06/01/2010 11:52 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Superstitious Pigeon in English Class

As a college English instructor, I am always looking for new and innovative ways to inspire my students to want to improve their writing ... and their thinking. A teacher must impart knowledge to his pupils, but I think my more important role is to somehow nurture in them a desire--a drive--to be more expressive and creative.

A few days ago, I found an online video of a brief talk given by film director James Cameron at a recent TED conference (where experts in their respective fields discuss innovations in technology, entertainment, and design). Cameron spoke about integrating his passions for storytelling, science, science fiction, and exploration into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

I showed this video in class because Cameron had unveiled a formula for success. He told his listeners to follow their natural curiosity and to let it fuel their imaginations, for imagining is the first step toward creating a reality. Any innovation, anything new, has to be imagined before it can be brought to fruition.

Cameron went on to say that work is done best when it is done not merely for offered incentives, but for the love of the task itself. I tell my students, Don't focus on the grade, the material incentive. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but obsessing about getting an "A" is counterproductive. It will drag you down and take the fun out of everything. Don't think of a writing assignment as several hours of drudgery. Find a way to make composition fun.

I direct students to respond to something they have read, and I show them how that can be fun: Find something in the reading that you are curious about, and then let your imagination run with it. Don't put limitations on yourself. Don't write what I call the generic essay, one that just about anyone could come up with. Write the essay that only you could write, one that comes from somewhere inside, where your creative individuality lingers waiting to be set free. Almost any reading assignment is a minefield of inspiration if you open your mind to the possibilities. Whatever you do, don't approach the reading thinking that it's going to be boring. That is a killer of inspiration, fun, and joy.

James Cameron obviously is passionate about doing his job, which is making movies. There is no reason that you cannot tap into your passions--and also have fun--doing your job in my class, which is writing the best essay you can possibly create. And here's the ironic kicker: that essay will probably get you that formerly illusive good grade.

When students begin to follow this formula for success, fresh ideas and connections start popping up. One young lady's curiosity was piqued by a story Richard Dawkins told in his book Unweaving the Rainbow. Behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner found that after putting pigeons in his famous Skinner box, the birds soon exhibited what he called "superstitious" behavior.

This provoked the young lady's imagination. It hit a nerve. The story sounded very familiar. She recalled her habit of flashing her high beams whenever she stopped at a red light. She had heard that by doing so, the light would quickly change to green. Was she a "superstitious pigeon"? She did a little research on traffic lights and learned quite a bit about coincidence, the power of suggestion, and herself.

Her essay stood out because only she could have written it. She used her natural curiosity, ran it through the creative mill of her imagination, and wrote with fresh insight about her behavior and about how the real world works. She still might fall back and be a superstitious pigeon every now and again, but the self-awareness she has garnered cannot be underestimated.

And guess what else? That's right: she got an "A" on her essay.