Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Fostering Creativity

You couldn't miss the nervous energy in the room this morning.

We've just finished reading Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir Night, and while reading, I asked students to keep track of significant quotations from the book, quotations that impacted them as a reader, quotations that stung and haunted. For about a week now, we've been sharing our quotes, both digitally as well on posters that hang about my classroom. And it all lead up to today.

Late last week, I introduced to my students the purpose behind keeping track of all those quotations. Not only would we be referencing them in our class discussions, but I asked each student to pick one. Pick a quote that speaks to our human condition and do something creative with it. That's it. That was the assignment. Do something creative. 

Okay, so I asked them to do a couple more things with the quotation, like have it cited correctly on their work and connect to a well-worded theme statement that they could discuss and connect to our current lives, but I didn't give a set of step-by-step instructions. Instead, I hung a few exemplary projects from previous students around the room and gave them space and time to think. Be creative.

We often ask our students to be creative, to think critically, to be original, but then we don't give them space to do this in the classroom. If students do not see what creativity looks like, what it sounds like, and how it happens, it is incredibly difficult to nurture. 

Yesterday a student came into class with her canvas covered in black and white photos of shoes, melted crayon wax dripping over her images. She used class time to paint Mod Podge onto her canvas. And the student sitting next to her, a young man working on a collage, had no idea what to think. He had never heard of Mod Podge or decoupage. I overheard a whole conversation between these two students about how you can use the gel medium to seal and transfer images, to collage and create in ways that he never thought of. And while it started as a conversation that may have been better suited to an art classroom, it pretty quickly changed into a conversation about why each student had selected their particular quote, why they were making particular design choices, format and genre choices for their creative piece, and connections they were making to things learned in their World Cultures course. I eavesdropped on a conversation that involved the words "analysis" and "rhetoric." And that conversation may not have happened in quite the same way if something tangible, something creative hadn't connected them.

And so today, when I asked students to share their creativity with the class, there was a palpable anxiousness in the room. Sure, a few were anxious about speaking in front of their peers, but even more so, there seemed to be an excitement to share their creations and revelations. I asked for volunteers to present and hands shot up. We discussed the visual choices and connections of our mixed media artists, heard original poetry, watched a video recording of an original modern dance performed by two of my students, talked typography choices as part of visual rhetoric. Students analyzed how messages and how themes connected with readers.  At more than one point during our class, I had students explain why and how they decided to alter their original plans in order to better reflect the theme presented by the quotation. After the bell to end class rang, a student came up to tell me that she had rediscovered water colors for this project, that in painting her piece she connected to the quotation through the process of painting.

And while some might look at this project as being "fluff," I know that by having my students produce something creative connecting quotations and themes that my students will be better equipped to write their original essays on themes found in their reading next week. I may not have had my students complete a graphic organizer or a sentence outline, but my classroom is now a gallery of quotations. They have evidence. Students will have heard 25 original theme statements before ever putting pen to paper when they write their essay on a theme found in their reading. They have support. They will have been thoroughly immersed in conversations about rhetoric, analyzing the impact of choices, both artistic and written before they ever begin to draft their essays. And opening up time and space in the classroom for students be creative also opened up opportunities for my students to analyze a text in new and creative ways. I won't have 25 of the exact same essays to read next week because I gave students space to engage with one another in order to produce something creative.  They are now better prepared to write creatively and critically about the text. In asking them to produce something original, they are now better equipped to write something original. 
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