Monday, February 20, 2017


My friend and fellow teacher-librarian, Salma Nakhuda, lent me a book when I last saw her, when my students were at her school teaching her club how to finger-knit. I had just finished a big, ambitious project (my second finger-knitted skirt - it was both a success and a failure) and I had forgotten to bring home some of the Silver Birch novels I had not yet read. I had time. I picked up the book to read over the holiday weekend and finished it in a day. I thought today's post would be a great opportunity to reflect on that book, Let the Elephants Run by David Usher.

This was my first "professional learning" read of 2017. I didn't read the book "properly" because the book provides action items that you are encouraged to try, over time, and some involve writing in the actual book. This is a library book, and a loaner as well, so I broke the rules I was supposed to break. Follow me so far? However, I think I can be forgiven, because my blog is often where I "tak[e] notes and collec[t] ideas about the world around [me]" (Action Item #1 - page 12). The book's goal is to help readers unlock their creativity. David Usher divides his book in two - a section on freedom and the other on structure. In the first section, readers analyze their own creativity, imagine what's possible, reconnect back to childhood creativity, mess with our established patterns, consider the importance of creativity in this time of rapid change, and make the time investment and do different things that expand your mind. David calls those wild and crazy ideas that emerge from creative wellsprings "Pink Elephants", which is why the book is called "Let the Elephants Run".

One of the most intriguing action items in this section was to determine if you are a "monster" or "mouse". He recommends playing a game called "Bang Bang Click Bang" to check your introvert/extrovert level and detect how much you observe or listen. (Heads up - I'm more monster than mouse.)

The structure section of the book outlines Usher's creative process. It is:

  • curiosity
  • interest
  • exploration
  • ideas
  • collect
  • file
  • filter
  • experiment
  • moment of creative collision
  • work
  • ship it
I wanted to see how his process matched or differed from my own. For instance, I'll compare it to the journey I've been taking alongside my students this year when it comes to our clothing inquiry and learning to sew. I'm not sure if it stemmed from curiosity - it might have started that way in July 2016 when I talked to Jennifer Brown and heard she had a sewing machine in her library. Then it was pushed onward by a sense of need or worry - my mother was getting older and I knew I couldn't depend on her forever to hem my pants. Interest and exploration definitely followed. I experimented before I had all my ideas together, for good or ill. As for bringing this into the classroom, I definitely collected ideas. I bookmarked Melanie Mulcaster's Makerspace On the Spot and On a Dime resources and searched for books to add to my school collection. I started to hoard cardboard (but in a wiser way than I did before, thanks to the guidance of Ray Mercer). I'm not sure how much filtering occurred, but right now I'm in the work and creative collision stage. Actually, strike that last sentence. I did a lot of filtering as I searched through YouTube and Learn360 videos to try and find an age-appropriate multi-media text that helped students grasp the social justice aspect of making and reusing clothes. 

I spoke to my good friend Moyah Walker, another TDSB teacher-librarian, on the phone the other day about the possibility of having her host a meeting at her school. As is often the case, we started to talk about what we were doing with our students and I was excited to hear that she's doing something with clothing design and her students too! All of a sudden, a creative crash happened and what started as a single-school event branched out. I'm in the process of arranging for Moyah to come and talk to my students about the sort of ideas she's sharing with her students. Her students will participate with mine in our culminating task. The final piece of this inquiry will be a fashion show and charity auction. I talked to Lance, a manager at a Value Village where we'll have a couple of field trips in March so that the students can discover where to obtain clothes at a fraction of the usual cost for them to happily hack and modify. He was super-supportive and enthusiastic about our plans and asked if a few of his Value Village contacts could attend the fashion show and share our results. Awesome!

Notice how many names were mentioned? This fits with the section in David's book on Idea Accelerators. I'd quibble a bit with his assertion that you need a "river of great ideas from really smart people". You need to be a "thought leader" but also a risk-taker, willing to share, enthusiastic and approachable. 

I'm improving in my "operational infrastructure" (Action Item 17 - page 192). When the students and I created restaurants - a project that they still talk about two years after the fact - I didn't adequately consider the time it would take to cook the food, and I had to abandon my initial "I want this to be as authentic as possible" ideal for a more practical "we need to collect orders in advance so we have enough food". This year, I'm giving the classroom teachers advanced notice about the activities planned (and sending them photos of our clothing creation experiments in process), so they are more aware and can be collaborators if they choose. 

Student-made cardboard flip flops

Student-made bow tie

Student-made finger-knitted toy scarves

This blog post coincides with the 18th Action Item - to "describe what you are working on in detail. Define your timeline to completion." (page 197). I am "commit[ing] to [my] creativity and go[ing] public", so that my "trusted circle" can chime in, make suggestions, and provide feedback. The students and I will determine the dates, but it will definitely be before final report cards.

The final action item in the book is to do a "post-mortem" on my last creative experience. I began this post by mentioning my finger-knitted skirt experiment and so I'll end by examining that project.

After making my first skirt (which was partly an accident), I wanted to see if I could make a skirt that didn't require wearing leggings underneath. I looked at my various finger-knitting books and none showed skirt designs, but I thought I could employ the braided technique from a headband and use it for the skirt. 

Braided headband, October 2016

It was challenging to braid those long finger-knitted chains (each chain was one ball of wool). 

Balling ends so they are easier to braid

Braiding chains, January 6, 2017

 My children helped by sitting on the ends and I kept the other sides in balls that I maneuvered around like shell game props. I wasn't sure how to get the right diameter so I used one of my own purchased skirts and pinned the Rapunzel-like braid around the skirt and then to each layer of the spiral.

Using skirt as guide, January 28, 2017
I had to buy more safety pins because I didn't have enough to hold it together. I hand stitched the braid together.

Hand-stitching the braids, February 2017
I finished it and it looked just like a real skirt, with no see-through holes. That part of the experiment was a success. The only problem was that the waist was too small and it was very hard to put on!

Finished skirt, February 17, 2017
My husband also noted that the skirt wasn't particularly flattering to my figure. The good news is that I can donate this skirt to my school fashion show and charity auction. If I had to do it again, I think that instead of using the skirt as a model for the size, I'd measure it to myself (and a wider part of myself so I can wiggle it on better). I think I may also do a single colour, so you can't see the stitching so much.

I will actually end this post with a warning for myself and other educators - beware the "factory education". A quote from Ken Robinson says:
"Mass systems of public education were developed primarily to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution and, in many ways, they mirror the principles of industrial production. They emphasize linearity, conformity, and standardization. One of the reasons they are not working now is that real life is organic, adaptable, and diverse."
In schools, we need to innovate and embrace "curved line thinking". Let us be the innovation nurturers, not the creativity killers. I'm going to try and do my part by encouraging students to make their own clothes, their own ways, with whatever materials and techniques they choose. These lessons are not intended as just a "how-to" but a "how-might".  I'm excited to see what they'll come up with in a few months.

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