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.

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