Week 31 – The Creativity Trap

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Terry Pratchett in his book Wee Free Men describes a scene where a little boy is sitting on the ground bawling his lungs out because he can’t choose one candy to eat from all of the choices at his fingertips.  He is so frustrated and overwhelmed that he is unable to move forward.  Fortunately, I don’t teach young children, but I’ve seen the equivalent of this behavior in the students I have taught when it comes to creativity.

As a society, we seem to cherish creativity.  And don’t get me wrong, according to the American Management Association (AMA), it is one of the four most important skills a worker can have.  Leaving aside the question of whether or not creativity is a skill instead of an inherited trait, I have to agree, creativity is enormously important.  One of the most important abilities (better than “skill”, wouldn’t you say?), it can also be a huge burden to students.

And, as a middle school teacher, I have the enormous responsibility of preparing my students to be scholars.  (There, I just placed myself inextricably in a particular camp of educators — bring on the firing squad.)  For me, this means that my students will be prepared to continue being prepared to go to college. (It is amazing how much pressure is put on public school teachers to get their students into college, no matter what.) Done correctly, this should also prepare them to live successfully in whatever world they choose to inhabit.  And trust me, I get how different college is from the real world.  It’s a big, hopeful leap of logic.  Still, I need to look parents, heads of schools, governors, and, most importantly, my students’ future teachers in the eye and say, Yes, these students are educated.  So, how do I prove that and allow students to be creative?

Honestly, I find rubrics to be the answer.  Whoa, you may be thinking.  But doesn’t a rubric cap creativity?  Well, yes and no.  Let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time, a parent came into a teacher’s classroom clearly intending to rip said teacher a new one.  The parent was really upset because her child was up until all hours working on creating a world map for class.  The child was tired and cranky and upset because she hadn’t finished by morning.  The teacher had already collected and graded the maps.  She pulled the student’s map out of her stack and opened it up with the rubric.  Amazingly, the child had colored in the map by showing the elevation of all land masses in different and graded colors.  No wonder she was up all night.  The teacher explained to the parent that this work, although beautifully done, was not what she had asked for, and she showed the parent the rubric.

The parent then saw the grade her child had earned.  Then she really freaked out.  The teacher had graded the child on the knowledge she had proven, whereas the parent wanted her child graded on effort spent.  “But she worked so hard!” the parent wailed.  True enough, but the World History teacher needed to know that her student knew the continents, oceans, and seas in order to move forward in class.  “This rubric doesn’t allow my child to be creative!” the parent accused, apparently forgetting that the reason she had come in was because the creative child wasn’t sleeping because she was being creative.

The parent was told that the child would have the opportunity to go back and label the items she was missing for full credit.  Then the parent argued that her daughter’s self-esteem would be crushed if she had to re-do it.  The teacher began to wonder, at this point, if the parent hadn’t done the work herself.  The teacher explained to the parent that it was very important for students to do what was required on the rubric first, and then, when finished, he or she can add whatever they like as long as they don’t obscure the work.

Later, when the work was returned to the student, the teacher explained to the child that all she needed to do was label the map properly and then her grade would be an A.  The child wasn’t happy about it, but she elected to stay in at lunch and do the required work.  She finished it in under 20 minutes and skipped out into the sunshine with her peers.

When the next map happened, she shyly asked if she could add mermaids to her map.  The answer was, “Yes, but do what is required on the rubric first.”

The rubric covers your tushie as a teacher and as a student.  It clearly explains what the students are responsible for and helps them to learn to prioritize.  It does not need to be a cap on creativity, but rather to help channel effort so that everybody is getting out of the assignment what is needed.  Boundless creativity can lead to not just small boys whining and crying on the floor, but, if my experience is anything to go on, parents, too.

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