To Create Structures and Spaces

Photoshop Art by my student, Brooklyn back in high school.

The new romanticism won’t only be built on workplace incentives. It will be driven, too, by the inherent human craving for the transcendent. Through history there have always been moments when eras of pragmatism give way to eras of high idealism.”

david brooks

Lesson plans can feel like a train that is forever ambling toward us as teachers. A lesson changes, kids are gone, and I am forever re-calibrating tomorrow’s plans, hoping I’ve got things together enough to get the students where I want them to go.

The funny thing is that some of my best teaching moments have come when things went terribly wrong, or when I abandoned the plans in favor of a teachable moment. Years ago I was the yearbook sponsor at Waverly. My staff was made up of all girls, and class periods were filled with mini-lessons and work time to meet our page deadlines for Walsworth Publishing.

One day one of my *co-editors was caught up more than normal. She was like done–and that never happened. I could have given her more work to do on the next deadline, but instead I told her, “You’ve been working hard. Go make something cool.”

In one hour of class time she proceeded to paint her hands, get this above photo of herself, and cut out the color on the area around her hands using Photoshop. It’s a piece of art I still love, and it was created simply because I decided to get out of a student’s way.

Many schools embrace this idea in formalized 20% Time or Genius Hour. And while I love these larger systematic ideas, I think there’s a lot to be said for being open to creating small spaces in a classroom. What does it look like to plan both structures and spaces, to be expectant of some Unplanned Creative Awesomeness coming our way? What does it look like to not only hope for that, but to seek it out, to mine for it like gratitude?

Now, I say all this knowing fully well that some kids can’t do this. And as a new teacher I couldn’t do this. Most days I still can’t. Plans = safety. Some kids will take a chunk of free time and use it to derail the whole class, but some of our students will surprise us in what they can do and what they can teach us if only given a little space.

What would happen if we held our plans a little more loosely, if we all got curious at how these students might surprise us? What if we asked for their ideas and really listened? When I truly ask students with genuine curiosity, yes, they will have joking answers, but with those will be real, concrete ways to make our classroom time better. So often when I over-plan, I choke the life right out of my classes–and out of my life.

The cool thing is that out of the nothing comes something. And often that something turns out to be creativity or learning or relationships or laughter. Yes, an open space can lead to trouble, but sometimes if we listen and trust and (here’s the key) artfully respond as curious teachers, those problematic things simply won’t show up.

Fear and gratitude can’t exist in the same space.

I am thankful that all those years ago I didn’t move Brooklyn on to the next deadline. Today she has her own photography business. I like to think I played some small part in that, but I know that she would have gotten there on her own. Some of my best teaching moves were simply getting out of her way and making a space for her gifts to to show up. Cheers to students who surprise and inspire us. May they find spaces to shine.

Check out Brooklyn’s beautiful work out of Wahoo, Nebraska: Bohac Photography.

*I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to my other co-editor that year, Kelsey Ratkovec. She has her own sweet photography business out of Seward, Nebraska: Kelsey Buss Photography. So proud of both these talented gals.

Gratitude Dare

  • Plan a meal to savor this month.

1 thought on “To Create Structures and Spaces”

  1. Thank YOU for making a space for my daughter’s gifts to show up. She has truly come out of her shell and is a writing monster, in a good way. 🙂


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