Keys to a Creative Language Classroom
1. Resist Running Like Clockwork
Routines can be useful. They are a sequence of habits that keep you on track and prevent complications. Not every day has to be a completely unique language learning experience. A little routine never hurt anyone, but zero creativity can.
Throwing in some spontaneity every now and then increases the level of default alertness that your students operate at. Routines are comfortable, sometimes too comfortable, letting students sit back and “turn off.” Mixing things up requires them to pay more attention and listen carefully.
The mental stimulation and social gratification that results from being creative literally enhances brain cells and memory, leading to more “Eureka!” moments.
One way to keep students on their toes is to throw a wrench into their normal routine. Do something completely different. For example, by getting students up and about:
Take students on a walk around the school or the block, asking them to write down all of the words that they see.
If along the way they notice any objects for which they do not know the term, have them sketch a picture of it.
Meet in a lobby or park and review the identified words.
Play a game of Pictionary where one student sketches the objects that he or she saw and fellow students have the chance to guess the correct term (i.e. a fire hydrant, traffic light or gate).
This activity works well as a “wrench” because it is not something that you can do every day.
Other examples include interactive art projects, which we’ll discuss later, and games that get them moving, like charades or Jeopardy.
The purpose of these activities is to surprise students and give them something unexpected that they don’t do regularly. We want to keep them on their toes and remind them to stay alert, because in your classroom anything can happen.
2. Invert the Routine
You don’t have to completely change the routine to mix things up, you just have to change how the routine looks from the outside.
If you run the same three-mile loop every day, pretty soon your body will get used to it and it will become easy. Give yourself a new three-mile loop and all of a sudden you’ll be challenged again. The same is true with our students’ brains. We want to keep them from getting too comfortable.
Let’s take a look at some tricks to help clarify:
Do the opposite. Take something familiar and do it differently. For example, if you always teach from the front of the class, try teaching from the back; if your students always sit in rows, try putting them in a circle.
Switch up the order. Do daily activities in a different order. If you usually give a homework assignment at the end of class, for example, give it at the beginning instead.
Change roles. Let students do the work. For example, if you usually read out the class schedule every morning, have one of your students do it one day.
Those are a few simple ideas, but I’m sure you can come up with many more. These twists require little to no preparation, and are subtle enough to keep students from getting overly excited or distracted.
What do these examples have in common? They pull students out of their daily habits. We are disorienting them slightly in order to give them a new perspective and keep them alert.
3. Give Students the Power
As teachers our best source of inspiration is our students themselves. It’s okay to ask them for their ideas and opinions when designing a curriculum.
Students are used to being told what to do and just going with the flow. Pull them back out of passive mode by giving them the power. Let them have a stake in the class by helping plan the curriculum for the next day or week.
Here are some ways to do so:
Let students choose. Describe two assignments then ask something like “Sarah, which exercise would you like to do first?” Giving them the chance to choose will instantly wake them back up.
Involve students in scheduling. Present interchangeable topics that you plan to teach the following week. Write the days of the week on the board then ask students which topics they’d like to learn on which day. Have them explain their logic. Write the topics down next to the corresponding day and ta-da, you have a student-made schedule.
Regularly ask for feedback. Ask students if they have a favorite language exercise or assignment. If so, then conduct it more frequently. Oftentimes what they want and what they need are the same thing. They’ll be the first to know if they’re losing interest or not understanding something.
Creativity is generally linked to poetry or painting, but it can be much subtler. Just by giving students the agency to freely design their own schedule, you have encouraged them to use their creative muscles.
Thank them for their help afterwards and it’s a triple whammy: You’ve engaged them, praised them and made them more invested in the week ahead. They planned it after all.
4. Relax the Rules
Imagine a class of students who are all at the same level and who are all equally proactive. It’s hard to envision, right? As far as I know, it doesn’t exist.
There are generally a few students who lead the way and the rest follow suit. Yup, creativity can also help solve this challenge. Deemphasizing the rules levels the playing field because exercises become more dependent on interpretation and individual experience.
Try distributing the power with these activities:
Vary the assignment by group. Split the class up and give each group or pair a slightly different set of rules for the “same” assignment. For example, have them create their own advertisements but give each group a different product to sell or audience to focus on. Groups will not be able to depend on the examples they see around them. They will be forced to look to their own understanding and creativity.
Leave room for interpretation. The following week, split the class up again. Students will remember your tricky directions from last week so they’ll be ready for the twist. Don’t give it to them directly. Go around and explain the assignment to each group, giving them all the same directions. For example: Pick an object in the room and write a 300-word excerpt based on it. Notice how these directions are purposefully vague and limited, allowing for the students to fill in the blanks themselves. Each group will finish with something slightly different, maybe a poem about fellow students or a story about their new shoes.
Invoke the senses. Association exercises are great for encouraging personal creativity. Play a sound to the class. It could be nature sounds, city sounds or something else, which can all be found on YouTube. Ask students to explain what they feel when they hear it, or to write a story to accompany the sounds. Another exercise involves students choosing a smell, noise or feeling that brings back a strong memory for them. They can write about it and then share it.
All of these assignments encourage creativity by preventing students from becoming followers or looking to one another for assistance. It requires them to interpret instructions for themselves, trust their own perceptions or draw on personal experience. This is creativity in itself.
5. Embrace the Arts
Perhaps the most straightforward form of creativity is art, which can include stories, plays, music, poems, mime and dance. These activities diversify coursework, require extremely proactive participation and establish a positive classroom environment.
Art is cathartic, letting students express themselves in a safe environment while having fun and learning. Here are some artistic exercises that do just that:
React to abstract art. Have students react to abstract art, like Picasso, or poems. Ask open-ended questions like, “What do you see here?, ” “What is happening?” and “What do you think is going to happen next?” Encourage them to use the present progressive. As students will interpret the art differently, you can use the ensuing class discussion to teach or revisit a lesson on politely disagreeing.
Write a poem. Show students a photograph or painting. Ask them to write a short poem to accompany the artwork.
Describe music. Play a song to the class. Try an instrumental movie theme, like “Jurassic Park, ” “Star Wars” or “Hook” (I’m clearly a John Williams fan). Teach vocabulary by asking students to identify what instruments they hear. Make a list on the board. You can also ask, “What instruments make this song sound sorrowful or upbeat?, ” “What is your favorite part and why?, ” “How does the song make you feel?” and “What do you associate with it?”
Remind students that there is no right or wrong. Through engaging with the pieces, they’re learning new vocabulary and learning how to express or defend their opinions.
Art has a visceral effect on students that you will be able to observe. They will be more lively and talkative. For this reason, it’s nice to save this assignment for after lunch or the end of the day when their energy starts to fade.
Because it is thought-provoking and emotional, artwork inspires further creativity. It will make students forget that they’re learning a language, but will encourage them to use the language so that they can engage with the art.
Enjoy stimulating your class’s creative side and putting these five tricks to work. Chances are your students will remember them for a long time to come, meaning that they’ll also remember the vocabulary and grammar that went along with it.
Once the creative juices start flowing, they will find their way into the rest of your curriculum, resulting in a more engaged, positive and effective class.