When my wife was taking a Creativity class for her Gifted Endorsement, she found an ironic bumper sticker to give to her instructor. It read “CREATIVE PEOPLE MUST BE STOPPED!” I wanted to cross out people and write in “TEACHERS.”
When I hear people give lip service to “creative teachers” and “creative teaching” I cringe. I cringe because by “creative teaching” they usually have in mind cutsie, artsy-craftsy ideas that are fun but less than rigorous. “What a creative teaching idea! You pasted macaroni on a plate!” I also cringe because when people give lip service to creativity, it is just that: lip service. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in place in most American school systems to systemically encourage teacher creativity. In fact, I would like to make the case that school systems are instead systematically trying to destroy creative teaching.
As a cartoonist and writer, I am fascinated by how creativity works. I’ve read a lot about the subject of creativity. One of my favorite books on the subject is Making Comics by Scott McCloud, a graphic non-fiction book about… well, the title says it all. On one page, he breaks cartooning down into a list of choices the cartoonist makes: Choice of Moment, Choice of Frame, Choice of Image, Choice of Word, Choice of Flow.
When I teach my students to write with words, I teach them that writing is really a question of making a series of choices to communicate with your audience to achieve a certain result. As a writer you get to choose your genre, topic, focus, overall message, supporting ideas or events, organizational style, types of details, specific details, transitions, types of paragraphs and sentences… the list goes on. Writing, like cartooning, is generally about making a series of choices, because writing, like cartooning, should be a creative act.
But the way we teach writing at school takes away most of the choices students might have as writers. We tend to make students write essays about sources they’ve read. We give them the topic and focus it for them. We often give them a specific format and restrictions on how many paragraphs they should have, and the types of details they can use. In fact, the only choices we give them are which pieces of “text evidence” they can use and the elaboration they will use to explain why it matters.
In fact, when so much of the work has been done for them, I have to wonder if this kind of writing is not only not creative, but if it is writing at all.
I draw cartoons, and I write, and when I do, I make all the choices. What else do I do? I teach.
Can teaching be seen as a series of choices? Absolutely. I can’t speak for teachers of other subjects, but as an English teacher, I have a lot of choices before me.
First, choice of what skill to teach. We have standards these days, but I am an ancient teacher now, one who remembers the days before standards. I actually had to think hard about this question: “What do I want my students to be able to do?”
Then there is the choice of how I should order the teaching of those skills. But that’s just the beginning. Am I going with a whole-language reading/writing workshop classroom or an inquiry-driven classroom? If I am inquiry-driven, what kinds of questions or themes will drive the inquiry? How will I structure my year to build both skills and levels of deeper meaning? What kind of units will I use? I also have choices to make as far as how I order my week and how to order a specific class period.
The choices continue: Choice of texts to read. Choice of reading assignments. Choice of writing assignments. Choice of how much choice to give students. Choice of how to teach proofreading and evaluate it.
Choice of how to deal with behavior in my class. Strict sternness, or micro-democracy? Choice of how to arrange seating and where students sit. Choice of what to hang on my walls. Choice of how I interact with students. Choice of teaching style. Choice of ways to motivate students. Choice of how to frame the work I am giving students. Choice of how much or how little to use a textbook.
There are probably dozens more choices teachers should need to make, but the point is this -just as cartooning is defined by the choices the cartoonist makes and writing is defined by the choices the writer makes, teaching is defined by the choices a teacher makes. But teachers aren’t allowed to make a whole lot of choices these days.
The skills I’m supposed to teach have been reduced to standards so nobody needs to think about it any more. No choice. The approach to teaching is decided for you. It probably won’t be a workshop approach, because a workshop approach means textbook publishers don’t make any money. If it’s an inquiry approach you don’t get to chose a theme or themes that you know would motivate the kids in your room. You have to use the textbook themes, which have been transferred to the curriculum map. The order of those skills is predetermined by a curriculum map and/or pacing guide. The texts you have to read with students and the writing assignments are all chosen for you. You are told how you should manage behavior.
The only creative choices you are left with are the choices of seating arrangement and teaching style. This is what I went to college for? This is all I have to offer as an individual teacher: interior decoration and the force of my personality?
A real teacher, like a real writer or a real cartoonist, makes choices. Teaching can and should be a creative act. But you can’t be creative if you can’t make any choices.
Within the system that has developed around me over 26 years of teaching, I keep making my own choices, because I cannot be true to the teacher I am unless I keep my creativity alive. Dropping it and following other people’s marching orders would crush me.
When my district had adopted a workbook program (see my Teach-By-Number post), we were told that there was room in between workbook assignments to “fit in” our little creative ideas and “special lesson plans.” That’s not how creative teaching works.
Yes, there are the little creative ideas I come up with that are good for a one-day lesson. But my most important creative act is planning out the structure of the school year: skills building on skills, but also ideas building on ideas. My current inquiry for ninth grade is “What is the purpose of education?” With that inquiry in mind, I build my school year as a narrative arc, or perhaps an argument that I make to students over the course of ten months. It’s an argument that is multilayered and nuanced, with deliberate ambiguities that will force my students to think beyond where they are used to thinking.
In other words, my whole year is my “special lesson plan.”
If you want creative teachers, give them the freedom to make choices. It is our choices that define as teachers. And creativity is not a self-indulgence for teachers: It is a super power we use for good. I think about where my students are and where I want them to be, and then I create ways to take them there. Creative teaching is all about the students. Standardized teaching is all about the data.
If you want standardized, unthinking, unimaginative teachers, take away all their choices. Tell them they have to teach like everybody else so the grade books will be consistent. Make autonomy a dirty word. Enforce conformity. Watch the creative teachers leave for other schools, districts, or careers. Or watch them disappear inside their rooms to hide from you the very things that make them great teachers.
But please, while you are doing those things, stop talking about wanting teacher creativity. You don’t really mean it.