CREATIVITY in the Classroom

There are so many catchwords and acronyms in education these days. Grit. Mindfulness. Executive Skills. STEM. STEAM. The Common Core.

No doubt all these things are important. But to me, creativity is the essential core of education. Creativity allows students to approach challenges in unique ways, to adapt to change, start new businesses, reach across disciplines, invent and discover whatever will be important in their futures. I don’t know what the problems and glories of my students’ lives will be, but I do know they will not be prepared for them by answering reading check questions and writing chapter summaries.

When I design English curriculum, my job is to help students learn to think creatively, express themselves creatively in any number of channels, write creatively in many mediums.

When I write a reading quiz, instead of asking a student what happened to Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter last night, I’d rather ask the student to write a blog post from the perspective of Arthur Dimmesdale about the nature of morality.

When I create a free reading unit, I’m going to show students a huge range of books – fiction, nonfiction, classic, scifi, graphic novels, YA – so they can develop their own true interests as readers. I am going to encourage them to walk their own paths as readers – because who am I to judge where their reading might someday take them?

When I develop a closing project for a unit, I’m not going to limit their options to a single analytical paper. Why not design a t-shirt line expressing the themes of the book? Why not imagine what road trip the main character would take through America? Perhaps invent an app and marketing plan for the hero’s new start-up?  

When I design a classroom space, I’m going to remember what emphasis companies like Google and Apple place on their atmosphere. What student will find creative inspiration in bare walls and dying plants? Instead I prefer book displays, maps, posters, a student work hall of fame, a postcard collection featuring incredible architecture and art from around the world. And when we can, outside we go.  

When I present students with group work and discussion opportunities, I’m not going to assume they know how to share a creative group conversation. I am going to teach them how to respect each other’s voices. I am going to show them how learning from the views of others can enrich, not diminish, their own creative thinking. 

When I assign homework, I am going to try to remember to make it worth their while. If I want my students to believe in what we are doing, to keep their minds open to creative expression and new ways of learning, I cannot assign them busywork. They need to know their time is worth more than that.

3 Ways to Make your Classroom More Creative Starting Tomorrow

#1 Change up your D├ęcor: Ask your students for ideas! Tell them you want to create a more creative workspace for them and ask what would help. Changing the seating, putting up fantastic student work, adding a few pieces of art or some beautiful plants, any of these would make a difference to your atmosphere. Maybe you could commission one of your students who loves art to make something just for your room. A portrait of an author? A mural of favorite characters? A series of painted quotations?

#2 Change up one recurring assignment: Is there some part of your classroom routine that feels a bit like a rut? Perhaps you could swap out a daily vocabulary mini-lecture for a daily vocabulary video made by students. Perhaps you could bring in art supplies for your Friday journaling sessions and let students express themselves in multiple mediums. Maybe you could turn one in-class essay into a genius hour, inviting students to write about a project they would work on if they had all the time in the world, instead of about the text (just this once!)

#3 Change your discussion dynamics: So much creativity comes out of collaboration, but only when people trust and respect each other. Take some time to reflect with your students about your own group dynamics. Do something fun together to increase the group bond and then take the last ten minutes to discuss ways to improve how you work together as a group. 


Harkness Discussions in 3 Simple Steps

One of my favorite teaching methods is the Harkness discussion. It doesn't hurt that I met my husband at the conference where I learned how to use Harkness in my classroom. Yes, that's right, we were in the conference talent show together doing a juggling show. (Too cute, I know). But that's not the only reason I like Harkness.

I created the video below to give you a short introduction if you've never heard of it.  It doesn't take long to put it into action in your classroom, and your students will learn so much about not just the material, but group dynamics.

A Harkness discussion is basically a roundtable discussion in which everyone has an equal voice. While the teacher works hard to create circumstances in which every student feels comfortable speaking, the teacher rarely jumps in with explanations or to fill an awkward silence. The students take ownership for the conversation, and the course material flows from their thoughts and opinions.

Though some classrooms use Harkness exclusively, it is also an excellent tool to add to a wider pedagogy. I like to do Harkness discussions once or twice a week, so that my students have a chance to work on expressing their opinions and learning to listen but so that discussion skills don't dominate our whole curriculum. In my experience, a focus that deep on discussion is awfully hard on my students who are naturally quieter.

If you'd like to try Harkness, I suggest you dive right in! You don't have to have it mastered before experimenting. Just follow the three simple steps below and you will learn as you go. 

Step #1: Set up the Environment
Arrange your classroom in such a way that every student in the discussion can see each other. Maybe you have pillows on the floor, tables pushed into a circle, or desks arranged in an oval.

Step #2: Talk to the Students about Harkness
Explain to your students that you are going to try a student-led discussion method. Ask them to help you brainstorm a list of the type of behaviors that will lead to a good experience for everyone. Give them a few examples (i.e. everyone gets a turn to speak, people listen instead of interrupting, everyone respects each others’ opinion, staying on topic, referencing the text, paying attention, taking notes, etc.).

Step #3: Choose an observer and start 
Show everyone a circle discussion chart  (print!) and explain how to write everyone’s names in around the circle. Ask for a volunteer to be the first observer - this person does not participate in the discussion. Ask this observer to fill in the chart, paying attention to the discussion and getting ready to tell the class about how it went at the end, giving at least one positive observation and one suggestion for improvement.

You’re ready! Ask everyone to write down a question in their notes that they might wish to ask during the discussion. Then let someone begin and see what happens. There may be a variety of issues in the first discussion, but refrain from diving in to rescue the dynamics or fill awkward silences. The observer will be sure to comment on some of this. Then, before your next discussion, review the previous observer’s suggestion. As you continue to have discussions, you will be amazed at how they improve based on the students’ own feedback and observations.  

Want to know more about my experience with Harkness? I wrote all about it for Independent School Magazine last year. Check out the complete article, "Learning to Share," here

I find that doing a discussion warm-up activity helps get Harkness discussions off to a good start. That way the students have their minds on topic and their thoughts organized. I've put together fifteen of my favorites in a free downloadable PDF for you. 


Sanity Saver: Empowering Students to Help

One of my favorite parts of teaching is giving students a chance for a showy finale. If we're studying theater, I love letting them perform scenes around campus. If we're doing poetry, everything builds to our final poetry slam. If we're creating artistic projects, there's definitely going to be a showcase with food involved. If we're writing This I Believe Essays with NPR's national project, we're going to have a live radio-esque show somewhere on campus by the end.

Giving students an audience beyond their teacher makes a world of difference in their classroom experience. The thrill of slamming an original poem, stepping onto the stage as Willy Loman, or being awarded first place for best essay by their peers is so much more memorable than a single A. That's why I tend to teach from project unit to project unit.

But when you begin to incorporate these exciting events, the question becomes, who is going to organize all this? Should you, as teacher, stay up all night creating programs, baking cookies, designing lighting effects, etc.? Probably not, since chances are you have curriculum planning, grading, and family to take care of!

Luckily, just as it gives students a thrill to have a wider audience for their work, it boosts their interest and ownership to take care of these events themselves.

When I have a major event, be it an outside reading book fair, one-act play performance, series of speeches, etc., I like to hand over the reins to classroom committees. This is a huge time saver for me, and it actually makes the events far more unique and exciting for the students. To ensure that trying this time saver doesn't end up making more work for you, I've created an event committee handout free for you to download over at Spark Creativity on TPT.

When it's time for a new event, I simply announce the types of committees and let students drift into groups. If one group is way too heavy, I try to influence a few to join another group. Assigning groups would be a last resort. You can always give an extra big group a few extra tasks as needed.

For most events, you can divide the class into three committees. Let one group create the atmosphere for the event, one take photos and create invitations, and one design beautiful programs for attendees. As you and your students are preparing your work throughout the unit, let the committees meet and plan occasionally. Assign a few points to them for staying on task throughout the meeting, as well as a final committee grade to make their strong effort worthwhile. It doesn't have to be a big thing, just a nod to the fact that being graded gets the buy-in started.

Committees have led me down roads I never expected. I've eaten burritos at a poetry slam in the faculty meeting room. I've sat in a coffeehouse that used to be my own classroom. I've watched the shy and the brave act as emcees and realize they love the spotlight.

Whatever discipline you are in, unit finales can bring holiday sparkle and joy to your classroom at any time of the year. Invite guests to see an exhibition of Rube Goldberg machines or a robotics test session. Let students compete at doing proofs at speed for an audience of younger math students. Have students perform scenes from a play in the language that you teach. There is no end to the ways students can exhibit their creative learning. You will be empowering them by giving them a wider audience and by letting them run the show through classroom committees.


Teachers Workout Too: New Music!

If you're like me, Thanksgiving break provided a few opportunities for those workouts you had been dreaming about. With a break from work and two parents home to take turns for those with kids, suddenly the gym and the trails became doable. Lucky, too, since there was also plenty of time for cooking and eating awesome food! 

Now that things are back in full swing, I hope to be able to continue my working out momentum. I love it, it's just hard to find the time! I know you understand.  

I'm always looking for new workout music. It makes a huge difference to the speed and joy of my workout to have really good songs in my ears. That's why I wanted to share some of my favorite  songs with you. If you haven't heard these, go check them out. They'll give a bit of extra inspiration to your early morning or late night workouts. 

And if you find yourself at the gym on the elliptical at 9:30 pm, cheers! I'm probably doing the same thing...


Using Postcards in the Classroom

Who doesn’t love getting a postcard in the mail? Turns out students enjoy them in the classroom too. Throughout my teaching career I have collected postcards – on my own trips, from friends, picked out from corner racks at stationary stores around America. 

Each card is completely different. Perhaps it shows a famous piece of art, a snapshot of life in a faraway country, a person doing something she loves. 

It doesn’t really matter. 

As a set, the postcards provide a beautiful series of writing prompts. I spread the postcards out on a front table and invite students to come up and choose whichever one they wish. 

“Begin a story set in your postcard scene,” I might say. Or perhaps, “Look at your postcard. Write whatever comes to mind.” Or with a bit more specific purpose, “Write a story about two characters connected to what you see on your postcard. Use as many sensory details (or vocabulary words, or whatever else we might be focusing on, etc.) as you can.”  

I love using the postcards as inspiration for writing. I also love using them as inspiration in general. Decorating my classroom walls with bits and pieces of the world is so much fun. If we are reading Pride and Prejudice, postcards from Brighton and Bath are suddenly fascinating. If we are reading the Transcendentalists, nature postcards make for a great bulletin board display. Surrounding my reading corner, I love putting up postcards with reading quotations or pictures of people reading in unusual places. 

Sharing a little bit of my international life also helps me feel like I am exposing my students to a broader perspective on the world. I want them to be able to imagine faraway places and to think about what life is like there. Whether they are writing a story set in a country they don't know much about, or examining a beautiful scene in a new continent on the wall, I like to think the postcards help them broaden their worldview.

Developing my postcard collection has taken me a long time. But it has been a joy.  It’s a way I can bring part of myself into my classroom – the places I have been, the parts of the world I love, the types of art and scenery that inspire me. I love getting to share this with my students. 

How do you share the things that inspire you with your students?

'Tis the Season to Boost Teacher Morale

Even though I am always completely tapped out by January 1st, I love this time of year! I haven't changed much since I stayed up half the night in high school hanging snowflakes all over my house to surprise my family. Though the holiday season can be stressful, there are lots of ways it can bring you joy and help you build community in your school. Here are six of the most successful ideas I've been part of over the years. 

#1 Operation Secret Santa
Who doesn't love a pleasant surprise? Organizing a secret santa exchange among your students, teaching team, club participants, or players can bring everyone closer and add delight to December. This year I am doing it with my advisees, and I designed these cute Secret Santa slips for giving them partners. Download them free, print them out and fill in the names. Easy!

#2 Host a Cookie Exchange
I've done cookie exchanges with other faculty and with my student cooking club, and both were big successes. It's so fun to have dozens of kinds of cookies to eat and share over the holidays, but who wants to bake 30 kinds? Who has the time?! For a cookie exchange, just invite others to bring in one type of cookie (and lots of 'em!) and a big container to a get-together. Put on a little holiday music, add a bit of warm cider, and you've got a party! Everyone walks around and helps themselves to several of every cookie. December never tasted so good. 

#3 ELA Teachers: Try a Reading Challenge over Break
Like so many English teachers, I love to read. And I love it when my students love to read. So it makes me happy, come December, to start promoting my winter break reading challenge. If students can get a BINGO on one of my winter break reading cards, I'll reward them with a prize when they get back. Talk up the challenge and the prizes during the month of December. Bringing in a shelf of library books you know they'll love doesn't hurt! 

#4 Reach out in Your Community
Help students give a gift of themselves this holiday season. Let them help you choose a project, whether it's collecting coats for a local homeless shelter, doing a book drive for the Prison Library Project, making ornaments for a surprise school tree you put up together by the front door, writing letters to deployed soldiers through Operation Gratitude, or some other initiative that is meaningful to your class. By helping others, you will also build a stronger bond with your students and your community. 

#5 Include Holiday Activities in your Day-to-Day
There's no reason you can't include a bit of holiday fun while learning what needs to be learned. Math students can do story problems about Christmas shopping and the amount of time it takes Santa to visit every house in a city, physics students can try to design gingerbread structures that support great weights, English students can write holiday stories, experiment with holiday sensory details, or practice writing holiday metaphors and similes. Whatever your discipline, it's easy to add a bit of cheer into a handout now and then. 

#6 Surprise your Teaching Team with a Treat
Once when I was coaching a long tennis match, one of my player's moms offered to grab Starbucks for me. I was so surprised! It was a small but lovely gesture. Last year I brought smoothies for all my son's preschool teachers on a ninety degree day, and it made me glad to be able to do a small thing to brighten their day. Maybe you can launch "Donut Fridays" for your teaching team or grab lattes for all on the way to work. You're spirits will get a lift when you see how happy you make everyone else. 

I hope this is a wonderful holiday season for you. If you haven't joined yet, this is a great time to hop into my growing Facebook group, Creative High School English. We'll be sharing all kinds of holiday fun over there.  



After the Election: Free Activities to Build Hope with your Students

This election has created more division in America than any I could imagine. While I try to keep my politics out of my dialogue with students, I think this era calls upon all of us to try to help students find common ground and understand each other better. As teachers I believe we must try to create positive change and promote understanding in our country.

This week I grappled with the question, how could I help students to process what had just happened without attacking each other for their differing beliefs?

I crafted some activities to try with students this week. Activities that help them to share their identities and beliefs, hopes and dreams for America. It's a small thing, the chance to share a bit of yourself with your classmates. But it's a place to start in the face of a very complex era.

If you'd like to use these post-election resources with your students, download them for free here.

The Introverted Teacher

After my first day of teaching, I cried in my office for two hours.

It was the most stressful and exhausting day of work I have ever endured. I wondered how on earth I would get through a whole year of such agony. Why had I ever thought I wanted to be a teacher? I laid on the floor, reliving the horror of each “Welcome to my class, here’s the syllabus” lecture I had given. The bored faces. The slow ticking of the clock. The crushing realization that no one could rescue the situation but me.

But that day I had a realization. I was not meant to be the kind of teacher who stands at the front of the room and talks. Not for long, anyway.

I’m an introvert. And once I realized what that meant for me as a teacher, I think it’s been an asset for me. As an introverted teacher, I have constantly searched for ways to present the material to my students in dynamic, creative ways. Ways that keep me out of the spotlight.

In my first year I tried new student-centered pedagogies every month.

We studied poetry through performance pieces and poetry slam. We studied The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn using the Harkness discussion method, and learned a lot about ourselves and how to relate to each other in the process. We produced our own outdoor version of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, traveling around campus for each act. We divided into two literature circles to study The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises, delving into the 1920s by examining its history, fashion and scandal. We practiced writing through workshops and conferences. 

Though I virtually never stood at the front of the classroom, I was up late every night preparing, always learning about new ways to teach.

At the end of that first year, when I said goodbye, my American Literature students gave me the only standing ovation I have ever received as a teacher. I get teary remembering how much I learned from them.

As the years have gone on, I’ve added new options to my introvert’s teaching toolbox. My students have done collaborative work with kids overseas (want to find a partner and try it? Hop into our Facebook group, Creative High School English and post a request!). We have created online writing portfolios and blogs. We’ve done literature-inspired art shows and lunchtime poetry jams. We’ve performed our own Canterbury tales on our own pilgrimage and produced live radio shows. We’ve had reading festivals and reading contests, acted out Shakespearean scenes in costume and done theater workshops with a guest artist.

Most recently I've been exploring English maker spaces as another way of putting together the materials and environment my students need to launch their own creativity. This is just another lovely way we introverted teachers can guide our students without the intensity of the spotlight. I love what I'm learning about the maker movement, and have just finished building curriculum for a maker project you can find right here if you'd like to try it out quickly and easily. 

I’m generally to be found at lunchtime eating alone at my desk, taking a break from it all. Sometimes I am worn through at the end of a teaching day from absorbing so many emotions and thoughts from my creative and occasionally grumpy and tired band of kids. But though the teaching profession presents its challenges to me, as an introvert, I truly believe that what first seemed like a weakness has become one of my greatest classroom strengths. Students get enough lectures. I have other gifts to share.


An Open Letter to Administrators about TPT

Recently I asked some secondary teacher friends if they had ever heard of Teachers Pay Teachers, the teacher-to-teacher resource site where millions of teachers buy and sell curriculum.

“What’s that?” Blank looks. Confused stares.

While TPT has taken off like a rocket in the primary grades, many high school teachers still don’t know it exists. And it’s a rotten shame, for them and for their students. You could do something about that, dear administrators.

Let me establish some credentials here before I make my argument. I have worked in three high schools, one on the West coast, one on the East coast, and one abroad. I have taught all four grades, and worked with regular and honors students, students struggling with English and student body presidents. I have my B.A. from Pomona College, my M.A. from Middlebury. I’ve attended a slough of professional development workshops and had my work published in the English journal, Independent School Magazine, Classroom Notes Plus, and Reading Today. I have spent hundreds of hours reading about pedagogy and examining what there is to offer teachers in terms of internet resources.

I’m not new to education.

I discovered TPT when I took some time off from teaching to stay home with my young children. Looking at the curriculum packets, filled with careful instructions for teachers, rubrics, examples and attractive handouts, I couldn’t help but remember my first year in the classroom.

Desperate for ideas, I spent all my free time that year at the Los Angeles library and Barnes and Noble, trolling the education shelves for relevant, interesting inspiration.  I read many wonderful books, including Why Read?, by Mark Edmundson, and The Courage to Teach, by Parker Palmer. I read about differentiated instruction, the differences between boys’ and girls’ brains, independent projects and portfolios, the role of active learning.

But almost none of it was directly applicable to the next day’s lesson. And the clock was always ticking.

I turned next to conferences, attending the National Council of Teachers of English conference and a retreat for new teachers in Northern California. I was inspired by much of what I found, and I eagerly snapped up the packets of materials teachers shared with me. I researched further online, learning more about new pedagogies like Harkness and literature circles, and finding inspiration at teacher sharing sites like Outta Ray’s Head and Web English Teacher.

All of this I considered to be the natural hard work of the English teacher. By finding inspiration in the work of other teachers, I felt I was giving my students the very best I could. After all, I was new. Surely I had much to learn. I designed tons of my own curriculum, but I also adapted the ideas of others who were willing to share.

Is that the teacher’s version of plagiarism? Was I unoriginal? Not hardworking enough?

Ha! I often spent fourteen or sixteen hours a day working, trying desperately to produce the best possible curriculum for my students with little or no guidance from my school administration (no offense meant).

So here we get to the crux of the issue. Teachers Pay Teachers. Not only should secondary teachers not feel guilty for going online and buying the curriculum designed by those who have come before, school administrations ought to consider budgeting for just this. My school was happy to buy dull, canned books of vocabulary activities for my students. They were happy to fund a packet of Macbeth worksheets designed by a big name publishing house. They didn’t mind if I used the poetry slam materials designed by other teachers and shared with me at national conferences. How is TPT any different? Besides, of course, that it is WAY better.

As open markets so often do, TPT has inspired teachers to create more and better curriculum than ever before. On TPT, teachers can find not just thorough, attractive lesson plans, but the associated rubrics, models, bulletin board headers, and parent info that only teachers realize other teachers need.  Want your teachers to help students create interactive notebooks but they don’t know how? No problem. Want to improve classroom dynamics in classrooms but have no idea where to begin? TPT can help. Wishing your English department could make grammar more fun? You’re not the only one! Teachers with new classes won’t have to stay up all night for the first month trying to get ahead, and teachers who are finding material stagnant after ten years can find fresh ideas and inspiration. Administrators, rejoice!

Not only should administrations encourage teachers to shop for TPT resources to supplement their original curriculum, they shouldn’t be afraid to let their teachers become sellers. My ability to design thorough and relevant curriculum has only improved since I began to share my materials through the site. I look forward to returning to the classroom with hundreds of pages of ready-made activities in hand. Plus, after networking with other TPT sellers on Twitter and Facebook, I have an even more extensive repertoire of pedagogy knowledge. Members of the community are constantly sharing ideas and articles as well as products via these channels.

So, administrators, tell your teachers about TPT. Give them fifty dollars to spend there and see what happens. You’ll be amazed at what they can find for less than the price of a single textbook. And teachers, don’t be afraid to approach your administration and ask. If they don’t know what you’re talking about, give them this letter. Or make your own case; I’m sure you’ve got a similar story to share. Millions of teachers are engaged in the TPT community, and we are proud to be part of it. It’s a new frontier in education, and it’s a good one.

Betsy from Spark Creativity


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