The Power of Letting Go

[NYPT Fall 2018]

By Amy Hysick, Education Coordinator and 2017 NYS Teacher of the Year

Julie Burstein delivered a TED Talk in 2012 entitled “4 Lessons in Creativity.” She encouraged her viewers to “stand in that space between what we see in the world and what we hope for.” After a recent week at school, I know exactly what that space looks like.

I am a high school science teacher who is passionate about my content and I have the fervent hope that my students will leave a positive impact on the world. This year, I’m teaching a new elective science course that hasn’t started out so well. My students are juniors and seniors who don’t really want to play the ‘game of school’, and many of the activities that I attempted had not sparked much interest. The beginning of this tough school week found me feeling tired and defeated and discouraged and quickly running out of ideas to try.

My reality and my vision for my students were two different things. I realized that I stood in the very space that Burstein describes in her talk. In trying to come up with ideas, I wrestled with the “tension between what I can control and what I have to let go,” and realized that I was the only one in control of the learning in the classroom. The way to change that was to release control and enlist my students’ help in designing the course that they actually wanted to take.

We brainstormed for an entire 75-minute block and created a course that will consist of weekly Socratic Seminars on student-suggested topics along with hands-on team design challenges every other week. We collaboratively developed a rubric for participation in the seminars and came up with a game plan for students who don’t want to talk out loud in class or for those who are absent on Seminar days. We outlined rules for research to ensure that all would be prepared to contribute their ideas to the discussion. My students worked together to completely restructure our course. The atmosphere in the classroom immediately changed, and the excitement level skyrocketed.

At the end of the week, our class engaged in a high-level discussion of the scientific, medical and ethical implications of stem cell research for a full 75 minutes. Every single student contributed their thoughts and ideas, all of them were excited about the topic, could demonstrate a deeper understanding after the discussion, and eagerly asked me what topic was on the agenda for next week.

Toward the end of Julie Burstein’s talk, she explains how raku pottery is made and shows how some of the pieces are broken during the process of creation. She reminds us that “creativity grows out of everyday experiences – and from the broken places” and that the breaks and cracks can be seen as flaws, or highlighted as part of the piece’s unique design.

The course that I designed by myself had flaws that turned into huge cracks. But when I gave my students control over the repairs, they created something magical and beautiful. I may still be in the space between what is and what I hope for, but my students just made that space quite a bit smaller.