Many kids equate school with prison. I know, it’s harsh. Their dread conjures images of rectangular torture chambers filled with rows of desks, complete with a ball and chain to hold each of them in their assigned seats. Movies like “Matilda” bring this idea to life, with the imposing, larger-than-life dictator, Mrs. Trunchbull threatening to put misbehaved or inattentive students into the Chokey.
That medieval torture chamber is sure to leave scars, both physically and mentally. Sadly, while the imagery in “Matilda” is exaggerated, school expectations are not that far off. Students are treated as little soldiers, expected to sit quietly in an assigned seat, listen, take notes, and repeat the information back to the teacher. This traditional classroom environment does little to honor students’ creativity or diversity.
Despite the incredible innovation that has taken place since 1830, when Horace Mann first introduced our modern public schools in Massachusetts, very little has changed in the classroom and how students are taught. Meanwhile, quite a bit has changed as far as the diversity of the student body.
Not only are students from many different racial and economic backgrounds, but they are also comfortable talking about gender identities and sexual preferences. It’s wonderful—never before have students been more comfortable to be themselves and to accept each other’s differences. The question is how can we, as teachers, honor this diversity and these differences, all while encouraging creativity?
The answer is choice.
My studies in motivation, while I was doing research for my Master’s degree at Buffalo State College, revealed through the writings of Teresa Amabile and Beth Hennessy that the key to student engagement is intrinsic motivation: students doing work for the interest in subject matter rather than the grade. One of the best ways to tap into intrinsic motivation and encourage creativity is to give students choices. Choices honor diversity by allowing students to pursue their own interests. Those interests may or may not reflect their diversity, but giving them these choices empowers them to decide how they want to engage in the subject matter. Their creativity may emerge both in their choices and in how those choices relate to the subject at hand. Here are some examples:
Using Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure as a prompt, have them select people from history and decide what professions they’d have in modern-day and explain why.
Have them cast celebrities in roles from a book or play they are reading. They should be encouraged to cast characters of different races, genders, and ages and then explain the characteristics that make each person perfect for the part.
Have them create a PSA (Public Service Announcement) about “what would make the world a better place” or “something they wish people knew.”
Other ways to embrace diversity and give students choices is by creating project options that align with Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. I acknowledge that studies may not support Gardner’s theory with empirical evidence; however, when viewed as categories of intrinsic interest, it is an excellent springboard for project ideas. In the book You’re Smarter Than You Think, author Thomas Armstrong presents lots of ways to engage the intelligence—interest—in each student, along with ways to build strengths in areas outside of that natural intelligence or interest. Here are some general project ideas that can be tailored to a content area:
Linguistic- Word smart students can choose to write an essay, a poem, a blog, a letter or choose to speak/narrate any of the same.
Kinesthetic- Body smart students can act out a scene, create a dance interpretation, build a model, display, sculpture or board game with legos or objects that represents something specific from the content theme.
Musical- Music smart students can create a playlist/soundtrack for the content theme, or write and perform a song or parody.
Logical- Number/Science smart students can present the content theme as a math equation/chart/graph or propose an invention/innovation that is relevant to the content. They can create a trivia game to quiz fellow students.
Nature- Nature smart students can compare the weather to the different moods of a story or to people, create classifications and comparisons to bugs and trees, or take pictures of settings or scenes for stories. They could also cook or bake a dish that represents a math equation, a story or an event.
Interpersonal- People smart students can teach a lesson to fellow students or interview people and present their findings. They can work as group leaders with students who need extra help. They can present information through the eyes of a character in the story or a person involved in the content.
Intrapersonal- Self smart students can keep journals, identify similarities and differences between themselves and characters from history, and create objectives and goals for themselves.
Visual- Picture smart students can create a collage, either digitally or with cut-out pictures from magazines. They can also create a comic strip, anime, a painting, an illustration, artist trading cards, movie poster, advertisement, or propaganda poster that relates to the content.
Giving these many choices to students might seem overwhelming, but the results are incredible. Choice projects are a great option for the final project of a unit or the end of a marking period. As long as the student understands that they have to explain how their choice relates to the class content, any one of these choices promotes making cross-discipline connections and creative thinking. Giving students choices gives them the chance to honor their diversity through their strengths and their own story.
Beverly Zapatka Weihz is a renaissance woman. She is a high school communications teacher, an artist, an entrepreneur, an avid traveler, and a voracious student of life. She holds a B.A. in Art Therapy and teaching certificates for both Art and English. She received a Master’s of Science in Creative Studies and Change Leadership from SUNY Buffalo in 2016. Her master’s study work focused on research in motivation and finding the balance between technology and creativity. Her desire is to create a learning environment where all students can discover their strengths, their creativity and their own version of badass.
Look at it Another Way: How to Use a Native American Lens to Explore Empathy in the Classroom
Mandatory Fun: How to Bring a Little Play Into the High School Classroom