Creativity as a Bold and (Sometimes) Scary Act in the Classroom
by Karen Finneyfrock
“Trusting our Creativity is a new behavior for many of us. It may feel quite threatening initially.” –Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
“We are not to fear the strangeness we feel. The future enters into us long before it happens.” –Rainer Maria Rilke
Years ago, as a beginning Teaching Artist in the WITS program, I had the opportunity to work with two teachers teaching the same age group in the same school with classrooms right next to one another. I’ll call them Teacher #1 and Teacher #2. I brought identical lesson plans to each class and was surprised by the dramatic differences in the writing produced by the two groups. After years of reflection, I have come to believe that the product created by the students was a reflection of each teacher’s relationship with her own creativity.
Let me start by saying that I have immense respect for the work teachers do and can barely imagine what it takes to instruct a diverse classroom with divergent learning needs. I do not have a Masters in Education and I’m no expert on teaching methods. This post is based on my own observations around teaching creativity.
As a poet, I am constantly reading works by other poets and growing my tools around writing and teaching poetry. Concurrently, I read books about the creative process by authors like Julia Cameron, Jan Phillips, Lynda Barry, SARK, and Natalie Goldberg. My work on accessing my creativity has been as important to my writing as my study of poetic craft.
How often as writing teachers do we receive work like this:
Prompt: Write about an object that you loved in your childhood. Why was it so important to you? What does your relationship with this object reveal about you as a child?
Student Work: As a child, my favorite object was a blanket. It was important to me because it kept me warm. What it reveals about me is that I liked being warm.
From the first day of any residency, I begin my constant reminders: “A writing prompt is not an assignment, but a jumping off point intended to inspire you and delight your creative brain. You don’t have to answer the question as you would in an assignment.” Still, these regurgitated responses can persist, especially in middle school classes.
As a response to this problem and in an attempt to foster creative thinking, I purposely present a wildly open-ended writing prompt. I wait until at least the fourth class when students have grown accustomed to me and are beginning to trust the process. I preface by saying that we are going to be making brave, creative leaps that might feel scary. I encourage them to take risks and be bold in trying something new. I ALWAYS say, “There is no way to do this wrong.” I warn students that I will not be giving any additional information about what to write outside of the prompt. I invite them to write whatever comes into their minds, to use the prompt as their first line and to keep writing until the time is up.
Then, I introduce a one-line writing prompt, usually stolen from a book. An example would be this quote from Sharon Olds, “And then I become a fly on the wall of that room….” At this point in the lesson, I expect a few dumfounded looks. Some students will shift nervously. Some will look at the teacher for more instruction. This is the part of the story where my two teachers, each teaching the same grade at the same school become critical.
The first time I introduced this lesson, Teacher #1 piped up to tell students, “You heard Karen, this is your writing prompt. Write whatever comes into your mind. You can do this.” With nothing to reiterate, students were forced to think creatively, a shocking process for some. But, every student took part and the results were stunning. Their work far surpassed the poems they were writing when given straightforward question prompts. Each student’s voice began to reveal itself in her writing, and the ease with which they all approached writing prompts after this class was impressive. Students were no longer just writing, they were writing creatively.
In the other class, I introduced the same prompt. Teacher #2 interjected with, “Maybe you could write about a time that you overheard a conversation by accident. Or maybe you were eavesdropping. Maybe you could include some dialog from that conversation, possibly from your parents or someone at school. Think about times you’ve felt like a fly on the wall.” After we began our silent writing, Teacher #2 continued to talk with individual students who felt “stuck” and make suggestions for what they could write about. As you might imagine, the work from this class came back more predictable and less inventive than the first class. Many pieces started with, “A time I felt like a fly on the wall was when I heard my parents talking about…” As a class, writing prompts didn’t get easier, and students more often professed experiencing “writer’s block.”
As you might also guess, Teacher #1 found the lesson useful and compelling, a turning point for the class, while Teacher #2 felt that I needed to “give more instruction” around the lesson. I was left to grapple with the choice of changing or not changing my lesson, given contradictory feedback from the two teachers.
My conclusion is this: the work of creating involves risk taking that will be uncomfortable and new for as many adults as it will be for students. At times, some teachers will not feel safe demanding creativity from students, and will not feel safe having it demanded from themselves. My work as a Teaching Artist is to be as clear as possible about why I am asking the class to make bold, creative leaps and to be transparent with the teacher about what I hope the lesson will accomplish. I strongly believe that the students and teachers who go bravely into the unknown in creative writing can craft a new relationship with creative thinking that will change classrooms and lives for the better.