Fostering Student Learning through Creativity

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 Mary Encabo

 

This essay looks at the importance of creativity in the process of learning.

 

Fostering Student Learning through Creativity

 

            As a first year college student who is encountering many thought-provoking and influential texts and experiencing a field placement for the first time, my perceptions of the simplest and seemingly normal words and school moments are put into question. The ideas circulated among class discussions and those that are privately unearthed during my reading time become my luggage, figuratively speaking, that I carry with me as I travel to my placement every Friday. Recently I have discovered that this luggage has gotten a lot heavier and unorganized. After three visits to my placement, certain incidents, not necessarily negative or major ones, coincidentally mirrored the topics we have been discussing in class. In particular, I would like to explore more of the importance of creativity in the classroom and how it applies to our real/lifeworlds.

What is creativity? Drawing, coloring and playing games are some of the actions that we associate with the word and while these are important parts of the definition, they are not all that creativity encompasses. In a classroom setting, creativity gives this sense of the student “doing” and the teacher “assigning” the work to do. It does not seem to be bidirectional or a mutual exchange. For creative energy to flow, dialogue must occur – dialogue between a teacher and student, teacher and material, and student and material.

One instance of this lack of exchange is when the teacher, Ms. D, told a student, Jayme, to finish coloring her picture. Jayme followed the directions, otherwise she would have been scolded and she would not have had something to show to her peers, parents and Ms. D, the one giving the evaluation. Neither of those actions tapped into the creative faculties of the teacher and the student. Jayme colored the picture because she felt compelled to do so, not because she wanted to do something creative. Ms. D’s attempt to engage a student’s creative senses by giving a picture to color is in itself unoriginal. It seems that almost every elementary school teacher has tried that approach. This leads to the idea that the (re)awakening of one’s creativity comes with the change in attitude and mindset of what is considered “work” and “play.”Contrary to popular belief, play is a type of work for kids and a healthy outlet for their excited energy.

           

Arts as Academic

             During my field placement, I have the opportunity to join Ms. D’s first-grade class when they go to Ms. M’s music class. Ms. D and Ms. E are the main teachers. They teach the “academic” classes. In fact, I think this is part of the issue why some students seem to lose their creativity when learning other subjects: this separation of what is academic and arts unconsciously creates a distinction between serious and play and colorless and creative, thus affecting their attitudes toward their overall schooling experience. They come to label each subject with a certain feeling. For example, math is boring and hard but music is fun and exciting. The energy of the class when they are with Ms. M is much more energetic yet relaxed, whereas when they are back in the main classroom, they are more unwilling to cooperate. It is as though when they are in music class, the students are able to better focus and channel their energy into their singing or playing the recorder compared to sitting in their desk and holding a pencil to finish their assignment.

            Going back to Jayme, when I see her in music class, she is more focused and attentive than when I am working with her on her math, reading and writing skills. She puts more effort in learning how to sing a song than learning how to count up to ten. However, music involves math. The students may not realize it but music involves beats and rhythms that they count out. This means that it is not really the subject matter than is making them lose interest and feel less creative; it is their attitude towards a class that is preventing them from tapping into their capabilities. Though on the surface the materials are presented differently, arts and academics should not be seen as separate types of classes as they both essentially require and expect the same from their students: focus, diligence and participation. In a broader sense, work is play and play is work.

            When Ms. D scolded the class because some of the students were not focused on their work, she said, “You’re not here to play; you’re here to learn.” In my mind I wondered, “Aren’t they the same thing?” By putting it that way, music class, even though they have work to do for the class too, is treated as play and when it is reading, spelling and math, it is time to “get focused” and “learn.” The arts are treated as a separate curriculum instead of incorporated within the academic sphere. If the arts and academics could blend more harmoniously, if play and work are not so distinguished, then it might help students like Jayme to get the most out of both subjects.

             One might ask, “But isn’t giving them materials and activities such as coloring this many number of blocks to teach the concept of addition a blend of arts and academics?” True. To some degree, yes it does involve both; however, materials do not speak for themselves. Leaving students to deal with the materials themselves is not productive but neither is spoon feeding them.  In one writing activity, I had to spell almost every word out for the student because he did not know how to spell what he wanted to say, despite the fact that they covered the material in an earlier class. I wondered if he really learned anything from my “assistance.”

 

Becoming a Mentor

One of the main purposes of our Empowering Learners class is to grapple with the idea of what makes one a “good” mentor or tutor. Being in a field placement really enables me to start to connect the theories and enact them. According to Tutoring Matters, “the best tutor will find ways to use children’s natural curiosity and interest to motivate them to want to master challenges and learn” (Rabow 30). I must confess that reading the book made everything sound easy and obvious until one is actually met with the actual situation.

One of my earlier experiences demonstrates the difficulty of this advice: Ms. D assigned five students to me so that we could work on basic math skills, addition and subtraction. I distributed ten tiny teddy bear blocks to each student. Each also had a certain color so that he or she would know which bear was his or hers. As a warm-up exercise, I asked each student to take away a certain number from his/her teddy bear pile and count how many were left. To practice addition, I asked them to take some of their bears back. The task was simple enough and they showed that they were capable of following my instructions. I thought to myself, “This might be too simple and boring for them so I should do something different.” The students did not seem to dislike nor completely love to learn math, so I thought I would just alter the directions a bit but keep the concepts the same.

Instead of just taking away and retrieving their bears, I asked them to give a certain amount to the person to their right. I thought, “Ah, this might be more interesting to them instead of repeating the procedure over and over.” Needless to say, I did not get the reaction I expected. It was chaos – no one knew where his/her right was even though I told them before I changed the instructions, “Point to the person to your right. That’s who you’ll give your bears to.” They knew where their right was at that time. The students ended up arguing over things such as, “No, you’re supposed to give me the bears,” “No, that’s mine,” and “She (referring to me) just said to give it to your right.” I ended up reverting back to the routine practice.

What I got out of that short but meaningful moment was the reality check that mentoring is not something a theory can dictate; mentoring should be flexible. This is another key aspect of creativity: flexibility. Without the guidance of someone putting the bears within a mathematical framework, the bears, the creative materials, would not have taught much math. The reason I tried to change the instructions was because I wanted them to realize that there is another dimension to math; it is not rote. To a certain extent, I tried to be creative and promote more focused interaction with the other students around the table; I wanted to show that addition and subtraction involved other people too, not just oneself and the numbers he was manipulating. More broadly, I tried to connect a form of arts into the academic sphere. However these ambitious goals could have been too much for a learner/young mentor such as myself.

I remembered these quotes while thinking through my experience: “Teachers who assign exciting homework and provide a dynamic curriculum produce kids willing to sit down with their tutor and do their work” (Rabow 133). “When teachers assign work that does nothing to inspire your students, it is up to you, as a tutor, to inject some creativity and make their homework fun” (134). Was there another way that I could have presented the activity that would have been more interesting to them? What methods have Ms. D and Ms. E been using to teach them? Did those methods stimulate the students’ interests? These questions I am still in the process of answering. 

This leads into another concept that should be taken into consideration more in classroom settings: waiting. In Herman and Mandell’s From Teaching to Mentoring, they write, “If good learning is not necessarily speedy, if in fact it requires the slow time of leisure, then waiting is a crucial educational practice” (72). I have noticed that within the two and a half hours that I am in class with them, the number of times I heard “hurry up” being said is plenty. If at such an early age students are being rushed to finish their work, then it makes sense that they are losing the meaning of what they are learning. They are not able to translate its importance into their “lifeworlds,” a term in the book that refers to our personal lives.

A boy named Kyle was proudly showing me his drawing of Tom and Jerry in a house. He still hadn’t finished coloring it but his artwork was taking shape. I praised his work and he seemed really excited about it. However, his interaction with me was cut short by Ms. D’s comment, “Kyle sit down and finish coloring. You’re gonna run out of time.” I understand that teachers are concerned that each student may fall behind if he does not finish within the time limit (the end of the school day), but each student works at his own pace. Slow should not always be equated with falling behind or being lazy. Creativity needs time to fully express itself, especially in activities where students draw and color. In fact, their artwork is another medium for communication – a self-expression that teachers tend to overlook sometimes.   

                                           

                                                               Group Project

            Just as how the students in my field placement are beginning to tap into their creative spirit, so are we in Empowering Learners with our Field Group projects. In a word, this project is a challenge. Collaboration has brought out rich ideas, but they are so rich that we are still trying to have our project take shape. Never did I think that being creative would bring about this kind of problem. It just shows how creative ideas can be divided into the practical and tangible, and fantastical ideals. Yet the Titagya school is a concrete proof that even fantastical ideas can be turned into reality. After all, we are in a “continual process of reinventing, rewriting, [our] world” (Dyson 185). Creativity can bring about unexpected changes in our lives in the most subtle ways.  

            Dyson’s book Writing Superheroes, is a good example of how students use creative writing to understand and recreate their surroundings. Similarly, our group project uses the power of writing to express issues that arise from our placement experiences with the hope of positively contributing to Titagya’s growing learning community.  

 

                                                                 Self-reflection

            This paper/article and writing process has really been about a self-reflection of where I stand in the Education world. My views are still not as sharp and my ideas too naïve. There is no conclusion but there are numerous beginnings. That in fact reminds me of Freire’s idea of “unfinishedness” as well as John Dewey’s claim that “preparation is a treacherous idea” (47). In addition to the weekly agency journals, five sources that I would identify as furthering my struggle and my fellow learners’ in exploring the significance and applicability of empowerment and agency would be:

            those two concepts,

the process of self-reflection,

being patient with oneself and the students,

and becoming a part of a learning community, which begins the moment we interact with the rest of the world.

But I would say that in the end, for me, creativity and imagination are the best sources of empowerment and those are the resources that I would like to bring with me wherever I go, but most importantly, when I step into a classroom filled with fellow mentors and learners.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Dewey, John. Experience & Education. New York: Touchstone, 1997. Print.

Dyson, Anne Haas. Writing Superheroes. New York: Teachers College Press, 1997. Print.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of Freedom. Lanham: Rowman, 2001. Print.

Herman, Lee, and Alan Mandell. From Teaching to Mentoring. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Rabow, Jerome, Tiffani Chin, and Nima Fahimian. Tutoring Matters. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1999. Print.

 

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