Keeping Creativity Alive in the Classroom: A Grab Bag of Resources & Ideas

Grab bagAs we head into June, much of my time seems devoted to tying up loose ends and reflecting back on the year. And with loose ends and reflection in my mind, I’d like to share four resources I discovered over the school year that I couldn’t seem to find a home for in another post.

The first is Cecil, the Pet Glaciera delightfully quirky picture book written by Matthea Harvey and illustrated by Giselle Potter, that someone recommended to me a while ago. It sat on my bookshelf for quite some time before I decided to try it out as a read aloud in a third grade class this spring. And it turned out to be a wonderful book for engaging students in the process of meaning making that Dorothy Barnhouse and I explored in What Readers Really Do.

Cecil the Pet GlacierThe book is about a girl named Ruby who, unlike her unique but self-absorbed parents (mom makes tiaras and dad creates topiaries), wants only to be normal. The class’s teacher wasn’t sure that her students would know what a tiara or a topiary was, let alone a glacier, and she also wondered if they’d get a book about a child who was embarrassed by her parents. She was game, though, to try it out and so we decided not to front-load any vocabulary but see how much the kids could figure out. This meant that many at first thought that the strange white object on the cover might be a package containing a pet. And while some thought that on the page below Ruby hoped that no one from school would see her because she was playing with dolls, others wondered if it was because she was didn’t want anyone seeing her parents, who had been shown on the page before dancing the tango through the topiaries in tiaras.

Cecil Illustration

We continued reading with those questions about Ruby’s motives and her parents in mind, with the students continually revising their ideas as they encountered new details. And that allowed the students to not only ‘get’ what a glacier was but what they thought Matthea Harvey was trying to show them about parents, relationships, growing up and what it means to be different and normal.

The second resource is connected to my love affair with visuals that I wrote about here and here: a wonderful website called The Creativity Core, where high school teacher Daniel Weinstein shares some of the visual mind maps his students have created in both his class and others. Many of these can be used as great mentor texts for note-taking, which as this student’s mind map about mind mapping says can be “a dull and boring process that often leaves students drooling on their books.”

Mind Mapping Mind Map

Instead, mind maps invite students not just to copy but to think about where and how they’re writing down what in ways that can help them own and retain the content they’re learning more deeply. Here, for instance, is an example of a student’s psychology class notes where, in addition to capturing the main ideas of different schools of thought, she demonstrates true understanding of the content by the way she’s posed the question at the top of the page “Why did the woman kill the man?”, then answered it by applying the different perspectives, such as “The id took over,” which you’ll see at the bottom of her notes for the Psychoanalytic perspective.

Pyschology Mind Mpa

And here’s a mind map one of Daniel Weinstein’s student made that captures the writing advice Weinstein gave the class in a way that I think shows how much it’s valued. (Makes me wonder what students and teachers might include in a mind map of things they heard me say!)

Writing Advice Mind Map

The power of creativity is also on display in the third resource I’d like to share: the new ebook from my friends at the Opal School in Portland, Creating Possible Worlds: The Teacher’s Role in Nurturing a Community Where Imagination ThrivesThe book documents a year-long study of seeds that was facilitated by preschool teachers Lauren Adams and Caroline Wolfe. The project was framed around a series of questions that the teachers explored as the children explored seeds. And while these questions evolved as the project did, all were connected to the teachers initial inquiry questions:

“What is our image of children and how do we, as teacher-researchers deepen our understanding of our values through reflecting on our daily practice and decision-making in the classoom?

What are the elements of a classroom culture that supports playful inquiry and sustained curiosity? And what is the teacher’s role in this?

What habits of heart and mind are being practiced and embodied by both the children and the adults through this experience?”

Throughout the book the teachers share their thoughts about these questions—and what new questions these thoughts raised—while also sharing their children’s thinking about seeds. Here, for instance, are two children exchanging some of their ideas and questions:

Creating Possible Worlds Page

I love the one child’s questions—”What’s inside? A tree is inside?”—and the way the other makes sense of the world by using figurative language—”This one is like the inside of a tulip” and “It’s where the baby plant comes out. It’s like the belly button of a bean.” But it reminded me of a study Sir Ken Robinson shared in his Ted Talk “Do Schools Today Kill Creativity?” The study tested young people’s ability to think in divergent or non-linear ways, which is key for creativity. Ninety-eight percent of the age three-to-five children who were tested could. Yet those numbers dropped precipitously the older students were. Only 32% of the age eight to ten tested children could, and of the test subjects who were between the ages of 13 and 15, only 10% were able to think in non-linear ways. Sir Ken attributes the drop in numbers to an educational system that’s too often driven by single right answers. But anyone who’s concerned with these numbers might want to take a look at what Opal’s teachers discovered as they pursued their questions.

Battle Bunny CoverFinally, while I was at NCTE I snagged a copy of Battle Bunnya new book by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, with pictures by Matthew Myers. The book looks like a tattered Golden Book, with sweet illustrations and an uplifting message, that has been defaced and rewritten by the book’s owner Alex, who’s turned the original book’s main character Birthday Bunny into a chainsaw slinging rabbit.

Like all of Jon Scieszka’s and Mac Barnett’s book, Battle Bunny is hysterical, with all sorts of fun details to be found in the illustrations and the margins:

Battle Bunny Page

But here’s what I’d absolutely love to do: use the book as a mentor writing text and let students rewrite a real Golden Book with a partner or a small group to brainstorm the possibilities. Not only would that be enormously fun, but the critical thinking and problem solving opportunities would be huge. And I can’t help thinking that students would also learn quite a lot along the way about things like alliteration, word choice and the power of details in ways that could be lasting.

Of course, this means buying a dozen or more Golden Books and dealing with the ethical question of letting students go at them. But I have to imagine there’s a teacher out there who sees the same potential for learning in this that I do. If so . . . let me know!

Golden Books Belong To Page

16 thoughts on “Keeping Creativity Alive in the Classroom: A Grab Bag of Resources & Ideas

  1. Oh my, what a lot of wonderful ideas you have given me to think about and plot through, Vicki! Battle Bunny sounds like a book I need for myself, just to have in my book bag for those moments when the world just seems to serious and mixed up to deal with anymore. Each of the examples you shared celebrates the one element that we are slowly but surely eliminating room for in our classrooms, and each example shows us exactly why we should be fighting hard to nurture creativity in our classrooms. Thanks for sharing the ebook, too – off to buy it right away!

    • So many articles about the need for innovation & creativity keep popping up in my inbox and on facebook & twitter, so I do think there’s a movement out there. But I think it’s because it’s too hard to package those things that they haven’t gotten more traction. I see much hope, though, in the fact that Carmen Farina, our new NYC chancellor, has brought TC back into the curriculum conversation. And creativity & innovation is alive and well in so many teacher’s blogs, especially those connected with Two Writing Teachers. And for those moments when we loose hold of our hope, there’s always Battle Bunny!

  2. I enjoyed all the ‘extras’ you’ve shared here,Vicki. My school takes a creative approach to learning, especially in that each student (K-8) chooses their own individual topic to study & that is the curriculum that drives the learning. (It’s a progressive, independent school.) There are many other parts added, too much to tell here, but wanted to add two things: everyone journals to capture learning in various ways & we feel mind-mapping or visual note-taking is key to enhanced learning. I love the examples given! Also, love the idea of using Golden books to ‘revise’ via a student’s own terms. One teacher last year copied wordless picture books for each student, and the students crafted their own stories to accompany them. It was a successful project that helped students apply writing knowledge learned throughout the year. The teacher supported the students, but also used the project as a form of assessment of what the students knew of the writing process earlier. Thanks for all your ideas today!

      • There are a few out there, Lisa, including the Opal School, which is a public charter in Portland, and Mission Hill in Boston–which, if you don’t know it already–has a wonderful video series called A Year at Mission Hill http://www.missionhillschool.org/) And there’s an amazing community of progressive-minded teachers to be found on twitter. That community keeps me going when I feel drowned by data points and tests. And it keeps on growing, just like the opt out of testing movement has, which seems like a sign that more and more people are questioning the path we’re on.

    • I you you provided the answer, Linda, to another reader who asked if there are any progressive schools out there! I love working with wordless picture books and I’d like to try your colleague’s idea out on my newest favorite, Journey. And I have to imagine that being in a place where everyone’s journaling has profound effects on what goes on in a classroom. It sounds like a thinking teacher’s dream school!

  3. These “extras” are wonderful. Makes me want a few more weeks of school. So sad we save the “fun extras” for the end of the school year. The mind-mapping approach to reading is how I tend to take notes. It makes me set back after reading and think rather than note take as I read, which quite frankly is a total turn off for those who don’t want to “stop and jot” in the midst of a story. Equally it seems to be quite an assessment tool, showing exactly what the reader takes away. Thank you for sharing these rejuvenating resources!

    • My notes never look quite as beautifully organized as some of Dan’s students do, but they’re filled with all kinds of arrows, stars, exclamation points and circles. And, if I could ever find the time, I’m suddenly thinking how neat it would be to go back and collect the highlights I’ve written down over the school year in a mind map. In the meantime, though, I’m excited to hear that Dan Weinstein will be doing a poster presentation at NCTE so we could meet him!

  4. I love, love, love the idea of taking Golden Books and making our own versions of Battle Bunny! And you could pick up old Golden Books at library book sales for cheap. Currently I’m teaching first graders and I don’t think we’re quite up for that. But I’m not sure where I’ll be next year and I’ll be keeping this idea in mind!

    • We have stoop sales here in Brooklyn, and I’ve actually been keeping my eye out for them. But I’m so so glad that so many people loved Battle Bunny! And if you haven’t already, read Linda Baie’s comment about how her colleague had children write stories for wordless picture books. That could be fun for first grade!

  5. Vicki,
    Wonderful resources but my favorite is “Battle Bunny” and turning students loose with
    Golden Books. I think I will gift this to one of my creative teachers who is always looking for ways to challenge students to do more. (And I am going to totally ignore the copyright issues!) The mind maps are incredibly powerful – what a way for a student to show what they have learned in their own way! New books for my TBR list as well! THANKS!

    • I never know when I hit the publish key which posts are going to strike a chord or not, and it’s been really nice to see how many loved Battle Bunny as much as I did. And Dan Weinstein, the mind map teachers, will be at NCTE, so I think we should all try to meet him!

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