Surreal sculpture and the challenge of being creative with language

Art teachers are interested in creativity. That’s no surprise really.  We’re interested in squeezing new things and creative approaches out of our pupils in their practical work. Well yes maybe, but even in the most creative of classrooms over-reliance on examples/predetermined models and the pupils’ sometimes insatiable wish to do things the ‘right’ way has to be fought. In this sense, my own classroom is no different.

Occasionally a lesson situation presents itself where the pupils are confronted with an almost infinite number of choices or variables on offer.  It calls for thought, reflection and a spark that might lead to the pupils coming up with something that is their ‘own’, something that is maybe a little more original or creative. It can be a struggle, and a surprisingly difficult situation to actually teach.

This has been the case in a recent assignment I have been working on with my third-year pupils (aged 15 years). It was an assignment that required some creativity in terms of practical activity when the class working with plywood. But actually, the creative core of the assignment was more one of creativity of thought.

The assignment was linked to a series of lessons about Surrealism and involved taking an existing object and combining it with a second plywood constructed object that interacted in some way with the qualities or characteristics of the first object to present a slightly surreal combination. The idea for the assignments stemmed from various artworks like those of Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Meret Oppenheim.

 

 

The idea of placing two objects together or combining them visually is not complex, and by and large the process of constructing the second object from plywood is not too technically difficult. However, the simple act of deciding what to do is surprisingly difficult. Analyzing the qualities of the first object, with a little encouragement generally works out reasonably well. If we take the example of a fork, the sort of which you might find in the kitchen drawer.

A fork is:

Metal, silvery, shiny, hard, pointy at one end, more curved at the other, the overall form is kind of wavy, it’s for eating, for spiking food, comes as part of a set called cutlery, four prongs, fits in the hand, etc, etc.

How then to choose a second object that in some way combines or contrasts with these existing characteristics? That was difficult. It requires something of a ‘eureka’ moment, just a single idea that was going to engage the viewer, like Man Ray’s nails under the iron. Here is the creative challenge. Often I found myself sitting round a table staring at an object with a pupil, waiting, coaxing, edging them towards some possibilities, but at the same time trying to hold back from offering solutions. Testing creativity of thought in this way can at times be something of a painful process to watch!

It the end, in most cases, an idea came. Some rather predictable, others surprising, smart or downright funny. In the case of the fork the pupil settled quite quickly on working with the wave-like form of the fork when seen side on.  He decided he simply wanted to make a ship with masts and sails that by inserting it between the prongs of the fork could ‘sail’ through the wave-like form.

wThe second creative challenge came in the form of dreaming up a suitable title, one that somehow locked in on the complexities of these combinations. Can you spend a whole lesson waiting and hoping that pupils come up with an engaging, perhaps two-word title? Will that flash of an idea come?

The language abilities of my pupils are good, even working as we are in English, their second language. But that is not to say that they are going succeed at this difficult challenge. This stretches their creativity and knowledge of often multiple meanings for words to the limit. In the end, the language component of this assignment is finding just a handful of words, but they are completely integrated with the practical content. It that sense it is a good CLIL (content and language integrated learning) lesson, although not an easy one.

For more of this sort of language assignment read this:

The most difficult assignment of the year?

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Second language communication problems in class

Sometimes all you can do is laugh when you are starting to teach a bilingual class using a CLIL (content and language integrated learning) approach. I have a class of Dutch twelve year olds that I have been teaching my art lessons to, essentially in English, for three weeks now. It’s going OK, but obviously there is still a long way to go and a lot to learn. This learning situation does occasionally throw up funny moments….

toilet door

A boy comes up to me near the end of the lesson, pauses, and then carefully asks in his most considered English:

“Mr. Sansom, can I go to the toilet?”

He’s only a first year so we won’t have the “can I” or “may I go to the toilet” discussion, not just yet. I look at my watch, only two minutes to go until the end of the lesson. I reply slowly and clearly:

“There’s only two minutes to go until the end of the lesson, can you wait two minutes?”

He listens carefully to my answer, a serious look on his face, and then smiles and runs out of the door, down the corridor and disappears through the toilet door without saying a word.

The first weeks of bilingual education is full of this sort of misunderstanding, it requires patience as you laugh inwardly to yourself and think “didn’t I just say that?” or “haven’t you been listening”. The truth is that they probably have been listening, it’s just that joining up the gaps in their understanding is sometimes just that little bit too challenging. That will change though, and soon……..

Learning through not understanding? – CLIL (content and language integrated learning) art project

Why do I have the feeling that not everyone in the English department is going to approve of this art inspired (clil) writing assignment?

Surreal poetry assignment

This might not be a lesson idea for language purists, but in my defense, I would say that encouraging learners to play with language can be an important aspect of language acquisition. I remember the satisfying buzz I started to get when my mastery of the Dutch language reached a level where I could crack a joke or maybe use a little irony. It makes the using of the language more pleasurable and dare I say it, more fun. So if my surreal poetry assignment takes us into areas of confusing and sometimes conflicting interpretation….well…..that is actually the point of it.

If you would like a little more context and history on the Surrealists, their forerunners the Dadaists and how text and language featured in their work a good place to start is the excellent The Art Story site through the links at the bottom of this post.

So how does the assignment work? I should start by saying that there are plenty of variations on these poetic themes to be found on a variety of websites. The one that I sketch out here is based on an idea from one on a wikihow.com page.

The initial task is to find an existing poem; this could perhaps be one that has been made use of in an English lesson or one that you as a teacher feel is particularly appropriate. Alternatively, allow your pupils to search for a starting point themselves in books or on websites, one that they themselves find interesting…..reading a bit of poetry can never be a bad thing!

Once a suitable poem has been found ask the pupils to identify the nouns, verbs and adjectives in the poem by underlining them with three different coloured pens. Again, this is a useful language exercise for pupils of any level to try to complete.

Then comes the creative part, ask the pupils to replace the existing nouns, verbs and adjectives with new ones of their own choice. It helps if they have already grasped the fact that in the world of the Surrealists not everything is quite as it seems. To make this point clear the paintings of Rene Magritte are my own favourite.

The challenge is to create new poetic lines that are grammatically correct, but have an intriguing and perhaps perplexing connection…..complete randomness though, doesn’t seem to engage the writer or the reader in quite the same way.

 

The examples below illustrate the process:

 

Is the Moon Tired?

By Christina Rossetti (1830-1994)

Is the moon tired? she looks so pale

Within her misty veil:

She scales the sky from east to west,

And takes no rest.

Before the coming of the night

The moon shows papery white;

Before the dawning of the day

She fades away

 

Is the (noun) tired? she looks so (adjective)

Within her misty (noun):

She (verb) the sky from (noun) to (noun),

And takes no (noun).

Before the (verb) of the (noun)

The moon shows (adjective) (noun);

Before the (verb) of the (noun)

She (verb) away.

(Noun – Verb – Adjective)

 

A new version might go:

Is the ink tired? she looks so weak

Within her misty streak:

She swims the sky from pen to book,

And takes no second look.

Before the consuming of the text

The moon shows uncertain perplex;

Before the burning of the hay

She withdraws away.

 

Two possible extensions to this project could be:

  1. Ask pupils to try to produce an illustration based on their own new version of the poem
  2. Give pupils an example of a surreal artwork (such as one by Magritte) and ask them to write a poem about the painting from scratch. The visual material that the painting offers provides a clear direction and material enough for an interesting exploration and simultaneously requires them to look long and hard at an image from art history.

The story of Dada

The story of Surrealism

Wikihow page used

Danish visitors

From time to time I am asked to give presentations to and yesterday I did in The Hague so to a group of Danish teachers and head teachers who were interested to hear more about the form of bilingual education that we offer in our schools in The Netherlands.

I’d like to thank them for their active participation in my part of the day. I enjoyed the chance to share ideas and discuss future possibilities.

I promised to make my presentation material available as a reminder of some of the teaching activities I touched on.  The PowerPoint itself is quite brief, so also feel free to take a look elsewhere on this blog and in particular at the CLIL link higher up the page.

Click on the link below for the presentation:

danish-visitors-2017

Stating the obvious – language as a tool of communication

Yes it might sound rather too obvious to write about, but often language isn’t quite as hard and definite as we might think.  How often have you left a business meeting or a discussion with friends or family, only later to wonder whether you have interpreted what was said correctly or encountered a creeping feeling that you, or they, have been misunderstood?

It’s just this kind of area that, my Finnish colleague, Pasi Kirkkopelto, and I are pitching into with the photographic project we are running between our art classes in Finland and the Netherlands.

suzannejongmans

Photograph by Suzanne Jongmans

A couple of weeks ago I had my fourth year classes (aged 14-15) write short 200-250 word descriptions of an image from a set of photographic portraits made my Dutch photographers.  My pupils approached it in a quite nonchalant way, of course they could describe a portrait in such a short text. Even after completing the task they were quite confident of the quality of the description that they had produced. To them, working in small groups as they were, they had the feeling that they had produced a ‘bullet-proof’ description. They’d covered everything, it was clear, they had considered everything. I’m guessing that in Finland there was a similar feeling, maybe the Scandinavian counterparts were slightly less confident with their use of English than my bilingual Dutch pupils, but I suspect there was a comparable feeling of having covered all the necessary detail.

We subsequently swapped the descriptive texts over, without passing on the actual photographs to the pupils. The task that followed was then to produce a photograph of their own that was based on the text.  A direct copy was never likely to be the result, our aim and hope as teachers, was for a set of technically well made photographs, that had an interesting and engaging relationship with the original source image.

In this situation, the use of language is very much as a filter. In 250 words, a certain amount of information can be passed, but a very long way from the text covering every last detail. With the new descriptions in their hands my pupils soon started to discover for themselves the limitations of language and how it can fail to be an accurate and precise tool of communication.

Before they even picked up a camera for themselves I had them work on a simple composition sketch of the photograph to work out for themselves how the various elements fitted together. In no time there were puzzled faces, not because the English was poor, it was just that their interpretation of the text just didn’t quite seem to add up. I haven’t spoken to Pasi in Finland about his experiences with my pupils’ descriptions yet, but my guess is that he’ll have encountered comparable puzzles.

photo4

For our art project this is an interesting way of diverting away from just making a reconstruction of an existing photograph. But there is also perhaps a more serious and important language issue at a stake here. Language is not as concrete as we might like it to be. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations continually interrupt and effect everyday life. Problems can of course arise when language is used by someone who does not yet have a full mastery of it. But equally difficult is when someone’s use of language is overly (and maybe unnecessarily complex) leading to problems of interpretation for others.  I read an article about just this point recently highlighting the problems of over complexity among native speakers of English in a university setting.

Native Speakers….always the right choice?

The message seems to be, keep it clear, keep it concise. But I would also say, in terms of expressive and descriptive content, overly basic use of language comes with its own set of risks!

In at the deep end…

Today is my first day back at school after the summer break and I’m closer than ever before to simply starting with my new bilingual first year classes in English, with none of the pupils’ native Dutch thrown in to make it easier for them. I describe them as a ‘bilingual classes’ but they aren’t really, or at least not yet. They are just starting down the language learning road. Virtually all have a smattering of English already, picked up from tv, films, music and the Internet. Normally the first weeks of the school year are for me and my first year pupils, sessions of constant switching between English and Dutch. So what has brought me to this point where I think I should just start in English and not offer a Dutch language back-up or safety net?

For the last three years I’ve been doing a workshop at a nearby school (where I don’t normally teach) that also has a bilingual stream. I am hired in for an intensive day of language and art activities that results in a presentation for parents.

cuijk

This workshop is also done with first year pupils (aged 12), just beginning their bilingual education. They are actually beginning with a lot of new things at once, it’s a big week. A new school, many new friends, new teachers, a new experience of subjects being taught as separate hours in a timetable and…….a new language of instruction. Could we make it a more intimidating and difficult step for a twelve year old I sometimes wonder.

For the pupils I worked with earlier in the week it was the start of just the second week at their new school, and the second week of wrestling with their new language of communication. It’s also been a week and one day of a huge number of new impressions and challenges for them.

Today was just such an example, verbal word games, poetry, describing activities, group communication games, drawing and illustration, all in a day long project, lead by someone they had never seen before. In short, variation ruled the day as we bounced from one assignment to the next. Variation that is, mixed with enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is one of my strong points, and today it was greeted by the enthusiasm of the pupils.

(Click here for examples of the sort of lesson assignments I make use of)

As a visitor to the school I can pretend for a day that I don’t speak any Dutch, and so force them to do all their communication in English. This way I can usurp the natural hierarchy of language in a typical Dutch school. They struggle to communicate with me in English because that is the only way it’s going to work. Rather like when you are on holiday abroad. Just like I was in France during the summer. I struggled to make use of my minimal knowledge of the French language when it was necessary. Yes it was easier of course to leave it to my wife to communicate with the locals with her much superior knowledge of the French language, but the question is, is my French ever going to improve that way?

I don’t think that I’m advocating that all my bilingual colleagues take such a hard line and aggressive language approach. I can imagine in some subject areas it could be more problematic if English was the only language used right from the beginning. But so much of my subject in the art room has the back-up of visual elements, demonstrations and images to support to aid understanding. My workshop earlier in the week was a demonstration of just how far children are able to come when thrown in at the language deep end. It’s all about listening hard, helping each other out when they don’t understand or miss a bit. But above all, and I posted about this a year ago (Learning through not understanding), keeping them stretching and reaching beyond the capabilities that they think they have.

 

Playing with language….with a footballing connection

Sharing a joke with a class is one of the best parts of education.  It’s a potentially fun and entertaining moment and it does wonders for the relationship that you as a teacher have with a group.  If it can also include a kind of educational dimension then you have a perhaps unusual but also very valuable combination.

I’ve posted before about the difficult and rather unique place in language acquisition that proverbs and sayings in communication.

Lost Consonants, sayings and proverbs

They are a difficult part to grasp and to dare to use. I like to use them in my teaching as an art teacher in bilingual education. I often find myself pausing to explain what exactly I mean when I use such a phrase or proverb.  Understanding, and daring to use a phrase like ‘that’s a different kettle of fish’ is difficult, but knowing when to use it enriches communication and brings a new level to expression through language.

There is also a kind of flip side to this, and also one that I occasionally encounter in the classroom. A pupil tries to use a translated version of a Dutch proverb.  The translated version can at times sound very odd, bewildering or just plain funny.

It is normally only a diversion at the end of a lesson, but throwing translations of Dutch proverbs, (translated literally and into perfect English of course) can become so entertaining, at home in our bilingual household we do it as well. Someone who complains a lot is a ‘moan sock’, a direct translation from the Dutch ‘zeurkous’.

Or try ‘ik schrik me een hoedje’, it is used when you are very shocked or have someone made you jump. It means, literally translated ‘I shocked myself a hat’!

Or ‘you’re standing with your mouth full of teeth’…you just don’t know what to say, ‘met de mond vol tanden staan’ in Dutch.

Or ‘make someone happy with a dead sparrow’….trying to impress someone with something that is actually pretty valueless, ‘iemand blij maken met een dode mus’ in Dutch.

The comedians in the class seem to like the challenge of trying to have mock conversations that include direct English translations or Dutch sayings.  I’m not sure if this whole exercise has any real language value. Other than encouraging the pupils to play and explore language in unusual and fun ways.  I would hope that it does teach them at least how careful you need to be if to are tempted to try and translate and use a proverb from your own language. It can leave you looking  well, a little daft, which is where the football connection comes in. The current coach (Louis van Gaal) of Manchester United also at times runs into problems in this area as the following two videos show:

If anyone has any examples of strange translations of sayings and proverbs into English I’d be interested to hear them.

Contentious Quotations – a CLIL assignment

Stimulating a point of view is important in an art lesson. I guess I would often say that in a way having a point of view or and opinion is almost as important as the opinion itself. In this regard maybe my subject area is a little different to many others, being in absolute agreement with the ‘right answer’ is not normally the main aim in the art room.

But even in the ‘hard’ science areas there is room for discussion and opinion, certainly when exploring a new area or theme and when you are trying your best as a teacher to unlock pupils’ prior knowledge and intuitions. This can be done in a number of ways in the classroom, a group discussion, a brainstorming session on the board or individually or something as simple as providing pupils with key terminology and asking them in a group to discuss what they think the words might mean.

The following activity is designed to:

  • Allow space for diverse opinions from everyone in the group
  • Encourage an awareness that different people have different ideas that can be expressed in different styles and terminology
  • Encourage an awareness and analysis of others opinions be they from their peers or ‘experts’ and accept their validity
  • Encourage the viewing of a subject from multiple standpoints
  • Encourage an understanding of differences in standpoint and why it happens and why it might actually be useful
  • Encourage the understanding that the context of a statement might be important. The when, the how and the why behind the statement
  • Stimulate verbal engagement

guernica

How it works

The instructions below are for how this assignment might work in my art lesson, but by switching the artwork image for a different sort of image, diagram or film with different subject matter the basic principle should work across most subject areas.

Select the artwork. For the purpose of this example let us use the example of Picasso’s Guernica. If you’re not sure about the history and importance of this artwork take a quick look at some background information here.

  • At random hand out a sheet of paper to each pupil in the class. On each sheet the image of the artwork (Picasso’s Guernica in this case) is at the top and one of the numbered quotations below underneath it. (I should add that the ‘quotations’ used are fictitious ones that you the teacher should formulate in order to take the lines of thought of the pupils into desirable areas)
  1. “the Spanish town of Guernica was bombed by the German Condor Legion on Monday 26 April 1937. 3000 bombs were dropped killing more than 1600 people”
  2. “In this work we can see that Picasso was experimenting in the way he was painting, but there are definitely still Cubist influences”
  3. “After standing in the queue at he museum in Madrid I was finally able to get in, I was shocked to see just how big the work actually was”
  4. “Everything about this artwork is focused on destruction, the broken bodies, buildings and spirit of the people is clearly what the artist has focused on. There is just one small sign of hope….”
  5. “For me the real problem with this art work is how unrealistic it is. I get that it is about destruction and death, but I don’t get why the artist has painted it in such a basic way”
  6. “This image is absolutely at home in the UN headquarters in New York, it is exactly the sort of place that this image should be hung so that everyone can see what it is about”
  • Ask the pupils to think entirely for themselves (and without discussion) about the image and the quotation. They need to focus on their reaction to the statement. Do they agree or disagree with it, why that might be? What sort of person might have made the statement and why do they think that? When do they think that it was made and under what circumstances? Plus other comments they have, reminds me of…. Etc.
  • Encourage the pupils to look up words that they don’t know or facts or content in the quotation that they don’t understand.
  • When the written reactions are complete ask those with quotation number one to go and sit together, quotation two form another group, and so on. Within the group ask the group to explain their thoughts to one another and discuss the reactions, observations and thoughts that each had. Whilst doing is ask the pupils to discuss their observations and then to write down the areas of agreement and where the differences lie.
  • Subsequently ask a spokesperson from each group to present the quotation and the groups thoughts to the class as a whole.
  • The discussion phase can then be broadened out a step further by allowing the discourse to become class wide, with individual standpoints that they can articulate to the class.

The overall benefit of this structure is that it allows you the teacher to steer the engagement with the lesson material into desired areas though careful choice of the ‘quotations’ that you present to the class. However it requires the pupils to do the work in these areas as they engage with, and reflect on the different perspectives that can be taken in relation to a single subject.

The results of the assignment could easily be taken further and used as the basis for a more extensive written exercise relating to the theme.

Lost Consonants, sayings and proverbs – Content and language integrated learning (CLIL)

A couple of weeks ago I published a post called One Letter Switch that involved a small switch of one letter in the title of an existing film to produce a new and very different movie name. I mentioned in the post that I would also explain a second variation that in some ways follows similar lines.

I should start by underlining that this idea has its root in the extremely quirky “Lost Consonants” images that artist and writer Graham Rawle published in the Guardian newspaper a number of years ago. Rawle’s work was published in the newspaper for its entertainment value and its humour with both a visual and a text-based edge.

Each image was created in a similar way. He took a sentence, like for example, “Every time the doorbell rang, the dog started barking”. He then altered the sentence by removing one single consonant from somewhere in the sentence. So the sentence could become, “Every time the doorbell rang, the dog started baking”. This new variation of the text would then be placed underneath a collage that Rawle made by cutting up magazine images and illustrating the new, mostly somewhat sillier version of the phrase………..

graham-rawle

How exactly to apply the core of this idea to the classroom was the first issue. It occurred to me that potentially any sort of sentence could be used. Because of this it also seemed to offer an excellent opportunity to shine a light on one particularly troublesome area of language acquisition. Sayings, proverbs and other ‘wise’ sayings have their place in all languages. When you stop to consider them carefully it becomes only too clear just how often they are used. They enrich a language, they give it a more playful complexity, they are also quite difficult to learn.  I know this last point from my own experience of learning Dutch. They are some similarities and even some sayings that are essentially the same. There are others that simply have no comparison and if you stop to translate them literally into a second language you often see just how odd they are, a fact that makes you very nervous about daring to use them!

I decided to apply the ‘Lost Consonants’ approach to sayings and proverbs in my lesson. The aim was essentially three-fold:

  1. To get my pupils reading English proverbs and sayings on websites that also provide an explanation of what they mean and how they should be used.
  2. The get the class playing with the language and interpretation possibilities if just one letter was dropped from the proverb. The new version needed to have a linguistic logic, even (and hopefully) if the result was actually a rather crazy literal meaning.
  3. The new version had to work in such a way that it could result in an entertaining and engaging photographic collage put together from diverse sources (it is, after all an art lesson!)

Providing pupils with examples of sayings to look through was easy enough, there are plenty of sites available that offer lists:

www.phrasemix.com

www.smart-words.org

www.knowyourphrase.com

www.englishclub.com

Then the word game starts of experimenting with the possibilities. Just one consonant to be removed, no other possibilities allowed. Some of the sayings offer little or no options for adjustment, but there are plenty that do. Having experimented with this assignment with a couple of classes in the last week, I think it is also important to get the pupils sharing not only their new variations with each other but also the original version and explaining the contexts to one another when it might be used.

Most pupils were quite easily able to come up with three or four possibilities.  Often though the final decision of which one to work with was simply down to which one would make the best Graham Rawle-like collage with the most surreal visual qualities. Below are a few examples from my third years (14-15 year olds).

missingconsonants2

If you would like to see more of Graham Rawle’s work in this area it can be found here:

www.grahamrawle.com

Language and creativity continued…..more content and language integrated learning (CLIL)

At the start of the year I wrote a post about using elements of existing text in a creative way, both in terms of the meanings of the words themselves, but also ultimately in the way that they appear and are presented on the page. If you didn’t read the post it can be found here:

Language and Creativity

I mentioned the Newspaper Blackout work of Austin Kleon in what I wrote and included a TEDx presentation that he gave.  Since writing the first post I have bought a copy of his Newspaper Blackout ‘poetry’ for myself and have been taking a more focussed look at how he works.

Unlike the work of Tom Phillips (and his work A Humunent: a treated Victorian  Novel) who uses pages from a novel as his basis, Kleon uses pages from a newspaper. In doing this a few new options are opened up if used in a classroom situation:

  • There are greater varieties of theme on a single page
  • There are interesting varieties in letter types and layout arrangement
  • There may even be an occasional image that could be included
  • A degree of current affairs content comes into the classroom, at least at the beginning

kleon1

As an arts teacher I find the simple blacking out of the unused text too simple for my taste. But to be fair to Austin Kleon, that isn’t the point here, it is about the words and letters on the page and how they are used.  This is where the creativity lies, this is where the language challenge lies and this is also why this work offers such great potential to a language teacher and I think especially the bilingual teacher. An existing page of text imposes limitations, but it also throws down challenges. The limitations, or maybe I should say, the framework in which the creative challenge needs to take place.

I was watching a film recently and the fashion designer John Galliano said ‘when you find yourself in a corner, that’s when you get creative’.  In a sense when you limit your pupils to just the words and text available on a single page you are placing them in such a corner.

On a broader level limitations and frameworks in which to work are maybe more important than we might think in the way we teach.  In the art room I am all for offering choices and variety.  However limitless choices can in the end be an obstacle.  A while back I was working on a photography project with my 15-16 year old pupils.  I wanted them to take a self-portrait photograph.  Having done a similar assignment a year earlier I knew how they had a tendency to all fall into the “selfie” snap shot direction.  So instead I asked them to model their portraits on one of a selection of old master paintings I gave them. My aim was to get them to look a little more carefully at the paintings, but above all to get them to consider what they were doing with the camera and use of light a great deal more.

The results in the end were generally very good, a few of the results can be seen here:

Frames of reference

It’s the clear parameters that seem to be working here.  They maybe even bring a slightly competitive edge to the challenge, maybe that’s where the positive response comes from. I think it is certainly where the strength of the work of Austin Kleon and Ted Phillips comes from when using it in a classroom context.

kleon2