Photo Credit: Skinnyde, “To the end of the earth,” Flickr, 2 May 2005, http://www.flickr.com/photos/skinnyde/32336204/in/photostream/ Creative Commons license.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about inspiration. It’s a bit like thinking about falling in love — hard to get a handle on, but what’s not to like? Still, I’ve been trying to tease out what inspiration is exactly, especially for those of us in the education racket in 2012. My husband, Larry Kahn, and I will lead a workshop for PLP Live! in Philadelphia on September 28th.  Our task is to marshal inspirational stories to help those who want to integrate 21st century learning in schools translate the words of wisdom from the likes of John Sealy Brown and Suzie Boss into the right stuff for their schools back home.

So, I’ve been thinking about how maybe I’ve been on the wrong track, that inspiration is not that rush of insightful adrenalin that comes upon us unexpectedly. It is not the feel good response we all have to stories of perseverance against hardship. It is not epiphany; it is not a call from the almighty, it is not the crazy mad electric charge of creativity or enlightenment that comes from sitting at the feet of the masters. Inspiration, truly, is the legacy of despair, dejection, and endless effort, the courageous pursuit of change in the face of obdurate opposition, and the result of stubborn, enduring hard work.

A True Inspirational Story Starts with You

Too often we wait for the right words of wisdom, the right tool, the right charismatic leader to come to fore and light an inspirational fire in us. For much of my career, I have waited for that leader or mentor who can spark the movement towards change that I can already see needs to happen. Those leaders, if they come, are fleeting sources of inspiration. True inspiration means facing things as they are and imagining what they can be. You look at your surroundings and see work that needs to be done, but you don’t quite know how to begin.  Someone speaks to you – literally and metaphorically – at the right place and the right time, and you act.

A True Inspirational Story Involves Action

True inspiration means staying alert to what you know must be changed. It means seeing your work ahead as a slow process to get where you want to go. You must take the first step, and the second, and every step after, on your own. Others may join you along the way, but mostly you are on your own.

A True Inspirational Story Means Being Ruthless with Yourself

For some of us, it’s easy to fall in step with the rally cry for change. It’s also easy to blame all the obstacles that stand in your way.  But true inspiration begins with facing the realities of resistance around you, assessing them honestly, and seeing your way clear to the other side. True inspiration means recognizing your own mistakes and foibles, your own distractions and misunderstandings, as means for growth.  Only then can you move forward.

A True Inspirational Story Means Holding On

You had a great plan, you implemented it thoughtfully, and still it fails. The learners and teachers you hope to reach reject your ideas because your suggestions are too foreign to them.  You watch enthusiasm die for something you know is good. You hold on and reassess. Perhaps you moved too quickly. Perhaps you misunderstood your audience. More than likely, there are factors beyond your control. You re-group and focus on those who are open to learning in a new way. You call them your pioneers, and you push forward.

At some point, you want to give up because it’s just too frustrating to face the nay-sayers one more time. You want to walk away because you are losing your supporters, who are too easily swayed by the narrow thinkers who cannot imagine beyond their own experience. You will want to give up because it just seems too hard to accomplish all you have set out to do. Yet you hold on because that is the only thing left.

A True Inspirational Story Is Surprised

You have walked away from failure, yet you find in a new environment the right fertilizer for growing your ideas.  You stumble upon others who think as you do. You leave behind a legacy of hard work and ground-breaking exploration. Amazingly, your legacy takes hold.  Others pick up where you left off, or you transplant your ideas to more fertile ground. You begin again.

A True Inspirational Story Continues the Story Cycle 

Three years ago, after a yearlong immersion in a 21st century professional development program, Powerful Learning Practice, I helped inaugurate a capstone project for seniors at my school. Our goal was to combat senioritis while proving our graduates with meaningful authentic work to help promote learning beyond high school.

I had spent a year working out the ways to implement a culminating senior project that could help my students embrace careers based on their passions. The first year, a growing year, inspired students to conduct studies of shyness in middle-school girls from different socio-economic groups, to develop videos for teaching self-defense, and to create songs to inspire teenagers to stay focused on school. It also included some dismal failures that proved to be equally important steppingstones for students.

The second year of the program was more problematic. Many students resisted the projects because they felt their time would be better spent on college applications or weekend jobs. The negative feeling for the program grew so pronounced that many students were allowed to opt out. A valiant core remained. Yet, as the projects lost administrative and board support, they seemed headed for extinction.

Meanwhile, a few dauntless students carried on.  The second round of projects, though fewer in number, were built upon more solid foundation of research and documentation ((see my blog post on “5 Courageous Students”).  As I turned the guidance and instruction for the program over to others, I witnessed a surprising resurgence as the program took on new life. Despite all of the obstacles it faced, despite disappointment, frustration, and despair, this project founded on principals of student-centered learning and meaningful use of technology would continue to have an impact — because it was good and because the learning it engendered mattered.

There you have it, my inspirational story.

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