Friday, March 23, 2012

Undo the Folded Lie

Wing Left Behind

"Creativity is the residue of time wasted," wrote Albert Einstein. I think about this observation as I recall the last few months spent visiting city schools where 'wasting time' is an anathema. The efficient education reform machine is juiced on the single test performance of children.  I think of this as I recall my own son's teachers who in the past have who told me in hushed tones that he spends a lot of time looking out the window, daydreaming, as if such behavior was aberrant. Some seemed a bit surprised when I acknowledged what had been said and added, "Yes I know. He's learned that at home."

Nurturing the child's imagination ought to be our concern, our wonder, our delight, our obligation.  It needs to be our national interest and we need to stop pouring tax dollars into testing regimes and the awful prepping that accompanies such national attention. In the classrooms I have been visiting, the imagination is largely undetected.  Truth be told? These visits break my heart.  Recently, I met two young teens who were characterized by their teacher. One was characterized as 'mentally retarded' and the other,  'autistic'.  The teacher agreed that I would have the opportunity to meet the boys and to work with each of them. She expressed concern about the boys' reading given the directive that she had received that limited her choice of texts to 'grade level texts' and ones that exceeded the students' reading ease.  Her school is 'readying' fro the Common Core. We have to use hard books, she says. Her mission is to 'move students from level 1 to to level 2' in state testing.

"I don't know how I am going to move them to level 2," she confided. I know of no other way to characterize many of the teachers I meet other than to say they seem beleaguered, frightened, and terribly uncertain of themselves as teachers--as thinkers.  Student performance on a single state test matters more than anything else. It is no longer hyperbole to say that their very livelihood depends on how their students perform on this single measure.


I had an iPad with me and asked the first boy if he had ever used an iPad.  He said he had not and as we sat next to each other I showed him how it turned on and opened a folder of books.  He indicated that he wanted to see The Three Little Pigs.  I opened it and eased the iPad in front of him.  As we moved through the first screen, he quickly took over figuring how to interact with the text. After a lot of huffing and puffing, I asked if we might stop the book even though we had not reached the end. I asked if he could return to the beginning of the book and perhaps he might show the story to the other boy (who had been sitting near by watching his class give an efferent retelling of a  story).  He agreed and he was quickly joined by the other boy.  What was pretty remarkable was the amount of language the boys generated talking to one and to the book. There were no questions to answer, main ideas to determine, or details to name.  Story existed, at least for the moment, as pleasure.

Their laughter and chatter must have been contagious as it seemed to attract another boy who quickly took my seat and half way through the story the three were joined by another four boys. Within a minute or so, another teacher appeared and herded the boys back to their desks explaining that they needed to write a test-prep essay. One boy squawked and I asked if he might remain until the story was concluded as he had been following along from the beginning. The teacher agreed.

Because these children had not passed the state test during previous administrations, they are subject to two periods of ELA and two periods of mathematics. As a result, they do not have art, music, dance, woodworking, culinary arts, gaming, language, or any type of elective.  They know nothing of hanging out, messing around or geeking out as Mimi Ito describes.  Such worlds are not only banned from school, but are also not valued.  There is the mistaken belief that adding more test prepping time will lead to better test results. In addition to these double periods--social studies and science classes are also offered. At some schools, social studies is simply an excuse to do more "literacy" AKA: test prepping. Once a week the children participate in physical education. In most schools I visit there are no computers, handhelds, or any other type of potential assistive technologies in use or in some cases even present. 

At some schools the teens remain in a single classroom all day. They do not have an occasion to move. One teacher confided how hard this is for some of the learners as they have ADHD. She says how she couldn't do what is required of her students.  Her comment about ADHD had me recalling a comment Jonah Lehrer made recently on a radio show. He was discussing his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, on the Brian Lehrer Show (3.22.12) and it got me wondering:
What if school was based on the continuous reinvention of self, rather than accumulation of information?
Jonah discussed how it was once thought that creativity declined as one aged.  Lehrer says this has been found to be false. It appeared to be so as when one ages some become "weighted down with too much conventional wisdom" (Lehrer, Kindle Locations 1789-1790).  In contrast, creative people consistently reinvent themselves.

Imagine school based on reinvention?  Imagine how differently students and teachers would be understood and situated if the retrieval and remembrance of information ceased to be the main emphasis and instead occasioning the definition and reinvention of one's self were privileged.  Would we need to refer to children as 1s, 2s, partially proficient, ELLs, Speds? Would terms such as 'mentally retarded' still find voice? Would we need to classify children?  Might we redefine malady as sources of creativity?  Lehrer makes this observation:
Or look at a recent study led by Holly White, a psychologist at the University of Memphis. White began by giving a large sample of undergraduates a variety of difficult creative tests. Surprisingly, those students diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) got significantly higher scores. White then measured levels of creative achievement in the real world, asking the students if they’d ever won prizes at juried art shows or been honored at science fairs. In every single domain, from drama to engineering, the students with ADHD had achieved more. Their attention deficit turned out to be a creative blessing (Kindle Locations 602-606).
This capacity to be distracted--a stimulus for creativity--is ruthlessly removed from the day-to-day lives of children and teachers at school. The efficient machine does not recognize distraction as an asset.  This efficiency is a human spirit killer. From the President to the town realtor--from the parent bragging about his/her child's state test score to the CEOs of companies raking in billions on selling tests, scoring services, curricula, test prepping materials, resources, and professional development--we each bear the blame of limiting children and we have the voice to undo it.

Auden, in "September 1, 1939"  said it best, when he wrote:
All I have is a voice 
To undo the folded lie
Of the sensual man-in-the-street 
And the lie of Authority 
Whose buildings grope the sky: 
There is no such thing as the State 
And no one exists alone; 
Hunger allows no choice 
To the citizen or the police; 
We must love one another or die.

How do you unfold the lie?
Where have you started?

Work Cited
Lehrer, Jonah (2012-03-19). Imagine: How Creativity Works. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition. 


  1. ah.. here you are again. i love this place.

    loving this:
    We must love one another or die.

    and this:
    the continuous reinvention of self.


    thank you dear.

    1. I have thought of you and what your making in CO. I mst make my way west. Thank you.

  2. This is one of the huge dangers of grading and standardization. Instead of looking for strength, we look for deficit. We use inappropriate language to discuss our students, and think of them as numbers instead of people.

    1. The inappropriate language is so worrisome. It speaks loudly to how teens are understood and valued.

  3. I was working with Drama teachers yesterday and we were looking at children's books as a source of dramatic inspiration and possibility. One of the groups was using the book, "David Goes to School" ( There's one page where David is looking out the window, imagining wonderful figures in the clouds, and the admonition comes loud and clear, "David, pay attention". As a group we spoke about the reality that David was, in fact, paying attention. He was engrossed. It's just that he wasn't attending to the same thing as the teacher.

    This is such an important post for those of us who had phrases like, "Stephen has a lot of potential, but he daydreams too much" inscribed on their official school reports! Well, the fact is that many that were incurable daydreamers in their childhood are still dreaming. Some have been provided the tools to take their imaginations to the levels of creativity and innovation, and some, even in their adult lives, stare out the window imagining fantastic creatures in the clouds.

    I agree with @davidwees that applying our narrow filters to judge and try to correct "deficits" prevents us from deep understanding of the wonderful complexity that lies within each of us.

    1. Stephen, wish I had written your closing line. So succinct and perfectly captures the dilemma I struggled to express. Yes, this deficit finding does keep us from understanding. Thanks so much for your comment.


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