Grant Guru Tip #6 by Gary Carnow: Brainstorming and the Grant Writing Process

This tip will relate some of my personal experiences to illustrate the power of brainstorming and the grant writing process. For me, it really started with a spoon. Well, actually a lesson about a spoon. I was a teacher of gifted children in a magnet program in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. We were at a very special little neighborhood school, high up Lookout Mountain Avenue in Laurel Canyon. We actually started at another neighborhood school in the heart of Hollywood and later moved up into the canyon. It would be a few years before my career would take a turn towards technology. But here my journey began.

That special place and those special children are really on my mind today. Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a reunion of sorts. In a very 2007 way, I received an evite several months ago announcing, “Gooood Morning Boys & Girls…it’s a WONDERLAND REUNION!!! This is a multiyear, family friendly reunion. Please forward this anyone we have missed. AND YOU BETTER COME OTHERWISE WE WILL WRITE YOUR NAME ON THE BOARD!!!”

How could I resist? It has been over 25 years since I had reconnected on such a large scale. Over 140 people replied that they would attend and another 100 sent their evite regrets. Scanning the list, I recognized many names. I dug out a 1982 videotape, of several class plays and burned them to a DVD.

Now back to the spoon. Connie Gibson taught me the spoon factory lesson many years ago. Connie, a gifted teacher and magnet coordinator at the time, demonstrated this lesson to me. The lesson involves the brainstorming process. The rules of brainstorming are taught to the children prior to the brainstorming activity. Connie used five simple rules:
1. Defer all judgment
2. List all ideas.
3. Encourage freewheeling (even if it results in outlandish ideas).
4. Learn to spark or piggyback on ideas.
5. Aim for quantity, not quality.

You spend some time learning the rules of brainstorming and then comes the set-up. I’ve brought you all together today to help our company move into the future. We have been making spoons for over one hundred years. People today no longer buy or collect our spoons. I could probably give you a dozen reasons why our spoons aren’t selling, but the point is we are facing bankruptcy. I’ve gathered you here for one purpose. Our jobs are on the line. We have to find a new way to improve or reinvent our product; otherwise we will have to close our factory.

The brainstorming begins. Several students record the responses on the board as the teacher facilitates the process. During a lull, the teacher rereads some of the responses and sparks further thought. Students then try to look for patterns and relationships. We follow up with detailed drawings, marketing plans, and commercials. This simple, yet powerful lesson engaged our students in many ways. Our students became expert brainstormers, product designers and production teams. We brainstormed spoons, how to recycle old dial telephones and how to create an interplanetary explorer’s belt. I provided the setting in which students can appreciate the impact of a multiplicity of ideas rather than looking for the one right idea to answer a question. We looked at ways to find alternative ways to solve complex problems and allowed everyone in the classroom to gain facility in generating and modifying ideas. We also learned to listen to and appreciate each other’s ideas.

Through this process, I learned the power of grantwriting. Our local county agency offered ten $1,000 teacher grants. Connie and I applied together. We promised to write a manual on creative thinking, teach other teachers about brainstorming and creative thinking and put on a creative thinking marathon. We won the grant. We wrote a thinking manual. We taught our lessons and methods to other teachers. We planned our first event, a thinking marathon. Our grassroots program grew. We self-published our “Prolific Thinkers Guide to Prolific Thinking” as part of the grant and distributed a copy to all eighty-two school districts in Los Angeles County. We organized several years of Prolific Thinkers Marathons. We presented at conferences. We were invited to and participated in a thinking conference near Banff – Lake Louise in Canada. And Dale Seymour officially published our “Prolific Thinkers Guide.”

I became hooked on grantwriting. That first simple three-page grant taught me the power of having a good idea, creating a sellable proposal and managing a grant program. I’ve gone on to write many grants and manage many programs. But it really all began with the spoon lesson.

And now back to the reunion. It was wonderful. Seeing these incredible children who have grown to become vibrant and articulate adults was a once in a lifetime experience (hopefully to be repeated again). Some of the “kids” now have children of their own. Some of their parents attended the reunion as well. Many of my former colleagues attended. I was struck how these kids, now in their thirties, were older now, than I was when I was one of their teachers. These students have grown to become college professors, researchers, lawyers, teachers, actors, and some are currently completing Ph.D. programs. They went on from Wonderland to junior and senior high school and then on to Stanford, UCLA, Harvard, Georgetown and many other colleges and universities. Some flew in from Baltimore, Washington, D.C., San Francisco. Others sent regrets; they live in many different parts of the USA, Japan, Italy and elsewhere. This little school up in the canyons of Los Angeles has successfully launched hundreds of students. It was a very special day.

Next week I will talk about how to form a grantwriting team and how the rules of brainstorming apply to the grantseeking process.

Dr. Gary A. Carnow serves as the Director of Technology and Information Services for the Alhambra Unified School District. Dr. Carnow is the co-author of two software products published by Knowledge Adventure. He is also the co-author of three books, Prolific Thinkers (1986, Dale Seymour Publications), Software-in-a-Book: The Cruncher (2001, Teacher Created Materials), and Software-in-a-Book: KidWorks Deluxe (2001, Teacher Created Materials). He has authored numerous publications and learning resources for Apple, IBM, Scholastic, and others.