If You Always Look for What You’re Looking For, You’ll Never Find What You Didn’t Expect

February 27, 2010

Serendipity. Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you’ve found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for. . . . .One aspect of serendipity to bear in mind is that you have to be looking for something in order to find something else.
• Lawrence Block

The internet is especially useful when it comes to looking for one thing and finding another. Just about every site is rife with multiple distracters and it’s easy to forget what you were looking for in the first place as you are drawn down the rabbit hole of chance. I was hunting for motels in Baltimore, Maryland, when I ran across a reference to the American Visionary Art Museum. I don’t follow up on everything that interests me—who has the time?—but the brief description was entrancing. Since I’ll be in Baltimore in June, I took the bait.

I’ll also be teaching a course called Creativity in the Classroom in the summer and I was interested in AVAM’s mission statement defining visionary art as: “art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself” (http://www.avam.org/). So many people with whom I’ve worked over the years both as a teacher and in creative private sector jobs have not seen themselves as creative, and I think that much of this self-doubt stems from large-scale definitions of creativity that leave most folks thinking that nothing that they do is good enough to be considered creative.

Serendipity is creativity at work. It’s the connecting of one thought with another. It’s linking two disparate things to create something new. It’s realizing that you can use a shoelace to repair a car when you’re stuck on the interstate or that duct tape really does have a thousand uses and maybe you’ve just discovered number one thousand and one. It’s a hundred desperate uses of safety pins or chewing gum or Bandaids® for something for which they were never intended.

Our daily acts of living are often creative. The educational goals of AVAM, available in the brain food section of their website, support the realization of the power of creative living regardless of where an individual’s talents lie. They are:

1. Expand the definition of a worthwhile life.

2. Increase awareness of the wide variety of choices available in life—particularly students.

3. Engender respect for and delight in the gift of others.

4. Encourage each individual to build upon his or her own special knowledge and inner strengths.

5. Promote the use of innate intelligence, intuition, self-exploration and creative self-reliance.

6. Confirm the great hunger for finding out just what each of us can do best, in our own voice, at any age.

7. Empower the individual to choose to do that something really, really well.

I find many things that Maya Angelou has written meaningful, but my favorite quotation, the one I use to begin my creativity syllabus, is this: “We are all creative, but by the time we are three or four years old someone has knocked creativity out of us. Some people shut up the kids who start to tell stories. Kids dance in their cribs, but someone will insist they sit still. By the time the creative people are ten or twelve, they want to be like everyone else.”

Sadly, I think that this is often what school does: teaches us to still our creative inner urges and purges us of the belief that we are in any way special if our talents do not fit into those traditionally honored there. We leave thoroughly grounded in what we do not do well, hoping never to have to do any of it again, when instead we could have learned what we might become.

Have you ever been looking for one thing and found something else that was especially meaningful to you? And if you happen to be a teacher or a learner, what educational goals would you write?

We need a new frame of reference in which to picture ourselves growing and recognize how the confluence of inner resources and life circumstances can present us with opportunities to revive our lives in meaningful, satisfying ways.
• Gene D. Cohen (2000),
The Creative Age, p. 77

I think a lot more decisions are made on serendipity than people think. Things come across their radar screens and they jump at them.
• Jay W. Lorsch



  1. The most important way to nurture the students’ creativity would be to limit the amount of specific steps the students have to do when creating their work. If I give the students an example of my completed work, then half of them will make it look exactly like mine. If I choose the colors for them or have too many of the steps already done for them, then all of the students work ends up looking the same (I have done this before). I find that it is much easier to do all of the things that I have just listed because it is simpler, quicker, and not quite as messy. Yet, I think that some of the best work will be created by limiting the amount of information I put into their heads and letting their creativity come through. Do not put limits on the students. Let them choose their own colors, add their own details, and let them alter their work as they need (to a certain extent of course). Even in Kindergarten, many of the students have already been trained to look at even the works of creativity as “right” or “wrong” or “good” or “bad”. It is important to steer the children away from this frame of mind and to encourage them to use their own creativity to produce something that pleases them.

  2. Well said, Amanda–I so agree with you. W-OZ

  3. : I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had this experience, including myself. I can honestly say that each time (and this has happened to me more times than I can remember), what I found was a blessing and, more importantly, what I didn’t find was a blessing in disguise. I think I might use the AVAM goals in my classroom to encourage exploration of non-traditional meanings of “worthwhile”, examination of what is “unique” – especially a student’s own uniqueness, an appreciation for others’ gifts, and to give students the opportunity to discover their own individual strengths and creativity, as well as to encourage self-learning and motivation. Some educational goals I would write are:
    – Try to “think outside the box” to problem solve (to foster both uniqueness and ownership)
    – Create or present work that you know (not just feel) is unique to you and, just as important, that reflects you

  4. As an 8th grade teacher I struggle with this daily. Do I ask my students to sit and perform/listen quietly when perhaps they would perform/listen better while standing or lying on the floor? How do I differentiate between the attention-seeking student or the student that won’t do the work no matter how much space you give him/her, and the student that truly needs an open environment? You can try to make them claim more ownership of their work and be accountable for their grade, but it’s difficult to make middle school accountable when students and parents just see it as a stepping stone for what “really” matters.
    The learning environment needs to be suitable for all students, not a select few. How do you find that balance,with no supplies, 30-40 kids per class, and the new “business” format that school districts are adopting?

  5. I really believe that in taking these classes the past two summers that creativity can be broken into a number of catergories. For a long period of time, I found that creativity was simply a word that didn’t fit in my description. I have changed this view in the past year as I believe that I fall into the area of someone with “creative ideas.” Often times our students determine their strenghts and weaknesses in the classroom before the “glue is dry.” Allowing students to understand that their “creativeness” may be seen in a number of different facets may give them the confidence to continue to express their own ideas in whatever form that might be! Encouraging independent thinking, allowing students ownership in the direction of the classroom activities, and creating group assignments that match up students with different strengths might find success.

  6. When a person enters my classroom, I have been told that it has a “good feeling” about it. It is warm. It is vibrant with color. It is home to my students for nine months. I want them to come together as a team. And I want them to feel this room, in this group of students, with this teacher, they can think, question and ponder without repercussions.
    – Expand the definition of a worthwhile life.

    “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are”. e.e. cummings.

  7. Make your classroom a “safe” place to be. When I have an art project going on I like to have each student hold up their art and let us all make positive comments about it. Even the weird ones are appreciated this way. I also usually like the most outrageous ones and I find they are the students who are most reticent about sharing, not knowing what reaction they may get. I like consistently reiterating that we all have our strengths and weaknesses and that shows in our school work. It seems to make students feel better about their weaknesses. Sometimes I will participate as a student and do the work as well. In those cases, the students have to spend as much time on their project as I do. That way, they aren’t rushing through. I like these AVAM goals. Maybe I’ll post them in my room.
    “If you hear a voice within you say “you cannot paint” then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.” Van Gogh I love this quote!

  8. The part of the article that touched me the most was the quote from Maya Angelou that states, “We are all creative, but by the time we are three or four years old someone has knocked creativity out of us. Some people shut up the kids who start to tell stories. Kids dance in their cribs, but someone will insist they sit still. By the time the creative people are ten or twelve, they want to be like everyone else.” This statement really made me stop and think about my parenting and teaching strategies. Am I suppressing my children’s creativity or am I encouraging it? When my child draws a beard on her face with a pen, and I tell her not to do that, am I suppressing her creativity? I am teaching her to conform to everyone else, am I not? Yet, as a child, I was told not to write on myself because it was harmful to my skin. Is that true? Ink washes off quickly. Perhaps I need to re-evaluate my parenting strategies.

    In a classroom, I think a fun way to incorporate the educational goals of the AVAM would be to do a class project that is highly open-ended. Instead of a talent show, I would want to do a creativity show. I was thinking of giving students a large variety of options to choose to talk about, demonstrate, or perform at the creativity show. They could choose something that interests them from the following list or think of something else:
    1.Write a song and perform it
    2.Invent a new method of playing on a guitar or other instrument
    3.Invent a new musical instrument
    4.Write a poem and perform it with dance
    5.Invent and perform a dance using water
    6.Write and/or tell a story using dramatic performance
    7.Write and/or tell a story using puppets
    8.Develop and demonstrate a new use for a rubber band, shoe lace, or common item
    9.Invent a new motor powered tool
    10.Invent a new use for a current tool
    11.Invent a balloon air-powered car
    12.Invent a new method of flight using paper or other materials
    13.Develop and perform a gymnastics or martial arts stunt
    14.Develop and demonstrate a new soccer move or other sport
    15.Develop and demonstrate a new bike move or a new skateboard move
    16.Invent and cook a new recipe with small taste samples for the audience
    17.Program and demonstrate a new computer game or computer program
    18.Invent a new board game
    19.Paint using homemade natural dyes (pomegranate, iris flowers, mustard…)
    20.Paint/Draw a dream, a song, or your favorite thing
    21.Create a sculpture from recycled materials, ice, pinecones, old computer parts…
    22.Design and sew a new fashion
    23.Design and sew a costume
    24.Invent a new use for a washing machine or other household appliance (example: my mom washed carrots from her garden in the washing machine)

  9. It’s really quite a challenge to meet the traditional goals of schooling (reading, writing, and arithmetic) while instilling creativity in each of your students. I believe that we need to stretch ourselves to let children explore their creativity through our lesson presentation. It is important for teachers to come up with non-traditional ways for children to demonstrate their knowledge. I have always worked on that, but as I learn more about my own creativity I am open to new ideas about what creativity truly means. We must encourage our students to think for themselves and allow themselves to be unique.

  10. When I watch my 1st graders play on the playground during recess, I always get a chuckle out of the games they are playing. Cops and Robbers, good Spiderman vs. bad Spiderman, stars wars, Save the princess…etc… The list of imaginary games can go on and on. These young children’s zest for imagination astounds me! How do their little brains come up with this stuff? And how can they be so amused by it for so long? Then the recess bell rings, we go back into class and at times I feel like the creative world they were just living in shuts its doors. Back to our standardized learning we go, and although I realize that we need to learn, I often wonder how I can keep this creative world just outside my classroom door still going? Looking at AVAM’s educational goals I think the biggest way I can nurture my students’ creativity is to keep all options open to my students and find one good thing is each students work within certain criteria. We still all have a job to do and standards to meet, and we still as teachers have to have expectations. It is almost like there is this perfect balance you need to achieve while teaching: Having certain criteria, yet not letting that criteria squelch your students’ creativity in the classroom.

  11. Educators who knock the creativity out of the children should be fined and jailed! One of the greatest gifts young children have is their creative abilities. The imaginative minds kids have, before society and adults interfere are stupendous. Young minds are incredible in that kids can; make the most obvious statement an adult would die to say, create uses for items that adults would never think of, entertain themselves by playing with the most ordinary item for hours…
    As a teacher I know I can get caught up with scores, results, and performance. I really try hard to teach and understand as if I were the student. For example, at the beginning of the year we were making paper from scratch. As we continued through our cardboard paper making exercise, I worked hard at not giving them the “how to do it”. I felt it was crucial that they figure out why it was cardboard and not paper, that critical thinking is so important. I used questioning techniques to assist them in the work in progress and guide them to research answers. It would have been very easy to give a sheet explaining how to make paper and just follow the steps provided, but the students learned more doing it independent of me and were very eager to share results with others. The other unique component of this particular project was that each person had a role, but it changed because they wanted to experience everything involved in the paper making process. Some students were better in certain areas and were willing to teach others a technique so that became proficient.
    We had various projects going on all year, but some projects targeted specific students so that they would excel and feel good about learning and contributing to a project. Kids have amazing talent, we as teachers are supposed to develop those talents and improve other areas, where possible. It is not difficult to find a talent in someone and nurture it so that they really excel. A word of caution in that set parameters in an activity may limit the creative genius of some students.

  12. Teaching Kindergarten has really opened my eyes to the incredible amount of creativity welled up in the little body of a 5 year old. I was amazed at the games created on the playground, the maps, lists, cards made in the writing center and the “drama” they acted out in the kitchen/play area. The buildings, forts and other creations in the building center were phenomenal as well. Each day was a gift with my Kindergarten because they taught me so much about not being afraid to share their ideas and to have passion and excitement for the things they found value and joy in. Plus, throughout all the creative times, they learned so much of the statewide objectives they were supposed to learn. Life is full of joy. As an educator, that is becoming my #1 goal. How can students experience joy in my classroom? Each year as I plan my goals and objectives for my students, I will remember this Kindergarten class of mine and the pure “joy” they exhibited while being at school each day. I want all my students to feel this way, whether they are in Kindergarten or 6th grade.

  13. What I love about teaching is that learning never ends; for the teacher and student. As educators, every year we are refining what worked, throwing away what didn’t work, stealing from our colleagues and my favorite-searching the recycling bin.

    One of my biggest mistakes as a first (couple of first) years as a teacher is I would spend so much extra time making the “model” of the activity I wanted my students to work on. I would spend time at home cutting, coloring, pasting, etc the “example” to show my students. What a big mistake….my students ended up being frustrated because it didn’t look like mine; I would be frustrated because I didn’t think it looked like mine. And, the end product NO INDIVIDUALITY!! They all looked closely like mine, boring!

    What I found interesting about the AVAM’s education goals is that they serve as guidelines with no right and wrong. Be who you are, explore your passion and in “your own voice”, “empower” students to do what fits them.

    Now, I just give guidelines and the end product is fascinating. Students create their own project according to who they are, not who I want them to be.

  14. I have a personal mission every day as a teacher to try to slow myself down and really listen to what students are telling me. Often they are trying to tell me something other than “she took cuts” and I need to watch out that I don’t get so busy as to miss their message that may tell me their strengths and ideas. One good example is I was looking at a student’s drawing and thinking it was scribbles, but I asked what he drew. He actually had a very high level thinking illustration of an aspect of the lesson. I was quite impressed, and shudder to think how easily I could have missed it!

  15. As a young father I was obsessed with wishing to have well behaved children. My guidelines for behavior were narrow and consistently enforced. Much of this was done correctly in a positive, guiding manner, but sadly, some of my guidelines quickly squelched exploratory jounies into adventures in learning. My mother always told me that questioning and adventuring were critical steps in child learning development. I would allow my children more chances to explore and take in elements in the world that surrounds them if I had it to do over.

    These learing principles certainly apply in the classroom. Students must be afforded a safe place to roam and explore in order to gain knowledge in an adventurous way. Our starch classroom rules must be such that they allow creativity and not stifle it. Achieving this balance of control and simulataneous freedon is the balance for which master teachers strive.

  16. Often as an educator I feel like my job is to tend the minds of children as if they were a garden. Water and nurture their creativity, weed out misconceptions and negative self-talk, bathe them in the sunlight of positive interactions with others, and protect them from storms with a thick layer of praise and encouragement.

    Along those lines, some of the educational goals I strive to achieve in my classroom are:

    *Praise students for taking a chance and trying something new.

    *Teach students to respect one another.

    *Recognize and celebrate each child’s passion & talents. Some are athletes, some are readers, writers, artists, dreamers, or compassionate friends. Praise what they ARE and introduce them to what they can become.

    *The sky is the limit. If a student wants to know more, do more, be more… give them opportunity to do it. (Although

  17. Often as an educator I feel like my job is to tend the minds of children as if they were a garden. Water and nurture their creativity, weed out misconceptions and negative self-talk, bathe them in the sunlight of positive interactions with others, and protect them from storms with a thick layer of praise and encouragement.

    Along those lines, some of the educational goals I strive to achieve in my classroom are:

    *Praise students for taking a chance and trying something new.

    *Teach students to respect one another.

    *Recognize and celebrate each child’s passion & talents. Some are athletes; some are readers, writers, artists, dreamers, or compassionate friends. Praise what they ARE and introduce them to what they can become.

    *The sky is the limit. If a student wants to know more, do more, be more… give them opportunity to do it. (Although with a large and diverse classroom, this can be one of my biggest challenges.)

    But the end result– a bountiful harvest of blossoming children– is worth any effort I make!

  18. I feel I have actualized these goals to some extent in my classroom, however certainly not to the degree I should.
    I to am guilty of doing to much of the prep work for the students mostly for the purpose of saving time.
    There was one art project I did purposefully so that the kids could truly see themselves as artists – I did a lesson on the abstract artist Kandinsky (Google Kandinsky art for kids for ideas) – showed them some of his abstract work and had students do their own – with abstract art they can’t go wrong – all feel successful – my kids had so many comments about their work I had to teach them how to take a compliment! The other thing I do is free art Fridays – I have a big box of “stuff” – the kids are free to create whatever they want – no rules, no boundaries. I love watching them during this, it’s like letting your dog of his leash to run on the beach – no rules – no boundaries – just fun and creativity – it reminds me that I need to try and achieve this energy and desire in all aspects of learning. How I wish we had the time, help, and support for this kind of learning – how do we do it…

  19. I really feel the push to get in the entire curriculum we are expected to teach. The reading component takes a tremendous amount of time each day and affords little time for anything else. Yet isn’t part of learning being able to express yourself in any shape or form? Too often as you have said, people are expected to fit into little compartments. I see this on a daily occurrence in my job. If a child’s behavior isn’t like the norm, then there are some consequences for it. I want kids to be able to brush out their own path not walk on the same path that kids in years past have taken. They need some gray in their life, not everything is black and white. I hate to make a model for the children, because I don’t want to look at ten that are exactly like mine. Instead I tell them they have great ideas and I can hardly wait to see what they come up with! I just have a few rules about projects we do in the room.
    1. You must try.
    2. Respect yourself and your classmates
    3. There is no wrong answer when you are creating something
    4. If you like (and I encourage this) come and show your work on the document camera so everyone can see how great your creation is.

  20. I struggle with “creativity” in my own classroom and not because I don’t think it is important. As a Title I Reading Specialist my time is limited with those students I serve, usually to just 45 minutes a day. In that time, I am suppose to provide intense intervention in the area of reading. While I am trying to think of some ways to increase the creativity in my classroom and my teaching sessions with students, I struggle with the fear that others may not appreciate the creativity going on in the classroom or see it’s connection to acheivement. We have become so driven by test scores and results that I feel that need to cut out the “fun stuff,” when really I believe that if students were allowed more time to be creative and experience the world of literacy they would be more excited about it and more eager to learn.

  21. With the pressure of standardized testing and schools being deemed as “needing improvement” by the educational experts unfortunately creativity in the classroom has taken a back seat to what others feel is important in education today. I struggle with creativity in the classroom because I feel that I’m being pushed by others to create students that meet the standards instead. I believe to promote creativity in my own classroom it can be integrated somehow into what we are learning. There are days when I need to let the kids teach me by creating and I need to encourage them and accept whatever they are trying to express. That is the time that I need to just step back and watch. However at the same time making sure that the students know they must do their best, respect the work of others, and know that whatever they create will be accepted as well. No fear.

  22. One of the personal goals I set is to create open ended lessons that can be taken as far as the student is willing to take them. I want to see creativity in learning whether it is in science or handwriting. I want to teach my students that they can and should take risks and be comfortable expressing their knowledge in “outside the box” ways.

  23. I am a strong believer that an effective teacher inspires children rather than imparts knowledge. It is the inspiration to be great…to discover the unknown…to share one’s vision…that leaves a lasting impression. The culture of my classroom is one of respect and positive self-esteem. I believe that if I can guide children towards establishing a positive self-image while focusing on curricular goals, I can impact a student far beyond the 9 months they exist in my classroom. I want students to look back on 3rd grade and remember it as the year that they learned to believe in themselves and their abilities. Maybe they came to me feeling good about themselves. Then I want to inspire them to stretch beyond what they “know” they can do and explore the space that feels just out of reach. Challenge themselves to grow even when they are meeting grade level expectations. If students only remember one thing from my class, I want it to be that I believed in them and that I helped them believe in themselves…each and every one of them!

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