Sue Haynes is a semi-retired holistic special education and literacy teacher with over 35 years of experience spanning pre-school through to college.
She is also the author of two books, Creative Mavericks: Beacons of Authentic Learning (2007) and, with her co-author Phyl Brazee, Pockets of Freedom: Unlocking the Power of Intuitive Teaching and Learning (2020).
I began my teaching career at a pre-school, where I taught three and four year olds, following a Master’s in Special Education (special education in the late 60’s was psycho-dynamic—focusing on mental and emotional processes—unlike the behaviorist mandates beginning in the 70’s which leave personhood in the dust).
Growing up in a highly creative family, I was excited to promote creative exploration with the kids. One of my two large classrooms was devoted completely to dramatic play, and I observed with fascination the themes that emerged. The classroom was theirs to explore whatever was truly on for them, and I developed a compelling question: How could learning in elementary and high school be as personally relevant as that in early childhood education?
Following two years of teaching three and four year olds, I spent thirteen years focusing on raising three sons. When they were fairly launched, I began my second masters – this one in literacy – and, through Phyl Brazee’s amazing facilitation, I gained the tools to promote self-agency at all grade levels.
Phyl is a retired holistic university professor in Teacher Education and Peace Studies with 40 years of experience. She was my mentor for my Masters in Literacy program, launching me into exploring what felt compelling for me – for the first time in my education journey in my 40’s! Phyl consistently promoted self-directed, intuitive learning with all of her students, and I had the privilege of being one of them.
For over thirty years, in a variety of learning environments, I have joyfully put the tools I learnt into practice.
Both of my books were written because I had a strong desire to share the power of personally relevant learning in all ages with both teachers and parents.
Creative Mavericks: Beacons of Authentic Learning
In Creative Mavericks I share anecdotes about my experiences teaching highly creative children as well as research about the creative process. As a specialist, I was asked to work with children who had identified learning difficulties with labels like LD and AD(H)D. However, I saw these students through a different lens, observing their strengths when they explored their personal interests and passions. And, I recognized many highly creative learners! These students struggled with and/or resisted standardized education because they were far from being standardized learners!
From my experience with these maverick students, I identified two primary attributes of a highly creative learner. The first attribute is a passion (at times obsessive passion) to explore what is personally fascinating, and the second is a drive to be true to one’s emerging inner agendas – often in conjunction with a strong resistance to complying with others’ agendas that don’t personally resonate.
The following excerpt of a case study in Creative Mavericks shares the power of seeing learners through a different lens:
Christina, fourth grade:
Christina, a student in a small island school off of the Maine coast, had just about given up. She felt intense frustration with her classroom work and felt like a complete failure as a learner. Christina’s teachers knew that she was bright, despite her specific learning difficulties, but they felt powerless to ease her frustration and dispel her belief that she was stupid.
At a PET (Pupil Evaluation Team) meeting following her testing, Christina was identified as “learning disabled” in the areas of reading, writing and math. I was asked to work with her one afternoon a week in my capacity as special education teacher. After talking with her teachers and working with Christina during our initial session, I expressed my belief that she was, in fact, creatively gifted. Along with seeing Christina’s obvious challenges with her school work, I could see, on another level, Christina’s highly creative orientation in all aspects of her learning.
Christina loved to draw, and her pictures displayed wonderful line, perspective, color, details, and expression. She was, in fact, driven to progress artistically, engaging in and exploring drawing at any given opportunity. I allowed Christina to draw as we worked together to both honor her talent and fuel her energy and focus. I also arranged for Christina to have a mentorship with the artistic teacher aid. Christina’s weekly visit to her home continued, two years later, to be the highlight of her week.
In our work with reading, writing and math, I gave Christina choices of the resources we used, the topics we would explore, and our formats for practice (including fun board games which she and I co-created.). Highly creative learners have an intense need for ownership in every aspect of their learning, and their strong intuitive abilities make them excellent choice-makers in line with their learning needs. I have often been amazed to see these learners sort through a considerable pile of book choices, for example, rapidly prioritizing them into “maybe now,” “at some future time,” and “let go.”
To increase Christina’s confidence in reading, I encouraged her to draw upon her rich language sense and fabulous prediction skills to unlock words she didn’t recognize -engaging the power of her personal meaning. Language prediction is 80% of the reading process and Christina’s default word identification strategy had been an often fruitless “sounding it out.” Christina’s reading began to take off. Most importantly, however, I reveled in Christina’s personal identification with the characters and the situations in the story, and her deep understanding of the themes. Christina’s rich bonding with stories continued through books with sophisticated themes, like David’s growth of self-identity in North to Freedom (Holm 1963) about the escape of a young boy from a concentration camp and his awakening from a deadened state of existence and Cusi’s journey to embrace his ordained destiny in The Secret of the Andes (Clark 1952). These are the kinds of books Christina chose and delighted in, stories which resonated with her deep sensitivities and perceptions.
To support Christina’s enjoyment of the stories we read, I engaged her in spontaneous conversations about our responses, refraining from questioning that would assess a mere mentalized understanding. Christina’s personal connection to the stories would lead her to argue sometimes with the characters. One day while we were reading The Secret of the Andes, she became impatient with Cusi when he got sidetracked from his life mission by seeking a family of his own to live with. She commented, “I think he should try to find out who he is rather than trying to find a family.” She also commented at this juncture of his traveling, “I miss Chuto.” Chuto was Cusi’s teacher who was waiting for his return in the hidden valley of their home. When we watched the P.B.S. video, The Incas, following our reading, Christina transformed this rather dry documentary exclaiming, “That’s Cusi’s mother’s hut,” and “That’s his llama, Misty.” When I shared her responses with her art mentor she commented, “And for her, they really were.”
In writing, I encouraged Christina to brainstorm a story idea that would spark an “organizing vision” compelling enough to encourage her risk-taking. Her previous attempts at writing had provoked feelings of incompetency related to her challenges in spelling, punctuation and penmanship. I invited Christina to write on my portable computer to bypass her transcription angst, and while this novelty helped, she was still unable to find an appealing idea.
In order to start somewhere, I suggested that Christina continue on with a piece she had written for her school newspaper about a young Russian girl immigrating to this country in the mid 1800’s. Reluctantly, she began, placing the girl in Texas. Plodding along, she wrote a few lines each week with many pleas for typing help from me. One day, Christina had her main character escape from her chores to travel with a friend to a nearby creek. At the creek the girl saw a man. “Or was it a boy?” I suggested. “Oh yes,” she said, “a young black boy who had escaped from a cruel master.” Fueled by this compelling idea, Christina set off with full wind in her sails. Christina had a strong sense of social justice, and this story gave her a creative opportunity to explore and express this.“Natasha’s Adventures,” the story of how a young girl helped an abused slave boy connect with The Underground Railroad, became a beautifully illustrated little book. Christina’s transition from writer’s angst to empowered author was a beautiful unfolding as she began to re-envision herself as a capable author and illustrator.
Christina blossomed as a self-directed learner, growing in skills and reveling in integrating her creative learning orientation into her studies. Maxine Greene (1988), a former professor of philosophy and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, warned in a Language Arts article:
“There is a growing tendency to describe children as “resources” rather than persons, with all the implications of “use value” and even “exchange value.” Proposed improvements in their education are argued in the name of the nations’s economic competitiveness, not for the sake of the growth of persons viewed as centers of choice, agents of their own becoming.”
Maxine Greene (1988)
I believed in Christina, in her strengths, her talents, her interests, and her passions. I honored her sensitivity to her compelling internal agendas and her need to be true to them. I feel that this lens of “seeing” and honoring Christina was the key catalyst for her empowerment. And I intuitively recognized that what supported Christina’s drive to learn through personal relevance, would support self-agency in all learners.
Pockets of Freedom: Unlocking the Power of Intuitive Teaching and Learning
In collaboration with my mentor Phyl, I wrote Pockets of Freedom a number of years later. The book was inspired by my desire to share anecdotes about two remarkable teachers: Phyl, who sparked my passionate self-directed learning at the university level and Lisa, a friend and holistic colleague, who taught in 7th then 5th grade at our local middle school (two of my sons were so very fortunate to be taught by her, both blossoming as creative writers in her classroom). When I asked Phyl to co-author the book with me, she agreed on the condition that I include my own empowering teacher stories.
After collecting our stories, Phyl and I did an ethnographic analysis of the themes we three held in common, and we organized the stories under the most relevant theme. They are:
These themes share our commitment to promoting self-agency in all learning situations. Often working within an educational climate antithetical to our beliefs, we created “pockets of freedom” for self-exploration within whatever curriculum we were hired to deliver. The following is an excerpt from Phyl’s section of our book:
Theme 3: Evaluating Our Students Through Honoring Their Learning Process and How They Make Meaning in Their Lives
Writing As a “Flinking” Process:
Throughout my teaching career, I witnessed several shifts in the philosophy of writing instruction from a regimented, grammar-focused instruction to a focus on a more holistic approach – under the umbrella of Whole Language and the Writing Process – to, once again, a narrower focus on the structure and mechanics of writing: grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. The struggles to “win” education curriculum at the national level and the connection to national, state and local politics went a long way to help me understand these shifts. I saw the results of the turn back to regimented writing in the writing of my undergraduates in a course I taught on education in a multicultural society. They didn’t like to write; they were afraid of my course which was listed as a “writing intensive.” They entered with many assumptions of my expectations for them as students and as writers. Luckily, I surprised them and challenged them to break out of the constraints they had carried from twelve or more years of “mechanical” teaching and learning and from rigid rules for being a writer. Many had learned that writing was for the teacher or college essay evaluator – an “other” who expected a certain product. I had a totally different set of expectations. I wanted them to learn (maybe for the first time) to write for themselves, to use writing to discover and uncover what they felt and knew, not what they thought I wanted.
Over many years of teaching at the undergraduate level, I developed a teaching philosophy that required students to be active, engaged learners. An important part of this philosophy was an expectation that students would learn with both their heads and their hearts. For many, this was initially intimidating because they had been schooled over all their previous (and current) years of education to leave the heart out – “never write in the first person!”
From the beginning, I introduced them to my term “flinking”: thinking and feeling. I have come to believe that humans engage in both acts all the time and that to deny one (feeling) means that humans cannot be whole beings.
There are many reasons for the exclusion of “feelings” in education and, indeed, in Western society as a whole. Many writers have extensively described the split in Western society between the head and the heart, thinking and feeling, and male and female. Many further assert that this has been intentional. It certainly feels so.
The writing I have always asked all of my students to do across all my years of teaching is called “personal narrative writing,” which celebrates the “I,” the feelings and thoughts – flinkings – of the author/student. Once a paper was handed in, I read it as if I were in conversation with the writer/student. I wrote on the paper – questions asking for clarification, supportive comments, and insights of connection – and I never gave a grade, only my own authentic response as a reader. The results of using this kind of writing have demonstrated how powerful this strategy is for creating long-term, often transformational learning.
Here are some reflections from students about their experience of personalized class writing.
“Each one of my papers was written from the heart and it was great getting the papers back with big yes’s on them giving me comments on how my thought was good or how to finish my thought or even ideas on what to do in a situation. It was very helpful getting papers back that gave me tips, ideas, and encouragement for teaching, especially after working hard on my papers. It was great being able to read what you wrote and gain the ideas or even create new ones from what you said. These papers are going to be very helpful when I actually start teaching. I need inspiration, and I can turn to these papers and get the ideas I need.”
“Some of the things that helped me the most were the open-endedness of the writing assignments and the fact that the papers were supposed to be reactions and feelings that we have about the topics that we were supposed to write about. I really hate a lot of structure in assignments and classes, so the ability to just write what I felt about a subject and tell stories, as long as it applied to the topic, really helped me to discover things about myself….to be honest I was dreading the fact that this class was writing intensive. I usually hate writing this much, but I really enjoyed writing for this class.”
“I have learned that I enjoy writing so much when I just write without worrying about the structure of the writing! I absolutely love just writing about what I feel as it comes to mind instead of manipulating it all around to fit into the formal essay. I do think it important to be able to compose a good, structured essay, but I have definitely learned that class assignments can be very fun when they aren’t so formal. People really write from the heart this way, rather than spend the whole time thinking, while writing, about how to make the essay perfectly smooth and organized in order to make the teacher happy. Thoughts regarding a matter in which an individual feels strongly are rarely organized, and sometimes they really just need to be written down as they are felt rather than conformed to fit something else.”
I almost never directly and stridently disagreed with a student’s ideas. My strategy was much more the “yes, and…” approach. I believed, over many years of doing this and many student comments at the end of the semester, that this supportive approach created the bond of trust that was essential for authentic expressive voice to appear in student papers. They had been intimidated, verbally and in writing over many years, to silence their voice. They needed much encouragement and many demonstrations that I meant it when I asked them to risk exposing what was in their heart. I had to be consistent in not judging them while gently helping them to question and to examine assumptions and beliefs. It was delicate business and required many long hours for each set of papers. The rewards, however, were priceless.
In the final section of our book, Phyl included Neuroscience research which supports teaching from the heart as well as the head.
Phyl and I hope that our stories will illuminate the power of intuitive teaching and learning and inspire teachers and parents to create their own “pockets of freedom” to promote this.
Here in the U.S., public education, like so many other American institutions, stands at a crossroad: to continue down a path of conformity and standardization or to open to the unique gifts that each student and teacher brings to the educative process. Phyl’s and my research elucidates the qualities of a teacher that promote the latter.
We believe that we must begin with identifying the purpose of education. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “educate” means:
Origin of EDUCE
Latin educere to draw out, from e- + ducere to lead
educe implies the bringing out of something potential or latent
When teachers recognize the power of intuitive wisdom within both their students and themselves, they may be reluctant, even unable, to allow this to be derailed by standardized, curriculum-driven instruction and evaluation.
Despite the present test driven curriculums promoted by federal and state governments here in the U.S., I believe that many progressive teachers are creating renegade “pockets of freedom” in their classrooms to promote authentic learning – flying under the radar. We need their stories; they need our support! Phyl and I believe that a true transformation of status quo education will come from an awareness of human potential that is seeded and grows from within. From Parker Palmer:
“Many programs are trying to effect educational reform from the outside in, but the greatest immediate power we have is to work to reform from the inside out. Ultimately, human wholeness does not come from changes in our institutions, it comes from the reformation of our hearts.”
The Courage to Teach (1998)
Information about Creative Mavericks: Beacons of Authentic Learning and Pockets of Freedom: Unlocking the Power of Intuitive Teaching and Learning, with links to their Amazon pages, can be found on my website at https://creativemavericks.net