I’ve lived virtually my entire life on the academic calendar, where each September brings the chance for a new start. And each fall I vow to do better—to help my students think critically, to support their creativity, and to be responsive to their learning needs. I don’t always succeed, but I always try. For those of you who are—once more—starting anew, here are five simple strategies for getting the new school year off to a creative start. You could use them to get to know your students, or to engage them in your content. Either way, they send the message that this year is going to include many different kinds of thinking.
You might post this short list near your desk or with your planning materials. If you do, you may just find many ways to insert these creative moments into the school day.
- Ask “How many ways….”
Thinking of many ways to answer a question or solve a problem is fundamental to the creative process. You might get to know students by asking how many unusual strategies they can devise to remember their assignments, how many interesting things they might do in class if they were teacher for a day, or how many ways they they could improve the décor of the classroom. Of course, you can also ask how many ways a literary or historical character could solve a problem, or how many ways a math dilemma could be solved.
- Ask “What if. . . .”
“What if” questions can be used for writing assignments, class discussions, or quick fillers for the last five minutes of class. They can range from the silly “What would change if we went to school at night” to the serious “What if you had the opportunity to interview George Washington. What would you ask?” “What if you were in charge of electrical power for our town. What energy sources would you emphasize? Why?”
- Combine two unexpected things.
I recently had the chance to visit the Meijer Sculpture Gardens, a beautiful venue inspired (so they say) by Mr. Meijer’s love of art and Mrs. Meijer’s love of gardens. Talk to students about how many wonderful things have come from combinations. How about a brief writing assignment in which they imagine a place that combines one of their interests and a very different interest of one of their friends? Those of you who teach multiple subjects could experiment with a writing/math lesson or science/art. You might even ask students for suggestions of how to do it!
- Imagine something you can’t see.
Much of our content requires students to envision things they cannot see. We can help them understand more deeply by helping them visualize the unseen. This is the time to be your best storyteller, whether it is by helping students imagine the trenches of World War I, picturing the processes of chemical bonding, or understanding story characters in different times and places. You can also have students work to envision another’s perspective “How would your pet describe you?” “How would Harry Potter react to a day in our school?”
- Make a metaphor.
I often start my classes by asking students to introduce themselves with a metaphor, for example, “If you were an animal, what animal would you be and why?” or “What item in your home is in some way like you?” Even with college students I have to take time to explain the difference between a favorite animal and an animal that is in some way like them, but it makes for an interesting conversation. And, of course, thinking of metaphors for current content can be a powerful strategy.
If you start with some of these simple questions and challenges, you are sure to begin the school year creatively. Next time we’ll talk about planning a classroom atmosphere that is supportive of creativity–right from the start.