• Nov 22013

Who Do You Think You Are?

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Forgive the multitude of links we’ve peppered throughout this post — we’re trying to send you on a journey.

Here’s a little task for your weekend. Try drawing out your family tree.

Not your actual family tree. If the TV show ‘Who Do You Think You Are’s anything to go by, that might involve too many visits to dusty record offices and tears for a Saturday night.

Instead, try drawing out your family tree of ideas.

This is a concept that comes directly from Austin Kleon’s wonderful book Steal Like An Artist, which (if you’re at all interested in creativity and how to become more creative) we’d thoroughly recommend. Teaching is a creative profession and we’re all constantly on the look-out for inspiration with which to inspire.

In the book, Kleon talks about each of us having people who influence us, forming a family tree of sorts. Think of the people who feed down into your ideas… Who are the artists, musicians, writers, poets, teachers, family members, companies or films that inspire you? Try drawing your tree out. Here’s a very small snippet of what influences us…

See how many you can recognise.

Once you’ve got a family tree of sorts, there are two things you can do with it in order to inspire you. Firstly, combine some of the elements together. We’ve drawn lines between the characters, but they don’t really mean anything. The fun starts when you make connections between two or more of your influences and ask yourself: “What would they come up with?” Discuss things with your class… “What would Shaun Tan and Soul Pancake come up with if they were locked in a room for a day?” (answer: something pretty cool indeed).

Making connections is something we all do all the time. No idea is completely original… Your fantastic idea for the last week’s history lesson came from somewhere. The M Files was a combination of SATs questions, Lemony Snicket and secret agents. The League of Literacy fused together the idea of the grammar police, comic books and Dragnet. Making connections between seemingly unrelated concepts is a great way of stimulating creativity. As Kleon says, “Make what they would make.”

The idea of fusing ideas together is something we explored here: A Spinnin’ Safari (the title of which came from this classic). It’s certainly something your class can play with. Re-writing a text in the style of something else is just one example…

A second productive way of using your family tree of ideas is to explore it backwards. Again, this is something we all do without realising it… When someone we admire recommends a good book that inspired them, we travel backwards up the family tree and discover a whole new branch we never knew existed.

The above illustration shows how we’ve done this. A starting point of Quentin Blake led to an interest in the work of Edward Ardizzone and (moving forwards) one of Blake’s ex-students, Emma Chichester Clark (and subsequently the compelling ‘Bambert’s Book Of Missing Stories’). On the right, a keen interest in the work of Independent Thinking led us to a recommended reading list of theirs and we read Fish! and The World Is Flat. as a result.

You can keep going. Who was Edward Ardizzone influenced by? What inspired the ideas behind FISH? Austin Kleon encourages us to, “Climb up the tree as far as you can go.” We’d like to find out who inspired Rita Pierson for example, because she sure inspired us.

If you’re on Twitter, as well as reading inspiring people’s tweets (exploring down the family tree), click on their ‘Following’ list and get a taste for what influences them (explore up it). You’ll discover new ideas along the way. Another Twitter-based idea is to use the Lists function to create an ‘inspiration’ list (incidentally, you don’t need to follow someone to put them on a List). Then fill it with people who inspire you — ideas people from all walks of life. Don’t stick to teachers. In fact, our advice is steer clear of teachers! Be eclectic.

And don’t stop at a personal level. This would be a great little project to do as a class. “What are the sort of things that inspire us in Class 6W? What if we combined Hokusai’s The Great Wave with our love of music? Where would that take us?” When teaching Year 6, we went in the other direction (down the family tree) with The Great Wave and looked at things from modern culture that were inspired by the painting (seem to remember the quirkiest of which was the image made out of pairs of jeans!)

None of this is rocket science, but Steal Like An Artist isn’t a New York Times bestseller for no reason. It’s one of those books that you can read in a night, but we’ve come back to it again and again over the past few months.

But what relevance is this to me? I’m a teacher, not an artist.”

Oh, you are… You’re a thieving magpie of an artist and the sooner you realise that, the sooner you can start thinking about trawling through that family tree of yours.

Do let us know how you get on…

A Spinnin’ Safari
Zen And The Art Of Motivating Your School
The Lost Art Of Nurturing Sparks

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