Teaching kids to embrace creativity

If my memory serves me correctly, I was an imaginative, curious child. I enjoyed reading the children's encyclopedia's my grandparents kept on their living room bookshelf because I enjoyed hearing about how things came to be. And atlases allowed me to dream beyond my small Nebraska town. I'd flip through the pages, each page its own state, examining the tangles of highways and interstates wondering what the trees in Connecticut looked like or what kids did for fun in New York. Our backyard was a place to be explored. There was an old shed on the property, and my brother and I would set to digging with little garden spades and plastic shovels searching for obscure objects in the dirt. Every now and again we'd find treasures: plastic army men, old glass viles, rusty nails. Each item found soon had a story attached as we imagined who left it behind. My dad loves to tell the story about the time I turned a box of Kleenex into a hundred little "ghost-es-es" that covered my bedroom floor. My sense of imagination didn't tame with age. In high school history classes my notes took the shape of comic strips as I illustrated Confederate soldiers armed with bayonets, and my proton and electron Chemistry notes were atomic love stories of the two particles that couldn't be separated by any force. My imagination was active, and I was always wondering and creating.

Fortunately, my parents and a few of my teachers took notice and encouraged me to keep these habits. My parents gave me permission to question and explore even if it meant conflicting with them. They allowed me freedom to create and express myself. My 11th grade English teacher encouraged me to join the journalism staff and put my creating skills to use writing for the school paper. And my 12th grade English teacher pushed me to develop my thinking beyond the surface level. Each time I claimed an opinion in an essay without backing it up, she scribbled the word why? in red ink throughout the paper until I learned to articulate my opinions with a well-rounded explanation. Though I sometimes resented her for all the revising I had to do, her demand for nothing less than my best pushed me to meet her expectations. Without my parents and teachers, I'm not sure I'd be as critical and engaged (though I have room to improve) as I am today. I'm not sure I would've had any success as a teacher without their encouragement.

Now it's my turn to give kids the same chances I had. I have the beautiful burden of shaping kids. I try to instill that same sense of curiosity and imagination I had (and still possess) in my own students by creating an environment where they can explore, create, engage, and ask questions about literature and the world around them. But the longer I teach, the more I see students approach curiosity and imagination with hesitancy; many times, they just want the answer. They want to be told what to do and how to do it. Each time I assign a piece of writing, students ask: How many pages? How many paragraphs? What should we write about? What do I need to get an A?They desire steps, formulas, and outlines. And while there is some value to this, at a certain point in a child's education, he/she must be given freedom to make these decisions for themselves so they can take some ownership of their education. They must be given freedom to think, to wonder, to create. I'll refrain from stepping on another soapbox, but the hesitancy towards this kind of learning frightens me. It makes me nervous to think about what kids might be like in 10 years.

Stepping into a new district with new curricula and new students is overwhelming. While it might be easier for me to slip into a more traditional method of teaching English (read the book, fill in a study guide with comprehension questions about the plot and characters, and then test the kids afterwards before repeating the process over again) for a year just to get by, I feel like I just can't do that. I don't want students to get by in my class without thinking critically or stretching their imaginations. Yes, it means more work for me. Yes, it means that I might struggle more in the classroom as both my students and I grow familiar with one another and this way of learning. And yes, it means I'll probably face resistance from both kids and parents. But, that beautiful burden of shaping kids means I have a huge responsibility. Though I really want to take a nap each Saturday, spend an hour a night watching TV, and run at least 30 miles a week--I'll keep plugging away, finding new ways to engage them in creating and thinking even if it means I'll have to sacrifice a bit. I realize I'm a bit idealistic. But the moment I trade idealism for cynicism towards kids, is the moment I'll need to make a career change. I hope I can maintain this sense of idealism for many years, because I love kids and I love teaching. 


Michelle said...

Your students are so lucky to have you!

ACStofer said...

You are more than welcome to come teach my English class! I miss your creative teaching ways!