January ushers in a much anticipated New Year —a chance to look back and look forward during a dizzying time for all. While there were unspeakable challenges in 2020, there have also been opportunities for creativity, collaboration, and growth.  

Back in March, when the pandemic hit, I realized that my elementary and middle school students needed an extra boost injected into their language and literacy lessons. In my ELA classroom—virtual and in-person— new and exciting lessons emerged.  I quickly learned that the “new normal” demanded more check-ins with my students. I needed to bring my creative and collaborative spirit to use and infuse it into the heart of more energetic lessons. 

In my quest to inject more creativity, connection, and fun, some essential questions emerged:

  • How do I bring meaning to learning at a time of uncertainty? 
  • How might I teach my curriculum—reading and writing skills—in a way that infuses inspiration, humor, and fun?
  • How might I make online learning active and engaging? 
  • How do I empower students to be in charge of their destiny, in the school, and beyond? 
  • We’re in a pandemic—so what matters most? 

In this quest, as both teacher (and parent), I have learned that what matters most—for the challenges are not over–is to keep children feeling 

  • heard
  • hopeful
  • inspired 
  • stimulated 
  • engaged 
  • connected  
  • active and
  • energized with learning that feels relevant and meaningful to them.

Energy has not always been easy to find or generate during this time. Pandemic fatigue, caused by the initial disruption, upheaval, and now ongoing uncertainty, has caused a palpable exhaustion level for both students and adults. 

Considering children’s energy and outlook has allowed me to step back and shake up lessons that quite merely get to the point of what matters in learning; to make meaning of our world. More importantly, it’s to help students make meaning of their world with teachers and other adults facilitating the learning process.

This led me to incorporate 5-10 minute CreateTUBEity videos. These videos help students engage, follow multi-step directions, jump-start discussions, and create more interesting writing prompts. My 9-14-year-old students benefited from these videos guided by creativity and education expert Dr. Cyndi Burnett and children’s book author and illustrator Barney Saltzberg. They inject enthusiasm, ideas, and research-based expertise all in one.

My students and I equally love that CreateTUBEity promotes all the right “survival skills” to build resilience through a pandemic. 

Some examples include:

  • tolerate ambiguity & embrace challenges,
  • be curious,
  • suspend judgment, and
  • be flexible & open to new ideas. 

One CreateTubeity video, particularly, Highlight the Essence, led to some exciting lessons. Students created hashtags for pictures they viewed using original thinking and robust vocabulary. The videos’ messaging was positive and timely and served as writing prompts and discussions. 

Screenshot: students highlight the essence of Barney Saltzberg’s fun and often wacky illustrations using hashtags.

Samples of student responses: #you’retoasted!  #youthinkYOU’vehadenoughofthisPANDEMIC? #WhoMEYeahYOU?

This video was a hit with my students. In fact, they wanted to “highlight the essence” more. This prompted me to infuse more art, primarily abstract paintings from other professional artists to interpret and study.  Through this “part II” of highlighting the essence, my students ran with the initial lesson, making meaningful extensions and applications on the themes. They came to understand that highlighting the essence requires choosing words—and just a few wisely. The students concluded this was the same skill used in titling work. From here, students used the artwork of Olga Cestero-Ferguson, Nan Park, David Donohue, and Jack Livingston, who generously allowed students permission to use their work.

Mixed medium painting; permission from the artist, Jack Livingston

Student titles: Ragtime, Dragon Breath, Sun Celebration, All Woven Together

Acrylic on canvas, permission from the artist, Olga Cestero-Ferguson

“This painting makes me think of a carnival. It’s like a celebration.” 

This next lesson highlighted the essence (by titling abstract works of art) and focusing on another creativity skill; elaborate, but not excessively. Students explored how titles serve a role in writing, art, patents, branding products, and more in this lesson. They learned that writers, song-writers, artists, inventors, and creators of all sorts give much thought to the title they attach to their work. Students discussed an essential question; What goes into making a good title? 

Discussions included the following points;

A good title 

  • predicts the content of what the reader will read or what the viewer will see. 
  • grabs the interest of the reader or viewer.
  • reflects the tone of the writing. 

For art, a title might also: 

  • provide insight into and the inspiration behind the artwork.
  • help the artwork tell its story.
  • leave room for the viewer to bring their meaning and interpretation of the painting.
  • be memorable and catchy.
  • be original.

Students were then asked to:

  1. Study and describe each image.
  2. Give each image a title and then.
  3. write an explanation, elaborating on why they chose the title.

Olga Cestero-Ferguson

Acrylic on wood/mixed medium

The results from these exercises were terrific, as were the discussion, most occurring through a virtual platform. In viewing Olga Cestero-Ferguson’s, acrylic on wood, students overwhelmingly gave the painting positive titles such as “Window of Hope; 2021” and “Hope Rising.” The students explained that viewing and writing about the work made them feel hopeful and optimistic about the new year, 2021.

Nan Park, mixed medium collage

Nan Park’s collage was considered “a good one for yoga and meditation,” according to one class. Students gave the piece exciting titles such as “Boats on a river,” “Snowstorm,” “Feathers,” “Serenity,” “Leaves and Sticks,” “Gray, Blue, and Whiteness.” A 14-year-old student noted that “at my first view, it seemed simple, but looking more closely, I see it’s actually complicated, much the way life can be.”

Acrylic painting on canvas, David Donohue

Along similar lines, another student titled David Donohue’s, painting above “Simple-but Complex.” Upon studying the artwork, students came up with a variety of other interesting titles including, “Joyful Tear,” “Gold Leaf,” “Fog and Mist,” “Scritch-Scratch Gray-Day,” “Leaf on Sand,” and “Shadow Man.”  Students were curious about the materials used. One speculated what the process was like for the artist in his writing piece. “I wonder if he painted himself in the back?” Another student explained her interpretation of the painting as a tear of joy. “The tear is to show that we can have joy on a gray day (not just a sunny one).” Such writings and discussions allow students to interpret and express themselves through someone else’s art.

Jack Livingston, acrylic on canvas/ mixed medium

Jack Livingston’s mixed medium painting used circle shapes and a box that provoked varying titles, discussions, and laughter. We all enjoyed the title, “The Forgotten Hamburger,” in which an 11-year-old student clearly stated what the painting was about to her. “It’s on the edge, and it looks JUST like a hamburger that someone forgot about,” she explained. Another student associated the painting with food as well, naming it, “Waiting (patiently) for My Chocolate Cookie.” Some other fun titles included “Red and Orange Fiesta,” and “Out-of-the-box-thinker,” referring to the tiny plastic figure sitting on the edge of the red box. 

The students’ writing and reflections were rich and the discussion lively. But we did not stop there! Students then created their artwork in which they gave a title and described it through essays. This lesson engaged my students of various ages and created lively lessons, all stemming from hashtags!

This is our on-going bulletin board where students highlight the essence of other artists’ work, title it, and create their work to the title, describe, and explain. Eventually, this led to writing, discussion, student empowerment, and creative expression. 

In conclusion, this lesson (turned project) brought me three key takeaways I would like to share with you: 

  1. We have a new-found appreciation for the role that illustrators and artists play in our lives. Where would we be in this pandemic without them? Or any time. They provide stimulation, entertainment, and inspiration for all ages.
  2. Life can be viewed from varying vantage points. Viewing art, especially abstract art that is purposely open to interpretation is an excellent way for young learners to gain skills and confidence. All of which will be important in developing an interpretation, explaining it, and trusting it.
  3. Lessons that energize students are more fun, drive home the learning and help us arrive at the meaning. When we teachers get to the point, students do too. And this should be our overall goal in education- to create meaning out of the world students experience.

Katrin “Kate” McElderry teaches language skills at a school for students with dyslexia and other cognitive learning differences. She has a Master of Arts in Curriculum Development from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where she served as a graduate assistant in the Education Department. Kate currently serves on the Board of Directors for the International Dyslexia Association and runs seasonal workshops through the non-profit, Flourish Education International. Over her career, Kate’s workshops have spanned the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, and South America. Collaborating with other educators on topics relating to creativity is one of her passions. Outside of work, Kate enjoys painting, hiking, biking, traveling, and spending time with her family. https://www.flourisheducationinternational.org/

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