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Schools are to Creativity… (Part 2)

16 Jul

…as zoos are to wildness.

I got to visit cheetahs NOT on exhibit at Melbourne zoo–thanks to Jo Freitag

Sometimes in order to see things clearly one has to peel back layers of feeling. My philosophy is that we can’t do anything wrong (as we’re doing the best we can at any given moment) but that we may be able to do things better, and feelings can help us do that by pointing to what isn’t working as well as it could.  Today’s post goes on from the feeling response I wrote yesterday.  Different readers will respond differently, depending on their own feeling layers, of course.

“…As zoos are to wildness.”  That is a critical part of the sentence!  I am not against zoos.  In fact, I spent part of my life wanting to be a zookeeper.  I had our family read aloud the works of Gerald Durrell, whose life, other than writing, was devoted early on to gathering animals for zoos and then to creating an important zoo of his own.  One of the greatest synchronicities of our son’s life happened during his college semester in London when, looking into a bookstore window, he thought he recognized the reflection of the man standing behind him.  He turned and asked the man if he was Gerald Durrell.  When the man said he was, our son enthusiastically shared how important Durrell’s books had been to his childhood.  Durrell invited him to the zoo run by his Wildlife Conservation Trust, and of course he went!

As with schools, there are zoos and zoos.  Fewer and fewer of them are places of imprisonment for their charges or focused solely on putting animals on exhibit for the entertainment of their paying customers. Many do important conservation research.  And there is for the most part a serious effort to provide as natural a habitat for the animals as possible.  Nevertheless, the task of maintaining wildness is difficult to achieve with some species and impossible with many others!

Just so with highly creative kids.  Creativity itself is about not following directions, about finding new ways to do things, new ways to approach things, new ways to put things together or “reconcile the disparate.”  It is an individual thing.  An institution whose job is to educate all kids cannot function without requirements, directions, methods and–yes–coercion.

One of the most difficult half hours of my life was the first time I was asked as a visiting author to interact with a kindergarten class.   I’d written mostly young adult novels at that point and normally visited upper elementary or middle school classes, where I started by getting the kids excited about an idea.  I had literally never been in a room with more than 20 five year olds before that day.  I made the mistake of starting by getting the kids turned on.  Five year olds, of course, pretty much don’t need turning on–chaos ensued. And I never managed to restore even a semblance of order.

Creativity and institutions of any kind don’t go together easily.  At best there may be an uneasy alliance.  Institutions need patterns that creative people break.  Over and over again the “creative genius” who founds an organization of any kind–a company, a school, a theatre company–is replaced once that organization is up and running by someone whose particular skills are suited to  guiding and maintaining rather than inventing.  And it isn’t always that the founder is thrown out–some leave when they discover that keeping the organization running bores them silly and that making things new all the time can be disruptive and threatening to others.  Creativity often looks like destruction, when old forms have to be taken apart to make way for the new.

When that sixth grade teacher who was the nemesis of my life told my mother that I’d never amount to anything because I was “interested in too many things,” she was thinking along conventional lines:  “jack of all trades, master of none.”  The greatest joy of being a writer, of course, is that I get to keep writing different sorts of stories, doing different kinds of research, inventing whole new people and worlds.  One of the things that made me craziest in school was the schedule–same classes same day of the week, week after week after week.  As an adult I would not be able to do a job that involves constant repetition.

So this is the second half of what I wish to say about creativity in schools.  We can’t support it perfectly, but we can keep working to do better. Some schools and some teachers have more success than others in making room for creative kids, but much of the support the kids need may have to come from the fact that–unlike zoo animals–they get to leave the building at the end of the school day.

What I wrote during school was mostly written in the classes I didn’t like under the guise of taking careful notes (the notes my teachers thought accounted for my good grades.)  But most of my writing as a kid was done in trees, under bushes, at home in my room–outside of school and not at anyone’s request.

It is possible for a creative kid to survive even the most coercive school environment with a little help from outside–parents, other kids, adult mentors or just enough time and space to dream, and materials for playing, experiencing and inventing on their own.

But kids whose creativity can be submerged by doing really well at following directions, by a culture that is uncomfortable with rebels, or by a need to protect themselves from the hostile forces often ranged against them, do get hurt.  There is no life without pain; I’m not suggesting there should be.  But often these kids get hurt more deeply, more often and more permanently than necessary.  Coercion can inspire creativity as the creative kid finds ways to rebel against it or work around it.  But coercion can grind down and destroy as well.  These kids need to hear from adults that resistance is not necessarily a sign of poor character!

“If I had it to do all over again” (something every single parent can say at some point), I would put supporting creativity way higher up on my list of priorities for any kid who has, in addition to a really fine, really capable intellect, a passionate imagination and a drive toward novelty.  It was the nourishing of imagination that Einstein was talking about when he advocated reading fairy tales as a way to create future scientists.  When he said that creativity was more important than knowledge, it wasn’t that he was dissing knowledge.  But stuffing kids’ minds full of the knowledge we think they should have doesn’t make room for what is likely to be needed in a world we can’t predict that will be the world of their adulthood.

I prefer to look for positive possibilities.  If some kids can nourish their imaginations with computer games (like the paper version of Dungeons and Dragons that briefly took over my son’s life) I say there is hope in that.  But I also hope that anyone who can affect classrooms anywhere will keep in mind the need to provide some open spaces for the growing of imagination.  And I would remind parents to value and trust it as Einstein did.

Schools are to Creativity…

15 Jul

…as Zoos are to Wildness.

This was the title of a talk I first gave before I entered the realm of giftedness.  I’ve used that title many times since.  But this morning, when I had been planning to start preparations for camp (Yunasa begins a week from today and I leave home on Wednesday), I found this article (Why Creative Geniuses Hated School) posted in the FaceBook group, International Gifted Education, and was motivated to write a blog post instead.  If you haven’t already read that article, please, please click the link and read it before going on.  (I’ll wait.)  ***

I’m not writing here to bash schools, though that may seem to be the effect of this post.  I’m writing because it is difficult to know what to do about this problem, and it’s a serious problem that too many people (including myself for a long time) overlook, ignore or just don’t realize or understand.

I don’t claim to be a “creative genius.”  But I was not just a highly gifted kid, I was a highly creative kid.  I didn’t, of course, know this prior to entering school.  I had a vivid and constantly active imagination, but assumed everybody did.  School gave me little to do with that imagination, but then it gave me little to do with the rest of my mind, either, so I guess I just didn’t notice.

In the early days school for me was mostly a place where we kids were asked to do things that didn’t make a lot of sense.  I remember, for instance, cutting out words from a work book and pasting them under a picture–“apple” got pasted under the picture of an apple, “cat” under the picture of a cat.  I couldn’t imagine a reason for doing this, but the teacher wanted us to do it so I did it, along with all the other apparently useless tasks we were given.  And I got stars for doing it.

I was a girl from a family where authority counted, and it was the ’40s.  I pretty much did what I was told and enjoyed the stars.  The stars became S’s (for satisfactory–the only alternative being U’s for unsatisfactory) in grade school and A’s and the occasional B in junior high and high school, then in college and graduate school.

Long after my formal connection with school ended, Jane Piirto asked me to be part of a study she was doing of successful women writers.  The participants were asked to fill out questionnaires about their school experiences, and I did that.  My answers made it clear that not only had I been an excellent student, but I had pretty much loved school.

Years later, when I had become known as an expert in gifted education, I spoke at a conference in Nebraska that was organized in honor of the 50th anniversary of Leta Hollingworth’s death.  During that conference a film about Leta’s life was shown in which a poem of hers was read over suitable nature images–I believe it was titled “The Lone Pine” and she had written it in high school.  During the reading of the poem I began to cry.  The poem was one I certainly could have written at that age myself, about how hard it was to stand out, to stand alone on the top of the hill taking the brunt of the winds instead of standing safely down on the hillside, sheltered amongst the rest of the forest trees.

By the end of the film I had put myself back together, but during the plane ride home from the conference I found myself crying again.  The amount of pain that bubbled up over the rest of that day stunned me.  And when I got back to my computer, I spent six full hours writing, retrieving the “real story” of my school experiences from second grade on.

The protective cocoon of repression had broken as I listened to and identified with the feelings behind Leta’s poem, and I gradually came face to face with what school had really been for me.  In my own life, it hadn’t been other kids who bullied me–the bullies were defensive teachers who humiliated me, including the sixth grade teacher who arranged for the principal to denounce me as a liar and thief to the whole school over the intercom.  I hadn’t managed to repress that singular event–I had just put it down to the teacher’s vindictiveness.  But I had genuinely forgotten the others and the pain they caused.  The cocoon had been largely constructed of all those stars and good grades, the dutiful accomplishments of a bright kid whose schools and family expected her to follow directions, to achieve and excel.  How could I not have loved school when I was so successful at it?  When I filled out those questionnaires, I had genuinely believed my answers.

There were bright spots, of course, and a handful of caring, supportive teachers.  Luckily, I’d had one brilliant teacher at my highly academic school who taught me English all four years of high school, and gave us wonderful  literature to read and had us do free writing known as “journal entries” every single week.  Luckily also, the school had a powerful drama club and I’d done theatre as an extracurricular activity throughout. 

I majored in creative writing as an undergraduate, writing stories, poetry and plays–and again focused all my non-academic attention on theatre, surviving the “core curriculum” by getting through it as fast as possible and spending most of my time focused on my passions.  But as a graduate student I was not allowed to write a creative thesis (the volume of poetry I’d intended) for my Master’s degree and was required to do a work of literary criticism instead.  When I read today that Einstein had “found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful” for an entire year after forcing himself through his examinations, I was reminded that my Master’s degree in English Literature very nearly stopped me writing entirely.  I have never darkened the door of a school (as a student) again, in spite of pressure to get a doctorate in order to keep a university teaching position.

Over my thirty years in the gifted field I have regularly been called “Dr. Tolan” by people who simply assume that an “expert” must have a doctorate.  And there was a time when a competetive colleague suggested that a “mere children’s book writer” could not possibly have the credentials to function in the academic world.  I’m not against doctorates–most of my closest friends and colleagues have them–but acquiring one can be harmful to imagination and nearly poisonous to creativity!  The words “terminal degree” still make me chuckle.  It could have been that in my life!

This post is not meant as a personal complaint.  I’ve had a wonderful life doing multiple things I love to do.  The main reason for writing here is not because my own creativity was damaged or at least thwarted by school, but because I bought into the education paradigm so thoroughly that I failed to make my own son’s immense creativity the primary focus of our attention when he was growing up.  I was seduced by his amazing mind.  I wrote about that a bit in my “who/what” post in this blog here.  Luckily, he never convinced himself that he loved school, and he wasn’t seduced by the demand for multiple degrees as the only doorway to success or fulfillment.

I was moved to write today because it isn’t only the “creative geniuses” who are hurt by school (and of course because when they’re children we don’t yet know who those geniuses might be.)  It’s all the kids whose innate creativity goes unsupported in school.

How many kids are out there with vivid, passionate, creative imaginations and also extremely able intellects, whose “success” in the academic realm (good grades, high achievement) is masking severe  malnutrition in schools that don’t make their imaginations a priority and their curiosity an organizing factor in their education?  (Especially in this era of high stakes testing!) 

How many kids might one day claim as I did (like kidnap victims exhibiting the “Stockholm syndrome”) that they had loved the schools that nearly destroyed the essence of who they were?  And how many rebellious, angry kids are that way because such a huge piece of who they are is ignored after kindergarten or first grade, as kids’ stuff?

Einstein said that if we want to raise fine scientists we should read them fairy tales.  Given how few schools these days follow that advice, one must hope that computer games are filling some of that need…

What’s My Story? What’s Yours?

20 Apr

Back in 2005 when NAGC was in Louisville, I did a presentation for the Counseling and Guidance Division called “Change Your Story, Change Your Life,” which I later turned into an article that was published in The Gifted Education Communicator that can be read here.  The NAGC session focused on helping gifted kids to cope with the difficulties they face in dealing with their asynchrony, their lack of easy fit in the culture of childhood, by helping them to see themselves as the heroes of their own story.  It was gratifyingly well received.  People seemed to find the principles underlying the talk fairly easy to accept. 

When I talked about these principles among a large group of other writers of books for kids, many of them found the metaphor of story as comfortable as I do, and suggested that I should expand the article into a book.  So, over time, I did that.  The book is now available three ways–as a free downloadable PDF here, and as an actual book or Kindle through Amazon, here. (In addition, I created a Facebook page called Storyhealer.) The book takes what I call Story Principle into the larger territory of human life in general, and I’m aware that lots of people will not feel comfortable following me that far. 

So I’m not suggesting that everybody who is interested in The Deep End because of their connection with high range giftedness will also be interested in either the book or the StoryHealer Facebook page.  I mention it because throughout most of the last 30 years I’ve worn two hats–the novelist hat and the gifted consultant hat, switching back and forth between what felt like two different personas–occasionally making the connection more obvious, such as when I wrote Welcome to the Ark and Flight of the Raven, whose characters were based on profoundly gifted children I had worked with in my gifted persona.  But as an elder, it has become important to me to blend those personas with the rest of who I’ve become in my own life journey in order to be my authentic self.

As I deal with the whole subject of giftedness now, I look at it (as I look at life) through the lens of Story Principle.  Simply put, Story Principle says that the stories we tell as individuals and as a society, are the stories we live.  So they matter.  I am no longer comfortable with our culture’s focus on competition and achievement for the sake of achievement.  Our cultural story has, for a very long time, been based on some stories we have accepted as reality that are now being challenged in fundamental ways.  One is a mechanistic view of a “clockwork universe” destined to wind down, or a random expansion of mindless matter destined to sink back on itself and collapse.  Another is a tale of evolution as a competetive struggle for survival in which species self-interest dominates and only the strongest survive.  But leading edge evolutionary science is telling a new story in which the central theme is not “nature red in tooth and claw,” but nature as an interconnected web of cooperation and balance.  Rather than a struggle to the death, the new story frames life as a kind of dance. 

When I asked a huge NAGC audience during my mini-keynote at NAGC 2006 to raise their hands if they believed that the way things were going on the earth right then was fine and good and right, not a single hand went up.  And most people would agree that things have gotten considerably “worse” since then.  I think we as humans on planet Earth need to refocus on values that can support ourselves and each other and the life that sustains us all.  And I think that many, perhaps the majority, of our brightest kids are a step ahead of us, or at the very least, have the wherewithal to move us in new directions if they can escape the me-first materialism and the fatalistic negativity of the culture that surrounds them.  Surveys are showing that most Americans think their best times are over and that the future will be worse than the present.  That is not a story we can afford to go on telling–it is not a story to share with our children!

Einstein famously said (the t-shirts prove it so!) that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  Our super bright children have amazing intellects and collect knowledge the way hoarders collect stuff.  But they have a power of imagination that all too often goes unappreciated, unsupported and untapped.  We can have nothing in our future that we cannot imagine.  Luckily, imagination has no limits.  So here’s one thing you can bet on about The Deep End.  The story told here will be one of possibility, of hope, and of radical trust that the children we are doing our best to support have what they need not just to survive as individuals, but to venture out to the leading edge of the web we’re all connected to and take us beyond our current expectations. 

So that’s my story.  If it’s yours, together we can share and embellish it here.  If yours is bleaker, darker, less hopeful, maybe you can begin–with a little help from your friends here–to change it.  That’s what is so wonderful about stories.  Once you know you’re involved in the telling, you know they can change.