Having a more creative school year is not about beautiful bulletin boards or teachers shouting from the desktops–though those don’t hurt. More importantly, it is about becoming a classroom in which students are encouraged to be their most creative selves, while learning content that matters. It is serious work, but it can be a lot of fun, and make your schools days immeasurably better.
A creative classroom involves the content you teach, the methods you use, and the community you build. So here again are my (possibly annual) tips for a more creative school year. Some are repeats from last year; some are new. All are steps in a creative direction.
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 and curiosity. Don’t restrict questions to checking students’ understanding, but raise questions that genuinely puzzle you. Be clear that all the answers to interesting questions are not in the back of the book. Be a model of curious interest. Share the wonder of the world. If you are not interested and excited about learning, how will you help young people fight back against the cynical aloofness that seems pervasive in many middle and secondary schools?
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 are 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. Giving young people increasing responsibility for the path of their own learning is crucial in developing mature and independent learners. And learning to find their interests and explore them is a valuable as anything else we teach.
5. Have fun. Really, it’s important. A sense of playfulness not only models joy in learning, but is an essential part of the creative process—and of creating a safe and positive classroom atmosphere. So play once in a while, whatever play means to you. For some of you that might mean reading literature with Oscar-worthy drama, for others it might mean taking inspiration from a YouTube clip and helping your class create a new math video. It might mean sharing your passion for film noir or sponsoring a maker club. Whatever it is, make sure it is fun for you. If you are joyful, it will be contagious.
Next, think about your curriculum.
6. Do not be cowed by the Common Core. I’ve never known a time when so many teachers in the U.S. are facing the same curriculum challenge at the same time. There are a lot of good things in the Common Core Educational Standards, but they will not solve all educational dilemmas. Resolve that the Common Core will be the place you start your thinking, not the place it ends. 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. See more about Common Core strategies under the new Creativity and the Curriculum tab above.
7. When talking to colleagues about curriculum planning, bring creativity strategies into the conversation. (OK, the Common Core is so important right now, it merits two tips.) Planning for Common Core standards is going to keep a lot of faculty committees very busy this year. Be the creative conscience of the group. Take a look at the standards for your grade level and come to the meeting with ideas for using brainstorming, flexible thinking, SCAMPER, or roleplay to examine 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. You might also find assistance in the planning questions for infusing creativity in curriculum. Be so persistent that your colleagues say, “There s/he is, being creative again!”
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 generate their ideas, then following that lead. Teach the “how” of your discipline along with the “what.” Seek out “how to” books and websites related to your discipline.
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 painting. Looking at a concept in flexible ways is another path to creative thinking. You might particularly seek out links to disciplines less emphasized in the Common Core, just to make sure they are not neglected.
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. Check old Creativiteach posts for technology resources, and keep your eyes open for resources yet-to-come. Think about ways to help students present content via avatars, build online bulletin boards, publish online magazines, build games 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.
Bonus Thought: Learn to Live with the Black Hole–and Just Keep Trying. Of course you won’t manage all these ideas all the time. Teaching is hard. It’s crazy, full of unexpected moments from the delightful to the tragic. You won’t be perfect, as much as we all resolve that this will be the year we’ll manage it.
Years ago, a very wise man gave me advice I’ve treasured in many circumstances. At the time we were working in a church service capacity, but the principle applies to any of us trying to meet multiple human needs. He told me that the task we were undertaking was like filling in a black hole. We could keep shoveling 24/7 and we’d never fill in the hole. There would always be needs we could not meet, no matter how hard we tried. The trick was, we had to learn to live with the black hole, or we wouldn’t be able to do the good we could do. It’s like the starfish story I’m sure most of you have heard. In the face of sometimes overwhelming needs, the black hole can be discouraging. As teachers, we can never perfect every lesson, be invariably patient or meet every student’s many needs. But (and this is a really big BUT), sometimes we are exactly the one to do the thing most needed. You know the feeling. There are those moments you communicate with understanding, you empathize at just the right moment, or you bring joy to a young person who has too little of it in life. And those moments we know it is worth all the efforts, imperfect as they are. Who else gets to do work that lasts forever? Teachers, here’s to you, and to a creative new school year.
What’s your tip for creativity this year? We’d love to hear it (yes, ideas from you, really!)