Using Creativity to Triumph Over Adversity

By Bob Sauer, Upper School Science Teacher

There is great joy and satisfaction in creatively solving problems, gaining insight into the way the world works, and figuring out how to fully integrate oneself into its marvelous machinery. I model and foster this attitude and behavior for students in the classroom when I can, but it really comes in to play beyond the confines of the campus. 

There’s nothing like getting out of the classroom to foster creative thinking about learning and accomplishing things. I’m over-the-moon happy to be teaching at Catlin, where this is an easy and exciting pursuit that is strongly encouraged and enabled, and which I utilize as much as I can.  (It’s so much fun!) Here are three examples: 

Long ago, before I started teaching at Catlin Gabel, I was on a year-long teaching exchange in Poland. This called for massive creativity, as my Polish was limited to what I’d been able to pick up from a Polish student I’d had in Portland, and because I was teaching from Polish textbooks.  My physics colleagues didn’t speak English and were horrified when I went poking around in the physics storeroom to see what equipment I might use. Barred from the official physics equipment, I raised the bar and used two bars of translucent soap, a piece of aluminum foil, and a rubber band to make a photometer to demonstrate the inverse square relationship between illuminance and distance for light. The Polish students were amazed and highly impressed that one could make physics equipment out of ordinary household materials. Those were memorable lessons for all–both the construction of the equipment and the physics principle I wanted to convey. 

Here at Catlin Gabel the Outdoor Program provides plenty of opportunity for creativity, and a second example. I’ve led the Wallamas Trip, a week in the Wallowas with Llamas—and students, of course—six times. Each time I prepared a detailed plan for how the trip would unfold (the best creativity requires plenty of groundwork to help ensure its success). Not once has the trip gone according to this plan. Some spanner appears in the works—too much snow in the pass, too much rushing meltwater in the streams in the valleys, a whole forest blown down across the trail, not enough water high up in a low snow pack year. And yet, with flexibility and a positive attitude, creativity can carry the day. Every one of these trips has been memorably successful, and students can appreciate the effectiveness of creative thinking, in coming up with alternatives to being snowed under, washed away, or blown over. 

Global Education Adventure is a third prime venue for creativity, as traveling and learning in completely new environments effectively requires it. I had never been to China before our spring 2016 trip, and anticipated needing to be highly creative on the expedition. I was in charge of blogging, which was something I wasn’t able to accomplish on the France trip several years ago because the blogging software continually ate my copy, and my posts would vanish forever. This time the improved (but still clunky) blogging software and slow connections from China again threatened to stymy the blogging. But I found a complicated, creative away around the problems (involving excruciatingly excessive amounts of cutting, pasting, Word files, shrunken photo files, and additional uploading) and was, in the end, able to keep families and interested parties apprised of our Asian adventures. 

Exposing students to these environments where creativity can triumph over adversity is illuminating, educational, and a world of fun!  I eagerly anticipate many more years of these exciting exploits that cultivate creativity, including hiking hut to hut in the German and Austrian Alps with a baker’s dozen of intrepid Catlin students this summer.