As the story goes, comedian Louis C.K. spent years doing the same material on stage over and over, night after night.  His jokes were successful, but one day he heard how George Carlin, one of his idols, tossed out his material every year and wrote all new stuff.  This changed Louie’s approach profoundly and it altered the course of his career.  

I suspect the fact that Louie now writes a whole new act every year and is not only one of comedy’s brightest and funniest stars, but also one of its most thoughtful and intelligent commentators on life, is hardly a coincidence.  As Louie put it once (I’m paraphrasing), when you’re done talking about flying on airplanes, fast food, and the difference between men and women, the only thing left is to start again, to go deeper, to look inside.

The same is true with teaching.  

For us to go deeper as teachers, we must be willing to start with a beginner’s mind, to jettison the comfortable, to risk coming up with all new stuff, to look inside ourselves for the material that no one else is willing to put on stage.  

But every year?  

Yeah, maybe.  If that’s what it takes.

There’s nothing wrong with hanging on to a favorite lesson as an anchor or to keep that killer activity that always works, but what about starting with a new lesson or two for every unit?  The challenge is to have the courage to throw stuff away and start again, to try different things, to go up in front of the class and, in the parlance of comedy, completely bomb. Because completely bombing is sometimes what it takes to get to the good stuff.

What if every June we threw away most of what we did and spent some of the summer coming up with new material?  How would that change our game?  Much like in the world of comedy, not all of it will work.  But if we have the guts to throw out our “A” game, we just might find our work and our classroom and our spirits feeling a little fresher and more meaningful because we were willing to start again, to go deeper, to look inside.  

I also heard a story once–though its origin escapes me–of a teacher who was speaking to his father, also an educator, and the father said, “By all means, teach for twenty years.  Just don’t teach the same year twenty times.”  This anecdote is a profound endorsement of the concept of Beginner’s Mind, of going back to the beginning to dig deeper, to reach farther, to try again.   

Make no mistake:  This proposition is terrifying.  Get rid of all the stuff I know works with no guarantee that the new stuff will help them learn?  Horrifying!  Petrifying!  But without these kinds of risks, it’s almost impossible to remember what it’s like to come at something as a beginner (especially if you’ve been a teacher for awhile) and it certainly makes it harder to burn through the mediocre stuff to those activities and concepts that will make your teaching (and by extension, your students’ learning) transcendent.   

So as scary as it is, I’m going to make that commitment right here and now.  I may not throw away everything at first, but in the next month or so, I’m going to take a good, hard look at my curriculum and while staying in the bounds of what’s required by my department, site, district, and state, I will start again and create some all new stuff that pushes the envelope.  

Right now, for example, I’m thinking of a pile of worksheets and activity handouts on the desk in my office that I’ve always kept around just because someday I “might” use them.  That pile has been there, I’m guessing, since Apollo 13 told Houston there was a problem.  

I think the first thing I’ll do when I head back to the classroom in August is walk into my office and, in a grand and sweeping motion, slide that stack right off of my desk and into the trash can.  

Then I’ll come up with some all new stuff to take its place.  

Just thinking about it makes me excited for the coming fall.  

I’m no genius like Carlin or C.K., but I can certainly follow their example to dig deeper, to start again, and to embrace what it means to be a beginner again.  

And so can you.  TZT