Capacity and Creativity

It has been over two months since I’ve written here, and I have nobody to blame but myself. While I could point at a thousand “reasons why” I haven’t been blogging — among them the fact that I am blogging, just on other blogs — they are excuses. To be honest, I haven’t had the mental or emotional energy to think reflective thoughts over the past few months. At least not reflective thoughts that I deemed cohesive enough to turn into a blog post.

Then I had my first “official meeting” with my writing group the other day, and was reminded how important writing here is for moving my work and thinking forward. One of my writing buddies noted that when it comes to her dissertation, she returns to it each and every day, even if that only means writing a few sentences or doing a few minutes of analysis. It inspired me to be more purposeful about making the time to write something down, even if it lacks cohesion and coherence. 

For me, such writing has often taken place here or in other online spaces, where I publicly process my thinking in order to make visible the messiness that is the work of teaching, learning, and composing. So, while I likely won’t be able to leave a mark each and every day (I don’t know how she does it!), I can at least re-dedicate myself to finding the time and place for doing some writing, even if the thoughts are messy and incomplete. And today, I have some messy and incomplete thoughts about building capacity while leaving room for creativity.

Building Capacity…

I am so tired of this phrase. Education these days feels like it’s all about building capacity as resources dwindle. At the same time that articles in the popular media and from the DOE argue that teachers need more support, not less, much of the focus these days seems to be on doing more with less. Less time for teachers to plan, learn, and collaborate, because they have more kids in their classes and more demands on their time than ever before. Less money for district programs to fund the purchase of devices, the hiring of more teachers and support staff, or the facilitation of engaging and effective professional development.

Our response? We need to build capacity. And what builds capacity like moving things online? After all, I can reach a lot more readers a lot faster with this blog post, which I can Tweet out, share on Facebook, or link to in an email, than I could with a print text. Similarly, one can reach more learners in a MOOC than in a face-to-face workshop. When working under the physical limitations of things like space, place, and the very reality of getting one’s body from one point to another (which trust me, is not so easy in Boston right now, what with all this snow piled up around us), it’s much easier to invite people to view a live Google Hangout than it is to ask them to schlep across the city at the end of a long school day.

Is it important that we “build capacity?” Certainly. We need to be able to reach more teachers with more resources so that they can access those resources anywhere, anytime, from any device. We need to supply them with the physical means to access these resources, too (which is why our district provides teachers with laptops). We need to support them in building their digital literacies, so that they can in turn translate those literate practices into their classroom pedagogies. Part of this involves building capacity, extending our reach, and re-thinking how we design digital and physical spaces for learning. Which brings me to the question that’s plaguing me tonight: how do we build capacity without losing sight of the very time-consuming, non-linear, inefficient nature of creativity?

…While Fostering Creativity

I have been back in K12 education for about 5 months now, designing digital learning resources for teachers and students, building online courses for teachers and school leaders, and working with a team that wants to think deeply — and help teachers think deeply — about what it means to teach in the digital age, preparing students for colleges and workplaces that do not yet exist. More than once in those 5 months, I have found myself frenzied, overwhelmed, sometimes frustrated, and unable to articulate why, exactly.

I’m okay with all of those feelings (if I weren’t okay with frenzy and frustration, I never would have made it through a PhD program), but I’m not okay with not being able to reflect on or pinpoint what is causing them.

Chances are, these tensions stem from multiple sources — not least among them a major move across the country (I’ve never done well with major life or career transitions). However, I think some of my “frenzy” and a bit of my “frustration” lies in the space between my desire to constantly be creative while also being productive, which is sort of at the heart of “capacity-building.”

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In the second year of my PhD program, I joined what would later be called “The E-book Project that Wouldn’t Die.” Our team had grand visions for a set of e-books on multiple topics, an offshoot of a larger book series for practitioners on the Common Core that we had written the previous year. These e-books were going to be epic. epic.

Our vision for them included the development of multimodal texts that included annotated podcasts of kids reading aloud, video clips of teachers talking about their practice, and interactive tasks and invitations to engage with other educators. And the ultimate e-book (yes, one e-book) that we created actually included all of these things.

But it took us 3 years to videotape, clip, and caption the interviews, to thematically code them to come up with the book’s structure, to clip and annotate the podcasts, to integrate all of this media into our written text and design the layout, to figure out what platform to build the book within (we ultimately outsourced this), to complete the editing and revision on a collaborative team of busy graduate students, and to finally — finally — publish the damn e-book.

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One of the luxuries the academy afforded me — and my team of e-book compadres — was the space to be messily creative, to get sidetracked, to do it wrong five times before doing it right, then to decide that we actually did it right the third time.

I love designing digital content. There is something thrilling to me about hitting the “publish” button, about sharing a digital resource I’ve created, about designing a course website, social network, or space for learning and collaboration (sometimes all at once!). Part of why I love creating digital content is because I get to not only teach, but design. I love to make, create, then share and disseminate. It thrills me.

But dammit if it isn’t hard. And time consuming. And often, quite frustrating. And inefficient. 

Take this blog post, for example. I have been composing it for two hours (so far) while also doing various household tasks. I have been designing it in anticipation of a reader’s eyes, thinking about how my argument evolves and where my paragraphs break, what my sections will be and how they will unfold for my reader. I’m not even integrating hyperlinks and images, as I normally might, because my goal here is to reflect. I am, however, thinking about the accessibility of my post for diverse readers, whether my musings will make sense, whether they will prove coherent enough for this space, for this moment. It’s taking so much longer than I thought it would. 

And therein lies the tension. The digital world holds such promise to build capacity and creativity, all at once. The interwebs give us a magical, dangerous, terrifying, beautiful space in which we can create, connect, compose, publish, explore, and interact. Where we can be messy in affinity spaces of our peers who provide feedback and help us push our craft forward, or where we can present our most polished versions of ourselves in online CVs and portfolios.

But for me, at least lately, my desire to take the time to be creative, meandering through a project for as long as it takes to do it well, comes into dissonant contact with my desire to reach more teachers, more quickly, with more learning opportunities and resources. The immediacy of this work — its relevance to teachers and students right now — was the very thing that drew me to it. And yet, I wonder, as we search for more ways to build capacity in education, do we sometimes lose sight of the inefficiency, the outright disastrous mess, the productive but capacity-defying reality, that is creative design?

And to take this line of questioning a step further — what does it mean for teachers, who design learning opportunities and resources for students, that the modern rhetoric of K-12 education revolves around concepts like efficiency, productivity, and capacity? I am consistently searching for ways to encourage teachers to be designers who take risks in their planning and practice as they engage in the very creative work of teaching our young people. Do they share my feelings of frenzy and frustration? Is there a balance to be struck between capacity and creativity? What does that balance look like?

And with those questions, I leave this very inefficient, messy, but entirely #worthit blog post to the wandering eyes of the interwebs.

2 thoughts on “Capacity and Creativity

  1. David

    Fun post. As a teacher some of the best learning I’ve experienced in the classroom is “messy”. I sometimes worry about the systematic approach to teaching and test scores that the states value, and the lack creativity being fostered in some instances (no where in particular).. I look for new ways to creatively help my students think critically instead of systematically, and recently Troy Hicks inspired to have my students share their books with others that I ran with, but fully expect it to be a “messy” project and thought process.

    Thanks for sharing this post!

    As a side note: I’ve been doing research on different Ph.D. programs and your name came up a few times on the Michigan website for the JPEE. (So if you’re wondering why a Utah high school teacher and BYU grad. student is following you on Twitter that’s why. Just my curiosity to see how that program develops and the type of employment it leads to; plus, I like following variuis English Ed. People.)

    1. Liz Homan Post author

      Hi David! Nice to “meet” you! 🙂 I’m a bit of an anomaly for our program; most people go into higher ed, not back to secondary, but that tide might be turning? Not sure. It was a difficult decision for me. Troy is the BEST — he’s a mentor of mine and his work shaped and inspired much of my PhD work. Do you go to NCTE? If so, we should meet up next year. If not, you should apply for the following year! It’s an amazing experience.

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