So You Don’t Think You’re Creative

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Creativity.

For years scholars and academics to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and everyone in between have attempted to define creativity. What it is, what it looks like, how to chase it.

In schools, educators lament that the curricula and standards are inhibiting teachers’ ability to be creative, teach creatively and think creatively.

I argue it’s not the curricula. It’s not the standards. It’s the teachers themselves that are the roadblock.

Recently I have had the opportunity to speak with teachers about their personal beliefs and dispositions with regard to their students. I asked on a simple inventory, “How are you like your students?” and “How are you unlike your students?”

An overwhelming majority all commented on the notion that their students are more creative than they are. In fact, some of the verbiage included:

“My students think creatively. I do not.”

“They are all way more creative than I am.”

“My students do things in ways I would never think of doing because they are more creative.”

Creativity.

It’s a term that can invoke an extreme uncomfortable feeling in teachers, especially during a time where schools are pushing more innovation and more creativity. Teachers are quick to judge themselves without a true appreciation of what creativity means (or could mean!) for them.

launch-smallIf you have not read the book Launch:Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student authored by A.J. Juliani and John Spencer, it is a must read. Aside from the framework the book suggests for ensuring learners are moving through a creative and innovative design process (which is laid out so perfectly for any educator that wants to ensure creativity is pervasive in their classrooms!), these gentlemen clearly allay any fears teachers may have about not being creative.

Juliani and Spencer advocate, “There is no single creative type” and further suggest that schools rely on the term creativity to describe an artful experience. It’s true right? Don’t many educators support this notion by demeaning most creative efforts as “fluff?”

The authors of Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student (the must purchase book for all the doubting creative souls!—and those of us that want creativity to be purposeful and a foray into innovation in our classrooms) assert that we all are creative and can accept that we are all creative once we understand our own individual approach to creativity.

According to Juliani and Spencer, perhaps your approach to creativity is that of an artist, a geek, an architect, an engineer, a hacker or a point guard. Or maybe you’re like me and you are a mish mosh of these approaches. Or maybe your approach is contextual depending on the desired outcome, the people you’re working with or just your general mood.

Identifying how we approach creative opportunities is the first step in creating (there’s that term again!) classrooms that are a stage rife with creative conversations, creative lessons and creative processes which all have the potential to lead to innovation.

Creativity is personal. No matter how you find yourself approaching creative tasks the approach is your own. We are originals by the nature of our being. Creativity becomes a habit. Whether you are curious or questioning or innovative or passionate, these are all tributaries to creativeness. If you practice any of these attributes they become an intentional part of your thinking and thus, your teaching.

We need to shift our perspective from asking ourselves, “Am I creative?” to “How am I creative? In what ways do I use a creative process?” It’s easy when thinking about creativity to immediately focus on our deficits instead of our strengths. But, what if the deficits, when thinking about creativity really are strengths?  For example, are you a daydreamer? In the creative realm, you might just be an intense thinker (thinking IS a creative process, right?) Do you have that quirky, obtuse sense of humor? That’s creative. You may sense that making decisions is a challenge for you. Perhaps you are open-minded (see what I did there?) Maybe you are insecure, perhaps the creative twist on that is you are sensitive, a characteristic that allows you to empathize and use your intuition to solve problems.

So really …

If we shift our perspectives on what creativity is with a broader scope that goes beyond crayons and paint and artful performances, we start to see the pattern of creativity in everything that we do. Imagine the freedom our classrooms and our school buildings (and more importantly the people within them) will experience if we each are able to harness creativity and commit to the daily expression it can provoke.

Barely Visible Line and a Pole

My son, Rory, is 15. He’s an old soul.

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He sort of has Dennis the Menace qualities. (Yes, I’m dating myself.) He is always outside. Whether it is mudpies, treehouses, cycling, helping neighbors to whatever—you name it. If I had a nickel for every time we sat down to dinner or I witnessed his grubby hands on the door frame and I had to remark, “Son, have you washed your hands?” I would be a millionaire.

Here’s the thing about Rory. He doesn’t particularly like school. I mean, it’s a means to an end for him. At 15 he is three years into his own lawn business with 25-30 clients each summer. We have struggled over school. He could be a straight A student, “But Mom…B’s are okay, too!” We have had lengthy conversations about effort as some of his “B” grades are 89s. “Son. An 89? Do you realize how close you are to an A?” “Mom. I’m cool with a B.”

And there it was. Staring me right in the face. I work daily with children (and parents) getting them to understand and accept children are more than a test grade, more than an assessment, more than one descriptor on a report card. Yet, as a parent, I wasn’t being true to that belief.

As the years have gone on with Rory, (He is a rising Junior in High School now.) I have had to bite my tongue often when I watched unnecessary projects come home. Anyone ever have to make a piece of jewelry to represent DNA? I think we spent $50 or more at Michael’s trying to make something clever, and he (nor me!) understood anything about DNA before, after or during the creation. It was frustrating for me as an educator, but even more frustrating for me as a parent as I watched this excited, embraces life kind of kid—start to lose his enthusiasm.

Then he threw a fishing rod into a pond. (Stay with me, it’s not what you think. That’s the lingo when one casts a rod into water. I am learning.)

What ensued has been a year of self-learning, self-teaching, resourcing, practicing, studying, participating and experiencing everything there is to know about bass fishing. What? BASS FISHING. No one in our family fishes. I thought the fish were named wide mouth bass. (They are large mouth bass. They are not Mason jars. There are also small mouth bass. There are also spotted bass. Come on Mom.) I had no idea where this interest came from. The back story is as simple as his best friend was given a fishing rod for his birthday and Rory tried it.

It didn’t take long for me to witness the magic unfurling. The truth that when children are excited about something, they are going to learn.

Late one afternoon as Rory was looking at a map for “the blue spaces” and convinced me to drive him to some “watering hole” that he knew was “around here somewhere…” We talked on the drive. He was telling me about depth and color and temperature of water. He was telling me about lures and how they’re made and why they work. He was informing me about fish and their movement and spawning habits. He was telling me about lakes and conservation. I was gobsmacked. I remember looking over at him and thinking, “This is it. This is what is missing in schools. This is the level we don’t get to when we teach. And if we did? We would capture every child and their learning would be exponential.”(Okay. I was also thinking, if he can learn all of this, why isn’t he making A’s. More to my point. He wasn’t interested in what was being delivered.)

How do we do that?

We have to expose children to the offbeat. We have to let them experience snippets of life that aren’t found in textbooks and curriculum. We need to build relationships and dialogue with children. We cannot speak AT them. We must allow children to bring their little lives into the classroom. Maybe it’s camping, or ballet or Japanese Saturday school. Maybe it’s baking or dolls. For our older children maybe it’s illustrating or music mixing or fashion or cars. We simply cannot let these passions smolder until they are snuffed out.

Not everything has to be innovative. Not everything has to be technological. Have you ever brought a stamp collection into your classroom? Old coins? What about a telephone? Have you ever talked about your path to teaching? Have you ever just created a space in your classroom for artifacts and articles and ideas where, simply by osmosis, even just one child might be inspired?

You must.

I digress a little bit.

I share all of this to say that my 15 year old son is competing this weekend in the Georgia State High School Bass Tournament. My kid! This 15 year old kid who cannot even keep his room clean has found a passion that is teaching him how to problem solve, think critically, be persistent, fail and try again, collaborate with others, be resourceful, study the environment, calculate math, learn how to plan and how to network (after all he doesn’t have a boat!) and so many other skills that will transfer to his life permanently. He has been surrounded by mentors that have taken a shining to him because they love bass fishing, too. It is a culture and the “old boys” are enthusiastic and eager to see the “up and comings.” Shouldn’t we be like that in our classrooms? Shouldn’t we take a shining to these young minds and hearts and mentor them to explore their world enthusiastically?

My son is a testament to allowing children to find their passion and then fanning those flames in every way possible. We owe it to our children to acknowledge their voice and choice. Schools and teachers have to be the channel to show them how to imagine the possibilities.

It started with barely visible line and a pole. What will it take for your children?IMG_5915

P.S. I have to add that not all of his teachers have snuffed out his enthusiasm for learning. Although school is a bit of a bummer for him? He did have a teacher that allowed him to write a Shakespearean sonnet about fishing. Way to go (!) fellow teacher for allowing that (obtuse) choice. He also had a teacher in his business class that allowed him to use his lawn business as the content for a business plan. We just have to be more intentional, purposeful and motivated to let kids learn through their passions.

Make Learning Bell Ringing Worthy!

bellHave you ever eaten at a restaurant? Of course you have. Whether it was a sit-down context where you are given the black napkin or the white napkin depending on your garments, or a drive through quick grab to eat in the car, take home…you get my question, and we have all experienced it.

We all eat at restaurants.

How many of you order exactly what is on the menu? No substitutions, no questions about the ingredients, no leave this off. It’s very likely that few of us order exactly what is on the menu. Even Starbucks customers tweak their drinks with milk substitutions, sugar content and temperature of the drink. (Did you even know you could order extra-hot or kid friendly temperature?)

What do we do when the order is wrong?

We send it back.

If we are ordering to go, we often don’t have the option of sending it back because we are typically a mile away when we realize the no pickle chicken sandwich actually has a pickle on it. Or when we take a swig of what we think is the refreshing coke we order only to learn it is diet coke, our face blanches, but what do we do?  What do we do then?

We complain. We mutter that we didn’t get what we asked for. But we are sort of stuck.

Do you see the parallels to classroom learning? We don’t give kiddoes a chance to ask for substitutes. We don’t give our learners the option of more or less. We obviously control those things for them. Everyone is going to get this menu item today. If you don’t like it? Or it doesn’t taste good to you? I’m sorry. It’s what is on offer.

Consider creating a context for learners in which they can ask and do ask for what they want and need in the classroom. Of course teachers will continue to frame the menu, but what if we fostered a classroom where learners could say, “I need more problem solving.” Or, “Can I not have so much literacy today, I’m full.” Or, “I’m ready for a little bit of journaling.” Or even, “I’m ready to try this since you’re not offering that—even though I don’t like it.”

What if our daily focus in our classrooms was on customer service? We certainly sometimes have little control over the menu, the standards of learning. But we do have control over the delivery, the customer service side of it. After all, the menu says chef salad, but one can always have the dressing on the side, right? Notice the pleasantries that restaurant workers exchange with you and how apologetic they can be when the order is wrong.  I feel bad sometimes with the content I am required to teach, all I can do is put on a smile and make it the best experience it could possibly be! (As an aside, it is typically not the person at the cash register who got the order wrong, though they are the recipient of the furrowed brow and the opened sandwich being handed back to them. Just as it typically is not the classroom teacher who makes the broader decisions that frustrate the learning cycle in a classroom.)

“Welcome to Moes” is shouted every time someone walks into that establishment. “My pleasure!” ends every response to a statement and a question at Chik-fil-A. These phrases become a bit of a joke among mass consumers, but I think there is something to them.  Some of us avoid particular restaurants because they don’t serve Coke products. When we forget and order the coke and the waitress says, “I’m sorry, is Pepsi okay?” The emotion we feel is hard to encapsulate in words but it is likely frustration and disappointment and is usually followed by an internal conversation “Surely more people in the world drink Coke over Pepsi? Why do they serve Pepsi…” or “ Why don’t they just give us a choice?”

I think restaurants strive to give the best experience to their customers. From seating to service to food choice to timeliness in a drive through. Eating in establishments is differentiated, right? They have customer service surveys at your table to rate your visit. They offer coupons if you complete an online survey. When an order is wrong, the manager typically goes above and beyond to make it right for you. Restaurants thrive on instant feedback to make the experience the best it can be.

Our classrooms are lacking customer service. When do we get feedback about what we are delivering to our kiddoes? Sure, we use tickets out the door and informal formative assessments, but those aren’t measuring their experiences. Those are measuring their cognition. What if we shifted our feedback and started to ask kids, “How are we doing?”

Arby’s does one of the neatest things that begs instant feedback. If you’ve never been to an Arby’s you have to go. There isn’t anything spectacular about their menu. It’s different by the nature of what they serve—and the curly fries are yummy—but the restaurants don’t look typically innovative, the service is fine, but nothing unique. However, Arby’s has a bell. It’s reminiscent of a last call bell in a pub or a dinner bell you might find mounted on the porch of an antebellum home. It’s a mounted by the exit. Customers can ring it when they have had a good experience during their visit.

When I go to Arby’s? I look for a reason to ring the bell. Maybe the sandwich tasted fresh. Maybe I had the longest curly fry I’d ever seen. Maybe the employees carried my tray to my table. Maybe it was just a smooth transaction. I don’t look for the things that are going wrong, I look for the celebrations, so I can ring the bell! I want to be able to give positive, immediate feedback on the experience.

Our classrooms need bells mounted on the wall by the door. We need to be creating contexts in our classrooms where learners want to ring the bell. We want to ensure that we are getting feedback about their experiences.  I would hope the employees at Arby’s would wonder why the bell isn’t being rung and reflect on what needs to change to achieve happy customers. If kids left the day without a bell ringing, we, too would use that as a point of reflection and then action.

What do you do in your classroom that is bell ringing worthy? It doesn’t have to be the end of a lesson. It doesn’t have to be the entire class. Maybe it’s that one individual learner who is inspired by a piece of text? Or maybe it’s the one learner who struggles with persistence and decided to do just a little bit more on a particular problem.

Or maybe, just maybe it’s you.