The C word in ELT

OMG, you’re so creative! How did you think of that?

 

I really need your help. I want to do something different with my students and you are so creative… Can you think of an activity for me to use with them?

 

I wish I were as creative as you are. I would never think of that!

 

These are some of the many utterances I have heard from colleagues over the years, whether in the teacher’s room or at workshops. All of them have something in common, though: the concept that creativity is innate. Moreover, those who have been graced with the gift of being creative will always think outside the box and control their creativity, being able to access it whenever they want or need it.

All rubbish, of course.

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Creativity is hard work for the brain. It is connection, resemblance, contrast and link. Plus, as most of what goes on in the brain, it is inertia. 

Cerebral activity is mostly guided by inertia due to the fact that doing things the way it has always been done saves energy – and that’s the brain’s ultimate goal. Therefore, if making unexpected connections between external stimuli and recorded memories has been part of your mental activities for a long time, it will happen most frequently.

And what do we usually call people who make unexpected connections in order to create something new or solve a problem? Creative.

I was fortunate to have parents who were extremely fond of arts in general and exposed me to several forms of art from an early age. So I grew up having to deal with these complex connections between visual, auditory and kinaesthetic stimuli. Actually, after some time, that became the modus operandi of my learning process. Nowadays I learn a lot easier when bombarded with multi sensorial pieces of information at a time. It has become how my brain works, all the time.

Most of my colleagues whose quotations were mentioned earlier were not used to making these kind of connections and had traditional educational backgrounds. Their brains were simply not used to linking far-fetched ideas and memories. On the other hand, when it came to focusing on a topic at a time, they were a lot better then me at solving issues or performing tasks.

Then when it came to ‘bringing creativity into the classroom’, they thought they would not be able to incorporate it into their teaching for they themselves lacked the skill.

Also rubbish.

Everyone has the power to change mental processes and create new synapses. It might be more arduous for some, though not impossible. I was not different from them owing to an inborn characteristic – I had just been doing it longer.

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So how can teachers, more or less inclined to being creative, deal with and include innovation and creativity in their classrooms? 

A panel about creativity in ELT was presented at IATEFL 2016 in Birmingham and the panelists attempted to shed some light into the matter. Here are some key ideas I personally took from each talk:

Dr. Daniel Xerri, University of Malta

-We should try to bring different domains into our classrooms in order to be more innovative as practitioners

-Multimodal communication could be incorporated into our lesson plan, having a topic be explored though different media (text, video, sound, body language, etc…)

-Combination is key for creativity: try to make or elicit link between concepts

-Teachers choose to be creative, it is not inborn. It might seem like hard work to some, but it pays off in the end

-Empowering teachers during teacher training is imperative in order for them to feel confident to be creative themselves

-One concept that might be helpful: seeing yourself as a creative writer when putting your lesson plan together.

-Therefore, engaging in creative writing or attending workshops on the subject might assist with transferring these skills into the classroom

-Another external concept to be considered: teachers, like actors, are improvisational performers. Both have to react to the here ad now, coming up with instant physical and mental responses to issues that may arise. As a result, taking improv lessons or delving into the work of Theatre theorists such as Stanislavski can lead to a practice of disciplined improvisation (structure + freedom)

 

Gloria Gil, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina

-Creativity means variety: in content, media, form, etc…

-Ludic behaviour and critical thinking also play major roles in fostering a creative environment in the classroom

-Creative interactions stem from the learners’ engagement

-It is paramount to be creative WITH students, instead of being creative myself, as a teacher

-Affective learning might play a large role in making students feel safe to attempt being more creative in class

-Practical food for thought when planning your class: Does a creative activity necessarily lead to creative interactions in ELT? Does this activity allow students to be creators? If not, how can we ensure students’ creativity will be triggered by the proposed task?

 

Stephanie Xerri Agius, University of Malta

-The teacher’s role has to be redefined if creativity is to be fostered in ELT: from teachers as syllabus followers to actively producing teachers

-We should be ‘doers’, not just ‘givers’

-A suggestion: a 50-50 ratio between attending to syllabus and promoting freer activities

-Writing can be a first stimulus to incorporating creativity in the classroom

-Writing does not have to be an essay, it could be a paragraph

-Stimulate them to think and discuss a topic thoroughly, making enough connections to other stimuli in order to provide them enough opportunity for creative links to be made before they actually put the ideas on paper

-Practical assignments fostering creative writing:

         -Vlog: writing a script, instead of making the video

         -Lyrics: writing for music ideas that have been muted

         -Dramatic texts: gapping lines and filling it out unexpectedly


Well, I hope these ideas sparked new synapses in all of you and that creative thoughts are flooding your brains right now! I know mine is overflowing! May your classrooms and lesson plans be filled with innovative, fun ways to learn English!

And, as usual, have fun with the games!

creativity

Ah, these creative people…

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Unfocused, indisciplined, selfish, uninterested.

These are some of the most recurring words on my report cards every semester from kindergarten until high school.

I was that one student who asks too much, gets bored too easily, has short attention span and resides on the edge of weirdness. Thus, most of my teachers simply did not know how to handle me.

I was an artistic kid who broke out in song in the middle of class, doodled my whole notebook to the point there was little space for actual note-taking and was famous for impersonating colleagues and teachers. And did I mention the nonstop singing?

So how come I survived school and became a scholar wannabe myself? Through art.

It took me years and more that few visits to the educational psychologist to figure out that there was nothing wrong with me. I was just different. My head was different. Instead of dealing with one thing at a time, my head was a constant web browser with 15 tabs open! And I was using them all at once!

As soon as I figured that out, a revolution came about: instead of forcing myself to focus on one task for quite some time as my teachers instructed me to do, I started having 4 or 5 tasks in front of me at the same time. I would tackle them in parts, shifting from one to another while intercalating them with doodling, singing, dancing or fiction writing. It took me a little longer, but I started nailing all of my assignments and actually being able to do them all.

Highly creative people are wired that way because creativity is nothing but the connection of previously conceived ideas that were separated, and now are confronted. So my highly creative brain is way more interested in connecting ideas than focusing in acquiring new ones. And by giving it time and space to create between input sessions, it became easier and easier to focus during those periods.

From this very personal experience I have noticed that there are so many different learning styles and I, as a teacher, should try to embrace and celebrate these differences in the classroom. However, it is not unusual to hear teachers complaining about fidgety students in their classrooms. So how can we tackle that situation, then?

Ways to cater for these highly creative beings are: give them space to breathe and process all the information that they are coping with both external and internally; prepare activities that promote critical thinking or a connection between concepts; include art in your classroom, in the form of drawings, fiction writing, poetry writing, dancing/movement or drama games.

I’m sure that after a little Drama, the unfocused, indisciplined, selfish, uninterested humans in your class will give you no drama at all.

Tales from the classroom – The complainers

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There is nothing more terrifying than a cold audience.

That horrifying feeling of talking to students and getting….. NOTHING!

Or worse: getting nothing but complaints!

I can still remember – with shivers on my spine – a certain group I once had that no matter what I tried, they remained unsatisfied.

They would constantly complain about everything. And I mean EVERYTHING.

The class is too slow. Now it’s too fast. Your accent is too American. There are too many windows in this classroom… The list is endless.

I thought that they would never go for playing games in the classroom since they liked NOTHING about the course: and I was right.

But, as I am a terribly stubborn human being, I decided to insist on it anyway.

I remember the first time I proposed a game to them. They looked at me with a ‘what the hell’ face and, as I insisted, they did it in a very cranky way.

And so it went for the next month: me insisting on the games, they doing it out of obligation and ‘good will’.

I only kept doing it because, honestly, they would complain about anything anyway, so I decided to make the classes a little more lively, even if just for a few moments.

And you know what happened? They complained!

But this time, in English!

And that right there was my reward.

They might not have noticed at the time, but the games were actually helping them improve their fluency – and I could notice!

I just kept saying to myself, ‘They complaining in English now! In ENGLISH!!!!’

So one day I did something sneaky: I recorded the whole class.

Afterwards, I sent them the video via email and asked them to pay attention to how much L1 and how much English they were speaking. And that changed everything.

They still complained about the classroom, my accent, the textbook, the coordination, the duration of the class…………….. But they were happy they were speaking English.

That was one of the most difficult groups I’ve ever had, but of one thing I’m sure: there is nothing a very stubborn teacher who insists on getting their students to learn can’t do!

Tales from the classroom – Do teachers matter?

teaching-wordleI was just 16 when I was first asked to assist a teacher with his duties. A bit too early, some might say, to carry such a prestigious role. Though somehow I felt I was ready.

It was my Drama teacher at the language school I studied at: also quite young, energetic and somehow adventurous. He was the one that, after two years of helping me with my English, suggested I helped him manage the theatre groups he was responsible for.

At first I thought he was kidding, but then I realized maybe I did have an interest bigger than just learning a language twice a week and rehearsing a theatrical play once a week – maybe I genuinely felt curious and excited about the idea of helping others. And I guess he saw that in me and gave me a chance.

Rehearsals began in March and we were looking after around 30 students ageing from 9 to 15 every week for three hours. My Fridays were never as fun as those. I looked forward to Fridays like those kids did to Christmas!

I learned so much from those two years I spent assisting my former teacher: work ethics, dealing with students, dealing with parents, planning classes, time management, classroom management and – what would become my professional life’s obsession – drama games.

I first came into contact with drama games as they were traditionally meant to be used: as a means for the actors to prepare themselves for rehearsal and presentation. And for a long time I lacked to see the connection between those activities that helped us rehearsal and the language class I had twice a week.

It took one book and a very special person to open my mind to that possibility. The book was Theater Games for Classroom – A Teacher’s Handbook and the very special person is a dear friend that unfortunately is no longer with us. He also had started as a student and then decided to become a teacher – a path I myself would choose later on – and he had figured out the connection between drama games and the classroom. Not only figured out, he perfected it bearing in mind the syllabus, demands and requirements of the school he taught at.

He got so good at it and he was such an inspiration to so many around him, that in a few years he became a teacher trainer. And guess who had figured out she wanted to be a teacher and was his pupil by then? Yes, yours truly. And that was when I got a crash course in drama games in the classroom for the first time.

He gave me the book; he ministered the training course; he gave me a path and a passion. And every time I think about him not being here anymore it saddens me that the world can no longer benefit from his great ideas. Though his legacy endures.

Lots of us lucky enough to have been taken under his wing at the time still work with drama games in the classroom and believe in its effectiveness as a tool to facilitate language learning.

If it hadn’t been for these two very important teachers/colleagues/friends that life was kind enough to have put in my path, who knows if I would be where I am today.

Teachers matter. What we say and do have meaning and can affect our students deeply. So if we affect them, let us affect them affectionately. And as I learned from these two very affectionate teachers: drama games can help us do that.

So once again, see you guys next time and have fun with the games.

Michelle Schirpa

(ESL Drama Queen)