Monday, January 2, 2017

The Importance of Imagination



Imagination. We think it’s something completely natural, perhaps subconscious. Maybe not.

Some weeks ago I asked teachers to rate their students’ capability for imagination on a scale of 1 to 5. Most of the teachers said “2.” When I asked more questions to find out why they believed their students have so little imagination, the answers varied. Two of the more consistent answers related to students not being interested in reading and the other in the students’ lack of willingness to try to do something different.

I was a bit skeptical about that answer until I was with a group of 6th graders who were invited to create their own fractured fairy tale. They had a story map so they needed to follow a particular template for writing their story, but they could key of an existing fairy tale or anything else. I distinctly remember how much my college students hated coming up with writing topics though that complaint—and this is important—is something I’ve heard echoed by teachers from 3rd grade on up. Kids hate coming up with writing topics; they want prompts, though they’ll grumble about those as well.

When I was sitting with one particular 6th grader I had an epiphany; actually, I had two moments of clarity.

The 6th grader I was working with didn’t like to read very much but he loved playing online games. I asked him if there was a game he could use as the starting point for his fractured fairy tale. He shrugged. Then I asked him what he dreamed about doing after he graduated from high school. His answer surprised me: he said he wanted to be the mayor of the city. Okay. I can work with that. So I asked a few more questions about why he wanted to be mayor. I jotted down a few things and then asked him if what I’d written gave him any ideas about his fractured fairy tale. He looked at the paper. He looked at me. He looked at the paper. He looked at me. He sighed and asked, “How did you do that?” Then he asked, “Will it be what she wants?”

My first moment of clarity: we train our students way too early to try to adhere to our expectations which we often don’t make clear and we often don’t make our expectations clear because we have failed to think through what we really want from the kids. Write a short story. Write a sonnet. Write a fractured fairy tale using the story plan template. Kids are always, and I do mean always, wondering if there is other information we’ve failed to share with them because they don’t want to hand in work and find out they haven’t done what the teacher really wanted.

I remember giving my students an assignment and telling them, repeatedly, “I don’t care.” That was for a draft. I remember telling them they could write it on the back of envelopes—so you know this was way back when college kids still knew what envelopes are. I just wanted them to get something drafty down on something, though I did draw the line at blood or ink on skin or paper. Okay, so I did care a little bit but they finally trusted that the drafty draft wasn’t for me. Ever. It was for them.

My other moment of clarity around student writing topics is a bit more complex. I think there is a tumbling mass of contradictory thinking and feelings when students think about choosing a writing topic. If they’re not readers, they may not have much breadth of information or ideas from which to choose. If they’ve not been encouraged to be outrageously curious and inventive, they don’t have much to pull from. If they’ve not been exposed to the curious and inventive, they don’t have much to connect to. If they’ve not been encouraged to be audacious in their thinking, to push whatever limits they and others have placed on themselves, they will be paralyzed with pen or pencil in hand. If they’ve tried to be any of the aforementioned to any degree and gotten shot down for it via swaths of red ink on their papers and felt like the whole ordeal was an exercise in “gotcha” by the teacher, they will not be moved until the teacher has given the safe writing prompts, boring and mundane as they might be. And, of course, at some age, the challenge for the teacher is helping students overcome their fear of what their classmates might think.

The 6th grade teacher was disappointed in most of the results of the fractured fairy tale exercise. Most of the kids played it safe. Maybe because of peer pressure. Maybe because they weren’t confident she’d made all of her expectations clear. Maybe because they just weren’t creative or imaginative. She wasn’t sure but she was also feeling defeated.

This TED video got me to thinking about imagination, especially because the video reports that “some researchers now believe the infrastructure for life-long imaginative pursuits may be laid during childhood.”

So I did some research on myelination and synaptogenesis. There were a lot of papers and articles with highly scientific terms and language but I got the gist that the brain does a lot of work forming connections, figuring out what’s important, and pruning the connections that seem less important. It seems to me that kids who are exposed to stories, to imaginative videos and games, who are given the opportunity to create their own stories are likely to have stronger myelination and synaptogenesis. They will figure out that a duck is not likely to wear a hat but it’s possible, especially in one’s imagination.

What can teachers, parents, and media specialists/librarians do differently?

  • Read, read, read and encourage kids to read, read, read.
  • At school, make sure there are opportunities to read in warm, colorful, friendly confines and encourage kids to read, read, read because through reading they will start to discover more about who they are and the kind of person they might become.
  • At school, encourage students to write stories and songs. They don’t have to make any sense to anyone but the author so we need to stop trying to tell students why something cannot be true, why something is not logical. I remember being on a road trip and singing a long, nonsensical ballad about whatever I was seeing out the window. It kept me from being bored and was a weird way for me to tell a story that I cannot remember and managed not to irritate my parents. I do, however, remember the incident.
  • When we ask students to write something, we have to be very clear about the purpose of the activity and we have to make it as authentic as possible. 
If I ask students to write a short story, I might ask them to gear it towards a particular audience and I may give them a list of characters and/or items from which to choose. Not a specific writing prompt, but something like grandparent, old shoes, wood stove, relative who shows up after 10 years, baseball bat, red coffee mug, oak tree, hat, cousins, high rise apartment. Then they choose from those items or use those items to figure out what they really want to use in their short story. Or maybe I ask them to think about a video game or a video and write about what could happen if one of those characters stepped out of the video and into real life.

And why do I want them to write a short story? Well, that will go to the learning objectives or standards and maybe it’s just to get a better understanding of characterization or plot development, or the role setting plays, but I need to be sure my students understand why they are writing a short story. Or an essay or a sonnet or anything else. It cannot be just an exercise in writing for the sake of writing.


When I think about my childhood, I remember all of the times we imagined our bikes were motorcycles or horses. I remember the times we imagined the battered swing set was a platform village over a swamp of alligators or a fort or whatever.

It reminds me of the book Not a Box, which one of my mostest favoritest picture books because it encourages students to see beyond the box. (You can check out a video read-aloud of the book, too.) To use their imaginations in powerful and audacious ways, and not to be limited by grown-up thinking about what makes sense and what can really be. Because sometimes a box is so much more than a box, and should be.

Let’s get busy with that myelination and synaptogenesis. For our kids’ sakes, and ours.

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