WITS Voices: Imagination as a Seditious Act
June 6, 2016
By Aaron Counts, WITS Writer-in-Residence
Each spring, schools in many districts around the country shift their focus from whatever learning is usually going on in classrooms to make room for standardized testing season. Here in Seattle, that test is the SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium). It is a multi-subject test based on the Common Core State Standards, growing in use nationwide and growing in controversy almost as quickly.
My WITS school, Garfield High School, has a storied history of test refusal, be it by teachers who band together to reject a particular test (e.g., the “Scrap the MAP” movement of a couple years ago), or by a growing movement of testing opt-outs by individual parents and students. High-stakes testing is just one of the ways we prioritize the system over the individual in schools, the same way bell times, course offerings and discipline strategies, among other things, emphasize compliance over individual freedoms.
The thing students learn early in their careers is that school asks you to show up the way it wants you to. It doesn’t ask you how you feel about a particular era in world history, or whether you’d rather not read this novel because the subject doesn’t relate to or interest you. It doesn’t say, “Hey, I know you’re going through a lot right now, why don’t you take care of yourself and we’ll catch up with Shakespeare when life is going a little smoother.” Instead, it wants you to do what it wants you to do. Right now.
We can’t begin to imagine a more just and equitable school system or educational community without the inclusion of art. Art represents freedom. It is borne of imagination, and inherent in that reality, it challenges the status quo. Art moves our attention away from the way things are and asks us to rethink what can be. In that sense, teachers that welcome WITS writers into the classroom are inviting a resistance movement into a space they traditionally control. The WITS classroom is all about possibility, because it is centered on imagination. And imagination is not about what is, it is about what can be.
In my WITS residencies, we spend quite a bit of time exploring identity. Who am I? What do I believe? How do I see myself and how do I want others to see me? Especially now, in the era of the selfie, these are topics young people are eager to explore. These are also topics often left out of traditional classrooms, more and more in this test-heavy school culture. We care less about the ways the student sees the world and their place in it than we do the way the student gathers information and returns it to us in bubble sheets and essays.
When we ask students to write from their imagination, what we’re really doing is encouraging them to use see writing not only as a means of self-expression, but as a form of engagement with the larger community: a letter to the world that can be full of hopes and disappointments and dreams and pain. In doing so, the students can recognize themselves through their art as fully and uniquely human. This is where the creative writing lesson begins its sedition. They may not all create great art, but they create art that matters. It may not matter to all of us at the same time in the same ways, and it may not initially scream revolution, but it does still foster that revolution in affirming our sense of the humanity in each and every one of us.
I teach multiple genres (poetry and short fiction) in hopes of reaching more students, and to better explore the many ways imagination works. I ask them to mine their minds to figure out what stories live inside them, and offer a variety of ways to best get them out into the world. Do your stories emerge most readily in images? In metaphor? Do you think better in rhyming verse? Do your stories come in characters or scenes? Are they autobiographical in nature, or in a wild world all of your own creation? I appreciate the way my partner teachers are open to the ambiguity, to the endless possibility a WITS residency encourages. As teachers, there is a temptation to ask only questions to which you already know the answer, but in the creative writing classroom, we can’t know the answers, because even our students may not know them until they find their way onto the page. That organized chaos is where the imagination thrives.
Very few of our students will go on to become writers. But if we strive to make each chance to be with them engaging and memorable, each encounter can bolster their belief in their own imagination, and remind them that it is deserved of thoughtful and respectful consideration—consideration we give them when we comment on their work, share it aloud in class, or recommend it for print. We ask them to take risks, to show a little bit more of themselves each time they put something on the page. The reward may not be evident all the time—to us or to them—but reward it will. Even if only in the reminder that imagination is worth pursuing, and each one of us can unearth that treasure with just a little bit of digging.
Aaron Counts has written & read with professors, prisoners, dropouts & scholars. He is the co-author of Reclaiming Black Manhood and the lead artist with King County’s Creative Alternatives Program, which uses art to reduce the number of kids locked away in detention. His 1st publication appeared on a Kenmore refrigerator on 7th St. in Yakima and has recently appeared in Specter Magazine, Bestiary, Aldebaran Review and Rufous City Review.