Friday, March 30, 2012

How to Inspire Creativity

Teachers and students the first day of the lycée’s Cultural Week

The most important lesson that I have learned during my service is that it is much more difficult to encourage others to have ideas than to have them yourself. Take, for example, my work with students from the local lycée (high school). Towards the end of last year, I helped the philosophy teacher Madame KPOGO begin a Healthy Life Skills Club as part of a region-wide project to prevent teen pregnancy. The club has only met twice, but after getting wind of our existence the organizing committee for Cultural Week decided to give it a spot on the program. The first spot. The afternoon before we were to go on stage, I arrived at the school to find Madame KPOGO a bit flustered and trying to help selected students from the club prepare for the next day.

The students, Madame KPOGO, and I set up in a classroom on the far end of campus where we had a great view of the hordes of students helping set up for Cultural Week to distract us. Gender equity had already been designated as the theme of the presentation, and Madame KPOGO had decided that the students would perform a skit and then she would give a speech about how girls can do the same jobs boys can. With this as a base, I began guiding the students in planning the skit by asking the first and most important question:

‘So, what would you all like to do?’

Florent, the teacher in the skit, addresses the students

Silence. And more silence. The students were seated the same way that they would be while listening to a teacher in the classroom: in hard wooden desks directly facing the blackboard. Most of them already had their notebooks open ready to write. In the Togolese school system, the large class sizes mean that lecture is the chosen teaching method. Group work or participative activities are difficult to manage with so many students. The concrete walls and tin roof of the school building bounce noise back, making it easier for a lot of students to hear one teacher but chaos if all the students are talking at once.

I sighed. ‘Okay, so where might this skit take place?’

After some more silence, Madame KPOGO finally urged the students on:

‘Does it take place at school? At the house? Both?’

To which the students replied: ‘Yes, yes, both!’

I have noticed this same trend with any group I work with: if the participants hear teachers or project leaders propose ideas, they immediately and enthusiastically approve. Hierarchy plays into this, where participants seek to please those ‘above’ them in order to have their continued support. This makes facilitating (encouraging the members of a group to express and discuss their own ideas) much more difficult than leading (expressing ideas and telling the group how they will be carried out), especially coming from a first-world university background where ideas and creativity are encouraged.

A few months after starting my service this past year, I helped a local cooperative with a project to create a training center for raising bush rats. I was very eager to apply my skills and at the same time incredibly bored, a lethal combination. So following a Project Design and Management workshop with my homologue, the president of the cooperative and a long time bush rat raiser, I decided to help redo the application they had submitted to the U.S. Embassy last year for funding. I did not hold back in throwing out ideas for every step of project design: creating a map to help the mason determine the construction materials needed to build enclosures, strongly advising my homologue how he should train people in bush rat raising, giving the idea for an animal bank and how it should be managed, etc. etc. etc.

I didn’t stop to think how I might encourage community partners to take greater control of the project. Now that the project has been approved, I’m trying my best to involve members of the cooperative and the greater community more in the decision-making process long after it has begun.

Back at school, the students had managed to decide that the skit would involve a teacher, mother, and several students. I realized that many seemed to be looking around lazily while we had only a little time to plan, so I ordered them all up on their feet to switch places with me and stand in front where they would be giving the presentation.

‘So, what will these characters DO in the skit?’

The play developed gradually into a five scenes, employing the travail manuel (manual work) required of lycée students to demonstrate the importance of gender equity. During the two hours that we spent planning, one student in particular, Helene, was very vocal and full of ideas. At camp we called this kind of participant a supercroc. They dominate the conversation and make it difficult to encourage other participants to contribute. The situation is delicate: these kids are awesome because of their enthusiasm, but they make it more difficult for the others to get a word in edgewise. While planning the skit, I had to constantly emphasize the need for each student to take part in the sketch. The supercrocs are the project leaders of the future, and when we do our next sketch I hope step aside and allow Helene to take the leading role as director. This would mean the other students would do all the acting, but she would be central role to the planning process.

Helene plays the role of the mother in the skit

The meeting began with me giving questions to a silent crowd and ended with the crowd eagerly discussing and rehearsing the scenes. I could feel my presence begin to diminish throughout the hours we spent together, and it felt good. Often the school system is based on rote memorization: rules of grammar and mathematics, knowledge of facts presented in a book, and copying the teacher’s notes from blackboard to notebook to mind. There are very few situations that allow students to let their creative side come out. By the end I was only intervening occasionally to ask students to SPEAK LOUDER and clearer, point out ways that more hesitant students could participate, and direct actors to act off-dialogue. We felt ready to present the following day.

Memevi, the daughter in the skit, stands up to the teacher

The presentation was amazing. The students were pumped up by crowd support and easily overcame their stage fright to put on an entertaining and informative performance. They forgot some things (such as explaining roles and scene changes to the audience) and added others (hilarious jabs at teachers), but it was a great success. Afterwards, Madame KPOGO gave a fantastic speech about the importance of gender equity for our society and of students taking the lead in changing gender roles of girls and boys in the household. Monsieur DABLA, the second teacher assisting with the Healthy Life Skills Club, guided the Q & A that followed.

Madame KPOGO tells it how it is

Monsieur DABLA takes the stage

In the larger picture of development, I agree with the author Roland Bunch of my favorite book Two Ears of Corn when he notes that “the ‘how it is done’ matters more than the ‘what is accomplished.’” The process by which a project is done is much more important than the end result because if villagers have the capacity to conduct the development process on their own, they will be able to continue in the future when outside assistance stops. They realize the independence, self-respect, and satisfaction of designing a project, managing, and reaping the benefits. However, if development programs focus instead products, such as creating a center for raising bush rats or training a certain number of people, the process of development will leave with the program personnel. The case of a skit at school, while involving only a few boys and girls in a couple of days and no funding, is a microcosm of this larger issue: much more important than the skit was the students, the community, doing it all themselves.