15 Ideas for Back to School Creativity with Intention
It’s a new year — even if, like most teaching professionals, the real new year is whenever you start with your new class for the current school term. Does your family, like mine, tease you for thinking in “school years” rather than the January-January calendar other folks outside of the education sector seem to adhere to? Nonetheless, returning after holiday break holds the same strange combination of anxiety and anticipation. How will the students (and you) adjust to waking up early and working for several hours straight? Will they be excited about what they’ll be studying in the next few months? How can even the most passionate and prepared teacher compete with the fond and recent memories of lounging ‘till 11 in snowman pajamas, travelling to exotic locales, or simply reading for pleasure (not an assigned book report) whilst sipping hot cocoa all day? This is the time when you can truly use some ideas for boosting back to school creativity.
Educators reading Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom (my book with Dan Ryder, published by EdTechTeam Press, August 2017), often write us to share that the “pathways to critical creativity and rigorous whimsy” we offer are perfect for energizing students. We are often told that it gets students thinking deeply about the content in the curriculum, and learning from the process of making. Most importantly, learners demonstrate what they know or how they feel about a topic by articulating their creative reasoning in an intentional way, as Dan likes to say, “If they build it they will get it.”
Because most of the book is like a handbook of sorts, featuring strategies that can be used in any discipline, applicable to any topic, and adaptable for all ages, many teachers have found it useful for classroom community building. It helps to breathe life into existing lessons, or even as a go-to for that inevitable time you need a substitute to cover while you’re down with the winter flu.
Here are some ideas for igniting back to school creativity.
Try focusing on three themes:
- Leveraging the MOBILE
- Getting kids MOVING
- Thinking METAPHORICALLY
Whether your plan is to review or start anew, to focus on community or content, here are some ideas for those crazy first weeks back to school. The ones with hashtags are specifically adapted from the book, allowing you to share your photos and remixes with our Critical Creativity community at https://twitter.com/IntentionBook.
MOBILE : How might students leverage their mobile devices for creative thinking and making?
This is really a portmanteau of “image” and “metaphor” and it’s a great way for students to share some of their holiday vacation photos while applying metaphorical thinking to the course content at hand. Most of us have a growing collection of images in our mobile phone’s camera roll; Why not use them to explain a concept? Imagiphor is a quick challenge using the resources one has in one’s pocket. Ask students to take three minutes or so to locate a photo on their device that metaphorically represents the topic or concept at hand. They may share their image and explanation with a partner, or perhaps drop the image in a shared folder for further class discussion. For the added fun that comes with serendipity, students might exchange devices with their partners and source from their collection!
Ask learners to explore the outdoors (or somewhere outside of the classroom) and record their observations, reflecting on meaning. Create a prompt relevant to the curriculum, perhaps related to certain vocabulary terms. They might hunt for dichotomies with two opposing concepts, or search for evidence of a particular theme. Students should annotate their visual evidence with writing. They may then use the chosen artifacts as inspiration for a poem or story, or share their findings in a presentation.
Photo Scavenger Hunt:
Create a calendar of subject-relevant topics for learners to photograph, perhaps even collaborating with peers in your department. Each day of the month is a different challenge. For example, in math they could search for parallel lines, geometric shapes, patterns, or symmetry. They could hunt for things demonstrating a vocabulary word or science phenomena. Showcase the photos in a common slide deck or class Instagram. You might want to have a photo contest with learners choosing the categories and winners.
Welcome students to the classroom with a variety of materials to produce a stop-motion animation film, such as modelling clay, googly-eyeballs, magazines, markers, construction paper, plastic bricks, etc. Present a topic as the creative constraint so that students have a focus. Quotations from famous individuals in your discipline are always good, as are broad concepts, events, or vocabulary terms. It’s best if students work with a partner so that one person can position the props while the other holds the camera steady and shoots the footage. Recommended apps: StopMotion Studio or ImgPlay (both available in the Apple App Store and Google Play).
Q-Llision Vlog (#IntentionQLlisions):
Formulate an open-ended, interesting question. Questions with a bit of controversy are best, though in this context it might be related to hopes or goals for the New Year. Setup a recording station (such as a class tablet), or a Flipgrid grid (highly recommended!). You can even walk around the room with your phone recording each student and splice the clips together, or have students film each other and send you the footage to compile. This strategy really provides insight into students’ feelings and thinking processes, and it’s interesting to see how the addition of body language and vocal tones add to the richness of their responses.
MOVE: How might we encourage more physical movement in the learning process?
Human Magnetic Poetry:
How do you bring a poem to life? Cut-up and magnetic poetry are two techniques that involve physically remixing words to create poetic phrases, but what if this process became more physical and personal and we used our own bodies? Ask each student to clearly write a word on an index card (it’s best if they are assigned different parts of speech to get a variety). They then walk around the room, holding the word in front of them, scanning others’ words. The challenge is to try to form a poetic phrase (this can even be as short as two words) with others. Someone (either the teacher or a designated “paparazzo”) should archive the phrase with a photo, then students can remix by mingling more and connecting with others.
So you think you can you dance an idea? Dance moves are often named for the things they resemble, like the “Moonwalk”, the “Sprinkler”, or “Running Man”. Ask students to think of a way to physically represent a process, vocabulary term, event, or other content-related topic by inventing a dance move using one or more parts of their bodies. They then perform a series of these repeated movements to develop an entire dance and call out the title of the moves while performing them for others.
Tableaux and Data Viz Tableaux (#IntentionTableaux):
A tableaux is a visual representation of a scene by a group of actors standing in character without moving. This pantomime could include ad hoc props or costume elements that participants can create in a short amount of time. Participants must consider the composition of the scene, playing with height, poses, and emotion. Choose a topic (such as a scene from a book, a famous film, a current or historical event, or something from your previous unit) and plan the tableaux within 10 minutes. Each group can attempt to guess what the human sculpture represents.
Another variation, “Data Viz Tableaux,” uses a set of data that’s collected and visualized as a human freeze frame vignette. Students first collect any set of data (everyone’s favorite music genre, for example, or something relevant to the curriculum). Group members then have a limited time to plan and execute a sculpture with their bodies and any props or costume pieces they can create from the materials at hand. Groups should use height and position to help tell the data story. Other groups can try deciphering the data visualization before the group debriefs their intentions.
This is a wonderful icebreaker or exit ticket and even works to obtain some affective data after an exam! Animated GIFs are visual metaphors students are probably very familiar with. Many students might have a GIF keyboard on their mobile device but they can also use sites like https://giphy.com/ to search for particular “mood” GIFs. Pose a question upon which students should reflect, such as how they felt about their performance last semester or on the test they just took; what the new year might feel like; what is their returning-to-school mood; or something that could reflect an opinion about a curriculum topic. Ask students to find a GIF that matches or demonstrates their feelings and walk around the room holding their device, displaying their chosen GIF. As an extension, ask students to draw some conclusions about the types of GIFS chosen by the class.
Weird / Wonderful / Worrisome Wall:
I got this idea while frustratingly asking my daughter, “What did you learn at school today?” only to be met with a sigh and “…Nothing.” I thought perhaps she just needed a better creative constraint. It’s listed under “movement” because as students research they are asked to step away from their desks and place their thoughts on a common learning space in another part of the room. Create a space (such as a bulletin board or piece of the white board), where learners can share their feelings about things they have researched or learned about. For “back to school” this could even be current events in general or current events in your discipline. Students reflect upon current events or topics they have researched or encountered by classifying them in the category titles “Weird,” “Worrisome,” “Wonderful.” These can become discussion prompts for the larger group.
METAPHOR: How might students practice metaphorical thinking skills while reflecting on what they have learned?
One Word to Rule Them All (#IntentionOneWord):
This exercise started as an attempt to maintain a diary with as minimal an effort as possible. The objective is to distill something complex, such as an experience or content knowledge, into a single word and augment that word using metaphorical typography and/or relevant doodles. Sum up something — what was the biggest takeaway or feeling? Enhance the written word by creating meaningful design with the lettering. For example, “growth” could have letters that look like vines, branches, or measuring sticks. I tried this recently at the end of a unit on World War I poetry (see image), but it would be excellent to use this for goals for the New Year.
Color Palette (#IntentionColor):
Storytelling can involve words, images, and …color! Ask students to think carefully about the main themes in a novel or poem — what colors would they assign to them? How might we represent a person’s life story, a certain community, predictions for the New Year? What “colors” are your classroom, country, or best friend? Students may use paint or paint chips from the hardware store, colored markers or paper, a digital app or the web sitehttps://www.colourlovers.com/ to create the original palette. Challenge them to give a unique name to each color (and the palette) by using descriptive language. They should be sure to explain their creative reasoning behind each choice.
Viz Vo Volley Snowball Fight (#IntentionVolley):
Are students missing the snowball fights they had during break? Ask them to write a challenging new vocabulary term (or one they remember from the previous unit), and their name on a piece of paper. After everyone in the class has written a word and crumbled their papers encourage them to throw the papers like a snowball fight. Each person should choose and unravel a paper, read the word, and draw a picture representing that word. Sketches can be as simple as stick figures and geometric shapes, but students should try to find a deeper meaning in the vocabulary term. Post all illustrations to a common space and have a gallery walk, discussing the different ways people visualized the vocabulary. (Note: If students are unsure of the meaning, remind them that this is a good time to look it up and get to know the term better).
Sculpture of “Stuff”:
Anything can be made into art, even the most random junk in the bottom of your backpack. This challenge asks students to create a spontaneous sculpture or other art piece by arranging everyday objects from their surroundings (bag, desk, etc.). The work should metaphorically represent a concept — perhaps their big “takeaway” from a topic or experience. Pareidolia is the phenomenon of seeing patterns (like faces) in things. What can a house key become? What does an eraser look like? Can that rubber band be made to look like an animal? Students (in teams or individually), place objects on paper and use colored pens to draw around them, “filling out” the scene. They may mix multiple items together in a 3D sculpture. Learners should share their creative reasoning in a gallery walk or other oral presentation.
Oreo Challenge (#IntentionOreo):
This divergent thinking activity is traditionally based on the Oreo cookie — a circular, black and white sandwich confection with both crispy and creamy parts. While it’s great to use as a reflection of relevant curriculum content, I’ve also used it in workshops as a way to explore social justice issues or current events people care deeply about. Ask students to create a visual representation of a concept — think of it as an advertisement for an idea. They should use the Oreo cookie as the constraint, placing it on a paper background so they can draw and arrange things around it. It’s best to give a time constraint as well (maybe 15 minutes), and offer students a chance to share with others in a gallery walk.
BONUS COMMUNITY BUILDER: How might we nourish our classroom community?
Line and Caret (#IntentionLessandMore):
Heading back to school in a new year can be the perfect time for healing relationships, setting goals, and sharing hopes and dreams. This wordplay challenge involves thinking about opposites — what would you like to see “less of” and “more of” in the world, your school, or your community. It’s perfect for the New Year! The object of this game is to write a word with a negative connotation, then try to change it into a more positive concept by crossing out and adding letters (“lines and carets”). The goal is to change the original word with few physical markings but give it an entirely new context. (Example: doubt = do; war = warmth).
Wishing you a fabulous return to the school year in 2019! Feel free to remix or adapt any of these ideas to suit your own needs as well as the needs of the students. Don’t forget to share your success on social and tag #edtechteam #intentionbook so we can see these fun activities in action!
Amy Burvall is a serial creator, professional dot-connector and frequent flâneuse. After 25 years in K-12 education, she is currently consulting, creating, and curating in the fields of creativity, visual thinking, and digital literacies. Amy Burvall is the co-author of Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom