Fear & Creativity

Today I want to talk about creativity. And fear.

Some of us shy away from free-form activities that require improvisation in class, while others thrive in an ‘anything goes’ environment. Fear of losing control (or simply having nothing to say in front of a snarky group of students) holds teachers back.

Others worry that the time sunk into nurturing students’ creativity is simply not an efficient or effective use of our limited class time. Our own CI rallying cry undermines the case for significant student creative writing: “Input input & more input is the path to language acquisition”.

If you agree with the basic tenets of CI instruction, you understand that writing and speaking abilities do not emerge from practicing writing and speaking, but rather from listening and reading. Want to speak a second language? Listen and read more.

It would seem logical that what language teachers really need are abundant sources of comprehensible texts with which to smother our darlings. And so enterprising educators have set up shop on Teachers Pay Teachers and churn out unit after unit of interesting lessons, chock full of readings and guided talks that a CI teacher can use to smother their students with the target language. And this works. Students acquire language, teachers have recognizable units that ‘look’ like school while accomplishing what the old textbook units never accomplished. We can even give the same kinds of assessments that kids see in their other classes. No parents object when there is an exam that students can study for, covering discrete facts, all in the target language.

It’s a win for snugly fitting CI into an antiquated educational system that teachers in other departments are struggling to break out of.

We can approach our classes as conversations or performances, and in my mind there is a world of difference between the two. A great performer may respond to his audience, but the play always evolves and turns out exactly as the playwright intended. Sometimes these performances are exhilarating, sometimes they are simply the meat and potatoes of language acquisition. However the notion of ‘story-asking’, the sometimes difficult art of nurturing a true conversation with students whose outcome is unknown, that is gradually being supplanted by something more mechanical. We are losing the organic communicative classroom in favor of a factory model that fails to personalize the experience to the people who are actually in the room.

I am reminded of a 2006 TedTalk by Sir Ken Robinson. Surely you have seen it; one of his key points is that schools “ruthlessly squander” the innate creativity of children. I re-watched that video recently and was struck by a vision of how that looks in our world of CI instruction. It is the tightly-scripted curriculum, even a perfectly comprehensible one, that eliminates the chaos of the student voice. Batches of students move along a conveyor belt curriculum, being filled with just the right information at the right time, step by step along a linear sequence. That is an an approach designed for an emerging industrial economy of the 18th century, not the creative economy of the 21st century.

“Creativity now is as important in education as literacy… (but) we are educating people out of their creative capacities” – Sir Ken Robinson

This essay truly is not a critique of the content lessons available on Teachers Pay Teachers. I have content lesson plans within my Master Class such as the maravillas, and I am certain that there is a strong place for story-telling within any language class. I even recommend that new teachers who are learning to manage their CI classes (or experienced teachers who are confronted with a particularly hard class to manage) lean heavily on these kinds of activities that simply supply a lot of good, comprehensible input: movie talksmaravillastelling talesand using my advice to adapt target language TV and movies to the classroom.

However, the activities modules in the CI Master Class are split between “the voices of others” and “student voices” to encourage the teacher to approach these activities differently. While the voices of others may be largely presentational (while using all of the basic skills to make us comprehensible, which includes artful questioning), student voice activities are essentially interpersonal communication. Like any real conversation, these activities must contain an element of unknown chaos or it is not true interpersonal communication. This is where raw creativity enters our classroom.

When I speak of creativity, let’s not imagine the beauty of a finished product.

Creativity plays a part much earlier in the process, before the arduous refining and polishing that makes a finished product shine. Creativity can be ugly; it may evoke dark emotions of revulsion and rejection. In my writing group one teacher lamented privately to us that her students propose nothing but dumb ideas. Violence and stereotypes. We are writing class novels with our level one students; this is a group of teachers dedicated to honor student creativity and make it the centerpiece of their language classes. How do we nurture creativity?

Steps towards nurturing creativity

Creativity is a thinking tool used by all of humanity, not just artists but scientists, coffee baristas, landscapers… everyone. Fear chokes creativity, and that too can be useful. The logical part of our brain monitors our behavior and prevents us from blurting nonsense in front of colleagues. Thank you logical brain! It also criticizes our creative impulses, rejecting new ideas and preventing us from thinking deeply about a problem.

Experts who study creativity say that the creative process is often dogged by fear, and they are referring to the internal thought process of an artist. Our teaching reality is that the creative process takes place aloud, not hidden in the depths of our mind, and among dozens of other people, many judging us just as we judge ourselves. No wonder teachers want to stick to the script!

First, re-imagine what creative expression looks like. It does not look like sparkly unicorn dust. It is rarely a burst of inspiration, a thrill of laughter or excitement.

For example, in a student interview, don’t prioritize coming up with ‘interesting’ or funny questions. Instead, learn how to dig deep beyond the initial question to find something true about the student’s life. Composing a Write & Discuss text that quietly reveals a hidden truth about a student’s life, making that student more human to her classmates, is a creative activity. It is also more meaningful than responding to silly questions designed to gain a laugh. This is a deeply creative activity that allows students to re-interpret their world by delving into what they discover about the life of one of their peers. 

Work at it everyday. There have been studies on the work habits of scientists who make deep, creative insights in their fields. Over the course of a career, these studies have found that the scientists who manage to set aside a little time every day to focus on writing ultimately create much more than the scientists who mass their writing time into longer but less frequent sessions. In the same way, rather than doing a One Word Image once and spending the next month privately evaluating whether it was worth it, plan to do the two day image plus story creation cycle every week with all of your classes. Perhaps you might only allocate twenty minutes for each of the two days, but do it often to give students plenty of exposure to the creative activity. Focus on guiding them so that they become more comfortable, less inhibited, and less fearful of unexpected responses. A little bit frequently is better than a lot infrequently.

Don’t stigmatize mistakes. I am not simply speaking about grammar. The creative process requires revision. A predictable, lackluster plot in a class story can be revisited and reworked. This is part of the creative process that students unfortunately rarely participate in. Don’t throw away the first draft; return the next day and point out elements that you would like to rethink. In my own writing the creative twists emerge in rewrites; rarely are they present in the first draft.

Trust the process. You may feel more comfortable delivering a lesson whose beginning, middle and end are already well-known to you the teacher. Accept that there are also great rewards following the uneasy path of interpersonal communication. Minimize the fear of losing control of your class by planning to spend only twenty minutes on the “student interview that may flop”, followed by a movie talk. Better yet, be sure to have a bailout move ready in case your planned student voice activity really bombs. But do it again next class. Continue to plan a different student voice activity every day. With time you will get better at guiding the process, and your students will get better too.

If you attend any of my workshops in 2020 I have added a new section of the workshop dedicated to whole class creative writing, which will soon be added to the Master Class Online as well. I also periodically lead writing groups for teachers who want to author a CI novel– watch your email if you receive my updates or subscribe to the newsletters on my website.

“If you are not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with something original.” – Sir Ken Robinson