Creative minds take many forms. But when we talk about creativity, we often focus on a very narrow range of people. In this series, Cedar Pasori talks to undeniably creative people whose experiences and expertise can teach us to look at the world differently. See the whole set here.
Illustrations by Miranda Jill Millen.
Teacher Wade King was pleasantly surprised when a video he tweeted of his grade school students dancing with joy after finding out they were going to see Black Panther went viral. Their excitement was a peek into culturally-minded teaching practices led by Wade and his colleagues at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia.
In the two weeks leading up to the trip, RCA staff taught a Black Panther-themed curriculum, complete with gumboot dancing, drum-making, and Nigerian cooking. Instead of opening up history books or going to a nearby museum, the teachers built hands-on classes exploring the film’s central references to African culture across science, math, history and the arts.
Wade (33) and his wife Hope ( 32) have spent ten years teaching these types of innovative approaches to other teachers. They published their ideas in a book called The Wild Card: 7 Steps to an Educator's Creative Breakthrough and host conferences (called Get Your Teach On), where they simulate classes involving music, technology and decorations.
"We encourage teachers to create the unexpected,” Wade says. “We believe that creativity comes directly from a teacher’s own interests, helping them to make school a place where kids want to be every single day."
Wade and Hope grew up in South Carolina and met at church while they were in college. At the time, Wade was focused on becoming a rock musician and Hope was already on her way to becoming a teacher.
Wade’s “creative breakthrough” came from realizing that he could apply music, including his own guitar-playing and drumming, to the classroom.
Hope’s breakthrough meanwhile was fostered by her mother, a crafty entrepreneur who taught her daughter the wallpapering, baking and sock-making skills that influenced Hope’s signature “room transformations” as a teacher today.
“I grew up learning through hands-on approaches,” says Hope. “My mom wasn't just talking to me about things, I was experiencing them. I strive to create those same vivid, educational moments for both students and teachers.”
Wade and Hope discovered an environment perfectly suited to their teaching styles once they moved to Atlanta and started working at RCA. Just before they arrived in 2013, another student video went unexpectedly viral, showing the class singing a remixed version of a song by hometown rapper T.I., re-titled Vote However You Like. It confirmed they were in the right place to create culturally-aware classes, especially for the school’s majority African-American student population.
“Hope and I are Caucasian, and we teach predominantly African-American students,” Wade says. “We take responsibility for educating ourselves about black history and culture, not just in America but in the world. As teachers it’s important to have open conversations about not just race but gender and sexual orientation so that we can teach our students more effectively.”
Wade and Hope are brilliant at thinking around problems, whether that’s rigid curriculums or limited funding. Their ambitions as teachers should remain the same, whatever they face on a day-to-day basis.
“As educators, you can't choose which hand you're going to be dealt in the classroom,” Hope says. “Every year, you get a new group of students with different needs.”
But their progressive teaching methods aren’t always met with openness. “A lot of people will say that they didn’t get into education to become an entertainer,” Hope says. “Then we’ll ask, why are you a teacher then? We believe that if students are excited about learning, they’ll want to be better, know better, and become better citizens.
“I will stand on my head and do backflips – whatever I need to do to get kids excited about learning,” she adds.
Backflips isn’t too far-fetched. At one conference, Wade showed how he integrated Power Rangers into a combined science and social studies lesson for fifth through eighth graders. At another, Hope decorated an entire room to look like Jurassic World.
The key thing is understanding their students and the communities they live in. "When I taught at public school," Hope says, “even just watching the TV shows my students were watching, like Hannah Montana, helped me to teach them better.”
They encourage teachers to listen to the suggestions of students too – recently an eighth grader suggested virtual reality field trips using VR headsets, an idea they’re seriously considering.
This openness to learning new technologies is characteristic of the pair and their extraordinary work ethic. But you sense they don’t see it as work. "A teacher’s responsibility is to make learning magical for your kids. While we can't always decide what we're going to teach, we can certainly decide how we're going to teach it."