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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.

Raising Exotics

11 Jul

Long, long ago (1988 to be exact) I wrote a piece I called “Giftedness–Nature or Nurture?” It was not an academic piece attempting to answer this old question.  It was a gardening metaphor that I hoped would assure parents that the task they faced raising highly gifted kids was as tricky as it felt, but possible.  It was written in first person plural because I, too, was a parent facing uncertainties.

As written originally, I don’t recommend it!  But when I was talking recently to a parent fairly new to dealing with her more than usually unusual PG child, I thought this pre-cheetah, pre-mermaid metaphor might at least help her not only recognize but accept the challenges and begin to trust herself to meet them.  So here’s an update for just that purpose:

When we have a baby it’s like being given a flower seed that it’s our job to grow. Determined to be responsible gardeners, we start by doing the normal and absolutely necessary things. We plant it. We water it.  As it first sticks its white-and-soon-green self up through the ground, it looks pretty much like any other brand new seedling.  Maybe this gardening thing won’t be too hard, we think–after all the world is full of other people doing it.

But when the young plant begins to put out real leaves, they look nothing at all like the leaves of the plants people around us are growing.  Our seed didn’t come pre-labeled in a package that included an explanation of its needs. Full sun? Partial shade? Acid or alkaline soil? Lots of water or hardly any? Sand or loam? The gardening books and the gardening sites online don’t seem to show the specific sort of plant we’re dealing with.  Our seed, we eventually learn, is an “exotic.”

We can’t tell at this early stage whether it’s going to be 4-6 inches high (good for a garden border) or 24 inches high with an absolute need for a fence or stake to lean against. Is its blossom going to appear early or will it bloom only after several growing seasons?  Will the flowers be so large and spectacular that the stem will bend over from their weight, or will it have tens or hundreds of tiny flowerets clustered around the stem so that no single one stands out? We begin to realize we’re going to have to be ready for anything.

What pests are likely to damage it? Is that wasp buzzing around it going to lay eggs that will sap its strength or disfigure it, or is the wasp only going to pollinate the flowers? And how do we tell before it’s too late?

Mostly, as the plant grows we do what we can and hope that we’re doing it right, or at least not too badly wrong, second-guessing ourselves at every turn. What we want is expert help, so we visit garden clubs devoted to raising exotics; we read blogs written by experienced exotic garden specialists.  None of our efforts turn out to be quite as comforting as we’d hoped.   Exotics must absolutely have shade one expert says.  But our plant seems to be constantly leaning out for sun.  Browning leaves, a leading blog tells us, mean we’re giving it too much water–either that or we’re giving it too little.  Which is it? we ask in frustration.  And how do we tell?

“Everybody knows” of course, that exotics are sensitive and particular and must be treated with extreme care and given precisely what they need, or they will be irreparably damaged, their blooms stunted or perhaps destroyed in the bud.  There was, of course, that exotic seed that got dumped in a parking lot and ignored and somehow managed to find a crack in the pavement and bloom anyway.  That one gets coverage on the nightly news, but many passionately committed gardeners rush in to remind us that it was a one in a million miracle and we should not be lured into letting down our guard.

But here’s something all gardeners can be sure of.  Each individual seed comes with the whole blueprint, the whole plan, and all the “design capacity” necessary to become what it is meant to be.  As important as nurture is, nature is considerably more resilient than we may believe.

Yes, it’s a particular challenge to raise an exotic.  But close observation, common sense, and some basic gardening instincts are amazingly useful.  It’s fine to check out the exotic gardening clubs and the expert blogs and listen carefully.  Much of what can be learned that way will be helpful.  But if your plant leans toward the sun, no matter how many others (even the experts) claim shade is essential, go with sun.  If, after a time in full sun, the plant begins to wilt–don’t be too frightened to transplant to a slightly shadier location.  Watch and listen, and trust yourself.  And don’t forget that plant blooming in the crack.  Miracle, maybe.  But in some ways every seed is a miracle.

Surf’s Up!

21 Jun

“There is no security in following the call to adventure.” – Joseph Campbell

Yesterday, in the midst of “ordinary life,” my husband and I got news about one of our grown sons that rocked our world and changed what I had thought to write for the New Zealand blog tour.  For a moment, I thought I might not write anything at all, but when the ground began to settle under my feet, I knew there was a different message here.   No matter what their age, it is not possible to protect your children from life itself.

I’ve loved being an elder in the realm of gifted—past the stage of active parenting, past even the stage of believing my job is to change the world for this population I care about so much.  A long enough life provides one with lots of stories—many of them stories that no one could have predicted, no matter how assiduously they study what’s known, no matter how many experts they consult,  how carefully they plan, or how strong their desire for control.  If you can stay open, life gives you plenty of opportunities to change your mind, change your strategies, and keep on growing.  And it knocks you down often enough that you begin to trust that you can get up again.

When I write about giftedness, more often than not I write for parents.  Parenting is by its very nature a tough job—parenting gifted, out of the box kids provides unique and sometimes daunting challenges.  As parents it is in our very nature to want the best for our kids.  But here’s the tricky part—there’s no way we can know just what that is.  Sometimes the best is paved with ease and the worst looks like catastrophe.  And sometimes the opposite is true.

Whenever I read the questions parents post online and the answers other parents share, I tend to feel with them the struggles and the anguish they encounter when they see that the world is constantly trying to shave off the edges of their beloved square pegs in order to get them to squeeze down into the available round holes.  Life for gifted kids can be hard, tough, painful.  (And seeing our kids in pain doesn’t just push our parent buttons.  It all too often calls back for us what we ourselves lived through—so it’s natural that we want to stop that pain for them, to smooth out the bumps or widen the culture’s holes so square pegs can be valued more and fit more easily.)  Wanting to do that is natural.  I spoke about it years ago at NAGC—the article from that talk, “The Problem of Pain,” can be found here.

But watching parents wear themselves out trying to smooth the way, and looking back over my own life, I want today more than anything to remind us all of the magnificent theme of the 2013 World Congress Conference that is being held in New Zealand:  “The Soul of Giftedness.”

What does it mean to consider the soul, the spirit, the intangible essence of self that each human brings to life’s journey?  The story I’ve been sharing with audiences and readers for a while is that each of us is the hero of our own life story.  As a writer I could use the literary term protagonist, but I prefer hero because of the sense of courage, strength and passionate intensity the word carries with it.  What animates the hero is soul, spirit, intangible essence of self.  Our kids come into the world with that—every single one of them—and however fragile the child might appear, soul is indomitable.

At Yunasa-West last week I asked the campers what was the phrase surfers use to alert each other that it’s a really good day to grab their boards and head to the beach.  Few of those campers are surfers themselves, but they knew the answer.  “Surf’s up!” they called out.  Yes.  Of course.  The thrill, the joy, the challenge of surfing has to do with waves.  It isn’t about sitting on the board on a calm sea, admiring the blue of the sky.

As the kids answered so enthusiastically, I had this image suddenly, of a veritable army of parents rushing out to the beach ahead of their children and doing their best to calm the waves, to flatten the sea.  I understand their wish to protect their kids from a wipeout. I also know that if we were able to do that, we would be depriving our young heroes of the very challenges that provide the exhilaration, the thrill, and the practice that can lead them to be the best surfers they are capable of becoming.

I’m talking paradox here, and paradox, however much a part of our world, is difficult to live with.  It is a parent’s job to protect each child from harm.  We wouldn’t send our beginning surfers off to face a tsunami.  But if we allow our own fears and our sense of our children’s fragility to keep them away from the surf, we may block them from discovering the inner tools and capacities of spirit any life journey requires.

We have no idea what lies ahead for the children of today, except that it will be something humanity has never faced before.  Just as we want our children’s minds to be challenged to prepare them to make the most of the special gifts they have brought, it’s worth remembering that their spirits, too, grow from challenge.   Some of them may have come on purpose to become champion surfers of the tsunamis of change.

The truth is, we can’t disperse all the ripples and flatten all the waves no matter how much we might want to do that.  But we can let our children know that they are heroes, that they have indomitable souls and that sometimes instead of fixing the world for them, we will be there to listen, to bind their wounds, to love them through the healing process, and give them a time and a place to rest between waves.  We, too, need to be heroes, have indomitable spirits and face each day, each ripple or wave as it comes, whether it comes to us or to them.

Meantime, it is worth a bit of extra effort to model gratitude and appreciation for the journey itself.  That way we can celebrate every triumph,  take joy in every calm beautiful day, and be fully present in every moment, whatever that moment brings.  Every journey happens just one step at a time.

http://ultranet.giftededucation.org.nz/WebSpace/696

“…a Man’s Reach Should Exceed His Grasp…”

20 May

How many of us were told at some point in our lives that we were not living up to our potential

I was.  I was a high achiever in school—mostly A’s, a fantastic (probably intuitive) ability to take tests.  But my potential?  Suppose I got a 98 on a test.  “What happened there?” my father would ask.  Once, the Director of Studies at my high school wrote a note on my report card about the B+ I got in a demanding, college-level biology class.  “For a person of Stephanie’s potential,” her note said, “a B+ is not an acceptable grade.”  There was in my world the idea that there were only two alternatives:  A (better yet A+) and F; perfection or failure.  

It has taken many decades (and some costly therapy) to extricate myself from that mindset.  As Linus, in the Peanuts cartoon, says, “There is no heavier burden than a great potential.” 

Just in the last few weeks, during all this conversation in the “gifted realm” about achievement and eminence (an old conversation that has only taken on this recent intensity because of an effort to make it holy writ instead of a conversation), I have come to see the charge of not living up to one’s potential as a toxin.  These days we worry about toxins in our food, about dangerous drugs, about tainted air and water, but we freely dispense the toxic judgment of unfulfilled potential to ourselves and our children (most especially those labeled as in some way more full of “potential” than others). 

Eleven years ago in an online seminar I was conducting, a mother expressed concern that if her child chose to follow some deep current interest, he might not reach the top of his field.  That was her goal for that child—to reach the top of his field.  I have talked about the cages schools create for cheetahs—think of what a narrow goal it is, what a tight and limited pathway such a goal creates for any person, let alone any child.  How could he even be sure the goal had been attained—isn’t it pretty much always a matter of opinion?  (I can’t help thinking of Edison and Tesla for instance.)  And if he could somehow prove he had reached the top, how long could he stay there?

This toxin is often put out with the best of intentions.  Whether it’s a teacher with a bright student who doesn’t turn in homework, a mother worried that a child isn’t getting the support necessary to develop her unusual intelligence, a politician concerned that we are losing the productivity of our finest minds, or a father furious over his son’s laziness or passion for video games, people seem to think that living up to one’s potential is a good and necessary thing, perhaps the only road to success. 

Here’s the thing.  None of us lives up to our potential!  We all use only bits and pieces of our minds.  Even if we were to leave out the distinction between mind and brain, we know that the potential of the human brain is vastly complex and no matter how fervently we study it, its capacities continually astonish us.  

Savants have been the source of many surprises, of course.  From “Rain Man’s” ability to instantly tell how many toothpicks spilled out of a box, to Leslie Lemke’s ability to play full length classical piano pieces after a single hearing, to Stephen Wiltshire’s ability to fly over a cityscape and then draw what he’s seen in excruciating detail and perfect scale, the things savants can do confound us and send us searching for explanations of how certain brain deficits might result in extreme surpluses of one kind or another.  Still, the very fact that any human can do these things means that such a potential exists (one way or another) in the human brain. 

There are a great many mental capacities that most of us would consider “impossible” that are not only possible to some individuals but may be available to anyone open to experiencing them.  There are people who are able to read with their hands rather than their eyes, for instance.  I first encountered this phenomenon in a woman with extreme intuitive capacities, who was also dyslexic.  So difficult had reading been for her as a child that she was driven to find an alternative to using her vision in order to access the information on a written page.  She discovered that she could “download” what was on the page by running her hands over it.  

I know of at least two people who have conducted experiments to test for this ability with young children, who report that this is not a rare phenomenon—just one that our current theories of brain and mind can’t explain.  The younger the child (therefore the less caught in our ideas of what is and is not possible) the more likely that child is to be able to acquire information from a printed page this way—both photographs and words.  Says one of those experimenters, “We could probably all do this, but nobody ever told us we can, so we have never tried.”  The other has found that some adults can do it as well, but with considerably greater difficulty.  (I can’t, of course, give you citations from peer-reviewed scientific journals for these experiments—they are not the sorts of experiments scientific journals are interested in publishing.  At least not yet.) 

It has been suggested that the more we study the brain the less we understand consciousness.   

You don’t have to be willing to allow nonrational mysteries like reading with the hands into your own world view to be aware of the extraordinary reach of human mental processing.  We can recognize the kids we’re calling mermaids here by the “impossible” things they do within the range of the rational.  What kind of brain/mind does it take for a six month old to begin speaking in full (if short and perhaps not perfectly pronounced) sentences?  Most child-development experts would say that couldn’t be done because a child of that age does not have a brain developed enough to begin using verbal language.  But there are children who do it.  Forty years ago parents did not think of teaching their infants sign language so that they could communicate before developing the ability to speak.  But the success of this (now not at  all uncommon) practice has shown us that infant brain/minds are far more attuned to and able to process language than previously thought. 

Julian Stanley famously said that the “mathematically precocious” kids he brought into SMPY could learn algebra in from 0 to 15 hrs.  Zero hours?  Really?  Yes.  There are children who seem to come with algebra “pre-loaded” into their mental systems.  Just as there are those who seem almost to “recognize” languages that no one in their world uses, so that they can learn or teach themselves those languages with lightning speed.  How is this possible?  The very easy answer is that we don’t know.  The list goes on and on.  The abilities shown by prodigies are very little different from savant capacities, though the prodigy does not have countervailing deficits. 

Finally, of course, there is the problem of “multi-potentiality.”  Being able to do many things doesn’t necessarily mean we will or even should do them all.  A person with vast, varied, complex and extraordinary capacities may not want to follow some of them.  And if she does have a passion for all of them, may find it hard to choose a direction in life.  Under the pressure of their diversity she might take a side trail that leads away from any of them, or she could bounce from one to the other and piece together a patchwork of a life path that looks nothing like success from the outside.  And then there’s the impact of life itself.  It can be very, very tough.  There is no way to know how much of “recognized intellectual potential” might have to go into just figuring out how to survive.  

And finally, where do the concepts of personal fulfillment, joy, peace, happiness or the ability to come to the end of one’s life free from the misery of a long trail of regrets come into this conversation?  Let’s just get over this potential thing.  Potential is unlimited.  A single human life is not.

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.