Republished from the Encounteract Archives, 2017
By Kathryn Muller
‘Make’ always felt like an essential aspect of this blog, but it has taken me a while to figure out how I want to use it. As an art student at university being a ‘maker’ became part of my identity, Following university, I had a brief but wonderful stint working as a set and prop builder for children’s theatre in Namibia and now I am a Grade 1 teacher and making stuff is as important to my work as ever.
Something you hear over and over again as a teacher (especially, but not necessarily if you have transitioned from practicing artist to teacher) is that you will ‘lose your creativity’ the longer you spend at the mercy of the energies and emergencies of your students. Whatever your good intentions, you are told, you will start to do less and less of your own work and more and more mindless, meaningless stuff that has to do with fulfilling them. Slowly your lack of fulfilment will deplete you, rendering you creatively impotent and incapable even of satisfying the diluted creative needs of your life-sucking students. You will plunge into teacher gloom and darkness and then proceed to stay in that teaching job for 20 years, until you die one day in the cafeteria choking on a cheesenak.
Well that might be a slightly sensationalised version, but you get the idea. There is this deeply-held belief that working with children is so demanding and exhausting that you can’t stay on top of your creative impetus for long. As the creativity dwindles, so does your inspiration, both in your personal creative life and your professional one. At the same time you become apathetic to the situation, because you’ve learnt how to teach like a zombie and basically you could do your job with your eyes closed – and so you just do.
Now I am only 1.5 years into teacher and only 6 months into my ‘own first class’ – the first group of students I am tasked to teach for the whole year. I know that I am in absolutely no position to tell veteran teachers how to teach, or when it is appropriate to sacrifice creativity for convenience. But at the same time, I am not actually here to criticise – In fact I agree emphatically with the above statement. As sensationalistic as the ‘YOU WILL LOSE YOU CREATIVITY’ trope sounds, I think it is bitingly true for both new and experienced teachers and I have a few different theories as to why this is the case, as well as some germinating ideas of how to deal with it. And this is what I want to share.
Since my experience is as a practicing artist transitioning to teaching, I am writing from a particular position that not all teachers relate to. But this distinction actually points to one of the main problems I perceive in why teaching is seen as so creatively exhausting and depleting – namely that the creativity required of teachers is seen as inferior to the creativity required of artists, designers and folk who work in the so-called creative industries. This is unfair not least because the proliferation of complacent/ passive teaching tools ironically stems from the fact that teaching is SO creatively demanding that to invent every lesson, every teaching moment, with the appropriate resources and relevant assessment tools would be downright impossible. I have been given advice like ‘try to have one really fabulous lesson a week’ – a way of saying that you should take your creative wings out for a good stretch once a week to keep them in splendid form, but don’t overuse them because they’ll get fucked up really soon if you do that. I know for certain that as a new teacher I have been less productive with my students than I technically should be (in terms of covering the syllabus) simply because I am trying to figure out how best to facilitate their learning – what strategies to use, what resources, what tools – and this is a slow, tricky and creative process.
For my own learning, I use a combination of researched ideas and trial-and-error practice. I glean as much as I can from others, ranging from the deceptively tricky worksheet download, to DIY dolls and recipes for dough. But these ideas only take you so far – because you still need to make them into real, usable resources and then you need to make them happen in your class. This second step is another aspect of teaching creativity that is undervalued and even invisible - the practice of teaching itself; the task of utilising the resources you have at your disposal to facilitate learning in your students. Simply put, to identify and produce a creative resource is one thing, to plan a creative lesson around that resource is another but to realise that plan to the betterment of your students – that is what kickass creative teaching is all about, and it is arguably the most challenging part.
Some teachers may be able to pull off this kickass move with apparent (and appalling, enviable) ease, others may have started more enthusiastically in earlier years and then felt their resolve dwindle (the ‘ YOU WILL LOSE YOUR CREATIVITY TROPE’ again). Others still might have avoided such lessons altogether, thinking that the creativity required was out of their scope of practice. Many teachers have told me simply that they ‘can’t draw’ or even that they are ‘just not creative’. This is upsetting because the truth is that even the least creative lesson resource requires creative application from teachers (I want to shake them and cry 'But you ARE creative' like when Shrek tells Fiona 'But you ARE Beautiful!). It is also upsetting because the most creatively awesome resources can be wasted in situations where they are used apathetically during teacher practice. So what can be done about this? How can the sourcing and production of creative resources AND the implementation of these resources be improved in learning environments? In particularly, how could these two factors be improved here in Southern Africa.
After this long introductory rant, I have a proposal. It is both far-fetched and far from reality but I am going to write about it first, here, and then move to action. Here goes!
Wouldn’t it be super cool and brilliant if a huge network of South African artists, crafters and creative producers made teaching resources that weren’t generic and made of kak plastic? Wouldn’t it be awesome if these artisan resources weren’t overpriced and available only in upscale urban markets for yummy mummy’s to buy, but were made from locally sourced, natural or upcycled materials and made affordable and available to schools and learning centres in need, across the country? There are so many skilled artisans working in South Africa, from all walks of life and equipped with all kinds of skills - imagine the variety and plentitude that could be created? And see, the wonderful thing about equipping a creative classroom as that variety is key, so there needn’t be strict prescriptions on what should be made – the key would be collaborating with teachers and students to figure out what kinds of resources to make – and truly the possibilities and potentials are endless! Imagine if 100 artists produced and donated 5 resources each. Even better, imagine that these resources were not just once-off productions, but opensource prototypes that could be remade or adapted by anyone who had the instructions and necessary materials. Some could even be produced directly in the classroom, inspiring creative production in students and facilitating a crucial sense of ownership over the resources in their class. Wouldn’t it be cool if an organisation like ASSITEJ South Africa or AREA (Africa Reggio Emilia Alliance), or Nal'ibali got involved in introducing the resources to schools to workshop with teachers and students about how they might use them? Wouldn’t it be cool if a feedback loop were created between teachers and students using these materials in schools and the artisan’s producing the materials, so that over time, a deep collaboration could develop, making the production and utilisation of the materials all the more valuable and meaningful to all involved?
Well I think it would be cool and I’d like to find out who agrees. Following this I will write more details about the rationale behind this idea, in particular why these kinds of resources and materials could benefit students and teachers and why we need a locally authentic and viable way to produce them. I would love to hear from anyone who is interested or inspired by the same concerns. Up next... A background to the Reggio Emilia approach and it's potential in the Southern African context.