I was riding my bike past my neighborhood middle school when I saw a banner near the entry proclaiming, “Meets Expectations!” and now I can’t stop wondering what they’re so excited about. I find it sad that our country’s well-intentioned push for accountability and inclusion has somehow led to a celebration of mediocrity. Some part of me would rather fail than meet expectations, because at least it might mean the chance for someone to show up and demand sweeping change. Better yet, it might mean that someone simply decided to rage against the machine and do what they were told not to do – which requires imagination.
In elementary school, I remember getting an E for excellent in Reading and Writing because I was an advanced communicator, and a U for unsatisfactory in Behavior because I talked too much. Do you see the irony? I also received an S for satisfactory in something-or-other, but I have no recollection what subject that was. Can you understand why I would rather have a U? I talked too much, but hey at least I was communicating, at least I was stepping out from the crowd. I earned an S in something, and nobody cared, least of all me.
For the past few years, I’ve led several creative writing workshops as a visiting instructor at public middle schools and I’ve been saddened to discover that many of the children have never learned to write a story. Oh, they know how to write essays, persuasive arguments, and good grammar. They know how to explain the plot, theme, and symbolism of the novels everyone in class is assigned to read. But teachers rarely have free reign to give students the opportunity to express their imaginations. Why? I dare say it’s because imagination and creativity are difficult to test.
Last week I attended the Aspen Summer Words writing conference. I immersed myself in a glorious five-day intensive workshop with acclaimed author Andre Dubus III and ten fellow writers in various phases of their careers. Together, we discussed what makes a great story. We were not graded, but we challenged each other at every turn. No ideas were dismissed, all input was considered. We learned almost as much from each other as we did from the instructor, though he was an astonishing leader overflowing with skill, talent, and experience. This may sound unworkable in a children’s classroom, but I do lead my workshops with kids in a similar way.
I’m amazed at how much young people learn when they push at the boundaries of what they already understand, what they hope to know, and how to communicate it all. In the workshops that I lead, we strive to celebrate the unique contributions of each and every child, but that does not stop me from pushing each one to his or her next best level. “I know there is more in you!” or “I love this because it is something only you would say, and nobody else!” Sometimes they get frustrated with the former, until they realize that reaching deeper leads to the latter.
I submit to you that in all education, children benefit most when not merely learning to describe and categorize the stories that have already been told, but also to create unique stories that have never before existed. (I’m not just talking about writing.) This kind of thinking is what will give rise to the next great ideas. New ideas, inventions, and creations are what made America great, and I venture to say, the only thing that will empower the human race to face the challenges that lie ahead.
Just because imagination and creativity are difficult to test is no reason to dispense with teaching them. We must rise to the challenge. I say we need to eliminate the idea of some sort of minimal expectations that schools must meet to avoid negative consequences, and instead imagine, create, or invent a new model. Face it, the one we have in hand is not working, and not yet knowing what to offer in its place is no excuse. Let our society not satisfy itself with “Meets Expectations!” That is the first step on the path to oblivion.