Anxiety + Mackerel = Creativity (and Other Lessons from Fourth Grade)

Letters are a rare thing these days, and when my nine-year-old son gets an actual honest-to-goodness letter in the mail, he is thrilled. It is from a friend who had moved to Australia last year, and it arrives conveniently two days before my son’s second letter-writing assignment is due in school. The assignment is a simple routine: Once a week, write a letter. Any letter. To anyone. Saying anything. And read it in class.

The first one had been a disaster. Following fits and tears, he wrote a single line. But the teacher helped him turn the disaster around, telling him one line was not enough she had him sit down at lunch to write more. At day’s end, he proudly announced to me that he had produced two pages.

This time, my son knows just what will go into his school letter. He sits down to write a reply, telling his friend in Australia how he misses him, how he enjoys his new school, how his vacation was. A week is a short stretch and by the time the third letter is due, what was once experienced as the anxiety of challenge is now experienced as the challenge of creativity. My son brims with ideas. He will write a letter to friends who he met but have left the school. He will write a series of letters tracing a story about our new apartment. He will write a letter to his teacher’s newborn baby.

It took just three weeks for what was once the anxiety of challenge to transform into the challenge of creativity. If that transformation does not occur, then it is the anxiety that becomes the routine, stress that becomes the student’s experience of school and schoolwork. If that transformation does occur, then the self-same assignment, the identical request that feels like daily anxiety is instead feel like daily potential. This balance between anxiety and potential is on display in schools everywhere. I have seen teachers grapple with this in many ways. Sometimes in the face of students’ anxiety, teachers back off and ask for less, or come down hard. Too often, students who experience school as a daily dose of anxiety must either conform, engage in their own form of resistance, or drift off to somewhere safer, each option amounting to the conclusion that the stress of school is just not worth it. Those drifters and resisters are the students who end up years later in the alternative high schools I work with in my day job, students for whom school was once anxiety-producing and, finally, became simply the wrong place to be. Dropping out has its logic.

“Guess what we did in school today?”

This is an unusual request from my son, who requires most stories be extracted from him like hidden treasure. “Space travel?”

“No.”

“Did it involve dragons?”

“Daaaaad.”

I beg for an answer and he obliges: “We dissected a mackerel.”

“Really!?”

The rest of the subway ride home is an eager recap of everything they saw. A brain: squishy, smaller than an almond, dendrites thinner than a human hair. A heart: small, too hard to see the veins. A stomach: brown and bigger than you’d expect (given, he notes, the size of a mackerel).

The last time my son told me about exploring this way was when he made chapstick in science camp at age four. It’s a timeworn cliché in education that if you build, explore, experience, interact, you will remember far more than if you just hear about something or read about it. Nonetheless, it seems to happen rarely. Teachers, like students, often experience the anxiety of challenge: They must produce — day in, day out; 180 days a year they must plan a meeting with their clients (those small, rambunctious, demanding clients) and produce: a lesson, a presentation, a nugget of learning. Faced with the anxiety of such a challenge, many teachers talk at students, hand them reading, show them things on a PowerPoint slide they will soon forget. But hand them a mackerel and they will remember it all.

“Is science class always so interesting?”

“It is a lot.”

“What other kinds of interactive things have you done?”

“Not much. Just the mackerel.”

Just the mackerel? I am nonplussed. I wanted him to regale me with hands-on, exploratory adventures. I wanted to believe that every day in science was a journey into the heart of a mackerel. But no. “So what else was interesting?”

My son proceeds to tell me about another lesson: The science teacher spent the entire period recounting the tale of his father collapsing with heart failure and being rushed to the hospital where the doctors discovered an irregular beat. A pacemaker was implanted which, my son tells me with fascination, the teacher brought in to show them because when they replaced an old pacemaker with a new one he asked the doctors if he could keep it. The kids examined it. The thin wires could fit under your skin and, my son tells me, send electrical impulses to keep your heart’s beat.

The educator in me wants my son’s science teacher to tie it all together beautifully in the same lesson: for the students to dissect the pacemaker, to hear a story about the mackerel, to connect the notion of the thin electrical wires to the thin dendrites. Stories, discovery, exploration — these are at the heart of learning and remembering.

Working with high schools for years where there was too little of this, I thought that the moment I stepped foot in an elementary school, I would see these nonstop around me every day. I don’t. But in little ways, teachers create the environment where it does happen: bringing in the fish instead of looking at diagrams, shaping a whole lesson around the story of a pacemaker, saddling students with the challenge of writing a letter again and again every week. I hope my son can experience more of this. It is the way information becomes learning, ideas become creativity, and anxiety yields to challenge.

Founder of Eskolta School Research & Design. Education reformer, husband & father living in New York City.