Creativity in Teaching—Taking Wisdom from a Dance Choreographer

mcb-in_the_upper_room_2What can a dance choreographer tell us about instilling creativity in our teaching? An enormous amount, actually.

Let me recommend a book I picked up a while back on the subject of creativity—it’s called The Creative Habit, by one of the world’s leading dance choreographer’s Twyla Tharp. Having seen several of Twyla Tharp’s dances over the years—her recent project I saw was the world premiere of “Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary Ensemble” in Dallas last September—gives me a special appreciation for her accomplishments, and in turn she has my rapt attention when she writes on the topic of creativity. But her book is intended for a wide ranging audience of all sorts of people—business people, parents, students, as well as artists and writers and performance directors. You don’t have to be a fan of classical or modern dance, or need to know anything about it, in order to quickly pick up on the value of Tharp’s experience and wisdom. I think it’s a must read for teachers and parents—for those of us who want to bring creativity to our teaching and for those who want to foster creativity in their children and students.images

Her opening paragraph fires me with a sense of anticipation and possibility:

“I walk into a large white room. It’s a dance studio in midtown Manhattan. I’m wearing a sweatshirt, faded jeans, and Nike cross-trainers. The room is lined with eight-foot-high mirrors. There’s a boom box in the corner. The floor is clean, virtually spotless if you don’t count the thousands of skid marks and footprints left there by dancers rehearsing. Other than the mirrors, the boom box, the skid marks, and me, the room is empty.”

THarp-Courtesy of The Richard Avedon Foundation_0Tharp’s dance craft is centered on filling that empty space with continuous, meaningful, suggestive, and symbolic human movement—shaping and arranging motion from the human body and drawing from an infinite array of possibilities—and then fusing this movement with a selection of music that provides the right tone for what is unfolding. That empty room that Tharp encounters at the outset of her dance creations is the classroom we teachers encounter just before opening day. We might have the room’s walls plastered with décor depicting our curricular content and our teaching and learning ideals, but our pre-opening day classroom is stark and lifeless, waiting for us to bring the room to life through choreographing our assigned students.

The process involved in filling our classroom space with learners who enact routines, fulfill assigned roles, collaborate on projects, tackle challenging problems, engage in questioning and answering, perform and grow their communication skills, and coalesce into a mutually supportive classroom community, requires a great deal of creativity that often requires teachers to circumvent the summertime planning.

Twyla Tharp offers loads of advice, ideas, and myth-debunking for those who wish to embrace a creative approach in their work.  Below I am shortlisting just some of them. To me, these bits of advice are gems for pursuing a journey of creativity in one’s teaching:

  • Is one born with creative talents? Her book debunks the myth about creativity and about geniuses—we can likewise ask, are teachers born?kourl.583 Creative artists and geniuses are not born, she says; there are no “natural geniuses”; it’s really all about hard work and good habits—good creative habits. Her book is a huge compendium of very nifty creative habits.
  • What about the teachers’ basic skills and competence? Twyla Tharp says in her book that it does take a foundation of skill building. Each craft has a special set of skills. For writers: skills to use words in certain ways that are pleasing and connecting. For painters: skills to select colors and mixtures from the palate. For chefs: skills to combine the herbs and foods to create memorable dishes. For the teacher, it’s about the skills needed to know your students well, to achieve equity in class participation, to formulate flexible groupings, to flip the classroom, to switch gears, to keep students fully engaged, and on and on. All these skills come from loads of preparation and practice, from trial and error, from watching other teachers, from reading about teaching, from twittering teachers everywhere. Nobody is born with these skills.
  • Battling the burden of originality: Tharp writes that it’s a myth that everyone has to be original. She flips this notion on its back by asserting that nothing’s original. “Honey, it’s all been done before. . . Get over yourself.” Being creative and venturesome in the classroom doesn’t mean you need to be original. Borrow and steal concepts from others. Take lesson plans and different approaches off teacher sites like Pinterest. The notion that your new approach or idea doesn’t have to be original and actually isn’t original at all, should be a liberating concept. For creativity to be free, you need only dash this notion that you need to be unique or original.
  • Stop multi-tasking and start focusing: She is big on the clearing away of distractions. Although she has to deal with the business side of operating her own dance company, when it comes to creating and choreographing, she avoids looking at the numbers—she rids herself of these “left brain business details” so that she can allow her right brain creative side to come to the forefront. Likewise, to choreograph the classroom in the right way, to meet the needs of individual students, requires some sustained focus by way of eliminating anything that does not feed the outcome you want to realize. An example of a distraction for teachers can actually be the lesson plan you put together last summer. It’s vitally important to plan, but when it comes to execution, you need to rely on your cumulative knowledge of these particular students and their specific needs in your classroom this year, right now.
  • It starts with messy brainstorming. We know about brainstorming, messiness, chaos, randomness—these are the kernels of something significant and worthwhile, but it often looks like a garbage heap. Collecting ideas, pulling together the visuals, arranging the manipulatives, finding symbolic representations of the lesson at hand—the creative teacher will make use of everything and anything at his/her disposal.
  • Ultimately, one needs to be organized. While creativity is often described as thinking “out of the box,” Tharp actually begins her process with a box. She throws all of her thoughts, news clippings, words, poetry lines, images, etc. into the box for the project she’s working on. You have to have some organization, some means of capturing or collecting ideas.
  • Start with the tiniest idea when introducing a new lesson or unit. Begin with an idea, a feeling, a concept, a tiny notion—whatever it is, you need something to arrest everyone’s attention in order to simplify the purpose of the lesson and to communicate its value and relevance to your students.

20150707_TWYLA_THARP_S04_056It is clear that there are hundreds of angles to consider when it comes to embracing and enacting creativity—in pulling off a new dance production or when guiding our classrooms toward successful outcomes.  Twyla Tharp’s book is a treasure trove of ideas, anecdotes, observations, morning rituals, personal quirks, creative exercises, and bits of advice — with examples pulled from all sorts of occupations and artistic pursuits— in order to give us ways to enter this realm of creativity and to underscore the universality of creativity in our professional lives.

That empty room we face at the outset of the school year should be the greatest moment of inspiration for the teacher. That’s when the vision you’ve been cultivating throughout your career has its next chance to be realized—and you will guarantee yourself another year of success if you abandon the sameness and the complacency that could set in if you are not attuned to the creative possibilities that will lead to an outstanding year of learning, growth, and discovery.


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