The Empty Room

Twyla Tharp, one of America’s greatest choreographers, begins her wonderful book, The Creative Habit, by describing how she feels when sitting alone in an empty dance studio just before she meets the dancers with whom she will create a new dance program.

To some people this empty room symbolizes something profound, mysterious, and terrifying: the task of starting with nothing and working your way toward creating something whole and beautiful and satisfying. It’s no different for a writer rolling a fresh sheet of paper into his typewriter (or more likely firing up the blank screen on his computer), or a painter confronting a virginal canvas, a sculptor starting a raw chunk of stone, a composer at the piano with his fingers hovering just above the keys. Some people find this moment – the moment before creativity begins–so painful that they simply cannot deal with it. They get up and walk away from the computer, the canvas, the keyboard; they take a nap or go shopping or fix lunch or do chores around the house. They procrastinate. In its most extreme form, this terror totally paralyzes people.

The blank space can be humbling. But I’ve faced it my whole professional life. It’s my job. It’s also my calling. Bottom line: Filling this empty space constitutes my identity.

Ms. Tharp’s empty room is strikingly similar to teachers’ classrooms before their students arrive at the start of the year. Just like an artist, composer, or writer facing a blank canvas, music sheet, or computer screen, radical learners see their classes as settings that are ripe with potential for creative expression.  But where the composer strives to create beautiful music, the radical learner strives to create beautiful learning.

The way teachers fill the empty space, the classroom, also constitutes their identity, as the empty room did for Ms. Tharp. For radical learners, teaching matters. A lot!

The classroom is their canvas, and they bring their minds and souls to the task of teaching. The classroom is much more than a job; it is an extension of their creative selves.

Few people have the opportunity to do work that is as meaningful and creative as the work done by a passionate teacher facing an empty room. Radical learners know this, and their students are all the more enriched because of it.

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  • Theresa Gray

    I got chills reading that excerpt!

    Working outside of the classroom, I miss that feeling of anticipation and the creation of an identity not just for me, but for the students I would be working with. Having looped with my students for two years – we created a powerful identity together and I miss that.

    I have no real “home” in working with adult learners now – just the blank canvas of my blogs and wikis and of course, the temporary classrooms when I visit districts or they visit my site. Not quite as personal and intimate, but I hope that all are equally inspiring.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post to kick off a new year of learning!

    • admin

      Hi Theresa, Great to hear from you! I have actually loved reading Twyla Tharp’s book. I think we sometimes underestimate how much creativity is a part of whatever we do, and her book is a great reminder. It is also a great resource. By the way, I hope folks check out all the great stuff you share at:

  • David Ginsburg (aka Coach G)

    I’m with you all the way on the role of creativity in teaching. And yet one thing in my experience as an instructional coach that separates teachers who succeed from those who struggle is a sense for where and how to channel that creativity. I’ve known many new teachers, for example, who stayed up all night developing the most creative lessons, only to have them bomb for a variety of reasons. In contrast, new teachers I’ve known who’ve made the smoothest transition to teaching have been those who went with straightforward, by-the-book lessons for their first couple years while they focused their time, energy, and yes, creativity into classroom management and instructional strategies.

    • admin

      Hi David, I think you make a great point that adds to what I have written. I agree that creativity for the sake of creativity, without regard to learning will not get you there. Sometimes creativity is needed to be precise, to be clear, to create routines, and structures that allow for meaningful learning. Being creative also doesn’t mean we avoid teaching routines that work–like say “I do it, We do it, You do it”. My point here though is that planning a unit or lesson or activity is the same kind of act as writing a short story–they are similarly creative acts. That is the joy of the work as I see it, and if we stop being creative, we lose a lot of the joy of teaching. There will be much more in the next few weeks here about how I see creativity and structure working together.

      Thanks too for all you contribute online. Your blog is a great resource that people should be reading. :

      • Jennifer Sikes

        I like the comparison between lesson/unit planning and writing a play. Just as the playwright never knows exactly how the play will unfold given the mix of actors and audience, teachers never know exactly how their lessons will unfold given the mix of students and other complexities of the classroom. I love the creative aspect of teaching–it is very dramatic!

        • admin

          Hi Jennifer, Great! I like all of these metaphors for learning and teaching. I think metaphors really can open us up to ideas we might not have ever explored.

  • Jackie Peffer

    As a building principal, I can relate to the thought of the entire building, before the teachers and students return in September as an empty canvas. What happens in classrooms needs to be displayed throughout the hallways so that everyone who enters our buildings is aware of what’s important and how we are making it happen. As an administrator, I feel it’s important to make the opportunities happen for teachers in any way I can and then to let others in our building, district and community know the great things that are happening. Here’s to another GREAT and exciting school year!

    • admin

      Hi Jackie, I hadn’t thought of that but I love the idea. I guess the empty room, like a blank canvas is a metaphor for any creative endeavor just at the start.

  • Jane Renner

    Even in creativity, there is discipline. Just as the dancer must learn the basic steps, must learn to stretch, must learn the intricacies of movement, so the teacher must learn the basics of teaching before she can express her creativity in her lessons. I have always felt that a truly great teacher is called to the profession. It’s a gift, like dancing or painting or composing is a gift. Anyone can do it, but only the gifted can master it and create the teaching moments that seem so effortless and beautiful. That’s where is joy is, for the teacher and the student.

    • admin

      Hi Jane, I totally agree about the importance of discipline, and I would add preparation to that. I’m wondering if you think being called to teach means only certain people can teach, or if being called to teach is something else. I hold hope that every teacher has the potential to be a very good teacher.

      • Jane Renner

        I believe that almost anyone can teach, but we all know those teachers that do it with finesse and make it look so easy and so fun. We also all know of those teachers who only stand and lecture hopefully not in a monotone. And there is a wide chasm between these two types of teachers. Being a teacher means being “on” every moment of every day that you stand before your class(es). That in itself takes great discipline. To add interest and quality to your teaching requires a teacher to take the next step up. Some teachers just have that quality about them. They are creative and interesting and enthusiastic and engaging and their students LOVE them. The call to teach can happen to anyone and every teacher has the potential to be a good teacher, but does every teacher who is called have the potential to be a great teacher? If so, why are there so many teachers who are not great and what can we do to help them become great?

        • Jim Knight

          Hi Jane, my core belief about this is that the main reason why some teachers struggle is systemic and not personal. That is, if a teacher isn’t succeeding, it is probably because professional learning needs to be improved, or there is a culture of low expectations, or some other systemic problem. That said, I believe that there are people who will fight no matter what to create the effective humane kind of system we need for authentic growth and professional learning. Those are the people I”m calling radical learners. Just my two cents worth. Thanks for your thoughts here!

  • Mary Stowe

    Your work can take on the same creative aspect whether you are a teacher in the classroom or work with teachers outside of the classroom for professional development. You can create the atmosphere that you value and use the verbage and visuals that have meaning for you, but then create throughout your work a response to those with whom you work. This does create a learning environment that can become a blend of learners, including you, the teacher as learner. The anticipation of what can be created from a blank slate with the interactions of all involved can be quite exciting!