Friday, May 13, 2011

Teaching to the Test, or Creative Initiative?

Lisa Golda, COT Teaching Artist

I’ll never forget the unexpected response we received last year after inviting Opera for All students to participate in a creative project intended to enhance their understanding of an opera plot.

We instructed students to make a collage of a scene from the opera, and showed them an example. We presented them with the materials creative dreams are made of: colorful construction paper, glitter, sticky “jewels”, patterned backgrounds, 64 Crayolas, magazines to cut . . .items my inner child found tantalizing, but which these kids found perplexing. “What do we do?” they said, confusion and very real anxiety evident in their faces and voices. “Is this right?” they asked, holding up forlorn, virtually naked pieces of paper or results that were exact copies of the example we provided.

The kids didn’t know how, were afraid to, create.

As many of us know, “teaching to the test” is now the MO of our school system. It’s a well-intentioned mindset, unavoidable in schools that are designated as failing. Of course, some standards are necessary so that teachers and students can assess their progress towards basic learning benchmarks, and tests are a traditional way of measuring mastery.

At the same time, arts curriculums, the impact of which is less easily quantified, are increasingly cut, viewed as fluff compared to reading, writing, and arithmetic, especially since many students are reaching high school age without competencies in those vital skills.

Nonetheless, that anxious, tragic response, coming from 5th and 6th graders, their need to be told exactly what to do, and, especially, their initially negative emotional reaction to what should have been a joyous activity, all led me to question their ultimate ability, basic skills notwithstanding, to participate as adults in an economy that has moved away from manufacturing and towards innovation.

Now more than ever, our kids need experience in creative, imaginative brain-work. How many job ads read: Wanted: someone who thinks inside the box? Wanted: workers who require constant and comprehensive direction?

This year, we asked Opera for All students to increase their involvement in the creative process. In cooperation with CAPE guest artists Adam Busch, Sonja Henderson, and the late great Mary Scruggs of Second City , we guided them through lyric writing, composing, staging/choreography, and props construction. We learned to ask kids at every step of the way; What do you think?

And at first, they didn’t have answers. How do I play with words in a way that leads to rhymed couplets? Why should one pitch be preferable to any other pitch in this line of a song? What gesture represents excitement? What is brainstorming?

The students eventually realized that there were no right answers; only exciting possibilities. They learned how to ask, not: “Is this right?”, but rather: “What if. . .?”

And then we could hardly keep up with the flow of enthusiastic creation.

Although it would often have been easier, and faster, to just tell the kids exactly what to do, allowing them to create the opera themselves has resulted in enthusiastic participation, a faster learning curve, and artistic authenticity and integrity in the resulting opera, "School Rules".

If creative initiative, our essential intellectual vitality, is repeatedly stifled (as I fear it may be by elimination of arts curriculum and “teaching to the test”), learning can be reduced to rote memorization and mandated drudgery, rather than independent discovery. Children may not learn how to learn, given that so much of learning comes either from asking: How? Why? What if?, from experimenting, or from the desire to have the ability to find one’s own answers through reading, writing, and arithmetic. Or physics, or philosophy, or history. . .

At this point in the school year, we have in the past sometimes had issues with memorization, failure to commit to the process, and an overall lack of enthusiasm perhaps not unlike that which leads students to fail in their regular academic courses. This year, we are experiencing the opposite.

“What if I do a slide to center on this line of the song?” we are asked. “How about I dress in disco clothes for this song?” a child suggests. “Can we all fall down when we are talking about tripping on our baggy pants?” the boys demand. “Can I make a poster with my sketches for the opera?” “Why don’t we add some music here?” “Can I do a solo?”

Telling, in a different way: “When is the opera, I want my grandma/dad/mom/aunt to come?”

We’re done, we have to tell them. Our opera has a due date determined by the performance and there comes a time when we have to “finish” our work of art. But we don’t have to be done creating and learning. In fact, it seems to me that once people of any age experience the sense of limitless possibility that comes from creativity, they return to it again and again; both through artistic activity and through applying that open-ended, exploration-oriented mentality to new learning frontiers in every discipline.

School, when it fosters independent initiative, creative thinking, and a love of discovery, can indeed, as our opera title suggests, “Rule”.