In an early chapter of Henry and the Chalk Dragon, La Muncha Elementary School receives a visit from two mysterious people whom Henry hears referred to as “Bored Members” and who walk around in dark suits and glasses a la The Matrix, write things in their notebooks, and terrify the creatively repressed and desperately sycophantic principal.
As Principal Bunk (with a cheerful smile that seems permanently glued to his face) boasts about the school’s stellar safety record and perfectly polished doorknobs, the Bored Members interrupt him:
“But Principal Bunk—” said the Bored Man. “We’re sorry to say—” said the Bored Woman. “The Bored has decided that there will no longer be a need for doorknobs.” “Yes, doorknobs have been cut out of the budget.” Principal Bunk stopped walking and swallowed so hard that Henry could see the swallow slide all the way down his necktie. “Doorknobs?” “Studies have shown that doorknobs will not help students do any better on tests. Therefore, all doorknobs must be turned in to the Bored by next week.”
I thought I was writing a gentle satire. That’s what I love to do in a story, after all: pounce on the little idiosyncrasies of people and situations and blow them up to ridiculous proportions, in order to make myself (and hopefully the reader) smile. Henry Penwhistle’s imagination is larger-than-life; so must the forces of antagonism in his world be. His otherwise glorious teacher has forgotten her own childhood fantasies and doubted her own creativity so much that she leads the class in an exercise of vapid artistic conformity. The class bully refuses to believe in anything that is not on a test. The principal gives Henry a stern lecture on the dangers of an untamed imagination in an effort to prepare him for the “real world”—a world that only cares about facts and numbers and budgets, not art. The Lunch Lady is forced to suppress her wild culinary creativity in favor of cafeteria pizza. And Henry’s mischievous Chalk Dragon is not allowed in the National Vegetable Week Art Show because it is neither a vegetable nor a vegetarian.
I was always afraid of going too far; afraid that someone wouldn’t get the light-hearted jab in the ribs and instead would take the book as an attack on the school system, and that I would be getting angry letters from board members and principals and real-life-superhero teachers everywhere.
But this past school year I spoke to a group of public school teachers who had read Henry, and thankfully they did not pelt me with erasers. In fact, their response to my over-the-top caricature of La Muncha Elementary School was, “How did you know?” The scene about the Bored cutting doorknobs out of the budget was one of their favorite parts of the whole book. Apparently they found it hilariously close to the mark. Exactly what we expect might happen next, they said.
One teacher told me about a school that had actually outlawed crayons, even in the youngest grades, because crayons weren’t helping the students perform any better academically. Coloring was a waste of time. If an administrator entered a classroom, woe to the teacher if there were any crayons in view anywhere.
Good grief. I thought I was writing satire.
La Muncha Elementary School was meant, as I said, to be an exaggerated caricature for comic effect; but like all caricatures, it relies for its humor on a fondly or grimly recognized hint of reality. I am not qualified to pronounce judgments on our educational system. But as a writer of books for children, a teacher of children, and a creatively repressed person who has spent much of her life struggling to get out of boxes, I have plenty of reasons for concern.
I've learned (despite being a grammar nerd and a former editor) that I have to begin most of my creative writing classes by assuring the students that I won't be correcting their spelling or punctuation—that I only care about how they're using imagination—because so many kids are so uptight about being correct and pleasing the teacher that they can't simply let loose and write. Jennifer Trafton
For years, I’ve heard stories from teachers, school librarians, and parents—about the arts being cut out of the curriculum, about second grade students becoming physically ill with anxiety during standardized testing week, about school days that leave no time for creative play and curriculum requirements that do not recognize any instructional value in studying (or making) art for its own sake, about students who don’t even know what to do with a brief period of unstructured creative time, when given the rare chance.
I’ve learned (despite being a grammar nerd and a former editor) that I have to begin most of my creative writing classes by assuring the students that I won’t be correcting their spelling or punctuation—that I only care about how they’re using imagination—because so many kids are so uptight about being correct and pleasing the teacher that they can’t simply let loose and write. I’ve taught kids who hated writing because the only writing they got to do in school was “boring”—meaning they were told exactly what to do and how to do it, with little freedom to be creative or write about something they were passionate about.
This is by no means just a public school issue. I once came across a homeschool writing curriculum that insisted children should not be allowed to write stories until the older grades, after they’d learned to distinguish between “real” and “not real.” Literalism first. Imagination can wait.
I teach lots of homeschooled kids, and I’ve had parents say, “I’ve tried and tried to get my kids interested in writing, but they always see it as a chore, as just more homework. But when they come out of your class they are bursting with enthusiasm to write a story. What have I been doing wrong?” And when I press deeper, it turns out that they inevitably have been turning every writing activity into a lesson about spelling and grammar, correcting mistakes as they go, and the kids’ enthusiasm and creativity were getting squelched by mechanics and structure. But that’s backwards. A good writer has to be a master of grammar and sentence structure, but that’s the second step, not the first. The first is falling in love with an idea and with the process of bringing that idea to life.
Whatever form a child’s education takes—public school, private school, homeschool—and no matter what official requirements are in place (I will leave others better qualified to debate this), I hope that certain conditions will prevail in the end, because the root of my concern about education lies in my understanding of the importance and especially the process of creativity.
Sir Ken Robinson is an internationally recognized expert on creativity and gave an enormously popular 2006 TED talk called “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” He tells the story of a 6-year-old girl who was drawing a picture in the back of the classroom. Her teacher asked her what she was drawing, and she answered, “God.” The teacher said, “But no one knows what God looks like.” And the girl said, “They will in a minute.” (By the way, his whole talk is hilarious and well worth twenty minutes of your time.)
Robinson’s point is this: “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.” To be creative you have to be willing to risk making lots of mistakes—but as we get older we learn that we’re not supposed to make mistakes, there are right answers and wrong answers and we don’t want to be wrong, and so we conform, we stop taking risks.
But everybody knows you can’t be original by sitting down and trying to be original. You have to let ideas pour out of you, right or wrong—only afterward do you (or others) go back and evaluate those ideas and decide what has value and what doesn’t. We writers have a special name for this outpouring: it’s called THE FIRST DRAFT. The first draft is playing on paper, letting your imagination go wherever it wants to go. And only in that playful freedom will you be able to find any nuggets of true originality.
As the late Steve Jobs preached and demonstrated, unconventional (and world-changing) ideas come from an unconventional life, from coloring outside the lines and from drawing new lines between the dots no one else has connected. Give the children crayons, and watch them innovate.
I hope there will be space in a child's education to allow for such blowing-the-roof-open, crazy brainstorming without it being turned into a 'teaching moment,' because that is the teaching moment: the free exercise of the imagination, the outlawing of 'wrong' or 'right' for a few brief minutes when the only test that matters is the test of creative fearlessness. Audacious play. Jennifer Trafton
Last summer I led a workshop for 7-12-year-olds that consisted entirely of coming up with the most fantastical MacGyver-esque inventions we could. I gave the kids random pictures of ordinary objects—bicycles, duct tape, cotton balls, clocks, trampolines, rubber bands, trash cans—and asked them to draw and describe imagined inventions, somehow incorporating those objects, that would improve the world.
Much hilarity and ingenuity ensued. All I can say is that we can look forward to a future age of dramatic teleporting, space travel, lock picking, and brilliant new ways of waking up in the morning. There was no hint of “well, that’s impossible . . . how can you climb a ladder beyond the earth’s atmosphere without at least an oxygen mask?” I redirected the “but hows” of the more literal-minded classmates. I reminded them that once upon a time someone said, “I wish I could put a little box up to my ear and talk to someone on the other side of the world,” and everyone around that person said he was CRAZY. And he was. Until he wasn’t.
I hope there will be space in a child’s education to allow for such blowing-the-roof-open, crazy brainstorming without it being turned into a “teaching moment,” because that is the teaching moment: the free exercise of the imagination, the outlawing of “wrong” or “right” for a few brief minutes when the only test that matters is the test of creative fearlessness. Audacious play.
I preach tirelessly about the importance of playing because I don’t do it very well. I desperately need to relearn and relearn how to play. No one knows more than I do how difficult it is to retain this ability as an adult. The only thing that helps me keep that faint spirit of playfulness alive in my soul is my memory of having had free rein to do so as a child.
If we ever take that away from children—if we suppress the instinct toward creative play even before it meets the inevitable challenge of growing up . . . God help us all. Who will be our next Einstein or Edison or Shakespeare—or Steve Jobs, for that matter? Who will disturb our complacent hearts with beautiful stories and with art that startles and shakes the status quo? Who will help us imagine a new kind of world?
“Be brave, Sir Henry,” he whispered as Miss Pimpernel’s hand closed on the doorknob. Years later, when Henry Penwhistle remembered this day and told the story again and again to himself, it seemed to him that this was the moment—the hand on the doorknob moment—when everything changed. Before, the adventure with the dragon was like a balloon bobbing at the end of a string in Henry’s hand, trying to break out of his grasp. After this moment, the string came loose, and Henry realized he had never known—indeed, no one at La Muncha Elementary School had ever known—just how wildly an imagination can fly when it has broken free. Perhaps the Bored Members were wise to take away doorknobs. For it is a dangerous thing to open a door.
Dangerous, yes. As dangerous and as necessary as hope.