Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Jim Henson Theory Of Education

I sent that tweet out Christmas night. I had no idea how true it was.

I thought I knew about Jim Henson before I started reading his biography. He's the Muppet guy. He did LABYRINTH. He made a ton of puppets. He died too young. Check.

I was right. But I was also WAY wrong. There's so much more to Jim Henson than those benchmarks. They are all things he did. But it's not really who he was. If he knew I thought of him as "The Muppet Guy" and that's all he would have stroked his beard, hmmmmed, and softly said something about the other work he did. He wouldn't have pushed his resume in my face, but he also wouldn't have been thrilled.

Jim Henson was an artist in the best sense of the word. He followed his heart and his passions, while also being aware of commercial interests. He wasn't guided by trends or what he thought people wanted. But he was aware that he had something people would want. He trusted his creative instincts and, rather that give the people what they want, gave them what he had to offer. To the best of his abilities. Every time.

Here's a perfect example of that (and then I'll tie him to education, I promise)- The Muppet Show was the most popular show on television. It was HUGE. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be on the show. It got massive ratings. And it lasted for five seasons. Why? Did quality start to drop in the fifth season? Were viewers tired of the lovable anarchy Kermit and his merry band brought to their televisions every week?

Nope. Jim Henson was done making The Muppet Show. He knew it was great. He knew it could keep going. But he was done. Better to stop on a high note than to watch the quality of your product diminish, taking your audience along for the slide. And besides, he had a bunch of other irons in the fire. Fraggle Rock had been percolating in his head for a long time and that was coming together. The movies were working. And he wanted to get away from the Muppets (who he never intended to be his Only Thing) and stretch himself artistically. We would say that Jim wanted to take risks, but I don't think he'd say that. I think he'd say he had other ideas, so he pursued them.

THAT'S the key. Right there. Jim Henson knew there were things The Muppet Show and Henson Associates (as they were known at the time, and note the acronym that name makes) needed to to do make money. He agreed to merchandising with the caveat that he had final say on product because he knew jumping through those hoops, doing those business things, would allow him the freedom to make the art he wanted. He played the game, but he made up his own rules as well.

That's what I look for when I'm teaching. There are constraints we operate inside. We work within a system, and the system restricts certain things and makes certain things Needs rather than Wants or Options. Similar to making a big budget movie with someone else's money or a network TV show. But there is art to be made in these boxes. Passions to follow. And freedoms to explore.

What about how he would move on from projects before they outlived their popularity? This is taking that project that I've been assigning for the past three or four years, a project that I love, that works really well, looking closely at it, and getting rid of it. Or rebuilding it. Not for the sake of doing it, but because I'm three years better at teaching and I can make a better thing now. You can even connect it to changing grade levels. We're talking about taking risks, that's a huge risk. That forces us to think differently about teaching. It's easy for me to say that teaching different grade levels is good for teaching though, I'll admit. I've moved a lot in my career, and in the last eleven years I've taught 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grades in three different states in four different schools. At the beginning those changes weren't a choice, but they made me a better teacher. More recently I've moved to find a place that fits me better. I'd never advocate that a teacher leave their job, but I would say that finding a place you're happy, to me, would be as important as all the tenure I've built up. (Full disclosure- Oregon doesn't have tenure.)

Henson let ideas evolve naturally. Kermit was blue. He wasn't the ring leader. The Fraggles changed a dozen times before they got their own TV show. Ideas he had got folded into other ideas, bent and changed and molded until they became what they wanted to be. He never really threw an idea away, he just put it away until he could use it. I don't know about you, but I have an app called ColorNote on my phone and there's lists of ideas on there. Snippets, thoughts, bad ideas, half cooked ideas, ideas that don't fit what I teach. But I keep them. Two reasons- I'll forget if I don't. And ideas are a muscle and if you shut that muscle down it gets weak. Eventually those things will find their way into my classroom. Or they won't. That's ok too.

And ideas failed! Not often, but they did. The Dark Crystal is a movie that came out of his head, featuring only puppets, and no one got it. It didn't do well. But it's pure Henson. And I think that's just as important. He had Sesame Street and the Muppet Show. He could make his weird movie. I want (and currently have) an admin that sees I'm checking the boxes that come from the district and the state, and let's me be who I am. As long as the job is being done, I can try things. I've never really had that before, and I'm clinging tightly to it. Henson let them sell Kermit lunch boxes because that money meant he could make The Dark Crystal. I give DIBLES because that means I can build a MakerSpace and a cardboard arcade. I'll make that trade.

The Henson team was a magical group. I made this point in the thread, but I think it's important to revisit- Frank Oz never would have invented the Muppets. But the Muppets never would have existed without Frank Oz. He gave Fozzie life when Jim couldn't find it. He made Miss Piggy the second most popular Muppet of all time. He was (quite literally) Jim's right hand. Henson constantly hired people he thought understood his style and let them work. Not just puppeteers either. He'd pull people out of the workshop and put a puppet in their hand they'd create magic. Because Jim believed in them. He wasn't the best business man, but he was the kind of artist that created artists. That's some kind of special. Wouldn't you love to be a teacher who created teachers? A learner who created learners? And wouldn't it be cool to have a Frank Oz? A team member who complimented you so perfectly that you could create almost without speaking? What could you do?
And on top of all this, on top of all the innovation and creativity and the creation, Henson was constantly right on top of evolving technology. He would have an idea for a puppet or a shot, and then have to invent a way to make that happen. And then, while everyone else was like, "Holy cow! That's amazing, let's learn how to do that!" he'd be having a new idea and inventing a new technique. He knew television had untapped potential. He knew there were things that could be done with computers that no one else was doing. He would have thrived on the internet because he had YouTube-worthy ideas on the regular. He had ideas that couldn't be done in his lifetime. BUT- he knew that technology only mattered if the character was served. Just like in our classrooms and schools all the apps and tablets and Chromebooks don't matter one bit if the learning and the kid isn't served. It's worth noting that later in his career he did get carried away by the tech and that's when his work suffered the most.

I want to end this with his stated goal for Fraggle Rock.
Tell me that's not, in the end, the Big Goal of education.

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