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"Alright, what do you want me to speak about?"
Pacing slowly back and forth in front of the room, I asked my class this during a recent Friday 2nd period. On the white board were a random list of words: Michigan, ketchup, venison, Velcro, crimson, and John Deere.
Several students quickly raised their hands. "Ketchup!"
OK, I thought, ketchup it is. It was now my job to model improvising a one-minute speech about this ubiquitous condiment. I started talking about restaurant ketchup packets—their potential as props for practical jokes and fake blood, then rambled on about the waste of packaging materials inherent in their production. On cue at 60 seconds, the student timekeeper cut me off. Phew, I made it. It was now the students’ turn to give it a shot. By the end of the school year, every student will have tried a couple of one-minute speeches.
There are many activities like one-minute speeches that classroom teachers can use to promote and practice creative thinking. I know what you're thinking—I don't have time! Admittedly, many of us are stressed out dealing with the demands of curriculum, grading, and standardized assessments, but it’s time to shift priorities and not let important creative opportunities fall by the wayside. Plus, I've seen that when we get down to the nitty-gritty of analyzing literature or practicing poetic devices, students are more likely to employ their own higher-level thinking or a new twist on a topic because they’ve exercised their brains in imaginative ways.
It can be difficult to "teach" or practice creativity unless we let fun infiltrate our classrooms in structured ways. So embrace those lessons and activities that result in unexpected outcomes. In addition to one-minute speeches, I weave the following activities into my language arts classroom routine. It doesn’t take much time, most of them are stress busters, and it’s great to see the lightbulb go on in a student’s head when the creativity switch is flipped.
Independent-Reading Projects, No Limits
Most of my homework is project-based, and I allow and encourage students to find innovative ways to explore and explain their independent reading choices. Some recent highlights have included thematic playlists or mix CDs for novels (accompanied by written explanations of song choices), book blogs, and journals or scrapbooks created from the perspective of main characters. One project even included an imaginary record of text messaging a book's teenage character might send.
Grammar Sentence Strips
Students use laminated, color-coded nouns, verbs, prepositional phrases, adverbs, and adjectives to create wacky sentences. The catch is that students must use as many colors as they can and explain the purpose of each part of speech. This is not only a creative task, but also a powerful grammar instruction tool.
Team Envelope Challenge
Students in small groups create creative-thinking or cooperative tasks and insert these in envelopes. Envelopes circulate from one group to the next every 10–12 minutes to allow each group to take up a new challenge. One envelope might contain a puzzle from the game Mindtrap, another might challenge the group to use specific combinations of classroom vocabulary in any given form, and yet another might direct a team to design a theme flag for our class novel.
Balderdash, Tribond, Apples to Apples, Bananagrams, Cranium, and Taboo are all great examples of fun, creative-thinking games.
"Brain Food" Activities
The book The Laughing Classroom, by Diana Loomans and Karen Kolberg, contains a plethora of quick strategies to jumpstart student thinking and inject laughter into daily routines. One activity the students and I particularly enjoy consists of presenting a list of puzzles (e.g., 13 S. on the A. F.= Thirteen stripes on the American Flag; 26.2 M. in a M.=Twenty-six point two miles in a marathon). I challenge students to create their own puzzles to stump the class.
Using miniature whiteboards, students draw pictures or scenes depicting their understanding of our Words of the Week. I choose 10 of the vocabulary words and see if they can prompt their partners to guess which word is being drawn.
Early in the school year, I train students on Microsoft Windows Movie Maker program and, although it’s not a perfect program, students learn about incorporating elements of film technique, editing, sound effects, and content to create multiple projects over the year. Student films have included "infomercials" for their utopian visions tied to a unit on Lois Lowery's The Giver; trailers for their reading homework, and public service announcements.
Like many of the most exciting, worthwhile, and intangible aspects of education, creativity is tough to quantify, measure, and evaluate. But that doesn't mean we should push aside innovative classroom routines that aren’t apparently related to math and reading scores. Real-world problem solving, information analysis and evaluation, and other critical skills all depend on creative thinking. During a time when fewer and fewer children seem to engage in unstructured play and other activities relating to creative development, it is imperative that we offer practice and opportunities to stretch our students’ thinking.
Paul Barnwell teaches 8th grade language arts at Shelby East Middle School in Shelbyville, Ky. He also has a Web site, Questions for Schools.
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