The Rapidian

A SOS (Shape our Schools) Call To the Creatives, From a Creative

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Creativity in children comes from fostering a sense of wonder in learning along with encouragement and empowerment.

Creativity in children comes from fostering a sense of wonder in learning along with encouragement and empowerment. /Richard Deming

Both Lisa Rose Starner and Seth Starner collaborated on this piece.

Grand Rapids is brimming with creativity, and it's this talent that is painting a new face on Grand Rapids. These creatives aren't just relegated to the artist's studio – these creative minds are found throughout the Grand Rapids community in all the sectors, shaping our City with an artistic hand and mind that could very well be the new way of doing things in Grand Rapids.

Among this creative set, there is a desire to push the institutional envelope, to get the traditional institutional process to break down and change to suit the ever-shifting needs of our city. The Grand Rapids Public Schools is one of those institutions that is well-positioned for a change – and it's a system that could benefit immensely from the presence and expertise of such creatives.

A GRPS Family

I have a long history with Grand Rapids. I grew up in the city and as a small child, I attended Congress Elementary. As a sixth grader, I was a student of the Blandford Environmental Education Program (we are called BEEPS), and then went on to City Middle & High School.

While naturally a curious child, I loathed my elementary experience. I was a gifted child who was easily bored, and I was often left on my own with the World Book Encyclopedia while my teachers “managed” the discipline issues within the classroom.

A saving grace to my learning as a child was not only my regular trips to the Grand Rapids Public Library with my mother, but also my sixth grade year at the Blandford School. Rick Gillette fostered a learning environment that allowed us to freely explore the natural world around us. It created a sense of peace, as well as pride, curiosity and courage – all skills that inspired me to explore worldwide beyond Grand Rapids and continue to serve me well to this day.

And now I have a family and we live on Grand Rapids' Westside in a home my grandparents built in 1952. This is the fourth year we've had our children in the GRPS school system. Our son is entering third grade, and our daughter Emma is entering kindergarten, both at C.A. Frost Elementary.

While our children have had mostly good experiences within GRPS, we believe they aren't being challenged to they degree they could be or have the resources in the classroom that their suburban counterparts receive as part of their schooling.

We are resisting private schools because they are overpriced for what they are delivering, and frankly we believe that the better public schools are as good for the price, and really do not want to move from our home on the westside to go to a better resourced district.

Moreover, we watch the teachers within the system struggle to manage the affects of our city's core urban poverty. This, coupled with the limited resources, make it nearly impossible to extend a meaningful learning environment in classrooms stretched to the max.

While we've resigned to stay in the district, we hope that there are ways we collectively can offer our talents as creatives to help create schools the city needs for our future. 

To GRPS: Can the creatives help shape Grand Rapids Public Schools for the future?

Many would agree with my statement that the current public school paradigm is stifling creativity in our children. Our children are taught – through a standardized framework – that that there is one right answer on that multiple choice test. Yet we know the world they are going into is so much more complicated. We are not equipping our children to think for themselves – there is often no one right
answer and the best answer may not have been created or imagined.

It is as if we have forgotten to trust our children to learn. Creativity in children comes from fostering a sense of wonder in learning and the encouragement and empowerment to solve problems that matter with the skills they are being taught.

That said – there are very few things other than the alphabet and multiplication tables that are worth learning through rote. Yet that seems to be the direction we are heading. Forcing teachers “to teach to the test” has reduced the creative process to an afterthought.

And ironically, creativity in schools continues to be hindered by the standardized approach
used to improve our education system with so called “education reform.”

The adage of “learn by doing” is a powerful mantra for change in our schools. But that would
require a shift in thinking of what school is for – is it to learn “things” and then promptly forget? Or is it to discover how to think and solve problems for the betterment of those around you and
for yourself? I suspect we'd all answer the latter.

On teachers: There is hope, to some degree, in said reform, as educational centers – the universities and such – train teachers in creative, experiential ways that focus on the learner. This is good. It will ensure we infuse the system with talented teachers that know how to integrate a creative process into the classroom. But this is only one piece of the puzzle.

On institutions: To infuse teachers in a system that kills creativity would be moot if we do not re-shape the institutions themselves. How can we re-shape the system? Can we engage the people in the system in a creative process to reshape their own organization?

To give credit, GRPS is developing creative institutional solutions, such as their Center for Innovations approach, but that can't be the end of the change, nor can it only be accessed to part of the students in the system – it needs to be a systems overhaul.

I have been teaching and encouraging "innovation" in a corporate setting (which in many ways can be as deadening a task as I envision it being with our current school system) and have found that when people are given the power to make change and are experientially taught new tools for thinking through problems they need to solve, they learn them and discover new solutions to their problems.

Is it possible to engage the administration with a cross-sector team of creatives to see what more we can do for our schools? I hope so. 

Can we also leverage additional private sector funding to make sure we fund the art studios, music halls, after school programs, technology labs, language teachers, and lunch programs to close the shocking gap in resources that exist between the suburban and urban districts?

Grand Rapids has the talent, creativity to assist and shape our schools for the future. Many of us – the creatives – are ready and willing to help paint the new canvass of learning for our city's children. Our children. So what's next?

There are many barriers – most of them within the GRPS institution themselves. So, are they wanting of our help? Or, like GM and Wall Street are they just another institution that will continue on its trajectory, funded by public dollars, turning out an abysmal product because it, too, is too big to fail?

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You bring up a lot of good issues and concerns in this piece. The creative approach to learning is lack in education all around - from kindergarten to college. It is easier to teach the "test" and not allow innovation and creativity to be part of the learning experience.

 Grand Rapids does have the talent and creativity to make a positive difference in our schools.  Currently, there's a big push for contextualizing classroom instruction, especially in ESL classrooms, and there are many organizations that are already making a positive impact on our schools by providing avenues for students to contextualize what they learn in school.  For instance, the Cook Arts Center and the Litribune facilitate creative writing classes for children.  The Literacy Center of West Michigan and Schools of Hope provide Family Literacy Nights and ESL classes for parents and their children.  Think of the great things we could do for our schools if our entire community contributed its talents and creativity!  Thank you for your thoughts.   

The primary dilemma is the inability to imagine a new way of doing things. Instead of looking at the entire system and looking at our needs as a city and as a culture and developing a new platform we merely tweak the same system. The system is a colossal failure by any measure yet we pretend that it works because it works for a small percentage of people. The big questions that need to be asked are not being asked. Is the K-12 system viable or necessary? How do other, more successful countries handle education? We have a system that is 150 years old, maybe it is time for a new one? 

I teach a lecture series titled "The Importance of Creativity in Education". The next date I will be presenting it is at Aquinas College on October 18 for their student teachers and faculty. If anyone wants to audit the session, just drop me a note and I will get you permission to attend.

p.s. A GREAT resource to check out is the works of Sir Ken Robinson:

Thanks for this piece Lisa.  I couldn't agree more that our system of education is seriously outdated and in great need of change.  This talk by Jeff Jarvis is right along the lines of what you're saying here.  If you have a spare 15 minutes it's worth watching.