Once upon a time, I lived in a purely utilitarian building. There was a good reason for its existence. Most of the city had been destroyed in World War II, so the citizens of Wrocław, Poland–many of them newly arrived after deportations from parts of the country that were annexed by the Soviet Union–needed shelter. Eventually, concrete apartment blocks took shape. By the time I lived there in the early 2000s, some were deceptively sunny in coats of pink and yellow paint. But they were just concrete boxes, and I shook my hand at them and said, “You can’t fool me with pink paint! I know I live in a box.”
Living in a box is certainly better than living on the street, but I always felt a little better when I got outside and walked to the square, where the Gothic and Baroque buildings (many also rebuilt) thrilled me. I need creativity in my life. I must feel it, see it, hear it, taste it. Maybe it’s a luxury for some, but it’s a necessity for me.
Slate has an article that describes our rejection of creativity. We say we appreciate creativity, but the reality is that we only appreciate the result and most of the time when we see creativity, we stomp it out. Jessica Olien writes: “Even in supposedly creative environments, in the creative departments of advertising agencies and editorial meetings at magazines, I’ve watched people with the most interesting—the most ‘out of the box’—ideas be ignored or ridiculed in favor of those who repeat an established solution.”
Ugh. I’ve experienced that in a lot of jobs. I’m the type of person who likes to solve problems, so when I see a problem, I’m not interested in ignoring it, or enabling it, or trying the safe things we know aren’t going to work because they never have before. I’m a creative problem-solver. I will find a way to fix this thing, but you have to give me the freedom to do it and you have to back me up on it to make it work. Unfortunately, most people are satisfied with the status quo, so things don’t get fixed. They remain inefficient and ineffective, and I pull out my hair and wonder why I am still there.
Olien cites a study that shows that teachers prefer uncreative students over creative ones. These would have to be uncreative teachers, I think. Teachers who toe the line and lash out against students whose curiosity extends beyond the neat borders of the curriculum. I’ve had those teachers. In ninth grade, my friend Kate and I were always the last two to make it into our English class after lunch. We were seated before the bell rang, but we preferred to linger in the hall or outside in those last few minutes rather than sit at our desks, where we’d be stuck for the next hour anyway. We were definite creative types, more comfortable in the theatre than on the track, and our teacher was a cross-country coach who was so obsessed with his team that rumor had it he named his child after his best runner.
It was clear that he didn’t think much of us. His feedback on my papers convinced me that he didn’t like my writing style and that he wasn’t interested in my creative approaches to his assignments, which only made me more determined to write them the way I wanted instead of the way he recommended. Kate and I both did a lot of daydreaming and gazing out of the window while he droned on about cattle rustling in The Ox-Bow Incident.
One day our teacher looked at Kate and said, “You’re such an enigma. Why don’t you sit in the same seat every day?”
Yes, apparently being the last person in the room and taking whatever seat is left is enigma-worthy. But what he really meant was: you’re creative, and I don’t understand you.
No thanks to him, Kate and I are both writers now. Fortunately, we also had creative teachers who nurtured our creativity and encouraged us to take risks.
In my first year of college, I wrote loads of papers, but one stands out. Another English class and an assignment on some really boring religion debate where you had to take one side and develop an argument. I didn’t want to do that, so I expanded the topic and wrote a creative response to the idea of organized religion. My instructor, fresh out of grad school and not much older than I, pulled me aside after class and said, “You know I can’t give you an ‘A’ on this paper because it doesn’t fit the assignment, but I can see that you are smart and creative. I’m going to give you the chance to rewrite it as assigned, but I also think you should keep writing creatively outside of class.”
Although I’d been encouraged by teachers in theatre and music, I’d never had a teacher tell me to “keep writing” the way I wanted to write.
I can get stuck working in formulas just like everyone else. That’s how we appease and, often, move forward. But, as with teachers, I’m always looking for the employer who will recognize what I really have to offer and open up a space for me to soar. Sometimes I’ve been lucky to find that person, sometimes I’ve retreated into the corner after too many disappointments, and other times I’ve been able to create that opportunity for myself.
Like anyone else, I can get so caught up in the mundane chores of life that I forget to find room for creativity. So I’m practicing intentional creativity. Every day I look for opportunities to be creative. If I’m stuck inside, I stop and notice what the natural world is up to outside my window, which allows me to wonder how mockingbirds learn to mimic, how I can work those sunset shades into something pretty to keep around, or what flowers to plant in the spring. I play with spices and listen to stories while cooking. If it’s too cold to run, I have a private dance party. If I need a distraction, I turn to Pinterest for project ideas and daydreaming rather than scrolling through Facebook posts. When I wake up, I take a moment to try to remember my dreams.
And whenever I feel like I’m trapped in a box, I at least open a window and bring in some flowers until I can find a way out. I definitely do not paint it pink and settle in.
I have a very special post this week from Ana Molina Hita, a teacher and musician in Madrid. I came across Milagros, a band Ana formed with girls she teaches, on Kathleen Hanna‘s blog, and I was hooked. I contacted Ana, and she turned out to be clever, warm, funny, passionate, and engaging. She’s the kind of teacher kids dream of. In addition to Milagros, Ana started another project to nurture her students’ self-expression through writing. Please check out both of these inspiring and lovely projects. I promise you will love them.
Ana offers us her ideas on creativity and education. Take it away, Ana!
We often forget music is a language. Everybody seems to know the importance of learning different languages in order to travel, or what is even worse, in order to get a better job so we can get a better life, whatever.
In the last 30 years, we have faced a lot of changes in society. but, apart from this fever with foreign languages that, at least in Spain, is such a failure, nothing has really changed at school. Nowadays we learn Spanish and maths in the same way our parents did. There’s a hierarchy of subjects that offends the principle of diversity and the principle of enjoying learning. We are facing a global crisis and we need solutions and people able to find those solutions. Here is the important point where creativity has massive significance because creativity is the process through which we create something in response to what we need.
Working on creativity at school doesn’t mean that everyone may be an artist. Most people relate creativity with music and art, but it has to do with life, with the will of kids to live. Creativity is an important tool for living better. Anyone can be creative. Everyone has skills or interests that can make their lives better. Helping kids to find those interests and skills should be our main goal at school.
To find what we like doing is such a blessing.
As a teacher, there’s a moment you realize you are not taking care of your pupils’ will to live. That’s when you have to stop and wonder what is wrong.
I’m afraid the whole thing is wrong. That takes me to the pessimistic view where I’ve finally landed. But when it seems you can do nothing about it, at least you can try to spend quality time with your pupils whenever you are able.
The Writing Project I’ve been developing throughout my last 5 years at school is basically based on chaos. I just let my pupils write anything that crosses their minds in a little notebook. The less you tell them what to do, the more they write. It is important not to force them. They will write the day someone tells them they are good at it.
They like writing when they realize nobody is gonna mark their writings or judge them. They can tell you how fat their uncle is with the same passion they tell you they’re heartbroken.
I don’t know how pure my pupils are (I guess 100%), but I’m pretty sure their writings are pure as gold. As a friend of mine once said, it’s like watching raining. And funny as hell.
We cannot pretend to instill love for literature in our children if they don’t love language, and they won’t be able to love language if they can’t even use language when teachers come into the classroom. To love language, we have to enjoy using it. And I can prove school is not the place where children are most allowed to use it (I’m afraid I tell them to shut up around 24 times every 24 hours).
Politicians and their education laws do not help at all. They insist on keeping things the way they are. They use education to keep culture always the same. We teach the way others taught us. This way teaching becomes a process of symbolic reproduction.
They make us believe they are improving education by changing the name of certain subjects and the way we evaluate students. We should stop changing the way we evaluate our students as if that was the most important part of the process. The most important part of the process is the process itself.
As Sir Ken Robinson says, what pushes a child to not stop walking is not the goal of going walking everywhere. It’s just his/her nature to keep on trying. And same happens to learning.
Education is the place where learning happens. Kids can do nothing but learning. And it seems we are not making the best of this fact.
Milagros is within a Creativity Project. It’s not only about music. It’s about the will to live that children possess. It is about finding tools, interests and habits that could make our lives better.
I´ll never know if it works, but meanwhile we´re having fun.
Ana Molina Hita is a school teacher and musician from Madrid. She teaches music to kids from 8 to 13 in a public school where kids come from all over the world. Apart from Milagros, she plays in a pop band called Hola a Todo el Mundo.
Even though she claims that the essence of creativity and the essence of schooling are contradictions in terms, she believes there’s a need to incorporate creativity into our educational system, despite the system.
Check out Ana’s many projects: