A few months ago, I received a Facebook friend request from a former student. I remembered her as a quiet kid that you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t paying attention. I also remembered her vibrant imagination that came out whenever she wrote her blog posts.
A minute after the friend request, she sent a message.
“Mr. Spencer, I’m graduating college,” she wrote.
“That’s great news!”
“I’m majoring in business but I’m also still writing. I’ll never stop writing.”
“You were always a great writer.”
Then she posted a picture. It was a comment I had written in the margins of her paper describing how her creative risk-taking had made the work so fun to read. It was a simple, almost thoughtless comment I had written years ago.
“You kept this?” I asked.
“I re-read this so many times. My dad told me everyday that I was stupid. He said I was too quiet and boring and just plain dumb. He said I would never graduate. He told me I would be pregnant by fifteen and I could forget about college.”
She sent me that message at just the right time, because on that same day I found myself recalling moments when I had done the opposite; times when I had yelled at my class or shamed my students. I had spoken careless, sarcastic remarks without thinking about the effects. This message was a reminder of the heavy burden and the great opportunity we have as teachers to affirm the creativity in our students.
Everyone Needs Creative Affirmation
Although creativity is an internal drive, it is also something that needs to be nurtured. We need affirmation to fan the flames of our creative passions. Encouragement is the life vest that keeps us afloat when we are drowning in a sea of self-doubt. It’s the hand that pulls us up when we are beat down by failure, mockery, or the indifference of the world.
It has me thinking about the ways we can affirm the creativity in our students. I’ve found the following things to be helpful in my experience as a middle school teacher and now as a professor:
- Do a creative show and tell where students are able to bring in an item that they have created outside of school. Celebrate this creativity and find ways to incorporate it into the classroom.
- Use verbal affirmation in the moment when you see it. Find ways to affirm the creativity that you see. It might be artistic expression, collaboration, creative design, creative risk-taking, divergent thinking, the ability to generate new ideas, problem-solving, creative mash-ups, or creative endurance. When you see these moments, affirm them verbally.
- Find ways that students can affirm the creativity in one another. This might be a jar that you keep, where students can fold papers and offer anonymous notes of encouragement. Peer affirmation can speak volumes. I used to take one day after testing and ask students to write some kind of affirmation they see in one another.
- Write a letter. I would compile this list (mentioned in the last point) and add a paragraph of encouragement I wrote. Then, at our eighth-grade promotion, I would pass out these notes. While this wasn’t specifically associated with creativity, every student had some type of creative affirmation within it.
- Incorporate student choice and inquiry into your lessons and let students know that their curiosity and creativity are vital to the learning environment.
- Let students develop and solve their own problems. As this happens, point out the creative thinking that you see in your students. I’m always amazed by the number of students who are crazy creative but they have a self-concept where they define themselves as “not very creative.”
- When using design thinking, don’t grade students on their creative thinking. This can actually backfire and lead to shame. However, you can find elements of creative thinking and have students do a self-assessment and reflection for things like risk-taking, openness, divergent thinking, etc.
Bonus: Be goofy. Use humor. Then affirm that same quirkiness in your students. This helps create an environment where everyone values the creativity in others.
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