Last week I got a call from my friend and colleague, Randy Seagraves. Randy is the curriculum coordinator of the Junior Master Gardener program at Texas A&M and, among many other wonderful things, trains teachers and leaders how to implement youth gardening programs in their communities and on their campuses. Randy and I come together with other progressive, nature loving educators, at the annual National Children & Youth Garden Symposium, sponsored by the American Horticultural Society. At the moment, he was on his way to do some training in Korea, where he goes each year now, and he wanted to brainstorm with me before he left. The people in Korea who bring Randy and his group in to work with them aren’t flying a bunch of green-thumbed Americans halfway around the world to teach them how to plant a seed or fill a watering can. They know how to garden already. They know how to build a garden, how to maintain a garden. They know about seed germination, photosynthesis, harvesting and planning for the seasons, and all the other logistical aspects that go into gardening. What they aren’t so sure about is how to get kids inspired about being involved with the garden and how to connect what they do in the garden to their everyday life. They are bringing Americans in to help them with the creative part of keeping a garden. So, Randy and I brainstormed about ways to light up the right side of a brain in a garden and, lo and behold, we came up with some of the usual “soft skills”: poetry, music, movement, art. You know, the things that are being systematically cut from schools all across the country because we don’t have time for them, what with all the memorizing and test-taking we have to do? Yeah, those. Let me repeat: The Koreans are paying Americans to bring them the fun stuff because, without it, everything else just isn’t as good.
During my lively conversation with Randy, I told him about someone that I discovered a couple years ago. I was doing a residency in a poor, struggling district of south Jersey where a young principal had just been hired to change the direction and improve the morale of one of the lowest performing schools. This charismatic, 30-something visionary was certainly shaking up the school and it was clear that while he was generally well-liked, not all the (older) teachers were sure of his methods, which included a lot of creative teaching strategies and an emphasis on the arts. He told me about one of his heroes, Yong Zhao, professor of Education at Michigan State University and author of Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization. There is a 10-minute video at the Pearson Foundation’s site that beautifully showcases Zhao’s balanced view of education, a view that integrates his Chinese upbringing with his work in the US, and conveys a convincing argument that only an educationally diverse population can maintain a vibrant social and economical ecosystem. Take a moment to watch his video. Zhao believes our country’s move toward a more eastern style of standardized education is not only wrong-headed, but a grave economical mistake and uses the difference in the number of patents between our two countries to help make his point. The irony is that this more recent, progressive opinion is, in fact, taking hold among a new generation of Eastern educators who are looking to America for strategies that would encourage innovation and creativity at the very moment that our leaders are abandoning these philosophies for the regimented and rigorous style of a dictatorial country’s education system. Our government has cloaked this objective in the patronizing, but nurturing sounding, slogan of “no child left behind,” however, it is more accurately characterized by the antithetical term: standardization.
Make no mistake that this is a heated discussion in our country right now, and one that yields very different responses from parents, teachers and lawmakers. Just over a week ago, the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from a new book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Perhaps, to many Americans, this more regimented approach seems like a possible solution. Indeed, school board meetings all over the US have the parents who angrily come to the podium with the statistics of how poorly American kids are doing at math and the results of their own child who spends hours and hours of extra time at one of the many commercial learning centers, receiving more worksheets and quizzes and now receives straight A’s in advanced placement math classes, to make their case. But, I would challenge any parent to read the first paragraph and set of bullet points in Chua’s excerpt and not wince. And, if they didn’t wince, I’d say, keep reading. You will wince. Chua’s version of childhood, with no sleepovers, no playdates, an all A requirement, endless hours of tantrum-inducing practices and borderline psychological abuse is pretty tough to imagine.
Today, the article published in the NY Times a few days later, “Retreat of the ‘Tiger Mother,'” is still in the top ten most-read articles. It appears that Ms. Chua’s excerpt hit such a nerve that she has received not only thousands of negative emails, but death threats as well. While her parenting style may have been intentionally exaggerated for its provocative effect and resulting book sales, Chua is now taking a few steps back and claiming some of her testimony was “meant to be ironic and self-mocking.” Much of the backlash came from Chinese Americans who still feel the sting of Chua’s brand of mother-love. I found one of the most poignant quotes in the excerpt to be the one in which she compares her parenting style to that of her Jewish American husband: “I’m willing to put in as long as it takes, and I’m happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games.” Yikes. For the record, I’ll take the love, the pancakes and the Yankee game, too.
Creativity. It’s so easy to have, so easy to nurture, yet it often seems like such a hard sell. Frustrating. We seem to be able to gather lots of data from all over the world to prove that the best way to learn is a through a balance of more regimented skill building and innovative, imaginative thinking. Last week I told you about an online community I have been a part of, The Art of Silliness, by Carla Sonheim. I shouted out to the group to find out who, exactly, would sign up for an online creativity class that gave optional, drawing homework each day through an email with dumb riddles and goofy anecdotes. There are now 40 responses to my query, the majority of them coming from people who do not describe themselves as artists. Here are some selected responses from these individuals who, together, are part of over 1,000 creative postings, in just less than halfway into the course:
“I manage the Lifeline program for my local hospital. Each class has brought silliness into my day to day life – something that is much needed for one who is so extremely serious.”
“Life throws curve balls and mine was two parents with Alzheimer’s. When my Mother became ill, I brought both parents to live in my town. They do not live with me, but I am the major caregiver/taxi-driver/coordinator. I don’t recall how I heard about this class, but it seemed a good idea. Yes, I had time for this! Yes I could afford it! Yes, Mom and Dad could do it with me if /when they wanted!”
“In my day job, I am a Criminal Court (3 years or less jail penalty) and all the defendants have a mental health issue. Intense, but often rewarding, to see alternative solutions to public safety. For the last four years, I have been trying to develop other sides of my brain. The artist creativity has resulted in day job creativity to resolve issues.”
“Five years ago I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. At that time my whole life changed–I lost my husband, my home, my job, had electroconvulsive therapy, started medication, and moved back to my hometown where my family and best friend could take care of me. The only thing that kept me going in the middle of all that was making art. I think being a part of this class will let me connect with like-minded, like-hearted people, which seems like a huge gift.”
Creative people are a diverse bunch, aren’t they?
I have faith that a country like ours will not let our children become automatrons, standardized versions of children who speak only when spoken to and regurgitate the practiced answers to the test questions rather than ponder alternative, un-thought-of solutions. Clearly, the responses above speak to those who don’t make a life of creativity yet understand its worth. But I fear that standardization is winning at the moment, at least in a bureaucratic sense, and this worries me. I am thankful for the voices of people like Yong Zhao, who can come forth as someone who came from another place but experiences our creative and diverse way of doing things here in America and takes them for his own because the outcomes are more amazing and, ultimately, more productive. I am even thankful for the voices of people like Chua who represent an extreme that few here in the US moving in that philosophical direction could completely and honestly embrace. America is a country built on diversity and this notion is so strong that it stands as an iconical example for the rest of the world. We are the proverbial melting pot and we’ll never have test scores that come out even-Steven. Why would we want them to? This is our strength, not our weakness.
There is important work to be done. Not everything is right. It’s a work in progress and we can all chip in. Despite what might discourage us, Sydney Smith was right when he said, “It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little. Do what you can.” The best ideas come from the tiny, little seeds we plant and nurture. They grow into beautiful flowers that beckon us from their places in the garden and inspire us to speak, think, imagine, sing, dance, paint, write, learn, lead and teach. Even if only in our spare time.
TRY THIS WEEK: Have a conversation with a young child. Let them tell you what they think about something but don’t tell them what you think. Then, ponder it awhile.