The Creative Classroom

   When I ask my fellow teachers what they do when they teach a concept, I often get the same response: “I go through the practice problems, then assign the odd numbers, since the even ones have the answers in the back of the book. I give them time to do the work in class, because they never finish the homework. If they all totally bomb the test, then they get some extra practice, which is usually a worksheet from the workbook.” Ho hum. So drab. And no wonder students continue to struggle with concepts. If they don’t understand it through direct instruction and minimal practice, then they are often given ‘more of the same’, which equates to multiple worksheets.

   I might also inquire what they use for assessments, but I can guess that they use whatever the publisher has provided. I suggest that there is a different way. Instead of mass practice with pencil and paper (which has its place in American classrooms), why not create something where the students can construct their own understanding by manipulating something? There is a billion dollar business  for manipulatives. If you are like most teachers, and teach for the typical school district, then your funds are limited. Your next option, then, is to create your own. What? You don’t think you’re creative enough? On the contrary, teaching is one of the most creative careers there is. Why? Every time you stand up in front of a class or work one-on-one with a student, you have to think of your feet, devise ways to help them understand, even break away from the textbook and use your enthusiasm and knowledge to get the information across.

   So, what can you use besides worksheets? First, decide what the objective of the lesson is. Are students to identify, model, group, solve, define, or interpret? Once you know what the students need to do, devise a way to have them do it (yes, an action that requires more than “sitting and getting”), then construct what they will need. A simple place to start is with the age-old game of Bingo. Nearly everyone knows how to play, and the game is such that words and answers and problems can be interchanged on the game boards, along with what you (or a student volunteer) draws from the bag. Cards can be made easily, or use whiteboards if you have enough for individuals or for students to work in pairs. I often use a Tic-Tac-Toe board, 9 squares, no free space. I give them a list of vocabulary words (more than 9 so they can choose) and they decide where to place the words on their board. I then read the definition. When they get three in a row, they call out ‘Bingo’. Not only do they need to read the word, but also the definition. Even if more than one student gets Bingo, I still have them read the word and the definition. The more they verbalize, the more they internalize.

   To get a little more involved, develop a Jeopardy game where points are awarded for each team. Maybe a simple matching activity where students work independently or in pairs, to match words and definitions, problems with answers, presidents with what they are known for, compounds and their properties . . . you can see that the list here is lengthy, only limited by the imagination of the teacher. I often use whiteboards to have students do problems and then show me their answers. They enjoy the immediate feedback, and I get a chance to see who knows what, and who needs some time to understand. Kagan has a great number of structures to use, and all you need to do is come up with the content.

   I don’t remember the last assessment I used that was provided by the publishing company. There always seems to be something I think is more important, so we end up spending more time on it, and the test in the book only gives one or two problems. I will sometimes copy and paste homework problems or ones from the book (their individual practice), but most times I will simply write my own. There are certain ideas that I have read based on brain research, and so to help my students as much as I can (the goal in giving an assessment is not to see how many kids can fail!), I abide by those findings. One such suggestion is to limit the number of matching items to fifteen. If I have more than that, I break it up into sections. I give them multiple opportunities to show what they know by providing them with more than one problem that has particular elements. In my Algebra class, I also allow them to retake the tests three times, or until the earn an 80% or higher. The students are often motivated by their growth from quiz to quiz, and of course I offer multiple opportunities to learn the material: warm ups, homework, independent work, group projects, activities.

   If you want to see your students really take off in their learning, and not become bored (and turn into behavior problems), then use your creativity to stretch their thinking and give them ample practice to master the material. The more modalities that are employed, the more students will be able to learn. I’ve developed a few of my own, and have decided to make them available to others. Check them out on my web site: I’m also looking for good ideas. If you have one, jump on my site and fill out the form, or send me an email. It could be a great way to earn a little extra cash!