The Sharper Image: On Choking Creativity in Schools

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706013_10200136044591949_440920571_oIn December 2012 – about half way through first grade – our then 7-year-old daughter stood in the doorway of our bedroom one early morning and – completely out of the blue – burst into an unstoppable torrent of tears.

She is usually an upbeat, inquisitive and easygoing child but she had been very quiet the evening before and I had heard her toss and turn in the night. In the morning I heard the pitter patter of her little feet and then I could make out her form in the doorway before the alarm went off.

Half awake I expected her to sneak up to the bed and get a morning snuggle, but instead, she stood frozen in the hallway for several minutes.

Then I heard the sobbing.

Parental instincts kicking in, I catapulted out of the bed and I knelt next to her to see if she was injured or simply had had a bad dream.

She didn’t appear to be ill or hurting but under the onslaught of tears she was trying to say something. I held her for several minutes and when the tears were reduced to a trickle, I was able to make out

  • “I damaged school property” and
  • “I must bring money to fix it”.

Now, as a parent, those are the moments your mind could possibly go a bit haywire.

Images of smashed windows, computer screens or similarly expensive equipment flashed before my minds eye and I made a mental note to check the content of our liability insurance later before catching myself and hitting the invisible anxiety breaks.

She was a first grader, after all.

After taking a deep breath I told our daughter, that no matter what she had broken, we needed to know what happened and that I was sure we could find a solution.

When she told me that she had sharpened her writing pencil at both ends, I was not sure whether to laugh or cry.

My first thought was that, surely, this was some sort of misunderstanding so I emailed the teacher for some clarification. The reply came immediately and confirmed, that yes indeed, the act of sharpening a pencil at both ends was considered damaging school property and the pencil had become dangerous (?) and would have to be replaced, hence the 1 Frank fine cost.

Quite stunned I wrote back stating, that

  1. I thought this a bit odd as nothing haThe pend been broken ie no damage had been done, in fact the pencil had now twice the usability it had before,
  2. I thought it would be a waste of resources to throw away a perfectly good pencil,
  3. a seven year old has no way of understanding the concept of a money fine at this point in their life, no matter how little the amount, and finally
  4. to my knowledge international companies such as Caran d’Ache sold bi-color-pencils that were sharpened at both ends, apparently without any kind of warning labels on the box…

Alas, there was no common ground to be found with the school on this issue, so we decided to pay the penalty on the condition that we would get to keep the “damaged goods” instead of it being chucked by the school.

We kept it and framed it. Because Dadaism.

At home, we sat our daughter down and explained that while we agree with the school that resources and infrastructure should be handled with care just as all people needed to be treated with respect, that we disagreed with both the fact that she had caused any damage and we also opposed that she was made to pay a fine.

As an added bonus we started actively researching people and projects that were using pencils in creative ways – a survey that we are still enjoying immensely to this date. Pencil art. Who knew??

Over the course of the next three years Miss M and we as parents, kept running into the same rigid mindset with the school, marveling at myriads of ways that it tried to smother any sign of curiosity, exploration and nonconformism from our daughter which included

  • Fines for damaging said pencil school property, later also for pushing holes into an eraser with the tip of a pencil,
  • Grade reduction in math tests if result of math equation was written slightly outside the lines of the answer box, even if the result was correct,
  • Grade reduction in spell tests for letters not fitting neatly on a line, even if words were spelled correctly,
  • Copying of self-deprecating and guilt inducing texts as punishment for forgetfulness.

Needless to say, Miss M’s motivation to learn at school as well as her grades plummeted in a very short amount of time.

And while we never gave a dung beetle’s lunch for grades or the grading system in general, we did worry about the fact that the main thing she learned at school was to study for tests and grades and that she was made to feel inferior if she did not meet the schools rigid expectations. Or as Neil deGrasse Tyson put it:

NDGT Twitter quote

After pondering several alternatives including switching her from public to a private school with a more holistic curriculum and talking things through with her, we decided on a different approach.

Realizing that her learning style was heavily visual and kinesthetic, we decided to expose her to different mindsets, supplementing what she heard at school with a selection of curated online videos of other people’s insights and opinions and to support her school curriculum with playful iPad apps in areas where she had trouble progressing with just the traditional read/write method.

We watched a wonderful short video series called “Being Creative” by fantasy author Tad Williams, followed by inspiring TED talks* such as autistic teen Jacob Barnett whose parents were told when he was two he would probably never be able to talk or 13 year old Logan LaPlante who explains the concept of Hackschooling focusing on being happy and healthy first.

Miss M on the other hand recently discovered that Stampy Cat, one of her favorite Minecraft celebrities, has created an educational YouTube series called Wonderquest. Set in the game, the Tubers investigate how the world works in a playful series of short adventures.

Watching the videos and using playful apps have been immensely helpful to keep the curiosity spark alive over these past three years.

And tomorrow she starts 4th grade.

Which means a new set of teachers and a clean slate to tackle the middle school years with all of their challenges.

While Miss M is anticipating moving up and into the “big school” with equal proportions of excitement and dread, my wish for her is to simply be allowed to continue to be who she is and to have people next to her who will guide her (and in fact all children) to realize their individual potential as they grow into young adults.

Because all in all we just don’t need more bricks in the wall.

*PS: Incidentally the most watched TED talk of all time (currently at a whopping 34 million views) by the formidable Sir Ken Robinson is aptly titled: Do schools kill creativity? If you haven’t watched this yet, do yourself a solid and invest 20 minutes of your life.