Monday, May 26, 2014

Creativity through Structure

I taught in a school district where the art teachers at individual elementary schools were cut back. Instead, they had 4 art specialists who developed self-contained art lessons and put them in poster-board sized zip bags. Any time a new lesson was added to the range of available lessons, the art specialist would go around to the teachers who taught that grade level and teach them how to teach the lesson.  

I was initially a bit skeptical about these lessons.  In many ways, they were quite structured.  For example, one of the lessons commemorates a bridge that was built in the town.  I believe the bridge was built for the 100th anniversary of something relating to the town's history.  The zip bag included laminated posters talking about the history of the bridge.  There were also directions for the students to follow to make their own "bridges".  They had to use black construction paper for the background and they were to cut out a certain number of 3 different shapes - I think the number was 30 small pieces of each shape, but I don't remember exactly.  Then, they were to develop a repeating pattern to span the paper as a bridge.  

The results of this admittedly structured activity surprised me every time I saw them.  Since the lesson was part of their state history study (probably 4th grade), most of the 4th grades throughout the district would do this project at some time during the year.  As a sub, I would frequently see the results of the lesson in various buildings and with various 4th grades.  The results were anything but mundane and I must admit surprised me every time. The strict structure of the lesson and the materials actually seemed to bring out MORE creativity in the students than the freedom to "paint/draw whatever you want".

I have more frequently seen the results of lack of structure in writing.  It is very common for teachers to give subs what they consider to be an "easy" day.  Students are told that the students are to have a "free writing" day.  They can write whatever they want.  This is paralyzing for many students, and actually often difficult for subs.  Many students have NO idea at all what to write and the sub doesn't know the children well enough to make appropriate suggestions.   

For me, it works better if, like in the art lesson above, there is quite a bit of structure, but an element of choice within that structure.  One of the better writing lessons I was given to do was to have the students write a persuasive essay (structure) on one of 5 possible topics (limited choice).  Another lesson that worked well was to have the students write a friendly letter (structure and form) to a teacher they had had in that school (limited choice) for teacher appreciation day (structured topic).  To that basic outline, I added that, if they could remember an especially outstanding incident or specific interaction, that would really bring a smile to the teacher.    

For me, it seems that you actually see more creativity and even higher quality creativity when there is structure, but some choice within the basics of the structure.

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