Ask a classroom of third-graders how many of them are creative and every hand will go up. Ask a group of sophomores the same question and very few will raise their hands.
What happened during over that period of time?
The Lack of Creativity in Upper Grades
Part of it is that sophomores are more likely to be self-conscious about their artistic ability than the average third-grade student. But there’s a larger, more serious problem at work. As students advance in school, the amount of time they spend doing creative work decreases drastically. Preparing for college becomes more important, and college is not seen as a place where the arts are valued. We want students to learn skills like reading and writing, and creative expression becomes a luxury. It isn’t valued because it’s not on the state tests or college entrance exams. Who has the time to use it in lessons?
However, when we deny students the opportunity to do creative work on a regular basis, we are robbing them of powerful opportunities for learning. Not only that, but the world needs people who can think creatively to come up with solutions to the world’s most urgent problems.
It doesn’t need to be an either/or proposition. We think that we students are either being creative, or they are learning something important. It CAN be this way, but it doesn’t have to be.
Below are some reasons why creativity should be a regular occurrence in ELA classes.
Kids learn more when they are having fun.
We all know this from our own experiences growing up. Going over “boring” subjects like grammar in a creative way will have students more focused and attentive, and they’ll learn more in the process.
Creative thinking is relaxing.
Kids today deal with significant amounts of stress and anxiety. Creative activities get kids into that state of flow where time passes without them knowing it, which decreases their stress levels. If you’re doing something creative, don’t be surprised if the bell rings without your students knowing it.
Creative tasks stimulate the imagination
And we certainly want students to leave our classroom with enlarged imaginations that see the possibilities of new solutions and approaches to problem-solving. We want kids that go out into society thinking “What if?” at every turn.
Creativity is valued in the workforce.
We certainly want kids that can follow directions, but we also want students that can think beyond what is currently possible. Creative thinkers find new ways to accomplish tasks, solve problems, and make companies more productive.
Creativity allows students to use their passions in new ways
I was one of those kids who was a decent student but couldn’t wait to get home to play guitar and draw and do other things that school prevented me from doing. Your students have a wealth of creative pursuits they are interested in outside of school, like video production, songwriting, dance, and poetry. Why not let them use those talents to show what they know? When students take something they are learning and apply it to something new, they get the opportunity to learn twice – once while mastering the content you give them, and again by using their talents in other areas.
So how can you add creative activities to your classroom? Here are a few small things you can do.
Get them drawing during downtime.
Most of my students will immediately go to their phones after they finish a test or a quiz while they are waiting for the rest of the students to be done. Instead, give them coloring pages, or a small task like drawing a self-portrait of themselves without picking up their pencil. If you want, you can even have a contest to see who drew the best representation of themselves!
Most young kids will go to town if you hand them a few crayons. The magic is still in there for the older kids. You just have them the opportunity to find it again. And as mentioned above, doing art is very relaxing – much more so than going on social media.
I like to have my students write poems as a response to something we’ve read. For example, I might have my student write a sijo poem about a chapter they’ve read the night before. Because a sijo poem is fairly structured, it gives students boundaries that make writing poems easier. They can also create blackout poetry by using a page of a novel that you’ve photocopied for them to use. Have them try to distill the page of text into just a few words that capture the essence of the theme or major event.
Use creative writing.
I read a story by Anton Chekhov called “The Kiss” in which an unnamed woman receives a kiss in a dark room from the protagonist of the story. We never find out who the woman is, although she is one of the people at the party that begins the story. Instead of having them tell me who they think the woman is and why, I have them write about the event from the point of view of the mysterious woman in a way that reveals her identity in a plausible fashion while also explaining how she came to be there and what she did afterward.
There are multiple possibilities, and my student tend to do really good analysis and support for their ideas, sometimes better than they would in an essay. We can use creative writing as a stepping stone to the type of analysis we want them to do for the more “left-brained” writing assignments. And the benefit is that once they get into their right brain, it’s almost like the left brain (which controls the analysis) says “Hey! I want in on the fun. Let me add some stuff.” They get tricked into doing a close reading without thinking about it.
Bring Works of Art into the Classroom.
There’s not a Shakespeare unit that goes by in my class without looking at a few famous works of art based on the play. We look at the representation of characters, determine which moment of the play it depicts, and come up with a caption for it using the text.
I have also used art in my class by giving students a poem and asking them to find a work of art that represents it. Sometimes I might say it has to be sculpture. Or a photograph. It’s a fun writing task that gets them thinking.
If you’ve been following teachers on Instagram lately, you’ve probably seen the occasional teacher using sketchnotes in class. Sketchnotes can be used to take notes while students are reading or watching a video or can be used afterward to capture the main idea of a piece of writing. They aren’t comics, exactly – more of a form of visual notetaking. Studies have shown that adding the visual component increases retention considerably.
Sketchnotes work best if they are quick. Students shouldn’t be laboring over them for a couple of periods. Ten minutes tops. And it will take students a little bit of time to get used to them. But once they get the hang of them, you’ll see some great results, and you’ll also have students remembering more of what they read. Here’s a blog post on sketchnotes to get you started.
But creativity is also great for final projects!
Many ELA teachers use creative projects already because they are a lot more fun for students (and more fun to grade for teachers) than essays. However, the main reason to do creative assessments is because it allows students alternative methods to show what they know, or show more of what they know that traditional methods.
Below are some projects that I have done every year with good results. They may not work for your classroom, but with a little tweaking, you can make them work. Or perhaps they will inspire your own creative assessment!
Sociograms are a great alternative (or addition) to a literary analysis paper. A sociogram is a visual representation of the relationships between characters and ideas in a novel or play. When students are done with them they’ll have something that resembles a visual guide to the work in pictures, lines, boxes, or whatever students can think of. Sociograms get students thinking creatively and symbolically to capture the essence of the novel on a large sheet of paper. They are also collaborative (hence the “socio-” in the title) and can be a creative way to hit the standards. Plus, you can also hit the speaking and listening standards if you have them present them.
I’ve been doing infographics for a while now, and programs like Canva has only made them easier for students year after year. Like sociograms, they are a visual guide to a particular work, but infographics tend to more organized and look more professional. It’s easy to find examples to use as models – just google “infographics” and you’ll find a bunch. You’ll even find some literary ones out there, like those offered by Course Hero. The trick is to come up with a way for them to make one that uses those infographics for ideas but doesn’t allow them to copy them directly. For example, you might want them to explore a theme in a novel or short story.
Social Media Campaigns
My final assessment for my Walt Whitman unit is a social campaign for a company using Walt Whitman’s poetry. Students pick a company, pick a quote, create an image for the social media platform of their choice, and present their pitch to “the company” (otherwise known as the class). Of course, this has been done already, so this isn’t a completely original idea. But it tends to be one of the students’ favorite projects of the year.
Why not have your class design a social media campaign for a novel? Or a poet? The possibilities are endless, and you’ll find that many of your students already know how to navigate these waters. Chances are you’ll learn something from them too.
The Hat Project
This is one of the more off the wall ideas I’ve come up with, and it came from a project in my son’s art class in elementary school where they had to create a hat using only three pieces of white posterboard. Many of them tried to make the most outlandish hat they could.
I decided I needed a fun project for seniors at the end of the year, so I developed the hat project for the end of our Flannery O’Connor unit. I had them construct a hat that represented the themes, the moment of clarity, an intangible object, an intangible object. I’m sure I was inspired by some of the design challenge shows I’ve seen because I always come up with little challenges as they work (it has to be completely made of paper) or something they have to incorporate in their design midway through. (Can you tell I’ve watched some Project Runway in my time?)
You don’t have to limit yourself to hats! I know teachers that have their students make cakes based on the independent novels they’ve read. I’m sure there are other crazy things you can do.
Or Just Let Them Choose a Creative Response!
Students have a wealth of creative activities they are engaged in outside of class or in extracurriculars. Why not let them use them to show what they know? Let them design their own method of demonstrating they understand the material. For a lot of teachers this gives up a lot more control than they are comfortable with, but the rewards can be huge.
I know you’re the kind of teacher that makes their classroom a fun, engaging learning environment. I have a series of lessons done as comics that address various ELA topics like grammar, poetry, editing, and Shakespeare, all of which will make your students glad they came to class that day. All the fun is there for you, and your kids will love studying any of these topics because they’ll get a new comic every day! Please check out my resources and let the learning begin!
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