Echoes: Creativity and Aristotle’s Potluck

As classic works become more familiar you find those ideas are anything but dead and gone. In fact, they have us surrounded. The ubiquity of ideas you’ve come to associate with Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Federalists or Antifederalists suggests those writers captured something fundamental about how we understand the world and ourselves. Our Echoes series attempts to capture these reverberations through time. Perhaps there is new insight to be seen by presenting the past to the present and vice versa.

I recently read Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer in an attempt to keep thinking creatively despite the doldrums of dissertation writing. It’s a smooth read that attempts to match the mythology of creativity with the science behind a number of recognizable moments of genius, from the Swiffer to Pixar and from 3M’s masking tape to Broadway’s biggest success stories.

Jonah Lehrer shares his understanding of how creativity works

There was one moment, however, where I thought I saw Aristotle among these modern marvels. Lehrer was talking about why brainstorming doesn’t work.

I know a good number of you are teachers. And I can guess that some of you have used brainstorming in the classroom. With my eight years in the classroom and lifetime of thinking, I regularly came to the conclusion that I was doing it wrong. I never managed to unlock the magic mojo. It always felt silly, random and exhausting. I hated being the person at the front of the room who had to DO SOMETHING with the list once it was generated!

So, when Lehrer beat down all the magic talk of brainstorming with evidence that constructive criticism does more for creativity, I nearly threw my fist in the air and shouted, “hell yeah!”. He demonstrates how Pixar used their morning meetings of criticism and “plussing” to take Toy Story 2 from a dismal beginning to blockbuster success. Plussing makes all the difference; it’s “a technique that allows people to improve an idea without using harsh or judgmental language… whenever work is criticized, the criticism should contain a plus, a new idea that builds on the flaws in a productive manner.” Lehrer then connects this practice with an experiment conducted by Charlan Nemeth at UC-Berkley where she put brainstorming into direct competition with constructive criticism.  The group encouraged to debate produced more ideas while they worked together and had even more to add after the session had ended.

According to Nemeth, the reason criticism leads to more new ideas is that it encourages us to fully engage with the work of others. We think about their concepts because we want to improve them; it’s the imperfection that leads us to really listen. (And isn’t that the point of a group:? If we’re not here to make one another better, then why are we here?)

And the echo I heard was from Aristotle’s “pot luck” feast in Book III of Politics:

There is this to be said for the many: each of them by himself may not be of a good quality; but when they all come together it is possible that they may surpass–collectively and as a body, although not individually–the quality of the few best, in much the same way that feasts to which many contribute may excel those provided at one person’s expense. For when there are many, each has his share of goodness and practical wisdom; and, when all meet together the people may thus become something like a single person, who, as he has many feet, many hands, and many senses, may also have many qualities of character and intelligence.

This “creature” of many feet, hands and senses gets to a qualitative assessment of how we come together over brainstorming or plussing or any effort at collective action. The trick is in designing an experience that not only seeks to have everyone contribute but seeks to have everyone contribute according to their strengths and unique perspective.

Write for Politicolor

If you believe political life has more potential than red vs. blue or even waving the red, white and blue, chances are that you have a story to share. Politicolor contributors believe we can breathe life back into our political community if we share the stories of what ordinary people are doing to make their corner of the world a better place and the ideas that have helped them believe it was possible. Or maybe even think it was imperative.

The Politicolor Pitch

The basic premise of Politicolor is that we can make it easier to see what active citizens do, how they push against opposition or the status quo and how they connect with allies, and that showing our work will improve the likelihood that our communities will overflow with good work.

At the very least, we will learn from one another and connect through the ups and downs of civic work.

My Pen by yaili,

My Pen by yaili,

The Details

We use the online writing platform, Medium, to write and share our work. It makes writing easy. It also makes it easy to collaborate with our editorial team. With those logistics covered, you can stay focused on the story you want to share.

If you have an idea for a story, take a look at our general call for submissions to make sure it aligns to one of our themes of civic storytelling. We accept these stories between the 1st and 10th day of every month.

We know it isn’t always easy to figure out how to write within those broad themes, so we’re posting monthly writing prompts. We accept stories responding to these questions between the 15th and 30th (or 31st) day of each month.

See? Really easy. We can’t wait to read your story.


Our Writing Prompts

February 2016: The Music is the Message

March 2016: Everyday Leaders (link added 2/15/16)

April 2016: Defending Civics in 272 Words (link added 3/15/16)



My Serial of Boxes (Pt. 3 of 3)

In the previous installment, I overcame my apprehension at introducing the politicolors, and began to share student responses to political theory.  At one time, I had been worried about the abstract nature of such an approach, yet here they were truly excited to use colored pencils in their notes and making connections of which I couldn’t have dreamed.

I usually turn up the heat on critical thinking skills once students hit sixth grade, but here the fourth and fifth were sweeping off my socks.  I also found that they were a bit more realist than I had been at that age.  This was saying something, in that our police resource officer always comments on our kids’ intelligence, yet inevitably adds that they are oh-so sheltered.

Maybe it had been our cool conversations on the state of nature, but the students saw plenty of disparity between the real world and American ideals.  Whether it be a news story or their own experiences in Detroit, the kids knew that the world wasn’t completely shiny and happy.  Delving further, we explored why they thought that was; if anything, what prevented the notion of Utopia?  Could government make people be better?

Somewhere in here, I suggested that the boxes might move.  Very quickly, A., my sole sixth-grader, realized that if the blue box grew outward, it would effect the red.  “The government would control the people,” he said.  “It would be a dictatorship.”  I offered up several bows.

Fifth-grader J. referenced an earlier conversation on perfection, born out of the wording of the Preamble.  J.’s attentive and he recalled the Aryans, commenting that pushing for a utopia can lead in the opposite direction.

C’mon, I told them.  Our blue box wants right.  We’re America.  (It didn’t come off so sarcastic.)  Couldn’t our government be trusted to mandate good behavior?  Debate ensued with no clear consensus.

Conversely, could the red box push as well?  Would it if the blue box began to grow too big for its britches?  What happened if the red box pushed back so totally that it obliterated the blue?  Didn’t Aristotle also warn of democracy run amok, of mob rule?  What was the consequence of no government?

The model proved itself remarkably effective.

In the end, the students understood quite well when I added the purple box.  The notion of limits had arrived, just before the tug of war ended with a crash.

The boxes also helped in another way.  One of the trickiest concepts to impart to the kids had been the differences between a constitution and a constitutional government.  Once they could contrast a purpleless system with a checked one, they easily got it: all governments had a make-up, but not all of them had a healthy one.  This allowed for a connected conversation to propaganda, including places on our maps with “Republic” in their name yet not in their nature.

Our unit’s culminating activity brought out another surprise: Legos!  Using a photo of James Madison’s temple at Montpelier,  we first discussed the importance of order and balance in architecture.  From week one, the kids had been tickled that the structure doubled as a refrigerator.  Now, we went beyond that still-important function to other aspects of the temple’s order, then on to its elegant balance.  Since we’ve been studying the middle ages in history, the students noted parallels with the great cathedrals as well as St. Anne’s , a  cruciform church we’d visited downtown.


We connected the temple with We the People‘s lesson on the contributions of the Romans to republican government.  Using the computer, we accessed photographs of Washington, DC, then discussed the great buildings as well as the city plan.

Finally, I dumped thousands of building blocks into the center of the room and offered only this direction: build a structure that is balanced and ordered and be prepared to explain how it is each.  Again, I’ve got to exclaim the merits of teaching middle school students.  Yeah, I’m spoiled by small class size (too small with the Michigan economy!), but middle years kids have a ton of energy and they are not so socially focused that they’ve lost their excitement for learning.  The colored pencils elicited ooos and ahhs, but the Legos–in more ways than one–raised the roof.

house1 windmill1 robot bike-factory yellow-pyramid factory

What impressed me is that many kids didn’t sacrifice creativity in the process of fulfilling the parameters.  Some of the creations had elaborate stories which added to their order, such as G.’s–a factory that ran on pizza grease while it created hats.  This activity goes beyond its initial success; it’s an investment in future We the People lessons.  We’ll come back to the ideas of balance and order, and the kids will feel invested as I relate ideas to their structures.

As I said in the beginning, for me, this material has to unfold as a story.  So, I’ll share with you that I’ve already got the climax of our tale.

For, after all of the students had gone, I created my own structure.  It’s a pyramid of Legos: one with the politicolors stepping upward.  Ready to emerge upon the given day–timed smartly with Unit 6, I hope–the seventh color.  From the structure’s center, with each of my student’s names inside.  Hokey?  Hell, I’m glad I can get away with it.  I’m incredibly lucky to teach kids that are yet open enough that this moment can affect them.  I’ll keep you posted as to my progress…

politipieces politipyramid lego-boxes

(I don’t believe there are purple Legos…  Is that because Denmark’s a constitutional monarchy?  ; )

The politicolors are another investment.  We’ll continue to reference them as we delve into the American Revolution, Shay’s Rebellion, and the Philadelphia Convention; the boxes are that powerful a model.  And, although I’m too restrained to declare them a resounding success, I’m damn giddy to see so much of my own excitement reflected in my students’ eyes and all-new thoughts hatching from their minds.

I’ve been fortunate to have dozens of my students return to our school’s annual picnic and remind me how much our little school has shaped them, how they hit the ground running.  I’ve felt vindicated for teaching toward the older students, offering what Will aptly terms a “surplus of knowledge”.  Now, though, I know that given the right structure, even fourth-graders can be mighty theorists; and these kids, they’re capable of flying.

As opposed to last year’s tact, the key lies far from the text.  In fact, the key is the key itself.  That is, creating a classroom open enough for plot twists to be interpreted, for new lines to be added to the script.

What I hope I’ve done is create a much more federalist classroom.  Whether through the construct of the National Academy or the concrete pillars of Madison’s temple, I’ve allowed myself to leave more space.  It’s not about locks on knowledge and thought; for, even elementary students can supply the mind to support (and lift!) the ceiling, if we allow them the will.

This year, that’s what I’ve so far learned.  To get there, I just had to get over the fear of trusting myself even more.

Thanks for sitting by the fire,


My Serial of Boxes (Pt. 2 of 3)

When last we met, I was explaining my dread, as I contemplated using Will’s boxes with my 4th-6th classroom.  Here was this rich, layered theory, which I still hadn’t mastered; yet, the politicolors had given dimension to the founding, I’d never before imagined.  Could I bring them to life?

It was understood that I had a looooong way to even near Will’s grasp.  After all, I’d still look back at photos of the concept maps and ponder the meanings of words written in the corners of the boxes or lines that could sometimes be dotted, and I’d wish for a National Academy 2.0.  However, I easily recalled Will’s self-effacing persona: one that was not just a style, but his genuine self.  He was always open with our crew, explaining that he was still discovering new meaning here, that our questions were important to the illumination.  And that was a comfort to me: that I didn’t need to know everything to open the pack of multi-colored Expos that would paint our white board.

A few lessons into the We the People curriculum, I had introduced the philosophers: Cicero, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and Madison.  Knowing they were a well-educated assembly of Framers, the students understood that the Constitution had not appeared out of thin air.  It helped that I teach across curricula: Cicero could be connected to math and the laws of physics, and Aristotle’s biology background could be easily referenced with our studies of classification.  I guess my grasp of Cicero is a bit weak, because the kids latched on to the “body politic” notion far more tightly than the music of the spheres.  Perhaps it was because we had been using the microscope that week, for they related well to the idea of citizens as cells and their functions as differentiation.  The students ran with one of the last Aristotelian nuggets I offered up: “One who is not in the polity, must be a beast or a god.”

One student alluded to the notion that no man is an island; while several realized that one would have to be almost extra-terrestrial to not need others, if not a “deranged, crazy guy”.

This provided a perfect segue to my next lessons on Thomas Hobbes.  For me, Hobbes had been the most difficult philosopher to access, yet ultimately the most rewarding.  For my Nat’cademy project, I’d even chosen one of his pages for my writing assignment.  I wanted so dearly for the students to know him for more than life as “nasty, brutish, and short”.  Indeed, they would have to, for Hobbes was represented by the red box.  The kids needed to understand the idea of what it meant to be a people.

As providence runs, we were heading into the last week of school before the holiday break.  Here was my chance to access Hobbes just as I had.  For in the July sun of Loyola Marymount, my unveiling of the red box: sprung from Will’s lectures, then rose with the provocation of  preceptor break-out sessions, only to finally land firmly in the sagacious realm of… Dr.Seuss.

Improbably, in the dead of summer, I found myself in Marina Del Rey purchasing a copy of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.


That night was to be another unveiling, Rowling’s last Harry Potter book, and Barnes & Noble was abuzz.  The sales clerk looked a bit sidelong at me as I slid the book across the counter.  I expected to hear some smart Alec response along the lines of really early gift shopping?!

But instead, she proceeded to tell me how her favorite tale hands-down was Horton Hears a Who.  (Another text with great connections to the boxes, I’ve just realized.)  I smiled and insisted I needed this one.  I wasn’t sure, but I had a feeling that they didn’t have a copy of it at the University’s library.

Fast forward a year and half, and across the country, to Michigan.  Well, once I’d finished reading the story to my students, they were out of their seats trying to identify the philosophy in it.  They saw Aristotle’s beast, with Whoville as a polity.  They explored the Whos as a people.  They connected the Grinch to Hobbes, as he was never really out of the community.  And, in a moment of sublime, one student linked the outsider to the homeless we’d seen in Detroit on a recent trip to St. Anne’s.

There have been many memories so far this year.  One can never prioritize them, but there is a fourth grade girl that’s just amazing me.  I’ll call her S. here.  The thing about S. is that she’s totally into this stuff, so much so that she goes home and writes poems about it.  And she’s got a great theoretical mind.  One of the most powerful examples to date came when we studied the early philosophers and their notions that there could be many successful ways in which to rule effectively.  I’m mostly referring to Arsitotle’s idea of the Good King, Aristocracy, or Democracy.  After contrasting each with its negative, S. just kind of blurted out, “Why not mix them?”

Yeah.  That’s what I’m talking about.

My other favorite S. moment to date came when she raised her hand and asked, “What do you think James Madison would think of this, if he were here?”

I smiled, then added, “I think he is.”

As the class cracked up, she inquired, “What, his ghost is here, like, sitting next to me or something?”

Waiting for the giggles to subside, I explained, “Not his ghost, his spirit.”

It was the perfect plant for my already envisioned denouement.  On the last day of Civics, I intend to conclude with the end of James Madison’s life.  It is said that upon his deathbed, Madison’s last words indicated that his passing was “nothing more than a change of mind.”

TOMORROW: Conclusions and Questions   notes-2

My Serial of Boxes (Pt. 1 of 3)

After a year to digest Will’s colors and boxes, I felt ready to use them with my class.

It wasn’t without apprehension.  Although I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and re-envisioning the National Academy (primarily through writing and this site), I want to approach mastery before revealing ideas.  I think that’s only natural with one’s classroom.  All good teachers admit their limitations, yet we don’t like to be wrong a whole lot, and that’s when working with facts.  Here I was, deciding to dive into theory.  And it looked like a glass of water down on the sidewalk from five-stories high.

The first decision I made was to re-prioritize.  I teach in a Montessori school, and, for those unfamiliar, text books aren’t the standard operating procedure.  I use one for science and another for my 7th/8th Algebra I students; and that’s it.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by the middle school We the People curriculum when offered a sample at the 2007 National Academy, and had gone on to use my class set in 07-08.

The mistake I made, though, was to teach from the text.  As a result, what had been always been riveting knowledge for me, and nothing short of revelatory in LA, was too stiff and rigid for my 4th-8th graders.  On top of that, even when I used a science book, it was ancillary.  Here, my passion for Civics was being suppressed by the need to cover every square inch of the print.  There was none of the feeling I’d experienced at the National Academy.  I mean, we moved, but there were way too many stumbles.

This year, I returned to my style and my strength.  I’m a storyteller, so that’s what We the People would be: a story.  No longer did I feel this self-imposed pressure to follow the curriculum verbatim and wait until Unit 3 to mention the Constitution.  In fact, I began with the Constitution.  After all, a plot needs its protagonist, right?

My second overarching concern was the boxes themselves.  For a long time in LA, as I worked to connect them to various philosophers and the readings, the meanings of each had confused me.  And here I was, considering imparting them to an even younger group than the year prior!  However, I did remember the moment in which the boxes had finally made sense; it was when Will suggested that they could move.

Armed with my point of access, as well as the open-mindedness my students had always shown, I took the leap.

It was after covering the philosophers that I pulled out a rainbow of dry erase markers.  Sure, the kids had seen them before.  I’m something of an artist, and Montessori encourages an attractive classroom; so I frequently embellish lectures and even corners of the white board.  But here, something was different.  The teacher was explaining that the colors would hold meaning.  A noticeable discomfort rippled through the group, and an inner giddiness began to flutter.  It’s not that I’m sadistic; rather, some of the greatest lessons arise from a wee bit of revolution.  The moment seemed pregnant with such possibility.  When I asked them to pull out their own colored pencils and match them with the corresponding markers, the hook was set.  Over the next several days, I watched my students rise and breech the waters of complacency to flutter through the otherworld sensation of air.

They were flying, and I couldn’t believe it.  Suddenly, theory wasn’t a cup below; we were together at sea-level, and some of the kids were actually taking leaps to defy gravity.

NEXT THURSDAY: Further Adventures with Long-Dead Philosophers.  Or Are They..?

A Federalist Education

Some many days ago, a good countryman you know by the name of Maximus asked a group assembled before him, “what would a Federalist school look like?” His question suffered a long period of silence as those in attendance considered what they knew of Federalism….

Founded on fundamental rights…

A new future imagined through the mechanics of science….

A perspective holistic in nature that looks at a question from all sides in all dimensions….

Sovereignty remains with the people who will make a new and better whole from the sum of its constituent parts….

The good Maximus’s puzzle had no easy solution for the scholars to bandy about that day. Then I remembered wise counsel of a scholar long past. His own words were not my good fortune to know myself but had been translated by Walter Isaacson in his book, Einstein: His Life and Universe.

Two particular thoughts spoke to me when considering Maximus’s question…

“The explanation Einstein himself most often gave for his mental accomplishments was his curiosity. As he put it near the end of his life, ‘I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.’…Curiosity, in Einstein’s case, came not just from a desire to question the mysterious. More important, it came from a childlike sense of marvel that propelled him to question the familiar, those concepts that, as he once said, ‘the ordinary adult never bothers his head about.'”

This curiosity fulfills two of our Federalist requirements. A new reality is imagined through this curiosity and comes into better focus as he tested it with his understanding of scientific understandings. Such an exercise includes looking at the problem from all sides as he questions the familiar.

Do our schools fuel this kind of curiosity? What do teachers do when students question these well-known facts as Einstein suggests? Einstein had ideas about the principles that should guide such an enterprise…

“There was a simple set of formulas that defined Einstein’s outlook. Creativity required being willing not to conform. That required nurturing free minds and free spirits, which in turn required ‘a spirit of tolerance.’ And the underpinning of tolerance was humility–the belief that no one had the right to impose ideas and beliefs on others.’

These formulas provide a set of fundamental rights and express a commitment to the free minds and free spirits of the people. Einstein’s philosophy fulfills the Federalist requirements. We have made progress in our discussion but we haven’t yet discussed what this might look like for our young scholars in today’s schools.

The first Federalist classroom moment that comes to mind involved Thinking Maps, a series of graphic organizers presented to students to build a shared visual vocabulary. While I grumbled about the totalitarian implementation of this system, I could not have imagined what happened once we shared these particular fundamentals as a common language. Students did not see themselves bound to the seven styles originally presented to them. They created their own. They followed the information they wanted to organize to combine elements of the seven original maps or added features of their own invention. The Thinking Maps took on a life of their own. Students were thinking about their thinking, the relationships between the ideas, and how the whole text or concept worked together.

From this example, I would suggest a Federalist education would begin with a primary education focused on building these shared understandings of words, concepts, and guiding principles. At some point, however, the system would have to back away to give the student the opportunity to follow his or her own curiosity and to imagine new combinations of ideas and understandings.

And here we come to my final thought for this evening on the question of what a Federalist school might look like. A Federalist school would provide repeated opportunities for the student to drive.

Federalist Thinking: Karl Iagnemma

As I returned to my too real world, I clicked through my Tivo playlist over breakfast this morning and found Karl Iagnemma on an episode of NOVA Science Now. One of the country’s top scientific inventors and an award winning author, Karl is presented as a man at work in two very different worlds.

Picture a fiction writer and you’re likely to imagine a creative and erratic spirit. Picture a scientist and you see a methodical and analytical thinker. What does it look like when these two worlds work together in the life of Karl Iagnemma and what does this have to do with federalist thinking?

It’s all about the similarities of these not so separate worlds. That imagination fuels the writing process is no surprise. We don’t often think of science, however, as a creative endeavor.

In the 10-minute clip, Karl reveals he approaches each exercise in writing and/or inventing as structured creativity. While leading the team creating robots to explore the surface of Mars, he fills his blank page with proven algorithms and laws of physics. The team’s job is to combine what they know to provide for a reality on the surface of Mars they can only imagine. With so many answers at their fingertips, Karl’s team can never be sure they know what happens next.

In responding to a question about his interest in scientific failures, Karl weaves together creativity, science, conflict and crisis:

I think the heart of all fiction, or almost all fiction, is conflict. As fiction writers, we look for things that aren’t going quite right. It’s Tolstoy’s line about happy families, you know? You can apply that to research. Failed research is what’s interesting.

When you fail at something it often forces you to question your own beliefs, what you thought to be true, and in extreme cases, to question who you think you are. And that makes for interesting fiction. An idea about a scientist in crisis is often the spark for me, and that spark tends to illuminate the story or the novel.

Add this analysis of conflict in fiction to Thoma’s Kuhn’s understanding of crisis in science and you’ll see a Federalist perspective at work. Through structured creativity, Karl Iagnemma is filling the blank pages of his next story and inventing the tools we’ll use to see further into the universe…without ever knowing how the story ends.