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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: We Need to ‘Initiate Wonder in the Classroom’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 18, 2017 22 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How do we help our students develop creativity?

Parents, teachers and administrators all talk about how we want our young people to be creative, but it’s not always clear what that means or what schools can do to help develop that quality. Nevertheless, the Council of Chief State School Officers has specifically said that encouraging student creativity is critical in helping them succeed in mastering the Common Core Standards.

So what should we be doing?

This three-part series will try to provide some answers.

Today, Lorena Germán, John Spencer, Laura Gibbs, Rachel Trowbridge, Amy Sandvold, Jen Schwanke and Howard Pitler share their responses.You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Lorena, John and Laura on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Applying the “constraints principle” and the “random principle” are two of my favorite classroom strategies for promoting creativity. The constraints strategy could include limiting words (story told in seven words); time (one minute to summarize lesson to partner) or materials (small groups are given six pieces of tape, six paper clips, and six pieces of paper to build the tallest tower). The random method involves challenging students to find connections between items or concepts that don’t ordinarily belong together. One example of this strategy could be giving a few pictures of people, things, and locations to a small group of students and asking them to use the images to compose a story connecting the images.

You can read more about both of these strategies at the excellent free eBook from The British Council, Creativity In The English Language Classroom (2015).

You might also be interested in a previous column here, Several Ways We Can Help Students Develop Their Creativity, as well as The Best Sources Of Advice On Helping Students Strengthen & Develop Their Creativity.

Now, it’s time for today’s guests:

Response From Lorena Germán

Lorena Germán is a 12 year educator focused on culturally sustaining educational practices. She is a Dominican-American living in Austin. You can follow her at @nenagerman on Twitter:

Creativity is the best 21st century tool in our classrooms. I believe in using technology and I believe in encouraging students to use technology for learning. I also know that technology is first imagined and then brought to fruition. That is why fostering a space where that imagination can develop is key to helping our students be prepared for those jobs that don’t exist yet and to truly find themselves and their passions.

It might seem easy to think of ways to be creative in the English classroom. There are many common creative projects or assignments that students can do that are both enjoyable and educational. However, I think it’s essential for teachers to be creative along side students and model how to think creatively in a critical way. I believe that once students witness my modeling of creative fun through lesson planning, they will follow.

Once I do that, I see my students soar in really amazing directions. For example, I once paired non fiction news articles and videos about Bill Clinton’s impeachment with Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. We made connections between the men and their stories, compared and contrasted, and then students had to use one medium to express that connection. One assignment that I’ve done various times (inspired from my experience in some of my powerful graduate professors’ courses) is adding a step after students have written their literary analysis essay. Often modified, this is the general process:

  • Step 1: Peer Exchange- Students exchange their essay with their peer. Peers read and offer feedback to the essay by only responding to interesting points of analysis. Then, peers highlight what they believe is the strongest line in the essay.

  • Step 2: Annotate- Author receives their essay and enjoys the praise. Then, depending on the literary work we are doing, in this case, we will say symbolism, authors will walk through their essay and highlight all the words or phrases that demonstrate symbolism. This includes any imagery they used in their own writing. I encourage them to highlight any words that have connotations of images, this can include verbs.

  • Step 3: Synthesize- Next, on a blank piece of paper students write down all the words/phrases they’ve highlighted and the awesome sentence their peer highlighted. Once that writing is done, students sit and reflect on this new abstract version of their essay.

  • Step 4: Visualize- The assignment is then introduced: Students are to create a visual representation of that list of words/phrases that demonstrates their written literary analysis.

The visual representation of these essays are interesting, critical, and thorough. The details students incorporate often pushes their original analysis in new directions. I often limit the words they can use in this visual representation and sometimes only allow them to use one quote from the literary text we’ve studied. This creates an opportunity for students to reread and reimagine both their writing and the text we’ve read together.

Encouraging that type of creativity also creates a sense of community in the room. Students often conference with each other, seek advice, ask questions, ask for opinions, and through facilitated small group discussions students offer each other feedback on the progress of their work. These activities go beyond simple assessments of skills. They become community building creative tasks that allow students to demonstrate their learning in genuine ways.

Response From John Spencer

John Spencer is a former K-12 teacher and present professor at George Fox University in Portland. He is the co-author of Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student:

Children walk into school packed with creative potential. From the moment they arrive in this world, they are wonder-filled, inquiry-driven makers. But school often kills this creative impulse through punishments and rewards and through standardized education. So, on some level, the way we develop creativity is by helping students unlearn aspects of school that they have internalized. It might include helping students question answers as often as they answer questions. It might include giving students materials and letting them engage in divergent thinking exercises.

At the same time, there is this complementary side to the creative process. It’s the idea that structures and constraint often allow for creativity to thrive. This is why I’m such a fan of the design thinking cycle. It provides a structure and a framework so that students can engage in creative thinking that goes beyond simply an open free-for-all.

Often creativity starts with better consuming. For all the talk of “creators versus consumers,” kids need to be critical consumers. They need to develop a taste for what they like that will ultimately lead into curating and creating. They need to have a critical lens of what they consume and immerse themselves in the messy conflicts inherent in all information. The better they consume, the better they will be at creative thinking.

Response From Laura Gibbs

Laura Gibbs has been teaching fully online courses (Mythology & Folklore, Epics of Ancient India) at the University of Oklahoma since 2002. Find out more at MythFolklore.net:

Every semester, some students tell me they are worried about taking my class because “I’m just not creative” or “I’m not a creative person.” How sad is that? But it’s not surprising: after years of multiple-choice quizzes and grade-enforced conformity, it’s no wonder that students lose touch with their creative powers. Of course, they do creative things outside of school -- cooking, gardening, telling stories, etc. -- but they don’t expect to do creative work in school, which is their loss, and our loss too. When students are doing creative work, they learn more and also have more to share with others, and we as teachers get to enjoy the excitement and surprise of watching all those imaginations hard at work. Here are some ways I have changed my classes to make them into creative spaces:

1. Creative writing. I use an approach called “stories from stories” to help my students do creative writing. Each week, they read folktales, fairy tales, myths and legends, looking for characters, plots, and other motifs which they can then use to create their own new versions of those old stories. Instead of trying to create something from nothing, they are creating stories from stories. As soon as they write their first story in the first week of class, they realize that they are creative after all, and they also get a creative boost from seeing the stories written by their fellow students. You can see their work at Storybooks.MythFolklore.net.

2. Words and images. You will find a steady stream of memes and other graphics in the daily class announcements (see Myth.MythFolklore.net). I collect memes and graphics from online spaces (Twitter is great for that), and I also make a lot of memes myself, especially LOLCats and Motivator posters. Then, I encourage students to do the same: in their own blogs, they collect and share memes that they like, along with memes they make themselves at sites like Cheezburger, Canva, Automotivator, etc.. Even students who are not confident about writing can feel a real sense of success with this creative activity. Plus, it’s an opportunity to teach students about copyright and image licensing, while also helping them to see words as “things” that change based on their own creative design choices (font, color, size, placement, etc.).

3. Feedback, not grades. My role as a “creativity coach” is to give students feedback (lots of feedback!) on their work, but I do not give them grades. Removing grades from the equation is essential; that’s how I can make sure the students are thinking about their own goals and their own audience, rather than trying to guess what I want and to satisfy me in order to get a good grade. You can read what the students say about the connection between creativity and going gradeless here: Grading.MythFolklore.net, What Students Say: “I felt that I learned much more this way because the emphasis was on learning and creativity rather than a test.”

Give it a try! I’ve gone all-out in my classes—all the writing is creative writing, none of the work is graded—but of course it would also be possible to carve out just part of a class as an ungraded, creative space. Try it... you’ll like it, I’m sure, and so will your students!

Response From Rachel Trowbridge

Rachel Trowbridge (@rachtrow) is a 2nd grade teacher at Katherine Smith School, a New Tech Network and P21 Exemplar elementary school in the Evergreen School District in San Jose, Calif. Trowbridge was part of the teaching staff who reinvented Katherine Smith, an urban neighborhood school in a high poverty area, using innovative project design to engage students. In her seventeen years in education, Trowbridge has worked tirelessly to bring her love of knowledge to those she teaches:

Kids are innately curious. We, as adults, do quite a bit to undermine that curious nature. We want assignments turned in to look a certain way and fit into the parameters that we have defined. What if we allow students to lead the way and create the things they see in their imagination?

At Katherine Smith in our Project Based Learning environment, students are encouraged to be creative and use their imagination to demonstrate their learning. We offer voice and choice in assignments. Even so, students often look to us for approval. We have found that by establishing some campus wide “Design Days,” students are able to release their creative selves and simultaneously solve unique problems.

Design Days are based on Stanford’s d.school Design Thinking strategy where a problem is introduced and multiple solutions are created to solve that problem. The steps of the process are followed; empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Students spend their time thinking of possible solutions, creating prototypes, and testing their theories.

One of our Design Days involved using picture books and having students solve the problem in the story. Our 2nd graders focused on the “Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf.” We read multiple versions of the story and gave students the perspective of both the pigs and the wolf. When we began the empathizing process, students were able to look at the problem from the wolf or pig’s point of view. Students spent the day working on how the pigs could build a better structure to keep themselves safe from the wolf or how the wolf could better penetrate the pig’s defenses.

Groups of students worked together, created structures after brainstorming, tested those structures using a fan, and then presented their structures to our 4th grade buddies. The favorite structure in the class involved building the house in a valley surrounded by cliffs that was accessible only by a pulley system which was controlled from the house using a video monitored control system.

It’s possible to unleash student creativity by providing opportunities for their imaginations to be valued and come to life.

Crash Course in Design Thinking - Stanford d.school

Design Thinking for Educators

Response From Amy Sandvold

Amy Sandvold is an experienced educator in both private and public schools. She is co-author of the bestselling The Passion Driven Classroom and The Fundamentals of Literacy Coaching. She currently practices her passion as a 3rd grade teacher for the Waterloo Community School District in Waterloo, Iowa. You can read her Teacher in Iowa blog at //amysandvold.wix.com/teacheriniowa and follow her on Twitter @TeacherinIowa:

This is a fascinating topic. I believe students come to us oozing with creativity in the early years of school, but something happens the older they get. We are not teaching robots, we are teaching human beings with hearts and minds that will eventually become adults. Think of yourself now as an adult. What are your passions? What do you like to do in your free time? In what environments do you find yourself the most creative? If you are lucky, you’ve found a career that matches your creative self. Children crave this same level of a creative outlet.

I don’t believe the creativity actually leaves their bodies, it just doesn’t show up in school unless we keep allowing opportunities for it to show. I believe it has a lot to do with how we talk to students, and the way we design the classroom environment. There are simple changes we can make to encourage creativity. One way is to implement a passion-driven classroom (Maiers & Sandvold, 2010) or some sort of genius hour (Krebs & Zvi, 2015) in which students have a designated time to create, persevere, and complete a passion project of their choice.

We can also help develop creativity by how we talk with our students. Our Teacher Talk, or how we coach, question, and prompt (Saunders-Smith, 2009) learners encourages our students to be creative thinkers. Instead of the traditional approach of posing a question, accepting a response, and either validating/discounting, we can use teacher talk that gets students to think creatively. Make it a goal to use effective teacher talk. Simply saying, “tell me more about that...” when a student is explaining something fosters increased creativity.

Now the big change: Go Deskless. About midway through last year, I realized that desks were a distraction and inhibiting student learning. They took up over half of the classroom space, and they limited the creative options. I found that by bringing in tables and alternate seating choices, my students were much more creative and engaged. They were able to learn the creative way that they learn. Every classroom has sitters, talkers, movers, wanderers, and standers. When I surveyed my students, “who would prefer to still have a desk?”... It was extremely interesting to see my own predictions blown away...students that I thought wanted a desk wanted to get out of the desk. Not one student wanted a desk.

How much creativity to we stifle every single day trying to get the wanderers to stop wandering, the standers to sit, the talkers to be quiet, and the sitters to do something? A classroom with a variety of learning spaces allows students to learn the way they learn best and to create. In a passion-driven classroom, students have choice and are apprentice scientists, historians, mathematicians, writers and readers. There needs to be designated, purposeful areas where our students can practice their passions beyond the confinement of a box with legs.

For example, I had a group of students one year that had a particular passion for life science...and it happened to be The Decorah Eagles...a live streaming video of an eagle’s nest. A special area and procedure was in place to take “Science Lab Notes” about the nesting behaviors and other observations. We had a class lab notebook that rotated groups during Readers’ Workshop. In order to take their best lab notes, they needed to get close to the Promethean Board where the live stream video is projected.Students could draw, label, and write their observations. Many other life science opportunities followed. Students were noticing other habitats and creating writing pieces and research projects during writing workshop. They were going home and designing other animal habitats and sharing them at school. Their creative potential was truly unleashed just by following their interest and making a space for them to practice it.

The way we set up our classroom and how we talk with students can make a huge impact on student creativity. Let’s all think about how we can continue that creative fire students bring as Kindergarteners.

Response From Jen Schwanke

Jen Schwanke is the author of You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders (ASCD). Schwanke began her career as a language arts educator and is currently a principal for the Dublin City School District in Dublin, Ohio. A graduate instructor in educational leadership, she has written frequently for literacy and educational leadership publications and blogs about her experiences in learning and leading at jenschwanke.com. Follow Schwanke on Twitter @Jenschwanke and Instagram @jenschwanke:

Creativity is a beloved buzzword in education these days. It emerged as a big thing when we realized we were uncomfortable with how far things had gone with tests and assessments—it felt like our students were taking too many tests, which was taking away from actual instruction and authentic, applicable learning. We took a collective step back and evaluate what we’d lost. The answer, in many ways, was developing our students into creative problem solvers.

To bring creativity back to our classrooms, we need our teachers to join us in the movement. So, to teachers, I say:

Don’t overthink it. It may well be that the most natural way to develop and foster creativity is to just let it happen. In general, it’s not necessary to plan for creativity.

Start by...

Setting the parameters you need. When working with students, determine what specific outcomes you really need to see in a particular assignment or project. Simplify those needs as much as possible into a rubric that will clearly communicate to the students what you must come out of their work.

And then...

Step away. After expectations have been set, it’s time to back off. Young people are creative by nature, so the more freedom they are given to be creative, the more creative they will be. It feels like a loss of control at times, but it’s important to do: step back, stop managing, and see what happens.

All the while...

Encourage. When teachers give students a challenge and then notice that they are stumbling, it’s time to jump in with personalized encouragement. We can capitalize on what we’ve learned about students with something like, “You’ve always been so good at sticking with creative projects. I know you can apply that perseverance here, again.” Or, “What I’ve learned about you is that you are a quick thinker and you have a great sense of humor. How can you apply those traits to this challenge?” Or, “I know you can do this! You seem to be on your way to something really interesting. Might you want to take a break to think about it, and then continue toward a successful solution?”

And always...

Check yourself. As teachers, it’s in your DNA to want to jump in and guide students in a particular way. You want to suggest, instruct, advise, recommend. Try to refrain. Your vision for how something will look in the end might be a good one... but so might the vision of your student. Let it happen.

Celebrate. When your students display original, unique, and specialized approaches to their work, shout it from the rooftops! Communicating successes with other students, parents, teachers, and even the community is the best way to empower your class--and your school--to continue to think and work creatively.

I find it to be a really exciting time to be an educator, because we are collectively recognizing the power and pleasure that comes with celebrating creativity. Allowing teachers to be the leaders of this movement, and inspiring them to do it freely and fully, will mean all of our students will grow as creative problem-solvers.

Response From Howard Pitler

Howard Pitler is a dynamic facilitator, speaker, and instructional coach with a proven record of success spanning four decades. Pitler is an ASCD Faculty member and the author of several ASCD publications including Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition, Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works, and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition. Contact Pitler at hpitler@gmail.com or on his website:

“Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”

―Carl Sagan

You only have to watch a toddler for a few minutes to understand that we are born as creative and curious beings. Every time I watch my two grandsons age 2 and 4 playing I am amazed at how curious and creative they are. Are they exceptionally gifted? Well as their grandpa I am going to say yes, but as an educator I have to admit what they do is the norm for kids their age. They don’t wait for instructions or read the directions before launching into play with a new toy, device, or environment. Experimenting and learning from failure is how they learn. It’s only when we adults get involved that a formal structure is introduced. “No, that’s not the way you use that” and “let me show you how to do it.”

In classrooms I recommend a simple three-step process to help learners reengage your students’ creativity. As teachers plan their lessons and units they should intentionally refer to these questions as frequently as the content allows.

1. Begin with the question

• Ask questions that stimulate thinking and sustain curiosity. Focus on “what if” or “how else” kinds of questions.
• Ask questions that activate prior or background knowledge. What does the learner already know that might be useful now? This also helps learners see there is really a progression to the curriculum rather than a disjointed collection of objectives.
• Ask questions that extend the learning into new situations.

2. Build on a foundation of knowledge

• Pre-assess and determine if there are critical gaps in the student’s understanding that might impact their learning of new material and address those gaps.
• Create a classroom in intrigue. Sometimes the learning should unfold in possibly unexpected ways. Use inductive reasoning at times, moving from specific instances into a generalized and discovered conclusion.
• Engage students in generating choices in their learning. That doesn’t mean they get to pick the learning objectives, but they can shape the context in which they are explored. Tomlinson talks about differentiation by content, process, product, and environment.

3. Communicate, collaborate, and create

• Initiate wonder in the classroom. Engage students collaboratively in thinking about extensions to their learning, both within the classroom and with other classes, schools, and cultures.
• Use feedback to foster creativity and curiosity. Provide actionable feedback that causes the learner to ask their own questions and explore new contexts for their learning.
• Use the power of the internet to expand the learning environment. Some students have never been out of their own county, let alone country. Link with similar aged students to gain new and global perspectives on the world.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.” There aren’t fairy godmothers in the real world. There are, however, great teachers. Great teachers can give their students that most useful gift of curiosity.

Thanks to Lorena, John, Laura, Rachel, Amy, Jen and Howard for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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This Year’s Most Popular Q & A Posts!

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Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

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Look for Part Two in a few days...


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