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Right now, I’m feeling the effects of social isolation. My social circle is essentially my wife and my kids. I’m only going out when necessary to go to the grocery store. This Thanksgiving will be the first in years that I don’t see friends or family and I have a hunch the same will be true of Christmas. Don’t get me wrong. I love the time I’m getting with my immediate family. But I’m also feeling a little lonely. This is especially true as the days get shorter and the weather turns gray and rainy. I know that social isolation is the right thing to do. I know it’s a minor sacrifice to keep folks alive. But still . . . I’m feeling it.

This has me thinking about students. If I’m feeling the effects of the quarantine, I imagine they’re feeling it even more so. This is especially true of adolescents who value peer connection above almost anything else.

During this pandemic, many students have described feeling lonely and isolated as they shifted into online environments. So much of the classroom experience is designed around face-to-face experiences. However, without the in-person interaction, students often feel like they are no longer connected. In some cases, students have begun checking out. Meanwhile, teachers have done an amazing job building community and checking in with students.

Another way we can build connection is by encouraging students to connect with an authentic audience. Students can share both their finished products and their learning process. They can engage in meaningful dialogue with a larger community.

Henry Jenkins describes these as “participatory cultures.” He includes the following elements:

  • Low barriers to participation
  • Strong support for sharing
  • Informal mentorship
  • Members who believe their contributions matter and value the participation of others
  • Social cohesion

Participatory cultures are often creative and open rather than consumer-oriented or closed. They are often multi-age, interest-based, and centered on shared interests. They are, in many respects, the opposite of an industrial school model.

Participatory cultures remind us that creativity isn’t a solitary endeavor. It is nearly always to and from a community. Great ideas rarely happen in isolation. Instead, they are a part of the constant sharing back and forth of what we are learning, doing, and making. This is why it’s so valuable to show our work.

Students Can Share the Products They Create

I mention this because I believe in the power of the launch. I love what happens when kids create work and it doesn’t just end up on the refrigerator. I love to see the change in motivation and student agency when they get to choose the audience.

Too often, though, we hold back on the launch. Some of this comes from a genuine sense of humility. We don’t want to brag. Yet, we forget that when we are promoting our students’ work, we aren’t self-promoting. We’re saying to kids, “The world needs your creative voice.” But I wonder how often the motivation is different. We are so used to these amazing things that we forget that they are amazing. They’ve become normal to us but they are still amazing to someone else.

Now, what if the work isn’t perfect? What if kids struggle? What if the finished product is flawed? I  wrestled with this idea a few years back when we did our Geek Out Blogs. It was easy when Isabel wrote beautiful posts about biology and ecology or when Miguel wrote hard-hitting, honest, thought-provoking pieces about his lived experience as a biracial boy and the larger issues around race and racism. But then we had one boy, Marco, who struggled as a writer. It took him a full class period to write one paragraph. He was nearly silent each class period, saying nothing when they engaged in cooperative learning activities. One day, Marco pressed publish instead of “save as a draft” and his unedited work showed up in a Gamer group on Write About. He had sent his work to a massive audience. My heart sank. Kids can mean. I was sure there would be at least one snarky comment. But that’s not what happened. Instead, there were ten comments affirming his post and asking questions about video games.

For the rest of the semester, he shared his knowledge, his hidden expertise, and the cheat codes he had discovered, with an authentic audience. It was powerful  to see him go from the “quiet kid who struggled with reading and writing” to  “the video game expert.” His blog posts weren’t perfect. But that didn’t matter. He had changed in small ways. He was more confident and more social.

That’s the power of the launch. You’re saying,  “I’m not afraid to be known.”

The following are a few ideas for having students share their work with an audience:

  • Students can create podcasts
  • Students can engage in blogging, including Geek Out Blogs
  • Students can do maker projects
  • Students can go through a Wonder Day project
  • Students can own their learning through Genius Hour projects
  • Students can do a scavenger hunt that leads to a hands-on tinkering project or a divergent thinking project

Students Can Share the Process

While I believe in the power of an authentic audience, I also believe in the power of sharing your creative journey. I love the idea that Austin Kleon shares in Show Your Workthat we we should become documentarians telling the story of a creative journey. And, while he spoke of it in a more individualist lens, students can share their collective story by telling the story of an idea from start to finish.

There is a powerful narrative right now telling the world that our schools are all broken and teachers are merely powerless pawns in the system. Cogs in a wheel in a factory style education system. We’re constantly hearing about how broken hybrid learning and distance learning is. It’s a popular theme in articles and news stories and even keynotes. But I don’t buy it. I think there are amazing creative things happening all around us if we’re willing to look . . . and when we’re willing to share.

When we share the creative process and the final products, we change the narrative and remind people that each classroom can, in fact, be a bastion of creativity and wonder.

Last week, I wrote about how students can use portfolios as a way to share both their process and products:



Letting Students Determine the Audience

While sharing your journey makes a lot of sense, we have tight schedules, rigid curriculum maps, and valid concerns about the issues of privacy / oversharing publicly. Here’s where it’s helpful to have conversations about where and when to share your journey. So much of this is dependent on age and human development.  For example, older students might want to share globally or with peers but are less excited about sharing with parents while younger students might want to share with their parents but shouldn’t share too much to a global audience. Context and subject also make a difference. But you can think about audiences in layers:

Level 1: Private
Students reflect alone. Even the teacher doesn’t get a chance to read their reflections and insights.

Level 2: Semi-private
Students might share with their pairs, small groups, or teacher. In some cases, the students might share their work with their family at home. For the most part, the sharing stays within the confines of the classroom walls.

Level 3: Semi-public
Students engage in multi-class collaboration (global projects), the whole school, or other classes within their school (other class periods). Although it’s not totally public, the audience is still bigger than the immediate classroom.

Level 4: Public
Students share with the world.



What happens to Students When They Launch?

It’s easier not to ask students to launch their work to an audience. There are moments when the world ignores your work and times when they don’t like it.

The following are a few of the things I’ve noticed when students share their work:

  • They grow more empathetic because they are thinking specifically about their audience from a humble perspective.
  • They work harder because the work has a deeper meaning.
  • They develop a growth mindset. As they engage in the revision process, they develop resiliency.
  • They learn to listen to criticism. In fact, they explicitly seek it out as a part of the revision process.
  • They become fearless in their creative work.
  • They engage in iterative thinking as they work through revisions to improve their work
  • They make connections between the learning and their world.
  • They find their creative voice.

Launch Into Design Thinking

Want to get started with design thinking? Check out this page with free articles, videos, and resources. Also, check out the toolkit below.

[convertkit form=5166836]

Note: parts of this article first appeared on July 15, 2016

John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

One Comment

  • Priya says:

    This is incredible! Thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and it made a lot of sense to me. Thanks for sharing your great work and insights! Kudos!!!

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