Students get more learning out of creation than they would out of almost anything else. We know that! Creation projects are just like everything else though, the success and learning depend on the structure! If you don't have those structures, student creation becomes an absolute burden. You start questioning if doing those projects is worth is. Hopefully, this post will get you past all those hangups! Students deserve creation, and it's time that we as educators give it to them.
The Structures You Need:
What is one of the first hangups I hear about adding creation into the classroom? It's that I don't have enough time. To me, that argument becomes mute if you focus on how you schedule content early. To get creation in your classroom, you need to schedule all of your content out with a few extra days (things like snow days happen).
I found that in general if I could schedule all of my standards in a time frame of 80 days that I could get all of my standards in and have a few extra days if needed. If I did not need those extra days, they could become review days for the end of course tests.
The first step in scheduling is looking at assessments and units. When you schedule for creation, it may be best to make your units bigger and schedule less large unit assessments. You can always use ongoing assessments during the unit, and with fewer unit assessments you have more time to create. Unit assessments just become what amounts to a wasted day because that tends to be all you can ask of your students. You might think that doing this is negative towards the students because it makes those test pretty loaded, but if that's where you are at, what do you think they are doing on the state test?
Once you know your assessments, it's time to create your semester schedule. Take an initial stab splitting up the standards topics and assessments in an eighty day span. Once, the initial stab at is done, adjust it. I always modified it to give more time to the topics I liked, and I knew the kids would love.
Once the topic schedule was done, I would then look at the options for student creation and things I wanted students to practice. For creation to work on the high school level, you almost have to do it on a unit scale. This gives students more time to finish and do the best on their project. You can give them several options that cover several different topics, and then they can have a period of peer evaluation so they delve into topics that their project may not necessarily be about.
It's also not wrong to add little assignments throughout the unit that both assess and give students practice with the content. Little quizzes that students take when they are ready can do wonders for you understanding what they know and what you need to adjust instruction. Little assignments that practice needed skills are always good too. One of my favorites as a history teacher was to have students evaluate YouTube videos as historical sources. It taught skills with a platform that is becoming a main source of learning, challenged them to look at the value of a source, and extended the content that we were looking at.
Another structure that makes student creation standout is the scenarios that a project asks students to imagine they are in. Many times you see teachers look at student creation as a way to just create on the standard of study. If they can shift that focus to imagining they are out in the real world and creating for that, they can add a layer of creativity and fun to the project that might not have been there.
Looking at this from my background as a history teacher, this meant putting my students in the history. We could use imagine the modern tools that we now have worked in that time frame, and we could create like we were living the history as it was happening. We could imagine we were a character we were studying, we were at an event, or we were solving a problem from that time frame. It included doing things like commercials, social media accounts, news broadcast, videos, and much more. By imagining they were part of the history, they got much more out of it than just by asking them to create a presentation about a topic.
While History lends itself well to this, I think you can apply this scenario concept to other core subjects also. Some topics like literature should work pretty easily while things like math take a bit more creative thought, but it is possible! In the literature classroom, students can create scenarios that put them in the novel/book. Just think about all the other things that could be a part of it or what could happen at the conclusion of the book. In science, students can look at scenarios solving real-world problems. They could design solutions related to physics problems, advocate for solving environmental issues with organizations, and design experiments that can potentially solve real-world issues. Math tends to be the most difficult, but all it takes is some creative thought. One way would be to look at math oriented engineering challenges that can teach concepts but also be applied as a real-world solution.
You always need more than one scenario. Students success isn't always going to take to the same content, the same level of work in creation, or the same format of the creative project. You have to be able to personalize the experience for students, and creation makes it so much easier because you can design creative projects that fit a person's interests.
Choice does take some structure though because if you don't have the structure, you might as well keep a cot in the copy room. Wouldn't it be great to have a digital option? Thankfully, technology gives us the power to have a digital hub where is it easy to organize choice for students. That hub can be very dependent on what your district supports and the key is to set them up in a way that is organized and is easy for the kids.
Many districts require their teachers to use an LMS that they purchase. Those work fine, but my preference has always been to use a Website because I can control the organization. HTML embed allows me to embed almost anything on that site, and one of my favorite ways to organize choice is to embed a Symbaloo webmix on the site and set it up as a choice board using Symbaloo's ability to embed Google Docs. It also works with Word docs, but those Docs require being opened in Word online. I then just put the assignment directions in in the document, and I organize the tiles in any way I see fit. It gives me tons of options.
4. A Process of Creation
When I hear pushback to student creation, it often centers around the quality of the final product, and in my mind, that is a bit misguided. Final product quality can tell us a bit about what a student learned in the process of creating something, but it often gives us an insufficient scope of what a student learns. Things happen in a project that prevent the final product from having quality, but those things don't always hinder learning. If you have a process for students to undertake as they go, it can ensure that the final product does not matter as much, and it could also take the final product up a notch.
What I mean by a process, is having students use the same steps to create over and over again no matter what the creation is. A good example of this would be having students use some version of the STEM design process for every project they make. The steps tend to be a bit different based on who is doing it, but in general, they include: Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, Improve.
If you use the STEM steps, they could translate to almost any project you do. The step of Ask is defining the problem. It could include things like figuring out what problem you are going to solve or what topic your project is going to cover. Imagine is brainstorming ideas for a solution or brainstorming the format of your project. The plan can be both the research and storyboard process. Create is precisely what it sounds like, and improve can be peer evaluation. In reality, though, you can bend the process to fit any kind of format you want. You just have to be creative!
The key to it all is to make it easy for you as the teacher. To do so, all you have to do is put the process in a hyperdoc that you can copy and send out with every project. Use something like Google Docs or Microsoft Word to put together a doc where students can both collaborate and add all the content they need for each and every step of the process. The best step is that you can follow there progress the entire way!
5. Tools To Assess
One of the other common complaints I hear about doing creative projects is that they are an absolute pain to grade. I can certainly agree that they are a bit more difficult then a straight-up multiple choice assignment, but if you can find the structures necessary to automate it as much as possible, it's not as difficult as it may look.
The first thing to look at with assessments is how and if you are going to let other students view and possibly peer evaluate the project. Many times teachers get bogged down in the need to present these projects in front of the class, but if we digitize the process, this can just be one step along the way in the unit. You could do things like put them on a public wall such as Padlet or creating web pages where they post the assignment. Students could then view them on their own time on that digital space and evaluate them with something like Google Forms. By doing it this way, you are still getting all the benefit of the kids seeing each other's projects instead of losing both time and engagement as students present them in class.
After students get a look at them, the teacher also needs structures to make the grading and assessment process simple, and thankfully there are some good ones out there. To start, you want students to be able to turn that assignment in via a method that you can view on any device. If they do, that means you can grade assignment almost anywhere! You could even do it while sitting at the DMV from your phone. Many times all this entails is having them turn it in via your district/school learning management system, but you could also simplify it by having one email address that they just attach assignments to email with. It all just depends on the workflow that is easiest to you.
Once they have turned it, you need a way to give a grade right? That can be as easy as having one general form that you use for all creative assignments. You can do this form in Microsoft or Google which would give you access to it on any device, and you don't necessarily have to use all of the categories every time. You just have to adjust the total value of the project. You can set up a form that gives you the standards for each category on a rubric in a dropdown question, and then you as the teacher just have to pick what standards you want quickly, add comments, and then a total score. Once you are done, all you have to do to return it to students using an add-on (if you're on Google) that pulls data out of your form spreadsheet individually and emails students. Autocrat and Save as Doc are two Google Sheets add-ons that could make it happen.
The right assessment structure all depends on your workflow and the types of creative projects. If you are letting students create digitally, you should be able to digitize the entire process and cut your time in half. That means that lack of time to grade should never be an issue.
6. A Culture of Creativity
The last structure may be the most important one, but it is also the most abstract. To make creation standout in your class, you need to have a culture of creativity. You need to have a culture where everyone can express themselves, and everyone is allowed to fail. It starts with what you do as the teacher, but it also trickles into both what the students are doing and how they treat each other. You have to make sure they have that space to be creative!
As a teacher, this culture of creativity starts with you. If you are trying things differently and you are experimenting, the students will learn very quickly that it's ok for them to do the same. All you have to do to get there is be creative in the lessons and assignments you are using, and don't get bogged down in the traditional. Every day some teachers get bogged down in a lecture/question format because they think that's what is expected of them, or that's what their team has planned. If you want the right culture in your classroom, you have to buck that system, and you have to be creative in what you do every day!
From a student perspective, you have to have projects that have enough structure to make sure students are learning what they are supposed to be, but those projects also have to give them enough room to do something creative. You also have to have a culture where students feel comfortable sharing their ideas.
Getting that culture starts with the scenarios that you write. Write scenarios for students to create that ask them to include the research needed and specifies a format for their audience. If you can, leave that needed research a little open-ended so that the student can bend the project to their creative will! In the end, it will help you get better projects because you will be consistently surprised at what the kids give you!
The comfort level of both you and students also goes a long way to creating the culture of creativity. You have to make it very clear from the beginning that it is ok to fail. You have to make sure students know it's ok to put yourself out there, and that it is so ok that you as the teacher are going to do the same. You have to teach them to value others opinions and critiques as ways to get better. If you do, your classroom will be a place of creative love where everyone feels like they can do incredible things that also help them learn.