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Creativity Isn't Dead (Yet)

How one teacher stays inspired in the era of standardized testing.

 

By Mary Ellen Flannery

“We have such a good time here, it’s crazy!” says Dinah Houston, a teacher of gifted and talented students at Summit Elementary in Ashland, Kentucky.

That’s especially true on Friday afternoons, when the good times roll, rumble, and reverberate across Houston’s classroom as her students drag out their Japanese-style Taiko drums — each the size of a second-grader — and don their black robes and dragon headbands.

In preparation for frequent performances, her kids rehearse weekly, write their own music and — unbeknownst to them — practice the fundamentals of math.

Houston, a National Board-certified teacher, is so fluent at integrating art and academics that her students are blissfully unaware they’re actually beating new information into their noggins.

But these days, with the insistence of the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) on standardized tests and test preparation, it’s increasingly difficult to be a creative teacher, Houston says.

That thumping sound you hear? It isn’t just the beat of the Taiko drum. It’s the sound of frustrated educators banging their heads against their desks. With partisan lawmakers running the show, demanding that student learning be shown on multiple-choice exams exclusively, too many of this country’s finest teachers are forced to shelve their creative lesson plans to deliver rote classes on test-taking strategies.

Last year, in a study published by the University of California Riverside, 84 percent of National Board-certified teachers said that NCLB has hindered education. Too much class time is devoted to teaching to the tests and too little time to creative and fun lessons, said co-author Steven Brint, sociology professor and associate dean at UC Riverside. Teachers should have a greater voice in the policy debate, the study concludes.

“[It’s] pretty telling when your top teachers are saying the act has made it more difficult to be an effective teacher,” Brint told The Riverside Press-Enterprise. “It’s sucked the joy out of teaching and learning,” added San Bernardino teacher Mikki Cichocki.

For Houston, who was nominated as a Classroom Superhero on NEA’s website that celebrates outstanding educators, it just means working harder to create those kinds of experiences that settle into a child’s brain. After 18 years in the classroom, she still finds plenty to keep her — and her students — motivated.

“I have to feed the creative side every way I can think of,” says Houston, who also writes plays in her spare time.

A few months ago, her fourth-graders wrote, directed, and uploaded to YouTube a video about hands-on equations, a “whole-brain approach” to algebra that uses game pieces and a balance scale to represent equations. Weeks later, she got an email from Henry Borenson, “the guy who invented it! And he says, ‘Do you have a SMART Board? Because we do this with a SMART Board now and we can send you a free one.’”

And then he offered to teach her kids a lesson. Drum roll, please!

Want to show support for Houston's work? Go to the Classroom Superheroes website and comment on her profile. While there, create your own superhero profile or nominate a colleague to be a Classroom Superhero.

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Educators come to the rescue every day. Now, they need help. Nominate an educator who deserves to be recognized. Or create your own superhero profile.

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