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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

The Rigorous Whimsy Experience: Learning with #IntentiontheBook

February was a whirlwind month for me as a creativity and learning consultant. I had the opportunity to rekindle my relationship with the Independent Schools of British Colombia (@ISABC1), as well as meet new friends in the Catholic Schools of the Vancouver Archdiocese (@CISVA2) and the lovely IB school on Vancouver Island – Aspengrove.

my ferry to the Island


(for a reflection of the Catholic Schools Conference see this post)

After a few days of snow-filled respite in my favourite-city-in-the-world (and special thanks to my host, Brenda Ball!) I headed down to another haunt of mine – San Francisco. I had the privilege of staying on Nob Hill and presenting with my co-author Dan Ryder at the very luxe Fairmont Hotel for the Learning and the Brain Conference (#latb49).

Besides reconnecting with Dan and my good friend the queen of mindfulness Caitlin Krause, I was thrilled to see two of my intellectual heroes in person – Dr. David Eagleman (of The Brain, PBS)  and Jonathan Gottschall (The Storytelling Animal).

I managed to squeeze some reflection time in with trips to the Legion of Honor MuseumBotanical Gardens, Shakespeare’s Garden, the Japanese Tea Garden, a jazz club and my favourite 80’s dance club/dive bar before heading to Portland, Oregon – a place I’ve often considered moving to.

shadow pay in the Rodin Hall, Legion of Honor

I might have remixed some art

hanging with the Bard, Shakespeare’s Garden

Magnolias in full bloom, Botanical Gardens

Japanese Tea Garden (pretty peaceful except for some screaming kids)

I maybe *know* the tagger at the dance club alleyway

snow never gets old for me

In Portland I met more of my tribe  – the effervescent Kristin Ziemke (we call ourselves “Swedish Sisters”), who was giving the keynote about curiosity (with her mentor Harvey Daniels )

The first event was #apdx18  (AcceleratED) put on by the OETC Consortium and Darren Hudgins , an all-around swell guy. The snow was a bit of a factor, as some schools closed and attendees couldn’t get last-minute child care but the next two days of IntegratED (#ipdx18) were packed with brilliant, energetic educators in every discipline and division.

Afterwards, I was able to squeeze in the small but stunning Portland Art Museum and do some book spine poetry.

I can’t believe I got to see a Picasso I often reference in my keynotes!

In this post I’d like to share some of the images from the activities participants working with me (and Dan) engaged in…both for our book – Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom – and for my visual thinking “Image is Everything sessions.

Rigorous Whimsy Workshops

The workshops I host either by myself or with Dan always start with context. As folks trickle in (because they always do), there is a warm-up activity projected on the screen and lots of goodies at the table (we typically have paper, Post-Its, index cards, pens, Lego bricks, Play-doh, chenille sticks, foam shapes, paint chips, Oreos, etc.). I have to admit I recently scored some coffee stirrer sticks and they were quite the inspiration!

I remind attendees that although the workshop is fairly fast-paced they need not fret about getting “stuck” or not being able to do a particular activity…also, they will get the slide deck, so not to worry about taking notes or trying to capture the screen with their camera….


Metaphorical Thinking – Warm Ups

I’ve used Lego bricks, foam shapes, and other bits and bots as the material muse for a warm-up prompt…my particular favourite with educators has been using the foam shapes to depict a metaphorical representation of your philosophy of teaching and/or learning. When we share out, it really helps folks get to know each other at a deeper, more purposeful level than “who are you and where and what do you teach?”

The key here is the EXPLANATION …the Intention….behind your creative choices and the process of articulating that.

Sometimes we use LEGO…

When introducing the importance of metaphorical thinking, I give out a prompt – such as “learning” or “change” and ask folks to find a photographic metaphor on their phone’s camera roll and share with a partner.

It’s even more fun if you switch phones to get the serendipity, but most people are apprehensive about that…another idea is to have everyone drop random photos in a shared folder.

Creating with Words

This is the first theme in @IntentionBook so I often start with it. Depending on the time frame, we do a little portmanteaux, “line and caret”, metaphorical typography of a “one word” (shown below), and “Potent Quoteables”…

Creating with Images

I do a Visual Thinking workshop, too, so some of these activities are similar but I try to mix it up in case anyone attends both. Probably the most engaging has been using the colour “paint chips” in something we call #IntentionColorPalette. At Aspengrove, teachers used them to create a custom palette that represented their school community. I was thrilled when one group chose a chip that was their aspiration…what “could be”. Again, the power is in the justification.

When working with the B.C. Independent Schools, I switched it up to the broader community – Vancouver…

And in yet another iteration I felt we needed to move around, so we walked around with paint chips depicting our “lives right now” and shared with partners.

We tried out data viz on a timeline to get to the essence of something:

…and the 4 icon challenge…

…and minimalist visual representations of a current event or lesson from the curriculum…

they were studying the effects of vaping

Creating with Sounds

We do a couple of these, depending on the group but one of my recent favourites has been “Playlist a Life”. Participants create a playlist of songs that metaphorically represent a famous person’s life.

Creating with Stuff

This is probably my favourite theme…as we get to work with clay, plastic bricks, and Oreo cookies! One of the things I like to start out with is the concept of pareidolia…that pattern-seeking phenomenon we humans possess that allows us to “see things” in mundane objects.

I ask folks to grab anything out of their bags and combine them with the provided materials to create an unexpected piece of art (it’s even more fun when they “donate” an object to another person!). This reiterates key principles of creativity: that of wonder, of seeing patterns and juxtapositions, of remix and repurposing….

We then play with PLAY-DOH to illustrate something from their content area. (side note: not everyone likes the feel of Play-Doh, so it’s important to allow participants to create with the same constraints yet perhaps using a different medium).

The creator told me this depicted the Industrial Revolution

Finally, the pièce de résistance is #IntentionOREO…the creative constraint being using one Oreo Cookie to demonstrate the nuances of content. We usually ask teachers to share a lesson or something related to their discipline, but in a few workshops (including my Visual Thinking one) the prompt was to create a minimalist poster about a current social issue they felt passionate about.

from the book, A Long Walk to Water

Creating with the Body

We definitely don’t use our bodies enough when learning. Because Dan is a professional Improv performer, we were able to include an entire section in the book about exploring more kinesthetic ways of demonstrating knowledge, or learning content through movement.

One of the most fun at conferences (because it involves group collaboration and need only take 5 minutes) is tableaux. For the sake of time, we usually ask folks to show a film scene, though I have also given the challenge of depicting a famous novel, poem, song, or artwork.

In “Image is Everything”, my visual thinking workshop, we adapted this idea for “body data viz”…each group member posed as their preferred music genre…and created props as well!

Creating with Others

Although the workshops bounce from individual, to partner, to group work, we do highlight a few activities in the collaborative creativity category. One of my favourites is “Human Magnetic Poetry”. Participants write words of varying parts of speech (in class this could be vocab) and roam around until they find one or more people to match up with so that the phrase makes sense (I talk about it more in this post).

We decided this one could be used as  story starter for an alternative fairy tale!

Creating with Social Media

To draw inspiration from social media one doesn’t need to necessarily be on social media. We offer many strategies for using social media platforms or analog versions of them to “get inside” a character and demonstrate a deep understanding (for more on this please check out my post on learning as remix 

In some of the Intention workshops we had the chance to play “Duchamp-It”, in which participants are challenged to re-contextualize things in the environment with hashtags that provide a different perspective, or perhaps a more poetic way of thinking about something.

Ah that was nice!

 Feedback- The WOW, HOW, NOW

The go-to reflection I use is something I made up called WOW/HOW/NOW…

The WOW is the big takeaway, the HOW is a lingering question, and the NOW is the personal challenge – how will I what I learned next week?

HA! That’s cool

I wanted to archive / share some goodies from my

Image is Everything: Visual Thinking Strategies Workshop

We started off with a personal data viz exercise that ends up looking like a Kandinsky abstract painting. We then roamed around the room “cocktail style” and shared with a few others, noting differences and similarities.

Below:  an example of a metaphorical sketch game I made up called Serendipidoodle…the key is to think and sketch using as much metaphor as you can when given a random adjective / noun combo.

Below: Sanburgian Synthesis – this exercise is something I made up based on a line from the poet Carl Sandburg. The goal in this is to develop a synthesis of two things (this plus this equals that)…and to depict it with visual icons. We did these as a group. Note: the bird is for the Portland conference because “put a bird on it!”

Above and Below: These are droodles (a drawn riddle). We created them using simple geometric shapes, then traded them for partners to contextualize with a label.

Above: I think this was a librarian, don’t you!?

Below: The pink Post-it is an example of Serendipidoodle; the yellow is a new strategy using dates as the typographic inspiration to make a point (to inform about that date)…I showed lots of examples and this participant decided to depict the brokenness / dichotomy of the US in 2017.

Below: we jotted down a term from our discipline…rumbled it up and threw it snowball style to someone else to illustrate

love this pareidolia from found objects!

We ended with the minimalist posters for a social issue and this one really stood out to me

All in all it was a great month and I’m excited to meet up with Dan again at SXSWEDU to host another Intention workshop.

If you are interested in having me or both Dan and I keynote, provide consultation, or offer a workshop of any length (the sweet spot for me is 3 hours but I love breaking Intention up into 2 two-hour workshops), please let us know.

Intention website

If you are interested more in the Visual Thinking workshop (great for leaders and corporate in addition to educators), I offer a variety of custom experiences.

Click here for a related post on Critical Creativity workshops (great for PD!).

For more on Amy’s Visual Thinking workshops click here.

For all of Amy’s workshops click here.

#professionaldevelopment #criticalcreativity #prod #creativity #IntentionCriticalCreativityintheClassroom #experience #visualliteracy #pd #workshops #conferences #keynotes #amyburvall #learning #danryder #visualthinking

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