Encouraging Creativity in Lesson Plans
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, July/August 2020 Issue
By Adam Stone
As a seventh grade language arts teacher at Dexter McCarty Middle School in Gresham, OR, Kayleigh Wright has a clear vision of where any given lesson plan ought to lead. “I don’t just want a kid who can quote Shakespeare’s sonnets,” she says. “I want someone who can solve problems, who can be a strong contributing member of society, and who can also make connections between their lives and a story or a sonnet they have read.”
What she wants, in short, is a K-12 lesson plan that fosters creativity, self-expression, and self-discovery.
This is not easily achieved, says Cassie Tabrizi, CEO of educational consultancy, Create-abilities. “It can be incredibly easy to treat lesson planning like a checklist. Objective: check. Standards: check. Activity: check,” she says.
Education experts say there is a better way. A thoughtful lesson plan can encourage exploration, freeing kids to speak in their own voices and infusing creativity into the learning process. Parents and teachers see the value in this: Gallup research found 87 percent of teachers and 77 percent of parents say teaching that incorporates creativity in the learning process has a bigger payoff for students.
In order for students to find their own unique voices, they first need to feel their voices are valid. Before settling down to craft the lesson plan, teachers need to make an upfront investment in relationship-building.
“Whether it’s through surveys or one-on-one interviews, you have to know who is in your classroom in order to create an environment in which they will take risks for self-discovery,” says Rowena Shurn, senior policy analyst and program specialist at the National Education Association.
Shurn taught in Prince George’s County, MD schools for 14 years, and found that this early effort paid dividends when she moved on to the actual lesson planning. “You take that information—who they are, what they are interested in—and you have that profile in front of you when you make your lesson plan,” she says. “It’s what allows your students to show up as their authentic selves.”
Deborah Poulos is a teacher with over 27 years experience and the author of The Conscious Teacher. She studied every student’s cumulative record files at the start of every year, and built that knowledge into her lesson planning. “I had strategies to individualize and differentiate so I could meet students at their levels,” she says. “They knew I thought they were important.”
Plan for Choices
How to write a lesson plan that empowers those valued individuals to speak in their own voices? Step #1: give them choices. Students learn in different ways, and the lesson plan needs to reflect that individuality.
When Wright gives out a persuasive writing assignment, for example, she keeps it loose. “It can’t always be five paragraphs, five sentences in each paragraph,” she says. “You can get the same amount of information from them if you let them do it in different ways. They can create a commercial, they can create a blog, they can [create vlogs]. I just need to see that they can make a persuasive argument.”
At The Avery Coonley School in suburban Chicago, second grade teacher Sarah Batzel even finds ways to make math an open-ended exercise. “Let’s say I want to talk about fractions. I give them patterned blocks and ask them to build a figure that represents ‘one-third.’ They grapple with the concept, but there is more than one way of doing it,” she says. “They make their own choices.”
She did the same in science class, as kids designed their own glue. “We tested corn starch, we tested flour, then the children got to design their own mixture in their own way, using the data we had collected,” she says.
It’s that combination of data—of facts, information, and a clearly-defined end product—that keeps this kind of open-ended work from becoming a free-for-all. “Parameters foster creativity,” Batzel says. “It’s not just ‘go make a shape.’ There is real math in there, and they work within that.”
Shurn builds her lesson plans on a tic-tac-toe approach: eight ways of mastering the information (pick your own) plus a blank square if none of the others appeal to you. “Some people can demonstrate their abilities visually. Another student may be more kinesthetic, so they will do something hands-on. An artistic student may create a video, and another may create a song,” she says.
The ninth square is where creativity shines the brightest. One student used every ninth-square opportunity to tie the lesson back to his STEM fair project. Another consistently incorporated media production. “They get a chance to develop something totally different,” Shurn says. “When we stop trying to control it, then what they are doing is authentic. It is connected to who they are and what they are passionate about.”
Plan for Time
In addition to options, the lesson plan also needs to leave room for time—open blocks between tasks that allow for experimentation and discovery.
“You need to plan for projects with a one- and two-week time frame,” says Dr. Marisela Rodriguez, executive director of Rice University’s Tapia Center for Excellence and Equity in Education, which offers professional training for K-12 educators. “Time allows for practice. It allows them to try it multiple ways, to draft and rewrite and edit.”
Unstructured time can spark creativity even in more matter-of-fact subjects, such as technology. “Any time I give them a new tool, I give them time to explore,” Wright says. “I want them to play around with it, to work through the platform themselves. I want them to solve problems on their own, so that the creativity comes in working through the kinks.”
Unstructured time gives kids room to iterate, a key component in creativity. If there’s only time to do it once, where is the space to explore? A lesson plan that allows for open time challenges kids to go beyond their knee-jerk answers.
“Something may be easy the first time and even the second time,” Batzel says. “When you give them time to do it a third way or a fourth way, that’s when they start to get really creative.”
Plan for Honesty
It’s easy to build a lesson plan on a schedule. You start at the end—here’s what they need to learn—and work backwards, with incremental steps leading toward the goal. A lesson plan that fosters creativity needs to incorporate an added element: call it authenticity, or even vulnerability.
“It is about relationship and rapport,” Shurn says. “When you have a real relationship, young people will know there is a safe space. If they know they won’t be rejected, they will want to show up in an authentic and creative way.”
That has to happen every day, in a million small ways, but it can also be baked into a lesson plan.
“Lesson plans that foster self-discovery and self-expression should include invitations for students to explore themselves in a safe environment,” says former high school math teacher Dr. Mikela Bjork, a professor at the University of Redlands School of Education.
She would introduce a math lesson by first asking kids their fears about math. Maybe they’ve been told it is hard, or that they aren’t good at it. “When I asked my students to write about their fears of math, I sat down and wrote with them. And I shared my fears. It was a bonding experience,” she says. That key moment of sharing was part of the lesson plan.
Wright took a similar approach when she built up a lesson plan around the book Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes that tells the story of a black boy mistakenly shot and killed by a white police officer.
“That challenged students to think on a bigger scale, in part because they saw [that] I was comfortable having conversations where I didn’t always have the answers. That gave them the comfort to take similar risks,” she said. “When I could admit—I just don’t have the answer for that, I just don’t know—that was freeing to them.”
It may sound paradoxical, but vulnerability and uncertainty at the front of the room can actually spur student creativity.
“It takes away this idea that teacher is above the students,” Wright says. “When I can do that, I give them power that otherwise they see as being mine. It empowers them, it makes the classroom our space, and then it’s OK to make a mistake. That makes it OK to explore.”
Of Projects, and Equity
Two other key issues come into play when crafting a lesson plan to promote creativity. The first is project work, the second relates to issues of equity and inclusivity.
Project work seems obvious. Give kids hands-on tasks, encourage them to create, and creativity will flourish. But there are some guidelines worth noting.
A proscribed project doesn’t fire the imagination: here are the parts, here’s the manual, now built it. That’s a project, but it’s not creative. “The lesson plan should introduce the project with an open-ended question,” Rodriguez says.
“How does COVID-19 affect the environment? Students can go many different ways with that. They can talk about air quality, they can talk about the animals, they could talk about traffic, they could talk about going to school online. They could make a pamphlet or a TikTok,” she said. “The open-endedness is what gives them voice and choice.”
Project-based lesson plans also need milestones: a reading to get them started; requirements for a rough draft; a bibliography. “The checkpoints ensure that students don’t go off on a tangent, that at the end of the day they are meeting the standard,” Rodriguez says.
How do equity and inclusion factor here? In the long game, these are some of the biggest benefits to be derived from a creativity-driven lesson plan.
“All students come with different background knowledge and different experiences. When teachers understand and respect that, then everybody has the right to shine,” Rodriguez says.
“Students who learn this way are not afraid to be themselves, they are not afraid of sharing their ideas,” she said. “These early experiences with creativity will make our world more diverse and more interesting, when everyone feels safe to speak in their own voice.”
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics.