As an educator and professional development specialist that spends hours looking for ways to make the teaching and learning experience real, I periodically come across a quote that lingers in my mind until it explodes. These spirited moments are the backbone of my job as any educator will tell you. We are the alchemists of society, paid to reveal the gold buried under the ordinary. Our task has certainly become difficult. In a sandstorm climate riddled with doubt and low morale, educators all over (Chicago, Philadelphia, Mexico, New York to name a few) are experiencing great chaos, upheaval, and struggle. Nevertheless, two days ago, I found a glimmering nugget. It happened while I was watching the award winning documentary One Survivor Remembers, the story of Gerda Weissmann’s experience of World War II (which by the way is expertly packaged and offered to teachers for free by Teaching Tolerance). In this video, Gerda Weissmann describes how she survived the long and treacherous Death March in 1945 by hanging her mind on ‘trivial’ things like the color of a dress. At the end she says,
“I do believe that if you were blessed with imagination that you could work that. If unfortunately you were a person who faced reality, I think you didn’t have much of a chance.”
What is imagination in a time of chaos? Is it powerful enough to help us survive these turbulent times? Is imagination for those who can’t face reality or is it one’s capacity to manipulate our experience of time by focusing on something joyful, or trivial even, but in essence holds us fast to the whole journey?
Several years ago I traveled to Seattle on a monthly basis to work with two schools on a 1990’s version of whole school reform. At that time, reform was about developing and implementing comprehensive plans at the school level to improve teaching and learning.I was in an alternative high school modeling a lesson for a teacher charged with a very challenging group of teenagers. I put them in groups and gave them the task of imagining a school of the future, to design it with great detail and to their liking. I gave each group an explicit task sheet and a large piece of paper with markers. As I walked from group to group, I realized the students were stumped. And it wasn’t because they didn’t like it because they didn’t complain like they normally would or act out. They just sat silently waiting. I pulled up a chair and sat with one particularly sullen group and started asking questions. I asked them how they would describe the ideal work space. What would the school building look like? I asked about light and the style of furniture and how the classrooms should be organized. I spoke in bursts, my eye brows arching, hands waving around as if we were embarking on a scavenger hunt. My gut told me to get them engaged. Focus on the concrete and visual. Later, perhaps they’d venture further on their own into the abstract, themes, projects, relationships to the community, discipline policies that make sense, that sort of thing.
Remember, these students were in an alternative high school. This means they had fallen into the widening crack of mainstream schooling. Most had been kicked out but some were there because their parents were trying to find a place to reel them in, prevent them from becoming one of the drop outs. While I threw out question after question, I carefully watched the body language. One lowered his head dropping long bangs over his paisley shaped eyes. To his left, a tall lanky boy with pointy elbows picked up the marker, shrugged and then started to draw a rectangular building and then mocked the effort by adding two stick figures. Come on, I told him, keep going, but I was getting tired. I was feeling smaller and smaller by their reluctance. I visited the other groups and found similar behaviors. Stepping back to observe them along with the teacher, we saw the tall, hard teenagers transform into small innocent children. They were shy and inexperienced, fumbling. This assignment, I thought, was going to be fun and freeing and in reality it created anxiety and struggle. I didn’t understand it. Didn’t everyone have an imagination? What stopped them? I realized later on that this exercise in imagination requires courage. One must allow oneself to be vulnerable because it is such an open space that whatever you say is completely your own.
A few years later, I started a publication for students and teachers called Real Worlds on diversity and community. I dedicated an issue to the theme imagination. By that time I had witnessed schools tossing imagination aside as if it were a fruitless, idealistic activity or an intrusion on more important things like testing, math or ‘close reading.’ I sent out letters inviting students and teachers to imagine their own personal futures and to focus on the year 2025. Submissions came in and the final result was small but encouraging. I was not alone in thinking that we need to communicate a value for imagination and engage in the practice of exercising it. I wanted to plant the seed in the minds of educators that imagination in not only a tool for survival but it is the prelude to an alternate reality.
If it’s true what Gerda Weissmann says that without imagination many didn’t even have a chance at surviving, then shouldn’t imagination be one of the most valued skills we can teach our children? In the movie, Life is Beautiful starring Roberto Benigni, another World War II internment story; the father uses his lively imagination to keep his son from the brutal reality. During the years of slavery, blacks sang songs and told rich, heartwarming stories to each other. Would it have been possible for the black community to have survived otherwise? John Little, a former slave wrote,
“They say slaves are happy, because they laugh and are merry. I myself and three or four others, have received two hundred lashes in the day, and had our feet feeters; yet, at night, we would sing and dance and make others laugh… We did it to keep down trouble and to keep our hearts from being completely broken—”
Why is imagination so important now? When a parent in Philadelphia (one of the nation’s largest school districts) says, “I feel like we’re staring into the abyss,” in response to the fight between the city and state over funding, I think we are in need of imagination. While politicians “push deep, budget-balancing cuts in state aid while seeking to advance the fortunes of private, parochial and privately operated, publicly funded charter schools,”we are in need of imagination. I’m not talking about imagination as a way to avoid reality but as a way to transcend it, to survive it, keep our eyes on the prize. How else can conscientious educators manage year after year fighting for good public schools that have the best interest of children at heart? It’s scary and depressing to read the news, the endless barrage of attacks on teachers, school closings, failed protests and the proliferation of poor leadership. How can this radical stomping out of our public school system be as good as they say when thousands and thousands of engaged citizens and educators are so upset?
If we do not encourage creativity in our teachers, how can they be expected to fill the halls of our schools with the spirit and courage of imagination? Children must experience and learn this essential skill as a means to our collective survival. When whole communities can’t see past the abyss, then we are looking at a national crisis.
Let us hang our minds on the rainbow colors that fill our children’s crayon boxes. Let us find the time to fill the air with joyful stories that have the power and glory to remind each other of the whole journey. For Gerda, perhaps this was the last gift from her mother, like the cup of hot chocolate or from her father who told her wear to snow boots in the middle of summer.
For teachers and students all over, see past the abyss and imagine an alternative.
Excerpt from Rios, R. The Last Teacher (2013)
Zinn, H. (1980) A People’s History of the United States
Levy, M (2013) After Crisis, Philly Students Head Back to School http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/03/philadelphia-schools-crisis_n_3860588.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003&ir=Education