By Deborah McNemee
Last week, Michaela Liebst shared with us an inspired idea that brought together what we think of as traditional academic skills with creativity. Her blog post comes just at the right time when most students and educators are feeling quite bogged down with our technology-heavy new normal. Liebst offers a great reminder that innovation in the classroom doesn’t always need to be tech-based. Her blog reminds me of an assessment I’ve used with my honors and AP students.
The adjectives that normally accompany honors and AP assessments might include grueling, taxing, and rigorous. Did you know that if you look up rigorous in the 10th edition of the Webster’s Collegiate dictionary, you’ll find the synonyms harsh and severe? Scrupulously accurate is also found. That sounds better, but taxing and grueling give you wearing and punishing. Except for the accurate part of those definitions, none of those words are ones I’d prefer to be associated with the academic curiosity and excellence necessary for honors or AP learning. For any learning, come to think of it.
While thorough and challenging exams are naturally part of accelerated classes, there is still room for innovation and--dare I say it--fun.
One year, after my honors had quizzed and essayed their way through Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Miller’s The Crucible, I decided to offer a different kind of assessment. that would not only test their ability to follow written instructions (which is sometimes surprisingly lacking) and innovate on demand, but it would also allow me to assess several other elements.
First, I divided the class into small groups of 3 to 4 students. Next, I handed out the instructions. Students were to create an advertisement for a product that a specific character from either story would need or use. In the advertisement, the students must apply their understanding of the character, plot, conflicts, satire, and appeals. They must include a script that demonstrates knowledge and application of writing skills, including punctuation and grammar usage. Oh, and one more thing, they also had to create the product. They could use anything in the classroom or in their backpacks. Then each group drew a character’s name from a hat. They had about one hour to complete the task. At the end of the hour the groups presented their product and their commercial.
While the reading and vocab quizzes and essays were a necessary part of my lessons, none of those assessments could come close to checking so many elements all at once. With this one assignment I was able to assess the following items:
Of course, this was simply a theory until I put it to practice. Mind you, these student guinea pigs were used to rigorous exams. I wasn’t sure how they would take to this new model.
At first, the students didn’t know what to make of it. After only a few minutes, however, they were digging through their backpacks, and rifling through their brains, and scavenging through the hoard of craft supplies and odd trinkets I’d provided. I had collected quite a collection of wrapping paper tubes, tin foil, play dough, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, and whatever else you can find at the Dollar Store or a garage sale.
The ultimate products were impressive. Hester Prynne’s Shame Scraper was a favorite. If she’d only had a way to scrape away her shame sooner, she would have saved herself and her child at least one hundred pages worth of anxious overthinking and self reproof. Rev. Dimmesdale Jackbone (a jacket with a backbone) could also have saved the day, along with his soul. Pearl’s My Little Daddy would have eliminated not only Hester’s soul-sucking dependence on the possibility that Dimmesdale might stop being a deadbeat dad, but also her own continuous creepy questioning about her father.
Elizabeth Proctor needed an anti-witch spell kit to dispel Abigail Williams from Salem (bonus points for irony). Reverend Hale needed the New and Improved Edition of Incubus and Succubus for Dummies to carry in with his “heavy books... weighted with authority”.
The commercials were as wonderful as the products. The activity was a hit. It also ended up being a successful assessment of many of the standards we’d studied in the last several weeks.
The on-demand thinking required with this activity is key. The students did not know what we were doing ahead of time. Therefore, they could not bring in craft supplies that might benefit their preconceived ideas. The fact that they were required to use only what they could find in the classroom guided their thinking. The shapes, colors, utility, and amount of various supplies meant they had to truly problem solve together. They had never done something like this on-the-fly before, so no one was an expert. Each student had to put ideas on the table. Each student had to engage. Every team member had to move forward with a sense of faith and accountability. It was truly one of the most memorable moments of the year. Guess what else, many students claimed they understood the use of appeals and satire more so after that activity than they did after analyzing traditional texts. So, not only was it an assessment, it was also a good teaching tool.
Another bonus--it was not another project that they had to take home and complete at midnight the night before it was due. It was a one and done class activity. No homework necessary. Also, no perfection required. For many students, homework breaks and perfection passes are very real blessings.
While fun activities like this one should not completely replace traditional forms of testing, I do feel like they should absolutely act as supplements, or an enrichment at the very least.
By the way, if you are nervous to try something so unconventional, let me know. I’ve got a gently used Jackbone that might help. It’s worth a try, anyway.
We’d love for you to share your fun and creative classroom assignments. Share in the comments below or share on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #KATEclassroom. Don’t forget to tag @kansasenglish on Twitter and @kanasenglishblog on Instagram.
About the Author
Deborah McNemee teaches at Andover Central High School where a culture of reading is alive and well. She creates a culture of reading with her students by annually hosting a project based event in partnership with Big Read Wichita. She facilitates a writing culture through encouraging involvement with the NaNowriMo Young Writers Program and submitting student work to Voices of Kansas. Her favorite books to read outside of school are classics. Check out her blog about keeping classics relevant for kids at www.KeepingClassics.com.
By Michaela Liebst
As a child, and still as an adult, I would rather write a two-page paper before I attempted to draw anything. Art was never my chosen form of expression in the classroom, and I was always grateful when English teachers provided options that were more linear than creative. When I first started teaching, I made the dangerous assumption that all students had the same educational experience as me, and did not assign artistic work for fear that it would bring frustration and terror to my classroom.
Obviously, this lack of creativity, voice, and choice in the classroom had the exact opposite effect, and I quickly learned that I was the odd woman out when it came to creative projects. No matter the age group, students crave to be given a creative outlet, and as teachers, this is our dream come true. Allowing students to demonstrate mastery of a concept in an artistic or creative format makes our jobs more fun as well as the students’.
Being an elementary gifted facilitator, I see the benefits of incorporating play and creativity into my classroom daily. Engagement is instantly increased when I allow students to draw, paint, or act out their responses to a prompt. And while I used to prescribe to the notion that allowing students a chance to craft and create was “leisurely” or “a break,” I was quickly corrected in my thinking.
As stated by Ben Johnson, in his article “ 4 Ways to Develop Creativity in Students” (2019), “Creativity is the most difficult thinking skill to acquire” with ‘synthesis’ being the highest-order of thinking. Before I was experienced in seeing students interact with creative assignments, I assumed they would be easy for students. I was instantly proven wrong. Over time, opportunities for creative expression have been wrung out of the classroom schedule to make room for much more mundane and rote tasks. This means that students are having to relearn the skills required to think for themselves and generate unique products.
Therefore, I make it my mission to provide students with the opportunity and challenge to exercise their creative muscles and show what they know in creative and exciting ways.
One of my favorite ways of doing this in the 2020 school year has been a themed project that goes with both our nation’s election and the spooky season. To kick off a unit that will require students to learn about our government, identify leadership characteristics, and ultimately nominate their own fictional presidential candidate, I wanted to expose students to our nation’s past leaders. However, I wanted to amp up the typical research project and allow my students to have some fun.
Thankfully, my love for the fall season might be unmatched, and I was inspired by the seasonal décor. I decided to couple “boring” research with the creation of a Presidential Pumpkin Patch! Students chose a president that they wanted to learn more about, and then filled out this Google Slides template to help guide them in their research. Once they had learned the necessary facts, I had them bring in a pumpkin from home, and decorate it to look like their president of choice.
While I’m sure I may have lost some secondary educator’s interest, I would like to make the case that this assignment would be just as successful, entertaining, and rigorous in the middle school/high school setting. Having students use pumpkins (or any other seasonal décor – I’m already thinking about ornaments for a literary Christmas tree?!) to depict their favorite scene or character would be such a fun and effective way for students to show how they are connecting with a text. Not only will the students in your classroom be engaged, but it might also be an opportunity to engage other students, staff, or community members as well!
If you are really wanting to be sure that the assignment is rigorous and standards-based, you can also be sure to supplement the artistic component with a more classroom-typical assignment. For example, in addition to the pumpkin decorating, I also required my students to summarize their research in a paragraph, as well as create a poster with their favorite facts they discovered. I’ve found that my students are great at finding information, but not great at processing the information and summarizing its meaning. However, I know that if we had solely worked on this skill, without the creative activity, their work ethic and willingness to produce high quality summaries would not be as high.
Overall, I am passionate about providing students with opportunities to showcase their knowledge in ways that are exciting and meaningful to them. These types of projects always turn my room into an environment filled with laughter, energy, and engagement. I also know it academically benefits students for a multitude of reasons. When they are synthesizing knowledge in new and unique ways, the information I am wanting them to take away is etching itself into their brain so much more permanently than if I just gave them a multiple-choice quiz. And while these benefits for my students are great, I’m also human and a little selfish – coming up with lesson plans when I know the end result is going to be something as fun as a decorated pumpkin keeps me engaged and pushes my creative muscles. It truly is a win-win!
Share below some of your favorite ways to allow for students to be creative in the classroom. Bonus points if your ideas are seasonal, as I’ve found that seasonal assignments have been my favorite to think up so far!
About the Author
Michaela Liebst is an elementary gifted facilitator in the Derby School district. She has a passion for project-based learning and challenging both her students and through herself through creative projects. Teachers are her favorite people in the world, and she always feels re-energized after collaborating and learning from her colleagues. You can reach her on Instagram (@mliebst) or by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).
By KATE Board Members
The KATE blog committee has the latest scoop regarding some of our board members. Warning: if you don’t want to be privy to these scandalous facts, stop reading now. If you want to be in the loop, read on. The choice is yours.
After a whole afternoon of diligent super-sleuthing (AKA sending a group email and collecting responses), the blog committee can report the following: KATE board members read banned books. In fact, they have indulged in the reading of so many banned books that many of them have favorites.
In the interest of transparency, we offer this list to our membership.
Monica Swift and Lis Bauman adore To Kill a Mockingbird. “I LOVE the realness of the characters, especially Atticus,” Swift confesses.
Other brazen board members not only reveal their favorites, but weigh in on their disapproval of banning books altogether.
Consider Keeley Torbet’s rant:
My favorite banned book is The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. There are few writers with such finely turned phrases and vivid imagery writing today. His prose is almost lyric in quality. I become so deeply engrossed in his characters and stories that I feel like I am part of them. How that level of artistry can be banned is beyond pale. He makes his characters come alive and embraces them for who they are which is a trait that we as humans need to be better at adopting.
Never one to ban books in my personal or professional life, I struggle mightily with how people can justify telling someone what they can and cannot read. How can telling stories about people and their identities and actions be bad? How is offering differing viewpoints, new windows to see through, and life experiences we may never have ourselves be dangerous? I cannot answer these questions, but I can ensure that my own children and my kids (students) are given the freedom to explore literature in all its variety and beauty.
Joann McRell defends Lois Lowry’s The Giver as a powerful text for all students, middle school through post-secondary. “Lowry creates a Utopian society free of hunger, poverty, and violence. Unfortunately, it is also void of hope, love, and joy.” If we believe McRell, the story communicates that “choice and the power of the individual provide hope that our society will continue to see value in its diversity.”
Suzanne Porath boldly acknowledges that reading banned books can broaden one’s worldview past one’s immediate circle of family and friends. She states: One of my favorite banned books is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It's been banned or challenged because of its mix of science and religion with supernatural spirituality. Some people also think it is too complex for young minds. When I first read it, there were few books that had strong female characters, unless, of course, it was a romance book or about babysitting. I related to Meg in many ways - I didn't feel like I fit in my family, I didn't like the way I looked, and I was told I had an "attitude." When I first read this book, I copied out many impactful quotes, like “Maybe I don’t like being different,” Meg said, “but I don’t want to be like everybody else, either.” This seemed to encapsulate my struggle. Also, "Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything." In a time of COVID, this is still so true! This book, and the rest of L'Engle's books, shaped my teenage years and gave me a different perspective on love, family, and memories.
For Anna Drenick, apparently inappropriate language in a book is not a problem. “Although there are quite a few of my favorites that have been on the banned book list, my favorite is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. The book is told from the perspective of a 15 year-old boy on the Autism spectrum who is on a mission to solve a mystery in his neighborhood. It is banned in some schools for ‘profane language and the promotion of atheism.’ I love this book because it offers empathy, understanding, and a little mystery for its readers.
Jennifer Enright’s favorite banned book is Native Son by Richard Wright. “I love the way he tackles the complexity of issues in America and does so with nuance,” she boasts.
Then there’s LuAnn Fox. She appreciates Lolita. “It’s mature, to be sure, but it’s a farce in disguise and showcases the mad genius that is Nabokov as he writes a love letter to the English language wrapped in a taboo subject.”
Our own president Nathan Whitman can’t seem to help himself either. He cherishes Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. He even prefers it over George Orwell’s classroom classic. His claim: While 1984 has its fair share of points and warnings about dictatorships and fascism, I think that this sleeper-hit dystopic utopia fits a lot closer to our present reality, especially when we consider our addictions to feeling good via social media (a soma, if you will). Huxley's thoughts about controlling people through narcissism and self-indulgence were far more prescient and applicable for today.
If you aren’t shocked enough, let us shake you a little more with Erica Shook’s stunning confession. She’s read so many controversial texts, she can’t narrow it to one favorite. In fact, she shamelessly announces that she actually chooses many books “simply because they made the list. For example, the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. It is unlikely that I would have picked it up had it not been for all the people at the time screaming for its banning. And I loved it! One thing is for sure: if people want a book banned, there is an astronomically high probability that it is exactly the book we should all be reading.”
Very well, Ms. Shook. If you insist.
Feel free to use this moment to come clean with your own banned book secret delights. Share your favorites in the comments below.
About the KATE Board
Along with advocating for quality literature, the KATE Board is also passionate about advocating for English teachers across the state. The board's main goal is to inspire and support KATE members to include the texts and lessons in their classrooms that will engage students the most. Feel free to read Katherine Cramer's post regarding NCTE Position Statements if you are fearful about including a certain text in your room! Trust your teacher instinct and provide your students with the texts you know that they need.
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