Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

A Wicked Good Interview with Gregory Maguire

By Peter DeWitt — May 31, 2012 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In a day and age when kids instantly have every need met for them, I often worry that schools are not the only places losing creativity. Hopefully, children find a balance between the interactive games they play inside and the games they create outside because we all need to know how to use our imagination.

When most of us were younger we were able to go on the back trails or woods behind our houses and play imaginative games with friends. We would go down to our makeshift baseball field and play baseball for hours. Our lives resembled more of the movie The Sandlot where we were not as plugged in as we are now. Don’t get me wrong, I love my laptop, IPad, IPod and various other devices. However, I also like to unplug and disconnect from the outside world and reconnect with my inner thoughts.

Gregory Maguire
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to listen to New York Times Best Selling author Gregory Maguire speak at the Albany Academy Children’s Book Festival. Gregory is not only an informative speaker, he is engaging and funny. When meeting him you would never know that his books have sold in the millions and one of his book’s Wicked was transformed into an award winning Broadway Show. He is down to earth and good-hearted.

Gregory told a story from his childhood about how he was only allowed to watch thirty minutes of television a week. Yes, a week! His parents wanted him to read, write and explore other creative adventures, and not just watch them on television. Sometimes we find our most creative selves when we lack the usual tools like a computer of television.

However, once a year he was allowed to watch more than thirty minutes of television, because The Wizard of Oz aired and his parents allowed him to watch the movie. He watched it every year, and we all know how that turned out. We can all learn something from his experiences.

PD: You have said in the past that when you were young, your teachers wanted you to write what you knew and you wanted to write what you didn’t know. Why was that so important to you?
GM: In a sense I didn’t know what I knew. It’s like an art student being asked to draw air. They do not know what air looks like. They can draw clouds in the sky but not air because it is invisible and they live in it. They only really know what air is by its absence. The first time they’re out on a football field and get hit by somebody so hard that they lie on their back, all of the air is knocked out of them and suddenly: they know what air is.

Writing what you know for children is problematic because they don’t know what they know. They cannot discriminate between themselves and their parents. Little by little as they get older they are able to separate and delineate. Writing about your own human experience is really for the later adolescent and adult. When a person reaches that age, he or she can leave what they know, stand up and see a certain three dimensionality. It really comes down to maturation. For some people it happens when they go to college. For other people it happens when they go abroad and for other people it may never happen at all.

PD: Schools are inundated with high stakes testing and accountability and have been criticized for taking away creativity rather than fostering it, how can we find those moments to tap into a child’s creativity?
GM: Well, I think educators need magic. How else can one make time expand except through magic? This is a light and frivolous answer to a complex question. It is also meant to be a serious answer in that being a teacher means that they must be a magician. Teachers need to know how to do eight things at once.

Teachers have to teach to the book, teach to the moment, teach to each of the individual children in the class and teach to themselves because if they are not constantly being stimulated by what is going on than they have stopped teaching. That requires a kind of talent and precision of capability that is very hard. Teachers really need to find ways to keep alive in their own mind so that they keep growing and find the magic that got them into teaching in the first place.

PD: What are some techniques your teachers used to help you become such a great writer?
GM: When I was in first grade there were 51 kids in my class. It was a Catholic school and there were seven rows of seven students and then two students had to sit next to the teacher’s desk but they were not in trouble--there just wasn’t any more room for desks.

I remember walking into the classroom, and it was after my parents let me see The Wizard of Oz for the first time, and I showed the nun who was my teacher a drawing I had done. On one side of the paper I drew the tornado and I turned the paper over to the other side to draw another picture because I was only allowed to use one piece of paper to draw on when I was young. While I was turning the paper over I realized that I could fold it in half and that provided me with even more paper to draw on.

In essence I kept bisecting the available space on the page to draw on. Although I do not think the drawings were amazing, my teacher did see I had talent. She told me that if I finished my work every day she would allow me to go down to the press and take one piece of paper and I could cover it with drawings.

It felt very good that my teacher selected me because of my talent and she allowed me to pursue it at a very young age. I would dare to say that she noticed a talent in each one of her students. I don’t think I was the only one. I will never forget that experience because I was highlighted for what I could do at the age of six or seven. My parents always did that for me but to have it down outside of the house felt really gratifying. I feel like I decided to become a professional that day.

PD: You said in a presentation that you were only allowed to watch 30 minutes of television a week. How do you think that helped foster your love for writing and drawing?
GM: The limitation of outside stimulation threw the seven children in my family into the paroxysm of tedium and boredom. When kids are bored they have one of two choices. The first choice is to go swiftly mad. The second choice is to create for one’s self an escape hatch, whatever that might be.

Some children, during those circumstances may find inappropriate things to do. However, most children can find a creative urge within themselves when they are bored enough. If children are bored enough they will take various items and make something very creative out of it. They will invent something out of two twigs from a bush and a pinkish stone. Limiting materials and limiting outside stimulation is in some ways healthy for a sound and robust creativity (End of interview).

Our students might not be able to write the next New York Times Bestseller or a book that becomes a hit Broadway Show, but they do have the potential to do amazing things with their lives. All we have to do as educators is give them the tools and the encouragement to follow their passion.

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.