Monday, March 25, 2013

The Risk of Creation

I love vacations, for time apart--what Henri Nouwen might call renewal in solitude. I have read new books by favorite authors Louise Erdich and Barbara Kingsolver and discovered a writer I will read more of, Nicola Griffith. This is also a time for cleaning house - reclaiming my space-- and visiting with friends. Throughout this time two questions have been percolating in the back of my brain --What is excellent teaching (and can you measure it) and how do we foster creativity in our students? I will let the teacher question season some more before I pursue it here. However, the second question has taken an unexpected turn today. This morning I read a short piece by Janet Scott in Daily Reading from Quaker Writings Ancient and Modern. She writes that "As we act in obedience to the Light Within, we may become mediators through whom God's love is known. . . it means that we join ourselves to the risk of creation, to the authentic human being."

This phrase "risk of creation" has stuck with me all day, as I watched the snow (on March 25th!),  graded late work, folded laundry, read Griffith's Slow River and cooked for my family. What is so risky about creation? Is creation the same as creativity? As I visited with my daughter, home from her music rehearsal,  I found myself thinking about an interview I recalled in which Ravi Shankar, the late sitarist, talked about his long years of learning to master the traditional sitar technique and traditional sitar music before he ever attempted to create something new. His years of practice, memorization, study, and imitation had been necessary first. I recall a similar story about Izak Perlman traveling in China and listening to a young student play with great technical accuracy a challenging violin piece then Perlman played the same piece and the two were as different as night and day as he bought a life time of experience to creating something new from the score-- the difference between being accurate and authentic. How much mastery of craft (obedience) is necessary for creativity?

By this time in the year, I am actively encouraging my students to push through the boundaries of what they think I want them to know, to pursuing what they want to learn. But how do they share the new meaning and understanding they are gaining for themselves if they are still learning how to replicate and manipulate the forms and medium we use for communication -- essays, class discussions, on-line forum, blogs, debates, movies. Shouldn't it be enough for tenth graders to master skills and forms (and learn some history) and build a foundation for creation when they are older? I have respected colleagues who believe that high school must remain the place for skill and content mastery while college is the place for experimentation and individualized pursuits. I suspect Shankar's teacher would agree.

Teenagers are risk takers, its inherent in their unformed brains, so why not have them take risks within their learning? Why not encourage them to makes leaps from knowing one thing to conjecturing about another. Why not reward risk in the name of creativity. I have always looked at history as a means of teaching a set of skills. Why not create something new within the limits of the forms needing mastery? In recent years, I have come to look on history as a means of moving students from knowing to doing. I don't have an answer for the question I posed myself above except that I keep asking my students to think new and original thoughts and to adhere to the limits of the formal essay or the public blog or the round table discussion.  And sometimes out of this complexity they do venture something new and exciting. Perhaps obedience is about practice and over time practiced creativity leads to a courageous willingness to risk creation.