As a child, being creative is an organic part of everyday existence. Clouds become magical two-headed creatures who slowly parade in a sea of blue. Our elderly neighbor becomes a charming wizard, who, rather than grilling steaks on his patio, is mixing a mystical potion that smokes and sputters. Our Beanie Babies build disparate and relationship-driven communities ruled by the Princess Diana bear (who no matter what your mother tells you in your adulthood is NOT worth thousands of dollars on eBay). As we age and our creativity matures, society either becomes threatened by or celebrant of our magic. Maybe our raw aptitude is glorified, but our silliness is considered a distraction. Our athleticism is encouraged, but our playfulness is wasted energy. Our imagination is whimsical, but, when not used for academic progression, is irrelevant. Though creativity is a biological necessity, it is constantly challenged. The authentic creativity we’ve managed to protect as adults is the most prodigious gift we could give our children (but like, keep feeding and clothing them as well). How do we, in a society polluted with opinions, protect our creative birthright, and inspire young people to do the same?
Breaking the Cycle
One theme has consistently been a launching point for every relationship I have built with my students: We all start to heal the moment we feel heard. The moment we are told who we are and how we think is absolutely correct, creativity starts to poke its sweet little head out of the tie-dye bedazzled shell it’s been hiding under. Creativity can be fragile, especially if it feels threatened or lesser than. The first step in recovering creativity in your students is making sure they feel safe to create. If there is one icky antagonist in your creativity superhero story, it is the big fuzzy troll who sneaks up behind you to whisper, “you can’t” in your ear. At some point in our lives, we have questioned, or perhaps even loved ones have questioned, how and why we think about things in the way we do. Nine times out of ten when trying to recover some of that enchanting kindergarten Beanie Baby creativity, it’s not who you are that holds you back - it’s who you’ve tricked yourself into believing you are not. The most stunning way to build safety with students, be it as a Math teacher or a Physical Education teacher, is to challenge the “I’m not _____” with “In what ways am I _____?” The fastest way for me to recover a sense of personal creative safety and do so with my student is to obliterate negative imperatives. “I’m not artistic” turns into “How am I artistic?” and “I’m not good at science” turns into “In what ways am I good at science?”. The second you say “I cannot” or “I am not,” you are doing psychological damage to your ability to create. We break the cycle of can’ts but creating safe spaces for cans and wills and might fails and let’s trys. Creating safe space sometimes comes in the simplest agreement that curiosity is a class requirement and that risk-taking will be celebrated and validated. Suddenly we have welcomed students into an environment where they want to learn more about not only the subject matter, but how and where it already lives within them.
One of my most original and courageous students is a nineteen-year-old Latina firecracker named Ana Carmen. Ana has taught me hundreds of life lessons; but, one of the most impactful has been the call to creative confidence. Creativity takes herculean confidence, and Ana has just that. Ana has a sense of self that inspires and captivates and often fills Fusion hallways with laughter and drama. I have taught Ana for several years, and this year was gifted two semesters of Theatre Arts with the queen herself. When asked how Ana thought she was creative, her response was, “I’m creative because nobody tells me what or how I can and cannot sing or dance or model or perform. I’m me, and I like who I am.” To learn this lesson in high school would have saved me a lot of years of questioning my own intuition. I would have binged eaten far fewer boxes of Raisin Bran Crunch while singing karaoke in my bedroom and made eye contact with dozens of risks I was too fearful of encountering. Ana performs at most (perhaps all) open mic nights on campus, draws and sketches her friends in the Homework Cafe. (The ones of me are often unflattering and portrayed with several more wrinkles than I think live on my face, but it is what it is, and her creative interpretations are hers alone.) She dances for anyone who will watch, and, most importantly, always finds time to play.
The Importance of Play
The secret to building creative confidence? Play. Play hard. What is creativity if not deeply personal playtime in a space where you feel safe? Sir Ken Robinson states, “We are all born with extraordinary powers of imagination, intelligence, feeling, intuition, spirituality, and of physical and sensory awareness…Human communities depend upon a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability.” How often do you build play into your daily routine? How often are you courageously honoring your individual eye for photography or knitting or spreadsheet building or country music playlist developing? Recently I asked Ana how she could help others feel safe to sing or dance so freely. “Uh, tell them to not care if they mess up. Duh.” The nerve of me. In 2019, we as a society stigmatize mistakes. Ana’s response, though spicy, shook me. We are living in a time where educational systems, government, religions, and media constantly reinforce that mistakes are the worst possible thing we can make. As a result, we are promoting that people should surrender their creative capacity. As Ana would say, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” Ana, should I have forgotten to mention, has Down Syndrome. Artistically bold and socially fearless, Ana is proof that our community depends upon a diversity of talent and ways of thinking and not a singular conception of ability. In every session together, every encounter in the cafe, every attempt at math and science homework, Ana has proven time and time again that you can be creative in any area of your life if you surrender the fear of being wrong or misunderstood.
Creativity in education is like ordering guacamole on your burrito or buying a popcorn the size of your head at the movie theater: not optional. In every class, in every subject, in every student - we promote play, let go of outcomes, fight creative monsters, maybe eat a couple of handfuls of chocolate when the student is on a bathroom break, create, succeed, fail, and try again. Teacher/mentor/student life at Fusion means always seeking out that creative inner child and surrendering to the fact that you don’t have to go from zero to 100. Start where you are. All too often as an educator, I want to sit with my creative monsters and slay them all in one sitting. Bam. Got ya. Justin, insecurity monster slayer. The truth is, the recovery of creative confidence starts in simplicity, patience, and listening.
Earlier this year, my parents sold my childhood home, and my brothers and I returned to “the house on the hill” for one final hurrah. When I was cleaning out my bedroom, I found my legion of Beanie Babies sitting in a giant plastic bin. My family, my friends. Memories and nostalgia didn’t trickle through me like a gentle snowfall, they filled every nook and creative cranny like an avalanche cascading down a tree-filled mountain. The names of certain shopkeeping bulldogs and kiwi bird school teachers returned to me as if I’d only appointed them to their positions hours ago. Tears formed in my eyes as though eight-year-old Justin was once again standing in oversized boots searching the closet for sharpies to label the cardboard kingdom in which my Beanie Babies worked, played, fought, and fell in love. As I picked up the tag-protected majesty herself, the Princess Diana bear reminded me that creativity is non-depleting. It is the most precious and renewable resource in the world. If we as educators can approach every class with every student through the eyes of our eight-year-old selves with beanie baby in hand, perhaps our students will never have to feel nostalgia for their inner creative child but carry it with them as they grow and change and try and fail and wrinkle. I have yet to wrinkle or gray, but perhaps some of you reading this have. Anyways, may we all have the creative confidence of Ana singing Hannah Montana in the Homework Cafe or creative safety of fourth grade Justin putting all winged Beanie Babies on his ceiling fan and turning it on to watch them soar in all directions (sorry mom). May our desire and freedom to create become contagious within the walls of our classrooms; and, may Beanie Babies have a long life expectancy so that my children and I can one day return the Princess Diana bear to her Styrofoam throne.