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Illo of three lightbulbs in a cage

While creative writing, art, and maker classes are great for relieving some of the stress of life and school, perhaps the most unreasonable burden we place on our kids is asking them to be inspired and creative on demand.

Should we really be grading students on creativity if we don't fully understand the creative process? Maybe that answer should be left for another blog, but meanwhile, it is worth exploring strategies and tricks for that will help kids get past the creative slump and do inspired, creative work.

Artists and writers have been known to get writer's block and creative slumps, and they use many methods to get past them -- and love sharing them. Yet students have an extra challenge. They are not asking themselves to be creative -- we are asking them.

The following strategies and approaches will need to be tweaked for a school environment so that they work with the specific challenges of the classroom.

1. Constructive Daydreaming

Teachers must provide constructive ways to daydream. Students need time to process, reflect, and let their minds drift when trying to develop creative work. A teacher must make sure that this reflective time can happen constructively by making space and setting guidelines. Quietness, journaling, or group brainstorming works. Also taking them out of their environment or the usual seating arrangements can help stir things up.

2. Explore Past Successes

Students can often be self-deprecating and down on themselves when they are feeling uncreative. Being reminded of their previous projects and their past successes can boost self-confidence and provide fuel for more creative ideas. That's why I require students to keep a portfolio in form of a website, journal, or sketchbook. If you are at the beginning of the school year, show inspiring work done by previous students or young people whom you haven't taught.

3. Pencil and Paper Are Best for Brainstorming

I love what the internet can offer for exploring ideas and seeing what is out there, but until the student has an idea, it's best to keep them off the computer. When we're feeling uncreative and a little lost, the internet becomes a distraction. Even with my classes that are computer-heavy, I ask them to turn off the computers and take out pencil and paper. A blank sheet can be intimidating when looking for inspiration, but I'd rather they turn to a relevant book, sketchbook, or each other for constructive conversation when they are lacking ideas.

4. Sharing and Reviewing

Sometimes just the act of sharing what they might be thinking helps students process their ideas. If they are feeling shy, writing down ideas helps, but having a conversation with their classmates, parents, and other people in their lives can inspire students.

I usually give them a week to propose an idea, and have at least two rounds of submitting draft proposals, sharing them with the larger group, and then submitting the final proposal after I've reviewed their proposal or they've shared their ideas and gotten feedback from the class. This helps to inspire students or gain some perspective on what they might be thinking.

5. Use Inspiring Materials

Like a lot of teachers, I collect books and magazines that might inspire students. I take them off the shelf and leave them on tables and in shared spaces where students might come across them and casually look through them. However, this might not be enough, so I design exercises and activities that more intentionally use these books and magazines. They are also great for discovering the works that might not be what the student is looking for but sends them off to an otherwise new area of exploration and discovery.

6. Emulation Projects

In Western culture and especially in schools, we are told not to copy and that originality is a must. However, much of what we want students to master has already been done previously. I require students to find artists that they like and imitate their style or even try to replicate as closely as possible what the artists have done. This type of project does several things:

  • It gives them a bit of history and context of the discipline.
  • It frees them from the burden of being creative and original themselves.
  • It allows them to think deeply about the choices and processes that went into making the original work.

7. Break It Apart and Put It Back Together

If the students have anything that they've already sketched out, written, or photographed, what would happen if they literally tore it up and put it back together again? This may be hard to do if you haven't started anything, but this method of finding creative inspiration has long been used by writers and artists.

The artist Ai Weiwei would take objects like shoes, break them apart and put them back together in a new way. Writers and surrealists have used what they called the "cut up method" to generate new ideas by cutting or tearing printed, typed-up text and rearranging words, phrases, and sentences. This method might seem foolish, but it is a magical way of making discoveries that creates unexpected juxtapositions and new meanings.

8. Make a Quick List

Making a list is a productive way of generating ideas, but it must be done stream-of-consciousness style by generating as many things that come to mind within a limited time frame. I sometimes ask students to create a list of ten items in one minute or 50 items in five minutes. The pressure to produce quantity over quality pushes them to let go of their fears and blocks. Some of the results might be gibberish, but this process often loosens the brain and helps move the students forward.

9. Research

Once a student has even a vague idea, it is time to do research. When the ideas are not quite formed or detailed, the teacher can step in and guide this research by questioning the students on past experiences or specific details, and share online information or printed material that might provide direction.

10. Play

Play is key to liberating your ideas and removing inhibitions to your creativity. Unfortunately, we have to relearn methods of playfulness that allow younger children to quickly learn a new skill. Toying around with questions, ideas, nonsensical words, or a relevant object is a great way for students to loosen up and open up their ideas. For teachers to make this effective, it is important to structure it and make the stakes low.

11. Journals and Sketchbooks

These are key tools to have in any class in which students are expected to be creative. Even in science and humanities classes, notes that might also include sketches or images cut out of magazines serve to engage the students more in their subject area and deepen that engagement. When students journal, the circulation of creative juices begins long before they are required to do work that requires creative ideas. If the student is still stuck, reviewing previous entries and notes serves to help him or her get unstuck.

What ideas do you use to help your students overcome creative blocks? I'd love to hear them. Please share in the comments section below.

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Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Great post, Stacey.

I've always thought it interesting that there are professions that are at their most productive when they just stare out into space--novelists, some mathematicians and physicists, etc.

Scott Bedley @scotteach's picture
Scott Bedley @scotteach
Teacher, Creator, Un-Maker, Foodie, Global School Play Day

I like the idea of "constructive daydreaming" Stacey! From my experience, I find that too many students feel pressure to pick an idea to write about in a short time frame. Implementing "constructive daydreaming" time would help to take the pressure off, and let the students ponder in a relaxed time frame. I'm using this next year! Thanks!

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