Potential energy and kinetic energy

Lisa Kay Solomon gave a talk at my school tonight about “designing meaningful conversations.” (Lisa, an alum, is back in Philadelphia for her high school reunion and recently published a book on the same topic.) She was a phenomenal presenter.  She framed her talk by looking at the lost opportunities of agenda-packed corporate meetings that bludgeon employees with endless PowerPoint presentations and dilute progress into action items that are little more than window dressings. While many of her examples were targeted at a corporate audience, the themes of creative leadership, of designing experiences rather than disseminating information, and of developing a safe environment for discovery all resonated with my approach to working with students.

Lisa, if you’re reading, I was the enthusiastic head-nodder in the fourth row.

But I didn’t realize the relative impact of her talk until I compared notes with two parents in the audience immediately afterwards. Both parents were fired up, ready to take Lisa’s ideas back to their offices and revitalize their next board meeting. They were energized to reexamine the linear rut of “progress” in their corporate culture that may not be progress at all.

And for a moment I was able to pause and take in the joy and the challenge of being a teacher: 

Next month I get to hit the reset button.

Summer vacation arrives in exactly 30 days and already I’m thinking ahead to next year. When September rolls around, I get to redefine the culture of my classroom. Full stop. What other jobs allow for such a clean opportunity for iteration? In many ways my students are my colleagues — and when I start fresh every fall I am able to shape a new message and a new set of expectations for our shared workplace.

Then again, my colleagues are kids.

When given the right set of circumstances, kids and their imaginations are great at the kinds of conversations Lisa was describing. I see it all the time. And if you view the teacher as a user experience designer for the classroom, then the challenge of “developing safe environments for discovery” nicely captures what teachers do, day in and day out.

But kids are kids. Innovation with middle and high school students necessarily happens on a different scale from the professional world. Students don’t have degrees or experience (they’re kids!) and they don’t have careers to dedicate to the themes they wish to explore. (Their school day is divided 40-minute chunks and they already have too much homework.) Great ideas are often left in the lofty realm of imagination and never touch the cold asphalt of implementation and creativity. Just this year I saw plenty of meaningful conversations fail to turn into meaningful work.

So can the themes of Lisa’s talk still apply to my classroom? Can meaningful conversations turn into meaningful work by stoking a long-burning need for learning and growth?

Already I see my goals for next year:

  • to turn potential energy into kinetic energy
  • to leverage meaningful conversations into sustained climbs up the learning curve
  • to transform post-it notes and what-if questions into third, fourth, and fifth iterations of a single concept
  • to channel the buoyant force of powerful imagination into the sweaty, soot-covered hustle of creativity

Here’s the one post-it note I think I might keep within arm’s reach next year:



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