Monday, June 23, 2014

How to Have a Great Idea

One of my favorite podcasts, Innovation Hub, recently did a show on how people get really inspired ideas – the kind that change the course of their lives or careers. Host  Kara Miller (a favorite radio personality, she always asks such great questions) spoke with Frans Johanssen, author of The Medici Effect, and at the end of their conversation Kara asked listeners how they get ideas… And I thought, I can answer that!

My great ideas come from a combination of three things: creative constraint, percolation, and interaction with people, books, and media (like awesome podcasts!)

I'll take the last one first: thank goodness,  my life is full of great conversations, listening, and reading. Ben and I have always loved talking together (well, except for that one time when the kids were away and we had a huge fight about, for some reason, incentive pay for teachers), and Luke and Owen ask the most amazing questions, starting from when they were really small. Personal favorite, when Owen was two: "Mom, where was I before I was in your belly?" As a family, we often talk about history and current events. Mostly our conversations focus on academic-minded topics, like using technology to solve problems, or behavioral economics. About a year ago, I put the book Freakonomics into 13-year-old Luke's hands, and it changed his life – then, he took a Harvard Secondary School Program class in game theory, and changed mine right back. (I am currently kind of obsessed with game theory.)

In his great book, Talk Like TED, Carmine Gallo discusses the 18-minute maximum length of a TED talk, referring to it as a creative constraint – I guess in public speaking, an 18-minute presentation is  super short, which helps the speaker distill his or her presentation into the clearest, most crystallized form.
In my life, these last three years have been quite a restrictive form of creative constraint; with an arthritic-like tendon condition that affects every part of my body, I have sometimes felt like I am in a box that keeps getting smaller and smaller. To preserve my sanity, I have had to find ways of stimulating my brain without  overusing my limbs, enjoying participation in the world of ideas through reading, podcasts, and more recently with voice recognition software. Also, music has been a huge help –Spotify in particular is a favorite in our home, because of its serendipitous nature and fabulous playlists – and meditation has saved my bacon too, even though I am the world's worst meditator.

Owen, at four, 'meditating' with a book
But there's more to this than just preserving sanity; the biggest change has to do with the inner life I have been developing in these years of limited physical ability. Fascinatingly, it turns out that the end-runs that I must do around my physical limitations have led to an expansion of the abilities of my mind. In other words, I am not just coping with disability – the disability is leading to some higher-level thinking that I never would've had, without the disability. Creative constraint, baby!

Luke, at about 10, showing the patience needed for gardening
 Patience turns out to be another gift these last three years have given me. I have learned several different forms of patience, from waiting for pain to subside after a tough physical therapy session to spending months helping my muscles return from extreme atrophy. But my favorite form of patience is the kind that I've come to call percolation – it happens with, say, the idea that you write down at night, and when you wake up in the morning, it has morphed into something a little bit more interesting, or relevant, or viable. Sometimes this process takes days, or weeks even, and is always so rewarding.

Most of my ideas have to do with home, hearth, and family, which makes good sense given that I am a homeschooling mama. They are perhaps not life- or career-changing, but they make our household run a little more smoothly, help the boys figure something out in their learning, or bring  us all closer together.

But recently, I had an idea that is about a little bit more than just our family. It has to do with the changing face of childhood in our culture, with how we treat kids growing up in this place and time. As an educator, I learned that giving kids – even very young kids – real choices and real control over their lives helps them learn better. However, as a society we seem to be doing the opposite and causing a crisis with our young children. That link up there will bring you to a study, Crisis in the Kindergarten, by Joan Almon and Edward Miller and endorsed by the Alliance for Childhood, a group that is full of early childhood luminaries and geniuses such as Howard Gardner and Vivian Gussin Paley, two of my heroes. The study shows that, nationwide, the time that children spend making their own choices in a school day is mostly extremely limited, and sometimes nonexistent.

It seems that we are scheduling our children's days to be full of learning experiences, which sounds like a good thing. But between test prep, squeezed budgets that limit recess and other self-directed time in a day, and the kind of hectic, crazy lives that we all live with as we try to get everybody to their music or sports practices, kids are losing the ability to stretch their own imaginations, and implement their own ideas.

Anyway, the idea that came to me (through creative constraint, reading and conversation, and especially percolation) was this: when we take away a child's ability to  make choices and have some control, we fail to take them seriously.

Think about that for a minute. Think about how, when a decision that concerns you is made without your input, how disrespected that can make you feel. Think about how difficult that is to combat – even as an adult.

My idea for exploring this is called The Sincerity Project, and even though it seems like quite a small shift in perspective, it is leading to big changes in how I view teaching, learning, and parenting. I can't wait to share more about it!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

So, Books!

A winter and spring in which you can barely use your arms for keyboarding, screen-scrolling, cooking, or pretty much anything else leaves you with a lot of time to sit with a book open on your lap – silver lining city!
Here are some favorites that have kept me amused, and have helped me learn, sometimes about stuff I never even knew I needed to learn about. So, in completely random order:

The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine totally blew my mind. Written by a psychiatrist, it details a phenomenon with which therapists nationwide are currently grappling, namely, that children and teens who outwardly appear to have every need taken care of are instead full of anxiety caused by pressure to succeed, and in huge numbers are turning to alcohol and drugs, destroying their futures and inner lives at the same time. It is a real eye-opener for anyone with children or who cares about children, and the author shares many great ideas for helping now.

The Lost Art of Feeding Kids by Jeannie Marshall was a favorite for so many reasons: the recipes, her description of the wonders of living in Italy with children, and especially for the analysis of how and why our foodways have become so broken. Read this if you've been wondering about the how and why, and also about how to start fixing.

The Lemonade War Series, five books in all by Jacqueline Davies, is a rarity in that each book is about some different aspect of childhood and deals with serious stuff but in a way that is really appealing to children – and adults! Chapters alternate between the perspectives of a brother and sister, instantly making it a series for both genders, and one of my favorite things is that the author never uses labels. There are characters in these books with serious challenges, and any adult reading will be tempted to put those characters into a labeled box; but children interact with others at a more basic, label-free level, and the author does a fantastic job of highlighting the importance of that. Read these because they are fun and entertaining – and also because they will give you and your children a way to approach complex issues such as sibling rivalry, ill or aging grandparents, bullying, divorce… The list goes on.

Finally, my current obsession is Jane Austen, Game Theorist by Michael Suk-you Chew. Actually, it is a uniting of two long-time obsessions, the novels of Jane Austen and the economic school of thought that is game theory. I know, they sound like two things that could never, ever be united – but the author makes an excellent and compelling case that Jane Austen was in fact the first game theorist. If you love Jane Austen and have never heard of game theory – or vice versa – then you might enjoy this book very much. And, if like me you love both, thenI know you will enjoy this book very much!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Sincerity Project

Recently, I have been thinking about my roots as a teacher of early childhood education. As the boys grow into the teen and tween stages, we are leaving early childhood behind in our family, and I've been thinking about what a truly special time early childhood is in life.

I have been thinking about something else, too, and that is the idea of taking children seriously. It's very easy to just blow off a child's ideas, and the younger a child is, the easier it is to make that mistake.

It really is a mistake – a child who gets the message that his or her ideas do not have merit will stop sharing those ideas, and may even stop having them.

So, if you have kids in your home or your life, try to take them seriously. Try to honor their ideas and their attempts at communicating them. Because children who are taken seriously when they are young grow into people whose ideas can have a big impact in our world.