains for future recall. This is a valuable practice to continue. The world needs more "beauties" to be collected and shared. We'll try to do our part.

I did not ask permission to use my students' photos in this post, so I have none that I am able to share, but I have been gleaning a lot of inspiration from amazing educator, Trevor Mattea, and his Twitter feed. He has been doing some great photography work with his students in the San Francisco area and posting them for others' enjoyment. Trevor has also shared some amazing and useful resources, such as his "Classroom Camera" slide deck, and a terrific playlist of helpful YouTube videos on photographic principles. Thank you, Trevor, for "showing your work" and sharing with others! It is such great stuff! 

Have you considered using photography as a way of appreciating the present moment?

Have you used photography projects in other creative ways in your classrooms?

Please share in the comments below, or join our Facebook group and tell us your stories there!

Adobe Spark.jpg