Thursday, September 10, 2009

Flowers Shouldn't Always Be Red

I've been teaching writing workshops for fifth through eighth graders at different schools the last few years. One of my lesson plans for 6th grade is this: using the who-what-when-where-why-how approach, each class comes up with the seeds for a short mystery story about a missing object in the school. We write the beginning and end while I'm there, then their teachers can help them flesh it out and polish it later on.

The experiences have taught me scads about creativity and the writing process. Each class has a completely unique personality. Some let their imaginations soar--we've encountered closet monsters and secret passages behind lockers. Some get totally into the "how" details (hiding things in suspended ceilings is a biggie). Some love planting clues--one class used fingerprints, footprints, and a tool box with the initials "MM" (because they could also be "WW" upside-down, though they decided the tool box was bought on E-bay, so the new owner didn't have those initials after all).

Another part of personality, of course, is extrovert-introvert. At one middle school, I had a sixth grade class full of extremely creative extroverts. They wanted to talk out all their ideas, but had no patience with writing them down. Another class, though not as creative, were whizzes at focusing their ideas and putting them into words.

Most of the time, I come home from these adventures feeling extra-creative myself, re-energized for having been exposed to the playful innovation of youth--a reminder that the writer in me never grew up, and never should.

However, once I had a different experience. The class I was teaching was predominantly extroverts, so they talked a lot. Not a big problem, and at least they were talking about the story, but their ideas were scarce, random and mundane. Nothing held together--no idea built on the one before. Then one student suggested that we make one of the suspects a substitute teacher. All of a sudden, all hands shot up--everyone wanted to participate. Their ideas were still mundane, and a tad malicious, but they were creating, and finally making some sense. A story was taking shape.

As they were jabbering, and I was shushing them, their teacher said, "That's enough. Stop the silliness."

I'd never had a teacher interrupt a workshop before. Without thinking, I said, "No. We need the silliness. That's what writing is." Then, realizing I'd just stepped on his authority in front of his class, I added, "What we can stop is the discussion. I need you to think." The kids did stop talking, but except for a few, they also stopped volunteering. Their attention wandered--one kid played with his shoelace. Finishing that story was hard work. The only bright spot was at the end when they decided that ALL their suspects were in it together and they got to send them off to jail for ten years.

At lunch the teacher told me that there had been a "situation" with a substitute teacher and he didn't want them using that idea. He told me, "There are things you don't understand." I was tempted to inform him that I'd been teaching while he was still a grade school student and that what I did understand was that his class hadn't learned a thing that day. But I also want to be invited back to that school, so I kept my trap shut.

Harry Chapin wrote a song called "Flowers Are Red" about a child who wants to use every color while he paints. His teacher tells him to make his flowers red and his leaves green, until the boy is afraid to be imaginative. By the time I got home, I realized I'd had an encounter with a "Flowers Are Red" teacher. This was why his class had been afraid to use their imaginations in the first place, and why, after he spoke, they all crawled back into their shells.

Did the "situation" with that substitute teacher give him the right? How many characters have I created from a real person I didn't like? How many stories have I written to sound off my feelings about the injustices and ugliness I've experienced? Those kids were doing exactly what I do, expressing themselves about their frustrations. Exactly what I'm doing right now by writing this article.

On occasion, when I've tried to encourage wannabe writers to pen stories based on personal experiences, I've had writers say something like, "I can't write about that! I'd get into trouble!" They seem to think that they'd write too close to the truth, that others involved in the situations would sue them. They don't trust their imaginations enough to take them beyond reality. Just like that teacher didn't trust his students' imaginations.

As a society, we seem to be rejecting creativity altogether. Look at the "reality" TV show craze. And consider the glut of current crime novels that have little original prose or plotting between their covers (I don't call them "mysteries" because there's nothing mysterious about them.) I wonder how many editors, or at least marketing people, had "Flowers Are Red" teachers in school?

A decade from now, the kids I encountered this month may enter adult life with no clue how to imagine. No creative problem-solving. No healthy, therapeutic fantasies. No play and no silliness. Not one novelist in that bunch, and probably no fiction readers either. Then they'll raise kids of their own.

Me? I intend to practice wanton creativity. And pass it on every chance I get.


1 comment:

Nick Rossiter married to Helen said...

Elena,as a science teacher trying to express difficult ideas to high school students who are not interested, I find myself in your camp. My room is loud and raucous.
In a world when the young are thought to have poor memories, my former students return and tell me stories about our former class time. They remember who was there, what was said, details normally lost in the adolescent mind. I know that I make a difference to my students.
For those classrooms, silent except for the voice of the teacher, I know I hold an advantage. Most of my students introduce themselves to each other in my classroom, even though they have been in school together for years, because of the freedom that I allow them to have. We all grow togeather.
You called it creativity, I call it thinking.
Many thanks for your story.


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