28 February 2012

Collaboration and Creativity

Guest blog by Gwyn Ridenhour.  Part 2 of 2

Let students make mistakes

This is such an important point, and one we as parents and teachers are often too quick to “fix.” Our world is currently experiencing more rapid change – in technology, population, and environment - than perhaps in any other point in history. We don’t know what to expect in five years or ten, and that means that we don’t know exactly what to teach our kids in order to make sure they are prepared for their future. Since we don’t know what technologies or global situations our kids will experience when they are adults, the best tools we can give them now are ones they can use in any situation, and these are critical thinking and problem solving.

Kids need to learn how to look at a problem and identify multiple solutions. They need to make mistakes, because it is in these moments that true opportunity happens. They identify what’s wrong. Then they identify what happened to make the project go wrong. Then they identify the possible solutions to create a more successful outcome. Repeat. And repeat again. Only then will they gain the skills to teach themselves – and that should be one of the ultimate goals of education.

Allow more time for the arts, physical education, and recess

This one’s a bit tricky, because though I feel strongly that kids need more of these things, I don’t like the models that are currently being used in the school system. I was shocked earlier this year when I heard a 6th grade band perform “Old MacDonald” for the middle school band concert. Old MacDonald? For real? Come on. No eleven-year old can play that song with any true feeling, except for one of embarrassment. Band teachers who do it “right” use music from the students’ current world, giving them opportunity to explore themselves through their music.

As for art class, yes – for all of these things, kids need more – but again, you can’t box it up and present it in a sterile package if kids are going to get anything out of it. My daughter, who adores art, hated art class when she was still in public school. I was curious, so I came in to observe. The teacher gave all the kids the same materials and then told them to all paint the same Japanese style cherry blossom tree. If they didn’t do it exactly like her example, she was quick to criticize, guiding kids to become more accurate copiers, perhaps, but surely not artists. There was no joy, no creativity, no freedom of expression. No wonder my daughter hated it. Art should be about the explorative process – not a line of identical copies.

Physical education needs to be about getting kids moving, not exposing them to all the sports that Americans love. Get them dancing, moving, running, whatever. Ask kids what they like and offer different PE mini-classes within the larger group so that they can have choices. Don’t make them play basketball if they hate basketball. What’s the point in that? This should be joyful and rejuvenating, not competitive and stressful. But yes, of course, we need exercise – every day. We need to move, to be outside, to get our blood flowing every day. It makes us happy and keeps us sharp.

And finally, for recess, again, there should be some free choice here. Recess for many kids is bliss – freedom of play, of choice, of conversation. It’s a break in the day and provides much needed sunshine. But for many kids, recess is a nightmare. They dread that time every day because they don’t know who to hang out with. Or they’re bullied. Kids for whom recess is a punishment should have a safer alternative. If the kid is a book lover, then perhaps have an opportunity to volunteer in the library (even better if there is more than one student like this – you can make a volunteer club!). Or if outside time is truly the goal, then create adult-led opportunities that can be done outside. Perhaps a list of recess alternatives could be posted that kids could choose from.
       Allow more time for creating, performing, dreaming, and thinking

This is perhaps the most important of the imperatives. I would actually put these in a particular order: Dreaming, thinking, creating, performing. Allow kids to dream up what they want to do – to be (the idea generator stage). Then think about it – how will you do it? What resources do you need? Who can you talk to for assistance (the problem solving stage). Once ideas are outlined, then the child creates. This isn’t a worksheet assignment. It’s a short film. A new app. A working robot. A book. A painting. A project. This is messy business which can’t be evaluated by a standardized test. And then finally, we come to the performing stage. This is the bit where the student gets to enjoy the limelight and get real positive feedback about her hard work and design. Show off the creation! Share it with class, online, with teachers outside the classroom. The teacher’s role is facilitator, helping the child move through each of these stages. But the work and sense of satisfaction all belongs to the child.

27 February 2012

Urging Global Comments to Promote Creativity in Education!

Today’s post will be the first of two parts and is a guest post by a friend who lives many states away from me in the United States.  I am in Kentucky; Gwyn lives in North Dakota.  We are modeling the promotion of creativity through collaboration, and we urge you to join us by commenting on this blog. 

Part 1 of 2:  Guest post by Gwyn Ridenhour
Recently, Renee posted five simple suggestions to encourage more creativity in the schools. She asked me to choose one and respond to it, but honestly I couldn’t. They are all too intertwined and important to simply discuss one.

As a home educator of two remarkable children, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to pursue these suggestions in the freedom of my own home. However, the longer I do this, the more I wish for the same opportunity for teachers and students in the public schools. We are simply not preparing our children for our rapidly changing future. They lack critical thinking and problem solving skills, largely because we are too scripted in the classroom. It’s beyond time to give teachers more autonomy in the classroom and encourage methods that center on creativity and the individual child.

Here’s what Renee says (with my comments following each item):
 Let students study and explore topics that interest them.  
Letting students choose their own topics does several marvelous things at once.
  •  It validates  (“you mean you care about what I want to learn??”).
  • It empowers, allowing students to become more invested their own success. Suddenly students are learning because it’s something they identified as a goal; they’re no longer just studying for a grade.
  • It prepares students for their own futures. If a child passionate about art studies math, science, history, and literature through an art lens, he will learn the core subjects and enrich his knowledge of art all at the same time. The result? And educated child who is an expert in his field.
  • It motivates students. Take the art student again. Let’s say that this student has a history of hating math. If you can help him see math as relevant to his passion, then the game changes. Intermingle art and geometry. Introduce him to the myriad patterns waiting to be discovered in numbers and shapes. Let him put doodles on his algebra work.  Suddenly, math becomes a bit more interesting.  If you haven’t discovered Vi Hart yet, be sure to check out her videos (and let students check them out too). She’s a model of combining the arts with math.

Let students use their own technology devices to enhance their learning

I can’t speak to the IPad, IPhones, and so forth, because we don’t own these types of devices. However, we do embrace technology in our home to help the kids pursue their interests. In fact, without technology, the success they’ve had in their areas of interest largely wouldn’t have been possible.

My daughter is an 8 year old author and illustrator of two self-published books. She has sold about 150 copies, enough to buy her own laptop and plenty of book stock to sell at future events. She uses Wordpress to support her author website, lulu.com for the self-publishing services, and National Novel Writing Month (another website) to help keep her on track in her writing goals. This fall, we used our household camera and Windows Movie Maker to allow her to create short films explaining the writing process. This has opened up a wealth of public speaking opportunities, including one video-conference (more technology) with a school across the state. And oh yeah, she’s writing her newest book on the laptop she bought herself.

My 11 year old son is a musician and composer. He uses software called Finale to compose, and Wordpress to support his music-based website. Last year, we matched the money he had earned from gigging to allow him to purchase studio recording equipment. He’ll use this to record his original pieces for many years to come. He uses texting as well, mainly to coordinate band practice and science club meetings.

Final note:  Check back tomorrow for post 2 of 2.  Check out Gwyn's blog and the work of her two fabulous kids.  And, please, comment on both of our blogs so we can increase the collaboration and dialogue about creativity and improvements for education.  

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.

23 February 2012

Student Choice and Interest

Let’s learn from these projects—non-examples of student choice and interest in the classroom.  At the end of the post, you will be encouraged to deconstruct these class projects and offer suggestions for revamping to promote authentic student interest and choice.
Hatchet Projects—choose one!
Make a poster that lists all the items Brian had with him when the plane crashed.  Circle the item that was most important for Brian.  Then neatly write one complete paragraph explaining why you circled that item.  Color your poster with colors that represent symbols in the book. 
Make a powerpoint that has 5 slides displaying each of the items Brian had with him when the plane crashed.  Highlight in yellow the item that was most important to Brian.  Then write one complete paragraph explaining why you highlighted that item.  Use clip art to represent symbols in the book.

Why are these class projects non-examples of student choice and interest in the classroom?  What does creativity in the classroom look like? 

Creativity in the classroom doesn’t mean schoolwork needs to be colored with a crayon or drawn on construction paper.  When we are creative we move beyond traditional ideas and approaches, and we discover alternative ways of thinking and doing. 

We need to teach students to use knowledge to solve complex real-world problems and to create projects, designs, and other works for use in real-world situations based on their own interests.  We need to allow students to be adaptable and flexible in their learning.  Having the right answer isn’t as important as thinking about the process used to reach the answer.

Practical ideas for teachers with many students
  • Keep a journal electronically or in a notebook where you record any ideas you have.  Model your own journal writing and write with students.  Have students keep an idea book or electronic journal, too.
  • Challenge students to think for themselves.  Compliance is not a friend of creativity.
  • Ask more open ended questions.  Use wrong answers as learning experiences, and encourage students to be curious and ask questions.
  • Make sure students are creating and building on original thoughts and ideas.
It’s possible to teach any class (even an art class) without any creativity, if students don’t do any creating.
  • Even if teaching a prescribed and required scripted program, you could be creative with your approach to teaching it, and you could allow your students to imagine and create.
  • Respect originality and uniqueness in student work and thinking.  Don’t expect every student paper or project to be on the same topic or written with the same ideas in the same format.

Practical ideas for administrators responsible for many teachers and students
  •  Model creativity and thinking for teachers and students when solving problems in the school.
  • Allow teachers to approach curriculum in meaningful ways to engage students in the creative process.
  • Model the importance of asking thoughtful questions which may have more than one right answer.  Learn from wrong answers.
  • Encourage and allow for teacher autonomy.
The best ideas for parents encouraging creativity come from my friend, Gwyn, who blogs about creativity and about how she allows her children to follow their own interests and passions.  Even if you are not a homeschooling family, there is much to be learned from Gwyn.  Remember being creative is about original thoughts and new approaches—that’s what you will see from Gwyn, and I’m sure she would rather we all find our own original thoughts than copy hers.  Check out her blog for some creative inspiration for your home and family.

If you click over to Gwyn’s blog, I hope you will return here to engage in deconstruction of the Hatchet projects.  How could they be revamped?  Please post your suggestions in the comments section below.

19 February 2012

Stop Squashing Creativity in Education

More and more when I travel, I hear teachers share stories of scripted curriculum programs they are expected to follow in their schools.  Often schools and districts are so concerned with high-stakes standardized tests, they seek uniform means for providing instruction to students.  Many schools and districts do this because they don’t trust teachers to be professionals.  Other schools do this because they think it’s a quick fix answer to their low test scores.  Does a standardized approach to education provide students what they need to be successful in the 21st century and beyond?  Is a standardized approach to instruction what we really want?  No!  We don’t.  Evidence of this not being what we want was unmistakable at the Kentucky Council of Teachers of English/Language Arts (KCTE/LA) annual conference, which concluded only hours ago.  This year’s conference theme was Literacy Matters:  The Common Core and Beyond. 

Professional conferences like this provide occasion for educators to refuel and network so they can return to schools energized and ready to provide students creative and critical opportunities to learn, and so they can be more connected to other educators.  Personally, I am on a creative high after hearing Sara Kajder discuss digital literacies and after hearing Kentucky’s poet laureate, Maureen Morehead, read her poetry.   Not only did I hear these well-established authors, I also heard Kentucky teachers talk about best practices in their classrooms.  The showcased sessions were not teachers sharing the page number they were covering in a scripted program.  Exciting session titles included “What’s the Big Idea?  The Real Purpose of Literature in Society and the Classroom,” and “The Power of Narrative in Writing and Teaching.”

I had the joy of reconnecting with a teacher I first met a couple of years ago; this teacher shares the passion I have for promoting creativity in education.   This all has me thinking about what we can do to stop squashing creativity in education.  With creative and thoughtful planning of time and resources, there’s no reason why schools couldn’t and shouldn’t do these five things. 

  1. Let students study and explore topics that interest them
  2. Let students use their own technology devices to enhance their learning
  3. Let students make mistakes
  4. Allow more time for the arts, physical education, and recess
  5. Allow more time for creating,  performing, dreaming, and thinking

In future posts, I will explore these ideas more fully and offer suggestions for how schools can pragmatically approach ways to stop squashing creativity.  If you have your own ideas, please share them here so we can all learn from one another.

12 February 2012

My Two Hopes for Kentucky’s ESEA Waiver

We experienced a colossal week in American public education.  The state of Kentucky (along with 9 other states) received official notification that our ESEA waiver was granted.  What exactly does this mean?  Well, it means a great deal and the hard work to enact it all is only beginning.
Personally, I have two hopes for our flexibility from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and the crux of both hopes is lifelong learning.

Hope #1:  Students receive opportunities to learn what they need to know to be successful in life, and we meet their individual needs in engaging and meaningful ways—encouraging them to be lifelong learners. 

Hope #2:  Teachers are considered highly respected professionals.  This happens when teachers are supported in their personal pursuits as lifelong learners.   We need schools where there is a focus on reflection and growth for adults and students and not a focus on “gotcha” evaluation and assessment systems.

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.”                  
 ~ Albert Einstein~

05 February 2012

When’s the last time you connected math and reading?

For someone who never really enjoyed mathematics as any part of my schooling, I was pleasantly surprised this week when I attended a mathematics design collaborative meeting and learned about conceptual thinking that is real mathematics.   I even liked it!  I suspect one of the reasons I enjoyed myself is because my two boys have me thinking more about math these days, and since we’ve also been on a quest to explore Greek and Roman mythology, Pythagorean theorem was actually interesting to me, a social sciences and humanities major. 

I have received numerous questions from educators about how to teach Greek and Latin roots and Greek mythology as called for in the Common Core State Standards.  Just what is the best way to help kids understand CCSS Reading Literature #4?  Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including those that allude to significant characters found in mythology (e.g. Herculean).  Or CCSS Language #4b.  Use common, grade-appropriate Greek and Latin affixes and roots as clues to the meaning of a word.  Hopefully, we can provide kids opportunities to make natural connections by exposing them to fantastic texts they enjoy and by engaging them in word study. 

Integrated learning.  Because he’s read Rick Riordian’s The Lightening Thief and the rest of the series, my ten year old is familiar with gods and goddesses from Greek and Roman mythology.  This week he and I watched a Discovery channel documentary on the early days of NASA space exploration.   Imagine his delight when the first segment of the documentary focused on Apollo.  He naturally made a connection, telling me “I bet they named it that because Apollo was god of the sun”.  At his elementary school’s parent night a couple of days later, this same son’s teacher approached me to share a story about an Aha moment during word study time at school.  She said she saw a sparkle in his eyes when he began connecting words to grad.  “That’s why we have 1st grade, 2nd grade, 3rd grade, 4th grade, 5th grade; we are stepping up each year….” Turns out she has the kids participating in word study followed up by Shared Inquiry discussions about texts.  It’s learning that’s integrated and it makes sense for kids.

Learn science.  Learn math.  Learn history.  Learn literature.   Learn the arts.  Learn language.  And never stop learning.   You will no doubt encounter many of the great derivatives and myths from western culture, and you may even connect math and reading.
Three of my favorite online resources for teaching Greek and Latin root words & Greek and Roman mythology include: