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My daughter looks up from her cereal and says, “You know what day I can’t wait for?”

“Um, your birthday?”

She shakes her head.

“Next Christmas?”

She shakes her head again and then says, “The first day back to school. I can’t wait to see my friends and my teacher. I don’t know what projects we’re going to do but I know it’s going to be awesome.”

She’s right. It will be awesome because her teacher is always trying new projects. She is always taking creative risks and my daughter is excited to be there as a result.

It has me thinking of a brilliant blog post that A.J. Juliani wrote last year, imploring teachers to use the new year as a reboot to take new creative risks. So, with that in mind, I’m going to share a few of my own thoughts on creative risks teachers can take with the start of a new year.

Teacher creative risks

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The New Year Is a Chance to Innovate

In less than a week, I will get to work with a new cohort of pre-service teachers. They will have wild ideas they want to try out. Crazy 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?

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.

But there will be other new 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.

But the fear won’t go away. Not completely. Because, truth be told, innovation is scary. And yet, 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.

But they also know that the greatest risk occurs when they teach out of fear and fail to innovate in their own practice. So, with that in mind, I want to explore some ways that we, as educators, can take 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.


Ten Creative Risks to Take with Your Students

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.

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#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 Project

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:

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 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.

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#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:

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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.

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#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.

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#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?

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:

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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: Skype with an Author

This is something I never actually did with my students. However, I had the opportunity to Skype in with students who were reading Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard (a book I co-wrote with my wife). The experience was awesome. It was so cool to see the questions that students came up with as they interviewed me.

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 2018, I would encourage you to choose one big creative risk and make it happen.

What creative risk are you planning to take with your students this year? Share in the comments below.

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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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