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Writing Class Studies the Building Blocks of Creativity

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Intro to Creative Writing instructor Rachita Ramya with her students creating stories using building blocks. Photos by John Griffin.

Everyone has a story inside them. As an Intro to Creative Writing instructor at the Lichtenstein Center, which houses academic programs in creative writing, film and writing for television, Rachita Ramya’s goal is to find new ways to get those stories out of her students. To help facilitate that, Ramya has incorporated an innovative teaching tool called MuBaBaO® Creative Thinking Blocks into her curriculum.

MuBaBaO is a visual storytelling learning approach that’s immersive, multi-dimensional, and engages students in a dynamic and multi-layered exercise.

“These blocks have an element of storytelling in them because when students are using them to build structures, at the end of it there’s a story of what they did and how they got there,” said Ramya, who’s also a graduate student in Stony Brook’s MFA program in Creative Writing and Literature. “What was the story in their mind while they were constructing this? I think sometimes it’s easier to articulate using blocks rather than words. Especially when language is an issue.”

In the exercise, students are divided into groups and presented with a box containing various building pieces of different shapes and sizes and tasked with connecting these blocks and creating something out of them. Each box contains completely random pieces.

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“The only instruction I give them is to make sense of the chaos,” said Ramya. “It’s fun, creative, easy-to-use, and it’s an emotional experience. It’s also interactive because they discuss it with each other. When they’re done, they tell a story about what they have created and how this could potentially solve a problem.”

Ramya said the objectives of the exercise are to foster creativity, communication, develop leadership, problem-solving skills, and also spatial intelligence.

“These blocks simulate the chaos and complexity of real-life scenarios because they are presented with jumbled fragments they have to make sense of,” she said. “This exercise can be used in departments like arts, humanities, and social studies. Even public health.”

Ramya learned about MuBaBaO from its founder, Michal Malinowski, at a storytelling event in her native India in 2022.

“He’s a teacher and author and he’s also the director of the Storyteller Museum in Warsaw,” she said. “He developed these blocks and he’s used them with war refugees from Ukraine. He found that when these students and children are given blocks, they have an easier time articulating using these structures rather than words.”

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Ramya finds the exercise interesting because the process of storytelling is unique to everyone. “It varies from person to person, but everything is very personal,” she said. “One student constructed a basketball court, and another built a space shuttle. Another constructed a store because his grandfather owned a hardware store, and his memory of his grandfather was associated with the hardware store. I thought it was interesting that it tapped into a childhood memory. It was interesting to observe from a distance.”

Ramya added that the blocks help unify the creative process for people of different backgrounds.

“I come from a diverse background and English is not my first language,” she said. “My syllabus is supposed to be global and present different writers from different regions and countries. Something that I noticed in my class is that stories have a universal language. So the ‘language’ of storytelling could be something totally different and doesn’t have to be just words. There are universal emotions which are the same. They’re much more common than we think.”

Students are broken into groups and given an hour and a goal. Ramya said within a few minutes, her students “figure out what to do.”

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Ramya completed her undergraduate studies in India and came to the US to pursue a master’s in public health, but that changed during the pandemic. “I realized that it wasn’t really what I wanted,” she said. “I was much more interested in stories and literature.”

Ramya is currently working on her thesis, a manuscript of a novel based in India.

“It’s sort of an unconventional love story, because it’s between a tree and a man,” she said. “It explores social and political themes and it’s a commentary on the political system in India and what is going on in this world. It’s how trees might view human activities because nature doesn’t stop for anything. Even in war, birds would still fly, and eggs would still hatch. The book explores the intersection of human nature and Mother Nature.”

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Susan Scarf Merrell, co-director of the BookEnds post-MFA novel polishing program at the Lichtenstein Center, is her thesis advisor and Paul Harding, interim associate provost of the Lichtenstein Center, is her second reader.

Ramya began teaching in Fall 2022 and aims to graduate in May 2024.

“I hope to continue teaching, that’s my goal right now,” she said. “That and finishing my manuscript. I love the environment at Stony Brook, and I would love to end up teaching here.”

Robert Emproto

 

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3 comments

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  • This is interesting and inspirational.
    I admire Ramya’s love for teaching.
    I would like to be a part of this great team!

  • It’s interesting technique for storytelling. I teach art class and I would like to adopt MuBaBaO, do we design and create the pieces as we wish or is there a template I can download or do we purchase it ready made?

    Thank you!

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