Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Boxing Creativity

Black and White Reeds Reflected In Water, Swirly Patterns
by Robert Greshoff

There is a major difference between telling someone they can be creative and telling someone how to be creative.

I'm firmly in the Everyone Is Creative camp. I don't even mean that with the qualifier, "Until it's beaten out of them by school/work/life/the Trunchbull." I mean every single person on Earth, and everyone living in the secret moon base established by NASA in the '70s, has the innate ability to be creative.

And every one of us uses that ability on a regular basis.

"But Doug," I hear you say. "I'm not creative. I can't write stories or songs, draw, paint, sculpt, make movies. I'm not creative." To paraphrase the great philosopher Morissette, isn't it ironic, don't you think, that we won't get creative with the meaning of creativity? How strange is it that so many of us have a strict view of what creativity is and what it can be. Do you dress blandly? Do you only make toast and water? Do you only follow, pace for pace, in the footsteps of others? Are you boring in bed?

Creativity comes in all forms. If you plan something with meticulous detail, isn't that a form of creativity? I dare you to tell a mathematician that math isn't a creative pursuit. Certainly we'd never tell a scientist they aren't creative. Programming? The inspiration you feel when making a shopping list. Creativity bends like reeds in the water. Creativity is the water, changing shape to fit the container in which it's held, sometimes calm and smooth, sometimes raging and powerful. Sometimes carrying you and sometimes drowning you.

Everyone is creative.

I believe we want to be creative. We, in this context, being educators. I know I'm a Pollyanna about this and there's plenty of people who would grumble that not everyone wants to be creative. Something something testing something worksheets something. To which I snark that they're being awfully creative in their excuses about not being creative, and I'd realistically say, "Hey, there's always a 'some people' for anything." Moreover, I believe that those honestly uninterested in being educationally creative make up a minute portion of the population. Again, maybe I'm a Pollyanna. Or maybe others are overly negative to make any creativity seem special. Let's go with my theory that most of us actually want to be creative. If that's the case, why don't more teachers feel creative? Why do we chase people who are seen as Creative like rats chasing the Pied Piper?

Sometimes we need permission to feel how we feel.

I've done therapy. A lot of it, in my case, was finding ways to accept feelings and move past them. Getting permission to forgive myself, getting permission to move forward. Stop running from the emotion, or blocking it, and feel it. Use it.

I believe many teachers are looking for permission to be creative. This isn't a character flaw. Not everyone is the kind of person who wants to jump first, and that's fine. They just want to be told that it's ok to play. "No really, go. It'll be fine." Give that little nod and off they go. Just as we want our students to find themselves in the work, but they hesitate because they've learned to play School, so have many teachers. We play School well, and we need permission to play in school instead.

It's a muscle, though. Gotta use it. Creativity doesn't just happen. A watery tart isn't going to hurl a sword of creative thought at you and make you king. You gotta work for it. Keeping this in the teaching space, those first lessons where you really try to stretch your wings will be tough. Don't compare them to others. You'd never run your first 10k and compare your time to the person running her 50th. You're competing against you only. You're making forward movement. You have permission to move forward and find your unique creative voice at your pace.

I was a theater minor in college. Theater people are, in general, a little (read: a lot) more emotive than most other people. One of my favorite teachers ever, Jeff Ingman, who I mention in my first book, explained it this way- Think of your emotional life like a child. We (especially men) are trained by society that when an emotion comes out to smack it back. If every time a child came forward with an idea you shut the child down, it would not be long before that child closed up. Soon you've trained your emotions to be muted. As an actor, that's the opposite of what you need. So actors let emotions flow off stage in order to have access to them on stage. This, like so many other lessons Jeff taught me, connects directly to teaching with almost no conversion.

I believe that environment plays a big part in mindset as well. Immersing yourself in creative things outside of the classroom will help train your brain to think creatively inside it. We are a whole, you cannot compartmentalize who you are and who you are as a teacher. It's all you. Listening to challenging music (my go-tos are Zappa, Waits, Rush, and extreme stuff that I'm not sure I like the first three times I listen to it) watching off-center movies (watch CLOUD ATLAS), reading odd books (there's too many to name, but Clockwork Orange is a good place to start), these mess up the brain in the best way. Not knowing if I like something on the first two or three passes is a good signal that I'm stretching myself. Even if it turns out, no I don't actually like it, I tried something new, something hard. That impacts the classroom. It inspires.

I don't like it when people claim they can show you how to be creative. "Here's how to creatively use x." Ugh. This is the opposite of creative. This is the speaker being creative and the audience's job is to impressed by their creativity. Mike Ritzius put it best, "Here's how I'm creative with... > Here's how to be creative with." I can give examples of the things I've done, but they're not to copy. They're to use as jumping off points.

Here's my best advice to start thinking creatively- See your first instinct, that first idea. Look at it, know that it's there if it's needed, then throw it off to the side, bend it, or break it. It's a draft. Use the second or third or fourth idea instead. Don't be worried they won't come, they will. And if they don't you've still got that first draft. In working with my student teacher, which forces me to be more reflective, I realize that I'm doing this without thinking about it all the time. I treat ideas like Lego pieces. "Here's the main brick. Let's add movement to it. That'll go here. No, here. Can I add tech? Hmm, here? no. Here? No. Not gonna work with this. But maybe it will fit on this other idea." Think about it like a flow chart if that works better in your brain.

I like this because it creates freedom. It forces it. It also creates lessons that burn down, fall over, and then sink into the swamp. That's when you build another lesson on top of the fallen one, and that one stays up. Hopefully. Or you get to build another.

AND, because model model model what we do in the classroom, I articulate this process when I can. I let my kids hear me think. I say "let" like I've got a choice, like I don't have to talk out loud through my thinking because how do I know what I think unless I write it down or hear myself say it?

There's other factors to consider. Does your admin encourage creative experimentation? If not then there's the added challenge of being creative under even tighter constraints. It can still be done. I have to be positive about this. I have to see the bright side. I've working for restrictive administrations and I hated it and chafed against it and still found ways around their bone-headedness inside my room because it's my room and they're my kids and I dare you to come in, see them enjoying learning, and tell me to stop. Same with the prescribed curriculum. There's margins to play in. There's always holes in the system. Make a goal finding and exploiting them. Easier said than done, but it can be done. Use every tool. If the school is paying for it and I don't like the way it's presented, I bet I can break it and use the pieces.

You are allowed to stretch your wings and fly. You're allowed to sing all the songs until you find your voice. You're allowed to suck until you don't. We are allowed to find our creativity, and use it. We are allowed to expand the definition of creativity until it encompasses everything, because boxed creativity is its anathema.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

1 comment:

  1. HI Doug. Lots of what you say resonates with me--I struggle to get people (educators) to value imagination and to see how we are each imaginative. We couldn't think if we weren't...imagination is at play in all innovation. Indeed, in all understanding. Thanks for making a clear case for why we all need to make space to be creative and enjoy how we each are (already) creative.