1. MY STARTING POINT
In the rapidly changing landscape of the 21st century, technology keeps reshaping education. Our society is diverse and evolving, but one thing remains constant: our desire for innovation and deeper connections. Creativity, the ability to find patterns in the unfamiliar, is our ally in adapting to this ever-changing world.
While STEM subjects provide essential skills, the arts, with their abstract and critical thinking, offer a framework for flexible learning. However, even in creative fields like the performing arts, students often hesitate and fear creative challenges. This could be due to the authority teachers hold, power dynamics in student groups, or our biases, limiting students' ability to handle creative setbacks.
These observations raise questions. Can we, as educators, nurture creativity more effectively? Is creativity innate or trainable? Why does fear of failure affect the creative process? Are these issues personal biases or systemic problems within education? What does it mean to educate creative communities effectively?
Over the past few years, I've been experimenting with innovative teaching methods involving devised, project-based writing exercises, as well as visual and performative projects in educational settings. As I honed these approaches, I observed a promising trend—a notable improvement in students' creative output and problem-solving abilities. However, it's important to note that these findings are still in the early stages and require further rigorous testing and evaluation.
3. WRITING EXERCISES
As a performing arts educator, I decided to focus primarily on dramatic writing as the creative form to implement these ideas.
Let's zoom in on one of the larger-scale projects I undertook with my students. In this project, our goal was clear: we were committed to creating a final collaborative product—a collection of dramatic pieces that would eventually be staged.
Our collaboration with the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) had a profound impact on our students. With several presentations to draw inspiration from, different students took different creative paths, resulting in the development of several plays.
One particular presentation by NJIT professor Simon Garnier on swarm theory struck a chord with us. We were intrigued by how simple organisms achieve complex goals through self-organization.
From this germinal idea, my students and I embarked on a journey to devise a set of rules, prompts, and limitations that would decentralize the creative process. The aim was to remove personal attachments to the story and crowdsource material before subjecting it to a rigorous editorial process. This unique approach was affectionately termed "The Swarm Plays process" by the students.
The process was a whirlwind of creativity, filled with moments of uncertainty, and ultimately invigorating. Here's the basic structure: students generated an open-source document and established a set of random rules and limitations that allowed writers to add, edit, or delete material in a completely unpredictable manner. As this process unfolded, participants agreed not to discuss plot, theme, or concept—effectively eliminating social hierarchies and pressures. Eventually, we even figured out how to use Google Docs to make input anonymous.
This incredible journey spanned two months, and after that period, we harvested the material and began the editorial process.
Today, I'd like to give you a taste of the initial process the students used to create a "seed" document. We'll be using one of the random feeders and a very basic set of rules. Even in a small workshop like this, you'll get a glimpse of the liberation that comes from using words as building blocks, unlocking creativity, and generating unexpected material before a more conscious creative process kicks in.
I see some promising signs that encourage me to delve further into this subject, even though I recognize the need for more research and data gathering. Here are some of these encouraging signs:
Over a span of seven years, an impressive 98% of students in my program successfully gained admission to four-year colleges. To put this in context, when I initially started the program, less than 10% of students were attending four-year programs.
Among those who gained admission, a substantial 87% went on to enroll in four-year programs, and an impressive 77% of them completed their college education.
The SAT scores of our students, particularly in the Reading and Writing sections, showed improvement compared to the general population of the school.
Our students achieved various awards and honors during their time in the program. Here are a few notable examples:
Lauren Cyrus received a Silver Key and Honorable Mention at the NJ Scholastic Writing Awards in 2018.
Ashley Kyser presented "Another Hashtag" at Crossroads Theatre in NJ in 2017.
Jessica Dell Beni received the Governor’s Award for writing in NJ in 2016 and her work "Visible" won the 2016 New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival.
Kimani Isaac won the Costume Design category for the Fences Project at McCarter Theatre in 2013, received a QuestBridge Scholarship in 2016, and was a recipient of the Cherubs scholarship at Northwestern University in 2016.
Alexis Plaza received Best Supporting Actress Awards at the Planet Connection Festival in NYC in 2015.
Imani Rodman's play "#ifyougunmedown" won the Gold Key National Award in Dramatic Writing in 2015, along with several Gold Keys, Silver Keys, and Honorable Mentions at the Scholastic Writing Awards, Northeast Division, in the same year.
Brett Temple received the Best Actor Award at the Planet Connection Festival in NYC in 2015.
Michael Vilanueva earned the Governor’s Award for writing in NJ in 2017, won the 2017 NJ Young Playwrights contest with "Play Packing," and presented at Crossroads Theatre and Luna Stage in NJ in 2017.
Alexis Wilner was awarded the Cherubs scholarship at Northwestern University in 2018.
I fully acknowledge that there are significant gaps in the data, and I may not be able to definitively link these outcomes to the exercises we implemented. The data pool is relatively small, and numerous factors could have contributed to these achievements, including the fortunate circumstance of having exceptional students during that period. Part of this ongoing project involves conducting a more rigorous examination to better understand these connections.