‘Critical Creativity’

Kenny Brechner -- July 27th, 2017

I hope every school has at least one teacher like Dan Ryder. Dan is an English teacher at our local high school, Mt. Blue. Passionate, funny, engaged, relevant, dynamic, Dan is a game changer in the lives of many local kids. We share an interest in graphic novels, sci-fi, and quirky novels in general and have had many geeky chats over the years on top of collaborating on literary events and regular stuff. When Dan told me he’d written a book on creativity in the classroom I was immediately interested.

I was right to be interested because Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom, co-authored with Amy Burvall, and published by the EdTech Team, is as fascinating and potentially relevant to a trade audience, as its publication is limited to a specialty education market. The blurbs on the back are remarkable for a book whose only trade presence is having a regular discount on ipage. There is a ringing endorsement by Austin Kleon and an original cartoon blurb from Bryan Mathers. The book screams out, bring me to your bookstore and so I did the obvious and brought Dan in for a few questions about his new book on the role of creativity in the classroom and beyond.

Kenny: Chapter one is called “Making meaning: If they build it they will get it.” Does this reflect badly on the dead ballplayers in Field of Dreams?

Dan: Yes.  What do the dead ball players learn? I would argue very little —other than how to play a bad hop off a cornstalk. Meanwhile Kevin Costner learns a tremendous amount about his family, his community, tradition and the power of James Earl Jones’ voice to forever alter one’s sense of self.

Kenny: You seem opposed to “receiving and regurgitating” in a classroom setting at least?

Dan: I am absolutely opposed to institutionalized sit-and-get and fill-in-the-blank quizzes and tests. That’s not to say tradition doesn’t have a place; it’s all about balance. So much of what happens related to education — whether at school or at home — is based on “the way it’s always been done” and “it worked for me, so it will work for them.” These are not intentional choices. These are habits and paths of least resistance. If we want generations of critical thinkers and problem solvers, we’ve got to make the big shift away from simplistic right and wrong answers into effective vs. ineffective solutions, reasonable vs. unreasonable compromises, and purposeful vs. careless decision making.

Co-author Dan and co-author Amy Burvall with their creation.

Kenny: Your book deals with the creative process, complexity, and personal engagement as an intrinsic learning experience. Do you see this process as having applicability outside the classroom? To put it another way, how wide do you see your audience?

Dan: Amy and I believe creativity is a birthright. We enter the world as creative, imaginative, playful individuals and too many of us unlearn those natural talents as we grow older. Creativity gets shoved into a toolbox for performers and creators, and other folks say, “Well, I’m just not creative.” Nonsense! A significant part of this book reflects strategies for fostering creativity and exercises anyone can do in any workplace or organization to help uncover new solutions to challenging problems. Just like many of my educator friends turn to business and psychology books to get insights about management and learning, we reckon anyone looking for some creative inspiration will find value in this book.

Kenny: Are there any novels which you see a particularly exemplary of the conceptual underpinning of your book?

Dan: My sweet gravy, yes.  Look no further than Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Each of these are just soaked with intentionality, complex systems of imagery and symbolism, allusion and allegory, and narrative structure. And they are inventive — pushing boundaries, trying out new forms of narrative and waxing with poetic. Even Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, page for page the best novel I’ve ever read — not a sentence wasted, not a word. Then there’s Watchmen, the classic graphic novel by Moore and Gibbons featuring layer upon layer of purpose and intention, where every read reveals something new in the panels and suggests a new idea between the gutters. Finally, not a novel, yet T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” has been something of rigorous whimsy primer for both Amy and I as we work. We’ve even named our bespectacled unicorn mascot, Prufrock, in honor of the poem’s influence.

Kenny: If you were captured by aliens and forced to work as a bookseller on a mirror earth, how would you apply the concept of critical creativity to your new career path?

Dan: I must ask, would this be a mirror earth where I would be required to sport a goatee and commit acts of tyranny upon my fellow man? I hope not. Still, sleeveless shirt and leather pants or no, I would curate experiences around my store where patrons could interact with the books upon the shelves in ways that would encourage further reading and exploring. Purchasing a bestselling novel would reveal a bookmark within the front cover featuring a curated playlist of recommend listening, chapter to chapter. A non-fiction display might be arranged following a particular color scheme, the color palette available as a paint chip Moore and Gibbons each color given a unique name and rationale for that name. And the children’s section would be highlighted by the LEGO brick-built recommendations spotting the landscape, each construct accompanied by a QR code where folks might find a video greeting from a reader explaining the reason for the recommendation and how it was built.

Kenny: A book every children’s book lover should read?

Dan: If you love children’s books, and you are a grownup, I recommend reading Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham’s masterful run on Fables. Multiple volumes are available from DC Vertigo and volumes 1 through 10 are just… sigh. Fantastic. It’s absolute proof that timeless stories provide infinite possibilities. If you love children’s books, and you are a kiddo, then give John Rocco’s Blackout a read. It’s all about a community embracing rigorous whimsy when the electricity goes out.

Kenny: Thanks, Dan!

Dan: You bet. Thanks, Kenny!

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