Monday, January 11, 2016

Establishing a Creative Climate in My Classroom and Embracing Failure


Written by Jonathan Garra 
Graduate Student at ICSC &
Middle School History Teacher at Elmwood Franklin School


This semester, my goal was to encourage my students to use creativity in the classroom every day. I don’t mean that I spent time developing creative lessons, necessarily; it was not my creativity I wanted to practice. My goal was to allow time for my students to try new things, fail repeatedly, take chances, embrace ambiguity, and create content (as opposed to regurgitate it).

Before I started any work in creativity, I worked deliberately to establish a positive creative climate. This is not unusual, as I typically dedicate the first two weeks of school getting to know my kids, and letting my kids get to know me. However, after this semester, I have a much deeper appreciation for just how important it is for a classroom to be psychologically safe— particularly a creative classroom. That time spent establishing relationships with kids made our work in creativity much more meaningful.

Expecting kids to use creativity in academia means that we expect kids to develop new skills and habits. It means that we expect kids to try accomplishing tasks in new ways they have never tried. It means that we expect kids to share more of themselves and their perspectives than they are used to sharing. It means that we expect kids to focus more on their processes than on their grades. When you boil it down, using creativity in the classroom is really setting kids up for failure. But this is the good kind of failure that we should want our students to encounter regularly in a safe, academic environment. This kind of failure doesn’t come with a big red “F”, or humiliation, or feelings of guilt. This kind of failure comes with a positive attitude, an ability to look critically at the process used and make adjustments, and an ownership and accountability of an individual’s learning and growth. This kind of failure often comes with huge gains in a student’s self-confidence. Asking kids to achieve this level of failure only comes with a great deal of trust.

While there are countless ways I could improve as a teacher, I think one of my strengths is establishing trust with my students. Here are four ways I establish a positive creative climate in my classroom.

1.    Be honest.

As I mentioned earlier, I always devote the first two weeks of school to getting to know my students. This is important time because, aside from getting to know them, it gives them time to adjust to my cadence, my sense of humor, my classroom rules and expectations, etc. During this time, I always spend at least two entire days allowing them to ask me any school-appropriate question. The rule is, after I answer a student’s question, the asker must answer the same question in front of everyone else. I have fielded questions from what kind of shampoo I use to what the saddest day of my life was. When I was in eighth grade, my father died suddenly. Right in our living room. Right in front of us. I answered the ‘saddest day of my life’ question honestly. Of course I cried in front of my new students.

But these questions don’t always lead to a room full of red, glossy eyes. Usually they are fun and interesting. Answer honestly. Let your students see you for the funny, awesome, smart, vulnerable, thoughtful human being you are. Not as Mr. or Mrs. whatever. If you want them to maximize their creativity by sharing their thoughts and perspectives, you need to lead the way.

2. Be goofy.

I start most classes with a short, usually humorous, story about my life outside of the classroom.

I was not such a great student in middle and high school. I tell my students this often. I have three young, crazy kids. I tell stories of the wild and ridiculous things they do and say. I knew, and still know, what it’s like to doodle and daydream during class. My students know this. If there’s a song in my head, I get it stuck in their heads. If there’s a joke I love, I tell it to them. If kids are interested in the jokes and stories you tell, they’re also likely to be paying attention and be interested in your content, too. The environment I create through this makes them feel good about walking through the door to my classroom, and it makes them more willing to take risks for me.

3. Make sure they know you care about them (after all, some days I spend more time with them than my own children).

If you’re willing to cry in front of your students on week one, chances are that some kids will seek you out when they feel like crying. Being able to connect with kids on this level creates an unbelievable amount of trust between you and them. Not everyone would cry in front of their students on week one, but simply listening to kids shows them you care. Asking them about their weekends or holidays shows them you care. Checking in after an absence shows them you care. Showing up to their basketball games, or musicals, or concerts, or National Honors Society inductions shows them you care. If you notice their haircuts or new shoes, tell them. Every human being wants to feel heard, and have his or her feelings validated. If you can do this for your students, you’ll be surprised at what they’ll accomplish in your class.

4. Set clear expectations and enforce your rules

Try as I might, no matter what kind of example I set, adolescents will say and do the wrong things. While I want to allow my kids to make mistakes, negative behavior toward others cannot be tolerated— not if I expect to have a creative classroom. I can work all I want to make kids take risks for me, but if they feel the judgment of their peers, they likely won’t take those risks, no matter how much they might have grown to like and trust me. If negative judgment happens, I call it out immediately and let everyone know that it’s not okay in my classroom.

More than anything else, you need to be you, whatever that looks like, and you need to share you. Do what works for you, in your classroom, in your school, with your students. Kids are savvy. They’ll pick up on your authenticity. If you can make students feel safe in your classroom, they will stretch their brains and think of possibilities far beyond what is conventionally taught, and they develop ideas and theories that are brilliantly simple. As educators, we should work, deliberately and often, to create scenarios in which students are able to be content creators, and teaching creativity will help do exactly that. And if you can create a psychologically and emotionally safe environment, your kids will respond by making some unbelievable creative leaps.



2 comments:

MrsWatkins328 said...

Fantastic article, Jon-o! You are teaching them about the process, not just the product. They should remember this lesson forever!

Michaela Kowalick said...

Very interesting approach to teaching. I think the majority of your students benefit from your psychologically safe learning (& living) environment. I know I would have. Thanks for sharing your insights! Hopefully the professional and collegiate audiences this reaches will appreciate it as I have. Congrats!