Fall is in full swing. The air is sharp and cool–you can just faintly smell the scent of the coming winter– and the leaves are putting on a real show with a full range of yellows, oranges and reds. We are in the midst of one of those amazing transitional periods that truly showcases the changing seasons and we can receive this magic with each and every one of our senses. I love autumn.
I’ve just returned from a week long residency program where I worked with both children and adults on a variety of creative projects. When I do these types of programs, I generally integrate writing with visual arts, if only just to prime the creative pump before we begin moving our brushes through the paint. My projects are almost exclusively nature based (as is my own art) and one of the things I encourage is for participants to simply imagine the thing from nature–whether it’s a tree, a flower, a rock or some other thing–and begin to describe it in their mind as they visualize it. When I am with kids, I ask for their imaginative observations and then I write them down, collectively, on a blackboard or a large piece of paper with the idea being that we can inspire each other’s writing by brainstorming our imaginations together. But, since 2003, when I began this type of creative work in schools, I have seen a change which I think is a real detriment to a whole generation of kids and, perhaps, to all of us.
So often now, they cannot describe things.
When asked to list nouns, they are expert object identifiers and can come up with a million names of a million things. Verbs are trickier and, after listing the day-to-day things we all do–play, laugh, run, sing–it can be challenging for them to list action words for things with which they have no personal experience. But, asked to list adjectives, those wonderful, “juicy” words that tell us what kind of day, what kind of smell, what kind of leaf, they fall so seriously short that I have actually begun to worry about their capacity for perception and empathy.
It would seem to me that, in our quest to produce earlier readers and better test-takers, we have sacrificed those small, beautiful moments where we adults were once guides to prod and encourage the observations made by these small people with such huge propensities for sensual experiences. I have always disagreed with the push for early reading because I think it means very little to be able to crack the code for reading when the mind and the imagination still both ride so high on the sounds and meanings of words on a purely auditory level. Reading is a doorway to other’s experiences but speaking allows children to communicate their own experiences and to experiment with language and its effect on others. Reading makes kids consumers of media; speaking and writing makes them producers of media.
Give me adjectives, I say, and they look at me blankly.
I ask them to imagine a tree standing in a windy night and tell me what they see or feel… and they say almost nothing.
I say let’s talk about what autumn looks, smells, feels, sounds and tastes like. They are hard pressed to focus on even one sense and come up with anything beyond the most basic of observations, if even that.
Maybe all of you who are more left-brained don’t see what the big deal is here but I think we are going to see a very different social landscape when these kids who cannot describe things are at the helm. I believe that, in order to truly engage people, whether for business, political, religious or social reasons, we need to be able to connect to their senses. If we are raising children who can aptly identify stuff but cannot plumb their own consciousnesses to describe their world and their experiences of it, we aren’t helping them acquire the tools that engender loyalty, understanding and compassion.
What does autumn look, feel, sound, smell and taste like to you? Tell someone. Tell a child. And, then, ask them to tell you the story of their autumn. Listen when they tell you and file it away in your consciousness. Allow the story of someone else to become connected to your story. This is how we become teams, societies and believers. This is how we feel what we experience
TRY THIS WEEK: Let the adjectives in your life rip!