When Checking Out Is Checking In | David Rufo

Serendipitous opportunities are part of the working repertoire for artists. In a documentary about Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, John explained how he “stumbled upon” the opening chord progression for the title track [1]. The album sold more than 31 million copies and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, yet the music began as an accidental surprise.

In the early part of the twentieth century the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky stumbled on the idea of abstract painting. One day as he entered his studio at twilight he saw an image he described as “a mysterious picture, on which I could discern only forms and colors and whose content was incomprehensible” [2]. Moments later he realized it was one of his paintings standing on its side against a wall.

Writers also experience this stumbling upon of ideas. During a recent interview with Charlie Rose, author George Saunders described his working method as a largely uncharted process where the writer, the reader, and the character are “finding it out together” [3].

Ideally, fortuitousness should also play a role in how teachers go about teaching and how children go about learning but how can spontaneous creativity exist in a rigid learning environment filled with scheduling demands and narrowly focused itineraries?  In our fifth grade classroom, I often find that the most creative endeavors appear when students seem disconnected from the scheduled lesson or activity. I have found over the course of this school year that when we thought students were checking out of schoolwork, they were in fact checking into creative engagements. I always found it difficult to simply describe these students as “unengaged” because they were, in fact, deeply engaged in the creative process.

Ethan (a pseudonym) is intelligent, insightful, gentle, and kind. In our fifth grade classroom Ethan usually chose a corner near a window to sit. Ethan would typically enter into a muted conversation with a friend until directed by a teacher to attend to a lesson. Ethan was also content to sit alone, chin in hand, lost in thought. It was at these times that it was especially difficult to engage him in a class activity for a prolonged period. When asked directly, Ethan would agree to solve a multiplication problem, read a short passage, or conduct a science experiment. But his attentions to classroom expectations were brief, and soon he would be talking to another student, or as he once told me, “daydreaming of what I will do when I get home” (Personal communication, January 24, 2013).

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During these times Ethan would also produce creative works. If it happened to be snack time, he would use Cheerios to write his name in large block letters. Once during math he fashioned a miniature basketball hoop out of masking tape and a magic marker taking turns as he and a friend shot baskets using wadded up pieces of paper. Ethan was also known for ironic modes of expression. Earlier this year using masking tape to create moustaches and beards became a popular activity. Ethan joined in but instead of simply attaching tape to his face to mimic facial hair, he created a pirate beard by writing “arg!, arg, arg, arg” on a Post-It note and attaching it to his chin.

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Louisa (a pseudonym) was a student who had difficulty with transitioning according to our schedule. No matter what was on the agenda, she would immediately skip to the back and begin to rifle through a cart where we kept various supplies such as strands of copper wire, spools of fishing line, boxes of paper clips, rolls of tape, scissors, reams of paper, bottles of tempera paint, and a pitcher full of brushes.

Louisa always had a project she was working on. She would take an armful of supplies back to her table and begin making sculptures, banners, trinkets, drawings, paintings, lists, toys, tools, and models, always with a wide grin on her face.  It would take a great effort to coax her into putting the supplies aside to attend to a lesson. But once that was accomplished, within a few minutes she would be back at the cart gathering more materials to continue her creations.

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Louisa’s work ran the gamut. She could use water-based markers to create expressionistic sunsets or masking tape to form weapons to ward off imaginary foes such as her “Monster Hunting Whip.” Once she fashioned a kite from copy paper and tape that she spent an entire blustery recess attempting to fly.

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William (a pseudonym) was happiest when he was drawing a diagram or molding a form. It was uncanny what he could fashion out of a single piece of paper and a few inches of tape.  As a talented math and science student, William could easily do the work assigned to him. Whether he did it or not was another matter. It was difficult to predict what lesson or activity William would respond to or how much he actually knew during the times he would resist doing his schoolwork. It was equally impossible to know what might pique his interest and have him suddenly excited about a project. However, when left to his own devices, William would usually begin making sculpture out of paper. William’s paper models bore evidence of his prodigious talent. Ray guns, boats, or miniature cities seemed to flow naturally from William as he folded, cut, and taped.

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When I found a chance to interview the students about their self-initiated creations they offered detailed back stories and rationales. Many times I found myself thinking that these types of creative occurrences were indeed more important and more meaningful than the day’s math or science lesson. Yes, teaching academic skills is an important aspect of the schooling experience, especially if kids are going to be ready for the next grade level. But I wonder how many kids will become adept at long division at the cost of never stumbling upon the great American novel, the idea of abstract painting, or writing Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

References
[1] Smeaton, B. (Director). (2001, November 6). Classic Albums: Elton John – GoodbyeYellow Brick Road. UK: Eagle Rock Entertainment.
[2] Lindsay, K.C. & Vergo, P. (Eds.) (1994). Kandinsky: Complete writings on art.  Boston: Da Capo Press.
[3] Vega, Y. (Producer). (2013, January 29). Charlie Rose [Television Broadcast]. New York, NY: PBS.

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