26 February 2012

Critical Thinking and Creativity in the Classroom

About a year before I left the classroom, a district mandate was provided stating there should be no coloring in the high school classrooms.  The statement was made to encourage greater rigor in lessons being taught to high school students because district officials conducted walk-throughs and found students spending their time coloring in some classes.  Since I wasn't in the classrooms where the coloring occurred, I can’t say anything about the learning intentions and purpose of instruction.  I do know students showed up in my English classes wearing crayon necklaces in protest.  They felt their opportunities to be creative were being seized.

Too often we don’t understand real creativity well enough to know that creativity beckons curiosity and rigor in the lessons we design.  Lessons requiring students to create non-linguistic representations of poems can be examples of critical thinking and creativity in the classroom. 

Poetry Interpretation Project
Select a poem to read, enjoy, and analyze.  Create a non-linguistic representation demonstrating your understanding of the poem, and then write an essay in which you evaluate an aspect of the poem you find relevant to the overall meaning of the poem. 

The key to this assignment is providing students with choice in selecting a poem and then providing them guidance as they read and create their visual interpretation.  Over the years of using this assignment in class, I saw numerous types of interpretations for a wide variety of poems.  Some students created visual artwork; others created dramatic interpretations.  A few created short films, and one student created a Lego diorama illustrating the poem he selected to analyze.  I have great memories of all those pieces of student work and wish I still had more of it than I do.  One of the remaining artifacts from my teaching days was created by Amanda Hobdy Riley in her sophomore year of my English class, some 7 or 8 years ago.  Amanda created this visual representation of The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams.  Amanda claims she didn’t know the beauty of her work until much later; she says she just slapped it together at the time.  Yet, I believe she interpreted something meaningful from the poem when she juxtaposed abstract artwork with the concrete images in Williams’ poem.

When I began assigning this project and essay in class, I didn’t always provide explicit writing instruction students needed while they wrote their essays.  I was more focused on the visual interpretations.   My writing instruction improved over time, but I can’t say the instruction I provided the year Amanda was in my class was the most effective.   In fact, Amanda wrote the best essay she was capable of producing given that I didn’t teach the students how to write clear thesis statements.  I guess I just thought they already knew.  

Fortunately, Amanda chose to return to this essay during her senior year when she was revising some of her writing for inclusion in her writing portfolio.  During her senior year, she had my friend and colleague as her teacher; he taught Amanda to write a thesis statement.  In her reflection paper that accompanied her portfolio entries, Amanda wrote “William Carlos Williams is one of the reasons why poetry is now my passion.”  As her former teacher, I’m happy to say a class assignment offered Amanda opportunity to create and to think, impacting her life positively.  She graduated from college with honors over a year ago.   She blogs regularly at anthropologyandlove.