When you think of the creative process – a learning process – you may think that the person involved needs to be inspired by something and that they are constantly coming up with creative original material.  But that is not always the case, nor should it be.  In fact, I am a firm believer that, as you begin or continue your own process in creation, you may start with or find need for imitation.  To some, imitation is necessary, to others, it can help them through a tough patch.  Sure, there are those who can skip it altogether, but it’s important NOT to devalue imitation and modeling for those who need it.

What is imitation?  It’s  not simply copying.  It’s not copying someone’s paper to get the right answers on a test.  It’s deeper than that.  Imitation happens when someone sees something that inspires them, inspires them enough to want to do something just as great.  (And imitation IS flattery!)

I remember when I was taking my first (and only) post-high school art course.  I had some of my own ideas, but I also liked walking around and observing what others were doing.  I’d see my buddy Steve using some technique with paint and a butter knife, or my friend Cathy putting colors together I’d never tried, or my girl, Erin swirling cray-pas like nobody’s business.  And I’d rush back to my spot and try something new, making it my own.  (Yes those are real people who did really inspire me! 🙂 )  And what was happening to me?  I was growing as an artist, as a learner.

I see this with my students.  They NEED to imitate others sometime.  It’s a good thing.  And when that smartie girl gets frustrated because one of the boys was copying her, we have a chat to discuss what’s really going on: he saw something she did that was cool and he wanted to try it out.  Just the other day one boy was working to design his small poster depicting the different types of sentences and he saw a girl doing it a certain way.  He took the girl’s idea, but made it his own.  The girl was using the varying end marks for declarative, interrogative, imperative and exclamatory sentences in her boarder designs.  He took the idea of end marks and started to create small logos using them for his own poster.  It was a perfectly legitimate way to imitate in an appropriate manner.

Some teachers encourage a type of imitation through modeling.  For example, teachers write a sentence and then the students do their own, teachers write a poem and then the students, teachers create a project followed by the students.  Teachers should model, as long as students are given more than one opportunity to try out the procedure.  Here’s what I mean.  Take writing sentences: teachers need to model this process, but as time goes on, they slowly release the responsibility to the students, and students create sentences (and paragraphs and essays) all on their own.

In the beginning of the process, students may need to imitate exactly what the teacher has.  I think that’s ok – as long as students are then given the chance to try things out over and over again, eventually creating their own work.  When a colleague was teaching me how to create a cartoon character, I needed to copy the eyes she made on hers.  For whatever reason, I just couldn’t think of any other way to draw them in the face.  I made my own nose and ears, but the eyes, I just couldn’t figure out.  The thing is, after that when I made my next character, I experimented with different eyes.

Again, I’m going to go back to writing as an example in the classroom.  As I matured as a student and was expected to do more and more writing, I always asked my parents to look over my work.  In high school, and even in college, both my mom and dad would read over my papers.  My mom was great for editing conventions and my dad was great for fine tuning content.  They took this job seriously.  I would get papers back from them all marked up and full of suggestions.  Many of the wording suggestions my dad would write in, I’d take, sometimes word for word.  I’d always feel kind of devious about that.  After all, I was kind of using someone else’s words to enrich a sentence or flush out a paragraph.  But in hindsight, I realize that’s was what I needed to become a better writer.  Slowly, the need for me to ask them for assistance died down and when I did, I often challenged some of the things my dad would put in, explaining to myself or to him, that I meant something different.  I was learning.  I was growing.  (And that was when I was in my early 20s!)

Now, I’m at a point where I feel confident enough in my writing to look it over myself and ask for another set of eyes only from time to time when something of importance is going out to parents or to the state ed departments.  My growth in writing was directly affected by my level of imitation.

Imitation is an important part of the process.  We need to make sure we do not devalue it or cut it short.  We need to be aware of the role imitation plays in the process so that it can positively affect our own journeys and that of our students.