Arnis: We hear so much about innovators and the innovator’s dilemma. But what about innovation in a classroom in these days of standards and perpetual testing? Can it be done? For inspiration I asked my daughter, Marisa, who is one of the most innovative teachers I have seen.
Marisa: What describes a new idea or better yet, what makes an idea important? I realize the concept of innovation is more a mindset than a term that can be labeled or defined. Both students and teachers can be innovative in their approaches and techniques. In fact, all teachers and students should be!
For a learning environment that fosters creativity and innovative thinking, there must be a level of flexibility on the part of teachers and students. No more “Just read pages 45-51”—in this fast-paced world, students crave new and enriching experiences. As teachers, we can no longer script each lesson, but need to act as facilitators to guide our students’ thinking.
For example, when teaching the Revolutionary War to 4th graders, my class would read a page, and then we would act out the scene. Each individual in the room ended up becoming one of the members of history. The students felt so invested in their character that they began independently researching to learn more and then act as the historical figure throughout the year. By the end of the school year, the class had become so familiar with their characters that we transformed the classroom into various scenes from the Revolution (tea party, the reading of Patrick Henry’s speech, etc.). The students performed in the scenes based on their character. As the students became more invested, their roles and ideas grew. Soon some students were acting as tour guides leading younger students around the room, while another student chose to write a song to summarize the events and sing to younger students.
Notice in the previous scenario, the new and innovative ideas were not mine, they came from the students and my role was to encourage their thinking and help guide them in their exploration and creation of ideas. Let’s use what Howard Gardner taught us and let students decide how they will demonstrate their learning, as long as it does just that: demonstrates their learning. We can provide the initial tools and background, but most of the learning should come from students taking the next steps in the process and exploring further. Just a couple more examples that help to demonstrate my approach
Currently, at the 6th grade level at Congress Park Elementary School, students can participate in a class known as “genius hour”. At the beginning of the school year, students are given a stack of cardboard boxes and asked to create something. This year there were forts, ski ball games, a working bow and arrow, and so much more. When I asked the students, “What was your goal during this project, or why was it done?” they were able to tell me that it allowed them to think creatively about a problem, decide how it may work, try out their designs, and re-imagine as needed. Sounds like the scientific process, doesn’t it? But as I watched students work, it was so much more. Not only were they naturally using the steps of the scientific process, but they were also learning to work in teams, discuss their ideas, write out steps, settle arguments amongst themselves and take time to listen to each other. Every student in the room was having fun and every student was engaged. The same class was later given the opportunity to decide upon a topic that interests them and research/study it to create a presentation to share with the class. The great part about the presentation, it is the student’s choice as to how they present. My students came into my classroom daily to tell me about their ideas and what they were doing. The project inspired creativity, research, writing, presentation and individual expression.
So what can teachers do in a standards-driven, general education classroom?
The same thing… they can still develop the talents of their students. For example, my class this year is learning about Greek Mythology as part of the 6th grade curriculum. The unit is presented in an interdisciplinary confine so that students are immersed in literature, and research relating to Greek Mythology. The standards are set and the unit is planned. So when are the students able to be independent thinkers and create new ideas? Well, during each lesson. For example, we began the unit learning about Theseus and The Minotaur. Some students were intrigued by the idea of a labyrinth, so we researched the minotaur and labyrinths and found that there are currently research teams investigating different labyrinths that some believe may be tied to the original myth. Other students were upset by the myth and said they can’t believe Theseus left Ariadne after her help. After some discussion, we came up with a set of tasks (1a) to demonstrate their understanding of the myth. Each question required students to summarize events in some way. Whether it was writing a summary, or analyzing research.
The following day, students read about Hercules and his 12 labors. During our discussion, students began asking about the monster’s appearance and powers. Listening to the student’s discussion, I created a challenge to design a monster to fight Hercules as part of his, lesser well known, 13th labor. Students then worked in groups and wrote narratives to tell the story of the 13th labor (1b). My goal for the lesson began with the intent of having students summarize the sequence of the myth, and identify the characteristics of Hercules. By the end of the lesson, students had proven they not only understood the sequence of the myths, but were able to replicate it in a unique way.
Innovation can occur on a daily basis in the classroom; the key is to listen to student’s ideas and approach standards in new ways to demonstrate learning while incorporating the interests of each unique class. Our best tool is our ability to listen to students and manipulate our teaching practices to adapt to their interests and needs. The innovators are students and teachers; anyone can help to create new and unique ideas to show learning.
(1a) Write/ Homework: Select one of the following journal topics to complete for homework.
- Write 2 paragraphs summarizing the story of Theseus and the Minotaur
- Create a comic to summarize the story of Theseus and the minotaur. Your comic must include all major events, and it must include pictures.
- Write 2 paragraphs analyzing whether or not the labyrinths found could be one of those from the myth.
- Create a list comparing/ contrasting how you would have defeated the Minotaur to the methods Theseus used. Then write a new ending to the myth using your new methods of escape.