Last week, my colleague and I taught the most wonderful creative writing lesson. My colleague wrote the beggining of a sentence on the board – “As the ball bounced higher and higher …” and we told the students that they had 10 minutes to write a story of their choosing starting with the words on the board. We told them that we weren’t going to correct spelling, grammar, paragraphing etc. We just wanted them to have a go and let their imaginations steer them in the right direction.
Everly child bar none wrote frantically. Those that lack certainty, didn’t. Those that struggle with composing letters and information reports lapped up the lack of protocols and structure that this activity offered. Why was this simple lesson such a success? Because it allowed the students to express themselves.
Curriculums and educational trends have made it harder for teachers to help students find themselves. It has continued to downplay the importance of The Arts in favour of skills and concepts that many of our children will never use. The Fibonacci Sequence might be fascinating, but who decides that this is more important than a clay modelling session? Since when did single-celled organisms have a greater importance in a child’s life than the chance to perform to an audience?
Nowadays the emphasis is on memorising facts, studying for standardised tests and rote learning. Even when the system purports to be encouraging self-expression it’s often a sham. The system dictates what literature the students study, how they should think and what they should be feeling.
I remember telling my teacher when I was a student that I was bored by Robinson Crusoe. You should have seen the look on his face! He asked me how I could be bored with such a classic. I told him that I wasn’t interested in reading page after page about details. I wanted tangible feelings I could connect with. My teacher was astounded. He reminded me that Robinson Crusoe was one of the most popular books of all time. I wanted to reply that Jurassic Park was one of the most popular films of all time, but thought better of it.
There are a multitude of kids who are simply not adjusting to the style of education offered. So what do we do? We tell them to smarten up and pull their finger out. We remind them that if they don’t adjust their potential will be wasted and their career prospects will be hampered. What if it isn’t the “spoilt” children’s fault they are not thriving at school? What if it’s actually the narrow-mindedness of the system?
The fact that the writing session was 10 minutes and no longer was key to the success of the lesson. According to my colleague when they are given more time their work suffers. It reminded me of a great scene from the film Six Degrees of Separation. Donald Sutherland recounts how whilst the Grade 1 and Grade 3 teachers at his childs’ school weren’t able to extract great artwork from the students, the Grade 2 teacher was responsible for a classroom of art geniuses. He confronted the teacher to ask her what her secret is, and she replied that she knows when to take the brushes out of their hands.
The reason why we need to take the pencils out of their hands after only 10 minutes, is that up until that point they haven’t had the time to think beyond their natural instincts. If we let them continue they would slowly stop writing out of instinct and start writing to please their teacher. They would consider the structure that teachers have been duty bound to impart to their students (such as containing a problem, resolution and foci). This very structure leads to boring, formulaic writing.
Our students are crying out for some structure and routine in their lives, but by the same token, they are also crying out for an opportunity to express themselves. We are all different and sometimes society doesn’t give us the freedom to express it.
It’s time to take the brushes out of our students’ hands and let them show us what they’re really about!