REPORT: Los Angeles

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A 24-year-old coworker was recently asked if she could speak or read Spanish. She said she could not, in spite of having taken four years of Spanish in school. When asked how that could be, she explained that her Spanish lessons were focused on vocabulary drills, not on the active usage of the language. Such drills are meant to ensure that students pass tests and advance to degree candidacy. They are not, apparently, effective at actually teaching Spanish. This is just one of the problems frequently cited in today’s criticisms of the current state of American public education. Rather than finding ways to engage students, schools tend to focus on the most efficient means of meeting quantitative institutional goals. What this often means for the student is decreased literacy, lack of critical thinking skills, and poor preparedness for the job market.

Studies have shown that creative approaches to education, which include the use of arts and humanities, are particularly effective at engaging students’ curiosity and increasing their capacity to learn. Today, a growing number of experts and public policymakers are advocating for arts education and creativity in learning. For example, Turnaround Arts, an initiative of the President’s Council on Arts and Humanities, has been bringing arts education resources to low-performing schools since 2011, and has since demonstrated substantial gains in student achievement.

Hoping to add to this movement is Creativity Matters, a new long-term initiative sponsored by the Sam Francis Foundation. Widely lauded as an abstract painter, Sam Francis was also a renaissance man whose expansive interest in the creative process encompassed its applications in technology, psychology, science, medicine, and environmentalism. The foundation’s board, seeking ways to carry on his legacy, saw a kinship with contemporary education reform.

Launched in early 2014, Creativity Matters is spearheaded by a nonprofit organization called Community Works, led by business strategist Loree Goffigon and her daughter, activist Carter Goffigon, with support from Debra Burchett-Lere, Executive Director of the Sam Francis Foundation. The goal of Creativity Matters, in the words of Loree, who also sits on the foundation’s board, is “to be part of catalyzing a new conversation in this country around the importance of building creative capacity in young people… and by connecting people, resources, and tools, to help move the needle toward positive change.” So far, this has meant conducting deep research into the field, convening roundtable conversations with experts in seven major cities, and starting to build a national network
of partners.

This initial research phase has reaped a wealth of ideas about possible approaches to a complex set of problems. As Carter notes, “This is about a mindset, about developing kids’ confidence and equipping them to ask questions and take risks. Right now, to identify as creative is a luxury, but in reality, every human being is innately creative-it’s a question of whether that creativity is nurtured and celebrated. As we see it, creativity is a human right, so how do we talk about it as such?” She adds that the initiative is committed to working within the existing education system: “There is a lot of talk around overhauling it, but maybe it’s actually more radical-and more sustainable and feasible-to make change within it.”

In 2016, the initiative plans to launch their first two pilot projects. Creatives in Residence will place creative fellows from a spectrum of disciplines into K-12 schools in Washington, DC,and Oakland and Los Angeles, California. The fellows will work on campus and mentor students, showing them how a variety of creative practices can intersect with one another. My Creativity Matters, which will be piloted at a Los Angeles charter school, is an early education curriculum geared toward nurturing “wonder and curiosity” in K-2 students by giving them the space and resources to ask “bigger than me” questions and then find and present their own answers.

If these pilot projects are successful, they will be replicated in other cities. Also in the works are the National Creativity Commons, a virtual online forum; a public awareness campaign called Why Creativity Matters; and a Youth Creativity Summit-all geared toward opening kids minds to their own creativity, so that, as Francis wrote: “our imagination will attempt the future.”