Five Ways to Bring Creativity Back to the Middle Grades

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I will never forget the time two students approached me after a unit test on classical short stories. "We made something we want to show you," one of the students eagerly blurted out.

To my surprise, the students had spent their weekend creating a video parody of Edgar Allan Poe's classic poem 'The Raven.' I asked the girls why they had made the video. There was no assignment. No extra credit opportunity. It wasn't even a long weekend.

"We were bored," replied one girl.
"It was fun," added the other.
In almost complete unison, they concluded, "We liked 'The Raven.' "

This moment reminded me just how important creativity is to the learning process. Especially in a climate of frequent, high-stakes testing, creativity gives students the freedom and encouragement to explore complex topics and analyze intricate details.

Over the last 10 years, the role of creativity in education has been receiving more and more attention. Sir Ken Robinson's famous TED Talk—"Do Schools Kill Creativity?"—has over 12 million views. Education Week has published a plethora of articles on creativity, from Nathan Sun-Kleinberger's essay "Restoring Creativity in the High School Classroom" to opinion blogger Larry Ferlazzo's column, "We Need to 'Nurture Creativity for All Students." Even assessment companies such as the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) are publishing articles and research on the importance of student engagement.

Many elementary school students have benefited from current educational trends such as genius hour projects and problem-based learning, also known as PBL. However, by the time students reach middle school, there tends to be a sharp decrease in creativity-based lessons.

Don't fall into the trap of focusing so much on the standards that you forget about the teaching process. The first step toward helping students master standards is in the lesson-planning stages. Try one of the five strategies below to bring creativity back to your classroom, increase engagement, and improve students’ understanding.

1. Music

Try teaching concepts through music—there are so many options out there you don't even have to stress about coming up with lyrics. Find educational music by searching online with general phrases such as "grammar songs" and "math songs," or find specific content-related videos by searching for "noun songs" or "fraction songs."

Look for education companies that have recorded complete music albums you can purchase, such as Rhythm, Rhyme, Results, or try using free music videos posted on Flocabulary. My students love listening and watching "Schoolhouse Rock" grammar songs, and one year I mixed up grammar instruction by having students create their own lyrics and music videos.

2. Social Interaction

Find ways for students to interact with one another, whether through partners or in small-group activities. Kagan structures are great for getting students to interact and move around the classroom. I've found inside/outside circles, jig saws, and traveler to be my students' favorite lesson structures.

Reviewing key concepts has never been more interactive than when my class is having a tea party (with water) or a paper snowball fight. To host a tea party of your own, set a timer for students to walk around with their "tea" and mingle. When the buzzer rings, ask students to stand next to a new partner and discuss questions that include different vocabulary words. To stage a snowball fight, pose a question and ask students to write their answers down on paper. At your signal, they should crumble the paper and throw it to the front of the room. When you give them the OK, students rush to pick up a "snowball" and respond through writing on the snowball to the last student’s answer, or to a new question from the teacher.

Don't forget that social interaction with adults is equally important. How are you as the teacher making yourself available to students? Feedback and support encourage students to take risks and be honest about their challenges with you.

3. Technology

Our students only know a world full of cellphones, tablets, and 24-hour access to information. To embrace technology in the classroom, ask students to create websites, webinars, Wordles, avatars, Thinglinks, or another digital project to demonstrate their learning.

Thinglink, for example, offers a platform for students to link any digital information to a single graphic. Using this technology, students could demonstrate their understanding of a fictional character by linking to a wordle highlighting character traits, a digital presentation explaining how a character is developed, or an avatar speaking the most important quote from the book—the possibilities are endless. If you are already using technology like Thinglink in your classroom, then push yourself further by app smashing or using green screens.

4. Hands-on Learning

While technology offers a wide range of creative options for students and teachers, going "old school" every once in a while gives students the ability to express themselves using multiple intelligences not always acknowledged in the upper grades.

Instead of asking students to fill out a worksheet, have them create a visual representation of a concept they are learning. Pass out random objects found in the classroom and task students with creating a simile or metaphor using the object and a key concept from class. Then, have them present and justify the simile or metaphor to the rest of the class.

5. Choice

The number one way to bring creativity back to the middle grades is by giving students choice. Encourage students to learn and grow in the way that best fits their personality and learning style. Along the way, they will not only strengthen their academic skills, but will become more engaged in what they are learning because they have ownership of it.

Try assigning a "dinner menu" of questions or tasks. Break the assignment into appetizers, entrees, and desserts, with desserts being the most difficult questions and/or tasks. Then, assign a specific quota for each section, thus providing students with choice, but still holding them accountable for all of the assignment.

By providing students with choices, teachers have an opportunity to bring all five of the creative elements into play. Tic-Tac-Toe choice boards, for example, require students to complete three activities in a row of their choosing. This is the perfect time to integrate multiple creative elements. One task may focus on music, another may require students to build or design something, and the third task could incorporate technology.

Any teacher can bring creativity into the middle-school classroom with this type of activity—it just requires intentionality, flexibility, and planning.

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