Yes, You Can Teach Creativity

One of my favorite activities with kids was teaching about (and then practicing) creativity. Some of you may wonder -- can qualities like creativity and empathy be actually taught? Yes and yes. First creativity.

I was a social studies teacher, so didn't focus on musical or artistic creativity, just general brain stretching.

I'd begin with a timed challenge: My favorite was asking them to make a list of things you've only done once. With high school students, I often clarified that this was a G-rated list. 

Then I'd give them 5 minutes to write their list, with instructions to write everything that comes to their minds, not to screen anything because it seemed dumb. The first time, I'd give them a goal: try to list 20 things, perhaps. 

Here is some of my list:
  • Got married
  • Confronted an armored tank full of scared, machine gun armed, pimply faced boys
  • Testified to a federal grand jury
  • Ate foie gras
  • Swam with dolphins (though I thought they were sharks and panicked)
  • Was picked up by a police car (after a wild night of tp-ing houses)
  • Rode in a balloon
  • Shoplifted (Kool-Aid, age eight)
  • Fired a rifle
  • Had one pedicure, one manicure and one facial
  • Wrote a novel
  • Attended a birth that wasn't my own
  • Persuaded a lot of people to do something I regretted later
  • Visited a friend in prison
  • Voted for a presidential candidate who won
  • Prepared a body for burial/cremation
  • Airlifted by Mercy Flights for a medical emergency (not mine)
  • Almost died in a hospital
  • Snorkeled with manta rays
  • Was threatened by a gun in the US
  • Ran out of gas on the freeway while driving a bus full of students
  • Sat on the lap of an American president
  • Eavesdropped on Justice Blackmun and his aides in the Supreme Court cafeteria
  • Embarrassed my parents on local television
  • Brought a large amount of cash across international borders (not what you think)
  • Rode in a doorless helicopter
  • Got injured in a riot 
  • Drove through a blinding storm with a dead bird stuck to my windshield wipers
  • Body surfed twenty foot waves
  • Unknowingly, had students use my horrid rendition of I've Been Working on the Railroad for their cellphone ringtones
  • Spent the night -- the whole night -- in a classroom 
  • Did a police ride-along (front seat this time)
  • Hit a baseball hard enough to break the pitcher's finger 
  • Got fired from a job (cocktail waitress)
  • Got hired for a job because the owner thought I was an assassin (Squeaky Fromme)

    For my writing friends, I suspect any one of these could make a terrific poem, short memoir or fictional piece. Additional examples are below.

    After the first time students tried this, I would tell them the four elements of creativity and let them self-score themselves. The elements are as follows:

    Fluency: Number of items in their list. (1 point each)
    Flexibility: Number of different types (categories) included in their list. As a class, we would create categories -- foods, sports, places, health conditions and so on. Students would then categorize their responses and count the number of categories they included. (2 points per category). 
    Originality: Number of items on a list that no one else in the class had. (1 point each) 
    Elaboration: Detailed items get an additional point over simple ones. Above, I have a few with detail but most are fairly simple. (1 point each)

    You will note that other than fluency, the elements are subjective. Remind students that score doesn't really matter except to track how much better their own creativity gets over time. You'll also notice that Flexibility is rated twice what the other categories are. Whether inventors, artists or just good thinkers, creative people are able to flex their minds, moving out of thinking ruts into new innovative ideas. If you did this once a week or once a month, students would remember the elements and increase the quality of their lists, hence flexing their creative brains.

    Here are some other examples I've used, but feel free to incorporate into your curriculum:
    • Things that happen at school when no one's looking
    • Things I know almost nothing about
    •  Difficult things to draw (or easy, circular, or vertical things)
    • Things that only happen in Southern Oregon
    • What I would do if I were lost in the woods
    • What birds think trees are for
    • The many uses for a flashlight (or other object)
    • Ways I can extend my life expectancy
    • Different possible solutions to a given problem (nothing to do around here, adults not listening to kids, world hunger, getting a product to market)
    • What might have happened if...(pick a critical historical event)

    Try such a list yourself (untimed is also fine; but in a classroom it does help to time) and see if you can improve your own creativity over time.