Creating a Twenty-First Century Mind: The Use of Story to Spark Creativity in Charles Baxter’s “Gryphon”

Kyra Sawyer

Final Paper

American Short Story

Dr. MacDiarmid

8 May 2013

Creating a Twenty-First Century Mind: The Use of Story to Spark Creativity in Charles Baxter’s “Gryphon”


The field of education is constantly evolving; recreating itself to match the learning needs of the most current student. Over time, learning styles, teaching strategies, instructional techniques, and academic standards all change. Changes in teacher pedagogy then force teachers to re-evaluate both themselves, and their lessons. However, across time one thing has not changed, and is more important now than ever before: the need for creativity in the classroom. Teachers must facilitate creative exploration-based learning opportunities for students in order for them to develop a “21st century mind;” meaning, cultivate creative, inventive, and critical thinking skills. As society enters the 21st century, classrooms have become more technologically based in order to meet this dire need. However, in previous times, classrooms have been severely lacking in their creativity. Charles Baxter calls this problem to attention in his short story “Gryphon,” and does so in a clever and creative way – through the characterization of an eccentric substitute teacher. Baxter uses the stories of this substitute teacher, Miss Ferenczi, to strike wonder within the students, transforming them from mere sponges into inquisitive, active participants in their classroom. Baxter’s “Gryphon” satirizes the American education system through the use of Miss Ferenczi’s hyperbolic teaching methods, pointing out the ineffectiveness of rote learning to emphasize the need for meaningful, creative, learning opportunities in the classroom.

Readers begin the story and are introduced to Five Oaks Elementary, a quaint elementary school located in Five Oaks, Michigan (Turrentine). This is where our narrator, Tommy, attends school under the instruction of Mr. Hibler. When Mr. Hibler falls ill one day, he is replaced with a substitute, Miss Ferenczi. Baxter uses the character of substitute teacher, Miss Ferenczi, to show students’ need for more creativity in the classroom, as seen by their immediate attention to Miss Ferenzci’s peculiar teachings. Upon Miss Ferenczi’s arrival, the children are fascinated by her initial appearance. Tommy provides readers with some insight into Miss Ferenczi, “‘You may stare at me,’ she said to us, as a few more kids from the last bus came into the room, their eyes fixed on her, ‘for a few more seconds, until the bell rings. Then I will permit no more staring. Looking I will permit. Staring, no.’” (Baxter, “Gryphon” 593). Tommy states that when he first sees Miss Ferenczi, he is reminded of Pinocchio because of the caricature-like lines on her face (Baxter, “Gryphon” 593). Readers must remember that Pinocchio is two things: one, a puppet who wants nothing more but to be a “real boy,” and two, he is a liar. In this instance, Pinocchio becomes a representation of Miss Ferenczi’s “supernatural” nature, seen later in her teaching methods (Baxter, “Charles Baxter Answers Questions About ‘Gryphon’”).

Miss Ferenczi’s supernatural eccentricities are primarily displayed through her teaching. She forgoes Mr. Hibler’s substitute plans and instead begins telling the children a story of her Hungarian prince grandfather and her “royal” lineage. She then follows with a spell of how diamonds are magical, and that Beethoven faked his deafness in order to get extra attention in regards to his musical talents. Miss Ferenczi later states that angels live in and under the clouds surrounding the planet Venus, and introduces the children to the “substitute fact” that “six times eleven equals sixty-eight” (Baxter, “Gryphon”593; Turrentine). At this point in time a student is brave enough to raise their hand in question of Miss Ferenczi’s statement, knowing that six times eleven equals sixty-six, not sixth-eight. Miss Ferenczi states, “When your teacher, Mr. Hibler, returns, six times eleven will be sixty-eight again, you can rest assured. And it will be for the rest of your lives in Five Oaks,” (Baxter, “Gryphon” 595). To top off the day, Miss Ferenczi brings in tarot cards, and begins telling students’ fortunes (Baxter, “Gryphon” 601-602). This act is the deciding factor regarding Miss Ferenczi’s substitute position, and she is asked to leave the building immediately after one of the students bring the tarot cards to the principal, Mr. Faegre’s, attention. Nevertheless, although Miss Ferenczi’s teaching topics and methods are odd, the students are deeply interested in what she has to tell them, and are incredibly attentive.

Additionally, Baxter uses satirical exaggeration to form the character of Miss Ferenczi, showing that students take interest in her absurd, creative teaching, more so than they do the traditional topics and rote methods of their original teacher, Mr. Hibler. Satirical exaggeration is a technique that enlarges, increases, or represents something beyond normal bounds so that it becomes ridiculous and its faults can be seen. Miss Ferenczi’s teaching is exaggerated due to the nature of her content – she does not follow Mr. Hibler’s content guidelines, and instead discusses whatever subject matter she sees fit, or stretches the lesson plan’s topic absurdly. The students attentively respond to Miss Ferenczi’s tall tales as shown when Tommy tells readers, “There was not a sound in the classroom, except for Miss Ferenczi’s voice, and Donna DeShano’s coughing. No one even went to the bathroom, (Baxter, “Gryphon” 599). Miss Ferenczi’s most prominent teaching technique that is typically overlooked is how she uses the art of story telling. Miss Ferenczi may in fact stray from the “typical” lesson; however, she uses her stories to teach applicable concepts in a more creative way. For example, she decides to discuss the idea of pyramids with a tall tale of an adventure she once took in Cairo, Egypt. She tells students of the riches pyramids hold for their dead owner, how Egyptians are great explorers, the greatest Egyptian that ever lived was Genghis Khan, and her encounter with a Gryphon (Baxter, “Gryphon” 597). While Miss Ferenczi’s story, when looked at in its entirety, may be falsified, the concepts she discusses within the tale are not. The students are so excited about Miss Ferenczi’s teachings that Tommy tries to tell his mother about what he’s learned from Miss Ferenczi when he gets home from school on her first day as substitute teacher. However, his mother unexcitedly reminds him he has chores to do, rather than listening to his exciting tales from class (Baxter, “Gryphon” 599). Even if Tommy’s mother will not hear about his fantastical day at school, readers cannot deny the fact that Tommy comes home from school exhilarated about the knowledge he’s encountered, and eager to discover more.

Unfortunately, Miss Ferenczi’s teachings do not have the opportunity to capture the students for long, as she is eventually asked to leave Five Oaks Elementary. The students, and especially Tommy, are very upset when Wayne Kryzanowicz goes to Mr. Faegre to tell him about what Miss Ferenczi has been doing in their classroom. The students, while out at recess, see Miss Ferenczi drive out of the parking lot. Just as Miss Ferenczi drives away, Wayne comes out to the playground and shares with everyone how he told on Miss Ferenczi. Tommy is instantly infuriated, begins shouting at Wayne, and the boys start punching each other. Each child gets about two punches into one another until Mr. Faegre separates them (Baxter, “Gryphon” 603).  Now without a substitute, the children were combined with another teacher’s class, and spent the remainder of their afternoon learning the characteristics of insects, where:

On lined white pieces of paper we made lists of insects we might actually see, then a list of insects too small to be clearly visible, such as fleas; Mrs. Mantei said that our assignment would be to memorize these lists for the next day, when Mr. Hibler would return and certainly test us on our knowledge. (Baxter, “Gryphon” 603)

In the aforementioned classroom setting, students are told to list and memorize factual information, in order to re-produce the information when tested by Mr. Hibler. However, due to the students’ clingy and uninterrupted focus on Miss Ferenczi’s teachings, it is clear that the students’ magnetism to her eccentricities exposes their need for creativity and meaningful learning experiences in the classroom.

While it has been some time since Charles Baxter himself sat in a fourth grade classroom, as he is currently sixty-five years old, and “Gryphon” was published in 1985, his story still draws attention to an ever-occurring issue in classrooms nation wide: a lack of creativity in learning. Thankfully, the American education system is moving beyond rote learning and engaging in 21st century skills and practices, designing classrooms where more creative and meaningful learning takes place. As a secondary English education major, I have taken a variety of courses that study contemporary pedagogies in courses such as Instructional Technology, The Comprehensive High School, and many others, all of which discuss the ideas of how to best construct a 21st century classroom and facilitate meaningful learning experiences.

When designing a 21st century classroom, a teacher must initially stop and ask him/her self how he or she is going to inspire the students that walk through the door come September. As mentioned earlier, many teachers overlook the power of stories, when in fact stories can be a teacher’s most useful teaching tool. Stories – regardless of the content area – initiate the imagination of students. It is in the spark of imagination that creativity blooms, and teaching in a technologically proficient 21st century classroom allows this creativity to grow into fruition for each and every child in the classroom. In a 21st century classroom, every child has the opportunity and ability to alter their educations, to make them their very own, because through technology, one’s access to knowledge is essentially infinite.

In regards to what a 21st century classroom should “look” like, many forms can be taken. A teacher laptop and productivity tools are a must, which also accompanies a modern presentation device or collaborative learning system. The hot commodities in presentation devices currently are interactive whiteboards, most prominently produced by SMART technologies or StarBoard. Many schools across the country are replacing their chalk and dry-erase boards with these interactive board tools that function both as a board and a projector. While these are not in every classroom, learner response devices are also a popular 21st century teaching tool. They come in a “clicker” form and students can respond to quiz or checks for understanding questions and both teachers and students can see anonymous results immediately (the system tracks correct and incorrect responses instantaneously). Other products schools tend to have available for use are video cameras, digital cameras, document cameras, and printers. More modernized schools are beginning to shift to one-to-one student-laptop ratios, providing each student with a school-owned laptop on which to work. These laptops come fully loaded with course-specific software programs and Wi-Fi to access a virtual learning environment, such as Moodle, EdLine, or Edmodo (“SETDA”).

As a result of having 21st century classroom tools, teachers can initiate more creative and meaningful learning opportunities for students of varying abilities, as now recommended by educational standards.  In fact, creativity is beginning to be included in Common Core State Standards, as seen in Florida, where they state that one of the learning outcomes of all schools for all ages was, “to provide students opportunities ‘to learn and apply strategies for creative thinking’” (Shaheen 2). In Asian countries, America’s number one competitor in innovative thinking, they have aligned themselves with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (referred to “UNESCO”) to implement the following education guidelines. According to these guidelines, students must be taught, “learning how to learn, learning how to do, learning how to work together, [and] learning how to be” (Shaheen 3). Also, UNESCO states, “The following characteristics must be produced in people: learning how to learn critically, learning how to do creatively, learning how to work constructively, [and] learning how to be wise,” (Shaheen 3). These educational guidelines embody the dire importance of creativity in the classroom. Through the use of tools such as the flipped classroom, online teaching instruction, such as the Khan Academy instructional videos, distance learning classrooms, and virtual learning environments, teachers can now teach more efficiently because they have the tools to teach to the students of the 21st century, rather than bore them with mundane memorization. This in turn creates meaningful learning experiences, described in Richard E Mayer’s article, “Rote Versus Meaningful Learning” as, “when students build the knowledge and cognitive processes needed for successful problem solving” (227). This requires teachers to go beyond simple instruction of factual knowledge in order to foster problem solving skills where students can actively contribute to the two stages of problem solving; problem representation, where students build a mental representation of the problem he/she is facing, and problem solution, where a student develops and carries out a plan to solve the said problem (Mayer, 227).  As a result of these new teaching practices, new assessments must also go beyond recalling and recognizing factual information, and instead give guidelines for proof of understanding, and then allow students to determine the format in which they will prove their knowledge.

Finally, creativity and innovation is crucial in terms of the United States’ “rank” among other nations. Frankly speaking, in terms of the U.S. economy, “the success of the US Economy has always been its ability to innovate, create, invent, and commercialize groundbreaking discoveries. Today, we seem to be losing our edge and have begun to suffer an ‘innovation deficit,’” (Sandeen and Hutchinson 81). Essentially, America has failed to create new jobs, balance trade of technological products, and maintain domination of technological industries in recent years, as a result of this “innovation deficit,” (Sandeen and Hutchinson 81). Re-conceptualizing educational practices to encompass creativity in the classroom, through the use of the aforementioned 21st century technological tools has the immense potential to provide the U.S. with the “edge” it currently lacks, and regain control of their innovative practices to once again become a world leader in innovation advancements.

All in all, Baxter still draws great attention to the matter of creativity in our classrooms. However, thanks to technological advancements, teachers are prepared now, more than ever, to begin assisting students to become the innovators of tomorrow. Through the use of these 21st century teaching techniques and resources, the United States has a bright and innovative future ahead, which lies in the hands of the students that sit before us; the rest is up to them.








Works Cited

Baxter, Charles. “Charles Baxter Answers Questions about “Gryphon”" Interview. Charles Baxter: Gryphon: Often Asked Questions. Charles Baxter, 2008. Web. 13 Apr. 2013.

Baxter, Charles. “Gryphon.” American Short Stories. Ed. Bert Hitchcock and Virginia M. Kouidis. 8th ed. N.p.: Pearson Longman, 2008. 592-603. Print.

Mayer, Richard E. “Rote Versus Meaningful Learning.” Theory Into Practice 41.4 (2002): 226-32. ERIC. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Sandeen, Cathy A., and Scott Hutchinson. “Putting Creativity And Innovation To Work: Continuing Higher Education’s Role In Shifting The Educational Paradigm.” Continuing Higher Education Review 74. (2010): 81-92. ERIC. Web. 13 Apr. 2013.

Shaheen, Robina. “Creativity And Education.” Online Submission (2010): ERIC. Web. 13 Apr. 2013.

State Educational Technology Directors Association, (SETDA). “21St Century Learning Environment Models.” State Educational Technology Directors Association (2011): ERIC. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Turrentine, Jeff. “‘Gryphon: New and Selected Stories,’ by Charles Baxter: Short but Potent.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company, 24 Feb. 2011. Web. 13 Apr. 2013.