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Creativity vs. Organization

I’m enrolled in Cathy Davidson’s “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” MOOC.

I’ve got some comments about the course in general in another post, but I thought that I might as well share, here, my first assignment for the course. No guarantees that I will keep up with these assignments, but at least I did complete the first one!

The Assignment:
What is one thing–a pattern, habit, behavior–you have had to “unlearn” in your life in order to be able to learn something new? Please write a 500-word essay about what it was you had to unlearn, any challenges you encountered, and any successes you experienced.

My effort:
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As a teacher, I started as a camp counselor and tutor, beginning in 6th grade (my own 6th grade, when I was 12). I did lots of one-on-one work, lots of work about supporting and coaching students, lots of “guide on the side” and almost no “sage on the stage.” I made close connections with students and helped them to come to active learning on their own. I valued creativity (mine and theirs) and flexiblity–meeting students where they were, letting them guide the learning, enjoying a process with them without much emphasis or concern for product.

When I was first hired (almost 30 years ago) as a high school teacher, one of the first major adjustments or “unlearnings” I had to face was the insistence (by the NYC Board of Education) on organization, structure and rigid format. Every lesson, every class, every day needed a lesson plan that had to fit a very clearly-defined template. There was a “Do Now” and an “Aim” (both of which had to be on the board, visible to anyone who came in the room, in every class. When I started as a student teacher, I was told that the principal or a supervising teacher could come into the room at any time and ask to see my lesson plan. If I didn’t have it on paper, in the proper format, or if anything was going on in the class that was not explicitly mentioned in the lesson plan, I could be immediately dismissed…or at least “written up” with a poor evaluation.

As an English teacher, working with students on literature (from SE Hinton to William Shakespeare), on poetry and expression and creative writing, I felt stifled. I felt that I was being asked to kill language, murder learning, torture free thinking, in the ways that I had hated as a student and that I had seen as being useless to my own students. But I needed the job, needed the credential, so I continued. I learned to write plans and state clear objectives and to work backwards from the freedom that I really wanted for students and find ways to create that freedom within the required framework. I even found, eventually, that there were times and there were students for whom that structure was comfortable and encouraging. It turned out that a clear organization and structure could actually be a place where exploration could begin (and through some tricky writing, the written lesson plan could even contain openings, loopholes, where the exploration could be seen to fit).

I didn’t last too long as a high school teacher (seeing copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, brand-new and untouched, in the bookroom and being told that they were off-limits because they “stirred students up” was the final straw). And when I went from there to teaching college, I went much more back to my freedom-loving, digression-valuing style (some would say “chaotic”). But when I started teaching online, I found again that organization could be the ally of creativity, and that an online class particularly required a clear organization and a carefully-designed structure…or else there couldn’t be as many of the productive advantages of digression and serendipity.

These days I balance (or struggle to balance) creativity vs. organization, trying to make sure that we have, in every class, the right ratio of both. I like to think that I didn’t “unlearn” creativity, or “learn” organization, either. I unlearned the dichotomy and learned the balance.
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