Exploring self-expression one glue stick (and one English class) at a time
“I don’t know what to study after high school.” My 13-year old student reads the statement aloud from the Giving Advice game. He turns to his partner.
I smile at the pair. “Remember, you can start your sentence with a prompt.” I point to the highlighted phrases: you should, you could, you might, you ought to, what about, why don’t you, if I were you, I would.
“Umm, how do you say řemeslník in English? I mean, a person who works with his hands. My mom says that’s going to be the best job when I get older. Everyone wants to work with computers, but no one wants to fix things.”
His partner chimes in, “Yeah, it’s true. My mom says the same thing.”
I tell them that řemeslník means craftsman. Curious about what my students’ mothers have planned for their sons, I ask, “Do you mean working with your hands like glass blowing or carving puppets?” I know both of these trades are among the Czech Republic’s most significant contributions to global craftsmanship.
My student shakes his head. “More like building houses.”
Having experienced the difficulties of tracking down a carpenter to repair and re-stain our wooden windows, I knew what their mothers meant. Finding talented craftworkers to do regular home repair was challenging. In the end, my husband ends up doing most of our repair work himself. Luckily, he was raised to believe a Czech can fix anything. See “The ‘handy’ Czech” for my take on the Czech DIY tradition.
That afternoon my teenage students brainstormed humorous responses to statements like, “I lost my house keys,” or “I broke my neighbor’s window.” But our brief conversation about their future stuck with me.
When the topic of my children’s future comes up my parents ask: Are your children enrolled in any tech classes? Do they know how to code? There’s a new programming game for younger children, should I find out what it’s called so your kids can try it?
My parents’ interest in their grandchildren’s future makes sense. Our modern world operates on a sophisticated axis and those who have sharp STEM and IT skills are likely to have an advantage.
There is only one problem. Neither my husband nor I is particularly computer savvy. We went for six years without television because we didn’t bother asking our provider for a new cable box when the old one stopped working. We can’t fix our own wi-fi. My bedside table is stacked with books, but my first-generation Kindle died years ago from never remembering to charge it.
I would love to lead my children to a brighter tech future, but beyond teaching them how to type using all ten fingers, I am lost.
Perhaps, in return for my lack of tech prowess, I was gifted with boys who like to create in real time, not on the screen. At 12 and 9, Oliver and Sam scrounge for leftover boxes in the basement, raid bathrooms for paper toilet rolls to use as “zoom” lenses and spend their pocket money on hot glue gun replacement sticks.
Pirate ships. Circus tents. Portals for transporting humans to faraway places. Habitats for hermit crabs. Hamster mazes. Animal shows with stuffed animals and cardboard food. Their crafting is organic and creative. And, it is messy.
I ask my boys why their pockets are filled with bottle caps, broken zippers, and strings from someone else’s tennis shoes. They smile and say, “You know, Mom, we might need that stuff for crafting.”
I am depressed. So is my washing machine.
I want my children to be creative, but I also want them to have a solid future. I want them to be as prepared for our increasingly tech world as their classmates who like programming.
In my downtime, I research summer coding classes. For Christmas, my parents and I conspire to gift the boys STEM building kits labeled, “Robotics: Smart Machine,” and “Boost: Stem, Code, Play.” On Christmas morning, the boys ooh and awe over their gifts.
By Christmas afternoon, their coding kits still unopened, they drag all the used cardboard they can find into my parent’s garage. They collect scissors, markers and duct tape. And spend the rest of their vacation making tiny dioramas and a life-size cardboard plane.
I resign myself to checking pockets and peeling bits of dried glue off my placemats.
While pondering how to make STEM more appealing, I stumble into an NPR podcast called “Note to Self,”moderated by Manoush Zomorodi. The podcast calls itself “The tech show about being human,” and the episode I listen to is titled, “How the Best Teacher Teaches Creativity.”
The podcast opens with art teacher Andrea Zafirakou, the 2018 Global Teacher of the Year, saying “hello” to students in some of the 35 languages native to her school’s ethnically diverse population. Zafirakou teaches at the inner-city Alperton Community School in one of the poorest areas in London. Many of the school’s 1400 students aged 11-18 receive free meals, face gang-related issues and live in instable or challenging home environments.
Despite the difficulties facing her students, Zafirkou’s school ranks in the top 4% for performance in the UK. How?
According to Zafirkou, her high school’s success is not because her students are learning to code or cramming for standardized tests. “Art is why these kids are thriving,” she says.
Zafirkou explains the importance of making the arts an accessible, vibrant part of every student’s education. In a school where many of the children can’t speak English or write coherent essays, art class is where they show themselves to their peers (and their teachers). Art classes promote self-esteem, individuality and the development of a strong personal identity. Zafirkou is witness to how the confidence gained in art classes then transfers to other aspects of her students’ lives.
Zafirkou talks about STEAM, an expanded version of STEM that includes both Art and Agriculture as vital forces to help students from indigenous communities connect the traditions and heritages of their past with the progress and innovation necessary for their future. She believes conversations about the shape and scale of education are the most important discussions in the world.
Zafirkou has evidence to back up her beliefs. From speaking with CEOs and world leaders, she has found the top skills missing from the rising workforce are creativity and communication. The podcast cites a recent study in which 77% of CEOs find it difficult to hire talent with the creativity and innovation skills their companies need.
My afterschool English Conversation classes can’t be classified as art. Still, like Zafirkou, I have seen firsthand how a creative approach – i.e. game playing, describing silly pictures or responding to impromptu or make-believe situations like, “I broke my neighbor’s window,” challenges my students to think. And, thinking for themselves in a language that may seem confusing or complicated in an ordinary classroom situation gives my students confidence. And, confidence, plus stellar conversational English skills* (*insert any 2nd/3rd language), may lead them one day to pursue a job or an opportunity that they might not have thought otherwise possible.
It is not up to me to determine whether the skills for building houses, building computer programs, or speaking multiple languages will be more essential to the rising generation. In line with the growth mindset theory popularized by the psychologist Carol Dweck, my gut feeling is that tomorrow’s leaders will need varied and evolving skills.
When I see my boys’ ecstatic about the latest cardboard pirate ship they’ve made, instead of thinking about the mess to clean up, for a moment, I remember my own 3rd grade art class and how satisfying it felt to mush the clay between my fingers and shape it into a tall, cylindrical cat.
Whether it’s playing a lively game of Guess in 10, using Rory Story Cubes to tell a make-believe narrative, or simply providing a crafting workspace and keeping my mouth shut when my boys swipe cardboard from the recycling bin, I believe supporting my students’ (and my children’s) creative spirits is the best way I can help ensure their bright futures.
The next time we play the Giving Advice game, I tell my students, the best advice I ever heard was: Keep your passions close. Don’t let anyone tell you what you should do. And, always clean up your own messes.