Keep it Up!

As I was wrapping up my dinner meal with my family on Black Friday one of the servers, not ours, came up and asked me if I taught at JMS. I didn't recognize him - I often don't. Not only do I have to memorize 150 new faces each year, but kids don't tend to keep looking like kids 10 years later. In this case, I had an even better reason.

"I didn't have the chance to be your student when I was there but I wanted to tell you that my friends did and they still talk about you to this day. That was back in 2007, 2008 so whatever you're doing - keep it up."

It came completely out of the blue. The restaurant I was in was a good 15 minutes from the school and he wasn't even my server. It's the kind of comment that reminds me that what I'm doing matters and is good. It's the kind of comment that can drive me forward many more years through whatever silly things come along. While it would be nice to have that recognition from colleagues and administration more often it is wonderful to get it from my "guests" themselves.

I'm not here though to reflect on what they liked about my class - I do that all the time. I want to focus on his last three words - words that come directly from Mickey's 10th Commandment - "Keep it up!"

In Disney speak (more accurately, in long-time Imagineering creative director Marty Sklar speak) this means ensuring that everything in the park is kept clean and running smoothly. It also though includes keeping up with technology and new ideas. Marty explains the importance of this commandment by pointing out that the day a family visits Disneyland might be the only time in their lives that they get to do so. If the park isn't in it's best shape on that day that family is robbed of the magical experience Disneyland promises.

As a teacher who just dragged himself through the second toughest grind of the school year (Oct/Nov is rough, April/May is worse) and was relieved to find a vacation waiting at the end, I understand the difficulty of showing up every day with the goal of being my very best. As the weeks pass from August to November even routine maintenance starts to fall off. Supplies end up out of order, my in-box fills with papers to be graded and my desk ends up as some sort of Sisyphean nightmare where no matter how much I clear off more just keeps piling up. Every year I promise myself, "I will not let my desk pile up!" Every year I fail. When the extra effort I put in seems to go unrecognized it is tough.

While cleanliness and organization matter, they are not what make kids enjoy my class (obviously, since neither exist in my class...) For me, keeping it up is much more about the other half of Marty's explanation - creating and building new things as technology and ideas progress. I wrote a post a few years ago titled "Always 1.0" where I discussed how my lessons are always been tweaked and updated year after year.

Last year I created a whole new lesson type called Time Warp, which are point and click adventure games. I'd never seen anyone make anything quite like it for use in education. My kids loved it. I loved it. You loved it! I also created a brand new Breakout based on the Underground Railroad. I honestly think it is some of my best work. It looks great, plays great and the kids loved it.

So, how do I follow it up this year?

Wait for it...


I do absolutely nothing.


Seriously, I have not created a single new lesson this year that I've been happy with. Honestly, the only lesson I've really made at all is one on explaining how our rubric is kind of like ordering from Starbucks. It's fine. It's an upgrade from previous year's "here's-a-rubric-you-figure-it-out" plan. It isn't magical though. It is definitely nowhere near the level of the things I made last year. Quite frankly, I haven't been keeping it up... shoot, in some ways I've barely even been maintaining it.

So, I was already doing a bit of reflecting during this week off when I got hit with that incredible compliment on Friday. And boy, that really kicked the reflection into high gear. While I haven't been keeping up on my lesson design (which I think is where I shine most as a teacher) I have been doing other things. I completed redesigned my Minute One experience. I've designed and printed a whole bunch of attention-grabbing lesson posters. And I've nearly finished writing 60,000+ words on using Imagineering techniques in the classroom.

Those things are nice but they are ancillary to the central experience in my classroom. As I reflected more I realized that though I hadn't been building new lessons, I definitely had been building new relationships. I've spent a ton more of my time at school with my students. I've got clubs in my room every day at lunch and during my prep. I'm there every day an hour before the first bell and 3-4 days a week after. I'm really not working during those times. I've got students in the room playing games, getting tutoring and just having conversation. It's been wonderful. I think I haven't feel the need to create new lessons because they are enjoying being in my classroom as it is.

So, what I've come to learn, and hopefully this helps some others out there, is that keeping it up is a balancing act.

Imagineers have to balance too. Do we tear down an aging attraction to put up a new one with the latest and greatest technology? Will our guests resent the new thing out of feelings of nostalgia? (My mom complains regularly about the loss of the People Mover - and it went out for a new attraction that lasted less than a year!) Do we build attractions for kids? Teens? Adults (even Millennial ones?) A Bug's Land, the cental place for kids in that park, is gone from California Adventure. Marvel Heroes land is coming instead. It will surely be incredible but it comes at a cost. Do we spend money on sprucing up an old attraction or pour it all into something new? (Believe it or not, Imagineers do have budgets!)

All these things must be balanced as they keep it up. Keeping it up doesn't just mean doing the same thing over and over. It means moving forward to keep up the experience. As technology and culture advance so too must our lessons and classrooms. We have to do so, however, with an eye toward balance. Should I give up building relational capacity with students to build new lessons? Probably not right now. There may come a time though when my lessons aren't keeping up and the pendulum needs to swing again. (We're very good at pendulum swinging in education after all!)

So, where can we go for inspiration to drive us to keep it up? Thankfully, we live in a time when inspiration, ideas and collaboration are only a few clicks away. In many ways Twitter has become the primary source of professional development for many educators. Whether it’s through schedule chats or just building up a “Personal Learning Network” of other educators there is plenty of opportunity for inspiration.

Despite all the focus on technology books are still great for inspiration too. I've mentioned Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess in many blogs and I can’t recommend it enough. It is the book I wish I’d been given as a new teacher instead of Harry Wong’s The First Days of School. The focus of the book is on providing ideas to “hook” students in learning activities. The first half outlines many ways Dave did it in his class and the second features a series of questions you can ask yourself to create hooks for your own lessons. Just seeing what is possible can be a huge inspiration. Some other great books to check out with this in mind are Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken and Marty Sklar’s One Little Spark: Mickey’s 10 Commandments and the Road to Imagineering. Both have inspired me greatly as a teacher and creator and I think they will inspire you too.

Or, of course, you could always spend a day at Disneyland! There’s never a day I leave the park without thinking about something from my day that I want to bring into my classroom!

Maintaining high levels of polish, creativity and fun in your classroom isn’t easy - but it is worth it. Our lessons and students are not finished products. As our students grow and change so should our lessons. Walt Disney took great joy in the fact that Disneyland was different from his films. Those films, once finished, could not be changed. They were done. Disneyland though was much different. Walt put it this way,“Disneyland is something that will never be finished. It’s alive. It will be a living, breathing thing that will need change. A picture is a thing, once you wrap it up and turn it over to Technicolor, you’re through. I wanted something alive, something that could grow. Not only can I add things, but even the trees will grow and become more beautiful each year.”

Our classrooms too can grow and become more beautiful each year. Remember we are doing incredible work with value that cannot be measured (even in random compliments.) You're doing great things! Keep it up!

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