The Common Core State Standards have generated a lot of new buzzwords in English classrooms. All of a sudden it’s not enough for students to read, but now they must perform close reading. And it is not enough to answer simple questions, but students must become experts in answering text-dependent questions. Informational and opinion texts are in, and literary texts are out. Argument writing is taking the place of creative, narrative writing. Skills like analyzing and evaluating a text are taking precedent over the now passé act of making personal connections. To many English teachers, teaching to these shifts feels like cheating their students out of a love of literature and creative writing. In fact, the word “creative” does not seem to exist in the Common Core lexicon.
However, there are many ways to work within the constraints of the Common Core standards and still foster creativity in your classroom. The key can be summed up in one, Common Core-friendly term: synthesis, or combining ideas from multiple sources and creating a new theory or system of ideas. Let’s take a look at some ways that working with your students on synthesizing can promote creativity in your English class.
How to Get Your Students Synthesizing Information in Creative Ways
- Blogging: The power of blogging in the classroom has been well documented. Classroom blogs can be used to devote time and practice to many different skills, such as responding to reading, practicing certain types of writing, and learning about social media. One way to consider using blogging in a creative way is to assign groups of students to post links to news articles or opinion pieces that are of interest to them. Then, picking two articles at random, students must write blog posts that synthesize the ideas between the multiple sources. Students may need to do additional research, or even reach out to the authors of the news posts, to find threads of information that can be connected. What is that type of work, if not text-dependent writing? To get started, we recommend this excellent “Better Blogs” exercise from Education Week, which helps familiarize students with the medium.
- Mind Mapping: Mind mapping is a technique to help students group related thoughts about a topic. In the English classroom, students can use mind mapping with works of literature to explore themes, setting, or characters. The technique can be used with information texts to outline arguments and arrange supporting details. Using mind mapping software like Freemind and Inspiration or even having students draw out connections on paper, is a powerful way for them to visually represent ideas from within or across texts. As they are performing this task, students will most definitely need to conduct some close reading. Check out this short Ted-Ed video, “Using Mind Maps in the Classroom” to get more ideas on how to use both paper and software to get your students mapping out their ideas.
- Podcasting: Thanks in part to the recent popularity of the Serial podcast, more people have been enjoying the medium of audio storytelling than ever before. Creating a podcast can easily be done in the classroom. All you need is a microphone, audio software, like Audacity, and somewhere to upload the files, like your classroom webpage or Google Drive. Students can choose topics and record their argument writing. They can design an entire episode around one topic, synthesizing information they have gathered and presenting it from their own point of view. They could also narrate procedural events, like teaching others how to bake the perfect cherry pie. Finally, students can serialize historic events and present them across multiple podcast episodes. This useful guide from Reading Rockets, “Creating Podcasts with Your Students” breaks down the process from preproduction to publishing.
- Socratic Seminars: The Socratic Seminar is a collaborative classroom discussion based on an authentic text. Students are asked open-ended questions about the text. They listen to the comments made by other students and participate by speaking about their own thoughts and responding to the thoughts of others. Students in a Socratic Seminars question each other in order to understand and better articulate their responses. Throughout the course of the discussion, ideas and opinions may change as new information and insight is introduced. A Socratic Seminar is based on a text, therefore the thoughts and discussion become heavily text-dependent as students cite the text to defend their positions. Some teachers spend weeks at specialized trainings, but using this Socratic Seminars Strategy Guide from ReadWriteThink will get your collaborative classroom discussions off the ground in no time!
- Authentic Texts: One way to keep interest and creativity at the forefront of your English class is to be mindful of the mentor texts you use. Rather then rely on traditional pieces of literature, try using web comics, audiobooks, and videos of plays. Instead of information articles, watch YouTube videos, listen to NPR, download podcasts, stream a news program, scroll through news apps online, and introduce infographics. Videos of presidential debates, television commercials, and some clearly biased websites are great sources for opinion writing. Expose your students to how different genres are actually used in the real world. In fact, ask your students where they see different types of writing. You’ll likely end up with a treasure trove of excellent mentor texts!
Translate Creativity into Common Core Standards
One of the most rewarding things about a creative classroom is that your students never sigh loudly and moan, “Why do we have to do this?” Instead, they’re eager to participate in class, because they’re having a great time and understand the value of the work they’re doing. Administrators and fellow teachers may not be so quick to see the connection between the Common Core standards and your students’ creative endeavors. There are two simple ways to make the connection obvious.
- Post the Common Core standards your students are working on somewhere in the classroom, or better yet, have students include the standard descriptions somewhere (in fine print) on their work.
- Wrap up units and projects with a “Common Core Check-in” where you take a moment to explain how their work is related to what they might see on the Common Core assessments. For example, at the end of the Podcast unit, reflect with students on what skills they developed—storytelling, awareness of audience, speaking and listening comprehension, etc.—and display certain released assessment items that related to these new skills to give concrete examples of how they’ve been working toward Common Core Mastery. For PARCC released items, you can check here, and for SBAC items, look here.
The Common Core State Standards do not have to mean the death of creative work produced by your students. If anything, the emphasis on textual analysis gives you more reason to explore interesting and creative ways for students to engage with texts. The more meaningful you make the classroom work, the more transferable the big ideas of analysis, evaluation, and synthesis become. A student who can read an expository text and turn it in into an engaging, listener-friendly podcast can surely identify the author’s ideas, key details, and supporting information. And in putting the information together in her own way, in creating something unique and sharing it with the world, she has learned something new, grown as a person, and possibly inspired others. In which case, your English class has all the bases covered—Common Core standards aligned and creativity encouraged and celebrated.