Ruth Ayres hosts a weekly celebration at her blog, Ruth Ayres Writes. I appreciate this invitation to reflect on the positives of my week.
This week, the juniors and seniors enrolled in my upper-division Creative Mind class received an unusual homework assignment: color. I try to make it feel a little more like college by assigning a TED Talk for them to listen to while they color, but the important thing to me, really, is that they’re coloring.
I taught the class for the first time last semester and added coloring to the syllabus on a whim. I had been reading many books about creativity to prep for the course, and one of my reads was actually a reread, Lynda Barry’s Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, which details a course she teaches at UW-Madison called “The Unthinkable Mind.” Barry’s class examines the brain on creativity: she introduces her students to research by neuroscientists and asks them to use themselves as guinea pigs for various exercises, writing assignments, and drawing assignments. Barry is especially interested in trying to tap into the subconscious or unconscious mind. We tested many of her assignments in “The Creative Mind,” a course designed to cap the suite of General Education classes students are required to take as part of their degree.
Coloring may not seem like a very serious assignment, and I was worried last semester when I assigned it that I was going to experience significant pushback from students. “I’m paying money for this?!” or “What kind of *$^#@! is this?!”
But that’s not what happened at all.
My students loved coloring. So much that many of them kept coloring on their own outside of class once we moved away from coloring assignments. They bought their own coloring books. They explored the many wonderful options you’ll find if you Google “coloring pages.” They got their friends who weren’t taking the class to start coloring.
Still, I felt the need to apologize when I gave the assignment this week. “It might seem weird to color, but trust me, there’s a method to the madness.”
But my students didn’t seem to care about the rationale. They were ready to dive in. They took their coloring very seriously this week. The TED talk they were asked to color to is 27 minutes long. Most students reported spending at least an hour coloring. Several of them cleverly set the TED Talk on a loop and watched it multiple times as they finished their pictures. One student dedicated four hours to her picture. Several others admitted to spending about two hours coloring.
They hung their art on the walls in the classroom so that we could admire the pretty pictures. We processed and reflected. I made some notes on what I overheard in their small group conversations.
From one guy in the back: “You know, I’m actually really proud of this!”
And from one guy in the front: “It wasn’t that weird for me to do this assignment. I’m a closet colorer.”
We decided to leave the art on the walls for students in other classes to enjoy.
I received this email the next morning from a student who took the class last semester:
“I don’t know who colored the pictures and put them on the wall in ADM 101, but they are beautiful and you should be proud. 😘💕”
I just ran across this post on facebook and if I have heard correctly the mentioned room is the one Creative Mind is in this semester. Anyway thought you would like to know others are appreciating the coloring! I know I enjoyed it last semester!
It’s good for us to color. It’s calming. Peaceful. We’re making something low-stakes and low-risk with our hands. Our minds can wander–or not. It feels more like play than anything many of my students have experienced in months–maybe years.
I think college students yearn for a class that invites them to play. They yearn for invitations to explore, to make.
I am still trying to understand the lessons I can learn as a teacher from this class.
I jokingly refer to The Creative Mind as “kindergarten meets college.” I think maybe I’ve said that as a way to defuse criticism about the course–my own anxiety, the potential criticism of others. But I think the comparison might actually be a way to understand and honor the work that we are doing.
Kindergarten is one of the only times in school when our entire persons are valued in school–our minds, yes, but also our bodies, our hands, our eyes, our voices. With so many school districts adopting standards that promise “college-readiness”–even as early as first grade!–kindergarten may be the only year in school when joy matters, when play is serious business, when flow can be attained, when our whole persons are actively engaged in our education.
I think frequently of this comment that one student wrote in her final reflective learning letter at the end of last semester:
To someone who didn’t take the course, our work probably sounds like kind of a joke, but it really wasn’t. I put more time and effort, and received more enjoyment from this class, than most I have taken in my two and a half years at CSC.
And I wonder why we don’t place more emphasis on enjoyment in college classes, why we don’t measure success and learning by time and effort, why we’re more interested in what college students can think and do than in how they feel and perceive themselves in their world. While I won’t be assigning coloring in my other classes (at least not yet!), I am trying to take it and the other playful assignments I give in Creative Mind class more seriously and understand them as meaningful valuable work.
Another student wrote in his final letter:
This class had one result I wasn’t expecting. I’m happier now than I was at the beginning of the semester. Maybe that’s from other things that have happened in my life. But I think a lot of it is from the creative work I did. It got me outside my box. It made me be fully present in my life. It made me think about what kind of person I am and what kind of person I want to be.
And why isn’t that, at least as much as any set of academic skills, habits, or understandings, what we hope a college education will achieve?