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Flexible Seating on a Budget (Spoiler, it's free!)

Flexible seating seems to be all the rage, and I can understand why. Who wouldn't want a classroom that can turn into a cozy coffee shop, a writer's workshop, a reading lounge, or a stage with comfortable seating for the viewers? 

I've never really had a classroom budget. Once I got a grant to develop a theater corner, which was so much fun! Once, I asked my department chair for some money to get art supplies, and she said yes. But other than that, I've never really leaned back in my desk chair thinking "hmmm, how am I going to spend all my money this year?!" 

Can you relate? Even if you have a budget, you probably spend it on office supplies. Maybe a few fun treats for holidays or standardized testing. For most of us, couches, cereal bowl chairs and beanbags just aren't on the list. 

But that's never stopped me from keeping my seating flexible. 

When I first started teaching, my flexible seating came from my own sweat. Between different types of classes I would simply charge around the room pushing desks right and left until I had produced the perfect arrangement for what I had in mind. But it was a bit difficult. Especially when I was pregnant! 

Luckily, students arriving early or staying late always seemed willing to lend a hand. 

"How do you want them?" they would ask. And I would explain my plan. 

Finally, I decided to make the process a bit simpler. I have created seating charts I can project that show the seating plan for the day. As students walk in before the bell, I can just ask them to help me move the desks into position for whatever creative work we have in store. 

Here are the seating layouts I use most often. At the end of this post, you'll find a link to go download these charts for yourself, in case you, like me, could use some free flexible seating without too much sweat!  

Roundtable Discussion Seating: this is great for whole class discussions. Simply join your students by sitting in one of the desks. I use it for Harkness (and if you don't know what that is, go check out this post!)

Literature Circles Seating: perfect for literature circles, just have students set up circles for however many different books they are studying.

Fishbowl Seating: for fishbowl discussions, in which the inner circle discusses as the outer circle observes. Never tried them? This video lays out the basic idea well. 

Gallery Seating: good for a range of class activities. I like to have students put their final projects and papers out on their desks in gallery seating and have everyone walk around the space reading and looking over each other’s final work so they have a wider authentic audience. It’s also great for watching movies or scene performances, or listening to speeches or presentations.

Group Workshop Seating: nice for small group work, writing workshop in which students are editing each other’s work, etc. Simply take over one island of seats if you’d like to run your own station and work with several students individually.

You can find all these charts in a free PDF over at my store on Teachers Pay Teachers. You'll also find creative resources that will enable you to stretch and engage your students without breaking the bank for new technology or millions of art supplies. 

I hope you decide to get flexible this year! And hey, if you've got the budget, throw in a couch as well. But if not, you can still borrow a focus from Google and keep your space flexible and creative. 

Looking for collaboration and support in your creative teaching journey? Pop into our Facebook group, Creative High School English

What ELA Teachers can learn from Scandinavian Playgrounds

When my son was tiny, I tried to convince the boarding school where we were working to install a children's playground for all the little kids in the area. I researched all kinds of amazing playscapes, but as I combed through photos and articles, one name stood out in particular.


Sounds kind of scary, doesn't it? Don't be fooled.

(Image from the Monstrum Website)

Monstrum is an incredible Danish design company that creates playgrounds based on stories. For example, they created "The Crooked Houses," to reflect the history of the neighborhood Brumleby in Copenhagen.

They made the "Playground Cosmos" to represent the experience of being in the Russian Space program. How much do you suddenly wish you were a kid so you could go play there? I, for one, really want to climb up that long silver slide into the top of the rocket.

You might be asking yourself, so what? How can this possibly relate to my English classroom?

Well, here's the thing. Most playgrounds in the United States today look pretty similar. I have taken my tiny tots to playgrounds from California to Pennsylvania, and the colors, structures, and feel of the playgrounds are generally the same. They are brightly colored, relatively safe, and story-free. In a word, unoriginal.

Which brings me to the topic of today's post and podcast, Creative Assessment.

What are we really looking for in our assessments these days, to be relatively safe and blend in, or to build on the stories of our own communities? To extend the comparison, are we going to make our classrooms safe and story-free, or embrace the ideals of Monstrum?

I vote Monstrum all the way. We need classroom activities that students can dive deeply into, assessments that engage students' imaginations and inspire their dreams, not just prove that they read from page one to page seven. A reading quiz doesn't have to be ten multiple choice questions that don't require any critical thinking or creativity. A final project doesn't to be a standard literary analysis paper.

There are lots of other ways to find out if students are reading, thinking deeply, and learning to communicate what they know.

Today's Podcast (number ten!) is about finding ways to let students show what they have learned that matter to them. That engage them in creative, fresh ways that relate to their own lives.

Listen here or on iTunes for dozens of ideas on how to keep your activities, quizzes, and final projects creative and relevant in a world that values creativity and innovation far above the ability to memorize and color inside the lines.

When it comes to creative assessment, it’s easy to get intimidated. You may feel like your colleagues will look at you funny if you deviate from the norm, that you are too tied to certain standards and types of writing to try something new, or that you can’t afford the technology or materials to be creative in the way you want. Well, this episode is for you. I’ll be sharing ideas for creative quizzes, daily activities, and final projects that you can be proud of. There’s no reason students can’t show the same skills in rigorous creative work as they do in whatever assessments you are feeling pressure to conform to.  In my first two years of teaching I had students enmeshed in creative projects every month and I won my school’s new faculty award at the end of my second year.

So let’s get into it.

Your students come in after reading chapters one through five of whatever text you are reading. Do you…

      A) Hope they have read it? Hope really hard?
      B) Suspiciously call on students without their hands raised throughout the discussion in an effort to discover who has actually read?
      C) Give them a reading quiz with ten plot-based questions after checking to be sure those answers aren’t readily available in online summaries?
      D) Create an engaging reading check activity in which students write a blog post recommending or not recommending the book, based on those chapters, to other students around the world?

Not to pressure you, but I hope D seemed like a good choice.

Reading check quizzes are a force as old as time. We all want to know that our students are keeping up with the material. I remember being so mad in college when I listened to a classmate fake his way through class discussions, knowing the whole time he had not read our novel.  Day after day. The professor appeared to have no idea. Of course none of us want to be that professor.

But at the same time, quizzes that lean on memorization of reading facts don’t give our students much of a reason to engage. This type of quiz feels a bit confrontational, and definitely lacks creativity.

If you’re ready to kick the old reading quiz to the curb, here are five creative alternatives. Each of these alternatives builds more analysis and creative thinking into the way students process the material to show that they have read it.

1. The High and the Low: Have students write about what they loved and hated from the reading the night before, defending their choices with specific evidence (of course!). 

2. The Coffee Shop Script: Have students get creative as they write the script of a conversation between three or four characters from the reading. They can discuss anything, so long as they sprinkle in plenty of details from the reading. 

3. Reading Blog: Have students write a blog post either recommending or not recommending the book to other students around the world, based on the reading. 

4. E-mail from one character to another: in a world stuffed with e-mail, writing a good one is an important skill! Let students write from one character to another, including a few key details from the recent action in the novel. 

5. 5 Headlines for a News Website: Let students imagine they are editing a news website covering the action in the novel. They need to hit the highlights for their readers. 

The big thing with each of these alternatives is to stress in your instructions that your students explain their ideas with DETAILS from the reading. They need to show you they have read as they work through these creative prompts.


Classroom Activities can also easily fall into a rut. You want to assess student work in class, but how can you do it creatively, in a way that will matter to them? One great way is to talk to them about their interests in your discipline, and work toward those interests in your daily assessments. For example, here are three student interest threads and three activities for each.

If your students are interested in video creation, create an in-class assessment in which they…

      Imagine they were creating an instagram account for the novel you are reading, and they need to create a live video for each major character responding to the events of the reading.
          Imagine they were in charge of a Youtube channel for high school students that were struggling with reading, in which they share the most important moments in the text in any way they choose
      Create a video response to the author, discussing what they do and do not like about the text and how it relates to their own lives

If your students are interested in radio broadcasting, create an in-class assessment in which they…

Write and record the pilot episode of a podcast hosted by a character from the novel

      Imagine NPR was bringing on one character from the novel to interview in a news-style show. Record the interview.

      Mix a soundtrack for the chapters they’ve just read, explaining in an accompanying paragraph how the music represents critical themes in the text.

If your students are interested in entrepreneurship, create an in-class assessment in which they…

      Create a kickstarter campaign from the perspective of a character in the novel, to help solve his or her struggle in the text.

      Design a website for a chacter’s business.

      Propose a nonprofit that would help solve a problem confronted by a character or characters in the novel. 

All of these daily assessment ideas can easily be made rigorous. Creative assessment doesn’t mean a loss of rigor. For me, it means giving students a chance to show their skills in unique ways that expand their thinking and push their limits.


Finally, we get to final projects. I’m sure you can already see that there are a million directions you could go with these. Here are three ideas to get you started.

Let your students create an App for a character. As they flush out a storyboard for the App, explain the character’s choices and business plan, and explore why the character would create this particular App, students can use their tech skills, tap into interest in entrepreneurship, demonstrate their ability to write analytically, and get creative in their thinking. It just so happens that I have created a packet for this particular final assessment, and I would love to share it with you. Subscribe with the form below and I'll send it along immediately! 

Have your students do a mock trial. Mock trials are engaging and memorable, and give students a look at a popular career too. 

Inject MAKERSPACE into your assessment. Have students create something relating to the text and then use that creation to launch into a writing project. Maybe they create a photo essay based on the novel and then use those photos as inspiration for a brand new story. Maybe they create a painting of a character that really reflects his or her inner nature, and then they write an essay on characterization. Opening up the doors of the maker movement in your ELA classroom will lead you down creative and unexpected paths. I've written a blog post about this I think you will love, featuring the inspiring book Make Writing that first got me thinking about all this. 

Thanks for listening (or reading)! If you haven't subscribed yet, hurry over to iTunes and subscribe so you don't miss the upcoming "Going Back To School Creatively" series! And remember, support is waiting for you inside our Creative High School English Facebook group as you continue on your creative teaching journey. 

10 Creative Ways to Start the Year

As you prepare for the first day, there is always so much to do. Setting up your room, finalizing your syllabi, getting your grade book set up, collecting your textbooks, attending gobs of meetings. Summer is a great time to put a few creative structures in place so that the many details of starting up don’t overwhelm your desire to move in creative directions this year.

Here are ten ways you can get your year off to a creative start.

Theater Corner
Gathering props, wigs, costumes and face paint on a shelf or two in the corner of your classroom can really up your creative game. I’m always amazed at how much high school students glory in dressing up.  A wig may be just what one of your students needs to become a Shakespearean character during a reading or perform his best during a reader’s theater group scene.

Art Section
Every primary teacher has his or her collection of amazing art supplies – but what of the secondary crowd? Though not every student who comes through your door will want to take advantage of it, having a section of great art supplies will help bring storyboards, graphic novels, political cartoons, murals, and more to life throughout the year. No one HAS to use them, but everyone CAN.

Postcard Collection
I love love love my postcard collection. Of course you can’t travel the whole world before school starts, but once you start looking around, you’ll find postcards everywhere. Pick up eclectic cards at thrift shops and vintage stores, funny scenes on road trips, iconic art photos at museums. A postcard collection makes for great story starters and journal prompts, not to mention great classroom d├ęcor. Read more here.

Pick up this handout explaining the concept of classroom committees and have it ready to share with your students. Letting students take ownership over major classroom events (poetry slams, play performances, reading festivals, etc.) will make the events WAY better and take a ton of work off your shoulders.

Collaboration Partner
If you’ve never tried a collaboration before, this is your year! It’s an amazing way to broaden your students’ horizons and give them an authentic audience for their work. Listen to this podcast chock full of ideas for collaborations and then hop into our Facebook group, Creative High School English, to find a partner.

It’s easy to forget the power of guest speakers. Summer is the perfect time to talk to friends and friends of friends who might want to come in and visit your classroom. It can be as simple as a series of short books talks, in which adults from around your school come in to give a two minute spiel about their favorite book. Or as complicated as that actor friend of yours coming in to run a week-long theater workshop while you’re studying drama. Contact a variety of guest possibilities over the summer (ELA careers series? Creative writing workshops? Interdisciplinary connections?) and schedule them before life gets too busy.

Student Interest Poll
Starting the year by learning about your students is great. But an overlooked aspect of learning about your students is learning about what they’re interested in in your field. Give students this interest survey to discover how you can tailor some of your work during the year to their individual passions. What ELA-related fields interest them most? Would they rather try podcasting or start a vlog? Are they more interested in writing creative nonfiction or poetry? Are they interested in creative entrepreneurship? Non-profits? Politics? Finding out a bit more on the front end can help you engage them.

Think Flexibly about Seating
Flexible seating is all the rage. But even if you can’t afford beanbags, cereal bowl chairs and squashy couches, you can come up with a few different ways of arranging your classroom for a few different needs. Imagine some of the scenarios you see unfolding in your classroom (literature circles, gallery walks, roundtable discussions, editing partners, etc.) and draw up diagrams for how you’d like to arrange your tables or desks for these days. I'm working on a powerpoint now with a big range of seating diagrams and I'll be unrolling it on Instagram soon, so be sure you're following along @nowsparkcreativity! I can't wait to share it with you. 

Give students a chance to combine making and writing when you prep a small section of your classroom with maker materials. Index cards and rolls of paper can help students who want to do maker drafts of their writing, scrawling ideas everywhere before arranging them. Colorful chalk and whiteboard markers, paints and an easel, legos or clay – any of these can help students “make” settings or characters before imagining a story around them. Read more about this amazing option for a creative classroom right here.

Interdisciplinary Effort

The world gets more interdisciplinary every day. I’ve got one cousin who got his PHD in Engineering who now runs his own artisan perfume company, Sfumato (so amazing! Check it out here!) and another who majored in theater and is now helping Santa Fe turn garbage into biodiesel and compost with her environmental non-profit, Reunity Resources. In the modern era, students will combine their interests with their environment and draw on all the skills they have to be successful. We can’t know what they will do, exactly, but we know it will probably draw on multiple disciplines. Working that into your curriculum in intentional ways will help it feel more relevant and exciting for your students. I love creating projects like “Literary Character Designs an App” and “The Street Art Project” that combine English with STEAM. Try one of these or create one of your own. 

I hope this turns out to be your most creative year as a teacher. I find that the more I think of myself as a guide seeking to unlock student creativity, the happier I am. I don't want to be their guru, because they won't have me forever. I want to show them the amazing creative potential waiting inside them. 

Are Teachers allowed to go to the Bathroom?

So usually I focus on creative teaching strategies and projects here on my site. But over and over I hear teachers joking about how they never have a chance to go to the bathroom. And it bugs me that so many of us feel that is true. Do new teachers really have to get nervous about this as August approaches? Do returning teachers need to put their water bottles into retirement when they start decorating their classrooms?

It seems a bit absurd. 

How are we supposed to be our best creative selves in our classrooms if we can't even go to the bathroom on a busy day? 

Thus, this post. 

When I was a new teacher, I once spent a weekend in Carlsbad, CA by myself. I drove down with the dream of taking a surf lesson and seeing the beautiful flower fields I had heard about. Six a.m. found me walking down a sandy strip in search of my surf instructor. But he never showed up, so I ended up lying around on the beach all morning. Yes, I was reading. Of course. And I guess I just got too comfortable, because I fell asleep as the sun reached its peak.

Teaching the next day was insufferable. Did I mention I'm a redhead and sunburn easily? At one point, I simply had to go put some lotion on my back in the middle of a lesson or die trying.

So I did. My students continued working while I ducked out for three minutes. 

I don't think they even noticed. You see, it wasn't the first time I had disappeared for a few moments. I had already made my peace with the question this post poses. Of COURSE teachers are allowed to go the bathroom. 

Enough is enough, peeps. EVERYONE is allowed to go the bathroom. It's a basic human right. 

If my answer wasn’t yes, I probably would never have been able to be a teacher. Growing up, I was diagnosed in fifth grade with a genetic digestive disorder. My stomach is “easily upset.” Though I’m much better now, there was a while there when about sixty percent of food would make me feel sick. Stress made it worse. Worrying that stress might make it worse made it worse. 

Rrgh. Not ideal.

At the same time I was getting all that worked out, I was also realizing how much I loved teaching and coaching. But could I do those things with the stomach my genes had given me?

When I first began teaching my solution was not to eat before practice, class, extra help, faculty meetings, etc. Boy was I wiped out at the end of a fifteen hour day when I hadn't had anything to eat since toast at breakfast time. 

That couldn't last. So I got real, and so can you. When I have to go, I just leave. And so can you. 

Yep. I can’t pretend I haven’t left my students in the middle of quizzes, movies, group work, writing workshop, play practice, tennis practice, and more so that I could go to the bathroom.

In almost a decade not one has ever said they thought my need to go the bathroom was inappropriate. Not one parent or administrator has ever mentioned it to me.  Not once has it led to any major misbehavior or chaos in my classroom.

So let’s put this issue behind us as teachers. It’s OK to go the bathroom.

Wondering what exactly to do when you need to go? Chances are, once you realize it's OK, you'll devise your own easy commentary. But just in case, here's some of mine...

If students are mid-way into their work, chances are they will barely notice your absence. Simply say “I have to step out for a moment, just continue what you’re doing and I’ll be right back.”

If you’re in the middle of a lecture, think of a brief breakout session students could do. Perhaps “Turn to a partner and write down three questions about what we’ve covered so far. I’ll be right back.”

If students are just arriving for class, have them take out journals or independent reading books and get started without you. If you’re really worried about their behavior, say you’ll be back in five minutes and everyone who is quietly working will get bonus points for the day.

It's really not very tricky once you get started. Acknowledging your own humanity is not just healthy for you, it's good for your students too. 

So while we are on this potentially awkward subject, let’s talk about it from the student’s point of view too. For me as a student, bathroom policies in school were not only ridiculous, they were truly hurtful. I had one teacher who asked us to carry a giant rock to and from the bathroom. There was no way I could do this when I was feeling sick. 

Do students ever go to the bathroom just to take a break from class? Sure. But do we really need to make such a big deal out of it? Plenty of students just need to go, and they can’t fit it into their day – kind of like us, as teachers. Let them know on the first day that you might have to step out sometimes to use the bathroom, and you know they might have to too, and you hope it doesn’t have to turn into a big deal.

Bottom line, we're all human. And we might as well be real so we can eliminate a pointless worry from our day and focus on ROCKING it as creative educators. 

Speaking of ROCKING it, if you're looking for an amazing community of creative teachers to share your journey with, hurry over and join our Facebook group "Creative High School English." 
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