creativity: enjoy your pi

creativity happens when you don't teach kids how to be creative

When I was in junior high, a core-curricular teacher told me that she was glad I liked art, because “that must be a nice outlet.”

My response was, “Yes, that’s it exactly. It’s an outlet, which means it’s powerful and dangerous and if you’re not careful, you’ll be shocked.”

She laughed and I mistook her laughter for mockery. What I wanted to convey was that creativity was absolutely essential to being human. I wanted to tell her that, if she'd just be open to it, she could allow some creativity in her own classroom. I know she boasted that she was “not a creative person,” but I wanted her to know that she didn't have to be creative to have creative students.

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“Why are we doing collage art instead of real art?”

“This is real art.”

“No, the mural is real art. This is gluing together pictures and then adding paint. It’s not creative.”

“All art is collage art.”

“No it’s not.”

“Has anyone ever had a truly unique idea ever? We’re always influenced by the creativity of others? So quit trying so hard to be original and figure out what you want to say about globalization.”

Creative thinking happens when I'm not expecting it. It's only occasionally associated with an actual "product" (and I cringe even when I use that term, as if the students are producing a commodity). It's also rare. By that I mean, it's more common than it is with adults (at least I think) but creativity is still rare - often sandwiched between a conversation about Family Guy and whether Chivas or America (technically Club de FĂștbol AmĂ©rica S.A. de C.V.) is a better soccer team. The cave can get really dark before there is a flicker and we can have a very bland period before anything worthy of the highlight reel.

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I move outside for lunch duty feeling edgy and restless. The blast of cold air jars me and seems to travel through my bones. I tense up even worse, ears burning and muscles tightening. I love a hot July day. I love the heat and its ability to make me feel that I am melting. I know the issues are low-pressure systems and the Earth's wobbly axis. However, I curse the sun for being so incredibly hot and so unwilling to offer it's outstretched rays to our playground.

I look over and three boys are laying on the ground, bundled up in their sweatshirts.

"What are you doing?" I ask.

No response.

"Guys, you need to tell me what's going on."

"We're being Kenny from South Park. We died from the cold."

A few feet away kids dance in the middle of a basketball court where a game is in progress. Three boys prance around with umbrellas and pretend to be Marry Poppins as they twirl their umbrellas. On most afternoons they might wear a hardass expression, but the wind has transformed their reality into a musical, and a dancing and prancing musical at that.

A group of students make paper boats and float them on “Castro Lake” (the flooded football field.) I ask them about it and a girl says that the goal is to get from “the grip of Castro to the other side, America.” She then says, “You don't even need papers when you're from Cuba. Tell me if that's fair. They jack the land from Mexico and then make us have papers but some Cuban crosses the ocean and he's good.” A few feet away, students are racing paper airplanes.

I walk toward another zone where a small crowd huddles together. Assuming it's a fight, I begin to break it up. However, it turns out that they are huddling together and slowly moving people out of the middle and toward the back. A boy explains, “We learned this from March of the Penguins. See, those penguins are pretty smart.”

I am struck by playfulness of the lunchtime crowd. No one texts. No one fights. No one plays games on a hand-held device.   Instead, they are playing games that one would expect from a second grader. The cold air and the wet ground and the wind seem to awaken them from the trance that is seventh grade and move them toward play. They are able to play, because there isn't much else to do. The basketball courts are all wet and the wireless Internet isn't working.

This scene reminds me that scarcity is the key to creativity. I don't teach kids how to be creative. I let them be creative. It is an act of freedom, a small moment of liberation within the walls of a factory-prison school. Lunch time reminds me that students will be creative if given the chance. What they need is less – fewer tools, fewer rules, fewer directions. Not anarchy, per se, just a stripping down. A little chance to rip out the shag carpet on This Old House.

*      *      *

Sometimes I get into these passionate places where I want people to grab a hammer.  This morning, I felt this way when I drove past five spaces in the mural across from Trevor Brown High School, where they decided to censor it with a dull brown.  If I'm not careful, I grow too cynical.  Brad once warned me that every revolutionary is guilty of that which he revolts against.  Sometimes I forget that.  Sometimes I forget the complexity of issues.  I miss the mystery. I get into this place where I assume the worst motives in others.

A hammer and a chisel can also be used to create.  It's what sculptors use to create the negative space that will become the positive space.  Keeping this sculptor mentality in mind is what helps me from growing too angry, yelling too loudly or speaking too boldly.

I want students to engage in social justice.  I want them to stand up courageously and tear down walls of injustice.  I want them to grab a hammer. Yet, I also want them to set the hammer down, think and ponder and go back as a sculptor.

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People use the term "art inclusion," with a pejorative connotation, the same way that they use special ed inclusion.  It's as if art is a complimentary extra, a whip cream on a latte or sprinkles on the cup cake.  It's easy to view art as decorative or intriguing, but not necessarily powerful.

In the fourth grade, our teacher tried to include art.  Awkwardly, our full-time wrestling coach, part-time teacher gave us boxes of sugar cubes and told us to make models of the California missions.  We never designed anything ourselves.  We never questioned whether missionaries should have been there in the first place.  We learned about missions in our California textbook.   When was the last time a textbook brought someone to tears?

History is the act of story-telling.  Yes, there is analysis.  True, there needs to be meta-narrative.  Yet, those are simply alternative methods of storytelling.  If I want to teach about racism, I can have kids read page number 642.  Or we can read the poetry of Langston Hughes, the personal prose of Eldredge Cleaver and watch five minutes of Disney cartoons from the forties and fifties (always a great discussion of how people are socialized into racism).  I can let them view old sheet music suggesting that slaves were better off without their freedom. And, if I can let down my guard a little, creativity will break through.

*      *      *

People tell me that creativity is necessary in the New Economy.  After all, it's absolutely critical that I understand the "seven facets of creativity" (Which is oddly enough not a very creative concept.  Seven is a bit overdone.  How about pi times two point four?  It's close to seven, but not quit. Couldn't we just enjoy our pi a little more often?)

Advocates for un-schooling argue that children need more time in the mud or in free play or finger painting the world into redemption.  I don't deny the importance of painting.  After all, I led a group of students in painting numerous murals I have often been the man waving my hands in the air saying,

“Kids need art and music and history. These aren't fluff subjects.  They are critical to humanity.  They are part of our collective experience.” Regardless of a Tech Economy or a New Economy or a Super-New-Hyper-Tech-Global-Flatworld Economy, I'd still advocate for creativity, because it is at the core of our human experience. It is not something you teach. It is something you allow.

Still, when I look back on it, I think I spent the first few years of my teaching career creating a false dichotomy between abstract and concrete and likewise creative and analytical thinking.   The truth is that all things abstract are connected to a concrete, empirical experience.  When I think of love, I think of experiences, people, relationships.  I think in allegory and metaphor, which are both essentially a bridge between the abstract and the concrete.

I think the same is true of creativity.  Often, when I analyze something, I end up creating a new idea, a synthesis of sorts (Hegel had a point here).  On the other hand, when I am crafting a story, I am analyzing a character, thinking through the plot process and asking critical questions about reality.

Creativity and analysis co-exist in a constant dance.  So, did I develop that idea through analyzing what I see to be true about both types of thinking or did I craft a really trite metaphor from within? Maybe the answer is to grab a hammer.

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