Centering Students as Creators

In an influential article reimagining how we teach art in the modern classroom, Gude observes that when students set about "looking for and developing images from inkblots, smoke marks, or wax drippings," even the artistically checked-out ones begin to recognize themselves as creators:

Initially, students may be confused and suspicious—claiming they don't see anything in the blurs and blobs, but as peers and teachers model an experimental attitude, soon the classroom is filled with exclamations as new images and combinations are spontaneously discovered. Students who are taught to access the creative unconscious don't drive teachers mad complaining, "I don't have an idea." These students have learned the important artistic lesson that artists do not know the outcomes of their works before they begin. Artists immerse themselves in a process of making and sensitively interact with images and ideas as they emerge.

We would do well to follow Gude's lead in other fields of art education, too. When I interned at The Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas this summer, I noticed the staff was well prepared for students who would claim, "I'm really not the creative type." In our workshops, we sometimes had students brainstorm on paper as a warm-up activity, but the proper beginning would always involve dissecting a story or film clip and bouncing original ideas around in a group discussion.

This works great for elementary schoolers, whose boundless imaginations seldom need more than a push-start. It's insecurity about speaking in front of unknown students (these were summer day camps, after all), not insecurity about their creative facility, that holds them back.

High school students are another story, though. By tenth or eleventh grade, a subset of kids now identifies as "ambitious." They are eager to see their name at the top of a page filled with text—especially if they can send it off as a college or scholarship application—and they like the idea that they have a story to tell. And they all do. But early on in our college essay workshop at BFI, when asked to describe their apprehensions about writing their applications, all also said some version of: "I have a vision for myself, but I'm not sure how telling the story of my past adds up to it."

The lead teacher on that workshop, a professional essay counselor who volunteered to do this workshop for free, was excellent at helping students connect their future ambitions with narratives of their past. Her process seemed like a formula at first, until you looked closer and realized it was the exact opposite. The students filled out surveys to get their superficial interests out of the way—things like sports and music, or what Gude would call "'symbols of themselves' [that] promote narrow, limited, socially pre-defined categories of identity." Having found this rhythm, the students next did a similar questionnaire asking about their values and social concerns.

The task of the workshop (and, I suppose, the college essay broadly) was to use storytelling to bridge column A with column B, and this central how question of writing was left to the students' creativity. There was, of course, the obligatory read-over of successful application essays to top universities. But this teacher didn't ask the students to count the number of anecdotes, have them calculate the ratio of "showing to telling," or make any other such cruel attempt to reduce writing to a mathematical exercise (as if words weren't intimidating enough without numbers). Instead, she led the students in a discussion focusing on the emotional impact of specific phrases within each essay. The students picked out the writerly gestures they found interesting; there was no judgment if they favored a passage others deemed corny or wordy or mathy. They were recognizing writing as a subjective undertaking. They were seeing the faces in the inkblots.

As I prepare to be teaching music music again after a summer of creative writing, I'm finding Gude's article an impactful synthesis of this summer's implicit realizations. In arts education, we can do more than turn up the volume on existing channels of students' personas. Rather than asking that stereotypical music-teacher question, "What kind of music are you into?" I think we can arrive at a more innovative—and more stylistically robust—pedagogy by asking students (and ourselves), "What kind of musician do you want to be?" People, after all, are at art's center.

By way of a soft ending: The next stop on this train of thought is Schippers' Facing the Music: Shaping Music Education from a Global Perspective, the core text for an elective I'm taking in our music education department. To decenter western models of music teaching and learning, Schippers favors the anthropological term transmission in describing how people encounter music. "What we hear, learn, and teach is the product of what we believe about music," he writes. We believe music can inform a positive self-identity, an emotionally attuned lifestyle, and the construction of stronger communities, but what message do we send students when we spend forty minutes of a precious hour's general music class memorizing solfege syllables?