Creativity has been an elusive magic potion for me and my thoughts about learning for, well, ever. I’m literally giddy about the possibility of measuring, extending and challenging student growth in creativity as a competency in our classrooms. The immense generosity of one Grade 7/8 teacher has allowed me to explore it … in beta. And today, as I read and reflect on their learning, I realize how learning creatively, actively pursuing big ideas, going rogue on the status quo and putting real purpose behind what we do is really the center of what Kelly Mackay and The Beast bring to this world. Kelly has this way of pulling in humans as resources for learning. Where I always, always doubt the path forward – or at least worry about everyone else’s doubt – she does not. Yes, we can imagine a completely new future, add value to eduthings, and make magic happen.
I take with me the most mundane standard standard of art. I’m setting up at the Smartboard as students enter and one stops to tell me he hates art. Then, after an ironic and utterly welcoming introduction (they even clapped), I immediately turned it over to them. This is an experiment and we don’t know what is going to happen, I told them. They would figure it out. “Here is a plate, imagine your plate as a dot, use any medium available, go.” Some students picked up a tool and began. Some got up and wondered about the room on a search for a novel medium. Their teacher, Andrew, and I noticed the anxiety and frustration among others in the room immediately and it was thick. They sighed and halted, complained and called us over, “Can I draw a lot of dots on my plate?” “Can I draw it here?” “Is it ok if I use these colours?” “What are we supposed to do?” Andrew settled the class because we wanted to notice ourselves entering flow. We did. They did. They stayed there for a solid 20 minutes and in the end, they did not want it to end.
I had been documenting like mad, zooming in on the unexpected, and as I toured the room with my iPad I was stopped by Richard (not his real name) who pointed to a single black sharpie dot in the middle of his plate. Richard is the student who hates art. “There. That is me. Boring.” And that wasn’t even the best part! When he returned to his desk he labelled the dot with the number 2005. That is all.
We talked about how students moved from a state of frustration to “the zone” as one student called it. They had to just start, they had to be playful, they had to go for it and try something new, they had to let things happen as they began to create. Richard told us that his strategy was to just think of something about himself. I showed the class a photo from my iPad of his art, but they did not react. I wish I had noticed this because I chose for us to move on – toward the tension. It was definitely not my only mistake but something did come of it. We looked at the diversity of plates around the room. I asked them what would have happened if I had given more instructions – instructions about the size, colour and medium of their dots. Would that be frustrating also? Andrew reflected, out loud in that moment, that they were accustomed to more structured tasks. What we did with the plates was not their status quo. Alas, I was visited by Richard once more. “You know how you said it would feel frustrating to get all of those instructions? I wasn’t frustrated,’ he said “I was really angry!”
I was up at 5 am the next day thinking about him because I would return and gave it all back to them – every single instance of creativity that I witnessed: idea stealing, playfulness, resourcefulness, novel uses of tools and materials, do-overs, questioning and curiosity. Then I gave them Richard. Why did he represent himself as a singular and tiny dot? Why did he label it with 2005? Insight and purpose came to light. That is, creativity as a means to envision opportunities, express a big idea or fulfill a need. Students build on each other’s thinking – maybe Richard sees his life, his birth, and entrance into the world as tiny in comparison to the 4 billion other dots in the world. Whoa. The depth of Richard’s thinking extended everyone else’s for the rest of that block. What might your dot represent? Their circles became democracy, loneliness, a network of connections, hydration, openness, science fiction, outer space, and mathematics. I know. I’m not making this up! All of these works of art were created and recreated and recombined in a generative process they were in, to which they were all witness.
I don’t want to define creativity. I want to live it and I want others to also. As our friend Theresa told me “not everyone is willing to lean into the discomfort of a new way of looking at something”. It’s true. Not everyone in that class believed a plate could be art – they told me so. Richard made his plate into art – in less than 3 minutes. I had no doubt.
5 am, the heat has come on and change is in the air – both in the season and in our thinking…
K: I woke up early to read it again. I thought so hard about art yesterday. I thought about teaching art as learning how to do art and the instructions and the example we often show. I never once envisioned art like you described in this class. Giving back their thinking and their creativity to them… I have a million questions. I want to know right off, to ask if the students thought what they were doing with you, with each other was art itself? Had they wanted to see an example?
A: The students that were stressed at the start did not say so, but I’m sure they would have loved to see an example. I told them I could have done this and had them make all of their plates the same. This was when Richard told me how mad he was. When I cut them off from production – I did not say they were finished – they each held their plates. I asked them to raise their hand if they thought their plate-dot was art, if they weren’t sure, if it was definitely NOT art. It was an even split.
K: I have walked past many bulletin boards with art displayed on them. I remember corrugated paper 🙂 The medium, the pastels, the charcoal, the points… what I never ever heard was the very best part – the creativity. I taught art for a semester 15 years ago in a secondary school. Grade 9 AVI01. I want a do over. Tell me how it felt to zoom in with your iPad, what did you zoom to that was unexpected? I want to know how they felt about your listening? Did they want to give you something they thought you were listening for or did they just go to the place where I picture students running up and down the metal stairs in the shoes?
A: One student came to me to ask for another plate. Her fingers curled around the remains of her first attempt. I took a photograph of her hand with the crumpled plate in it. Another student rolled and aligned a set of gorgeous coloured markers on her desk and as I connected to her joy, I took a picture. Three students stared at each other in dismay and began to create identical pineapples and watermelon slices in a pattern all around each of their 3 plates. This was noted in the give-back – ideas are always stolen. There was more stealing in the use of materials. One student pulled out a pair of scissors- no one else thought of this. I captured the way she let things happen. I think they were surprised at what I was listening for. During the last part of the first day, I attempted to give a couple of things back. They were weirded out about seeing themselves on the Smartboard. The second day was better – I put their words right next to their photos using Notability.
K: You are typing and I am thinking in 12 directions. I am wondering if they expected something else from you…during the plates… did you sense they were waiting for feedback, a check in, comments on progress… and then I want to know if they noticed what happened when you gave them back their process, their art and their words, not yours… and how they felt about their words in the world with their during, not their product?
A: I was channeling you and making that loopy motion with my finger! lol The taking of the photograph was feedback. Each of them looked at me but I didn’t say much. I told the student with scissors that I was dying to know what she was thinking. Another student’s body language was captured in a video. He was leaning into his paint strokes – almost exaggerating. It was like I was witness to the joy he was feeling in flow. He leaned back in his chair to glance at the whole before making his next move. I asked them how we might use what we witnessed to enter flow more often, with more intention?
K: I am not going to be ironic, nor obnoxious and ask what these observations had to do with their finished plate? LOL I am beside myself. These students expected and you arrested those expectations with such few words – I know you. You leaned so far in and listened so deeply, they knew you were actually listening. I am thinking about your spiral. Your sloooooooow down but more about your return, your pulling them back to during learning. The plates were over. You returned on a different day, different block. It was so last art block. But, they re-entered the during learning. I believe their own words are like a magic key. You have taught me that… I have to understand, to see it in my mind’s eye, when you load the Smartboard and stand there… what did they do, what did they say… the moment you clicked the slides?
A: I named their creativity over and over with different examples of process. You are right it was process only. The only finished plate that I gave back was Richard’s. Then we looked at a couple of famous artist’s dots: Kandinsky, Coupland, etc. I flipped back to Richard. He happened to be out of the room, so we inferred. That’s when the student with the scissors told us that she thought maybe he was comparing himself to a world of 4 billion people. It was time to figure out Richard’s process. How did he make a dot that had purpose?
K: I am thinking about the importance of Richard and his plate … what is assigned value and what is passed by as opposition. I am thinking about your why… and in all of that haze I am stuck on the next day’s review of what we learned yesterday and how we review it. How we set up our lesson to go back to where we left off and what I do with my class to remind them of what we learned and what we are doing today. I close my eyes and watch the students in the room, right in front of you. They are waiting for something… I am not sure they knew they were waiting on themselves. They did not know the depth and importance about their own purpose, let alone Richard’s. I didn’t. But somehow I really wanted to and how that had become the why and not the plate itself…
A: Two things: first I did my homework and second I made a big fat mistake and reflected on it. I already had success criteria for creativity in my hands. My homework was to uncover what they had demonstrated on the first day and what they had not. They had not, with the exception of Richard, given purpose to their dots – no expression or representation – just an exploration of materials -which is absolutely cool by the way. My big fat mistake (now I’m thinking it’s kinda funny that I left it out of my story!) was to ask them to make inferences, using the ladder, about those famous paintings. No good. Thin, thin, thin. We packed those chart papers away in the recycle bin! When I reflected on it I realized it was for the same reason as above. No recognition of art as an expression or representation. It got me thinking about the third of students that said – no way! my plate is not art!
K: I already had success criteria for creativity in my hands. My homework was to uncover what they had demonstrated on the first day and what they had not.
You did not give them feedback on the bullets/details, nor did you nudge them about their art during the art. You listened. You then took your documentation home, placed it beside the success criteria and returned to revisit the learning with them AND you went back to UNCOVER their learning with them. I know these students are in grade 7 and in grade 8… it feels like they met you in the uncover. When you named it together – were they struck or were they left unconvinced it was not creativity nor art? Did they need convincing or did they finally feel it? Did their notion of what art/creativity change? Did they believe themselves?
A: I think they felt it and yes they met me there. Day one consolidation was a list of ways to enter flow. I showed them their words. I repeated: these are YOUR words. We added more words next to THEIR photographs. These words were essentially the success criteria. They were in. What they created on the second day blew my mind. We used the ideation method from design thinking. Draw a reason for your dot art. Huh? I gave 4 examples this time. It’s ok, you can copy mine or you can copy Richard’s, but the next 4 are yours. They chose one of their ideas and started a work of art for that reason. This is how I know they were convinced. They grew. The hydration one was a hybrid of an H2O molecule and the circle-logo-graffiti art from one of my slides. So cool. I will email day 2’s give back to Andrew along with their words…their success criteria.
K: Don’t come through the computer and smack me… you know my mind drifted to the reasons we “co-construct” success criteria… engagement, empowerment, ownership in the learning… sorry – I am unsure, if until now, I understood the purpose of success criteria in my own doing as the educator. I cannot wait to think about, figure and return to my purpose in assessment for learning cycle with criteria – THEIR WORDS, THEIR CRITERIA – my homework… whose learning is it? I am thinking about Richard. Richard’s purpose and his learning. Richard’s road is not a straight one. I feel like I know his dot. Empathy, relationships, knowledge building, critical thinking and creativity and paper plates.
A: If I co-construct success criteria for the purpose of engagement or empowerment – it’s still about me. I didn’t teach a lesson. I didn’t check any boxes.