Creativity in the Classroom: A Step Too Far?

I´m falling into something of a routine out here, now. Three hours with the state school, two hours with the Catholic school, one hour´s private English lesson, one hour´s Spanish conversation with my flatmate, a couple of hour´s reading and then bed. That´s good. I like a routine. It lets me know what I´m doing. I tend to go a bit spare without exact orders.

As I guessed all along, the term ´language assistant´ is a very loose one, interpreted by different schools in different ways. Some of my companions are working as ´classic´ language assistants, taking individuals or small groups for short periods for conversation. Others attend class with an English teacher as a human dictionary, there to lend a hand whenever a native speaker´s touch is needed. In Spanish, the term ´language assistant´ gets shortened down to just one word – auxiliar – which leaves even more room for interpretation. And just as happened in the last two ´language assistant´ jobs I´ve had, I seem to be working a real teacher rota.

Granted, I had prior warning this time. The first time I was promoted, so to speak, I had no idea that I was supposed to be taking full classes on my own until I was told that the diminutive head of the French department had decided to benefit from my presence by taking a month´s holiday at short notice. This time I was given a couple of lessons´ observation to get the feel of it, and even though they mostly left me leading the events – a harbinger, I guess – it was good to know what I was getting myself in for in advance.

So I´m a sub-teacher. That´s not a problem. In fact, it´s exactly what I wanted. It´s just… well, it´s reassuring to know that it doesn´t matter where you go in the world, ´language assistant´ is always a very flexible term.

In one school I take entire classes on my own, from bawling primary level to studious upper sixth. In the other I also prepare an hour´s class for whichever groups of the twelve I have that day – equally widely-spread, but fortunately without the weekly terrors of the primaria – and these are almost always under the supervision and occasional assistance of one of the English staff. The irony there is that they´re probably doing what comes under my job description. The system in place is the one used by bilingual schools nationwide: one class where the language of conversation can only be English, to compliment the others which are spent on writing and grammar. Nobody likes grammar. So that means it´s my class that everyone looks forward to by default, which is something to smile about.

Taking a full class obviously means you need an hour´s worth of material, and with teenagers thrown into the mix, you need to be prepared for all eventualities. I´m learning what to do when they´re tired, and how to calm them down when they´re exciteable, without letting them know there´s a system to it all. I´m learning what ideas students wants to discuss and which ones turn them off, and which games work well, and which ones don´t. And though I should have seen it coming a mile off, I tried this week once again with what is and always has been the greatest stumbling block of all: tapping into the students´ creativity.

Now this is something I feel very strongly about, and I´ve already written one behemoth of a text this week, so I´ll tackle it as lightly as I can. The simple fact of the matter is that there isn´t enough emphasis placed on creativity in schools these days. To tell the truth, I´m not entirely sure there ever has been. One of my English teachers once announced at a parents´ evening that she was ´paid to teach, not to inspire´. I disagree entirely. Inspiration should be right at the front of teaching, if we´re not all to become mindless robots.

Ah, but this is beginning to smack of yesterday´s post. It´s vaguely related, primarily because the game I´ve been ending my technology lessons with – a simplified variation on the British radio show I´m Sorry I Haven´t A Clue´s “Good News, Bad News” – has, time and again, come up dead in the water. The reason? Because nobody´s able to tap into their own creativity. I don´t know whether it got stamped out of the education system in favour of textual comprehension or the study of presentational devices – the kind of stuff that actually comes up in an exam – but the art of coming up with stories seems to disappear once you hit secondary school level.

For a budding author, I find this nothing short of horrifying. I spent most of my school career writing stories, and yes, it probably did affect my grades, but I left with an impressive English mark, and it´s my English that has always saved my neck. I´d have been flat-out rejected from grammar school if it hadn´t been for my English, since my mathematical capability is comparable to that of a wet flannel. The only excuse I can think of is that I´ve never stopped writing: from short stories to novels, diaries to blogs, love letters to newspaper articles. It keeps me alive. More importantly, it keeps my brain alive.

The higher up the education system you go, the less you´re encouraged to think for yourself. At some point you have to start quoting other writers. Then you have to start referencing other texts you´ve read and basing your arguments on the standpoints of extinct luminaries. The result, of course, is that by the time you get to university and you´re suddenly encouraged to come up with your own argument, a lot of people are quite understandably left high and dry, because they haven´t been taught how to think that way.

Here´s the difficulty. Creativity cannot be taught. It can be encouraged, it can be inspired, but it cannot be taught. For starters, how do you mark creativity? This is a regular feature of the arts world, of course, but outside the tripartite kingdom of Art, Music and Drama, creativity doesn´t get all that much of a look-in. In a world where everybody is mark-centric, from pupils to parents to headmasters and the governors to whom they bow, that kind of question gets thrown out early on, and the baby with the bathwater. So me going headlong into a class of fifteen year-olds and expecting them to come up with a story in fifteen minutes of “Good News, Bad News” was the very height of foolishness, especially for somebody with two jobs´ worth of teaching experience under his belt. A different English teacher – one who certainly did know how to inspire – once told us that the truth of the matter is that there are those who can, and those who can´t. I´m still not entirely sure where I stand on that, since I´m none too keen to cut anybody off, but I acknowledge that there´s more than a kernel of truth in that statement.

Creativity, I believe, is something that we´re all born with. We all loved to listen to stories when we were children, and most of us will have tried our hand at making one or two, intentionally or no. Heck, it´s fuelled language growth, all the arts and technology for all human existence. The trouble is that so much of it disappears when we grow up, when we´re told we have to put fiction behind us and focus on the real world. Unless you´re a stubborn little bastard like me, and you decide early on to defy that and to hold on to your creativity and remain a child forever. Like a twenty-first century Peter Pan.

In short, it´s perhaps too much to expect every student to be able to create stories of their own, especially at secondary level. There are a few rogue elements – it´s not difficult to recognise your own characteristics in others – but on the whole it strays much too far into the awkward silence minefield. Well, I´ve learned my lesson (no pun intended). But I´m not about to concede defeat. Never. I doubt I´ll make story-tellers out of the lot of them, but if I can sow the seeds of a budding Cervantes or Lope amongst the drowsy horde, I´ll consider my job accomplished. At the end of the day, we´re all story-tellers in one way or another. All it takes is the courage to leave behind what is real and to dabble with what is not. I said right at the start that I like exact orders. True. But there´s enough of an anarchist in me to want to break free sometimes. I hope there´s a little anarchy in everybody. BB x

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