I teach two sections of English I Honors in a small, rural high school with approximately 100 incoming freshmen each year. Approximately 25-30 of those students are enrolled in an honors-level English class based on grades, test scores, and teacher recommendation. They have gotten into the honors track through hard work and determination. They have been told for years that they are “gifted,” which they have internalized as meaning they are naturally smarter than their peers. You would expect them to be oozing confidence. Yet, several of them are not confident in their reading and writing skills, the very skills that earned them a coveted spot in the honors class.
Some of my students get excited when I mention that our lesson is going to require them to be creative. Eyes grow wide. Smiles widen. But this does not describe the majority of my students. When confronted with questions that requires divergent thinking, some of them get downright flustered, shut down, or belittle themselves. For these students, creativity has become stressful and anxiety-inducing, rather than a source of joy and an opportunity to play. I believe that what separates the students who embrace creativity from those who fear it is a difference in what Dweck would call mindset. Students who shrink back from creativity don’t see their own creative potential. Some think that they were born without the “creativity gene,” and even exhibit defensive speak when tasked with using their creativity: “I’m not a creative person.” “I’m a Type A person” (Dweck 2016). In an attempt to combat this type of mindset, I began my school year with three goals: 1. Create a dialogue on what it means to be creative. 2. Engage students in learning activities that promote create thinking and problem-solving. 3. Ask students to engage in creativity outside of the classroom.
Creating a Dialogue with Students
They say that the first step is admitting there is a problem: creativity is not getting the attention that it deserves in American classrooms. In the name of high-stakes testing, “what counts as curriculum” has been narrowed down in many districts, with a push for tested subjects so strong that creativity has been pushed out entirely (Cordova 2012). I wanted to ensure that my students knew that creativity wasn’t “fluff” or a “dumbing down of the curriculum, but a necessary skills. So, I began the year by showing students TED Talks by experts in the field of creativity, with a focus on how creativity drives our businesses but also how it tends to decline with age (Brown 2008). They participated along with Tim Brown’s audience as he led them through the 50 circles test, noticing that their answers fell in line more closely with the creativity level of adults than the level of children. Students also responded to quotes on creativity from Picasso and Einstein, reflecting on their own beliefs and how those beliefs align or challenge the views of experts. The overarching theme that emerged was that often, children are discouraged from being creativity, which is sometimes viewed as “childish,” for the sake of being more “academic,” but that doesn’t have to be the case, as long as individuals continue to actively pursue their creativity, engaging in what Syed would call “deliberate practice” of imagination (Syed 2011).
Engaging Students in Creative Activities
Our class discussions on creativity paired well with a reading of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, which addresses the diminished creativity of adults head-on. The title character of the story expresses his distress at the fact that, when he shows adults his drawing, they are unable to see it for what it is because they are more concerned with “matters of consequence.” Now that students had acknowledged that they are at a point where their childlike creativity is already fading, they were prepared to stretch their creative muscles with an activity in divergent thinking straight from the pages of Exupery. We analyzed the little prince’s misunderstood drawing and independently brainstormed possible interpretations of the sketch before sharing in small groups and then selecting their most divergent thoughts in a whole-group rendering of the image.
Exploring Creativity Outside of the Classroom
Once students had experience in thinking outside of the box, I decided to have students create a writer’s notebook to document their creativity, which could include writing, art, design, observation, exploration, or any combination thereof. Many students drew ideas from journals that I keep in the classroom–such as Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal series or Quinn McDonald’s Raw Art Journaling–while others turned to Pinterest and Google to find, share, curate ideas for creative entries. The idea was to encourage students to take ownership of their creative growth through a quarter-long independent project. The best part of this project was overhearing students discuss their entries with each other. It was apparent that students had been sharing their writer’s’ notebooks with each other outside of class, actually having meaningful, organic discussions about their creative processes and acting as authentic audiences for one another in a way that I had not anticipated.
As the year progresses, I want to ensure that students engage in even more creative processes, including opportunities for divergent thinking and Responsive Design, a “design-centric theory of innovating” developed by the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory (Cordova 2012), that can be harnessed to promote creativity in the classroom. Additionally, I want to ensure that students are given ample time to reflect on their creative growth, its importance to them on an individual level, and its fundamental importance to society as a whole. I want them to see creativity as an important skill to possess and exercise beyond the high school classroom, including in the workforce; I want them to understand that creativity can be just as important–if not more important–as analytical skills.
Brown, T. (2008). Tales of creativity and play. TED Talks. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_brown_on_creativity_and_play?language=en
Cordova, et. al. (2012). Nurturing creativity and professional learning for 21st century education: ResponsiveDesign and the cultural landscapes collaboratory. LEARNing landscapes, 6(1), 155-178.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York, NY. Random House.
Mindset quiz. (2016). National Council for Community & Education Partnerships. Retrieved from http://www.edpartnerships.org/sites/default/files/events/2016/02/Mindset%20Quiz.pdf
Syed, M. (2011). Bounce: mozart, federer, picasso, backham, and the science of success. New York, NY. Harper Collins.