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We aren’t sure what this year will look like. With the spike in Covid cases, it might involve more hybrid or virtual learning. Or it might be more of a “return to normal.” But regardless of the situation, we do know that teachers will continue to be at the heart of innovation. I truly believe that we need to trust teachers to innovate in their practice. When this happens, teachers model creative risk-taking for their students.


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Always Play the New Teacher Card

When I was a first-year teacher, my team leader Nancy gave me this heaping box of classroom supplies. On the top, she placed a notecard with the words New Teacher Card. On the back of the note card, she wrote a note explaining that I could play this card when I messed up. “You’re new and you make mistakes but that’s okay. Just play the New Teacher Card. Feel free to play this card when you mess up or when you don’t know how things work and you need to ask for help. Play this card when you miss a meeting or you don’t get every paper graded or you have a day when your lesson fails. This is going to happen often in your first year. But don’t beat yourself up. Just play the New Teacher Card and remember that mistakes are how we learn.”

I played that card so many times in my first year. But, actually, it’s something I still go back to all the time when I slip into perfectionism or when I find myself replaying all the mistakes I’ve made in eighteen years of teaching. I’ve come to believe that this New Teacher Card is something you should never let go of in teaching. Although you grow in knowledge and expertise, you will always remain imperfect.

But I think the New Teacher Card is more than just a forgiveness card. It’s a reminder to keep experimenting and trying new strategies and testing out new ideas. The New Teacher Card means I’m open to new possibilities. It means I’m willing to take creative risks. I’ve played this card when I first tried out sketch-noting or student blogging or Genius Hour or cardboard challenges or documentaries.

The New Teacher Card reminds me that every single lesson is an experiment. It might work. It might fail. But the biggest risk you can take is not taking the risk at all.

Think of the New Teacher Card as an invitation to innovation — to rewrite the rules of teaching and to experiment with new ideas and transform your classroom into a bastion of creativity and wonder.

You Don’t Have to Wait to Innovate

In less than a week, I will get to work with a new cohort of pre-service teachers. At the same time, I’ll be watching my current cohort go into their practicum experience. In both cases, these emerging teachers will have wild ideas they want to try out. Innovative concepts of epic projects that put students in the driver’s seat. But, over time, many of them will learn to push those ideas aside. They’ll be in placements where they have scripted curriculum and the pressure to get students passing the standardized tests. They’ll worry that their ideas won’t work. What about classroom management? What about parents? What will administrators think? What will my colleagues think about it?

They will say things like, “Once I’m established, I can innovate but for now, I need to work on classroom management” or “I’ll think about transforming practice after I’ve had a few years under my belt.” Years will go by and they’ll wait for the permission that never comes until eventually, those ideas seem like a distant memory — a relic of an idealistic new teacher. When I was a new teacher, I wanted to pilot project-based learning but I was terrified. Here are my fears:

Later that year, I piloted design thinking with a documentary project. It was disorienting and frustrating but also authentic and powerful. And I realized that I had been so consumed with the question, “What if it fails?” that I had never even bothered to ask, “What if it works?” I knew innovation was risky but I failed to see the risk inherent in choosing to do the status quo.

innovation impracticality impractical john spencerTeaching is often a mix of best practices and next practices. We know ahead of time that certain strategies are likely to work. But we also know that change occurs when we innovate and iterate and experiment. This idea is at the heart of vintage innovation, that overlap between best practices and next practices:

The truth is there’s no guarantee that these new strategies will work. I can point to the research on PBL and how it leads to moderate increases in student achievement and significant increases in long-term retention of knowledge. But none of that alleviates the fear I feel when students are taking a district-mandated high-stakes test after a PBL unit. Here’s the hard truth. Sometimes it won’t work. Sometimes you take a risk and it fails. You start a project only to abandon the idea two days later after you realize it’s actually not that authentic. You plan a project and realize that your students actually don’t have the prerequisite skills to tackle it.

But despite this, you get to watch your students develop critical soft skills when you empower students with voice and choice:

I am convinced that the most critical element in helping students reach their creative potential is a teacher who is willing to take creative risks. When I observe classrooms where students are becoming problem-solvers and creative thinkers, there is always a common element with the teachers. They take risks. They experiment. They realize that fail-ure is permanent, but fail-ing is a part of the learning process. They know that creative risk-taking is exactly that: a risk. It might work. It might fail.

These are the teachers who aren’t afraid to play the new teacher card. They’ll take those wild ideas and turn them into reality. True, there will be bumps and bruises and skinned knees along the way — but they’ll get back up and try again, pushing through iterations until they have something awesome. These teachers promote creative risk taking from day one in their classroom. They model this iterative process for their students.

Different from Day One

When I was a middle school student, I dreaded the first week of school. Teachers would walk us, line-by-line, through the syllabus and handbook and we would practice the classroom procedures. It was as if school started a week before the learning started. But then I remember one teacher who was different. She had us asking questions, chasing our curiosity, and ultimately creating something epic.

Each day, I felt like I had entered a new world. Instead of hearing about the consequences for chewing gum, we debated about whether or not science and technology had led to progress. Rather than going point-by-point over the homework procedures, we built a bridge out of straws. Here’s the crazy part: we were well-behaved. All of us. But it all began with a sense of wonder.


Years later, when I became an eighth-grade teacher, I felt conflicted. I wanted to teach the classroom procedures but I also wanted to cultivate a community of creativity and curiosity (10 points for the alliteration!) and spark a love for the subject.

In my first two years, I focused on the procedures and syllabus, just to be safe. I knew that classroom management was challenging, and I wanted to do anything possible to be proactive. However, in my third year, as I shifted to project-based learning, a colleague challenged me on this. What if I taught the procedures through the first few projects? What if I taught the content, the procedures, and creative thinking through structured smaller team-builders and mini-projects?

What if we began every school year on a creative note? What if students could begin developing a maker mindset from day one? What if they could work collaboratively to solve problems and make something epic?

My students would be makers in the first week of school. It started out as a rocky experiment, with three amazing days and two total duds. But over the years, I refined my approach and started designing new team-builders that would help cultivate a climate of creativity.

Ten Creative Risks to Take with Your Students

I want to explore some ways that we, as educators, can take creative risks with students. Many of these are ideas that I attempted with my students. However, I have also interviewed some of the best teachers I know and asked them to contribute some ideas.The following are ten different creative risks you can take with your students this year. Note that many of these ideas connect to a free download that you can check out as well.

#1: Get Started with Student Blogging

Thematic blogs are blogs based on a student’s interests, passions, and ideas. It could be a foodie blog, a sports blog, a fashion blog, a science blog, or a history blog. They choose the topic and the audience. It’s a great way for students to practice writing in different genres (persuasive, functional, informational/expository, narrative) with specific blog topics they choose. They can also add multimedia components, like slideshows, pictures, videos, and audio.

Think of all the blogs out there that people actually make outside of school. That’s what you want students to create. It’s their chance to participate in the global blogging community by tapping into their own expertise and interests. If you’re interested in getting started, I have included things like sentence stems and other student handouts that might be helpful as you begin the process. You can check it out in the free student blogging toolkit.

If you don’t have the best technology in your classroom, but you do have a projector or interactive whiteboard, consider doing visual writing prompts with a picture or a video. The idea here is to choose high-interest ideas that get students excited about writing. Here’s an example of a writing prompt you could do to get students excited about writing. You can download a whole set of them here.

One of my favorite approaches to this is a Geek Out Blog. Here’s how it works.

Geek Out Blogs begin with these questions:

  1. What do you really care about? Why?
  2. What is something that you’re passionate about?
  3. What is something you know inside and out?
  4. What are some things you believe deeply in? What are some convictions you have about life?
  5. What are your hobbies? What do you enjoy doing?
  6. If you could create a class from scratch, what would it be?

I explained that geekiness is a passion, interest, enjoyment and often convictions about a particular topic. I then gave them stems they could use:

  • Seven Reasons Why __________
  • Seven Ways to _________
  • Seven Things to Know About ___________
  • Seven Best _____________
  • The Seven (Adjective) _________ in ____________

They were all over the place. A girl chose Korean pop music while the girl next to her delved into issues of immigration. A boy across the room  chose Minecraft while the kid next to him gave seven amazing reasons why zombies would make great pets. A few kids wrote about their lives, their families or their cultures.

We ended up getting into digital citizenship and digital ethics. We started our blogs and added multimedia elements. We got into visual design and the do’s and don’ts of slideshows (yes, I have them create Keynotes even if that’s considered uncool these days). They learned about copyright and Creative Commons and developed a set of digital ethics in the process.

#2: Do a Wonder Day or Wonder Week Project

This is a fun, easy way to get students engaged in non-fiction reading. I use it as a high-interest way to help students learn the research process. Students begin with the sentence stem, “I’m wondering why/what would/how/if __________” and from there they ask tons of questions. This ultimately leads to research and finally a place where they share what they learned.

For more ideas on how to bring wonder back into the classroom, check out this post.

If you’re interested in doing a Wonder Day project, I have the entire unit plan, complete with handouts, lessons, and slideshows available as a free download. There’s actually a short version (Wonder Day) and a longer version (Wonder Week).

#3: Give Sketch-Noting a Chance

I find it sad that so many kids start out loving to draw but as they get older, they grow insecure. Suddenly, sketching is something that only “real” artists do. This is part of why I love sketch-noting. It doesn’t have to be pretty. You can use stick figures and doodles as long as you are getting your ideas out in a visual method. If you’re interested in learning more, there’s a great guide created by Kathy Shrock.

#4: Launch a Design Thinking Sprint

Design thinking is a flexible process for getting the most out of the creative process. It is used in the arts, in engineering, in the corporate world, at universities, and in social and civic spaces. You can use it in every subject with every age group. It works when creating digital content or when building things with duct tape and cardboard. It can even be used in planning events or in designing services. So, the idea here is that you are providing a meaningful structure to help students design a product that they will launch to an authentic audience. The following video helps explain the process:

Your students can engage in inquiry, research, ideating, and prototyping. They will do something creative — and they’ll remember it forever. If you’re interested in trying design thinking, I have included the Create a Sport Challenge and the Tiny House Project (math-related) in the free Design Thinking Toolkit.

#5: Carve Out Time for a Genius Hour

Genius Hour (also called 20% Time) is a chance for students to engage in an inquiry-driven, independent project. They own the entire learning process, from the concept to the questions, to the research, to the project management to the ultimate final product. Here’s a quick video description of what Genius Hour looks like:

Here’s a video you can use with your students. Note that you can get a free copy of both videos (in case YouTube is blocked at your school) in the Genius Hour resources.

#6: Try Out a Divergent Thinking Mini-Project

Another option is a divergent thinking mini-project. This is built around the idea of creative constraint, where students have to design a product that fits into the specific items that you have given them to use. You can download the full project here.

#7: Have Students Create Sketch Videos

I love the idea of making ideas visual and sketchnoting is one of the strategies you can use to help students take complex ideas and convey them in a way that is visual and concrete. But I also love taking it to the next level by having students craft short sketchnote videos that convey an idea, concept, or process. So, it might be something like life cycles or how a bill becomes a law.  There are four layers of sketchnote videos that work well, ranging from easiest to hardest.

Level One: Flipbook Style (Very Easy) 

Here, students create multiple pages with a sketch and a core idea. Afterward, one student flips the pages as another student videotapes the pages and a third student reads the script. This is essentially a picture book on video. But if you want to get more complicated and show any kind of movement, check out level two.

Level Two: Stop Motion (Fairly Easy)

This is the stop animation approach. Students sketch out their ideas and then cut them out. They can then maneuver these ideas with their hands in a video. When they go to film it, one student uses a smartphone while a second student moves the items around. A third student reads a script. Afterward, they can post it online or share it with their teacher.

Level Three: Whiteboard Videos (Moderately Difficult)

Students start out by storyboarding a concept they’ve learned throughout the quarter. They then record one member of their group sketching out the ideas in an RSA Animate style with the whiteboard. Next, they speed up the whiteboard drawing, edit out any mistakes, and add an audio layer that they record in iMovie or Movie Maker. It doesn’t require a ton of technology, but it does require some creative risk-taking. What I love about this is that you can have multiple students making the videos in small groups and then rotate who edits it on the computer. So, if you have limited student computers, it can still work.

Level Four: Animated Videos (Very Difficult)

These are the types of videos I enjoy making. They can take hours to make and they require Photoshop. If you’re interested in the process, here’s a detailed description in a blog post I created after my son spent a full day making his video. This is the video he created. I think it’s pretty awesome. Then again, I’m his dad, so that’s par for the course, right?

Since then, he’s gotten more elaborate. He actually helped me make this one:

If you’re interested in doing sketchnote videos, you can find more detailed instructions along with a few sample videos right here.

#8: Do a Maker Monday

Maker Monday begins with a simple premise. Spend the first part of the day engaged in hands-on creative work. It might seem small, but it slowly leads to a maker mindset, where students learn to think like designers, engineers, architects, artists, and problem-solvers.

A Maker Monday could involve maker centers, where students do Scratch projects, cardboard prototyping, circuitry, and multimedia works. This works well when you don’t have a class set of specific materials but you want students to be exposed to each maker activity. You might take students to a makerspace or you could have a mobile makerspace that you share with other members of your grade level.

Another option would be a maker challenge, where the entire class works on the same maker-related project, engaging in rapid prototyping as soon as possible. The idea here is that students make something with physical products that they are upcycling — often duct tape, cardboard, and plastic. Here’s one that’s a little more math and science related:

You can download a free maker project here.

#9: Create Scratch Video Games Together

Think back to your childhood. Now, imagine making your own video game from scratch. Imagine if you could have created your own Frogger or Duck Hunt or Super Mario. It would have been epic, right?

That’s the concept behind Scratch. I just introduced Scratch to my own kids. My daughter got really into the creating variations of Pong. My middle son has started making his own visuals and designing more in-depth games.

If you haven’t checked it out before, go take a look at Scratch. It’s a way to teach logic and programming through the use of blocks that students use to manipulate objects. Students can start out small by following the directions to create a Pong game. Afterward, you can encourage them to move on to a place where they hack the game and make it their own. Then, you can have them set up their own games that they truly design.

If you’re interested in launching a Scratch video game, check out the site and start with the Pong game. I also have instructions on how I taught Scratch (the three phases) with middle school as well as a list of 8 lessons I learned along the way.

#10: Show and Tell

When the quarantine first began, I want to create a situation where students could share their geeky interests while also processing healthy ways of dealing with social isolation. I began our class video conference with the following prompt:

I then gave students 90 seconds to find an item of their choosing. When that was done, I called on each student using a randomizer and asked students to explain their object. I timed each student for one minute and all twenty-five students had a chance to share their item.

At first, I was nervous about this. After all, these were graduate students in their final course. However, it was awesome. One student grabbed a guitar and played a few riffs for us. Another student grabbed a giant mixer (she probably could have moved her laptop instead) and then explained what it was like to rekindle her love of baking by doing recipes alongside her grandmother using FaceTime. Still, another described getting into painting for the first time ever.

This was a healthy opportunity for students to open up about their experiences and their emotions. Some chose to stick to the function of their item but others used it as a way to share a core part of their identity. Each time a student shared an item, it felt like a gift to the entire community. A variation on this activity is to have students select their item and create a one-minute pre-recorded video that they post to the class LMS. Students can then comment on their classmates’ videos.

If you’re fully in-person, you can do this same activity as a face-to-face activity as well.

Model Creative Risk-Taking

Some of the biggest creative risks you can take have nothing to do with an epic new project. These are the deeply relational things you do as a teacher that model risk-taking in a way that can almost feel vulnerable:

  • Apologize. I know that doesn’t feel like a big deal but it’s often a huge deal for students when a teacher admits his or her faults. It helps create a classroom culture where people are open about their faults and willing to grow and improve. In other words, it’s your chance to model a growth mindset.
  • Ask students to evaluate you. Create student surveys that elicit feedback and then share the results with your students along with what you will be doing in order to refine your instruction. This is a way to say, “I’m not afraid to hear critical feedback. In fact, I’m trying to design my instruction from a place of empathy.”
  • Share your creative journey. Tell students what you are doing on your own personal Genius Hour. Let them see your passion and interest in creativity. Share your epic fails along the way. Let students know that even experts struggle and make mistakes. Help them see that this is all part of the journey.

Ultimately, the most powerful creative element in the classroom is the teacher. You have the power to inspire students to take creative risks by modeling the process and being open and even vulnerable about your journey. You also have the power to create epic learning experiences that encourage students to take creative risks. So, in 2021, I would encourage you to choose one big creative risk and make it happen

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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