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The Case for Creative Dismantling

In the classroom, the danger of failing to engage students' creativity.Last spring, towards the end of my first year as a...

In the classroom, the danger of failing to engage students' creativity.

Last spring, towards the end of my first year as a high school art teacher, I found myself awkwardly clutching a juice cup in a crowded gymnasium as a mother of one of my students blabbered away at me about what my photography and graphic design class had meant to her son, Duncan, who otherwise hated school.

At the time, I took this as less an affirmation of my fledgling teaching ability and more a testament to the nature of art as a fluffy respite for slackers. Don’t get me wrong—I am more passionate about my subject than I know how to convey—but even passionate art lovers get debilitating, educationally-transmitted infections that end up stifling creativity. Intelligence, we are told from our first classroom moments, is evidenced by jumping through hoops and never, ever thinking of painting them odd colors, setting them on fire, and commencing to juggle.

But back to Duncan. Although in some ways he was a fairly typical student, he offered a different perspective. Like a majority of his classmates, this tousled blonde youth was on a cocktail of mind-altering substances, his system perpetually flooded with sugar, caffeine, and prescription chill-pills. And like them, he was not altogether fond of working hard—preferring to creatively avoid responsibility whenever possible. It was a rare class when I didn’t have to re-direct him towards something more photo-or-design-related (and save, perhaps, the last dregs of a bottle of whiteout with which he’d been studiously, surreptitiously painting the backpack of an unsuspecting classmate.)

Unlike many of his peers, however, Duncan somehow avoided the crippling fear that attends the idea that creativity is the province of a select few geniuses who’ve been poked at birth by the glowing, technicolor finger of art. What made him different was that he was willing to play—to creatively explore any visual puzzle that happened to catch his fleeting attention span. He did this even at the risk of failure and social humiliation. All he needed was permission.

Duncan lives in a world that seems to be cracking apart all around him. But the problems of his culture will not be healed by endlessly steaming down the same rusting track. The bridge is out, and if Duncan is going to find alternate transportation, he will need all the creative power he can muster.

So why is it only in art class that a kid like Duncan can be creative?

The problem is undoubtedly as complicated as is Duncan himself. While I don’t know how to fix the problem, I do have an idea where some of it comes from. Creativity is, in fact, a disturbing force, demanding that absolutely everything be fair game for dismantling and re-creation—including the educational system. Teaching is difficult work, and as much as most teachers hate stifling individuality, they must still attempt to get diverse groups of young people to reach certain standardized objectives. Ignoring looming deadlines, opening the gates, and letting them all run wild seems a frightening recipe for disaster. What is more terrifying, however, is that fear of creativity could continue to maintain the status quo in an environment desperately in need of creative dismantling.

Please don’t misunderstand me, as powerful as Duncan’s creativity is, it must be guided and channeled. Too many times, however, the response of his parents, school, and culture has been to fear his wild and unpredictable spirit—to drug and discipline away his gifts along with his misbehavior in an effort to make him fit into the established order. I am not so foolish as to try to offer, in so few words, a broad solution. I only wish to suggest that failing to engage our creativity as we attempt to educate young people like Duncan will result in a loss that is as much ours as it is his.

At my school, all teachers are asked to choose a top student from each course to honor at a final awards ceremony. I chose Duncan. And although he shrugged it off, half-embarrassed, as any 15-year old would be, it was probably this affirmation that had him back in my classroom again this year, making better work than before. It might even be what had his mother crying the tears of a woman thrilled to at last find an educator who believes what she has always known—that despite his struggles, Duncan’s creative gifts might just be his best hope.

Josh Barkey is a high school art teacher in North Carolina.

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