[Post written by TomTod’s Chief Ideation Officer, Abby Shaub].


The sheer utterance of the word can make us shudder. When “constructive” is attached to the front it softens the hit. Ultimately though, standing vulnerable before others is an intimidating task. 

The easy solution to the intimidation is to shut others out and not ask for their feedback on our ideas, projects or work. But, cowering away is a sad existence. In order to grow, we need to live with our ears open to the insight of others. 

Marketing guru Seth Godin wrote a poignant blog post on this topic. He explained 3 different ways we can react to feedback. We can see it as an attack, pass it off to someone else or show gusto and choose the third option:

“One other option: you can care even more than I do. You can not only be open to the constructive feedback, but you can savor it, chew it over, amplify it. You can delight in the fact that someone cares enough to speak up, and dance with their insight and contribution.”

At TomTod, we believe in constructive feedback. A few weeks ago we held Community Ideation Panels for our Idea X students. During two separate panels, Kyle & Isaiah presented their idea to a group of professionals within their idea’s topic. After the presentation and Q&A, panelists wrote down what is awesome about the idea and potential obstacles.

Following the panels, the students met with their lead mentors to go over the feedback. They received it very well, as they listened and used the insight to enhance their ideas. Instead of being defensive, the students accepted the constructive criticism as an opportunity to create better developed and others’ focused ideas.

It’s time to view feedback as a catalyst to improve our ideas and build character. People give their insight because they value our success. Embracing it shows we value them too.


One of our core volunteers, Bryce Schmidt, laid some great groundwork a couple weeks back on why we love improv theater. As a follow up, take a glance at this intriguing article from KQED’s Mind Shift blog, providing another great perspective on the value of improv theatre in education:

“Improv enthusiasts rave about its educational value. Not only does it hone communication and public speaking skills, it also stimulates fast thinking and engagement with ideas. On a deeper level, improv chips away at mental barriers that block creative thinking — that internal editor who crosses out every word before it appears on a page — and rewards spontaneous, intuitive responses, Criess says. Because improv depends on the group providing categorical support for every answer, participants also grow in confidence and feel more connected to others.”

These concepts are exactly why we’re launching our latest initiative: Artsplorations! An Artsploration explores the world of creative problem solving, critical thinking skills, brainstorming and ideation through the lens of a practiced art. We have recruited some of the most talented practitioners in the region to lead middle schoolers through three-hour, interactive adventures that put theory into motion and stamp it into memory. We have four in our initial pilot: improv theater with Tim Carmany, visual arts with Amy Eibel, dance/movement with Kimberly Payne and storytelling with Andrew Rudd. (We have pre-registration available on our website, as all of these are spots-limited opportunities.)

The activities explored through these workshops aren’t just about making up ideas willy-nilly, though. They’re about equipping students with tools that lead to innovation and invention, as referenced by KQED:

“But does “yes, and” diminish one’s ability to think critically? Are there limits to all the right answers? “Improv says yes to the idea of ideas,” Criess says. Not every original thought will turn into the next invention, but offshoots of that first idea may lead to better ones, she explains. “Let’s agree to have ideas,” she says. “And set up a culture where risks are encouraged, and greeted positively and with respect.””

That’s the kind of culture we love to see in play at TomTod! Looking forward to a great year of exploring the arts and new ideas!

For more information or to pre-register for an upcoming Artsploration, go here!

(Artsplorations are funded in part from a grant by Arts in Stark.)


[Post written by TomTod’s Chief Ideation Officer, Abby Shaub].

I hate groups.

Or at least I used to. If you know me, my past disdain of working with others was odd. After all, I was a Communication major in college. It should be natural for me to encourage discussion and cooperate with anyone, right?

The truth is I disliked working in groups because I couldn’t control everything. It seemed like I was always matched with people who were social loafers, just trying to get by. Instead of accepting we had different work styles and valuing the perceived “social loafers,” I shrugged it off and tried to do everything myself.

As my college career progressed, my perspective changed. I was a resident assistant my junior year on a staff with unique personalities. Although we each had different work styles, I witnessed that in the midst of our differences, we meshed really well together. Aha! Healthy groups COULD exist! This new mindset trickled into my academic life, as I tried to value each group member.

This semester, I am auditing the class Initiative Games at my alma mater, Malone University. The class teaches group games and trust activities as a way to unify groups. Last week we discussed the Full Value Contract, a social agreement to value each person and the group as a whole. It is comprised of 3 commitments: (From the book Islands of Healing: A Guide to Adventure Based Counseling).

1.) “Agreement to work together as a group and to work toward individual and group goals”

2.) “Agreement to adhere to certain safety and group behavior guidelines.”

3.) “Agreement to give and receive feedback, both positive and negative, and to work toward changing behavior when it is appropriate.”

When the 3 commitments are upheld, group members are supported. The contract doesn’t prevent group conflict. Instead, when problems arise, group members handle them with integrity, remembering that each member has value. It also means that sometimes we have to call each other out. Giving and receiving feedback isn’t easy, but it allows growth to occur.

I now like groups. The feeling of accomplishing a goal with a handful of others is exhilarating. I am eager to take what I’ve learned from Initative Games and share it with our TomTod students. I want them to experience the joy of cooperating with their peers, whether in an initiative game or when presenting a group idea.

Along the way, I will have a heightened awareness for the students who are hesitant to fully commit to a group. Hey, I’ll tell them, I was there too. It’s a scary feeling to commit to others and let go of control. But believe me, it’s worth it.


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-Sally Fields, in her much-maligned Oscar acceptance speech, 1985

[Post written by Paula Guiler, TomTod core volunteer. Paula is the Librarian for Greentown Intermediate School and Orchard Hill Intermediate School (North Canton City Schools). She was the lead mentor for the Idea X project Duct4Downs and she is now the Lead Mentor for The Homeless Experience.]

I could lie.  I could lie right now and you would believe me.  I could answer the question, “Why do you like middle schoolers?”  with great and noble answers, like, “Because they’re so (fill in the blank) funny, vulnerable, honest, energetic, awkward, amazing, goofy, unloved,etc., etc, etc.  All those answers would be true, but they wouldn’t be the truth.  The truth is, I like middle schoolers because they like me.  

I have never gotten over my own middle school experiences.  Never.  I was tall.  And skinny.  And flat-chested.  And ugly.  I wore glasses.  And braces.  And I wasn’t allowed to wear bikini underwear or bell bottoms.  I still have scars on my hand from when a boy scratched me with his dirty fingernails.

People can tell you how much the world has changed since they were in middle school, and they would be right.  The world has changed.  Technology alone has made the way the world functions unrecognizable to some.  But emotions don’t change.  Feelings don’t change.  Middle schoolers don’t change.

So because I clearly remember how I felt when I lived through the name-calling, and the paralyzingly embarrassment, I keep those feelings at the surface when I play with middle schoolers.  I try to show them that I get them, and then I act like a fool so that they can laugh at me, and at themselves, just a little bit.

And it seems to work.  They let me in.  Or at least they tolerate me hanging around them.  And it heals my middle school wounds, and maybe salves theirs, too.


[Guest post written by core volunteer, Bryce Schmidt. Bryce is a junior at Malone University studying Creative Writing & Psychology. He is a key staff member during the Canton Dreamoratory, where he taught the improv Artsploration.]

One of the many pleasures I’ve had working for TomTod is teaching improvisation at the Canton Dreamoratory summer camps. Stemming from a background in theatre and performance, I love to challenge myself and others in perhaps the most simplistic iteration of theatre: telling stories. That’s what most of life is anyway, isn’t it? We tell and hear stories everywhere we go. Maybe you thought I was simply referring to books or campfire tales—yes, certainly, but stories are everywhere. Conversations, Twitter feeds, YouTube videos, business meetings, resumes, artwork, lunch at the deli. Yes, even your lunch—food—is a story. There was a journey that ethylene-ripened tomato took to get from the Florida farm it was harvested from to the produce supplier’s inventory to your Bacon Turkey Bravo last Tuesday. And the sandwich crafter has a story to tell too; the irritated, not-so-subtle nuances of the way he slopped on that chipotle mayo may divulge some plot details.

Stories are all around us. We are all storytellers, whether we know we are or not. Stories take infinitely different forms. Improv is one of my favorites and I love teaching it. Through improv, people can take a small starting point, a smidgen of information such as a description of a scene or character, and craft a humongous story full of people, places, and things, often telling it humorously. Some of us tell stories better than others. We all know someone who is a master storyteller, don’t we? If you don’t—find one, or several. They will enrich your life.

For those of us who aren’t so skilled in telling stories—and this goes for any type of communication; writing, speaking, acting, presenting, problem solving, entertaining, conversing—there are some things I’ve learned that can help.

Creativity is a sought-after quality that many of us wish we had more of. It just so happens to be a valued principle of TomTod, too. So how do we become more creative? Can we become more creative? Or are we stuck with the stagnant amount of creative juice we were born with, swashing around up there inside our noggins?

We’re in luck. Creativity has become an increasingly studied aspect in various fields of developmental, social, and neuropsychology, as well as the fields of sociology, education, and others. And guess what? We can increase our creativity.

Cognitive neuroscientist Wilma Koutstaal, Ph.D. has researched the connections the human brain makes and how it adapts to new and problematic information. Studying the genesis, influential factors, development, predisposition to, and cultivation of creativity, Koutstaal has developed a cognitive framework called agility of the mind or agile thinking. Agile thinking is thought that moves keenly back and forth between abstract and specific modes of cognition. Think of it as the ability to adapt and mentally pivot between different ways of thinking, problems, and solutions, all while still continually affected by the processes of normal, daily life: action, motivation, emotion, and environmental cues.

Koutstaal writes, “We—and our minds, brains, environments—are much more improvisational than we recognize, and we should learn and develop habits of thinking and acting that enable us to best capitalize on this to optimize creativity and innovation.”

This is where improv comes in. Neuroplasticity is a fairly recent discovery in neuropsychology—that our brains are not finished growing, learning, and changing when we reach adulthood (like most other physiological processes). Our brains can be shaped and molded and we can increase our creativity at any stage of life. Just because in infancy and adolescence we are growing and adapting and learning much more quickly than any other period in our lifespans does not mean that we are not able to be more creative later in life—we can train our brains, just like an athlete, to be more creative and innovative. The more you exercise new and unexplored connections and neural pathways in your brain, the stronger, more intelligent, and more creative your brain will become.

Improv is a fun way to do this. Some of the best examples of master storytellers in improvisation are the folks in the classic TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? These guys can dream up a scene with a setting, characters, a problem, and solution so quickly and humorously that they practically seem like wizards. Which they probably are.

One of my favorite improv games to teach (and play) is Scenes From a Hat—borrowed from Whose Line. I’ll yell out a topic statement to students standing onstage, such as “First drafts of movie lines.” And one by one they’ll have to quickly think of a funny or clever example that they then speak and act out to the audience. Generally it takes people a couple attempts to warm up to the concept, but soon we get answers such as a squinty-eyed, deep voiced “Go ahead, make my cake” and we’re all laughing.

So just because you’re not an infant or adolescent with rapidly developing physiological processes, don’t think you can’t become more creative, because you can. Try stepping back from a problem at work and ask yourself how a middle schooler might tackle it. Force yourself to find a connection within a conversation and make a funny joke about it. Picture yourself as a character in a specific scene the next time you are presenting to a group. Soon the new neural pathways you make will develop and strengthen inside your brain, and you will find yourself mentally pivoting and using them more and more. The connections, the creative solutions, the stories you tell will become more innovative and more meaningful everyday. And who knows where those stories might take us?

Stories on the brain

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[Post written by TomTod’s Chief Ideation Officer, Abby Shaub.]

January is a month of reflection, new beginnings and resolutions. People join gyms, start diet plans and begin new hobbies. Resolutions can be a catalyst for change, as some transformations last well into the year.

I recently read an article in Fast Company about the importance of doodling to boost creativity. “Studies have shown that doodling can free up short- and long-term memory, improve content retention and increase attention span. It can also produce creative insight,” stated Jennifer Miller. This topic is unpacked even more in Sunni Brown’s book, The Doodle Revolution.

A lover of art, sometimes in school I found myself doodling. During the school day, art was discouraged outside of art class, as it could serve as a distraction. This article helped me see that doodling about spoken information during presentations or lectures can actually help boost memory and productivity. What exciting news for the doodlers and scribblers of the world!

At TomTod, we encourage students to embrace creativity. When students are in the dreaming phase, we give them space to develop unique solutions. Our Artsplorations during the Dreamoratory display this concept, as students study an art medium for an hour each day, diving into hip hop, dance, visual arts, improvisation and storytelling. Artsplorations help students form problem solving, brainstorming and critical thinking skills.

As January progresses, I hope you develop resolutions to boost your creativity that transform into habits, to see your world brimming with whimsy and possibility.


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[Written by TomTod’s Executive Dreamer, Joel Daniel Harris. Read his bio on our staff page.]

The new year at TomTod has found us in new office space at the Stark County District Library, which for me has meant an additional new year resolution of walking to work whenever possible. A mile and a half makes for a walk just long enough to learn something, so I decided to start listening to podcasts on my trekking commute, starting by catching up on the hit show Serial.

In the first episode, The Alibi, digested while crunching through the snow on the first wintery day of 2015, the host/narrator/journalist, Sarah Koenig, recounts how difficult it is for people to provide trustworthy alibis, due to the gratuitous routine-ness of life. When things aren’t extraordinary they don’t stick out. For example, if I keep walking to work, it won’t be long before I forget what the weather was like on that first day of podcast listening…it will run into the many others to come. Except, perhaps, for one reason: my brain, specifically my curiosity, was being stimulated the entire trip by the compelling storyline of Serial.

According to Curiosity: It Helps Us Learn, But Why (NPR Ed Blog, October 14, 2014), when our curiosity is sparked, not only are we more apt to learn and retain information about our particular topic of interest, we’re also more likely to retain additional, even unrelated information. The study cited in the article connected curiosity-driven trivia to randomized facial recognition and found a significant rise in recall. We, like the teacher in the opening story, experience this sort of curiosity-driven learning all the time with our middle school students. They are fountains of wonder, when properly prompted.

As we launch into a new year of TomTod programming, we look forward to cultivating a contextualized curiosity, one that meets middle school students in the midst of their worlds and transports them to the needs, passions, challenges and beauty of the world around them. But engaging the world with inquisitive minds is for more than middle schoolers…it’s for you, too! What are you going to do to stimulate your curiosity in the coming year and expand your horizons? New books? New commutes? New hobbies? We’d love to hear. In fact, if you leave a comment, either here on this post or on one of our social media channels, we’ll enter you into a drawing to get a free copy of Seth Godin’s newest book “What To Do When It’s Your Turn”, a book all about exploring curiosity and taking action.

And at the very least, this post should help you explain to your boss/teacher/spouse why Trivia Crack is important to be played without ceasing. After all, you’re stimulating your curiosity, and that’ll help you remember whatever it was you were supposed to be learning, right?!

Here’s to a new year full of fantastic conundrums and arched eyebrows!

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[Today’s guest blogger is TomTod Board Member, Dave K. Smith. (Read his bio on our TomTod Team page). Dave is the Executive Pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, Crystal Lake Campus.]

When a child falls off a bike, they brush if off and jump back on.  However, when an adult falls off a bike, their first reaction is to look around and see who saw them.  Why?  Because our “adult world” teaches us to fear failure, and when it happens, we are embarrassed by it.

Many organizations fear the loss of their innovative edge, while simultaneously allowing their fear of failure to hinder creative thought and action.  The need for rigid work processes and precise business plans forfeit our ability to take risks, allow new models to fail, and capture learnings for strategic breakthrough and groundbreaking impact.

For our communities and organizations to sustain consistent discovery, the need to release their expectations towards instant perfection and immediate results is essential.  As Pixar’s motto is “fail early, fail fast,” they have achieved steady pioneering work by loosening the grip of fear and getting the most out of each anticipated failure.  In his book, Creativity Inc., Pixar and Disney Animations CEO Ed Catmull writes, “If you aren’t experiencing failure than you are making a far worse mistake:  You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.”

This is why I love partnering with TomTod.  The heart behind TomTod is to not only capture the raw imaginations of middle school students, but to collaboratively thrust them into the unknown, harnessing the power of risk and smart failures, to then refine their altruistic dreams into realities of genuine impact.

To no surprise many of our young people make up today’s 6 million extreme gamers who actually spend half of their time failing in this $70 billion dollar industry.  In Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, she unveils the brokenness of our world and how today’s gaming industry is filling our deepest human needs.  McGonigal shows us that, “when gamers spend half of their time failing, they actually enjoy it…Because when playing today’s well-designed games, failure doesn’t disappoint them.  It makes them happy in a very particular way:  excited, interested, and most of all optimistic.”

In a similar fashion, TomTod unleashes the inventive thoughts of students, allowing them to test and prototype their ideas to the point of appropriate failures, surfacing curiosity and breakthrough thinking.  Their ideas are then launched to not only make our world a better place, but to transform the student and position them well for future impact.

As TomTod “empowers tomorrow’s leaders today,” let us never forget that their influence with each student will carry on well into tomorrow.

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Photo from

I recently read an article in Fast Company where 12 entrepreneurs shared a lesson they learned from a teacher. While some of the lessons were related to math or physics, many of the lessons extended beyond the pages of a textbook. The article was insightful and I realized the lasting impact of words from wise teachers.

I reflected on my own education, and my high school Health teacher Mr. Weckesser immediately came to mind. Mr. Weckesser (“Mr. Weck” as we affectionately called him) taught me a lot about health. But, his most permeating lessons revolved around living a life of balance and positivity.

Mr. Weck’s favorite term was “homeostasis” simply meaning: life in balance. Homeostasis is a rhythm and lifestyle. School/work is balanced by time with family and friends. Hobbies are thrown in there too and everything functions by taking good care of your body. Instead of being obsessed with one thing, living in homeostasis means prioritizing in order to enjoy each moment. This allows one to be fully present in daily responsibilities.

Homeostasis is important in every stage of life. I applied this lesson in high school, college and now my life as a professional. It helps me focus my attention and do tasks well. Mr. Weck also taught about positivity and viewing the world full of opportunity. Along the way, this means valuing others and encouraging them to pursue homeostasis as well.

The middle school years are a pivotal point of transition and development. The body and mind are working to find balance and make sense of all of the “newness.” Homeostasis may seem impossible at this time, but finding a rhythm of life can help middle schoolers embrace the changes taking place. 

Like Mr. Weck, at TomTod we also believe that students have the ability to be passionately others-centered, noble, and giving. This is a positivity approach where students recognize their capabilities. In the process, they value others and encourage them to impact their community.

Mr. Weck taught me “nuggets” of wisdom that I will forever cherish. We are grateful for the talented educators we work with through Grasp. Go. Grow. and our other programming. If you have the chance, thank an educator, past or present, for the impact they made in your life!

Thank a teacher

Last week we shared Part 1 of our interview with Jason Pigott, the cooperating teacher at the Early College Academy (ECA). Jason co-leads Grasp. Go. Grow., an ideation based in school program, with TomTod’s Executive Dreamer Joel Daniel Harris. The Grasp. Go. Grow. students’ topic of study is “Food: Changing the Canton City Schools Experience.” Read on for part 2 of this interview!

TomTod: How have the students responded to the speakers/topic?

Jason Pigott: At first they were a little bit nervous. Students were starstruck when WKSU Reporter/Producer & Web Editor ML Schultze visited. The greatest growth is that they now ask more poignant questions with guest speakers in the room. Rather than asking “What?” questions, they ask more critical thinking questions such as, “Why?” and “How?”

TT: What are the intended learning outcomes for the semester? 

JP: We want to expose students to different things and at this point they are still figuring out their ideas. Some students want to explore ethnic foods and others are interested in GMOs. Our overall intended outcome is for students to use the knowledge they’ve gained to help the common good. We want to start small and build, discussing the future of food, if food is just about nutrition and what food brings to the table.

TT: What is the plan for the rest of the semester?

JP: Students will focus on the knowledge gained and use it for the common good. We will discuss how they can take what they learned and share it with others. Right now we are talking about guerrilla gardens and school lunches. Hopefully by the end of the 3rd 9 weeks we will get things out to the community.

TT: What do you hope students gain from this experience?

JP: I hope students look at things in a different way, as critical thinkers, to think about the products that are going into their bodies. We don’t want to necessarily sway them to be organic or vegan. We want to encourage them to not take food at face value and to think more about what they are consuming.

Grasp. Go. Grow. students at ECA will continue with this topic for the rest of the school year. To read more updates, check in to this blog and follow our Social Media @tomtodideas.


Students’ “Go” field trip experience: A Canton Food Tour.


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