Having a more creative school year not about cute bulletin boards or expensive materials—it is about becoming a classroom in which students are encouraged to be their most creative selves, while engaged in your interesting learning activities. Here are a few places to start.
First, think about your classroom.
1. Consider the physical atmosphere in your classroom. Try to arrange the furniture so that it can be used flexibly, for individual work, group work, and whole class work. Think about safe storage spaces for in-process projects. Be sure your custodian knows about it, to avoid disaster. (Can you guess there is a story behind that?)
Find at least one place in your room to regularly place things that will help students think, “Wow, I never thought about that.” You know how we all watch for churches and businesses that post interesting thoughts on their outdoor signs. You can be that place for students. Post a new thought, picture, or puzzle as often as you can. How about weekly? If you ask for student contributions, it will be a breeze.
2. Model questioning. This means you will not only ask questions to check students’ understanding, but you will raise questions that genuinely make you curious. Be clear that all the answers to interesting questions are not in the back of the book. Consider a space in the classroom to record great questions that are raised at a moment when there is not time to investigate them.
3. Be cautious about the reward systems in your classroom. When individuals engage in a task primarily to earn a reward, their efforts are less likely to be creative—and less intrinsically motivated. In most cases, save rewards for a happy surprise after the fact, not a “carrot” to be earned, particularly for activities involving critical or creative thinking.
4. Leave room for choices, big and small. Choice, and the feeling that we a pursuing something because of our choices, is one key to intrinsic motivation. Sometimes this may mean students choose one of two ways to demonstrate their learning. Sometimes it may mean the opportunity to learn about a topic completely of their own choosing. Help students learn to make choices wisely. Learning to find their interests and explore them is as valuable to students as anything else we teach!
5. Resolve to create a safe space. Resolve that no student will be bullied by students or adults as long as you are around. I know you are human, and will occasionally be pushed to say something less kind than you should. Apologize. Do better next time. Be a model of the ways mature people handle anger. No one can engage in the risk-taking of creativity if they are fearful of ridicule.
Next, think about your curriculum.
6. Whether you are working with the Common Core or another set of curriculum standards, make them the “floor” rather than the “ceiling.” Once you know the content you must address, ask yourself, “What can students do with this? How will they use it, make judgments about it, investigate it, or create something with it?” The best thing about this strategy is that it is that doing something with the content is fundamental to helping students learn with understanding, as well as to creativity. You don’t have to choose between the two. More on the Common Core in upcoming posts.
7. Take time to learn some creative thinking strategies, and integrate them into your lessons. Using brainstorming, flexible thinking, SCAMPER, or roleplay with your content will promote creative thinking while examining content in new ways. When addressing a topic, ask yourself, “From how many perspectives can we view this?” This can mean considering the point of view of anything from historical or literacy characters to a blood cell on its travels.
8. Whatever your subject area, ask yourself, “What kinds of questions do professionals in this field ask? Can I teach my students to do that?” Consider teaching students more about the ways writers, historians, scientists or artists raise questions and generate ideas, then follow that lead. Teach the “how” of your discipline along with the “what.”
9. Bring ideas from different disciplines together. This is easier in elementary grades when teachers are more likely to be responsible for multiple disciplines, but it can happen anywhere. Consider how elementary students may look at the idea of “circles” or “cycles” in stories, in math, or in the lives of butterflies. High school students might consider how the concept of “power” in politics relates to that in physics or even literature. Looking at a concept in flexible ways is another path to creative thinking.
10. Resolve to learn and use at least one new technology tool this year, and then help students express their ideas in novel ways. Many students, even the so-called “digital natives” use technology almost exclusively as consumers rather than producers. You can help change that, even if (as I did) you started teaching with chalk and filmstrip projectors. In coming posts we’ll look at ways to help students present content via avatars, build online bulletin boards, publish online magazines, and a host of other options. Not only has this “old dog” learned new technology tricks, but I’m having fun along the way. You can, too.
This leads me to:
Bonus Tip #11: Have fun this year. Really, it’s important. A sense of playfulness not only models joy in learning, but is an essential part of the creative process. So play once in a while, whatever play means to you. For some of you that might mean donning a costume during history class, for others it might mean aborting your planned lesson on the day of the first snow so you can catch snowflakes and write poetry. It might mean sharing your passion for vintage cars or sponsoring a scary stories contest. Whatever it is, make sure it is fun for you. If you are joyful, it will be contagious.
What’s your tip for creativity this year? We’d love to hear it (yes, ideas from you, really!)