Matthew Craig is a Facilitator of Technological Experiences at the Normal Park Museum Magnet School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he serves as the 4th-8th grade computer technology teacher. Matthew also team teaches technical theater, music technology, puppetry, design thinking and museum production. Matthew impressed us with his wit, creativity, and spirit during the #practicecreativity challenge in June and we just knew he would make for an inspiring first interview for the Creative Leaders Series.

How many students in your school? We have two campuses, a Lower which serves grades PreK through 3rd, and an Upper that serves 4th through 8th. Each campus is comprised of about 400 students, or 800 in total.

How long have you been teaching? I’ve been teaching professionally since 1996. My first gig was as a permanent substitute, teaching an hour and a half of Wood Shop every other day at a high school in Columbia, Missouri. They told me, “If you don’t teach it, the class will go away.” I didn’t know what “go away” meant, but it didn’t sound good, especially considering I was in the middle of getting a degree in Practical Arts and Vocational-Technical Education, emphasizing in Industrial Arts. It seemed like it would’ve been a poor choice to idly stand by while my employment prospect withered. I’ve not really considered it before, but that’s when I began to realize the importance of making darn sure my class is relevant.

  • Are you relevant to your client (kids)?
  • How does changing the word “student” to “client” change our educational outlook?
  • Does your administration know that your course is relevant?
  • Does your community believe that your course is relevant?

Why is creativity important to you? Creativity probably qualifies as a religious practice for me. I consider the Creative Act as the fundamental purpose of Humanity. Well, that and Love. I guess you could say that Creative moments are really acts of Love. When a group of people hold space and provide their energy and intention toward a common goal, those are sweet, fleeting moments of Communion for me. Maybe that’s carrying the metaphor too far, but those who have felt the rush of gratitude and kind of longing after the curtain has fallen, a house has been raised, or when hundreds have assembled for a concert, then slowly dissolve amid afterglowing smiles, you’ve experienced this Transcendent sunset. To bring an idea from the mind into some sort of physical reality is absolute alchemy. We literally make something out of thin air. I never really felt too terribly creative as a kid, and don’t often, even as an adult. There’s so much self-judgement there. I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with the “warts-n-all” process. People tell me I’m creative, so I try to believe them, especially when they tell me over and over again. I really appreciate those people, and seek validation from them. That’s probably not the healthiest thing, but it gets me nearer to where I’m going, which is doing the thing.

How do you foster your own creativity? I surround myself with creative people, physically, and in media like Instagram, Twitter, and boingboing.net. I will say, the most inspiring people are not just people who are creative, but folks who have some drive to make good on their creative inspiration. The folks who bring the idea from the mind into reality. I recently worked on a film with a couple of friends of mine who wrote, directed, shot, produced, edited, composed a soundtrack…the whole shebang. The film is twenty-two minutes long. It took about a year and a half to create, and cost them about $1200 of their own money. Now that’s creativity. The group aspect, the cooperative orchestration of pounding out an idea into some sort of workable thing is what draws me to the creative process. It often makes me giddy. I saw some lettering on a masonry truck recently: “Even a brick wants to be a part of something.” For example, my freshman year of college, I started working at Village Wine & Cheese, where I sold…you guessed it…wine and cheese. Cheese is a weird thing to sell. Often times, it’s smelly, it has a strange texture, it looks like a science experiment. Either you hope some adventurous people walk in off the street, or you have to really build a quick rapport and perform what amounts to slight-of-hand with the less adventurous their willingness to try some of this stuff. The owner had a tendency to hire people whom she deemed “a real hoot.” We’d be behind the cheese case cracking jokes and doing cheese-related puns with one another, in a practice we called “meringue-ing.” Meringue-ing is making something out of practically nothing, like you do when you whip egg whites into peaks on a pie. We’d pick a topic or style of cheese, and just improvise for a few minutes as we got the customer their order. Saturdays were non-stop, it was a show that Pikes Place Market had nothing on.

About 5 years ago, I started a practice of breathing, movement and meditation called QiGong. I do it every morning, and often throughout the day, while I’m waiting for students to arrive. I even have incorporated it as warm-up for most of my classes. It has no religious affiliation, we are focused only on breath and movement. The first couple of times, kids are looking around the room wondering, “what have I gotten myself into?” Their parents tell me many even practice at home. To take those moments to settle down, and observe thoughts (which often cause me anxiety and stress) more objectively, has been a real magic bullet. Long term, it certainly beats many other self-destructive methods I’ve employed over the years.

A lot of people will tell you they don’t have a creative bone in their body. They have a very narrow view of what it means to be creative. Some people are really good at making numbers make sense on a page, or organize a house to operate in an efficient manner. Some people are creative in the way they manipulate others to get their needs met. They are all creative.

In what ways do you encourage creativity in your students? I ask them what they want to do. I listen. I ask them what they think. I listen. I ask them how they decided. I’ll never forget, very early in my teaching career, I was asking the class a bunch of damn questions, and I was just within earshot to hear one student ask his friend, “so what’s the answer?” His friend had me pegged: “He’s not like other teachers. He asks questions he doesn’t know the answer to.” Ten years later, I found they call this Inquiry Based Learning.

Answers are expedient, but boring. You get the answer, put it on a shelf and move on. The best class I took in college was taught by Dr. Betty Scott, titled “The Creative Process.” In it, Dr. Scott suggested that one could make “tentative conclusions based on the evidence you have at the time.” Nothing is absolute. That has been so liberating for me as a teacher, and I think that translates to students.

I am in a position where I do my best to provide some tools and an environment for students to DO. We play a lot.

How have your students demonstrated their creativity? This past semester, I had a particular group of four kids who just loved making animal mash-ups. They thought it was hilarious, and that’s about all they seemed to want to do. I installed a couple of other programs on the computers they always sat down at, Crazy Talk Animator, and the Unity Game Engine. I told them I was available if they needed help, and checked in with them daily, but the fact of the matter is that I never taught them anything specific about how to run either of those programs. They produced some amazing things.

In what ways did the Practice Creativity Challenge affect your thinking? It got me thinking about the process of Creativity, again. The Challenge provided an orderly direction for my ambling mind. I also found the Google + community supportive of engaging in the very act of Creativity. This seems simple and easy; it does take quite a bit of trust to put an idea into the world, let alone a community of people you may not know. I felt completely safe and inspired by others who were willing to put themselves out there. Emboldened might be the word. I really enjoyed the “Way-Back Machine” exercise because it got me thinking and writing about some of the unusual experiences I’ve had. I often view it as indulgent to reminisce in great detail about those, but I’ve since revelled in it, trying to go a little deeper. I mean, really, that’s the important information that’s not going to get a second pass, so I had better capture it while it is still available. What point is there to living to 100 if you don’t have a catalogue of good stories? A double-handful of colleagues from our school took part in the Challenge, about half of whom are new to the building. I found that this environment was a great place to begin the collaborative process. To develop the kind of trust that is required to do “creative” things in school is sometimes challenging, and time within the building doesn’t often lend itself to that practice. Yet. Maybe the best thing, with regard to helping build a culture of creativity, is that the prompts didn’t come from someone within the building. We were all able to share in a kind of crucible event.

What advice might you give a new teacher who is just starting out – but also wants to be creative?

  • Start with a bombproof lesson and work out from there.
  • Veteran teachers remember what it was like starting out and are willing to help, if you let them. I spent a number of years flailing, yet thinking I had the answers. I appreciate and apologize to those students who were subjected to that particular brand of selfishness!
  • Ask three people or read three articles and make your best guess. Act.
  • Don’t try to get it perfect the first time. Hopefully this is an iterative process, and you’ll stick around for a career.

What is one of your favorite teaching stories? Right now, I’m thinking of Marty Cowell. I was teaching Industrial Arts in Steamboat Springs, Colorado in 2004, and I decided that students could contract for a grade. They could do kind of canned, discrete projects, or come up with one of their own. Somehow, we started talking about Nikola Tesla, and Marty asks if he could earn an A if he makes a Tesla Coil. “So long as you include all the media (wood, metal, plastic, something else) and analysis in the project, yes.” For nine weeks or so, Marty shows up to class, and is helping his friends with their projects some, but mostly giving them a hard time. They reciprocate by asking about his “Tesla Coil,” mostly because they think it is funny that it sounds like “testicle.” Occasionally, he comes in with a part he needs tools to fabricate. So here it is, about a week to go, and Marty wheels in a Tesla Coil that stands about four or five feet tall. After a cursory explanation of how he made it and how it works, he fires it up, we turn out the lights and observe that it is throwing sparks at least 18-24 inches long! Coolest. Project. Ever.

Marty has gone on to study Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley, and has worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory. My son decided about a year ago, at the age of six, that he wants to become a scientist and inventor, so we wrote Marty an email to ask what sorts of advice he would give a young scientist. Very graciously, he wrote back on letterhead the answer to Charles’ questions:

How old do you have to be to start studying to become a scientist? The best scientists start young. Because you’re asking this question at seven years old I think you’re ready to start now! Scientists know math, chemistry, biology, physics, computer programming, and lots more – so these will be good classes for you to focus on. As a seven year old I’m sure you’re starting to see these classes at school and I encourage you to take as many like these as you can. If you look closely you can find science in EVERYTHING, even outside of class! So get crackin’ and keep asking questions! Your job as a scientist is to ask questions! (And then figure out the answers with your brawny brain!!!)

To think that I’ve lived long enough for my students to inspire my children is pretty fantastic. I get a little misty when I read that Marty, though he’s never met my son, truly believes in and supports his dream of becoming a scientist. And that’s really what the #PracticeCreativity community is about, a supportive place to nurture and coax the ideas we need to bring into the world.

Some Creative stuff I’ve done:

The Last Question, redacted (Creativity Challenge product)

Matthew Craig, Creative Leader