What I Learned About Creativity from My Worst Subject

By Leslye Joy Allen

Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

May in the Park, No. 24
Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

I do not typically write about Education per se.  Two of my favorite bloggers ModernDayChris and Matt Wilson of Everything Needs to Change do the best writing about the subject, particularly the education of children in our public school systems from Kindergarten to 12th Grade.  This essay is not so much a critique as it is a reminder about something often forgotten when conversations and analyses take place about what is wrong or right or that needs fixing in American education overall.

First, let us be honest.  Not all American public education is flawed; it is often unequal based on race and/or socioeconomic factors.  It can also suffer from certain regional economic problems, which are beyond the scope of this essay.  The quality of American higher education runs the gamut from mediocre to the best in the world.  Yet, there are certain actions and habits that can help any student regardless of the quality of that education.  Of course, the best education nurtures these habits.  So here goes…

For the record, I was possibly the world’s worst Biology student.  After routinely making grades of “A” in subjects like History and English, I nearly flunked Biology in high school.  I will not bore you with the stories about my nausea and headaches when I had to dissect some dead animal preserved in formaldehyde—That is a whole other essay by itself.  When I had to take Biology in college, I determined that I needed to not only study, but also come up with some creative ways to study.  After getting a lousy two out of twenty identifications correct on a Biology Lab Practical Exam, I arranged a meeting with my professor.  (For those of you who have forgotten what a lab practical is, it is simply a test where you identify bacteria, amoebas, and other items physically located in a biology lab, many of which are under a microscope.)

My professor informed me that he typically set up everything in the lab on Saturdays.  I asked if I could come by on Saturdays.  He said that I could, and that I could stay as long as I wished so that I could examine and take notes about all of the items in the lab.  Off to campus on Saturday I went carrying my notebooks and an assortment of colored markers so that I could literally draw what I was examining so that I could study it at home, over and over again.  On nearly ten consecutive Saturdays, I also got a chance to talk at length with my Biology professor.

I joked with him that a historian’s brain dealt with a lot, and it did not have much room for Biology.  My professor admitted that he had never been a good student of History.  We both took note of the fact that History typically tells a story; and it also typically argues a thesis, which is why you can find so many different History books about the same event that argue entirely different positions about why that event happened.  This is why Law students typically have to have some academic background in History—History teaches you to see more than one side of an argument.  Biology, however, is another matter.  That amoeba cell that you just examined under that microscope is going to remain an amoeba cell.  You can either recognize it or you cannot!

During these Saturday sessions, I had the opportunity to ask my professor numerous questions about everything in that lab.  I swiftly took notes of everything he said.  When both he and I were taking breaks from the subject matter, we discussed History, Politics, Performance Arts, and whatever was happening in the news.  He quickly discovered that while I would never be a great biologist, I was a good student in History, and a burgeoning intellectual.  So, what is my point?

The point here is I listen to students and some educators talk about subjects they describe as not preparing students for the kind of work they will be doing as adults.  “Why do I have to take Biology if I am never going to use it?”  That is a fair question.  Yet, my experience with taking a subject I might not have to use or need to use taught me several important lessons about the intrinsic value of a good education beyond the mere mastery of any particular subject matter.

First, when I made a solid “B” as my final grade for Biology, I knew I had earned it.  No one—and I certainly did not—really wants to go back to school on Saturdays.  I went back and stayed long hours and it paid off.  Second, because I was often the only student in the lab on those Saturdays I was free to speak with my professor without interruption.  Technically, I got free tutoring lessons simply by showing up and availing myself of his expertise.  Third, my professor witnessed me making an extra effort in a difficult subject.  While professors do not grade for “effort” (nor should they), it does not hurt for an instructor to see a student put in extra time in order to master a difficult subject.  Fourth, I learned that I could conquer that which was difficult.

I also finally understood lessons that my mom and my uncle, both educators, often emphasized throughout my childhood and adolescence:  Education is as much about endurance as it is anything else.  And as my mom often stated: You cannot expect a student to become the next Einstein if he or she cannot get along with other students (teamwork) and also willingly and creatively work on difficult subject matter.  Importantly, both Mom and my uncle insisted that one of the keys to a good education was the “social” skill of learning how to navigate difficulties and put in extra time without resorting to short cuts or cheating or other forms of skulduggery.  Tackling a subject that one is not good at forces a certain level of creativity—that is creativity often born of unorthodox or unconventional ways to retain and master the subject matter, and pass the class.

It is right about now that the folks that know me well would assume that I would go into one of my soapbox sessions about the necessity of arts education in schools, and how the arts make students more creative and help with spatial reasoning and a host of other skills, including enhanced skills in Mathematics and Sciences.  Well, I am not going to do that, exactly.

Exposure to the arts certainly enriches and develops creativity; and I have never met an artist that was not creative at something.  Yet, creativity is not the exclusive domain of the arts or artists.  I have met many individuals who did not have an artistic bone in their bodies, but who were highly creative people.  If students are to develop into productive individuals who can think their way through and out of complex problems, regardless of academic discipline, then education needs to not only expose students to the arts, but it should also advocate that creativity—artistic or otherwise—is an essential skill for all academic disciplines.  Furthermore, arts education advocacy need not exist on, nor should it lay sole claim to, some creative island minus its other academic counterparts.  Perhaps, this is where the real debate about education needs to begin.  More to come later…

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen is proud to support the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.


A Little Girl and “The Nativity”

by Leslye “Joy” Allen                                                                                                        Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

For the record, I am a historian and contrary to popular belief, historians are not social scientists.  History belongs in the category of the Humanities, as in the phrase “Arts and Humanities.”  Art and artists tell stories and so do historians.  We just do it in different ways.

Historians analyze and interpret the past.  We ask “why” something happened and we ask “how” something happened.

There are as many different angles and answers to those “how” and “why” questions as there are historians.  Performance art also does this because no two performances are ever the same; and audience members often see and interpret the same story or song in a hundred different ways.

Yet, I digress.

What I really want to share is a particular story, a story about a little girl who sat in an audience and gave me the best lesson about what the arts, particularly theatre, does for an audience.

I have always been fond of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity. Many theatre companies in Atlanta have performed this holiday classic over many decades.

I recall seeing many performances of it by Jomandi Productions and many other local Black theatre companies. In recent years, many directors and playwrights have produced their own version of the “Nativity.”

There was yet another re-imagining of this annual story conceived, written, and choreographed by Patdro Harris as part of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company’s annual Christmas offering that played in December of 2011 at the beautiful Southwest Arts Center.

Yet, a couple of years ago, I witnessed Black Nativity for perhaps the eighth or ninth time.  This time, however, I sat behind a little girl who could not have been any older than five or six years old.  I watched her and nostalgically recalled that my first theatre experience occurred on a visit to New York when I was four and a half years old—I saw Sammy Davis, Jr. in Golden Boy.  However, the little girl watching Black Nativity did more than bring up fond childhood memories for me.

Sitting in the dark at the Southwest Arts Center, preparing myself for True Colors Theatre Company’s version of Black Nativity, I watched this child’s face break out in a wide—missing-tooth—grin as the music, dance, and dialogue began.

She watched the show with wonder, that kind of childhood wonder where everything is brand new.  After the show was over, while I chatted with some folks in the lobby, I watched and heard this child make a dozen comments and ask nearly as many questions:

“Mama, I sure did have a good time.”

“Mama, was the baby Jesus a real baby or was it a doll?”

“Mama what do actors do to make themselves look old?”  “

What does “nativity” mean?

How can the same person pretend to be two different people?

The questions and comments from this child kept coming.  Yet that is what the arts do—art always triggers the imagination.  So I often wonder why some legislators do not realize that part of the reason why schools have difficulty raising students’ Math and Science scores is partially due to the fact that there has been a systematic de-emphasis and de-funding of the Arts and the Humanities.

Being able to memorize and regurgitate information is not a clear example of scholastic aptitude; being able to creatively think one’s way through or out of a problem is an explicit illustration of genuine intelligence.  If you think Albert Einstein created his theory of relativity based only on what his science and math teachers taught him, you are dead wrong.

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination,” Einstein said.

If you think George Washington Carver did not understand the importance of creativity, think again.  Carver emphasized that, “Since new developments are the products of a creative mind, we must therefore stimulate and encourage that type of mind in every way possible.”  It is not likely Einstein or Carver would have become the geniuses that they were without a genuine respect for the arts.

That little girl I listened to asking questions in the lobby of the Southwest Arts Center would never have asked the kind of questions she asked her mother had her mother decided not to take her to see a play or a musical.

Black Nativity had stoked her young imagination.  When you stoke children’s imaginations, they ask intelligent questions; and when this kind of inquisitiveness is encouraged, they tend to grow up to be adults who ask intelligent questions.  When you have adults who know the right questions to ask, you tend to get a community that will demand and possibly get better public policy on everything from city services to health care to education.

So, do your community, yourself, and your children one favor.  Take yourself, your children or a child to see a play, a Jazz concert, a ballet, and/or an art exhibit.  Now there is no guarantee that you or any child that you expose to the arts will become the next Einstein or Carver, or even a great performance artist.  Yet, why not give them a shot at being any or all of the above.


Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen is proud to support the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.