I’d written before that I feel teaching is one avenue through which I’ve been able to practice spiritual parturition. I am eternally grateful I found my calling in the classroom. I never expected it; I was not that little girl who always played teacher. Aside from a dancer and writer, I wanted to be a secretary when I was a kid. It was my highest professional aspiration. I modeled my future secretarial career mostly on the Carol Burnett character who sat filing her nails and chewing gum while driving her boss crazy.
Teaching found me, as callings often do. I was led to it by my college mentor, a prominent New York artist who also teaches art at the Metropolitan Museum. He was without a doubt my spiritual father; in fact, he was well aware of the power of spiritual parturition. As all good fathers should do, he set me on the right career path, because quite frankly, I’d have never made a career by just being an artist. I was still entertaining my adolescent fantasy of the starving artist at that time. But he showed me how teaching would allow me to fuse two of my passions: the arts and working with those less fortunate.
I’ve written once before that over the past 21 years, I’ve tried to teach my students to see like an artist, think like an inventor, read like a writer, and write like a pioneer. Of course, that’s a tall order, but here’s how I try to do that:
See like an artist.
I said it constantly to my students: 90 percent of art-making is done with our eyes and brain; our hands just do the follow-up. I’d give my students specific homework assignments: “From now till the next art class, look for just one thing.” That one thing changed each time: the color red, storefront windows, chairs, a paper clip. I also teach them how to look at things through their own personal view finder: their two hands, overlapping at the corners where their thumbs and pointer fingers meet to make a square. I won’t bore you with the rest of the details, the Elements and Principles of Art; but trust me, the homework assignments worked. Seeing, really being mindful about seeing, is one of the most powerful gifts we’ve been given.
Think like an inventor.
Convergence tests measure intelligence quotients, while divergence tests measure creativity. The divergence test I give my students is: Think of as many uses for a brick and a blanket. I usually keep a running list of their answers posted in the room. This is vitally important because inventions and innovations usually arise out of ordinary objects as templates. Think of the architect who sees houses in a tree stump. And with that, I ask you: How many uses are there for a brick and a blanket?
Read like a writer.
On one hand, this is dangerous. On some level it ruins the act of reading for sheer pleasure. It’s akin to the film student who can never, ever again watch movies the same way again; they’re always looking for continuity errors, or at camera angles, or at the composition in the mise-en-scene. But on the other hand, it adds dimension to the reading experience. Really, really good writing will at some point make a reader think, “How’d she do that?” And of course, really bad writing should make a reader think, “Why, oh why did he do that?” Reading and writing are so tightly connected that the better one reads, the better one writes. A single page, or paragraph, or even one line of good writing could be read many times over; a reader who reads like a writer will learn something new every time. That’s what I want for my students.
Write like a pioneer.
This also gets into dangerous territory, but I say we need to “face the dragon” and go straight to the heart of something. Writing requires bravery. The dragon a writer needs to face could be so many things regarding the content of what she writes about, which renders her vulnerable in a way. But usually the dragon is the writer’s own internal editor. This is the voice in our heads that tells us our grammar is awful or our ideas are unoriginal. I personally can’t stand mine; I make it shut up and stand in the corner and come back when I’m ready to edit. But teaching kids to shut theirs up is probably one of the hardest things to do, especially with college students. They only have 15 weeks, they only want that A grade, and they don’t want to get in touch with their feelings or do any of the seemingly useless, touchy-feely writing exercises I give them. They always groan and fuss when I say that sometimes I have to write five pages of junk just to get one good line. But eventually they see the value in free writing – that is, writing pages and pages of junk while their internal critic shuts up. Sometimes I mention this quote from writer and radio personality Ira Glass:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. …And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. …And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. …You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
I love this quote because it speaks to kids on their level; it’s not a high, lofty set of ideals about the beauty of writing and all the nonsense quotes circulating around. And if I still don’t win them over, I pull out the big guns:
“Writing is easy. You just stare at the paper until little drops of blood appear on your forehead.”
–Ring Lardner, Jr.
This one gets them every time!
I’d like to dedicate this to all the teachers, as you’re on or nearing your summer break. If you’re not a teacher, go find one and say thank you. God bless our teachers!