Lisa A. Kramer

Author, Speaker, Theater Artist, Creativity Facilitator

Creative Teachers can Change the World

In some ways, my life was changed by a living chess tournament.

Okay, maybe I'm being a tad dramatic. But one of my favorite high school teachers challenged my social studies class with a creative approach that influenced who I am 40 years later.

What is a living chess tournament? There are different examples of what it could be, like this example of a historical event used to decide who would win the hand of the fair maiden:

To avoid losing them in a duel, the father forbade the encounter. He declared that the two rivals would play a chess game, and human actors representing the pieces would show the moves as they were made. Lionora would take the winner as her husband. The loser would also join the family but marry instead the younger daughter, Oldrada. (Bringing Chess To Life With Human Players In Marostica)

They reenact this event every year. Time for a trip to Italy!

Anyway, the chess tournament I'm talking about is a little different. It involved the merging of historical research, collaboration, and creativity. Little did I know how much of an impact this one event would be on everything I did later in life. I always held this example up as one that shows what can be done when we combine theatre, creativity, collaboration together with a touch of courage. 

It should be no surprise, then, that I included this event in Re-Creating the World: The Power and Joy of Creative Collaboration.  Here's an excerpt:
We’ve all been in the classroom where the teacher stands behind a podium lecturing on a topic. You can tell they have given the same lecture many times before. Their voices drone in a way that motivates the listeners to fall asleep. Compare that to the teachers who you remember the most—the ones who made every lecture seem like a Ted Talk, or who gave you activities to help you understand the content using creative means.   Although I don’t remember the details of the Wars of the Roses, I will never forget the experience of bringing those wars to life in a living chess tournament. Rita Smith, my sophomore social studies teacher, found an amazing way for us to understand the characters, the story, the complexity of these English civil wars. I collaborated with another student to write the script, based off of our classmates’ research and contributions. The members of a few classes took on the characters, and made costumes to became the chess pieces on a giant chess board. I wasn’t a main character. I don’t remember who I played. I remember feeling both self-conscious and maybe a little sexy in my purple dress that revealed a lot of cleavage, as we performed in front of an audience at the National Counsel for Social Studies Conference at the Sheraton in Boston.   Every character had at least one line. We had to coordinate the capture of pieces with the timeline of the actual historical events and deaths. My co-author and I presented the whole project for a history competition. We didn’t win, but it was an amazing experience. I remember as much as I do about this project because of the creative teacher behind it. I think, in many ways, it has influenced my fascination with merging theatre and history to this day.    Education that does not allow space for creative thought and exploration is ultimately education that fails our students. I saw it daily in my college classes, and as I watch my daughter navigate through college. Nowadays, we all have easy access to “facts” (even made-up ones) with the click of a button and a quick search. We can find out dates, and times, and names. We don’t need to memorize these anymore, and yet that is what the early years of education test. When students move on to college and are being challenged to think creatively and critically, sometimes they struggle. They struggle less if they have already been introduced to the possibilities provided by a creative teacher. Without that guidance, they often develop a “just give me facts, don’t ask me to think” attitude towards learning. Rather than digging deeper to find the complexity of truth, they look for the easy arguments that support their biases and beliefs.
While I was working on this section, I decided to Google Rita Smith and find out what happened to her. I knew she was no longer at my high school. Much to my delight, I stumbled upon a recent fabulous podcast interview with the now retired Ms. Smith--one where she actually talks about the Living Chess Tournament. It's long, but an excellent listen for anyone who recognizes that education must consider new approaches if it wants us to move forwoard as a society. You can find it at the JFY Networks Podcast. 

After listening, I reached out to JFY Networks to see if they could connect me with Rita. (She told me to call her that after I graduated from highschool. It was so hard back then). This morning, I heard back from her, and she reinforced for me, all over again, that my goal of building a more collaborative, creative world is a worthwhile one. I cried. In her words:

Together, you delighted in using your active imaginations, and knowledge of European history to answer “Big Questions”.:What would have happened, if these well-known, historic and literary characters engaged in a lively game of chess.? What would they say to one another.  Especially, given the fact that they lived in different times and places? What important  lessons could be learned from their moves and verbal exchanges?

Truth be told, only “kids” would dare to take on such a big challenge. And,  never mind, to have succeeded.  Then and now, I was very much impressed by your willingness to lose yourself in the creative process.  And collaboratively compose a script that made all informed, and  lively  young participants into shining stars. (Rita Smith, Personal Correspondance)

Clearly, this wonderful teacher is still teaching. Who are the creative teachers who have touched your life? How can you become a creative mentor and teacher who will change the world for someone else?

I look forward to helping you find out.