Summer Reading 2016

During the school year I pine for time to read books thoroughly. So, I make up for it during the summer. Below are the books I have read this summer, and a brief comment about the book.

Finding the Next Steve Jobs: How to Find, Hire, Keep and Nurture Creative Talent by Nolan Bushnell (@NolanBushnell)- A very fun and insightful read about creativity and innovation in the tech industry from a video game and industry giant. His 52 “pongs” are easy to read but are very deep when considering how to encourage creativity in an organization.

The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About by Paul Collier- I teach IB Economics, and I chose this as my second book to read this summer so I could better understand and relate Development Economics to my students. Dr. Collier not only outlines the “traps” of the countries of the bottom billion, but he also identifies why G8 countries should care. He also offers very insightful recommendations to improve the situation. More aid is not usually the answer, but that is the only tool most policy-makers use. An easy book to digest, even if you do not understand economics. The implications of his work are astounding for international policy-makers now and for the future.

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (@StevenBJohnson)- I finally got to the end of this book. It took me more time not because it was not a good read, but because my summer got more involved than I had planned. This book is different than a typical “innovate-in-your-business-now” book. It instead highlights trends that have spurred innovation from the printing press through Twitter. Especially if you enjoy the history and record of scientific breakthroughs, this book will complement your knowledge of innovation well.

Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary- My boys and I read books together in the summer. I like to encourage longer chapter-book reading, and I picked this up having thought I read it in elementary school. If I did, I long forgot the story and the style it was written in. The ending is quite mature in how the main character deals with the divorce of his parents.

Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt- One of my students picked up a free copy of this book at a school conference and handed it to me. It is certainly a good read for those interested in Economics and those with a desire to read through some mucky detail. Written in 1946, it also provides a nice post-WWII view of classical economics. More modern economists will find reason to dispute some of his claims, but reading this book will prove insightful into economic though and the implication on all stakeholders.

Henry and the Paper Route by Beverly Cleary- Another book my boys are urging me to read with them.

Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell- In progress.

 

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Dare to change the world

On May 18, 2013, I attended an education “un-conference” called EdCamp in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the movement. At the Saturday conference, I met Angela Maiers (@angelamaiers), who spoke with passion about her believe in student genius. Many educators at the conference were excited about her ideas, but when challenged to implement the vision in their schools, many recoiled. They asked, “What about the standards?” “What is your business plan?” “What if my administration says no?” Perhaps because I am daring, bold, or simply because I like a challenge, I raised my hand and asked to those who doubted- “Why would anyone stand in the way of your students daring to change the world?” I said yes.

The rest of the weekend, I spoke with Angela many times in person and on the telephone. By Monday, I had enough confidence to bring Angela’s and my idea to a set of innovative teachers at the Downintown STEM Academy. These teacher always focus my ambition and provide checks of reality. After a few moments, they agreed we should give this a shot.

I followed by emailing the Headmaster of the school and the superintendent of the district, asking for support for our plan—I wanted Angela Maiers to come to my school for a two-day workshop in the last week of the school year, AFTER students had finished finals. The biggest fear was whether students would show up. They gave me the latitude to continue, and I put aside the doubt and proceeded.

I believe it was Thursday, May 23, that Angela Skyped with some students of mine to discuss the possibility of coming to the Downingtown STEM Academy. The group of about 30 students were very excited. A colleague of mine and I then planned out the two-day event on Friday, May 24. The dates are important because this happened very quickly.

Taking a pause—many times in this process I doubted it would work. Would students show up? Would all teachers support it? Would Angela’s visit be worthwhile? Would Angela be disappointed? Could I organize support from all stakeholders? Would I disappoint them? If I had stopped at any of these breaking points, none of this would have happened. Public education needs risk-takers. Breaking barriers and making school better for your students requires daring and risk-taking. It would have been easy to quit, but my growing network of support kept me going. Voices joined together and said, “Keep going.”

Angela came to my school on June 3 and 4, and still on my way to school on Tuesday, June 3, I had doubts. What if the students didn’t buy in to her vision?

I have a personal belief that students excel with less boundaries; they will use creative, curious, innovate, and investigative means to reach new plateaus of knowledge. Teachers should support these endeavors, not block them with standards, tests, and requirements in schools. Would students buy in to my vision? I had no proof.

Well, Angela has already posted her view of the two-day workshop. More posts are coming.  Below is the proof- in two short days, these are just a few of the organizations my with which my students will change the world.

Do not underestimate the innovation of your students. Do not dare to take risks. Do not say no because everyone else is. Believe you can make an impact and you will. You matter.


Bikes with Benefits (@BikesBenefits)- Supporting emergency medical relief to isolated portions of third world countries. Visit our Facebook page. [youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShvPMyZi-4o%5D

Brighter Days (@BrighterDaysOrg)- Raising money, raising awareness, saving lives. Taking suicide prevention to the next level. [youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zA0udPIOBk8%5D

Cancer Matters

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r82qAksJCRY%5D

Lunchbox Notes (@YouMatterLBN)- Lunchbox Notes sets forth on a mission to create a world where smiles are genuine and happiness isn’t rare. A world where thoughts count and actions matter.

Need2Lead (@Need2Lead)- Providing inner city boys and girls, ages 11-15, with a friend and mentor who teaches what leadership truly is.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XA59JEHOyTg%5D

Valour Organization (@valour_org)- We’re setting out to change the world’s mentality toward mental illness. We are part of @AngelaMaiers #Choose2Matter [youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2Yw7NObIIY%5D

Everyone Can Innovate

Innovation is the buzzword of the 21st century. Perhaps because of the way technology is quickly changing our lives (think Apple, Google, and social media) or because globalism is helping us realize others can do our job just as well (or better) than we currently do. Dan Pink (@danielpink) wrote in his 2006 book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Abundance, Asia, and Automation will take over current economics, and if countries do not adapt to innovate and create, existing superpowers will see an end to dominance. For educators, if our job does not adapt to right-brained, innovative teaching, then our students will be ill-prepared for the future.

So, how does one innovate? It’s not a professional development session of “innovative idea-sharing.” Jonah Lehrer, in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works (yes, I know the controversy over his book, but it’s not all plagiarized) found only 1% of Psychology papers published from 1950 to 2000 focused on an aspect of creativity. Perhaps no one is clear on how to innovate and create.

I believe innovation is a life-style, which ultimately leads to new ideas. Like anything else, I do not think innovation is a gift special to a chosen few. I believe innovation is for those who cultivate it; some have a special gift toward innovative thought. This does not mean individuals cannot learn or practice innovation.

To quote Lehrer, “Every creative journey begins with a problem.  It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer.  We have worked hard, but we’ve hit the wall.  We have no idea what to do next.”  As Larry Page said, “If you’re not doing something crazy, you’re doing the wrong things.”

I’ve made innovation a goal of mine this year. I see many, major problems in education. I also know I am equipped to tackle them, but I need to dedicate energy to creative solutions. Here are my notes on what I’ve been practicing so far this year.

1. Innovation requires time. 3M, one of the most innovative corporations in the world, gives engineers 15% of their time to an innovative idea. Google copied this idea, giving engineers 20% of their time (essentially one day a week) to cultivate innovative ideas. Innovation takes time. Do not think you will turn on your creative juices over night.

2. Effort and Focus. Though 3M gives time back to its engineers, 3M also requires dedicated work to the job. Though the work environment is relaxed, this does not mean no work is done. Rather, innovation requires a strong devotion to an idea. Diligent, direct action can help focus the mind and fix problems. Yo Yo Ma believes his ability to improvise only comes after hours upon hours of practice. Without the effort input, he is not creative. Focus to a goal or a problem is important, but focus can also be detrimental. Focus drives the mind outward, to analytic problem-solving. Caffeine and stimulants help. However, such focus limits right-brained thinking. So, while focus does help, only this intense focus is also bad.

3. Relax. For as much as focus can help you accomplish your goals, so can relaxation. We have all experienced this. The one time in the day when you are disconnected, where you have time to yourself—the morning shower! How many a-ha moments do you have in the shower? It’s not coincidence. First, you are most relaxed immediately in the morning. Also, your brain is finalizing the random right-brained connections from nighttime dreaming, and your relaxation in the morning fosters these creative ideas. Daydream. Meditate. Think positive thoughts. Relax. Whatever technique is best for you, practice it daily. Give yourself this time in the morning, when you are most likely to continue the right-brain connections from sleep.

4. Collaborate & Share. One person cannot figure everything out for oneself. Share ideas among colleagues in different fields. Share ideas with new peers and established peers. A mix of new and old ideas will foster creative thought. Encourage this in schools and model this with students. Avoid brainstorming; brainstorming limits creative ideas. Rather, criticize ideas in positive ways, building on what could make bad ideas better. This encourages new ideas to arise.

5. Fail. You cannot achieve ideas without testing dozens of failed ideas before. Do not be discouraged with failure. Reflect on the reason for failed attempts and build toward success.

6. Lead. Innovation in organizations needs leadership, one who is crazy enough to support new ideas. Latch on to individuals in your organization or community who foster innovative thinking. Find a leader who challenges you. If you cannot find someone, become the leader to tackle new problems with innovative peers. Unless leaders support innovative solutions, the new ideas will only support the existing status quo, not the creative solution result desired.

So, what does my routine look like? I’ve taken my own advice this year, and I have enjoyed looking at problems from uncommon vantage points. Here’s what I do.

  • I get up earlier, adding about 10 minutes to my morning routine. With there small boys, sometimes this isn’t enough.
  • I’ve delayed or eliminated caffeine as much as I can, unless I need to have strict focus to one task. This is easier some times than others.
  • I am trying to meditate and pray more often. I prefer the repetition of the Catholic rosary, but I submit I’ve used simple meditation techniques to the same success.
  • I’ve branched out to so many new peers for collaboration that I could ever imagine. This has led to many new ideas I hadn’t known existed previously.
  • I’ve encouraged these ideas with my students and colleagues.

I have not attained innovation nirvana, nor have I had any million-dollar ideas to save education. I have felt more self-aware of the problems around me, and I feel better prepared to identify future problems than I ever had before.

Do Something Crazy

“If you’re not doing something crazy, you’re doing the wrong things.”

-Google CEO Larry Page

Think for a moment about your job. Are you doing something crazy or something mundane? Are you supporting the status quo or are you creating innovative change in your industry. If you’re a teacher, I bet you’re maintaining the status quo. Most of us do. Unfortunately, the status quo prepares students for a future of the 1970s, not the digital, global, and collaborative future we can only predict. Teachers need to do something crazy, or our students will be ill-prepared for life.

Steven Levy’s (@StevenLevy) article, 7 Massive Ideas that could Change the World (in Wired Feb 2013), also included a rare interview with Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page. The quote above led the article. The quote isn’t specifically about education, but Page later addresses education directly, albeit probably higher education.

“It’s not easy coming up with moon shot [ideas]. And we’re not teaching people how to identify these difficult projects. Where would I go to school to learn what kind of technological programs I should work on? You’d probably need a pretty broad technical education and some knowledge about organization and entrepreneurship. There’s no degree for that. Our system trains people in specialized ways, but not to pick the right projects to make a broad technological impact.”

-Larry Page, in Wired, Feb 2013

America’s current K-12 and higher education systems do not adequately address the broad understanding needed for successful innovation in the immediate future. I’d argue, at least in K-12 education, students are not prepared for the future at all. Students are receiving a fact-based education, one which can be Googled rather than memorized. Yet schools still focus on memorization and rote responses. Standardized tests largely reinforce this.

As an educational reformer (or an educational revolutionary!) we need to practice revolutionary change. Page also calls for 10X change, change that is 1000 percent better than what currently exists. Page recognizes such attempts can come with spectacular failure sometimes, but without such risk, you are also guaranteed to not achieve wild success.

What will you do, as an educator, to succeed wildly? What risks are you willing to take? If we do not take risks, our K-12 education system will suffer mightily; generations of young people will be ill-prepared to identify and solve today’s problems.

Do something crazy.

Daily Post, for the sake of creativity

Today I saw a little image on the bottom of my WordPress page, for a Daily Post. This site encourages you to think outside yourself a little creatively write or brainstorm ideas to share with your readers.

What really drew me to this idea, though, is an idea I had thought about for a while: creativity. Dan Pink (A Whole New Mind) and Jonah Lehrer (Imagine: How Creativity Works) both write about ways to improve your creativity, thus improving your ability to innovate and “think outside the box.” Yes, an overused cliche, but as a cliche it is well understood.

Today’s Daily Post suggested thinking of a random word, then finding the eleventh picture on Google’s image search for the word in mind. Then, write a post about it.

Today’s word: Snarky. The associated picture may be even better. It includes the cat-titude necessary for full understanding of the word.

If you have ever suggested a new idea to a resistant colleague, you have gotten this reaction. Many reformers are afraid of their ideas because a certain percentage of people will react like those above. I have been one of those people. However, when you realize your ideas are stronger than one individual you rise above criticism. Rising above it does not mean ignoring it. I believe every bit of criticism has its place. You can learn from the critique and become stronger. If you let it hold you down, you will always be victim to the attack of others.

Flip the tables a bit. When someone presents an innovative, new, bold idea, how do you react? Do you tell them immediately that the system will not accept such a change? Do you bear your claws?

React how you want others to react to you. Yes, you may criticize, but as was pointed out in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, your criticism must contain a solution to be productive. Otherwise you are simply being mean or unproductive. With criticism should come suggestions for improvement. Encourage others to continue to think about problems from creative angles. Dismiss being snarky!

Mother Theresa once said, “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.” If you are snarky or mean with those around you, why should we expect the world to change? To encourage real change, change needs to start with us. Model that to your community, and your impact will be profound.

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

Edit: This week, Jonah Lehrer admitted he fabricated some of the quotes from Dylan in his book.  This thoroughly disgusts me, as it might hint at a moral misgiving that could taint all Lehrer’s work.  While I still find his work engulfing, I feel it’s important to mention he did not come by this stature of prominence without moral misguidance.  I await his coming steps to see how his career unfolds next.


A left-brained approach to explaining how the right-brain works.  Interesting, huh?  This book was a very quick read, and resulted in tons of highlights and margin notes.  If you ever wondered why Bob Dylan, William Shakespeare, or Jack Kerouac were so good at what they did, this book hopes to explain.  Each chapter explores new or relevant brain research, but in enlightening ways.  The chapters begin with a story and a particularly creative individual.  Then, a tie is connected to brain research to hope to explain why these individuals were so creative.  This design made the book very easy to read.  Since I was reading on my Nook (on the iPad), I found myself looking up some obscure ideas and using Google Scholar to track down some of the research studies.  However, I always returned and kept reading, as I found the book riveting.

The brain research is sometimes complementary and other times seemingly contradictory.  To be creative you need to free your mind from distractions, but you also, at times, need intense focus.  The book raises as many new questions for research as it answers.  However, for me, this demonstrates the need for a balanced life, and a balanced approach as a teacher.

After reading this book, I have tried to allow myself time in the morning for relaxation and meditation, which is tough with small kids.  Once you read, you’ll understand why the mornings may be your most creative moments but are also likely your most rushed.  I also will attempt to limit my caffeine intake, as the intense focus is good for some tasks, but focuses your brain to specifics and ignores the unrelated insights, often which lead to creativity.

As an educator, I take away a few big ideas:

  1. Schools stifle creativity.  We need to allow time to encounter problems and work through them.  We need to present problems!  This can be done in a standards-based climate, but teachers need to be daring to do so.
  2. Creativity requires constructive criticism.  Simple brainstorming, or group discussions is not enough.  Pixar did not become great by brainstorming.  Rather, constructive, accountable talk breads new ideas and creates success.
  3. Divergent ideas (cross-curricular ideas) increase engagement and new approaches to problems.  The more we isolate ourselves as teachers, the less creative we (and our students) become.
  4. Organizations and hierarchies discourage creativity.  Public schools discourage creativity.  Fill your time in school with problems and different approaches to problems.  This may seem like wasted time in the beginning of the school year, but this approach will bread new ideas and better teaching and learning a month or so into the year.
  5. Social media introduces new ideas where others did not exist, however social media interactions do not replace a room full of creative thinkers sharing ideas.  Rather, social media needs to be used in conjunction with traditional approaches.  Social media has a place in the classroom.

Okay, once I figure out how, I will attach my notes from the book, which will likely be intriguing and barely useful to many of you.  I do encourage you to read this book.  As a student, teacher, or divergent thinker, this book will change your approach to how you live your life.


Here’s Lehrer’s promo for his book:

IMAGINE from Jonah Lehrer on Vimeo.

Meet me in St. Louis

This summer I’ve really put to reinventing myself.  During the school year I read Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer, and I realized there are many untapped ways we all can increase our creativity, drawing on the right side of our brain and helping us see connections that otherwise are not obvious to the left-brained world.

I also returned to Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, which I read a few summers ago and loved.  Now that I’ve completed the coursework for my doctoral program (three years of left-brained activity), I want to engage my right brain.  I’ll write more about Pink’s work later, but in Chapter 5, Story, Pink encourages us to tell stories to engage our right brain.  After the chapter, in a workbook for such exercises, he recommends digital story-telling.  So, here goes.


Ben (5) and Jake (3) took and adventure with my wife and I.  We went to St. Louis for a friend’s wedding, and it was beautiful.  Perhaps more beautiful, though, were Ben and Jake.

Ben first- In the picture above with his arms outstretched, Ben is waiting patiently with the wedding party through post-ceremony pictures.  Here, bewildered Ben ponders why the fountain will not go off again.  Rather than be concerned with the formality of the day, Ben wanted to enjoy the fountain.  He was so well-behaved for the three hours of pictures.  At dinner time he fell asleep in Mom’s arms on the car ride back to the hotel, where he promptly ate a peanut butter and marshmallow sandwich, insisted on staying in his suit, and wanted to go back to the party.

Jake- With arms stretched aloft in victory next to the Mississippi River, Jake exudes joy.  Missing here is the morning we spent in bed because of a stomach bug, which Jake had not overcome yet.  But, Jake didn’t let that keep him down.  Smiles, joy, and sunshine.  I love how he finds very simple joy in life.

Both- Climbing the steps from the Mississippi back to the arch was no simple feat.  Ben and Jake did not relent; rather they went ahead full-throttle.  This is how they play life- 100%.  As a dad, I want to keep this fire going so they never relent in pursuit of their goals– climbing several dozen steps up a hill, hitting a home run, or getting the best job.  That’s my goal in life, so they live their lives to pursue their goals.