THE ARTIST WITHIN
by: Scott M. Hathaway, Instructor, English Department
Hudson Valley Community College, Troy, New York 12180
 
 
 
Only in men's imagination does every truth find an effective and undeniable existence. Imagination, not invention, is the supreme master of art as of life.

--Joseph Conrad

 
From the doorway, I watch my two year old son Noah with curiosity as he creates a dialogue for his Playskool little people and stuffed animals. I watch his delight as he fills their painted mouths with questions, exclamations, and frightful accounts of a train crash in the toyland of his imagination. In this particular story, Thomas the Tank Engine has tipped over, and Winnie the Pooh and the little people must get together to help get him back on the rails.
 
I am caught spying. Noah looks up and gives me a big smile. "Come play some toys, Daddy," he says, not minding my intru-sion. "Sure," I say as I hunker down on the floor to play. I look forward to hearing the end of his story. Mostly I watch. He is an artist, skillfully weaving plot and character into a coherent narrative. Desperately, I reach back into my past, trying to recapture this sense of wonder and carefree imaginative spirit he shows so naturally, trying to remember what it was like to be an artist. For a time, it works; I am a child again, caught up in Noah's world of exploration, creativity, imagination, and joy. We make up more stories together, but it soon becomes obvious to me that Noah is far more accomplished at storytelling than I am. I'm a bit rusty, and it's harder now. As we play, my mind drifts to a pile of papers that need grading, and then to the lesson plans for tomorrow's classes. I begin worrying about bills, leaky faucets and household chores. Reality has forced its way in again. I think, "What happened to me?" Why was I so quick to give up creating and imagining? I miss the artist I once was.
Too often, we let our imagination get buried beneath the demands of life, or we let it take a back seat to our intellects. Child development theorists tell us that Noah is doing more than just telling stories and playing. He is learning as he plays. Indeed, he is constructing his own view of reality, making connections, creating meaning, and in short, understanding what it means to be alive. I, on the other hand, know how to do this stuff already ... or do I?
 
Thankfully, our imaginations never really leave us. Imagination is the key and foundation for all learning, not just childhood learning. It is the imagination that encourages us to ex-perience life more deeply and more fully. If we choose to ignore the creative and imaginative side of ourselves, we deny ourselves a vital piece of the human experience. Much worse, if we fail to teach students how to harness the imaginative spirit within, we deny them that side of themselves that allows for new interpretations, new ways of thinking and understanding. I am convinced that without our powers of imagination, we would have no motivation to learn, no motivation to live.
I know that to analyze my way of teaching, I must analyze myself first. I need to look back at my own learning experiences and identify what worked (and what works) for me. As teachers, we need to be picking up where our students' kindergarten teachers left off. At the risk of sounding corny, we need to let our students explore their "inner child," allowing them to use their own prior knowledge as a basis for new learning and creative thinking. Too often though, we find ourselves in a rut we are reluctant to leave. "After all," we may say, "my way of doing things has seemed to work fine all these years, why should I change now?" Change is a scary thing, especially if it involves taking the focus off of ourselves and concentrating our efforts on to our students' learning experiences and trying to understand their views of the world.
 
Too, if we want to teach our students to think imaginatively, we had better teach imaginatively ourselves. For example, I need to constantly ask myself: What other ways are there to teach run on sentences? How can I structure class or group discussions to help students understand complicated subjects? How can I model effective notetaking in my class so that it will be more than a laundry list of terms to be covered during a test? Moreover, how can I create writing assignments that will both trigger the spark of creative thought and be practical? It is a daunting task - one that keeps me busy.
From the doorway, I watch my Composition students with curiosity as they complete an interactive dialogue writing assignment to be used in their personal narrative project. I watch one pair as they talk, create, and delight in the play of language and the joy of the learning.
 
I am caught spying. They look up from their desks. "Can we do this again sometime?" one student says. "Sure," I say as I hunker down to their desks. Suddenly, I make the connection. I guess I'm still an artist after all.
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