‘In dreams begin possibilities’

‘In dreams begin possibilities’

Creativity guru challenges students at Schechter to tackle the hard stuff

Michael Sturtz leads a workshop on creativity for middle school students at Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford.
Michael Sturtz leads a workshop on creativity for middle school students at Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford.

Michael Sturtz wants you to reclaim your dreams.

Mr. Sturtz, who lives in California, has worked as a designer for Google’s innovation lab. He has brought fire to the normally staid and safe world of the opera. And he has launched and led a school that teaches “industrial arts” like blacksmithing and glass-blowing to teens and adults.

He also leads workshops on creativity.

In that latter capacity, he came to New Milford last week, leading a workshop on creativity for the middle school students at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County.

“He’s a wonderful inspiration,” Dr. Ruth Gafni, Schechter’s head of school, said.

“As a kid who suffered from dyslexia and poor eye-hand coordination, he was told he would not amount to much,” she said. He was a disappointment to his father, an orthopedic surgeon who wanted Michael to follow in his footsteps. “Yet he became successful in pushing the envelope in everything,” Ms. Gafni said.

Student reactions vary to creations made from cardboard, string, and household supplies.

“Anything that people said is impossible, he was able to construct and make it possible.”

Perhaps the clearest example, which Mr. Sturtz explained at a TEDx talk in Stanford that is on his website, is how he convinced firefighters and fire marshals to allow him to bring fire to the California opera stage. He turned their immediate nos into yesses — because everything is possible.

Mr. Sturtz’s workshop started by asking for the impossible. He asked the Schechter students to write down an idea for an impossible invention.

Once they had written down their dreams of flying and teleportation and the like, he asked them to pass their idea to another student.

And then, he challenged all the students to quickly come up with a way to implement someone else’s dream, using cardboard and string and other household supplies.

“The kids did an amazing job doing just that,” Dr. Gafni said.

“There were beautiful designs of structures that could turn into something else. There were clouds that were controlling the weather. One child wanted to be able to fly and transport from one place to another, so they prototyped a device that would be shot out like a rocket.

“Another dream was to cure eating disorders without going to therapy. A person created a belt that was to be worn by someone suffering from anything like that, with reminders to drink and options to have a liquid drink taken in. It looked like a handyman’s belt with nutrients and a watch.

“They thought of different amazing things. Everything that started out as a dream became possible.”

The students asked Mr. Sturtz how he decided to do his own thing.

He spoke about listing to your inner voice. “You have to be true to your passion and gift,” Dr. Gafni quoted him as saying.

In his TEDx talk for adults, he added an additional level: The tendency of adults to have lost their faith in dreams and in the power to imagine the impossible.

He explained the importance of the two-step process, by which participants in his workshop are asked to implement someone else’s dream. That frees them from the negative inner voice.

This was backed up by a study by professors Evan Polman and Kyle Emich, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2011, showing that “decisions for others are more creative than decisions for the self.”

But Mr. Sturtz said that even adults can learn to dream again, to resist the voice that tells them that their dreams are impossible.

Dr. Gafni said that she brought Mr. Sturtz to Schechter “to share with the students another model of being, where one is charting their own path, that may not be the path of one school leading to another into a certain set profession that has one word that describes it such as doctor or lawyer or teacher or accountant.” She wanted the students to consider that they “could pursue a career in the creative arts with the benefits of being able to follow your dreams. If you do something you love and are passionate about, you will be happier in your life.”

The students “heard it and were inspired,” she said.

The students asked Mr. Sturtz about failures.

“He talked about the internal voice you have that will question whether you can do something,” Andrew Katz, Schechter’s director of academic affairs, said. “Particularly after a failure, you have to fight through it and get back up onto the horse again.”

Mr. Katz said Mr. Sturtz’s visit fit in well with the innovation lab the school built over the summer, which gives students an opportunity for hands-on creativity through electronics, 3D printing, robotics, and laser cutting.

“We heard that kids told their parents that it was the best day they had in school,” Mr. Katz said of Mr. Sturtz’s presentation. “We’re teaching them to think in different ways.

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