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Burning the Creative Flame

“There are educationists (as jargon has it) who think that creativity itself can be taught, and who write learned, and frequently dull, treatises on methods of teaching it.  It is rather as though they were trying to eat air, with the usual result.  The creative impulse, like love, can be killed, but it cannot be taught.  What a teacher or librarian or parent can do, in working with children, is to give the flame enough oxygen so that it can burn.  As far as I’m concerned, this providing of oxygen is one of the noblest of all vocations.” (Madeleine L’Engle,  A Circle of Quiet,  p. 45-46)
This statement could have been made by one of my BYU professors who taught ‘Art For Elementary School Teachers.’  “Think BIG,” he told us as he inspired us with all kinds of projects we could do with our future students.  I set out into the world with my diploma in hand, fired up to teach, not realizing how little I knew about the practical side of life.
In time I found myself teaching a class of twenty-five students in a small town out on the Canadian prairie.  “Think BIG,” I told my wide-eyed Grade Four-Five students.  “We are going to make paper mache projects.”  So we thought big.  No little balloon shaped bowls or tiny wobbly box ornaments for us.  We planned monstrous dinosaurs, knee-high model sailing ships, and towering skyscrapers.  My students caught my enthusiasm and began to bring newspapers, wire, tree branches, boxes, cardboard tubes, and feathers from home.  The art room was downstairs from my classroom and was shared by all the other teachers, so after every art class, my students had to bring their projects upstairs to dry on the long shelf at the back of the classroom.  After a week of feverish work, gummy hands, and sometimes flour paste fights interspersed with more mundane things like multiplication tables, nouns, and verbs, we still hadn’t finished our projects.  Another week went by, and the end was still not in sight.
One day after school, the principal came into my classroom to talk to me.  “Making paper mache projects?” he asked in a dry voice.
“Why yes, how did you know?”  I eyed him warily, sensing something was not quite right.
“Perhaps it had something to do with the trail of flour and purple goo going from the art room to your classroom.”
I felt myself turning red as I stammered an apology.  “I’ll clean it up right away.”  I wondered if he would ask me to pay the janitor a bonus for all the extra work I was making for him.
“And how long until this project will be completed?”
“Um… I’m not sure.”
Mr. B. looked at me over his glasses.  “And just what is the educational basis for this project?  What are you trying to accomplish?”
I gulped.  It seemed like the principal was always asking me that.  I glanced at the back of the room, which was cluttered with half-finished projects, all looking like barely developed backstage props for a mummy movie.  I also glanced above them at the giant multicolored dragon that I had drawn, which covered the entire back wall.  Mr. B. had previously challenged me on the educational value of children coloring dragon scales.  I didn’t dare look up at the ceiling which was ablaze with a plethora of kites.
I knew there was a good reason to do all these things,  I really did.  But when the principal fixed me with that look, my mind went blank, and all I could think of was how much fun my kids were having.  That expensive diploma gathering dust in my drawer at home wasn’t helping me one bit.  Where were all those fancy educational theories and big words when I needed them?  I thought frantically.  “Well, it increases their small motor skills.  And they are learning to cooperate with each other.”  I didn’t mention the heated argument that had broken out between two of the boys that morning.  “They are learning to work hard.”
The principal grimaced.  “They’re going to learn a lot about working hard.  Tomorrow they’re going to clean the art room.  I want this project finished by Friday.  The other teachers are starting to complain.”
I hastily agreed.  I was very aware of my precarious position in the pecking order of that school.  I was the new teacher skating behind a solid core of well-seasoned, tenured teachers who knew everything there was to know about children and teaching.  If I blew it, I was gone.   The principal nodded and left the room.  I sank back in my chair, sighing in both relief and frustration.  Somehow I had to strike a balance between creativity and order.
The paper mache project came and went, and my mad cap year of teaching that Grade Four-Five class remains a singularly creative experience in my life.  I really don’t know if my kids learned anything or not, but we sure had a lot of fun.

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