When I was in the 1st Grade, my father was invited to class to read a story. I remember this day vividly because I was so excited to have him come. Why? Because I knew a secret about my dad that no one else knew. My father had the imagination of a child. When we would go out to dinner as a family, my father and I would spend the entire meal telling my mother stories about the people who lived in the water droplets in the straw. He would read me bedtime stories with such enthusiasm that inevitably my mother would yell from the other room “John! Let her go to sleep!” So on this day, I knew it was going to be something special. And it was. Instead of reading a story he told one.
“Who wants to go on a trip through the enchanted forest?” Every five and six year old hand shot up in the air.
“Okay! Did everyone bring their imaginations today?”
“Because if you didn’t I have plenty to spare. Are we ready?”
And so our journey began. He made us walk outside the classroom door and shut the door behind him. He waved his hands as if he was a magician, reached for the door, opened it slowly, and then slammed it quickly shut. We all jumped. He deeply furrowed his eyebrows.
“It appears someone forgot to tell the lions we were having visitors so we’ll have to be very quiet, very careful, and very watchful. If you see something suspicious you have to let me know okay?” We all whispered
And for the next I don’t even know how long, we saw lions, and tigers, and bears, and dragons, and unicorns, pegasuses, and whatever our little brains could come up with and it was the best school day ever.
When I got older, I asked my father about his uncanny imagination and the”Peter Panesque” twinkle that always seemed to be in the corner of his eye. “Oh, I’ll grow up one day. I just haven’t decided to yet.”
For the better part of my teenage and young adult life my father made sure I never lost my wide-eyed wonderment, even when life pretty much told me I had to be “realistic.” My father is the embodiment of Einstein’s quote at the top of this post, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” So when I began my career in education, I asked him for some advice. And while he gave me much, the one that continues to stick with me is this:
“Never get in the box.”
I had no idea what he meant at the time. Wanna guess whether I understand what he meant now?
In my early years of teaching, I wanted to make sure I dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” and followed every rule so I did everything by the proverbial book. I wanted to be, and be seen as, a good teacher so compliance was key. Until I realized, that is, that I could still be, and be seen as, a good teacher without doing things like everybody else. As long as what I chose to do was in the best interest of my students I was okay. Was it really that easy? Nope. In the beginning, most people thought my unique, imagination inspired approach to teaching was nuts and either told me so or avoided me all together (I mean, who decides to combine Shakespeare with the Periodic Table and then post the final product in the hallway for everyone to see? This gal! Especially when she taught at a Math/Science Magnet School) It wasn’t until people (my administrators especially) were able to see the results of what I saw in my imagination (i.e. positive student outcomes, read “test scores”) that it was decided that maybe I was only half crazy.
So how do we get out of the box? Well, it becomes a little easier when the focus isn’t your own uncomfortability but the education of the students you’ve been charged with teaching. When approaching a task, imagine it through the eyes of your students and ask yourself the following three questions:
- Will this interest my students?
- Will this engage my students?
- What will they have learned once they are done?
While the first two are significant, the last one is the most important. If you can’t come up with a solid, justifiable answer to #3, start over. Don’t use the first two in place of the last one. They must go together for this work (Yes. You can use your imagination and still have it fit with your standards).
Finally, for those of you who like your boxes and are comfortable in your boxes and do your best work inside your box, may I submit to you the following book:
Instead of thinking outside the box, think inside it. Great thing about imaginations. They work anywhere.
(Note: This, along with the companion book Not a Stick, were my father’s Christmas gifts last year. He says they are his most favorite gifts to date. You can order yours on Amazon).