At a recent panel hosted by GOOD and the University of Phoenix, I had the honor to join Jan Kirsch from Inner City Arts, Cynthia Campoy-Brophy from The HeArt Project, and Sophia Klatzker from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. We discussed the changing environment of schools and how our programs are working to help keep creativity in classrooms and in the lives of young people. We tackled this subject from a wide range of vantage points, but one area we all seemed to connect on was that students need to be engaged in their learning. Whether it's through art or mentorship, students learn best when they are given the tools to take ownership of their learning.
The organization I head, 826LA, focuses on getting students excited about the written word, and to do that, we'll try anything (well almost). During after-school tutoring our labs in Venice and Echo Park are jam-packed with students getting help from volunteers on their homework. Our goal in this specific program is to help students get their homework done first so that they'll A) be prepared for their next day of school, B) have time to enjoy their families when they go home, and C) so that we can then get them to read and write, which is our favorite thing to do. And this is not to say that all students are excited to put pen to paper, but we have ways to trick them -- or at least make it seem as if what they're doing is not really work, but fun. If our students don't want to write a response to our prompt of the day, they can choose to Tweet or make lists of their favorite songs, food, video games or compose Haikus. The trick is that we let them choose. They get to pick the book they want to read from our vast library and choose to sit alone or read out loud. It's up to them. And in the long run, isn't their learning really up to them?
To foster creativity and a life-long love for learning, students need to be given the time and room to practice some form of creative expression. I see this all the time in classrooms I've visited here in Los Angeles. There are social studies teachers who use role play as a way to teach about the debate behind the creation of the Constitution. Students use primary sources to prepare themselves to play Thomas Jefferson or Abigail Adams and debate the issues at hand. Some of the best Math teachers I've witnessed incorporate games and puzzles as part of their daily practice, and still get to complete their lessons. Many teachers also use writing as a way to get their students to brainstorm the bigger ideas of a particular subject before they are led deeper into the subject matter. Most of these creative practices take a small amount of class time, but the effect is engaged students who come back day after day anticipating something new and exciting.
But it's not always easy to keep things fun in the classroom or at outside-of-school programs. Some students don't always want that. In fact, the reality is that many young folks rarely get the chance to relate to what they're learning or to talk through what's really going on with them. And sadly, a good portion of students lose their way because they don't think the effort to learn or to go to school is worth it. Back when I was a first-year teacher, I remember a colleague telling me that once students get to high school, they're set in their ways and no matter how great a teacher you are, you may never reach them. Well, I'm glad I never listened to that, otherwise I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. As hard as it may seem, it's never okay to give up and do the norm. Students need inspiration and role models to help them find what's exciting about learning. And that's what great teachers do -- they inspire students.
At 826LA we hope to instill writing as a vehicle for students to explore their thoughts and become engaged in the learning and writing process. And we also want students to engage with adults who care about them and respect what they have to say. Take a look at a video one of our volunteers, Darrell Gabonia produced about our Young Authors Project, where students are turned into published authors in a matter of months:
Students need time to create and think. We need to provide students with the resources and experiences that help them develop a real understanding of what education can do for them. Without this, young people can get lost in the shuffle of life.