Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sat, 07 Oct 2000 07:12:15 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: On Creativity

Good morning. And, it is a good morning. It is the first time that I've hit the pre-dawn pavement in almost five weeks. A war of biblical proportions against a vicious cold virus will do that. Anyway, the muscles ached a bit and my breathing was a tad heavy. But, it did feel good being out there in the quiet once again.

In the dark, I was thinking about two words I read in a student project evaluation: wonder and marvel. As I thought of those two words, bright images of the classroom, like sugar plum fairies were dancing in my head that lit me up like the passing street lamps.

The classroom has been rocking these past few weeks. Chairs strewn about; students hunched over easel paper and poster board spread out on the floor; students lying about, a serious pose on some faces, smiles on others; color markers and scissors scattered on the floor; communities outside in the hall. Pen and pencils racing across paper, textbook pages are being flipped, sentences being read, paragraphs being discussed, questions being answered, fingers being pointed to words. Lots of creative noise; lots of creative movement; lots of learning noise. and movement.

It's the time the students are working on the "Broadway" Project. After two weeks of community building at the beginning of the term, the students have been applying the four working themes of the class that we developed during community building: "It's Communication, Stupid," "Don't Forget 'The Story,'" "Remember 'The Chair.'" "I Sang And So I Can Do Anything!".

They've already done the "Dr Seuss" project, and just have completed the "Salvador Dali" project. The "Bruce Springteen," "Madison Avenue," "Scavenger Hunt," "Nureyev," "Hemmingway," and "Jeopardy" projects among others, along which the course progresses, are waiting in the wings.

Four classes of first year history, over 200 of mostly supposedly "average"--or less than average --students, 70 "communities of support and encouragement of three" have been and will be engaged in a series of projects. For each project, they have been and will read, write, hunt, talk, struggle, cut, think, create, gyrate, paste, search, curse, ponder, laugh, imagine, snarl, draw, present--and learn. No memorization here; no cramming here. They will learn history. They will learn people skills. They will learn communication skills. They will learn about life. They will learn analytical and decision-making skills. They will challenge themselves. They will push themselves. They will risk themselves.

In the end, most will surprise themselves. The projects will take them out from the comfort and safety of their known world into new worlds and thereby expand their world. They will unlearn and learn as the same time.

The rules of each project are simple:

(1) as a community the students have to read the assigned chapters in the textbook. Yes, I do use the text as a core to the course. But, then, I don't lecture;

(2) the community has to develop a written response to chapter comments I hand out;

(3) as a class we discuss, argue, re-enact the community responses to those comments;

(4) then, each community has to decide what it considers to be the most important issue in the material and prepare a written defense of that decision;

(5) next, each community has to engage in a project explaining that issue. The project might be (a) a ten page (cover not included), post-size, illustrated "Dr Seuss" book, (b) an abstract painting of the Salvador Dali Project, (c) a six minute "stage production" of the Broadway Project, (d) a three minute song, with original lyrics, in the Bruce Springsteen Project, (e) a two minute interpretive dance in the Nureyev Project, (f) a commercial campaign in the Madison Avenue Project. Symbolic items found or created in the Scavenger hunt project. You get the point.

(6) and finally, each community has to present their project to the class and teach them.

During the process, they have and will continue to bombard me with a barrage of nervous questions, "What do you want?" "Can we...." "What do you think about...." "Is it all right to..." "Are we going to get graded on...." "Are we allowed to...." "Tell me what ..... I expect it.

To the annoyance of some and the frustration of some others, with a confidence instilling smile, I struggle to break their habit of submissiveness and their habit of playing it safe. My answer was and will always be a quiet and short encouraging and freeing, "You heard the rules." "Remember 'The Chair.'" "It's your project." "Don't forget 'The Story;'" "What do you want to...." "You sang; you can...." "What do you think about...." Sometimes I will smile and remain silent. At first, they aren't wild about it. Many are puzzled. Slowly, as the semester progresses, most of them understand, and the barrage quiets and their self-assurance resounds.

The result? Amazing! The students are more surprised than I am. With so few exceptions, as one student imaginatively said in his evaluation of the Dr Seuss Project: "from what our community did and what I saw other communities do, most of us have been in and out of the textbook and over and under the material like earthworms turning garbage and stuff into a rich compost heap. Who would have thought that we had it in us. I didn't. I've heard so many "nos" and "that's wrongs" that I was scared to believe in myself. So many teachers here and in high school told me to do it their way that I was scared to make my own decisions. I just snapped to attention, saluted with a "yes, sir," and followed their orders like a good little robot. I became more interested in getting a grade than learning, really learning. Not here. Here you couldn't help but wonder and marvel at yourself and everyone else."

Wonder and marvel. Interesting words. Neat words. Core words for an education, or, at least, they should be. This evaluation and comments from a horde of others got me thinking. Maybe we teachers and professors have to ask ourselves about the extent to which we are therapeutic influences promoting wonder and marvel and significance, or we are pathological influences spreading horror, fear, and trifle. Maybe it is because we so often impose pressure rather than have things done for enjoyment. So often we direct as loosely as authoritarian dictators; so often we hover over students like vultures, making them feel so self conscious that their creativity goes underground; so often we make students worry about the grade and how we will judge them; so often we make them focus on the "what do you wants" rather than on the satisfaction with their accomplishments; so often we make them copy our answers rather than ask their questions and make their statements; so often we demand they do it our way that they don't have the excitement of learning how to find their own way.

We overuse the rewards--and threats--of grades and underuse the intrinsic pleasure of self-discovery, creative activity, and learning; we put them in a win-lose competition with each other; we control and tell the students how to do it; we control so much that we frighten, stifle, paralyze, and suffocate; we confuse micromanagement with teaching, control with leading, efficiency with effectiveness; we tell them what to do rather than tell them to follow their curiosity; and we impose the hothouse pressure of grandiose expectation; above all, we impose time limits that so often subtly destroy the process of "creative mulling," that explorative process of "walking-on-it," thinking about it, getting it, and doing it.

I find that creativity plays sweetly in the mind and on the soul. It has a arousing effect which heightens the range and intensity of a person's readiness in which he or she is better able to deal with anything at hand. Unlike dull note taking, boring memorization or deadening cramming for a test, and more like engaging lab experiments or field experience, it's a seminal emotion for averting stagnation and boredom. Like a steam piston, it drives the students forward; it heightens their joy. It keeps them on their toes, alert and wondering and alive. It quickens their pace, brightens their eyes, sharpens their sight and hearing, and increases their heart beat. It gives a greater sense of purpose and accomplishment.

Maybe, then, as I thought about "wonder" and "marvel" this morning, the ultimate purpose of education is not to hand out a test, make assignments, give a grade, or hand out a diploma. Maybe the ultimate purpose of schooling is not merely to be a series of vocational way stations to a better job. Maybe our purpose as educators should be to get students to wonder and to marvel at the new rather than merely parrot and copy the old. Maybe our ultimate purpose, the reason for our existence and the reason for students' presence, is to aid in the transformation of the whole person, to be a series of way stations to a better life, to assist each and every student to search for and discover and develop and express and combine their latent talents and character with ideas and skills in something new that they experience every day; to help each student wonder and marvel not just about the material, but about him or herself, about his or her latent potential, and be courageous and foolish enough to drill deep for it and see what erupts from the well; to get each student intoxicated with wonder and marvel first about something--and ultimately about everything; to get each student to wonder and marvel about complexities and difficulties, to utilize the tools of questioning, noticing, and observing; to help each student develop a stick -to-itness, a will, a strength, a drive so he or she learn not to give up easily at the first sign of resistance and frustration; to assist each student to break through the walls of fear and criticism that threaten to lock him or her in a confining cell; to help a student develop a compassion or respect for others and him-or herself so he or she can fend off the barbs of criticism and self-judgement that discourage taking of risks; and to help instill in each student a courage to use his or her wonder, marvel, intoxication, and drive.

No. No maybes about it. It's in the cradle of that constant wonder and marvel that creativity and imagination really rock, and the boughs of life-long learning about life will then never break.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier   
Department of History 
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, GA  31698                          /~\        /\ /\
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                       -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
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