How to Get More Creative in the Classroom Without Wasting Students’ Time

Listen to this episode

S1: This Ad Free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.

S2: More. Welcome back to working overtime. The plucky spunky advice a younger sibling to working. I’m your host Isaac Butler.

S1: And I’m your other host, June Thomas.

S2: June. We are recording this in late March, but it will actually air in late April after you have left your day job at Slate. So I want to ask, do you have anything you’d like to say to your future self?

Advertisement

S1: What an amazing question. I do. Future self. Amazing job on breaking the world record for quantity of brilliant un improvable upon noble words, written and insights gained in just a month.

S2: It’s incredible. That is truly great and I hope you will put the word unprovable up Hannibal into the book itself because I.

S1: Fell into accepted. Good.

S2: Yeah. I don’t know how you could improve upon that word, so that better get in there somewhere. Now, now, here’s the question is are those brilliant un improvable upon Bible words in an order that creates meaning? Or is it just like a big list of really amazing words?

S1: That’s called the dictionary, I guess that last thing. I hope that there I mean, I don’t just hope I know they’re going to be it’s just going to you know, speaking of dictionaries, if you go to the dictionary, you look at perfection, you will see my first month’s work.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Wow, that’s great. That’s great. Weirdly, they’re also going to see your image in that sort of Wall Street Journal, you know, stipple style. People are under killing it. If you look up killing it in the dictionary, it’s going to be right there. So maybe we should get down to today’s business, which I’m happy to say is another listener e-mail. This one comes from listener Anya, who writes Dear Working. I love the podcast. On the surface, one might not consider my profession a physics teaching professor, a very creative field. However, I find both teaching and research to be highly creative works. I’d love to hear the podcast explore the creative work of teaching at every grade level and compare the teaching practice to more traditional writing and creative practices. So first of all, thank you for the kind words of praise, Anya. But before we get to the kind of embedded question here, I want to say that I think Anya makes a great point, and we here at working would love to hear from the teachers out there about how they view their job creatively. When are you at your most creative? When are you at your least? What strategies, rituals, tools are you developing to be more creative in the classroom? Write us at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at 304933 work and will feature your answers on a future episode. All right. So now on to the email. I want to back up for a second and just think about what do we even mean when we talk about teaching as a creative practice. And one place I thought we could start with is actually the student perspective. You and I, we’ve both been students. Do you recall any particularly creative teachers and what it was that they did that felt creative to you?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Isaac I feel really, really terrible saying this, but not really. Like I remember some teacher I know. Like I remember some teachers with immense fondness, but it wasn’t because of their creativity. Like I had the benefit of a classical education, a very good school in Britain, but the method of teaching was not at all creative. In fact, it was often downright backward. I remember learning massive, massive chunks of information by heart. There are some future defining exams in Britain, especially maybe when I was at school, and a huge amount of what we did in class was designed to prepare for those exams. And the way at my school they did that was to have us do lots and lots and lots of rote learning. They decided, and I think they were probably right, that passing those exams or getting good grades in those exams was the most important thing they had to do. And so that’s what they did. And it wasn’t creative, it was uncreative.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: These are those mysterious O-levels that I always hear talked about on BBC shows, and I don’t really understand that they are.

S1: Low levels and A-levels. Yes.

S2: Yeah. All right. I had someone explain them to me once and I understood them about as well. As I understand cricket.

S1: Cricket is much simpler than A-levels and A-levels.

S2: I mean, I do think there’s something to be said for that model of teaching, which we should say is widely practised outside of the United States. You know, the United States puts a lot of emphasis on more discussion based learning, more experimental learning, things like that, to such an extent that when we moved more towards, you know, memorise the stuff you need for the test model under No Child Left Behind, you know, people have been outraged about I don’t like No Child Left Behind in those changes. I want to say that I’m not defending it, but it’s just to say there are sort of different traditions. I went to a high school where the teachers really took pride in kind of their. Creativity, some of them anyway. So there was a math teacher who I actually didn’t study with, but he called his tests art SOS opportunities to show off. And you know, you could because it was all about application. The tests were very hard because they were all about application. You could bring an index card in with all the formulas you needed. You know, he wanted to see how you could apply it. And actually, my physics teacher, Paul Morrell, worked in a very, very similar way. I bring this up because she’s a physics teacher at the college level. You know, Paul had very, very creative tests. So, you know, you would bring you’d be able to bring all the formulas and stuff you need in. And then he would say, you know, if you dropped a penny off the Empire State Building, how long would it take before you heard the sound of the penny hitting the pavement? And so you’d have to figure out, okay, we have to figure out how far it falls and then the speed of sound as it goes back up and, you know, all that stuff. And he would always do these super creative demonstrations whenever possible. So we were juniors and seniors, and so he knew we were obsessed with getting our driver’s licenses and stuff. So he taught friction through changing a tire and he taught circuit through jumpstarting a car. And, you know, he would always just find something in real life that was relevant to us that he could kind of demonstrate as a way of explaining. You know, our talk was our talk was yeah, obviously, I remember all of it. I’m 42 now. It’s been a long time anyway, so.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I took no physics, so I know nothing.

S2: I will say there was one teacher in the history department who I felt like at the time and after I graduated I asked some teachers and they kind of agreed with me, went overboard with it, and did so much quote unquote creative stuff that he didn’t really teach anything. So, you know, you would do a mock trial of Richard the third or whatever, which is a clever idea, but you would spend two weeks on it and two weeks on end of an appro class on a mock trial of Richard third is not actually particularly useful.

S1: Yeah, I’m very conscious of that, partly because I really enjoyed my school and I don’t want to sound like I’m being excessively critical. Like I really think that they made a decision that these exams were the most important thing and even maybe they would have liked to have been more creative. Maybe they could have come up with all kinds of, you know, great experiments and tests and and things that would have gotten us excited and engaged, but that would have taken time from the thing that was important. And maybe in teaching, as in writing and as in other creative pursuits, you kinda have to keep in mind what is the assignment here? What are the priorities? And, you know, being white, it’s not irrelevant being, you know, well thought of is not irrelevant in a teacher in any kind of field. There are always these kind of soft skills and and things that you can do to encourage engagement and encourage effort by, you know, by again, making somebody want to impress you. So I don’t want to dismiss that entirely, but just deciding what really matters and, you know, trying, Richard, the third, you know, it’s maybe wasn’t the most important thing.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Yeah, exactly. So, you know, it’s interesting because from the student’s point of view, we’re sort of looking at what is the balance between doing something fun that’s going to really make the material come alive and making sure that the student really is still getting the material that they need, which I think is in any creative field, actually a tricky kind of tightrope to walk. Yeah. We do need to still talk about it from the teacher’s point of view, which we will do after this.

S1: Hey listeners, what are your thoughts about teaching as a creative practice? How do you stay creative and still teach the things you need the students to learn? Art, you’re not a teacher. What did a teacher do in a classroom that you found really creative? Get in touch. You can email us at working at Slate.com or even better. You can call us and leave a message at 3049339675. That’s 304933. w0rk. All right. Now back to the show.

Advertisement

S2: June. You know, later on in the email and a part I didn’t read on the air, Anya says that sometimes she feels like an actor in the classroom. Sometimes she feels like a director. And as a former actor and erstwhile director and current teacher, this is something I definitely sympathize with. You were actually talking about it before the break. A lot of the teachers job is figuring out what their performance is going to be because they’re performing in the class. Do you want to perform as a somewhat imperious genius that they need to impress? Do you want to perform as their knowledgeable buddy? Do you want to be there? You know, the hip youth group pastor who spins the chair around and sits on it with the back facing that way, you know? But yeah, but you know, so I think about that all the time as a teacher because I come from a theater background. But I’m wondering if there are ways that maybe writing and teaching are like each other. Do you think there’s something that teachers might have to learn from the practice of writing?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I do. But first I have to note that I also definitely relate to the notion of teacher as actor. My teaching experience is very specific. I taught English in Spain for a couple of years, mostly to office workers in their place of employment, and I was very, very aware of the psychological aspects of the job. It was probably more important that the students be happy than that they learned like they probably wouldn’t be happy if they didn’t learn anything, but if they were discouraged or bored or, you know, had to do the kinds of dull things that are actually pretty effective in language learning, like drills, they’d maybe stop coming to class and my employer would lose the contract and I’d lose my job. So there was a lot of cajoling and flattering and play acting. And so, you know, that is definitely part of teaching, I think. And I’m not sure that there’s quite that psychological dimension, except maybe those tricks that you kind of play on yourself to, you know, get sitting down or if you’re stuck. But that’s not quite present in writing. But I do definitely think there are lessons in writing perhaps that you have to let the question dictate the answer, you know. If you have a brilliant take on Shakespeare, it doesn’t matter if you’re supposed to be writing about Tony Kushner, you have to fit the practice to the assignment. And so that might mean that taking different approaches to different teaching challenges, you know, at my school, once you’re in those exam years, everything was memorization that was effective, for one thing, exam results, but it wasn’t ideal for anything else. So whatever your challenge is fit the teaching technique to the learning goal. And if you’re writing, you sit down to write based on what your assignment is.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Yeah, that’s interesting. You know, when I think about the creativity of my teachers, a lot of times it does come down to it’s not always what’s going on in the classroom, actually. It’s often what the tests look like is where a lot of their creativity went. I already mentioned Paul, the the physics teacher, but, you know, I had this amazing he was really a mentor of mine in high school. Richard Avedon was his name. No confusion with the photographer. And Richard’s tests were these hilarious things of beauty. He taught government and he taught AP law. And the AP law ones would be these hilarious, complicated hypotheticals. And then you had to figure out how to defend one of the people in them. I just remember there was this file for four guys named John Paul. George and Ringo are all busted for drugs at a music festival. And there’s this all this stuff about the chain of evidence and how each of them is discovered with it. And there’s all sorts of constitutional protections around, you know, was that search legal or not? You had to pick two of the four of them and defend them, you know, like like stuff like that. So there was stuff that he needed us to know, that we needed to learn. And so classroom wasn’t always, you know, sometimes classroom was just, hey, here’s the concept. I’m going to tell you this concept. I really think there’s nothing wrong with the lecture model. Sometimes students need to be told things, you know, like sometimes you just got to tell them. It’s like, Here’s the answer, I’m going to tell it to you. And they can tell. I think when you’re busing and you know the answer and you’re not telling them because you think it would be better if they came up with it. And then they’re like, Why aren’t you just telling me the answer? But so then, then where does the creativity go? It goes into how they’re assessed, right? Or it goes into what the papers are like. The papers were really creative. So I think it’s it is about knowing where the room is to play. I do think this gets more challenging in college, though, because, you know, college, it’s like a 12 to 15 week semester. You’re seeing them 1 to 2 times a week. You know, there’s a lot fewer contact hours between the teacher and the student. And so you really do have to pick your battles very carefully. There’s a reason why all the examples of giving are in high school, I think. Yeah. You know, and so I think that’s that’s that’s one of the tricky things. But, you know, just like when you have a deadline, you have to just sit down and crank the work out. You know, that’s another thing from writing, knowing what the job is, I think. Allows you to figure out where you do have room to play or be creative.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yeah, I agree completely. But you know, Isaac, the weird thing here is that you are currently a teacher, but you haven’t been talking about your own practice. So what gives?

S2: Well, part of it is that I feel like I don’t have great answers to all these questions from my own practice all the time. You know, I’m still figuring that out. I’m still working that out. I think this is not because I’m bad at teaching, but because it’s actually a lifelong journey to figure this out. You know, we’re not going to crack it in this one podcast episode and it’s not going to figure it out in one year. You know, we’re all going to be working at this. But also I teach a weird class. I teach a class on actually creating work to BFA students, you know, so a lot of my creativity now goes into like, what are the prompts I’m giving them in this class? So it’s like, okay, we have 75 minutes. We’re going to do 30 minutes of discussing the reading. We’re going to do 45 or the movie they watch or whatever it is. We’ll do 45 minutes in which they are just going to make something right. And so I have to divide them into groups. I have to give them something that they can work on for 30 minutes and then present for 15. Okay, so what is that going to be? That’s where the creativity is really going right now. The other place of my creativity is going right now after a couple of years of the pandemic, is like just figuring out how to culture students, to being in college again. Because all of my students missed the years of high school that prepare you for college. And I don’t have time to teach them how to be students, you know? So it’s like, what do I do about attendance? Attendance is really spotty. I have to create two lesson plans. One, if most of the class shows up and one of a minority of the class shows up, you know, or whatever it is, you know, how do I talk to individual students to engage them, to make sure they’re like really there and that everything’s okay with them and that they feel like they can trust me? You know, a lot of it goes into that performance. How do I get them to stop using their phones, even though I say every day at the start of class phones are not allowed in here? You know, these are all sorts of kinds of problems, but they’re also creative problems, I think.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yeah, no, they absolutely are. And you know, what you’ve just said, which is fascinating, is just also a reminder that we can’t be too like set in our ways. And that means be creative. You know, a few years ago, you wouldn’t have had to model for students how to socialize. They would have been much more used to that by having had, you know, the last two years of high school or whatever that situation was, they haven’t had that. And so for you and, you know, the other people who are teaching right now, it’s a different challenge. And I just think that is very important to keep in mind with all of these creative tasks.

S2: That’s definitely true. You know, which brings me to another question I have about this, which is what do we do when we’re creatively stuck? You know, like like we’ve developed all sorts of things to do and we’re creatively stuck. And every time we have a guest on here, I try to ask them, What do you do when you’re creatively stuck? And it reminds me that, you know, my pedagogical training was like one semester of pedagogy and graduate school and everything after that has been imitating teachers who I thought were good and then trying to see what other techniques that I could get. But like those teachers are my high school teachers. My college students are not my current teachers and peers. So yeah, when you’re stuck with writing, you would often maybe you’ll go take a book out of your bookshelf that you really love and read a chapter of it to see what that writer did. I mean, should you as a teacher be like auditing your friends classes to see what they do and then borrowing from them? Like, are those parts of the creative habit useful for teaching?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: You know, I am not sure that that’s practical. You know, I think of I learned to be an editor by being edited. So maybe the the equivalent for that is you learn to be a teacher by being taught and you just hope and also, you know, by the pedagogical methods and approaches and learning to be a teacher, which I never did, but most teachers do. And I have another suggestion, which is half in jest and half serious, which is to maybe watch some of the classic movies set in the classroom. Though when I think about the ones that first bring into my mind, most of them are portrayals of terrible teachers, and they’re modeling things that teachers shouldn’t under any circumstances do. I’m thinking of all of the terrible teachers, and actually there’s one good teacher in Keres, one of my favorite movies from 1969. The rest of.

S2: Model yourself off the teachers and if.

S1: Exactly and the rest of my favorite school and classroom movies. The Prime of Misty Brody, the St Trinian’s films, the originals, not the Modern Aberrations. They’re packed with awful, hopeless teachers. But sometimes, you know, seeing somebody do something the wrong way can help you figure out a right way to do it. Are there any positive or even maybe inspirational movie portrayals of teachers out there?

S2: Oh, boy. The problem I find with inspirational teacher movies is that they are often what’s inspirational about them is actually the the star who’s playing them personal charisma and their actual pedagogical methods are garbage. So, yes, the prime example of this is, of course, Dead Poets Society, where Robin Williams, his character, is actually a terrible teacher who’s not teaching them anything. He’s meddling in the personal lives of his students. He has this weird, you know, psychic damage about being a little lamb of the school. You know, he’s really in some ways kind of a monster. But because he’s played by Robin Williams role, like, oh my God, he’s such an amazing teacher. So, you know, I think there are some risks there. I do also think, though, you know, there’s a lot of really interesting documentaries that, you know, find their way into the classroom or what like one that I watched this year that you can rent on various platforms is called Can You Bring It Bill T Jones and D-man in the Waters. And there’s many, many different things going on. But one of the threads of the documentary is a former member of Bill T Jones’s company, attempting to teach current college sophomores the dance D-man in the Waters, which was Bill T Jones’s response to the AIDS crisis and trying to figure out how to get them to understand what that crisis was like during that period, you know, and how to get into it. And I found that really affecting and fascinating and made me think about teaching and in a lot of different ways, honestly. So my feeling would be get away from the fiction and yes, maybe go see some documentaries.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yeah. I’m persuaded. All right. Well, that’s our episode of working overtime for this fortnight. If you like the show, don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have ideas for things we could do better or questions you’d like us to address, we’d love to hear from you. You can send us an email at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at 3049334.

S2: If you’d like to support what we do, please sign up for Slate Plus at Slate.com. Working plus, you’ll get bonus content, including exclusive episodes of slow burn and big mood, little mood and little extra tidbits from working every week. And you’ll be supporting what we do right here on this very show that you are listening to right now.

S1: Big thanks to producer Kevin Bendis and to our series producer Cameron Drewes. We’ll be back on Sunday with a brand new episode of Working. And in two weeks we’ll have another working overtime. Until then, get back to work.