Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Intuition: The Bridge Between the Art and Science of Teaching

Some scholars contend that teaching is an art--that there is an ineffable quality to instruction that can't be quantified. Great teachers have that "it" factor; students are inspired; learning happens as a result of passion plus osmosis.

Some scholars contend that teaching is a science--there are multiple layers (lesson design, unit design, pedagogy, theory, curriculum) that, when combined with precision and care, create standout learning experiences that provide clear learning and data to support it.

Some scholars contend that teaching is both an art and a science--that while there are theoretical constructs that underscore one's teaching practice, a teacher's way of being (their passions, interests, love of learning and craft) carries students even further.

The bridge between the two: intuition.

Intuition in teaching serves as an intersection between the "felt sense" of one's teaching practice and the habits of experience. After one has taught long enough, s/he is able to naturally call upon skills in a given moment--skills that are immediately responsive to the needs in the classroom.

The challenge, however, is creating space and time to build intuition.

Most beginning classroom teachers are  hungry for strategies: lesson strategies; differentiation strategies; culturally responsive strategies; strategies for working with parents; classroom management strategies. Those in their first several years are building their toolkits so that one day, these practices are inherent in one's teaching repertoire. It takes a long time, and yet, when a teacher becomes more habituated to the workflow of teaching, it is exciting to feel that shift from survival to experience.

I would advocate that as teachers cultivate their repertoire of skills and strategies, they simultaneously tap into their intuition--the inner knowing of what's right in the moment, the link between the science and the art of this profession.

So how might one build intuition in teaching? And what does that even mean?

Teachers have such busy lives, and the chatter throughout a school day can cloud people's time to think, to get quiet, to process, to reflect. And building that space each day for quiet, to build pauses in between moments in a classroom, to practice self care are all methods of cultivating intuition.

Mindfulness is becoming more integrated in schools, and the practice of being mindful is allowing teachers and students to get a moment of quiet and focus before beginning the school day. Mindfulness is an excellent place to build intuition as well. When we dedicate time to close our eyes, to turn inward, to pay attention to our breath, the sensations in our body, the emotions that arise and fall, the thoughts that come and go like cars on a train--and we do so with compassion and without judgment--we are building space to know ourselves. We are creating room for intuition to develop. And what a gift to give to ourselves so early in the routines of the school year.

We need to give ourselves more opportunities to let silence in so that we can listen to what is actually happening for us. When we take a five-minute walk outside, when we close our classroom doors for a few minutes of quiet, when we pause and reflect on what each moment calls for, we are honoring ourselves, our voices, and in effect, we are creating space to be our best, most responsive selves for our students.

I am curious to know about your own practices of building intuition. What are the ways you invite quiet and spaciousness into your daily routine? How do you listen to the voice of inner knowing, so that you can bridge the specific skills of classroom practice with the artist within?

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Beginner's Mind Revisited: The Importance of Ritual

Last fall, I wrote about the Beginner's Mind in relation to new teachers and their expectations. And it's no accident that one year later, as the school year renews, as teachers and students return to engage in another year of learning, as we embark upon the predictable and unpredictable moments in the cycle of the school, that the Beginner's Mind becomes part of the yearly ritual I return to.

The concept of the Beginner's Mind comes from the Zen Buddhist tradition and is known in Japanese as "Shoshin (初心)": an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when entering any task, familiar or unfamiliar. For educators, this can be an especially important mindset as we begin with new courses, grade levels, and groups of students, even ones we have known and taught before. The Beginner’s Mind allows us the opportunity to meet people again as they change, to allow for us to change as well. The Beginner’s Mind makes innovation possible, gives chances to those who may not have succeeded before, allows people to evolve as the world does—keeping education dynamic.

And while the Beginner’s Mind opens us up to possibility, the rituals of school keep us grounded in moments when the feelings of overwhelm, jitters, and opening day anxiety may get the best of us. Veteran teachers know all too well how important the first days/weeks of school rituals are. New teachers will eventually come to know these rituals with more ease as the years pass, and they, too, will develop their own routines to help students succeed.

We all can take comfort in the fact that first days of school are the ritualistic pivot point between one year and the next, and that whatever fears accompany those first moments with students, they quickly will fade into engaging activities, routines in the classroom, opportunities for learning and growth—moments where the safety nets of classroom culture allow students to thrive. (Nothing feels better than the well-oiled machine of a classroom whose systems are well under way.)

This past August, the CATDC completed its fifth year of Teaching Foundations—a program that invites teachers to examine their identities, school cultures, curricula and lessons, communication styles, and professional relationships in order to deepen their work in schools and classrooms. I look forward to it every year, as it reminds me what I love most about this profession: passionate, reflective practitioners eager to develop and refine their craft, all in the service of students.

This year was one of our biggest cohorts, and the Beginner’s Mind was ever present in our daily activities. On the first day of the program, we invited participants (regardless of years in the classroom) to start with a Beginner’s Mind so that the week allowed people to learn from fresh vantage points. And by the end of the program, we offered participants a range of activities and reflective questions that invited them to create their own rituals in their classrooms—from culturally responsive teaching practices to classroom management strategies to approaches to lesson design. Our hope is that participants will ask their students to enter school with Beginner’s Minds as well, and as the rituals of the year unfold, students will approach each new task feeling safe and challenged—the optimal balance for learning to occur.

My hope for you all as you begin your school years is that you will find a balance between beginning anew and re-grounding yourselves in what allows you to feel whole—the rituals that help you perform at your best. And may that combination between grounding routines and open-mindedness provide you with an entry point to a stellar year ahead.




Friday, June 24, 2016

Thoughts on Orlando, or The Second Coming Out

Coming out was a painful process for me.

The first thoughts/inklings I ever had of being gay were in junior high when a friend of mine mentioned at a friend's slumber party about how lots of people are bisexual. I didn't entirely know what that meant, but I liked something about it.

I then went dormant in my thoughts of gaydom for another six or so years, and in hindsight, I must have been the butchest straight girl in high school and college. I had a boyfriend in college, and I dated men for a short bit, until I inadvertently met my first love at the end of undergrad. And so the story goes...

When I started coming out to people at age 23, I did so because I was in a relationship. It was easier to tell people I was dating a woman than to identify myself as gay/lesbian. So many unconscious messages--and overt ones--throughout my childhood alerted me that being gay was synonymous with "less than," "other," a sort of different that was bad. Even when I entered my first relationship with a woman, it didn't entirely feel real those first couple of years. I kept hearing messages in my head about how I couldn't really be in a relationship with a woman because gay couples couldn't do what straight couples did, sexually, marriage-wise, or any other hetero-normative approach to the world. It took a long time to convince myself otherwise.

Coming out to my family and friends sucked. It didn't suck in the ways most tragic tales go, where the child comes out to her parents and is summarily told that she is a disappointment and an abomination, and is asked to leave the house. My family not only was understanding, but more accepting of me than I was. I told my mom there was something wrong with me; she reassured me that I was fine and wonderful. My incredibly accepting brother did the good work of telling my dad, and even though my dad can be pretty racist, misogynist, and homophobic, he never treated my sexuality as something problematic. I was surprised at how easy it was to be accepted.

My friends accepted me as well, although for some friends, I think they just continued to treat me as straight and overlooked the gay part, not because of their discomfort, but because of mine. I hated having to cross the threshold of closeted to out. Saying the words "I'm gay" was like scaling a rock face; those two words erected a barrier between me and the straight world, who never had to announce what it was like to be heterosexual. I wish I could describe that kind of pain, and I guess the best way to characterize it is Shame. Self-loathing. Fear. Like I'm about to get in trouble for something huge, something I didn't even do.

In my early years of teaching I was selectively out. I was out to co-workers who would accept me, closeted to most others. And with students, being gay was high-risk. It was pretty obvious to most of my students that I was gay, and some of my classes would even try to suss it out of me ("Ms. Cohen, did you go to the club this weekend with your...significant other?" "Ms. Cohen, do you have a boyfriend?"...followed by laughter). Other students, mostly girls, would joke about ways to make me more feminine. One female student tried to hit on me, which could have cost me my job. I was on display in a whole new realm, this insidious, unspoken dance of sexuality, and my shame and fear increased. 

Eventually, being out became a political act. When our school started the Lesbian Gay Straight Alliance (LGSA), the student leaders needed allies to support them. I spoke on their behalf to the homophobic principal; I spoke on their behalf at city forums that were revising their legislation; I came out to students who were being targeted, bullied, and harassed for their sexuality, serving as an adult role model whom these students could confide in. 

Crossing that threshold of coming out never got easier, though. It stung with my principal; it stung at those community forums; and sadly, it even stung in my face-to-face moments with students who were suffering far more than I was.

Moving to my most recent school and living in San Francisco have eased my feelings of shame around being gay, but even that was a slow process. Our school is more accepting than one can imagine, and there even is a hallway with several bulletin boards that cover current events in the gay community (I endearingly call it, "The Hall of Gay"). And eventually, being out was no longer a selective act, although I still feel a slight sting when I introduce my partner to straight friends and co-workers, and I still feel on display in front of my students, all of whom are well aware that I am out. I could not be in a better place professionally or personally, and my shame still can nag at me like a stray hair out of place. Like a part of me will always be in trouble for something I didn't do or cause.

In the past year, though, I feel myself shifting. 

My first shift occurred when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage in June 2015. While California allowed for gay couples to marry, our nation as a whole didn't allow for it, which made me continue to feel less than, other. And I was surprised by the psychological shift that occurred in me when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of my humanity. I don't know how I feel about marriage as an institution, and in our capitalist society, I know that allowing more people to marry helps perpetuate our need to consume. And yet, knowing that I was now equal in this particular institution caused me to feel less shame, more human. It was startling. And striking. And I felt like I could breathe a little easier.

The second shift occurred more recently, in the wake of the Orlando shootings. And this shift has been dramatic.

It is poignant to me that the largest mass shooting in U.S. history occurred at the expense of the gay community and at the expense of people of color, most of whom also identified as gay. While the younger version of me may have reacted to this violent incident by retreating deeper into the closet, my current self feels compelled to shatter all the closets in the world--to be gay as fuck. Unapologetically. Proudly. Shamelessly.

The events in Orlando have catalyzed my own self-examination around being gay, and it makes me think of all those in this society who share similar stories of shame, otherness, disregard: people of color, Native peoples, transgender peoples, undocumented immigrants--anyone who doesn't fit the dominant paradigm. And now 49 people won't get the chance to continue telling their stories. 

I imagine those who were killed at the Pulse nightclub felt less shame than I did growing up. Or at least I hope so. I also imagine their struggles and challenges were different from mine. But under the banner of the rainbow flag, we share in the same community, and I feel wounded and galvanized by what happened.

For now, at least today, being out not only ensures my humanity, but also serves as deference to and homage for any gay or queer-identified person whose stories are cut short--or never told. And it's time to take my own pain, the pain of my community, and transform it into something that heals. 




Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Trans-itions

The news media is on fire these days regarding legislation in Mississippi and North Carolina--legislation that makes provisions for discrimination based on one's sexual orientation or gender identity. The governors of both states have signed off on this legislation (HB1523 in Mississippi; HB 2 in North Carolina), and the nation has responded, both within and outside these states—from boycotts to college campus protests.

Prior to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signing HB 2 into law, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts sent him the following text directly: 

Please do not sign this awful bill...Poorly conceived and written. There is no provision for any enforcement for race, religion, etc. It will be legal for restaurants to hang a sign saying 'no gays allowed' out front. Is this the N.C. we want?

McCrory ignored this text.

His decision to convene the North Carolina legislature and sign HB 2 into law this March came as a response to a local ordinance in Charlotte that banned discrimination against the LGBT community, increasing nondiscrimination policies that already existed. In other words, whereas Charlotte's mayor was aiming to be inclusive--to acknowledge the LGBT community for their totality and humanity--Governor McCrory wanted to define a human being's identity on his terms.

McCrory, it seems, has transitional issues.

Typically, when we think of the end of the school year, we don't think about the firestorm of backlash against a state's discriminatory legislation. We think of graduations, celebrations, endings--joyous moments to take stock of growth and new beginnings--and we mark these significant moments through rituals and ceremonies, through transitions that allow us to embrace inevitable change.

And yet, there is a way that the response to legislation in North Carolina and Mississippi is a marker of change as well.

While there is nothing celebratory about discrimination, the response to these laws is significant. (Even President Obama has weighed in.) As a nation, we are expanding our definitions of gender identity and striving (sometimes clumsily) to add more of our population into the country's narrative. We are aiming to accept the inevitable changes that come with civil and human rights.

My hope is that the process of our work in schools--both public and independent--can foster this sort of expansive thinking: to raise good human beings, and to send these good human beings--our graduates--into the world to make positive, inclusive change.

While our nation is in transition, our schools are engaging in the same conversations that are happening on a mass scale: gender-neutral bathroom spaces; anti-racist affinity groups; equity and inclusion efforts in our hiring practices; maker spaces, design thinking; project-based learning; STEM and STEAM--policies and practices that acknowledge the whole child/human of today rather than the outmoded (and often limiting) approaches used in the schools of our upbringing. In this present-day work, as we prepare our students for the next phase of their academic careers, I hope we can say to them, "We acknowledge the totality of who you are, and we value you for all you bring to our communities."

In these coming weeks, school years will be ending, classrooms will be closing down, teachers will be getting some much-needed rest, people will be coming and going at our school sites. Transitions--inevitable change--will be occurring.

And while there is much work to be done in our nation and our schools, there is much to celebrate as well: our ongoing commitment to redefine what it means to be educated--and ultimately, what it means to be human. May that re-definition be inclusive and just for all. (I hope you're reading this, Governor McCrory.)

And may you have smooth transitions as your school years come to a close.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Pedagogy in the Springtime: An Ode to Seasonal Teaching

Springtime in schools is exciting. And exhausting. As we prepare for end-of-year celebrations, performances, and rituals for closure, we must summon the same level of stamina we had when the school year began. Sometimes the light at the end of the school-year tunnel allows us to press forward until the finish. Sometimes the growth of our students inspires us to manage those final weeks of youth bouncing off the walls. Yet we also need to acknowledge, with care and honesty, that we are tired. 

When I was in my first years of teaching, I always dreaded the slog between spring break and Memorial Day. Typically, we had about six to eight full weeks with no breaks. And as the sun came out and the weather got warmer, students increasingly struggled to be in the classroom. I was afraid I'd get eaten alive because I wasn't sure I had the energy to maintain my class routines with the same meticulousness as the fall or when a new semester began. And sometimes these fears became self-fulfilling prophecies.

Then I thought of seasonal eating.

People will often find me saying there is a fine line between an "Ah-ha!" and a "Well-duh!" moment, and this was one of them. 

In the springtime of my early teaching woes, I was at a local restaurant with a friend, and I ordered the house green salad. I noticed that the salad came with seasonal strawberries on it--gorgeous, tiny, local strawberries whose ruby red popped against the greens. They were sprinkled sparingly amidst the lettuce (just enough to complement and add flavor to the dish), and they were delicious. 

Then I thought of my teaching.

I wondered if we teachers were as seasonal with our pedagogy as farm-to-table restaurants were with their cuisine. While we decorate for holidays and acknowledge various times of the school year, do we plant the sorts of pedagogical seeds that sprout different types of instruction from fall to winter to spring? 

Sometimes the ruts we get ourselves into during the springtime are more about our teaching than the inevitability of the school calendar. We know with a high level of certainty that rainy days make students nuts, that winter holidays create excitement and distraction, that spring festivals and sunshine invite good cheer (and a healthy dose of hormones for older students). So how can we make our classrooms places where our pedagogy matches the needs of our students as they (and we) weather the final weeks of school?

We need more tiny strawberries to complement the salad days of spring--practical tweaks to make our teaching more seasonal. 

Below are some suggestions for how we can provide ourselves with the energy to make it to Memorial Day and beyond--and make our classrooms more dynamic for our students at this time of the year:


  • Add just one new routine. In previous posts, I've written about how it's never too late to co-create classroom culture, and spring certainly is a time to regroup. Perhaps introduce a novel routine for those final weeks. Ask each student to set a short-term goal each week and post those goals in a visible place. Begin with a sentence starter such as "This week I aspire to..." or "This week I will..." and have students determine what they hope to achieve by Friday. Don't be afraid to do this activity yourself, too. Thinking short-term allows students and teachers to stay more present to the classroom process rather than counting down the days until summer.
  • Create time for movement outdoors. Many teachers know embodied learning is good for the brain, and sometimes movement for the sake of movement is just as healthy as an academic task. Students are always asking to go outside, so perhaps a five-minute walk in the sunshine is just what they and you need to re-set and re-focus. For those that have the good fortune of gorgeous weather, having class outside every once in while can also be a delightful treat--as long as the lesson invites a high level of engagement.
  • Have students do the teaching. Springtime is growth season, and at this point in the year, students often show how much they have learned. Whether students are soaring or still struggling, they have spent enough time in the care of our classrooms to at least know the routines and habits that help them learn best. Perhaps once a day or week, ask students to share a learning strategy, teach a skill, or lead a lesson. In this vein, students will remain responsible and engaged in their learning. Teachers can keep the stakes high by asking the students to apply their skills to authentic contexts.
  • Believe in the "outro"--create space for reflection. We put a lot of time and energy into easing students into the school year, and sometimes we forget how much we need to ease students out of the school year as well. For classes bound to a finals schedule, consider ways to make the last weeks of instruction a balance between work and down time; students learn best when they can relax a bit amidst the stress. Regardless of grade and age, the end of the year is a good time for rest and reflection even within the rigors of our curricula. Asking students to spend some time reflecting on how they are doing or writing and sharing what they learned (maybe even in a whole-class discussion) is often energizing for students and teachers alike. Time for reflection also allows us to adjust our instruction to meet the needs of our students in these final weeks.
  • Eat well, exercise, and take time off for you. Find some delicious seasonal fruit as a mid-afternoon snack; take a walk during your prep time; or plan one activity a week (before or after school) that allows you to get some fuel for the final weeks. If you have been hanging onto those personal days, now is a good time to treat yourself to a Ferris Bueller experience (sleep in, visit a museum, take in a ball game, eat at a tasty restaurant). It's important we treat ourselves as well as we hope to treat our students.
I am sure many of you already are doing right by your students during this time of year, so feel free to add a comment and provide your own suggestions for successful teaching in the spring. 


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Humane Innovation for Today's Schools: Three Tips for all Educators



21st Century education has its share of buzz words: "innovation" being chief among them. From my first years of teaching (in the midst of Y2K and its anti-climactic aftermath), everyone in education was focused on the future. To innovate meant to do school differently: to throw out the factory models of education in favor of schools for different purposes--technological, thematic, globalized. 

16 years into this new century, and the factory model of schooling still exists. However, much has changed as well.

Numerous schools, from charter to independent to public, are blowing up the concept of traditional education in favor of more experiential and intentional learning experiences that meet the needs of today's students.

Some schools are responding to advanced uses of technology, like Michigan's Clintondale High School, a public high school in the Detroit area whose core focus is the flipped classroom. Other schools are innovating by unplugging, such as The Mountain School, where students and teachers work side by side on a farm in Vermont, learning core life skills connected to daily living. Other schools are innovating in response to larger systemic challenges, like The Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem and Wyoming Indian Elementary School--the former offering young women of color pathways for college and careers in STEM, the latter focusing on academic skills while keeping Native students connected to indigenous cultural values and practices. There are even programs, like UnCollege, that offer students alternative pathways to college through a gap-year program. All of these institutions are responding to the times by optimizing the student experience--providing learners what they most need to flourish in today's world.

To innovate means  to completely remake something, to do what hasn't been done before. And in researching these schools--and many other places focused on innovation--I found 
all these institutions were focused on not only changes in schooling, but changes in the system of education itself: more humane teaching practices, more access for everyone, and a leveled playing field for all. 

Clintondale High School has a low-achieving population, and typical of urban schools such as this one, students often don't complete work outside of school (for a whole host of reasons). Consequently, school leader Greg Green decided to flip the classroom, allowing students to complete their homework in class while viewing teacher's lessons at home. In effect, Green reported his aim was to "provide a level playing field for all students." And it's working.

Wyoming Indian Elementary School uses a math program called "Strength in Numbers," a hands-on, games-based math curriculum to help improve the achievement of students in STEM subjects; simultaneously, this school believes "Reliance on the strong cultural traditions of grandparents and great grandparents is integral to education..."  This school understands the world students will inherit while maintaining a connection to the old ways of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone. And students are thriving.

These schools' revolutionary practices are emblematic of the possibilities of a 21st Century education: better access for everyone. If that's innovation at its core, then hopefully more schools will see its validity in this new century and find an urgency to make important changes.

And still, there are a lot of societal, systemic, and political roadblocks in place that may stymie innovation, which begs the question: In the absence of institutions that support innovation on a grand scale, is there something all teachers can do to remain innovative and student-centered amidst institutional demands, state and federal demands, budget cuts, and the tidal wave of traditions that preclude schools from thinking differently? 

Yes.

Whether schools are striving for greater change, or individual teachers are looking to do something differently, the following three items are a starting point for those hoping to stay innovative--to provide access and equality of opportunity for all students:


  • Tap into students' prior knowledge: and use that prior knowledge to shape classroom experiences. We oftentimes have desired outcomes for our courses, or our schools/departments have desired outcomes. However, the more we can ask students "What do you know about...?" or "What has been your experience with...?" or "Bring in an example of..." the more we're asking students to take ownership of their learning. The more we ask students to solve problems from where they are and the ways they learn best, the more they feel valued in the learning process. What makes this approach innovative? Tapping into prior knowledge presupposes that learning will always be new and different because our learners change each year or semester or trimester. Why don't we focus on changing alongside them?
  • Throw out your curriculum every few years: Many independent school teachers toil to create a dynamic, engaging curriculum. For many, the exercise of curriculum creation is invigorating and intellectually stimulating. And it's even cooler when we see our curriculum in action. Yet every few years, it's healthy to shed some skin in our teaching lives. To remake our classrooms, we need to be willing to re-see what we do, which can mean purging what we hold most dear. In journalism it's called "killing your darlings." In Hinduism, it's the cyclical process of destruction and creation that allows us to renew ourselves. In Buddhism, it's called the "Beginner's Mind." All three of these approaches invite us to leap into the unknown and be a learner all over again, to admit we don't know everything. Our students will have more optimal experiences if all of us are willing to take risks and try something different.
  • Ask "Why?": Whether we're brand new to a class or a school, or whether we're a seasoned veteran, the question "Why?" can be a powerful one in fostering innovation. Whether we ask, "Why am I teaching this outdated grammatical construction?" or "Why does our department value these topics?" or "Why do we do things this way?" the question "Why?" can serve as a probe for deeper reflection, and oftentimes, opens up new possibilities for us and our students. "Why?" also is a gateway word for systemic change. Although this question may lead to some defensiveness or some ego bruising among our colleagues, it also can serve as an important salve that can ensure our teaching has clear intentionality--so our students can learn from reflective practitioners who are brave enough to question the way things are in favor of new possibilities.

While these three tips may not immediately overhaul education as it is, they at least allow us to aspire for what might be, which in effect, allows us to model--for our students--the traits of today's world: one that aims for access and equality of opportunity for all.


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

And: Creativity and Inclusivity

A major focus in schools these days is innovation: making, designing, creating. In the latest iteration of Bloom's Taxonomy, "creating" is considered a higher-order skill. When students are able to take what they have learned and make something new based on their knowledge, then they're demonstrating creativity.

However, whenever I ask students to do something "creative," most scoff back with: "I'm not artistic/creative," or "I don't work that way," or "but I can't do that."

And who can blame these students? When we show students images of Renaissance art or the latest version of the Tesla, and we tell them, "This could be you someday," we put a high premium on creativity. These works become unattainable, and therefore, when students are asked to be creative, they already have limited themselves in their own boxes of self doubt.

The good people at Stanford's d.school and the consultants at IDEO would advocate for breaking out of these self-imposed obstacles through a process called "design thinking." Design thinking calls for creativity in its most nascent forms: to think big and broadly about any ideas that first come to mind; to prototype and test these ideas; to "fail forward" at each stage of the design process; and eventually, create something that reflects a process-based effort--whether it be establishing a business, creating efficient workflow systems, or designing a household object.

This process is a wonderful equalizer for the classroom because it emphasizes meeting people where they are and designing from there. If one has access to funding and classroom spaces and instructors who promote design thinking habits of mind, they're more likely to produce innovative thinkers/makers who are ready for the demands of the 21st Century.

And what if schools/teachers don't have that kind of access? Are there other ways to promote creativity in the midst of the Common Core wars, promoting STEM for girls, inviting mindful uses of technology, and addressing the injustices that dominate the psyches of the underrepresented?

When I'm looking for answers to these big questions, I think about Schoolhouse Rock.

When I was a child, Schoolhouse Rock was all the rage: mini videos that taught important life lessons nestled in between Saturday morning cartoons. Between segments of Superfriends, I learned about how a bill becomes a law (politics), how not to drown my food in too much dressing (healthy eating), and the power of conjunctions (communication). There was a dandy little ditty to accompany each lesson--just to make it more memorable. Anyone who has seen these videos will start snapping their fingers and tapping their toes to those catchy tunes, and most likely, call up the lyrics like a familiar friend.

"Conjunction Junction," in particular, is the video I think of the most. 

This video introduced language that most of today's grammar teachers call "FANBOYS" (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so): the words that serve as connection points in a sentence. The one conjunction that intrigues me most, the one that serves as the secret to creativity--in an access-for-all sort of way--is the word "and." 

"And" is the word of possibility. It's a link that makes all things equal, and allows all ideas to have the same merit. Walt Whitman used "and" repeatedly in Leaves of Grass, as he catalogued the richness of America's diverse landscapes, ideologies, inhabitants. Tina Fey talks about "and" in her chapter, "The Rules of Improvisation" from her memoir, Bossypants. One exercise involves participants building upon one another's ideas using "yes, and..." to keep the improvisation connected in one continuous flow. And anyone who has engaged in nonviolent communication techniques relies upon the word "and" to allow for disagreements in a respectful manner. Whereas the word "but" denotes obstacles, "and" dismantles those obstacles in favor of a level playing field. 

And what better way to invite creativity than to access the power of language?

As a connecting word, "and" could make for more inclusive--and creative--classroom spaces. During brainstorming sessions, students could use "and" to list all their ideas (no matter how out there) for a class project. Students who typically begin sentences with, "I'm not creative..." could follow up with "and I am going to try to do something new" instead of putting up barriers before they even begin. When disagreements arise, students can use "and" to acknowledge their peers' viewpoints without striking them down. 

Deceptively simple, the word "and" invites the same skills as one engaged in an act of the imagination: to think differently about the familiar, to be inventive with words, to be resourceful about connecting ideas. And in an era that's all about innovation, "and" can be the great equalizer that allows everyone an entry point into the creative process.