Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How To Make Kids Hate Doing Everything Creative Ever: A Teacher's Guide

Look, teachers, I get it.  Your job is hard.  You've got a zillion screaming kids to look after.  You have to bust out the same well-rehearsed, patient explanation that yes, story problems really are necessary and are in no way some kind of pointless evil math-torture five to seven times a day, every day.  That must get old pretty quick.

I also get that you're probably working under certain guidelines and restrictions that aren't obvious to the kids you teach.  After all, their stories and artwork are destined to decorate the walls of the school or be submitted as entries in one of those district-wide writing contests that they sometimes hold, or will at least be sent home into the eager hands of parents who are eager to behold their junior Picasso's newest creation.  I imagine the school wouldn't be terribly comfortable hanging crayon drawings of bloody-machete-wielding horror movie villains or any picture titled "mommy and daddy doing their special naked dance" on your walls.  Nor do you want a horrified parent reading a short story about a cat that murders naughty children by pushing heavy flowerpots down on their unprotected skulls and never gets caught because nobody suspects the innocent little cat.*  There are certain subjects that simply have to remain off limits for children's schoolwork.

That said, it's probably a bad idea to do the following things in any class that requires creative thinking:

1.  Choose the bees over the birds.  When I was in second grade, the third graders made birds in art class by papier-macheing light bulbs and gluing feathers to them.  The art teacher hung them from the ceiling of her classroom.  They were glorious--as different from one another as snowflakes, floating above our heads in a technicolor firework-burst of glitter and neon feathers.  I was very much looking forward to making light bulb birds in third grade.  In my head I was already picking out the various paints and feathers we would use.

Then third grade rolled around, and we were told we'd be making light bulb bees instead.  Bees.  Plain ol' striped, two-toned bumblebees.  We were given no feathers or glitter to use.  We weren't even allowed to make, say, a hot pink and lime-green bee instead of a yellow and black one.  Now that I think back on it the art teacher may have varied birds and bees between years, or possibly didn't have enough money in the budget for feathers.  But she could at least have let us do something to make those stupid bees less boring.

I made the shoddiest, most half-assed bee I could slap together out of pure spite.

2.  Declare books off limits and then flaunt them.  My third grade teacher used to give us a ten-minute period of silent reading time.  She had a shelf of books for kids to borrow, as well as a shelf of books that were 'off-limits' for reading time as she intended to read them to us.  This shelf was not hidden behind anything, or set apart from the 'available' shelf by any great amount of space.  The books were right there, tempting us.

One day I got yelled at for taking a book from the forbidden shelf because I'd already read everything on the other one.  That's how I learned that something deep down inside of me gets white-hot, spitting mad when someone tells me I can't read something.  Somehow I managed to act appropriately contrite while thinking, "so don't put your books out where any fool can grab one if you don't want us reading them, silly woman.  By the way, now I'm going to take every opportunity to sneak your precious books and read them before you read them to us.  It's on."  

3.  Look at me funny when I like something different than everyone else.  Why yes, Mr. Teacher, you're taking a poll of which book we read this year was our favorite.  Yes, I raised my hand for The House with the Clock in its Walls instead of the girly-girl coming-of-age girly book that made so little impression on me that I don't even remember its title.  Yes, I realize I'm the only girl who did so.  Thanks for pointing that out, right at the time in my life when all the other girls my age are getting interested in clothes and social cliques and snagging boyfriends even though they're freaking twelve years old and I know perfectly well that they're judging me because I don't care about any of that crap.  It's not like I'm self-conscious about that or anything.

4.  Give me some GOOD writing assignments for once.  No, I don't want to write a poem about the autumn leaves.  They're pretty and all, but they don't really do anything.  They hang there for a while, and then they fall down and rot.  That's not exciting.  Can I write an epic poem about, like, aliens invading the earth, and it happens to be autumn when this goes down, and the leaders of the resistance movement have to use the fallen leaves to send secret messages somehow, and they...

Oh.  No, huh? It's got to be about just plain autumn leaves, no aliens or resistance fighters allowed? And it has to be no less than five and no more than ten lines long, so no sweeping epics?

Well, shit.

5.  Bring the pressure.  I hate, hate, hated it when I was about to write some story or poem** and the teacher told us, "Be sure to do your best job on these, because we're submitting them to Random Writing Contest/reading them out loud at the end of the year/illustrating your poems and hanging them on the walls for parent's night!"  I would promptly begin to panic over whether my idea really was the 'best' I could come up with, and could I make it better because actual grown-up people were going to READ this and JUDGE it and what if they turned up their judgey grown-up noses at it and declared me a failure and a fraud who should be banned by law from owning any writing implements?  I guess in all fairness, this did give me an early taste of what being a professional writer would be like.

Teachers of the world, please understand that I'm telling you this because I love you.  You're the ones who instilled the love of all things creative in me in the first place, after all.  And I understand that perfect teachers, like perfect parents, simply do not exist and it's pretty much impossible for a teacher to be all things to all students.  All I'm asking is for you to try to respect and be mindful of the fact that sometimes your students may want to add something to the assignment that isn't necessarily in the instructions.  Also remember that creativity has many different faces, and two different kids may express it in vastly different ways.

Also, I'm sure it wouldn't kill you to let them write about aliens and killer cat-monsters once in a while.  

*Actual story I wrote in fourth or fifth grade.

**Oddly enough, I never had any problem with my artwork being displayed or shown to other people.  I didn't even care when the art teacher hung up my crappy bee.  But someone wanting to see a poem I'd written was enough to instantly change me into a quivering, tearful bundle of insecurity and crippling perfectionism.


  1. Alien and/or killer cat monsters sound ripe for sensory details...write till your hand falls off and bring to class!!! Sending you a blog Bravo...