As a parent of teens and an elementary school educator, I can say that this year has been a stressful one for students. Connecting has been more challenging than ever. It is also more essential than ever. It takes a lot of time and effort to create a classroom culture that nurtures a creative mindset. Many students come to my art class feeling that they want to “get it right.” Traditional school systems value success and grades. When students come from these systems, they often find it challenging to embrace uncertainty and mistakes.
Teaching online this year has meant having to renew my focus on developing a classroom culture that encourages creativity. Creating an environment where students are aware of their emotions and view failures as a step in the right direction didn’t happen overnight, and I had to make some adjustments this year. In this post, I would like to share eight strategies to help students feel more confident in their creative abilities and view failures as opportunities to grow. These tips include some options for in-person learning and some for virtual classes.
1. Adopt a Class Mascot
A mascot is a symbol that an organization adopts to help communicate its character and positive traits. A class mascot can represent your creative class culture and bring a positive vibe to your environment too! Adopt a mascot that your students will identify with as a constant reminder to keep their minds open! Our mascot is a wooden mannequin called Flearn (Fail + Learn = Flearn). Flearn holds a sign with a quote from the book Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg: “If you think you have made a mistake, think of it as an opportunity to make something beautiful.” Have your students choose their mascot. Challenge them to name the mascot and make it a part of your class culture, events, and newsletters!
Every hero needs a villain. Make a villain for your mascot too. What might a villain look like? Sound like? Move like? When challenged to design a villain, my students created Square Man, who only thinks inside the box, and Captain Failure, whose mission is to stop them from learning and creating. Madame Perfect told them that they weren’t good enough. Dr. Fail-Stop-Trying said they would never be able to do it. Then my brave students decided that they needed shields to protect them from their villains. Quotes and words such as “YET” decorated their shields, which serve as a visual and tactile reminder that they are not alone in facing their fears, and together they can grow.
2. Model a Growth Mindset
Students must see teachers as vulnerable and active learners. We need to model how failing can help us overcome obstacles, but only when we view a mistake as an opportunity. Try pretending to make a blunder in your lesson: spell something wrong, make an error in your calculation, or make an accidental mark across a drawing. “Oh no!” Tell students how you feel when you make a mistake, and encourage them to help you find strategies to fix it. Celebrate when you make something better! Take time to learn with your students. Learn to hula hoop. Learn a new technology tool—maybe one that they can teach you!
The following quote by Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, is true for teachers as much as parents:
“If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their confidence.”
3. Acknowledge Emotions
When you think about a time you failed, what feelings come to mind? Did you feel self-doubt? Anger? Frustration? Being aware of their emotions is critical in order for students to learn to face their failures. We all feel scared or embarrassed, proud or jealous sometimes. It’s important to notice these feelings, name them and use them as an opportunity to transform our learning experiences.
During distance learning, I asked the students how it feels talking to people while wearing a mask. They agreed that it was hard to read people’s feelings, but that eyes, tone, and body language helped them. We shared how we felt about starting art class by drawing pictures of how our eyes look. We then shared how our eyes might look when we make a mistake.
Another day, students arrived to class to discover three giant letters on my chalkboard: Y, E, and T. I waited until a student said, “I can’t…” as in “I can’t do long division” or “I can’t draw realistically.” I asked them how they feel when they said that sentence. Then I asked them to repeat the sentence with “yet” at the end, and how that changed the way they feel. Noticing how they feel when they rephrase the sentence helps them to feel the power of this little word, with such a huge impact. I can’t do it… YET.
4. Share Inspirational Examples
Make a wall to celebrate Famous Fails or Famous “Flearns!” Introduce Albert Einstein’s inability to speak until he was 4. Tell them that Michael Jordan got cut from his basketball team as a teenager and cried in his room—can you imagine? Provide time to discuss what it might have felt like to be them. Here’s a video to share with your students to get the discussion rolling.
5. Practice Fails
As a finale to Flearn-uary, a month of embracing our flearns, we had a grade-wide creative challenge. The Great Domino Challenge was one of the most fun events of the year! All 14 classes made a portion of a domino run that meandered through every classroom, hall, and stairwell. Each section connected up, eventually reaching our mascot, Flearn. We tried to achieve the challenge with no mistakes. Of course, there were many mistakes all along the way, lots of smiles, and tremendously creative domino runs!
6. Connect to Families
Connect with your students’ families so that they too are encouraging risk-taking and a creative mindset. Check out this Flearnuary Calendar that was sent home for children and parents to complete! Make a calendar or a challenge to send home!
Offer students many opportunities to reflect on their growth. Use reflection starters such as this one by Harvard’s Project Zero I used to think…, but now I think… after learning opportunities to help students notice how their ideas have changed over time. Growth portfolios can be a fantastic addition to your repertoire of reflection protocols!
8. Next Steps to Flearn
Every day, I hear students who have messed up a drawing or made a mistake with their sculpture say, “It’s ok. It’s just a flearn!” I see them shrug their shoulders and go about making their art. They’re learning to embrace the challenge, despite their fails. Lately, classroom teachers report that there is flearning happening everywhere: in math class, in language class, in Physical Education, and at home.
Maybe the dictionary should include the word “flearn.” Try introducing it in your class. When you fail and then learn something from it, call it a flearn. Then, celebrate! A fail is when you stop when you make a mistake, with no further effort. A flearn leaves room for reflection and CREATIVITY! Celebrate your flearns! #flearn
Don’t stop there! Invite students to make up other new words!
Please share your strategies too. We can all use more ways to help students develop a creative mindset.
Charlotte Murphy is a Canadian educator and artist. For 20 years, she has taught primary, elementary, and middle school students in Asia, New Zealand, and the Middle East, and is currently teaching visual art in Saudi Arabia. Charlotte has a Concurrent Bachelor of Education from Memorial University of Newfoundland and recently completed her National Board Teacher Certification (Visual Arts). She is passionate about creating a culture of thinking in her classes and loves anything creative!