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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.

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.


Seven Strategies for Starting the Year on a Creative Note

Over the next nine years, I continued to develop creative thinking team-builders. These weren’t ice breakers. I wasn’t interested in playing People Bingo. I’m an introvert. I’m not interested in breaking the ice. I’d rather let the ice melt slowly.

I also began to shift away from the “get to know your story” team-builders. So many of my students had experienced trauma and I wanted students to have the space and the time to share their stories slowly with our community. Instead, I asked them to share what they geek out about. I asked them to follow their curiosity and ask their own questions. Other times, they worked collaboratively to solve problems and make something new.

One of the things I realized is that the first week is a bit of a free pass. It’s like the week before winter break or the last week of school. It’s a chance to take a creative risk as a teacher by encouraging your students to think creatively.

With that in mind, here are some things to consider as you develop creative thinking team-builders:

#1: Encourage voice and choice.

Allow students to determine their own strategies and make their own decisions early on. Often, teachers start out with less choice and gradually allow for creative autonomy. However, the first week can be the moment you focus on student agency. You might do a Wonder Day activity where each student pursues their own questions (you can download it for free here) or a Genius Hour project where they focus on their geeky interests (you can download it for free here). They might work collaboratively on a breakout activity, choosing their strategies collaboratively. Or they might do a maker project and share their work with an audience.


#2: Vary the types of creative thinking.

Creativity is about more than just making. It involves problem-solving, inquiry, ideation, and divergent thinking.

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By using several creative structures, you can introduce students to a broader definition of creativity while also getting an early gauge on their creative approaches. At the bottom of the post, I mention some resources that incorporate a larger variety of creative thinking. However, if you’re looking for something free, check out the 100+ writing prompts I offer).


#3: Teach the standards.

Make sure that your creative thinking team-builders also connect to the standards. You can easily include research, writing, and presentation standards from ELA. You can include experimentation, inquiry, and problem-solving standards from science.

Model Flexibility of Standards The Standards-Model Fit
Inquiry-Driven Flexible Content Standards with Specific Skill Standards The standards must allow for students to ask their own questions and find their own answers.
Interest-Driven Content-Neutral Standards with Specific Skill Standards The standards must allow students to pursue their own interests.
Product-Driven Varying Flexibility on Content Standards with Specific Skill Standards The standards must fit within the idea of designing a tangible product.
Problem-Driven Specific Content Standards (with a Focus on Concept Attainment) with Flexible Skill Standards The standards must allow students to engage in problem-solving.
Empathy-Driven Varying Flexibility on Content Standards and Skill Standards The standards must connect to creative design and empathy with an authentic audience

Although the first week is a great opportunity for creative team-building, it’s also a low-risk, authentic pre-assessment of the standards you will use throughout the year. In other words, pre-assessments don’t need to be multiple choice tests.


#4: Vary the grouping.

Although you want to build a culture of creativity, you also want to affirm your introverted students. They need the permission to process individually. As you craft team-builders, you might want to think about the moments for internal processing or individual tasks that students can then bring back to the group as they work collaboratively. For example, when students engage in brainstorming, you can use a structure that builds interdependence:

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One of my favorite ways to do this is with a design sprint, like the Create a Sport Challenge that you can download for free.

#5: Make sure everyone can participate.

The best team-builders are the ones that allow each student to offer their own strength and expertise. This shouldn’t be something that requires tons of grade level content mastery. The goal is to craft team-builders that require students to work interdependently so that true collaboration occurs.

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You might still need to provide scaffolding but this is also a chance to help students learn how to self-select their scaffolding and self-advocate.

#6: Focus on motivation.

You want students to be excited about the content and the creative process. When I was in middle school, I hated science. Or, rather, I thought I hated science. I thought you had to choose between being a STEM person or a Humanities person. However, when my science teacher had us building and experimenting, I started to love the subject. When she introduced the debate, I realized saw the deeply human side of science.


#7: Allow for mistakes.

This is a chance to model creative risk-taking but letting them know that they can revise and improve their mini-projects. Here, students can learn how to “fail forward” as they learn through multiple iterations. When this happens, students learn that it’s a safe place to make mistakes. They grow less risk-averse.

You might be thinking, “this sounds great but it’s a lot to create right before the school year starts.” Part of being a creative teacher is being an explorer finding new resources. The best creative thinkers are also creative curators, finding resources from others and then contextualizing them to their classroom. I’d encourage you to go out and look for things that other folks have created. Feel free to use any of the previously mentioned free resources. I also have a paid resource that I’d like to share as well.


Creative Resources for the First Week of School

Last year I teamed up with Bonnie Hamer from Presto Plans to develop two resources to spark creativity during the first week of school. These resources connect to the standards while also inspiring creativity, problem-solving, and inquiry.

Each resource has:

  • Teacher handouts to walk you step-by-step through the resource
  • Student handouts to help structure the learning for students
  • A sketch video to ignite student passion for the creative thinking
  • PowerPoint presentations to guide your students along the way
  • Rubrics to assess the learning

The first resource is a set of creative thinking team-building activities. This is a set of five separate team-builder mini-projects that each last one class period.  The second resource is a set of creative thinking writing prompts that cover multiple genres. These tap into student interests and passions while also encouraging inquiry and creative thinking.

You might want to consider using both sets of resources so that you get a stronger balance of collaborative and individual creativity.



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


  • Danny Maas says:

    What a fantastic post John. One piece that caught my attention was the caution about having students tell their personal story to others day 1 which for students who’ve been through traumatic experiences might be difficult. I love the ‘let the ice melt slowly’ approach while at the same getting kids working together on real things with rigor and in ways which build their skills and confidence to solve their own problems. This to me is the ultimate example of student-centered learning right from day 1.

  • Deanna Ferguson says:

    Thank you for the heart, effort, and intentionality that went into this post and the creation of related resources. You are an inspiration and today, at least in one teacher’s heart and planning, you had a big impact.

  • Amy says:

    Thanks for sharing these ideas with us John! I appreciate the resources within the article. I also love your sketch noting!

  • Kay Tharp says:

    Thank you, as always, for your inspiring posts! Love your videos that help us see your message.

    Did you know the resources that you linked are a fee based TPT resource? I would love to access them but don’t have that much money in our budget.

    • John Spencer says:

      Hi Kay, yes those are fee-based. However, I was also sure to include several free resources (Wonder Day, Create a Sport, writing prompts, and Genius Hour) as well. Although I will occasionally sell things to my audience, I also try to ensure that there are free items to download as well.

  • Fantastic resources for doing just what the title says — start the school year off with creative projects and activities.                                            Do not miss this terrific post.

  • Margaret says:

    This is a great reminder about how we should start the school year and plan every lesson. I will print out a copy and use it as a resource when we do our lesson planning.

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