Personal Reflections on Creativity by “Torrance Kids”

March 10, 2011
Christine Dahl, Caroline Dunn, Cathy Gorlin, David Kwiat, Diana Postlethwaite, Ted Schwarzrock and Jim Young

The “Torrance kids” are students who took part in the Torrance Longitudinal Study of Creative Behavior in the late 1950s and early 1960s in two elementary schools in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Dr. E. Paul Torrance, of the University of Minnesota, developed the Minnesota Tests of Creative Thinking and emphasized creative teaching. Torrance chose to study creativity in response to the post-Sputnik era; his intent was to identify talented Americans to help the United States compete scientifically with Russia.

To validate the creativity tests, Torrance initiated a longitudinal study. Today, more than 50 years later, the Torrance kids are still studied to determine how they are actualizing their creative potential. Garnet Millar, an Alberta educator and school psychologist, continues Torrance’s longitudinal study and is the lead researcher. The following personal reflections of some of the Torrance kids were written especially for this issue of the ATA Magazine.

CHRISTINE DAHL

At the University of Minnesota lab schools, which I attended from 1956 to 1968, our teachers worked at becoming better teachers and helping us become smarter students. Teachers created a safe and nurturing atmosphere where learning was great.

At the beginning of Grade 6, our teacher said that by year’s end we’d be teaching ourselves. No one believed him, but that’s exactly what happened. That spring, each student gave a 20-minute oral report—the culmination of weeks of work guided by our teacher. I delivered my talk on the history of jazz.

Grade 6 also marked my first solo piano recital. I had been studying piano since Grade 2 with a piano professor at the university. My parents supported this extracurricular activity, relieved (perhaps) that I’d stopped begging for accordion, baton twirling, singing and tap-dancing lessons. Thus began my lifelong journey in music.

I received many important messages from my parents, both of whom were physicians. They believed in the power of education, both inside and outside school. They emphasized that anything worth doing was worth doing well. Our home was full of books, magazines, records and sports equipment. But it was my grandparents who modelled creative activities. Both grandmothers were retired teachers and creative in their own right. I was surrounded by lively and protective adults who gave me permission to become myself.

I had always known I’d be a teacher, and I resolved to study piano. In graduate school, I immersed myself in music, fell in love with chamber music and accompanying, and won the school’s concerto competition. I taught at Macalester College, in St. Paul, Minnesota, played in the Sylmar Chamber Ensemble and participated in the artists-in-residence program at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I also worked for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, where I wrote program annotations and edited the program magazine for 27 years. Using words to create vivid images of sound has always challenged my imagination and fuelled my interest in music.

Although creativity in my career has a music focus, being creative has permeated many aspects of my life. If nothing else, it has made me appreciate the value of creative activities. My house is full of art, folk pottery and other handmade items. I love going to craft shows, plays and concerts.

I challenge my students to think deeply about what they are doing. I assign projects that require new skills and/or knowledge, such as composing music about animals, sports or emotions, or finding different ways to shape a given phrase with dynamics. At my students’ recitals, prizes are given not to performers but to listeners for creative descriptions of what they heard.

Every time I teach, I feel the responsibility and opportunity of the job. Along with parents, teachers are the gardeners tending society’s new life. The best of them stimulate growth and cultivate resiliency. This means teaching the process of learning—knowledge with a purpose—and asking students to stretch their minds. A big part of that is making each student feel loved, respected, valued and safe. Not a day goes by when I’m not thankful for the excellent teachers in my past. My legacy is to do the same for others.

CAROLINE DUNN

University Elementary School, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, had many positive attributes that I wish for in all schools. My school was small—only one classroom of no more than 25 students per grade (Grades 1–6). When student teachers were added, the student/teacher ratio was even lower. Although the student population remained constant, the lead teachers changed every few years as they completed their postgraduate work. This resulted in a regular infusion of new teaching styles. I remember student work displayed on the walls of each classroom—drawings, maps, charts and writing samples.

My parents knew the best gift they could give their four daughters was an education. Education could never be usurped or stolen. Education is portable wealth. They facilitated our education through financial support and participation. Our parents ensured that we had enriching experiences, such as music lessons, exposure to performing and visual arts, and visits to museums.

I currently work in a public library. I love being in an environment where I show that literacy is at the core of learning and expand patrons’ curiosity about the world around them.

CATHY GORLIN

Dr. Torrance and his Manifesto for Children influenced me professionally and personally.

The elementary and high school teachers that I remember most encouraged me to take pride in my strengths and to develop and enjoy them. I had teachers and mentors who encouraged me to go for it. In elementary school, the individualized attention I received from teachers who praised what I did well encouraged me to do what I love and can do well.

My elementary teachers liked me and cared about me. This empowered me to have the confidence to perform in a Grade 3 play, to be elected president of my Grade 6 class and to become editor of my high school newspaper. Similarly, as an adult, my mentors made me feel good about what I did and encouraged me to take a leadership role in whatever organization I joined. I am fortunate to have had great teachers and mentors who helped me become a successful attorney and parent.

DAVID KWIAT

I have been a teacher/director in a BFA acting conservatory program for the past 22 years. My exploration of creativity and building craft with young theatre artists is a daily endeavour. I have been fortunate to live in a vibrant environment of self-discovery and growth. Every day, I empower students to develop problem-solving skills, and to take risks and responsibility. My philosophy of change and transformation for young actors is straightforward—I don’t want to change who they are, I want to change who they are capable of becoming.

A full spectrum of possibilities lies within each of us, and our duty as teachers and performers is to be open to these possibilities through constantly replenished inspiration, as well as through the process and rigour of a practised and honed craft.

As a teacher, director and performer, I reinforce the basics. Actor training has become increasingly sophisticated, ensuring that the multitudes of aspiring actors need theatre practitioners. The training that merits consideration is a process that leads to unadorned simplicity. Acting is a craft. As a role model for young actors, it is my intention to reinforce by example the bountiful rewards that can be reaped through discipline and joy for the work. My trajectory as a creative person was mandated by my Grade 4 teacher, Mr. R. E. Myers. To this day, I correspond with him. He inspired me, believed in me and gave me the courage and energy to do the same for the young people that I teach.

DIANA POSTLETHWAITE

What I have loved most in this world is language, both as a writer and a reader. I can’t remember a time when I did not dream of becoming an English teacher and encouraging people to love language. And for 35 years (since completing my PhD in l975), that’s exactly what I’ve done. I am currently a professor of English at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

I want to devote this brief reflection on creativity to three memorable English teachers—women who brought language to life for me and planted seeds that still bloom in this Torrance kid at age 60. 

They aren’t famous professors from my Ivy League undergraduate university or graduate schools. I never had any teachers at those places as influential as Mrs. Swenson (Grade 5), Miss Booth (Grade 9) and Mrs. Iseminger (Grade 10). What I remember learning most from them had nothing to do with the required reading and writing that made up so much of the required public school curriculum.   

In Mrs. Swenson’s class, we wrote poetry. It seemed we were always writing poems—whenever we wanted, on any subject and in whatever shapes we wanted. In Grade 9, Miss Booth revealed to a few of us that her secret passion was poetry. We kindred spirits met with her once a week after school for an unofficial poetry club, where we brought our favourite poems and read them aloud. Tenth grade brought me to Mrs. Iseminger, who got me hooked on her favourite poet, Emily Dickinson. Dickinson became indispensable to me, not in English class, but in tedious chemistry, where I entertained myself by reciting in my head all the Dickinson poems I had memorized.

I didn’t grow up to be a poet, but from Mrs. Swenson, Miss Booth and Mrs. Iseminger I received three rich, immutable and lifelong gifts of poetry: I could make it, I could share it and I could take it with me wherever I went. 

TED SCHWARZROCK

When I was in elementary school, I realized that part of my brain worked differently from most other people’s. However, the understanding that this was a positive, constructive, powerful and useful tool only crystallized much later in my life. 

Important to my understanding of creativity was Paul Torrance’s work. When I was young, my parents emphasized the virtue of hard work. No one told me I was creative. Torrance’s work showed me that it’s okay to be creative and to think deeply. His work reinforced the idea that seeing things differently was good. Our strength is in the differences we bring to a collective effort, not so much in our similarities.

One of the most important ways that this awareness has affected how I live my life has been in the relationships we have with our children. Encouraging them to be themselves based on Torrance’s Manifesto for Children has been a solid and significant plank in our parenting platform. It made a wonderful difference for our children. This helped us guide them toward working out who they were and encouraging them to be great at it.

A payoff of my education and being creative is that I’ve found solutions to business problems when others were struggling. (I am the CEO of a medical-products company in the healthcare sector in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area.) After I realized that my head was wired a bit differently than most people’s, I was able to harness my creativity in a more productive, smoother and more effective manner.

I believe that every creatively gifted child has moments when he realizes that inside his head he is different from others. He may not know exactly how or why, but at some time he becomes aware of this fact. What happens next can be critically important in that child’s life. More than any other group, teachers have it within their power to nurture a student’s creativity. Many of my teachers in elementary school were gifted. I was blessed to have had them. They made room for ideas and different perspectives. It was a luxurious and fruitful learning environment. 

JIM YOUNG

Creativity and curiosity are closely linked in my experience, and I was lucky to have elementary school teachers who encouraged these traits and helped me discover how to use them for practical purposes. With this in mind, I have to note that the study of American and international history in the upper elementary grades set me on the path to working on American foreign policy for a career.

Because my parents owned a small restaurant, I didn't see them much; I was a latchkey kid, and that, combined with certain health problems, meant that I wound up reading a great deal. Inevitably, I wrote fiction, and in the fullness of time, writing became my job (previously, I was a civil servant with the American government). I’ve had two novels and several short stories published, and I’ve just completed the second of a three-novel series of what I describe as “visionary adventure.”

The downside is that I have no leisure activities anymore because I’ve transformed them into work. But that seems like a natural end toward which creativity leads us.