It’s been years since I journeyed into the narrow halls of an elementary school, and when I passed through the doors of Arlee Elementary this afternoon I was met by tables that hit my knee and memories of my days with braces when my imagination was almost as wild as my teeth. My purpose for being there was simple: to observe Anya and Jes teach the kids to learn math through explorations with movement. But the thoughts that it prompted in me were all over the map.
All I could think of as I was watching the students bounce around the hybrid cafeteria/gymnasium was how lucky I would have been to have such a program when I was a student. Math was always my weakest subject in school, and when paired with the uncreative nature of American education, I felt more stifled than in other classes.
I anxiously awaited the “creative” days in school. Oddly enough gym was one of the more creative times I had. We would do line dancing (speaking of when you KNOW you’re in Montana), which was fantastic, as I desperately avoided any sports. I would try to convince my teachers that running the mile meant my knees would explode. Or that Murphy’s were scientifically proven to spontaneously combust if they did more than two pull-ups. Excuses were some of the few moments where I was allowed to be creative. Otherwise I had to conform to an education system that became increasingly rigid and uncreative as I grew older.
To watch these students today not only choosing, but PROMPTED, to be creative reminded me of the days before puberty where self-consciousness was but a whisper in the back of my bowl-cut. As they learned the rules of division by separating themselves into groups while improvising movement, I began to feel the desperate need for creativity in the classroom. Perhaps nurturing creative impulses promotes too much individuality when the school system really wants conformity they can measure with grades. It also takes much more energy on the teachers’ part, which perhaps they don’t see as “worth it.” I can’t help but think that if this type of creativity was stimulated throughout every class, and encouraged more fervently as students matured, that the benefits (both to society and personally) would be vast.
During the hour I watched difficult ideas of division and multiplication start to become clear in the students’ minds. Even the boy who proceeded to sing "skinamarinky dinky dink” throughout the entire lesson found the answers through the movement as he sang his song. Putting students in a social situation that encourages creativity while they learn is something I don’t remember; I hope these students realize how lucky they are.
After the class ended I wandered over to one of the many bulletin boards lining the walls. Chunky cut out letters spelling “Poetry” gave me a hint of what would be found pasted on the construction paper below. As I approached, I found the first in a series titled “My Soul.” What I saw astonished me. I’d forgotten about the type of freedom that young minds have. Standing and reading how these students described what their souls look, feel, and smell like, I began to wonder if stifled creativity is simply a by-product of growing up, or if it is somehow bled out by the education system in America. Perhaps what I saw today was a signal of a slow but important change.