Everyone is creative. Every day, whether we are aware of it or not, we create new things: new experiences (even in familiar places), new thoughts, new combinations of words and sentences to express those thoughts, new interactions with other people (even people we know)…Everyone is capable of producing creative work that is worthy of display – a poem, a sculpture, a painting, an iPhone video reinterpretation of a Shakespearian (Salinger-ian?) passage. Our schools are full of young people bursting with ideas; our schools are full of experienced professionals who are equal part content-experts, equal part thespians. We need our schools to reflect this vibrancy visually as well as culturally; we need every school to be an art gallery.
But there is a major impediment to this becoming a reality – our propensity to pigeonhole ourselves, and our children, with labels. This is a part of the mythology of School – there are “jocks”, “drama geeks”, “nerds”, etc. (I would be remiss in not mentioning all the labels we use in our adult roles: “admin”, “teachers”, “staff”, “district office”, etc.) We begin labeling children from a very young age, and unconsciously propagate the idea that a young person is “good” at one thing, and not so “good” at other things – oddly, by praising children for what seems to come naturally to them, we create psychological shackles that prevent them from exploring other areas, from embracing a beginner’s mindset towards new challenges. Sadly, those children we label as “gifted” at certain things become risk averse – why try something different when we’re already so “good” at something else? Po Bronson’s New York Magazine piece from 2007 raises many startling points about how we dis-enable the spirit of creative risk-taking that I believe is embedded in our DNA as human beings. Carol Dweck’s Mindset is essential reading on this matter as well (many more references to her work in posts to come).
How do we go about countering this tendency? By making our working/learning spaces visual demonstrations of our innate creativity. I have started with my own office – what better way to create a comfortable environment than by displaying student artwork? And not a favorite piece that collects dust as a permanent fixture – I mean a rotating display of current student work that I replenish with frequent “raids” of our art studios. The biggest danger a work of art has faces is that of becoming as familiar – and unremarkable – as the furniture we utilize daily. Every day when I walk into my office, I want to be surprised a little – I want somoe element of that space to immediately jump to the front of the line and demand my attention. In that spirit, I put out the following call to arms to all staff: make your working/learning spaces (e.g., offices, classrooms, conference rooms, libraries…) living displays of student creativity. An added bonus: students see that they are an important part of the physical space of school. While our careers at a school might represent an “era” compared to the ephemera of a student’s four years, we are wise to turn our blank, lifeless walls into mirrors of their passion, ingenuity, and originality. Even if (especially if) they aren’t “artists.”
Our students, however, are not the only ones with the innate gift of creativity. Our schools and districts boast 100s (1000s?) of adults with a broad spectrum of interests, experiences, and insights into life. A colleague once visited a local tech firm and reported that they had on display an all-company art show. This inspired a few of us to organize an all-district staff art show we displayed our district offices. How did we curate? We put out an an-call email invitation and people started showing up with their pieces. It was incredible to see work from every segment of our district staff; Maintenance and Operations (custom-built paper towel spools), district office administration (mixed media on canvas), teachers (photographs, painting, hats, quilts, exquisite inlaid wood boxes), site administration (oil paintings). Rather than considering each other by our respective job descriptions, we were able to connect with each other via our innate human desire to create and share. It was marvelous.
Every day at a school – for students and staff – is a journey into something new. Even the 30-year language teacher guiding a group of students through the basics (e.g., verb conjugations – no real changes of note in the last 30 years!) senses the newness of the moment – for most or all of her students, this is unchartered territory. Despite the repetition of the school year, we must always remember that each day represents an opportunity to create an indelible memory for a student – for an adult! Let’s infuse our campuses and district offices with visual evidence of the limitless creativity of our staffs and student bodies. What better way to nourish a vibrant culture of creativity and risk-taking on behalf of the entire organization?
Best idea yet: display student and staff work side by side. This says: “We are colleagues in creating new things and ideas. We are more than just our labels.”