I first heard Austin Kleon speak on the Stacking Benjamins podcast. I was drawn to his comments in the 04/10/2019 show that the gig economy can be stifling to a person’s creativity, and artistic people shouldn’t feel pressured to sell everything we make. Cynically, I thought to myself how the paycheck might be how a busy professional compels herself to carve out the time from work or family to develop a hobby or practice her passion project. However, over the next days and weeks I kept thinking about Kleon’s argument that if everything becomes a job, it may not always be fun or refreshing for people. It’s true that a paycheck can motivate someone, but it can also drive decisions in a way that may not lead to long-term rewards. I realized that I was being defensive, justifying my own value decisions before thinking through the steps that had led me there. Wanting to think about other ways to make time for creative, rejuvenating work, I borrowed Kleon’s Show Your Work! from the local public library.
Show Your Work! is remarkably pithy and energetic, written in sub-chapters that are typically 2-3 pages long and peppered with cogent quotations and his unique approach to graphical found art. I flew through it, and found myself having to consciously put the book down after a chapter or two to ensure I took the time to process his ideas before I rolled on to the next section. The first half of the book is about creating: finding time, making room to practice and improve, and catching inspiration—first recognizing those wellsprings, and then utilizing those opportunities to express your creative energies. The second half is about putting your creativity out into the world. The core argument is that art is meant to be shared, and Kleon both identifies channels to do so and provides encouragement to share widely. Your creativity will lift and inspire others, which in turn will feed your work, your skills, and your talent. I don’t think of myself as enjoying “self-help” messages, but this book seriously motivated me to get my creative side up and working!
TEACHER AS ARTIST
I found a lot of the messages were readily adapted to teaching. There is so much innovative science about the brain and how it develops, in addition to the genetics and environmental impacts on kids’ development, but as the science points to structures and procedures for use in the classroom, it’s important to recognize that it was passion that drew most people to teaching in the first place. Encouraging that energy and fostering creativity will keep teachers feeling rewarded and fresh in their work. That expressive verve will also carry out to our students, enlivening their daily work but also kindling their own passions. Kleon’s early chapters about being open to new experiences and not worrying about perfection rang true to the teachers’ daily experience of trying to get kids to where they can understand new topics. His rapid-fire prose suggested all the ready avenues to refresh your professional work (as well as your hobbies) by branching out and seeking new voices, trying new approaches, and not being shy. Many teachers are extroverts by nature and, while plenty of us are inclined to be introverted, nobody can teach who is unable to risk putting themselves out there. You cannot be shy and stand in front of a class of students “plying your wares” all day every day. So, Kleon’s message to lean into this discomfort and just try would be readily accessible by any teacher looking to reconnect with their early passion.
COLLABORATION: SHARING FOR GROWTH
A lot has been made of the equity issues that having one teacher over another can create for students. The solution for many administrators and policymakers has been to obligate teachers to work together and “compare answers,” under the banner of COLLABORATION. Some folks have taken full advantage of this opportunity to work and learn together in a truly collaborative, rewarding relationship with colleagues, feeding off each other’s creativity and change up old habits.
Kleon offers a pathway to foster meaningful, rewarding collaboration among teachers in this vein. He argues in the chapter, “Teach What You Know” (pgs. 110-119) that sharing techniques in the world of BBQ doesn’t create immediate competition because it still takes years to master the skills. In fact, that sharing creates a community of folks bantering back and forth in a way that creates a stew of new ideas, contacts, and avenues for experimentation.
In the same way, teachers aren’t competing with one another; a larger group of skillful teachers means a greater cohort of well-prepared students. Sharing ideas and strategies will only foster better experiences in more classrooms for a greater number of kids. These collaborations can be reflectively rewarding because students will arrive to your classroom with more-developed skills and a readiness to approach the work in a certain way. They will also be able to draw connections between classes in a way that may be unimaginably fruitful.
This is why I love the team teaching approach in middle school, in which an interdisciplinary “team” of teachers has a common set of students and meets regularly to discuss curriculum and any individual concerns. As an English teacher, if I know what they’re studying in History or Science, or what they learned in Art class last year, I can make connections to the book we’re reading or to the essay I’m assigning them to write. In this atmosphere, several kids in my teaching years made connections in this way, and their thoughts became part of my annual strategy for teaching those topics, because I knew what would click for their peers.
Kleon also talks about finding and fostering relationships that work. Sharing (in the spirit of social media) should be mutually rewarding, and it needs to be OK for someone to walk away if the relationship isn’t working for them. Within that framework, teachers sharing ideas, materials, strategies, and philosophy—even across curricular fields, grades, or ability levels—can build skills and enrich strategic “toolboxes” that teachers carry into the classroom, wherever they are and in the ways that work for them individually. As such, administrators should be comfortable with the idea that some relationships will flourish while some others may not advance beyond the cordial level of professionalism and mutual respect. We also need to help folks find beneficial connections beyond our walls and think about ways to incorporate teachers’ personal learning networks of like-minded colleagues back into our buildings.
As a side note, Austin’s chapter on citing your sources, “Credit Is Always Due” (pgs. 84-87), is a perfect introduction to attribution for students. He connects the dead-tree philosophy of writing a bibliography to the social media world, showing how linking to work is a win-win and avoiding the Thou Shalt Not approach of most writing classes. Must read.
I am thoroughly enjoying Show Your Work! and imagining its adoption for a faculty reading club, or as a gift to those creative talents in your school. Even better, Austin Kleon’s book is one I will consider gifting to every graduate in my future, as they set off to make their name in the world.
Images used in this blog post are fully the work of Austin Kleon, found on his website at https://austinkleon.com/show-your-work/ (accessed 08/20/2019) or in the book.
Kleon, Austin. Show Your Work! 10 ways to share your creativity and get discovered. Workman Publishing Co. (New York); 2014.