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April 19, 2021

Updated – Winter Break: Learning Resources That Won’t Feel Like Work

Sometimes we have to look outside to see inside. I recently shared a series of “teacher images” with a group of educators, confessing that these people had given me as much insight about the craft of teaching as anyone: Mister Rogers, James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio, Julia Child, Jiro the sushi-master, and long-time basketball coach Pat Summitt. In each case, watching this person in the midst of his or her craft has given me entrance into my own. Some may see this as a subversive way of learning, others may call it connection making or transfer, but in the end, I call it inspiration. In fact, that’s where inspiration comes from: the interplay of different ideas, the exchange of disparate subjects, the juxtaposition of mediums. As Rosamond Harding notes in her book, An Anatomy of Inspiration, “originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas” and that inspiration comes not only from knowing our subject deeply, but from “the more [we] know beyond it.”

That’s what this year’s “just-in-time PD” is all about: finding classroom inspiration in uncanny places. This happened for me late last spring, when one of my students introduced me to Humans of New York, the prolific blog that matches a photograph with an interview and creates a tapestry of human stories. I was so moved by this work and the impact it had on me, that I knew I needed to find a way for the concept to become part of our classroom. Thus, Humans of Room 506 became our centerpiece for establishing classroom culture. Every student interviewed every other student. Everyone submitted selfies, and now the back wall of our classroom is lined with their pictures, along with poignant anecdotes they discovered about each other (you can see them in the photo below). So as you get ready for a season of family and friends, perhaps you’ll find some time to nurture your own learning and uncover that just-right piece of inspiration that will send you bounding back to your classroom.

classroom culture project

One Hour

If you have one hour you can explore these websites (but I’m warning you, there’s a good chance you’ll get sucked in).

  • Check out Humans of New York, and think about the power of story, of anecdote, of how just a few questions can impact how we know the people around us.
  • Maybe you want to wrestle with some ideas. In that case, go to Brainpickings and start exploring this magnificent trove of ideas, books, and all things interesting.
  • If you’re looking for authentic places to raise student voices, try Project for Awesome, and get inspired.
  • And if you like a little quirk in your quest for originality, don’t miss Soul Pancake, one of my favorite repositories for essential questions and quick exercises to set that brain in motion.
  • If technology is your thing, I’m fond of Skype in the Classroom, to help me envision what I couldn’t have imagined.
  • Finally, for the ultimate in online collaboration (and a way to push your thinking about collaboration in general), get lost at Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hitRECord.

Five Hours

Maybe you have five hours and are ready for some extended pondering and connecting. If so, then get ready to zone-in on these.

  • If it’s ideas you’re looking for, any of these three will fire you up! Get lost in the world of TEDTalks, or garner some insight in five minute chunks by watching Ignite speeches, or the always riveting PechaKucka.
  • I’m a huge fan of all things John Green, so I’d be remiss without directing you to his Crash Course series. Even though these videos are content specific, he does such an excellent job of making complex ideas accessible, that I learn from him every time.
  • The variety in high-quality podcasts is incredible. Right now, I’m turned on to SerialThe MothTalks with Teachers, and Slate’s Working. I also want to direct you specifically to the episode with Stephen Colbert, which kicked the series off. He shares the surprising inner workings of his craft in such detail that you’ll be inspired to look at every person’s working life in a different way.
  • Treat yourself to a documentary. Jiro Dreams of Sushi will remind you about the perseverance needed for any craft, and ESPN’s 30 for 30 goes way beyond the world of sports and investigates all kinds of life lessons students can dig into. And in shorter doses, (an oldie that never really gets old) Caine’s Arcade is a profile in ingenuity and just the kind of inspiration we all need more of. And don’t miss the follow-up video showing the wave of cardboard creativity he’s inspired globally.
  • I’m also enamored with the workbook How to Be an Explorer of the World, which takes you through any number of exercises that will make you a more careful observer and more intrinsically curious. The ideas you’ll find here transfer to any classroom.
  • Field trips aren’t just for students. Take a trip to your local public library and spend most of your time in the children’s section. You’ll be amazed at the ways picture books, children’s literature, and graphic novels can give your learners a pathway into almost anything you’re learning.

Ten or More Hours

If you have 10 or more hours and can delve into the archaeology of your own inspiration, here are some pieces that require time to simmer.

  • Look into The Best American Infographics of 2013. This book, which collects the best infographics from around the web, is rich with ways to provoke your thinking. In fact, it became the inspiration for this semester’s final projects for my juniors and seniors.
  • When it’s time for images to give way to text, learn what Pixar can teach us about originality and process in Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc. Fast Company even zooms in on the Pixar Braintrust concept in this article you won’t be able to put down.
  • To really take a deep dive into your learning, maybe a MOOC is for you. This resource at Stanford will satisfy any palette.
  • And if you missed it over the summer, check out my blog, My Ideal Teacher Bookshelf for more reading ideas.

Wherever your quest for inspiration takes you, we hope this break rejuvenates you as an educator. Also, we hope you are reminded of just how expansive classrooms are: it includes the ones we teach in, and the ones we can learn in. Of course, this list is just a beginning, so please share your own favorite sources of inspiration in the comments below. Have a great holiday — and see you in the new year!


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