Saturday, July 4, 2015

Why Can't I Be More Creative?

I'll be honest. I have no confidence in my creativity. I don't know why, but somewhere in my past, I must have been told that I was not creative. So now, I have a difficult time being in a room with others and having an assignment to "create" something. I get that uncomfortable feeling and find myself watching and trying to hide the fact that I'm not participating or following instructions.

This is somewhat disconcerting to me because I think I was pretty good at getting my students to think creatively when I was a classroom teacher. I remember some of the fun activities we did, the many creative ideas my students came up with, and their confidence when sharing something original - an idea or a product. As a mom, I was determined that my sons would feel comfortable about thinking out-of-the-box, and I challenged them to make up their own games or to find creative uses for ordinary items.  I made it a point to not buy coloring books but to have lots of paper, crayons, pens, etc. around so they would draw what they wanted to and not have to "stay in the lines." My intentions were tested when my oldest went to kindergarten. The teacher shared that he had done well on the pre-test but he could use help with his fine motor coordination. She then showed me all the other students' coloring of a bird and then showed me my son's. He had used an assortment of crayons and it wasn't neat like the others. When I asked my son about it later, he proudly stated, "Everybody else used only one color. Mine was a rainbow bird; I used lots of colors!"  As the year went by, I noticed that my son began to conform to what was expected. Did school kill his creativity?

What does it mean to be creative in school? What does that look like, and how do we get students to a place where thinking of and sharing creative ideas is the norm and not the exception?

So often in school, we structure our day so there is minimal time for students to explore, discover, and create on their own or with peers who have similar interests. The adult in the classroom tells students what to do, how to do it, and how much time they have to complete it. Activities such as writing or art which are opportunities to share our creative ideas are often structured as well, and we give students samples to follow or everyone is given the same assignment and is expected to complete it the same way.  How do we move away from giving students the structure or the expectation to providing them with opportunities to think and act creatively?  After much thought, here are my suggestions:

  • We need to know our students, especially their interests and their strengths.  Give them time to explore so they can discover what they enjoy doing or what they're good at.  Doing so can instill in them a confidence that they can contribute to their classroom community.
  • Expose our students to great works of art, music, and literature from different cultures. They need to hear and see examples of the classics and to create their own ideas about why these have survived the test of time. 
  • Allow students to share their opinions and to understand that everyone is entitled to their own likes and dislikes based on their own personal experiences.  Everyone's voice must be respected.
  • Provide a structure for students where they brainstorm and think of as many ideas as they can. From this open-ended divergent thinking activity, students choose one to focus on. For example, ask students to list as many uses as they can for a paper bag or a pencil or an envelope.  Then students choose one unique idea, sketch out their process,  and then create and share it. We may be surprised with the creative ideas that emerge from this simple activity.
  • Model and share examples of creativity. "Johnny came up with a different way to solve that math problem.  Johnny, can you explain your thought process with the class?" or "Listen for descriptive words or phrases while I read the story aloud.  Raise your hand when you hear something that catches your ear." Then stop periodically and call on students to share what they heard and what picture those words painted in their minds. Provide students with examples so they can understand what creative thinking is.  The more we do this as teachers, the more natural it becomes.
  • Teach students different tools - both low-tech and high-tech - so they have a choice in how they want to create and share their learnings.  Choice is a powerful motivator, and we might be pleasantly surprised at the final products. I was amazed with what some of our fifth graders created and shared when they could choose their own topic based on the theme of the quarter. Some students used tools that they discovered and learned on their own; clearly, the teacher had created a learning culture in her classroom where students were confident and self-directed learners. 
  • Finally, TIME is such an important factor if we want our students to be creative.  Every student is different; some will jump right in while others need time to reflect and think before coming up with an idea. We need to recognize these differences and make sure our schedule includes time for personalized learning.  
So back to me and my lack of confidence when asked to create something.  I realize that I may never overcome my discomfort when producing an art project.  However, I can be creative in other ways, most importantly, as a school leader. How we address the needs of our school community to ensure success takes commitment and creativity. I am committed, and I will continue to explore creative ways to ensure that every student and every staff member has the tools they need to be successful. 

During the Cardboard Challenge, students were able to create what they wanted using old cardboard boxes and other materials. This is such a fun activity for our students as well as for our military partners who guide the students through their projects.
Students were able to create games and have other students try them out. It wasn't unusual to hear students critique their own product and share how they would improve it.  This is something we want students to do - to self-assess so they can continue to improve.

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