Flash Nebula is in the house! Will standardized tests detect him?
As I prepare my students for an intensive couple of weeks taking Maine Educational Assessment tests, my thoughts turn to the creativity we are not gathering information on—and the creativity on hold in favor of gathering data of transitory use.
by Todd R. Nelson
Regular to the Gazette
January 1, 2008
Judging by the mountain of colorful fabric scraps on the art room table, I knew something wonderful was underway in second grade art.
“What are you guys making?” I inquired.
“Finger puppets,” was the gleeful reply, as five hands shot in the air with the works in progress stuck on forefingers and thumbs.
On one hand was “my mom,” on another were superheroes in the making. A good superhero needs two things: a cool name, and an arch nemesis. Dustin had the name: “This is Flash Nebula.” He wasn’t sure about the arch nemesis. (Footnote: Have you ever heard of a nemesis that wasn’t arch? And aren’t all moms superheroes?)
An hour later, the first graders were in the art room and modeling-clay dragons were taking shape. Casey’s was called Rory. “This is the dragon of death,” said Hannah, as she displayed her winged creature with scales reminiscent of her beloved triceratops. Plasticine meets Pleistocene…and an Arch Nemesis for Flash?
Mrs. Pelletier’s class had been making bamboo on Friday, using newspaper rolls held together with masking tape and painting them a vivid jungle green. By Wednesday a rain forest was growing in her room—a background tableau on which to pin information about monkeys and snakes and other indigenous flora and fauna. Data meets Dada, or “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” as Marianne Moore defined poetry.
Across the hall, flights to Mars and Pluto were taking shape, as Mrs. Lameyer’s first graders traveled the solar system in search of knowledge, having built rockets to get there from here. Byron proudly displayed his rocket ship, complete with flaming tissue paper coming out of the business end of the Saturn booster. The next day, the class made comets out of Styrofoam and silver sparkles. I trust they can also explain the orbits and composition of the real thing.
Then we talked about how long it will take NASA’s New Horizons rocket to reach Pluto, 3 billion miles away. “Make a note to check up on it when you’re in high school,” I suggested. “That’s when the pictures will start coming back to earth and you’ll see them.”
After school, in that same art room, the faculty and I have been talking about the raw materials of play and learning. “If we simply turned the kids loose with a pile of scrap wood, they’d make incredible things,” said “Mrs. P.” Sometimes learning feels like looking through the wrong end of the telescope! The payoff can require billions of miles of travel, or years of waiting. Perhaps Flash Nebula will be the first earthling on Pluto?
Meanwhile, in Mr. McWeeny’s VAMP lab (Velocity, acceleration, momentum project) 6th and 7th graders were preparing to customize their wooden racing cars (Tess and Meredith’s polka dotted racer is called “Green Glops”) and demonstrate the laws of physics. Cool paint jobs are important, as are aerodynamics, weight, friction, etc. This is Newton meets NASCAR meets “Pimp my Ride.” Perhaps we have a future Dale Earnhardt in class… or the woman who will make hydrogen fuel cell cars economical for mass production.
Someone has to imagine the new possibilities, and it happens when we ply the boundaries of data and fantasy. Data tends to be fairly static, easily available, and abundant in the age of the Internet. But it’s also fairly inert. The imagination is dynamic, constantly evolving, adaptive, interpretive, and giving a little juice to the facts.
In fact, scholarly minds are thinking about just this nexus: creativity as a habit of mind, rather than happenstance. Thomas Freidman says that imagination is really the only special thing we have. It “unflattens” the world.
“It may sound paradoxical that creativity—a novel response—is a habit, a routine response,” writes Robert Sternberg, in Education Week. “But creative people are creative largely not by any particular inborn trait, but because of an attitude toward their work and even toward life: They habitually respond to problems in fresh and novel ways, rather than allowing themselves to respond in conventional and sometimes automatic ways.”
This is good, given the uncertainty and unfamiliarity ahead for most kids now in school. They’ll need to be adaptive, resilient, undeterred by new problems and unfamiliar data.
I’ve always liked Howard Nemerov’s enigmatic poetic take on such learning. It’s easy to skate along on its surface whimsy without fully inspecting what it affirms about the possibilities we should invite at school, lest we become too absorbed with the data in our lives.
The world is full of mostly invisible things,
And there is no way but putting the mind’s eye,
Or its nose, in a book, to find them out,
Things like the square root of Everest
Or how many times Byron goes into Texas,
Or whether the law of the excluded middle
Applies west of the Rockies.*
As I prepare my school’s 3-8th graders for an intensive couple of weeks taking Maine Educational Assessment tests, my thoughts turn to the creativity we are not gathering information on—and the creativity on hold in favor of gathering data of transitory use.
Most of the ingenuity, pleasure, and richness of a school day arrive from the moments when Flash Nebula appears and vanquishes his arch nemesis. I know his name now: Data Magneto. Both are in the building—and they kind of need one another, in the way all superheroes need a nemesis. Be on the lookout. Stand back, citizens!
Todd R. Nelson is principal of the K-8 Adams School in Castine, Maine.
Todd R. Nelson has been a public and private school English teacher and administrator for 29 years, in schools in Cambridge, San Francisco, Chicago and Maine. He is principal at the Adams School in Castine, Maine, a 54 student K-8 school on the town common in a little town on the coast, where he gets to play four-square at recess, play his bagpipes, and write musicals for the all-school play.