Valary Oleinik is a Project Manager for the Secretarial and Document Services department of an international law firm. The imagination and ingenuity Valary exhibited during the #practicecreativity challenge made us want to learn more about this generous and creative soul.
What might be an intriguing night job if you had to pick one?
I started putting Querist on some of my social media profiles as part of my identity and I think it is the closest to what I would do, and am trying to do undercover at night. I live a life of inquiry. I’m carving out more and more time to focus on writing and finding innovative ways to help people to learn how to learn, stay curious, and share what they know.
What is your definition of creativity?
To just say it is bringing about something novel and useful or valuable sends us down the subjective rabbit hole of defining how new and useful to whom and such. I think creativity is imagination in action. It is the brain finding a surprise hiding in plain sight. It is connecting dots we didn’t know were in the same picture. It is how the old becomes new. The known becomes known anew. It can be spontaneous or deliberate. It is how we navigate our ever-changing lives. It can result in something tangible or intangible. It is often the answer to questions that curiosity and necessity ask. It is art and science. It is active; a living spark that needs tending and nurturing. Two people who have provided definitions that I like are Albert Einstein who called creativity intelligence having fun” and Bill Moyer who said creativity “is piercing the mundane to find the marvelous.” Both of their definitions, like mine, are nebulous, which is necessary. Trying to define creativity for me is like defining love or consciousness. What the words mean is experiential. I see creativity as integral to how we get through life. It is how we express ourselves, discover and explore the world, solve problems and overcome obstacles. It’s how we grow and move forward.
What kind of things do you do to get your “creative juices” flowing?
One of my favorite things is to just move around. In my earlier days, I was a professional dancer so motion is like a second language to me. I still walk in time with the beat if there is music playing. I still practice pirouettes on the tile kitchen floor. But mostly I walk. Like dancing, walking gets you breathing. It gets fresh air in your lungs and fresh ideas in your head. A change of scenery can do wonders for giving you a new perspective.
Another thing I do is make a conscious effort to do at least one new thing each week. It may be taking a different route to work or cooking a new meal. It could be reading a new book. I read a lot. I love filling my reservoir with new ideas. I always try to have something to read with me and when I don’t I read signs, cereal boxes … whatever is handy. Doing something new, even for a few minutes, can make a world of difference.
Finally, I try to expose myself to unique and creative experiences. I’ve always been around the arts and sciences and it is certain that creativity is contagious. Being around others doing creative things is inspiring and motivating. When I stopped dancing I found that I enjoyed photography and I started capturing my adventures. Some of my favorite inspirations come from urban art, nature, science events like the Maker Faire, or art and architecture events like the participatory art project FIGMENT and Canstruction which is part design competition and part charity for local food banks.
Photo courtesy of Valary Oleinik
Who would you say has been one of your main influences?
I hope it doesn’t sound like a cop out to say, my mom, but it is my mom. She was a former school teacher before she was a mom. My childhood was filled with exposure to as many different types of events as she could find. Puppet shows at the library. Music concerts. Dance classes. Astronomy camp. Trips to museums and zoos. She is also an avid gardener, so I got the nature bug early on. I was encouraged to explore. Mom definitely nurtured my little creative spark. In more recent years, she has needed me to do a fair amount of caretaking and has had to learn to walk again more than once. This has given me the chance to see firsthand how important creativity is to tackling sudden obstacles. For instance, how would you wash your hair if you could only raise one arm over your head?
It also certainly helped that I have spent most of my life in two cities that are playgrounds for the curious and creative: New Orleans and New York. If anyone can claim to be bored in New York City, I think they should have their pulse checked. But as great as New York is, it was New Orleans that started it all for me. Growing up in New Orleans, I have to say environment played as much of a role as nurture. New Orleans is a place unlike any other, alive with creative energy and the friendliest people. Music flows in the streets. We have a parade for any occasion. Playing dress-up is taken very seriously. And with events like Katrina, being ever resilient and living by your wits is a way of life. One of the images that sticks with me during the early days after the city re-opened after the storm was a community coming together to make new street signs to replace those blown or washed away. The signs were beautifully colorful but also necessary to direct contractors, many of whom did not know the city, to where residents lived who needed their help repairing their homes.
How do you encourage creativity in others?
Often the first step is to convince them that they are creative. So many people have this limited view of creativity. For some, it only means artsy. It is something fun, frivolous and optional, something they don’t have time to engage in (even if they secretly really want to). They completely overlook functional creativity. I start by asking them questions and try to lead them to the realization that they are creative. I ask them about everyday events when they have had to figure something out, solve a problem, overcome an obstacle, or just come up with an idea. Since I work with adult learners, another challenge is their fear of failure. Asking them to be creative is really pushing them out of their comfort zone. They don’t want to make mistakes. That is one of the big differences between kids and adults. Kids will dive right in and try things, while adults will consider, plan, and think but not DO as much as quickly. I had to good fortune to see Tom Wujec talk about his Marshmallow Challenge a few months ago and it embodies this. The kids beat the CEOs hands down because they create more prototypes. More tries are going to eventually yield more wins. It is tricky but if you can make safe spaces for people to try things and find the small wins, they will gain momentum quickly.
In what ways did the Practice Creativity Challenge affect your thinking?
In the months leading up to the challenge my life was literally turned upside down and inside out. In a matter of weeks there was packing up my apartment, preparing to speak at a learning conference, traveling to various cities, getting married, moving to another state, and unpacking (blegh) all while maintaining the usual work and personal responsibilities. There was a lot of some types of creativity going on, but I missed some other aspects of my creativity. They had, apparently, been accidentally packed into one of the moving boxes. So I was first drawn to the challenge as a way to getting a piece of me back, amid the chaos. In more normal times, I tend to get distracted by bright shiny ideas and always have multiple projects going in different directions, so I thought the challenge would be a good way for me to be able to focus my attention as I settled into my new environment. I guess it was sort of creative therapy in a way. I needed an excuse to give myself permission to do something I knew I needed to do for my own self-care. Amidst all the changes I was going through I needed to carve out a special place for myself and my needs. I need dedicated creative moments like I need air and water. I was drawn to the challenge because it was a short-term, very focused commitment. Of course, I am continuing to go back to ideas generated during the challenge, but it was just what I needed at the moment. It provided me with a basic framework and a support net that helped me focus. That’s one of the other things people misconstrue about creativity. Sometimes limitations are necessary and inspiring. A blank page is sometimes overwhelming. Constraints actually bring about more creativity by forcing you to really think about how to use what you have and options.
What advice would you give to other people who are motivated to become more creative?
Start now. Don’t wait. And keep doing it. Make time for it. People make appointments to have their car’s oil changed or to have their hair cut, but think they don’t have time to be creative in a focused way. But also be ready for those spontaneous flashes. I always have a notebook and pens (I like the brightly colored ones) handy. Make notes, reminders, doodles. This will be your idea journal. Find what works for you. There is no right or wrong answer. Make your toolbox as vast as possible. Different creative tools will be useful at different times. The more you have the better you will be able to adapt to different situations. Sometimes I want a blank canvas. I get out a bunch of craft supplies and “play,” letting my imagination run wild. Other times I need a more structured creative activity. Two I like are origami and haiku. They have boundaries and help me still my mind.
People often say you need to think outside of the box, but the part most people miss is figuring out what the current box looks like. If it is a messy box then maybe what you need is some quiet and order. If the box is too bare maybe you need to shake it up a bit by figuratively throwing some paint and glitter around. Creativity is always an active process but it can be quiet or loud. Listen to your instincts and you’ll know which one you need at a particular time.
Finally, don’t keep everything to yourself. Find ways to share your ideas and creative artifacts. Find your tribe and your cheerleaders. Many years ago I started a blog on Tumblr with the idea that I would post one photo or snippet of writing or quote I liked or something each day; it was a digital idea journal. I would build the habit of making the time, creating something, and sharing it. I didn’t really expect anyone to be interested but over time I found that many people were and I have now traveled many miles to see some of these people because it was through sharing our ideas with one another that we built wonderful relationships that provide love and support far beyond my little goal of expressing some creativity and keeping my creative muscles in working order.
Christine McCormick works in the medical profession in Midland, Texas. She impressed us with her endless creative energy and willingness to try new things during the #practicecreativity challenge in June and we knew she would make for another inspiring interview for the Creative Leaders Series.
What is your current job title? I am a registered nurse, and my current job title is Manager of Clinical Informatics.
How long have you been in this field? I have been a nurse for 30 years and working in the clinical informatics field for 6 years.
Why is creativity important to you? Creativity has been a way to relax, to express myself and to meet others since I was a child.
How do you foster your own creativity? It depends. I am always interested in trying something new. I knit, I take and alter photographs, I play with watercolors… I recently found that mixed media was “my thing” because I can truly mix anything I create, and make something brand new out of a mix of new and old items.
How does creativity affect your daily work/job? Creativity is my way to decompress and clear my mind of work once I get home so I feel more refreshed the next morning to get another productive work day started. Creativity is also part of my job because it allows me to have a different approach when I provide training, when I manage my team, or when I create educational material.
In what ways do you encourage creativity in others? I often give gifts that involve something creative to do, like a craft kit, yarn, play dough, building blocks… I like to have creative experiences with my kids especially by including recycled items or items found in nature. Perfection is not the goal, the creative process and satisfaction in the process is what it’s all about. At work, I encourage creativity in each team member by allowing each of them to find a way to make things easier, more fun, and to learn from failure and try again.
Blackout Poetry, #practicecreativity challenge
In what ways did the Practice Creativity Challenge affect your thinking? It opened my mind to new creative experiences, creative ideas, and the discovery of other participants’ experiences with the same activity. It allows you to reflect on other ways of expression and thinking, and most of all, it gives you permission to just let go and explore your own creative thoughts with little reservation.
What advice might you give to a friend or colleague who wants to be creative? If I am asked where to start, I would suggest thinking about what makes him/her happy and start experiencing new ways to be creative with that. But most of all, I would encourage the person to practice creativity on a regular basis. The Practice Creativity Challenge is a great place to start. It’s important to do it mostly for the personal feeling of satisfaction associated with the process, and not to achieve perfection, nor to compete with others.
Matthew Craig is a Facilitator of Technological Experiences at the Normal Park Museum Magnet School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he serves as the 4th-8th grade computer technology teacher. Matthew also team teaches technical theater, music technology, puppetry, design thinking and museum production. Matthew impressed us with his wit, creativity, and spirit during the #practicecreativity challenge in June and we just knew he would make for an inspiring first interview for the Creative Leaders Series.
How many students in your school? We have two campuses, a Lower which serves grades PreK through 3rd, and an Upper that serves 4th through 8th. Each campus is comprised of about 400 students, or 800 in total.
How long have you been teaching? I’ve been teaching professionally since 1996. My first gig was as a permanent substitute, teaching an hour and a half of Wood Shop every other day at a high school in Columbia, Missouri. They told me, “If you don’t teach it, the class will go away.” I didn’t know what “go away” meant, but it didn’t sound good, especially considering I was in the middle of getting a degree in Practical Arts and Vocational-Technical Education, emphasizing in Industrial Arts. It seemed like it would’ve been a poor choice to idly stand by while my employment prospect withered. I’ve not really considered it before, but that’s when I began to realize the importance of making darn sure my class is relevant.
Are you relevant to your client (kids)?
How does changing the word “student” to “client” change our educational outlook?
Does your administration know that your course is relevant?
Does your community believe that your course is relevant?
Why is creativity important to you? Creativity probably qualifies as a religious practice for me. I consider the Creative Act as the fundamental purpose of Humanity. Well, that and Love. I guess you could say that Creative moments are really acts of Love. When a group of people hold space and provide their energy and intention toward a common goal, those are sweet, fleeting moments of Communion for me. Maybe that’s carrying the metaphor too far, but those who have felt the rush of gratitude and kind of longing after the curtain has fallen, a house has been raised, or when hundreds have assembled for a concert, then slowly dissolve amid afterglowing smiles, you’ve experienced this Transcendent sunset. To bring an idea from the mind into some sort of physical reality is absolute alchemy. We literally make something out of thin air. I never really felt too terribly creative as a kid, and don’t often, even as an adult. There’s so much self-judgement there. I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with the “warts-n-all” process. People tell me I’m creative, so I try to believe them, especially when they tell me over and over again. I really appreciate those people, and seek validation from them. That’s probably not the healthiest thing, but it gets me nearer to where I’m going, which is doing the thing.
How do you foster your own creativity? I surround myself with creative people, physically, and in media like Instagram, Twitter, and boingboing.net. I will say, the most inspiring people are not just people who are creative, but folks who have some drive to make good on their creative inspiration. The folks who bring the idea from the mind into reality. I recently worked on a film with a couple of friends of mine who wrote, directed, shot, produced, edited, composed a soundtrack…the whole shebang. The film is twenty-two minutes long. It took about a year and a half to create, and cost them about $1200 of their own money. Now that’s creativity. The group aspect, the cooperative orchestration of pounding out an idea into some sort of workable thing is what draws me to the creative process. It often makes me giddy. I saw some lettering on a masonry truck recently: “Even a brick wants to be a part of something.” For example, my freshman year of college, I started working at Village Wine & Cheese, where I sold…you guessed it…wine and cheese. Cheese is a weird thing to sell. Often times, it’s smelly, it has a strange texture, it looks like a science experiment. Either you hope some adventurous people walk in off the street, or you have to really build a quick rapport and perform what amounts to slight-of-hand with the less adventurous their willingness to try some of this stuff. The owner had a tendency to hire people whom she deemed “a real hoot.” We’d be behind the cheese case cracking jokes and doing cheese-related puns with one another, in a practice we called “meringue-ing.” Meringue-ing is making something out of practically nothing, like you do when you whip egg whites into peaks on a pie. We’d pick a topic or style of cheese, and just improvise for a few minutes as we got the customer their order. Saturdays were non-stop, it was a show that Pikes Place Market had nothing on.
About 5 years ago, I started a practice of breathing, movement and meditation called QiGong. I do it every morning, and often throughout the day, while I’m waiting for students to arrive. I even have incorporated it as warm-up for most of my classes. It has no religious affiliation, we are focused only on breath and movement. The first couple of times, kids are looking around the room wondering, “what have I gotten myself into?” Their parents tell me many even practice at home. To take those moments to settle down, and observe thoughts (which often cause me anxiety and stress) more objectively, has been a real magic bullet. Long term, it certainly beats many other self-destructive methods I’ve employed over the years.
A lot of people will tell you they don’t have a creative bone in their body. They have a very narrow view of what it means to be creative. Some people are really good at making numbers make sense on a page, or organize a house to operate in an efficient manner. Some people are creative in the way they manipulate others to get their needs met. They are all creative.
In what ways do you encourage creativity in your students? I ask them what they want to do. I listen. I ask them what they think. I listen. I ask them how they decided. I’ll never forget, very early in my teaching career, I was asking the class a bunch of damn questions, and I was just within earshot to hear one student ask his friend, “so what’s the answer?” His friend had me pegged: “He’s not like other teachers. He asks questions he doesn’t know the answer to.” Ten years later, I found they call this Inquiry Based Learning.
Answers are expedient, but boring. You get the answer, put it on a shelf and move on. The best class I took in college was taught by Dr. Betty Scott, titled “The Creative Process.” In it, Dr. Scott suggested that one could make “tentative conclusions based on the evidence you have at the time.” Nothing is absolute. That has been so liberating for me as a teacher, and I think that translates to students.
I am in a position where I do my best to provide some tools and an environment for students to DO. We play a lot.
How have your students demonstrated their creativity? This past semester, I had a particular group of four kids who just loved making animal mash-ups. They thought it was hilarious, and that’s about all they seemed to want to do. I installed a couple of other programs on the computers they always sat down at, Crazy Talk Animator, and the Unity Game Engine. I told them I was available if they needed help, and checked in with them daily, but the fact of the matter is that I never taught them anything specific about how to run either of those programs. They produced some amazing things.
In what ways did the Practice Creativity Challenge affect your thinking? It got me thinking about the process of Creativity, again. The Challenge provided an orderly direction for my ambling mind. I also found the Google + community supportive of engaging in the very act of Creativity. This seems simple and easy; it does take quite a bit of trust to put an idea into the world, let alone a community of people you may not know. I felt completely safe and inspired by others who were willing to put themselves out there. Emboldened might be the word. I really enjoyed the “Way-Back Machine” exercise because it got me thinking and writing about some of the unusual experiences I’ve had. I often view it as indulgent to reminisce in great detail about those, but I’ve since revelled in it, trying to go a little deeper. I mean, really, that’s the important information that’s not going to get a second pass, so I had better capture it while it is still available. What point is there to living to 100 if you don’t have a catalogue of good stories? A double-handful of colleagues from our school took part in the Challenge, about half of whom are new to the building. I found that this environment was a great place to begin the collaborative process. To develop the kind of trust that is required to do “creative” things in school is sometimes challenging, and time within the building doesn’t often lend itself to that practice. Yet. Maybe the best thing, with regard to helping build a culture of creativity, is that the prompts didn’t come from someone within the building. We were all able to share in a kind of crucible event.
What advice might you give a new teacher who is just starting out – but also wants to be creative?
Start with a bombproof lesson and work out from there.
Veteran teachers remember what it was like starting out and are willing to help, if you let them. I spent a number of years flailing, yet thinking I had the answers. I appreciate and apologize to those students who were subjected to that particular brand of selfishness!
Ask three people or read three articles and make your best guess. Act.
Don’t try to get it perfect the first time. Hopefully this is an iterative process, and you’ll stick around for a career.
What is one of your favorite teaching stories? Right now, I’m thinking of Marty Cowell. I was teaching Industrial Arts in Steamboat Springs, Colorado in 2004, and I decided that students could contract for a grade. They could do kind of canned, discrete projects, or come up with one of their own. Somehow, we started talking about Nikola Tesla, and Marty asks if he could earn an A if he makes a Tesla Coil. “So long as you include all the media (wood, metal, plastic, something else) and analysis in the project, yes.” For nine weeks or so, Marty shows up to class, and is helping his friends with their projects some, but mostly giving them a hard time. They reciprocate by asking about his “Tesla Coil,” mostly because they think it is funny that it sounds like “testicle.” Occasionally, he comes in with a part he needs tools to fabricate. So here it is, about a week to go, and Marty wheels in a Tesla Coil that stands about four or five feet tall. After a cursory explanation of how he made it and how it works, he fires it up, we turn out the lights and observe that it is throwing sparks at least 18-24 inches long! Coolest. Project. Ever.
Marty has gone on to study Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley, and has worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory. My son decided about a year ago, at the age of six, that he wants to become a scientist and inventor, so we wrote Marty an email to ask what sorts of advice he would give a young scientist. Very graciously, he wrote back on letterhead the answer to Charles’ questions:
How old do you have to be to start studying to become a scientist? The best scientists start young. Because you’re asking this question at seven years old I think you’re ready to start now! Scientists know math, chemistry, biology, physics, computer programming, and lots more – so these will be good classes for you to focus on. As a seven year old I’m sure you’re starting to see these classes at school and I encourage you to take as many like these as you can. If you look closely you can find science in EVERYTHING, even outside of class! So get crackin’ and keep asking questions! Your job as a scientist is to ask questions! (And then figure out the answers with your brawny brain!!!)
To think that I’ve lived long enough for my students to inspire my children is pretty fantastic. I get a little misty when I read that Marty, though he’s never met my son, truly believes in and supports his dream of becoming a scientist. And that’s really what the #PracticeCreativity community is about, a supportive place to nurture and coax the ideas we need to bring into the world.
There is a growing creativity gap in American schools. Global business leaders cite creativity as the most important skill for CEOs. Entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, scientists, teachers require creativity and creative problem solving. Yet schools continue to prioritize standardization and conformity over cultivating individual strengths and creativity.
In 2012, Adobe released a global benchmark study focused on the attitudes and beliefs associated with creativity. The study showed that 8 in 10 respondents feel that unlocking creativity is critical to economic growth, yet only 1 in 4 felt that they were living up to their creative potential, and more than half of the global respondents feel creativity is being stifled by the education system – and that number rises to over 70% in the US¹. This data demonstrates a widespread belief that creativity is critical to growth and innovation. It also highlights the fact that although a large majority find creativity to be important, most people do not believe they are living up to their creative potential.
In June of 2006, Ken Robinson’s “Schools Kill Creativity” TED talk was released. Since that date, this video has been viewed over 33 million times. It has been referenced in numerous online articles and continues to be one of the most viewed and shared talks. Clearly there is resonance among many that creativity is “killed” in schools. Solutions offered up to this profound and resonant issue have been scarce. Why is it so hard to navigate the space between what we fundamentally believe and what we take action on, particularly when it comes to educating our own children? If so many people believe things should be done differently, why does the public stand by the old model, and continue to berate it, as if somehow something will magically change?
Part of the creativity problem lies in the industrialized and hierarchical nature of the education system itself. The structure of the education system is set up to produce specific results much in the same way that a factory might build a car or a computer to certain specifications. Schools are held accountable for students’ performance on mandatory tests. To meet performance goals in the allotted time given, schools are forced into efficiency models that mimic manufacturing processes. This means less room for individual teachers to vary from curriculum and schedules. In some extreme cases, teachers are asked to literally read from a script in order to eliminate all human variation possible. The problem is obviously, schools aren’t creating widgets. They are supposed to be educating humans. Creative, innovative, problem-solving humans.
The process of fostering student creativity is one that is antithetical to that of the factory line. Creativity is deepened through inquiry, reflection, and experimentation. It requires patience, percolation, and failure. We cannot standardize and manufacture creativity any more than we can standardize personalities and life experiences.
Humans are messy creatures. People often don’t act in ways that are logical and linear. Emotions, context, and other factors weigh into the ability to feel empowered to act. Oftentimes, large-scale problems feel too overwhelming to take on. This is often the case with educational issues. A few passionate change agents go after a problem with zeal, only to be beaten down by the hulking industrial educational complex and all of its rules and regulations.
The idea of Little Bets originates from the book written by Peter Sims, in which he asserts that “a little bet is a low-risk action taken to discover, develop, and test an idea.”² If the approach is taken that the creativity gap may be closed by taking a series of “little bets,” a group of small, bite-sized actions taken by a large number of impassioned people, possibilities begin to materialize. In other words, parents and teachers can make little bets by performing small creative acts that yield big results.
Here is what we currently know.
Teachers are the best bet. When teachers know and do better, kids know and do better. Investing in our teachers by providing opportunities for them understand and foster their own creativity is paramount. This means training teachers the three main tenets of creativity: awareness, empowerment and practice.
Awareness requires building the powers of observation, reflection, and mindfulness. Observation can be practiced in nearly any context. One can listen to the cadence, language, and tone of the conversation during recess or at the water cooler. It can be practiced by watching the sunrise and writing down all of the colors that are seen as it floods the morning sky.
Reflections can be held in daily journals. A journal can be written words and full text in paper format , or it may take the form of a sketch journal, a blog, a poetry journal, or photos on instagram. The form of the journal matters less than the act of reflection. Reflections are powerful in the sense that they summon original thinking and interpretation, which summons creativity.
Mindfulness, or being present can bring about anxiety as it seems to be a heavy word. Dr. Ellen Langer of the Langer Mindfulness Institute describes mindfulness as “noticing new things.” For example, a teacher may ask the question, “what is new about this student today?” On the drive home one could ask, “what is different about today’s commute?” This forces a state of mind that is present, aware, and ready for creative inspiration.
Creative empowerment comes from within. Some call it “creative confidence” while others simply call it “courage.” Either way, empowerment means feeling a sense of agency to act on creative ideas. The first step in empowerment is finding a tribe, or support network. A tribe may be virtual or in person, and it is a group of people who share similar principles and ideas. A tribe provides critical feedback, high fives, and shares ideas that spark and build off of one another.
Empowerment is also cultivated through a mindset that embraces failure and failing forward. Children need to fail to learn as do adults. On the playground, this is referred to as a “Do-Over.” In the boardroom, this is called “Failing Forward.” A mindset that supports (smart) risks and builds risk tolerance makes room for creativity and all the failure that goes with it. A raw manuscript rarely gets published by the first publisher it is sent to. A comic doesn’t go viral on youtube after their first stand up appearance. A basketball player doesn’t make it to the WNBA after shooting one free throw. Success stands on a tall pile of failures, and the creative process is one of constant experimentation. Creativity and curiosity thrive in intelligent failure and risk tolerant environments.
Creativity is not something that can be done in your head. Public speaking, playing basketball, and mathematics all require some practice in order to gain proficiency. It is the same with creativity. This How to Practice Creativity TEDx video highlights the value of practicing creativity as well as some simple ways to incorporate that practice into daily life.
Kids learn through imitation. Children learn creativity by imitating teachers that teach them creatively. When teachers model creativity and creative process, students learn creativity and the creative process for themselves. Parents and communities need to support and build on creativity at home. When concepts and ideas are reinforced at home and in the community, students find them to be more important and pay more attention. Learning becomes sticky.
These little bets that incorporate creativity into education can be done in a classroom regardless of geography or socioeconomic factors. They do not require specialized equipment or expensive software programs or additional FTEs. These are things any parent or teacher can do by investing a little time and effort. We know better and it’s time we do better. Parents and teachers can advocate for creativity in schools by being the example of what change looks like. When enough parents speak up, schools will have to respond and provide more formal time and space for creativity training. It’s time for some little bets. It’s time to close the creativity gap.
We hear quite a bit about the importance of creativity. Often it is coupled with words like innovation or economic development, as if those pairings will somehow lend credibility to a somewhat nebulous term. Creativity is hard to define, as it can manifest itself in different ways. Artwork for sure is creative, but so are entrepreneurs and scientists and educators. Creativity is the seed of invention and innovation. It is what connects us to other human beings and what we turn to in times of joy and sorrow.
While business understands the need for creativity (recent articles show the most important skill for CEOs is creativity), fostering creativity appears to be a bit more challenging. So why then, is it so hard to get? And how do we know when we’ve “got it?”
A growth mindset says that one can learn to become more creative. Creativity is not a fixed asset. Creativity needs to be fed, inspired, and challenged. The number of books and articles on how to inspire, build, and stretch creativity validate the need for creative practice. While there are undoubtedly those who are born with talent, every person can become more creative by learning some fundamentals. Fundamentals are the cornerstones of practice. And just like basketball or video games or public speaking, the more you practice, the better you get.
The creativity fundamentals include:
awareness (observation and presence),
empowerment (creative confidence), and
practice (digging and scratching)
The following TEDx video talks about how to practice the fundamentals and provides some examples.
“Leadership ” is a popular but hard to define buzzword that pops up in education. It appeals to a hopeful notion that things can magically improve if the right person shows up. Traditionally being the leader was a job privy to the select few, but fast forward to the 21st century and suddenly everyone can be a leader. Yet change is difficult and there is no quick and easy formula for cultivating leadership in education. Simon Sinek’s popular talk elaborates on the crisis of leadership facing us today as well as shedding some interesting insight on how great leaders are made rather than born.
Lideres Sembrando Futuro” by Neighborhood Centers Inc. is licensed under CC BY 2.0
If “Leadership is a way of thinking, a way of acting and, most importantly, a way of communicating,” to cultivate leaders one just needs to learn how to think differently, act differently and communicate differently. It’s easy to say, but how is it done?
My partners and I have decided to be a part of the solution by offering a different kind of teacher professional development challenge open to participants from all over the world. The unconventional parts of the challenge are three-fold: participants are given autonomy but asked to really invest in the challenge, so that they get something out of it; participants are asked to share, take risks, be vulnerable and connect with others; participants can get Graduate/PD credit for the open 24/7 completely online challenge.
The future depends on how empowered educators feel as well as how their own creative talents are being fostered, nourished and supported. If educators do not feel empowered and tap into their own creativity themselves, then they are unable to help their students discover their own creative potential. Ideally, school leaders and the wider school community would help foster creativity and leadership. But that doesn’t always happen in the needed amounts or at the right time. The 21 Day Teacher Empowerment Challenge has considered that, and guidance, and inspiration can come from the other side of the country or even at midnight. This challenge is about providing a space for educators to get and create the support they need to feel empowered in closer to an equal balance to their “giving.” It’s also about educators choosing themselves as leaders inspite of their circumstances.
Having a strong sense of identity coupled with purpose is a key to self-efficacy. The first week sets out to have teachers answers: Who are you? Why do you teach? What do you want? How do you communicate that?
In order to reconnect with one’s identity and purpose, it’s necessary to reflect and declare what that’s about. Participants were asked to declare their passions for teaching. Not surprisingly many educators teach to empower and help improve the lives of others while continuing to learn themselves. Taking time to express that in a supportive collegial community, helps educators reconnect with their “why,” which in turn gives them fuel to persevere and be positive in the face of obstacles. On another daily challenge teachers are asked to share an awesome lesson. Sharing who they are and what they do with others inspires confidence. It also enables them to practice leadership skills as well as learn from the shining moments of others. Some teachers were further inspired to take action within their own school and try new approaches in the classroom.
Week 2: Building Community
Although schools promote independence, teachers and students alike need the support of a community to continue to learn and grow.
During the second week, participants are asked to work on building a supportive network. Educators are encouraged to reach out to others in the challenge community and comment on other people’s work in a supportive way. Doing so, encourages teachers to get out of the building and to expand their sense of community. Specifically, educators are asked to put themselves on a world map and reach out to those they have an affinity with via social media. They are also asked to find a mentor, be a mentor or reconnect with a past mentor. Although it’s not always easy to ask for help because it involves a time investment as well as taking risks, seeing others do so builds momentum and bold sharing which inspires others to push through the obstacles.
Week 3: The Creative Path
Everyone is born with creative tendencies but by adulthood they are replaced by more practical inclinations. But, it’s never too late to find or reconnect to one’s creative path.
The third week is about fostering curiosity and resiliency as a creative path. It’s human to get in the habit of doing the same thing over and over again. But why settle for the ordinary? What can be done differently? Teachers are asked to follow up on their curiosity, take risks, try new things and embrace change.
Change begins with baby steps. Teachers are not asked to go back and change their entire curriculum or start a revolution. As they are given a lot of autonomy in the challenge, many of them try something as simple as some new technology in the classroom or getting around to that new seating chart or even changing up the layout of their classroom. Investing small amounts of time and energy into doing something new, seems to press a magic restart button refreshing both the teachers and students.
Week 4: Interdependence and Autonomy
Recognizing one’s interdependence and yet learning how to managing one’s own learning environment is an essential takeaway from this challenge. The last week is about figuring out how to do “empowerment” for oneself.
Participants are asked to create their own self-empowering task based on something that they are continuously finding difficult. A “just fix it” approach doesn’t fly here, but rather participants are encouraged to get light hearted about it in the face of what might seem like an overwhelming obstacle. This approach builds their confidence, creative thinking and reconnects them with their purpose.
As a final exercise, participants are asked to “Show Off” by creating an artifact that reflects their contributions and takeaways during this 21 day challenge. This task also allows them to see their work as a whole and its progression through the 21 days.
Leadership is a Choice
Cultivating creativity and leadership in educators requires trying some unconventional approaches to professional development and community building.
Empowerment starts by teachers having the courage to be the leaders they want to be as they step up to the plate everyday. This then creates awareness and a call to action which creates the conditions for practice to happen. Cultivating creativity and leadership in schools can be a part of a cycle that renews itself. It all starts with empowerment and awareness and is then strengthened by taking action.
Empowerment doesn’t just shine down on a select few. One has to choose it!