National Writing Project

Conformity Meets Creativity

By: Kathy Woods
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 7, No. 3
Date: May-June 2002

Summary: Junior high students can be tough to teach, but Kathy Woods shows how writing can break down their defensiveness and reveal a different side.


Conformity motivated every move. Acceptance to an eighth grade girl in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1985 meant shoulder-length bobbed hair topped by bangs teased to attention for hours in front of the mirror with a can of hair spray. Melanie epitomized the girls' quest for popularity. From her lovely mouth issued the most hateful comments, about Monica or Todd or Kimberly—whoever was out of the room at the moment. Framed by the requisite bob, her face was a mask of harshness, eyes artfully painted and redone at lunch in the bathroom, only to roll the more swiftly when called upon to answer a question. Teachers were a mere nuisance to be tolerated in their interference with the real business of making friends and eliminating the competition in her climb to the top of the clique. The conforming boys could be friendlier, but their chosen dress code was strict: polo shirts neatly tucked into khaki pants or narrow jeans, and short, neat hair.

To an idealistic student teacher, the sameness was disheartening, and I was intimidated by these eighth-graders. Still, I loved every minute in the classroom with "my" students (their rolling eyes and all), fulfilled with the assurance of having arrived home after a tiring trip. Although I never wavered in my sincerity, in my passion for literature, in my desire to teach, I felt alienated from these adolescents whose sneers had replaced innocent childhood smiles, whose apathy squelched the natural eagerness to learn and express. I, an outsider, taught them and was appalled by their cliquishness, their frequent changes of friends, their cruel offhand remarks characterized by "Can you believe that outfit Tiffany's wearing?" or, facing their assigned group of three classmates, "Why do I have to be in a group with nobody?"

One afternoon, we began a unit of study in collaboration with the science department. The topic was conservation. In our language arts class, we read stories about animals and their struggle for survival and began the process of creative writing. Each teenager was to write a story about an animal. I observed the skill and enthusiasm of my mentor-teacher as she smiled in her guidance of the adolescents. I did not understand. She made suggestions while they did as asked and wrote down their ideas on the short story plan sheet. After many steps, the stories were finished and turned in to me to be evaluated.

Sitting at my table on the periphery of the classroom, I read their final products in amazement. One story after another revealed the sweet innocence of its author. My mouth hanging open, I read my nemesis Melanie's piece about a bunny who had to find a new home for her family. With Melanie's cuddly protagonist in my heart, I glanced up at a class transformed to children I could reach.

Never again have I been fooled by a facade of indifference, conformity, or apathy worn by teenagers like proud warriors' shields. Every teenager is at heart a young child yearning for acceptance, love, and self-expression. My understanding extends to students a peace treaty. Evoking creativity continues the truce, and we learn together—I, ignoring the adolescent defense mechanisms that intimidated me 16 years ago; they, welcoming the comfort and fulfillment of expressing themselves while learning, through stories, essays, class discussion, and informal sharing.

I offer this peace treaty every day I teach, with smiles, acceptance, and activities requiring students to look into their hearts. In a thematic literature unit on identity, students begin by defining identity and individuality. They discuss conformity and its benefits and price. We read a story called "Fan Club," about a girl ostracized by her class because of her dumpy clothes and unfashionable address. In their discussion, students allow themselves to reveal their compassion, having quickly recognized that their toughness is ineffective with me.

The styles have changed. I've been confronted by conforming teenagers with baggy pants that must be held up as they walk, with eyes watering from the heavy rim of black eyeliner, with gelled spiky hair, and green hair and purple hair. Sometimes the goal is conformity, as it was with Melanie, sometimes individual expression, yet the outer shell intimidates the uninitiated. On the first day of school when I encounter the "don't try to move me" insolence of a modern Melanie, I smile, and ask students to define courage, to share their most courageous experience. And they do—they've been waiting for the chance.

About the Author Kathy Woods is a teacher-consultant with the Oklahoma Writing Project and teaches at Norman High School North in Norman, Oklahoma. In 2001, she was nominated for the Disney American Teacher Awards and wrote this piece as part of the application, which focused on creativity.

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