When I first started teaching, eons ago, the one piece of advice we were given for “setting the tone” in our classrooms was the infamous adage “Don’t smile until Christmas.” I don’t know anyone who actually tried to manage that feat, but I suspect it had a real impact students’ early experiences in classrooms of the day—and not a positive one.
Today, as many of us think about beginning the school year, we may have different ideas of classroom tone in mind. To build a classroom supportive of creativity, we must help students understand that in this room ideas can be explored, new things tried, and even mistakes made, all in the service of learning. Some of the best ways to share these ideas are to model them. So here are five more things you can do to get your classroom off to a creative start.
- Ask questions—real ones.
All students know that teachers often ask “questions” to which they clearly know the answers, “How much is 6+3?” or “How did Hamlet plan to use actors to further his revenge?” In truth, those are not genuine questions, from a teacher’s perspective; they are opportunities to check students’ knowledge and understanding. That is essential in any classroom, but it is not the same as genuine questioning. When you ask a real question, you do not know they answer. These are things that make you wonder. “I wonder why the plants that grow beautifully in my front yard won’t grow in the back?” or “I wonder, if Hamlet had succeeded in killing Claudius, what do you think would have happened to him? Why?”
Asking real questions provides a model of curiosity and wonder—and also makes it clear that in this classroom, no one is expected to know everything.
- Make mistakes.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had to fake making mistakes in class; I make enough on my own. It is important to share mistakes—and our response to mistakes—with our students. This can mean acknowledging our factual errors, apologizing when we treat someone unfairly, or describing our epic fail in a home improvement effort as an example of problem solving. Creativity and learning require risk taking, and risk leads to mistakes. It is all part of the process. Without failure, there can be no risk. Send the message that mistakes are expected along the way. You might want to tell the “Stand on Your Failures” story from my previous post. It’s an idea worth lots of exploration.
- Play with ideas
Not all teachers are stand up comedians, but we can all have fun. The truth is, when teaching is no longer fun, it is time to think about a change of career. In the serious business of helping students learn, we can sometimes forget that playfulness—thinking about ideas in new and sometimes silly ways—is foundational to creativity and helps students learn. Plan some learning activities that are both playful and substantive—design a better paper airplane, calculate the number of footballs you could fit in Michigan Stadium, or imagine a conversation between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (a whole play was developed from that beginning!)
- Try hard
Let your students see times when working hard helped you succeed. One of my friends posted multiple drafts of her master’s thesis, complete with red lines and edits, on her bulletin board for middle school students to examine. I once did something similar with a copy of the original manuscript of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It was clear that even for a literary genius, writing was hard work.
Talk about how your muscles are sore from practicing your golf swing or even how often you thought about your students while planning—and replanning—your math lesson. Help students see that working hard on something reflects determination and growth, not lack of ability.
- Solve problems
Can you see a theme here? In addition to seeing you make mistakes, and understanding that you work hard, students also need to see you as an example of problem solving, in school and out. Tackle classroom problems together. Is your furniture arrangement not working? Share your process for tackling the problem—or ask for students’ help in solving it. Share the research you did to solve your garden problem or your strategies for remembering to bring your lunch each day. As tempting as it can be to have students view you as a font of endless knowledge, no one can keep up that image for long—and it doesn’t help students learn. If they see you working, learning, and growing, it helps them believe they can, too. This growth mindset will be one of your greatest gifts to them—for learning and creativity.