Nurturing Creativity in the Classroom

In schools, the philosophy and context of the place and time, and the skills and dispositions of the administration and the teachers, all set the stage for the kind of teaching and learning that will evolve. For creativity to be central to teaching and learning, teachers must honor the students’ intelligence, way of approaching life, and their innate drive to learn. In the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, and in any classroom where hard work, joy, excellence, respect, and creativity abound, the students and teachers make their way together in a learning journey. The teachers are not handing over information that they expect the students to memorize and repeat.

To create well-being for everyone, the classroom needs to be organized and clean and the teachers need to be kind and present for the children. The routines and the agreements of the classroom can be thoughtfully authored, shared, and owned by each person, rather than imposed by the teachers on the children as rules.

In the schools of Reggio Emilia, teachers place a high priority on listening to children. They often do so in the context of conversations based on open ended questions without a “right” answer. The teachers seek to uncover children’s way of experiencing and noticing the world around them as well as their way of making sense by putting new ideas together.

At Harwood Union High School, the teachers and administration have dedicated themselves to Socratic Seminar and the Harkness Method. Students come prepared to enter into dialogue about what matters and what is most compelling about what they are reading and learning, rather than to listen to teachers lecture about what is most important.

Our friend and professor emeritus at Middlebury College, John Elder, most often engages in what he calls inductive dialogue, (rather than deductive), with students about poetry and text. He says, “Let’s start by talking about what we notice and see what happens, rather than starting with the main idea that the professor wants to get across.”

All of these are ways to bring creativity to the center of teaching and learning, but also to life long learning. This is a way to approach learning that respects the intelligence of students and their need and right to make their own meaning which might come as a surprise to us as teachers. How wonderful!

Another way to nurture creativity in the classroom is to bring in materials and to offer multiple ways to express ideas. The educators in Reggio Emilia use the term “the hundred languages of children” to refer to all the disciplines. They prefer to call them languages (rather than disciplines) in order to emphasize the communicative power of math, science, clay, paper, gesture, music, words…Project work that includes multiple languages can become, as Ron Berger writes, beautiful work. In An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Excellence with Students, Ron advocates for the power of a culture of excellence in every classroom. In the context of this kind of “culture of excellence,” students strive to create beautiful work in graphics, writing, math, science. All of this takes effort, skill, understanding and multiple drafts executed within the structure of a supportive and skilled community of learners. This work is most often composed for a public audience and contributes in some way to the larger community.

In an article in Educational Leadership in the issue on Creativity, Carol Ann Tomlinson writes:

Don't consign creativity to the realm of fairy dust. Certainly, moments in the creative process seem to come from beyond us, almost magically. Those moments, however, are nearly always preceded by long periods of sweat and grit. Perhaps the single most common attribute of creative people is how hard they work. They know a great deal about their domain or discipline. After all, people are creative in some pursuit—writing, soccer, botany, or marketing. Help students develop what Ron Berger calls an ethic of excellence—hard work, pride in craftsmanship, and appreciation for fresh, fruitful thinking.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi devotes the last chapter of his book, Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention to personal creativity or what James Kaufman and Ronald Beghetto call "little-c creativity”…everyday creative efforts. Among the strategies that he suggests that are most helpful for classrooms are:

• Shape your space…curate your space (classroom) so that you are surrounded by order, the tools that you need, and personal meaning.

• Take charge of your schedule…you (your students) need the time and discipline to devote to what you love, to the work that you seek to accomplish.

• Take time for reflection…relax, pause, take some time out from rushing from one thing, (class), to another.

• Look at problems from as many viewpoints as possible…look at situations from various angles, consider different reasons and causes, try tentative solutions, reformulate the problem.

• Find a way to express what moves you…creative problems generally emerge from areas of life that are personally important.

One of my favorite memories as a fellow in the schools of Reggio Emilia after a morning with children in all their various groupings, is the flurry of activity among the teachers. Teachers would gather in the atelier and tell each other what had happened with words like…you would not believe what Filippo and Giorgia invented. I can’t wait for you to see what Andrea constructed. Story after story of surprises around what happened…what the children did, said, made, created, solved, and wondered. Their excitement and collaboration around learning and creativity for themselves and alongside the children has always inspired me.

Creativity can flourish when there is a context that also includes, as our friend John Elder says, buoyancy and playfulness, presence and gratefulness. Creativity needs friends, fertile ground and good care just as we all do, and most especially, our children.

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The Power of Imagination

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In the last six months, I have written five blog posts on the topic of creativity. Lately, I have revisited some of the books that have inspired me the most and searched for new books and articles that could reveal more about creativity, how it works, and why it is such an important quality for all of us. I’ve read Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, many articles in the publication Educational Leadership in an issue on Creativity, and other articles that I have saved and filed away. I have reread Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, and Five Minds for the Future, by Howard Gardner, An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger, Art And Creativity in Reggio Emilia by Vea Vecchi, and several books and TED talks by one of our most articulate writers and speakers on creativity, Sir Kenneth Robinson. .

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Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio approach to the education of young children in Reggio Emilia, Italy used to say that in the schools of Reggio Emilia, creativity was dressed in everyday clothes. I think he meant that rather than being special or unusual, belonging only to a few, or being reserved for a special time and place, creativity is present in everyone and is everywhere.  At its most basic, creativity means thinking, experimenting, and putting things together in new ways in words, in gestures, in actions, and in materials.  For example, Carlina Rinaldi, author of In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia, and long time leader in Reggio Emilia in many roles, reminds us that when a very young child gives a color a name like “sun yellow” or “egg yellow,” that this is a creative act.

Csikszentmihalyi and other researchers differentiate between creativity with a little c and creativity with a big C.  Creativity with a big C is a contribution to a domain such as science, art, or literature that is game changing and causes a shift in thinking, culture, and action. (As I understand it, creativity with a little c is creativity dressed in everyday clothes.)

From the studio of  Lizi Boyd , sculpture by her son as a young child

From the studio of Lizi Boyd, sculpture by her son as a young child

Most researchers and parents agree that young children are naturally curious, full of wonder, playful, inventive and creative. Howard Gardner writes, The mind of a five-year-old represents, in one sense, the height of creative power. But how to retain a childlike sensibility throughout life? So much depends on the messages that exist outside the walls of the school…and within classrooms...

In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink argues that the future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers-creative and holistic "right-brain" thinkers who will thrive themselves and work to create a hopeful, healthy future for all of us.

From Diana School,  Reggio Emilia , Italy

From Diana School, Reggio Emilia, Italy

In one of Ken Robinson’s talks he says, An esthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak, when you are present in the current moment, when you are resonating with the excitement of this thing you are experiencing, when you are fully alive. An anesthetic experience is when you shut your senses off, and deaden yourself to what is happening. We are getting our children through education by anesthetizing them. And I think we should be doing exactly opposite, we shouldn't be putting them asleep, we should be waking them up to what they have inside of themselves.

In our hearts and minds, we know that, as humans, our imaginations and creativity coupled with hard work, passion, and skill have contributed to the most important and beautiful works of humankind for thousands of years, in each discipline. Csikszentmihalyi writes, when we are involved in creativity we feel that we are living more fully and sense that we are a part of an entity greater than ourselves.

Festival for the Childrens Art Exchange, Middlebury, Vermont

Festival for the Childrens Art Exchange, Middlebury, Vermont

To honor and nurture our human capacity to be fully alive, awake, present, to think, and to work alongside others to contribute to our communities, we must create schools and classrooms where creativity thrives. We are fortunate to have many researchers, authors, and examples of schools such as those in the municipally funded system of schools for young children in Reggio Emilia to inspire us and help us. As Ken Robinson says, we must shift our current paradigm of school to one that is dedicated to children’s intelligence, creativity and gifts.

Several years ago we met a young film maker, Bianca Giaver at Middlebury College. Among other innovative films that she created, one, entitled Scared is Scared enacts, casting Middlbury College students, a delightful improv story about Asa Bear and Toby Mouse as told by six-year-old Asa Baker-Rouse. It highlights the natural, playful, spontaneous mind of a six-year-old and the creativity, hard work, skill, and passion of a young film maker and a group of college students. The film has been viewed almost two million times on Vimeo. There are articles about it in Huffington Post and online at Bustle. Take the 8 minutes to watch this film as you will be charmed, delighted, touched, and inspired to take creativity in everyday clothes into your day and into school. We promise.

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Self Portrait in natural materials from The College School

Always Remember Mary Oliver

The College School Butterfly Project at Shaw Nature Reserve

The College School Butterfly Project at Shaw Nature Reserve

On the morning of January 17th, when poet Mary Oliver died, I began to see notices, tributes, and quotes from her best known poems show up across my screen from the press and from friends and colleagues. Oh dear. One of my life muses. One of the people whom I felt that I somehow knew personally because her poems are like letters. Because her poems are directed to all of us, in a straightforward way. She said that, “poems are for anyone and everybody,” and that, “poems mustn't be fancy.”

My focus as an educator has always been on the creative arts and the natural world…on child development and the arts, on art, writing and environmental education, as we used to call it. For me, the most important thing has always been the marriage of the wonder of our imagination with the beauty of the world. In her book of essays and poems, Long Life, Mary Oliver writes, How shall I live? What does it mean that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?

Mary Oliver posed these and so many essential questions as in “A Summer Day,” Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? My response has been to live as an educator who believes in the beauty all around us and in the strength, intelligence and creativity of children…to be an educator who loves life, the world, and children and continues to love learning in a way that is whole and beautiful.

College School fifth graders at Shaw Nature Reserve

College School fifth graders at Shaw Nature Reserve

The College School, where I taught and served as curriculum coordinator for almost 20 years, focuses on whole, integrated learning, field studies, the arts, and active, exciting learning for everyone. I always felt that Mary Oliver was the perfect poet laureate for The College School, with her presence and full attention on animals, birds, insects, weather, the natural world and the way that she wrote her observations and feelings into poems that she says could be, “like prayers, or songs.”

When I was working with the fifth grade one year, in 2003, I helped with a long project on monarch butterflies. This was and is still, as far as I know, a flagship project for the fifth grade. The fifth grade students make their own nets, chase and tag butterflies in the prairies at Shaw Nature Reserve, hatch their own monarch eggs, observe the monarch life cycle, release the butterflies and track their migration. Until the year I worked with them, they had not devoted much time to drawing with care and with high quality materials… the butterflies, the cycle of their life, and in the field. And, they had never written poetry.

Fifth Grade monarch portraits

Fifth Grade monarch portraits

I carry with me in my heart the message of Vea Vecchi, long time atelierista in Reggio Emilia and a life time mentor of mine…learning without the aesthetic and poetic dimension is not complete, not fully developed; it is impoverished. I thought the time had come to bring aesthetic and poetic ways of learning into the center of the project and the teachers agreed. Mary Oliver says creativity is always there but we have to make an appointment with it, regularly, or it gets tired of waiting…or just gets tired.

We started by reading Mary Oliver…”A Summer Day,” “One or Two Things,” “The Sunflowers,” “When I am Among theTrees,” “Red Bird”…a poem every day. We asked the fifth graders to remember specific lines that struck them, to say those lines back to all of us. They began to love the lyrical language, the names of things, and they began to realize that they wanted to write also. And we did.

Following the life cycle of the monarch

Following the life cycle of the monarch

The students wrote a letter to Mary Oliver and included their poems, saying that they had been inspired by her poems and her voice. Here is one of the poems that we sent by Max Gotterman. (Max is now 26 years old!)

In the golden plains, butterflies soar.

A soft breeze ripples my shirt.

I walk through open fields, stalking the monarch.

She is determined to find green milky milkweed, to leave an egg,

To begin a great cycle.

The egg splits open, a chewing mouth begins to devour, the chubby larva peels off its skin.

Ripe green chrysalides hang like raindrops, hang like ornaments, one after one,

Waiting their turn to become a flying stained glass window.

Mary Oliver wrote back to us on February 24, 2003. I conclude with her letter because, after all these many years, it is such good advice for all of us. And because, it is such an honor to have a letter from this most beloved and wise poet whom we will always remember.

Dear Class,

Thank you, and your teachers too, for sending me your poems about monarchs, and with the influence of my own butterfly poem. Of course I like them! so much thought, and color and action! I think probably you read the Sunflower poem too, didn’t you? I caught a bit of that flavor also.

Keep on writing, and feeling, and responding to the world, both the writing one and the actual one. And don’t forget to run around and jump a lot, that’s important too.

Here is a more recent poem for you, to say my thanks. It’s called a broadside, when one poem is printed in a fancy fashion like this one.

Love to you,

Mary Oliver

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The Shortest Day

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We have a tradition around the winter holidays to take our grandchildren to a performance of the Christmas Revels.  For those of you who are not familiar with the Revels, it is a lively, colorful performance of song, dance and theater featuring local singers, actors of all ages wherever the Revels is playing, now in nine cities across the United States.  This year, we attended the original Revels, founded in 1971 in Cambridge, Massachusetts at Harvard’s Sanders Theater.  This December, they featured the culture of the Nordic countries of Finland, Sweden, Denmark.

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Ashley and I took our young sons year after year just before Christmas to the celebration of Revels North in Hanover, New Hampshire.  It is such a pleasure to now take Asher, age seven, and Delilah, age four, to hear many of the same songs and poems and to dance to the Lord of the Dance right before intermission. 

One of our favorite poems of the Revels is Susan Cooper’s The Shortest Day:

So the shortest day came, and the year died,

And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world

Came people singing, dancing,

To drive the dark away,

They lighted candles in winter trees;

They hung their homes with evergreen;

They burned beseeching fires all night long

To keep the year alive,

And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake

They shouted, reveling.

Through all the frosty ages you can hear them

Echoing behind us-listen!

All the long echoes sing the same delight,

This shortest day

As promise wakens in the sleeping land:

They carol, feast, give thanks 

And dearly love their friends

And hope for peace.

And so do we,

Here, now, this year and every year.

Welcome Yule!

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This time of the shortest day and the darkest month of the year brought us a new grandchild! John Allen Cadwell, “Jack,” was born to our younger son, Chris, and our daughter-in-law, Leila on December 2, 2018.  We were fortunate and so happy to spend Jack’s first three days home with him and his parents, helping, cooking, holding him and falling in love with the newest baby in the family.  We are full of gratitude for our Christmas with all three grandchildren and our dear sons and their wives. 

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With all the difficulties and challenges that we face in education and in many aspects of our lives on this beautiful planet, we are grateful for the beauty and quiet of the season and the love that we share.  We send you all our warmest greetings as 2018 finishes and as we open a new year, full, once again, of hope and promise and all possibilities.

Louise and Ashley

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p.s. We are now off on a January adventure.  We will be in touch through Instagram and Facebook and we will be back with new year’s blog posts in early February. 

Tiziana Filippini in Boston

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The Wonder of Learning exhibit from Reggio Emilia was in Boston from June through November, 2018, and has just departed for Madison, Wisconsin a few weeks ago. It was such a joy to have this exhibit in Boston. The leadership and organizers did an outstanding job generating and coordinating tours, workshops, initiatives, collaborations and conferences. The whole education community of Boston, of Massachusetts, and of wider New England is so grateful to have had the time to visit and revisit, and consider the inspiring and beautiful work from Reggio Emilia over the last six months.

The last professional development day was focused on documentation and was organized for Monday November 12th when teachers had the day off for Veterans Day. Tiziana Filippini was the featured speaker from Reggio Emilia. Mara Krechevsky and Megina Baker from Making Learning Visible project at Project Zero at Harvard presented as well. I was part of a group of educators offering workshops in the afternoon that focused on documentation.

Ashley and I were thrilled to see Tiziana in Boston. We have known her for 28 years and she is a dear friend. She was among the first Reggio educators I met when I attended a conference in Washington D.C. in the fall of 1990 when the exhibit then entitled The Hundred Languages of Children was at the National Children’s Museum. When our family arrived in Reggio Emilia in the fall of 1991, Tiziana was the pedagogista at the Diana School where I spent a good deal of my time that school year. Her daughter, Elisa is the age of our youngest son, Chris. Tiziana’s parents lived in the same apartment complex where we lived close to Scuola Diana. Our sons, Chris and Alden played with Elisa and other children in the courtyard and were treated to snacks by Tiziana’s generous and kind mother.

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At the conference on November 12th, Tiziana spoke to us without notes for over an hour. I was spellbound. She began by putting up quotes and images about the foundation of the work in Reggio Emilia. She said that she wanted to make sure that we understood, as much as possible, what they believe about human beings, school, and systems before she could speak to us about documentation. She quoted Jerome Bruner: The choice of one model for the human mind rather than another has political and social relevance. She told us that in Reggio Emilia, they view and build their educational project on the premise that school is a living system that is ecological and systemic…that these parts form an interdependent whole: the “ecology” of the environment, spaces and relationships; family involvement and exchange over long periods; building relationships and involvement with the town of Reggio; the atelier and the 100 languages; life long professional development and collegial work and exchange; and projection, documentation, observation, interpretation and relaunching learning. She said that the curriculum is not just about the disciplines, rather it is an ecological system of knowledge and teaching and learning strategies. She told us that documentation is not an end game…not a follow up of a finished process, but rather an essential practice of learning for every protagonist, the teacher, the child and the parents.

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She continued to use the analogy of learning about trees throughout her talk. She referred to the activity of giving children brown paper for the trunk and green for the leaves and telling them how to put a tree together…how to represent a tree. (She had observed this in a school in North America.) She asked us to think about what assumptions we have if we ask children to do this…What is the relationship we hope that they might develop with trees? With the natural world? With knowing trees as living elements as part of our world? With the diversity of kinds of trees? With all parts of trees and the network of relationships with the earth, the sun, the sky, creatures. She told us that we are talking about children’s relationship with the natural world which we hope will be authentic, deep, and beautiful.

When I lived in Reggio Emilia, I followed a long project on plants and trees with the 4-5 year old children, with teachers Paola Strozzi and Marina Mori, atelierista, Vea Vecchi, and pedagogista, Tiziana Filippini. I wrote about this project in chapter three of Bringing Reggio Emilia Home. I lived inside the ecology of the system of school that Tiziana described in her talk and inside the project about the relationships among the children and the trees. I am so grateful for that and for the opportunity to write about it. I am full of gratitude also for the chance to spend time with Tiziana in Boston, and for the community, far and wide, that continues to be inspired and to stretch and learn from the work in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

May we all be grounded in the presence and beauty of learning on this earth alongside children, and may we all continue to reach for the stars.

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