Creativity is not about Paintbrushes and Poems

I was going through our school library magazines this morning and came across a stack of them that the librarian was putting away. I saw a magazine, Scholastic Instructor the 2011 Holiday edition, and it in there is an article called Challenge your Top Students: 10 ways to meet the needs of your advanced learners-and help the rest of your class, too. by Joan Franklin Smutny. In this article are ten very good ideas to help challenge your gifted students in the regular classroom.

Her list is as follows:

  • Allow Choice

  • integrate Technology

  • Let Kids Work Together

  • Accommodate Pace

  • Determine Prior Knowledge

  • Encourage Goal Setting

  • Teach Creatively

  • Independent Learning Projects

  • Follow their Interests

  • Encourage Self Assessment

Joan does a great job going into details on what regular education teachers can do to help gifted students. I want to focus and expand a little bit on what she discusses on teaching creatively. Joan begins to say that to teach creatively you need to focus on 6 general principles:

Explore: Point out the hidden, less traveled paths and warn against set patterns.

Create: Assign work that requires creative and imaginative thinking.

Envision: Nurture boldness in vision and endeavor.

Support: Support students’ trust in their creative powers

Improve: Give them opportunities to correct errors, refine visions, improve and elaborate.

Exhibit: Find venues for students to show, demonstrate, perform or exhibit.

Creativity has two sides.

One side of the coin is students. Many students look at creativity as something artists, musicians, and writers have. I borrowed her subtitle of this section from her article for my title, because it really goes with what I tell my students. There is no limit to creativity. So you are not an artist. Its alright. You have creativity in the form of creating an app or program on the computer, or your Mindcraft city is so elaborate that you make it look like something off of Google Maps.

On the other side of that coin, is the teacher. We need to look at “outside of the box thinking” when it comes to advanced learners. Teachers, and I include myself, need to stop worrying about how much work it takes to create something that a small group of students would work on and focus on the fact that we are there for the students.

We need to take our own creativity and focus it to challenge students. We need to look at our curriculum differently. We should see the State Standards as the minimum requirements, and work up. The State Standards are the foundation of what we do, and our creativity are the bricks we use to build our fort of fun.

For regular education teachers the easiest thing to do is to create extension projects for advanced learners. The last thing these students need is just more busy work since they get done early. That will kill their creativity, and their love of learning. Give them a project based on your subject, but give them the choice of where to take that project. Don’t do more paper and pencil work. Have them use their imagination. Let them work in small groups to collaborate and create. At that point you move from teacher to facilitator as you support your students creativity.

You may say, as I do, I am not that creative. One aspect of creativity is an attitude. If you think your aren’t creative you are limiting yourself. The other aspect of creativity is to take what is out there, and adjusting it to meet your needs.  Use social media in your classroom. Create accounts on Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and find ideas that you can incorporate into your classroom. Millions of minds together are always better than one alone. Search the internet to find resources and ideas from websites. There are millions of pages out there to help you no matter what grade or subject you teach.

Remember, when you limit your creativity you are limiting your students as well.

What are you doing to foster creativity in your professional life and in the life of your students?


How many Watermelons will fill a Volkswagen?

Do you know how many watermelons it would take to fill a Volkswagen? How would you figure that out? What challenges would your students have to figure that out? How creative would your students need to be to figure that out? My students would ask why would you want to know.

While I was at Edcamp over the weekend, I participated in a session where the topic was “how do we get students to change their mindsets to take on challenges”,  and this was a very informative session. There were so many different types of teachers (high school, middle school, elementary) and each had their own view of what to do with their students when it came to challenges, and how to change their mindset to see challenges at positives not something that is a negative.

Many teachers discussed how their students face challenges. Somtimes its all about motivation when it comes to students and facing challenges. Most have students, like mine at times, who shut down when the challenges seemed to be too difficult. Most of the discussion centered on how teachers can be creative in ways they present challenges to students. Sometimes you just have to hide those challenges in a way that is presented in a fun way. Challenges has to have a real world skill application like those posed in project based learning projects. When students see some cross over from school to real life the lessons they learn from those challenges will more likely stick with them. The challenges that teachers face is creating those challenges to fit standards, and yet stretch our students to grow intellectually, and give them real life lessons.


Another session I went to that really stuck with me was “how to be creative in the world of restrictive education.” This one was very interesting to me for the fact that our school lives have aspects of things we can control and not control. We made a list of all of the things that keep us from being creative. Many we have control over; many we don’t.  (You can zoom in on the picture above to see the list.)

This conversation was very informative for me just because I found that I am not the only one who struggles to understand creativity. We had a debate about  creativity being something your are born with, or being born with the ability to be creative. We looked at creativity on the teacher side,and the student side. Some quoted from Carol Dweck’s book Mind set, which I haven’t read yet, but on Amazon, here is the book synopsis:

World-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, in decades of research on achievement and success, has discovered a truly groundbreaking idea–the power of our mindset.

Dweck explains why it’s not just our abilities and talent that bring us success–but whether we approach them with a fixed or growth mindset. She makes clear why praising intelligence and ability doesn’t foster self-esteem and lead to accomplishment, but may actually jeopardize success. With the right mindset, we can motivate our kids and help them to raise their grades, as well as reach our own goals–personal and professional. Dweck reveals what all great parents, teachers, CEOs, and athletes already know: how a simple idea about the brain can create a love of learning and a resilience that is the basis of great accomplishment in every area.

(The discussion of talent also created a debate. We talked about how talent and creativity aren’t necessarily the same thing, or exclusive of each other. We had to develop a working definition of not only creativity but also talent.)

We found that as teachers most of what we face everyday in some form can be influenced by us to either be a hinderance or a stepping stone. It’s all about mindset. No matter what you are faced with you will have to chose if it is an obstacle or stepping stone. Once you do that you will find you don’t have too many obstacles that will hinder your creativity.

One aspect we focused on was social media to help with getting over many of the aspects we listed on the white board. Some of the best resources teachers can use is Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook,and Instagram. I know personally and professionally, social media has given me many different ideas and resources to help me create my units for gifted students.

So to sum things up, what is hindering your creativity? What do you have influence on? What are those aspects that you don’t have influence on, but can make as an asset for your creativity? Remember, this kind of thinking isn’t that “sexy” or “edgy” retrospective thing, but it can change how you view things about your creativity, and that will benefit your students.

So go out there and fill that Volkswagen with watermelons.

Hoodies, Headphones, and Axe Spray

I love being a Middle School teacher. I feel like this is the place where I am supposed to be. There are certain things about middle schoolers that make them a special population regardless of their intelligence and ability. This became clear this morning as I was at my morning bus assignment. Every morning I stand out front and I greet the students coming to school as they get off the bus. As I was greeting students some things about them just stood out. I highlighted them in my title.



You can tell a lot by the hoodies that our students wear. Most of the time, they wear hoodies with sports logos, school spirit, brand names, music artists, and images that they really like. Our students here in my school district wear school uniforms. They don’t have a lot of choices. That’s why I really like to see the hoodies they wear to school. It’s easy to see what students like. You get and idea of the music they like, and the brand names they like. Sometimes they wear those things to fit in with their peers. Sometimes they are the trend leaders in our school. I like to see students wear our school spirit wear. It gives me the chance to see what kind of sport they played or are currently playing.


I bet when you walk by a teenager you will find they have some headphones in or on their ears. They are either listening to music, a Vine, or YouTube video they found on Twitter or Facebook. Today’s teens love listening to music or watching videos. Some students can afford the Beats headphones. Some can’t. Some prefer the headphones that came with their phone or iPod. Some like the portable speakers they can carry around. I have found those students like to more vocal about their music than others.

Sometimes, students wear headphones to block out stress, or so they don’t have to socialize with other students. Headphones can be a wall that a teenager sets up for any number of reasons, some may not be school related at all. The next time you see a teenager sitting in the cafeteria alone listening to some music sit down with them and ask them what they are listening to. Break the walls down. You may find that you have somethings in common.

Axe Spray.

If you walk down any hall of any middle school right before home room starts and you hear that familiar sound of spray coming from aerosol can. Then you can smell the Axe in the air and you eyes will burn. Middle school boys in particular will wear the famous body spray. Most of the time to is too much. So why do they do it? They are trying to get the attention of girls. They are at that stage in life when they are trying to figure out who they are, and how they relate to girls.

There is so much behind the Axe. Many students are unsure of themselves. Some are just trying to fit in. Some are hiding their insecurities. it not until we get past the cloud of smell that we can see that some of our students need attention just as much as they think they need to smell good. How do we do that? We have to create safe, inviting, and open classrooms where students don’t feel like they have to be someone else to succeed or fit in. As a teacher, I try to greet every student that comes in to my classroom right of the bat so they know I am glad to see them. I have done this for years. It’s the best way to start off class right. It also shows students that you are interested in them. It’s not about what they look like or how they smell. It’s about them as a whole. Once students know that about you students will be more open with you.

So if you are a middle school teacher have fun with your students. Let them know they are valued, and not judged by what they wear and what they listen to. Enjoy it all…even the Axe Spray.

There’s Something that Spoke to Me

This week as I was reading some of the blogs in my Feedly feed, I was struck with three different blogs that spoke to me in different ways: Gone, his Love of Learning is Gone,  Why so many Teachers don’t “get it” about Gifted Education, and What Students Remember Most about their TeachersEach of these blogs has a theme. That over all theme is this: teachers can either be a positive force or a negative force in the life of a child.

Before I continue, I would suggest you read the previously mentioned impressive blog posts. The writers have a great sense about children, and education. After reading these blogs, I came to some of my own conclusions about the relationship between teachers and students. Teachers and parents need to be a PATCH for their children.

Positive. Teachers must be a positive force in our students lives. School should never be a place where are students dread to go. To make it more personal, students shouldn’t dread to come to your classroom. Teachers, including me, need to continue to do create lessons that are engaging and challenging.  Not only should our classroom be a positive place, our demeanor should be as well. Don’t look down on students, or berate them. Lift them up, and help them see their strengths and view their weaknesses as a way to improve not as a negative.

Authentic. Teachers need to be authentic with students. I have mentioned before, I let my students know when I make mistakes, or feel I failed in some way. They need need to see that. Being your self, and letting students know you are real is important. I can remember when I was teaching 3rd grade, and I had a student ask me what I did at night at the school. It cracked me up, but I realized after that comment that I really didn’t talk much about my family life. After that I began to discuss some of my experiences with my children they may relate to.

Trusting. One aspect I have noticed about teachers when I was a regular education teacher, and as I am a current gifted education teacher is some doubt the giftedness of their students. Just because a gifted students doesn’t perform well in your class doesn’t mean that student has to prove their giftedness to you. If your gifted student isn’t performing up to par in your class you need to investigate. Trust their parents and intervention specialists to help you. Not all gifted students excel in all areas. That doesn’t mean they aren’t gifted.

Cheer. We need to support our students in the classroom and out. If our students are in sports go watch. If you students are in a spelling bee, or quiz bowl go see them. Students love to see their teachers at their events. Now I am not saying you have to go to everything. Many of us have our own children who are active in sports and academic activities. But do your best to see your students every now and then. I know first hand, they will love it.

Hew. As parents and teachers our job is hew the best possible student we can. We need to give them the best experiences we can in and out of the classroom. We need to let them experience 21st century experiences like ‘Mystery Skyping’ another class, or participate in a Google Hangout. Parents and teachers need to try to expose our children and students to as many real experiences like field trips and guest speakers as we can. By giving our students real and technological experiences we are shaping their view of the world. We are letting them see the world is bigger than the classroom, and their hometown. To hew a student teachers can’t do it alone. It has to be something that parents and teachers do together.

In conclusion, to be a PATCH you have to be active in your student’s academic life. It isn’t easy. What are going to be a PATCH for your students? How do you see it?

My First Edcamp

On Saturday March 1, 2014 I will be attending my first Edcamp. This Edcamp is in Columbus, Ohio. I have to tell you I am a bit on the excited side. I have never been to an Edcamp. I have tried to go a few times, but I haven’t been able to. So this time, I am really going.  I will post my experiences here when I get back from the Edcamp.

Edcamp Columbus   Just another site


I don’t know what to exactly anticipate with this camp. I have seen some people of twitter talking about their experiences. It all seems to be awesome. From tweets I have read teachers leave the Edcamp excited to get back in to the classroom with some of the new stuff they learned and implement it. I hope it is the same with me.

It also seems that just about every state has one, or more. If you are interested check out the links below.

So,why should you go to an Edcamp? Well, let me tell you why I am going.

  • To network with teachers from my state and from other states
  • To get new ideas for my classroom
  • Its FREE! Its on a Saturday! I don’t have to worry about school
  • To get new ideas on teaching
  • What technologies people are using in their classroom
  • For the experience

If you have a desire to check on out near you, do it. There really isn’t anything you can lose other than a good portion of a Saturday. Maybe I will see you there.


The Struggle is Real

A few weeks ago my 15-year-old son and I were talking about school, and how he was doing in a few of his classes. After telling me his grades, some which weren’t up to par, he looks me straight in the eye and says, “Dad, the struggle is real.” My response was “punishment is real.” Since then his grades have improved. But what he said to me has stuck with me.

One of the most important aspects of being an advocate for children is to realize their struggles are real. We have students in our classrooms who have struggles. Those struggles aren’t always plainly seen. Sometimes their struggles are social, emotional, and sometimes educational. Their struggles could be bordem, lack of motivation due to work that they feel is unworthy to do, or being the class tutor. Some of our gifted students are withering away.

The social and emotional struggles can be based on not fitting in with their peers, or being seen as the “teacher’s pet.” some students here in my school try to hide their giftedness so they have some street credibility. Some students are seen as nerds, geeks, and weak. Sometimes gifted students are used by other students to get answers or help. Once the help is over then they are ignored.

There is a few things that advocates of gifted students need to do. Here is a list, but it doesn’t include everything. I also created a wikispace about being an advocate. Feel free to check it out.

Listen to you students: I have found the more I listen to my students about what they are doing in their regular classroom I can get a clearer picture of what they are learning. Sometimes, they share their frustration with me. When that happens I try to work with the regular education teacher help come up with some activities that my gifted students can do to help with their struggle. Let me tell you, it takes a lot of time to build a working relationship with teachers, but it will make a difference for students.

Give your students time to be creative: One of things I try to do in my classroom is to give choice to my students. I feel it is important to give choice to gifted students. I try to get them to be as creative as they can depending on their strengths and interests. I want my students to have time to work on something they enjoy, and are interested in.

Communicate with parents and teachers: As I stated above, it is important to keep in communication with other teachers. No teacher is an island. To be an advocate for your students you need to work with your gifted students regular teachers to help make lessons and activities for your gifted students. When possible give advise to teachers who need some assistance. When you get word about webinars, conferences, or speakers that regular education teachers would benefit from pass it on to them. The more resources they have, the more of an advocate they can be for your gifted students.

Another important aspect of being an advocate for your students is to keep in contact with parents. Let them know what you are doing with their children. When you get word about webinars, conferences, or speakers that parents would benefit from pass it on to them. If you can’t meet with every parent, use social media to help spread the word about those resources.

Along the lines of using social media, start a Facebook page or a tweetchat for your school or program. This will help to get an active parent / teacher interaction.

There are so many ways to be an advocate. Sometimes they are only appropriate for your situation. Be creative when advocating for your students. How are you advocating for your students? How are you trying to help their struggle?


Infusing Project Based Learning into the Gifted Classroom

This is an article I wrote for the OAGC Review. It was published in the Spring 2013 edition 

Being a Gifted Intervention Specialist for the past 8 years in an urban school district, I have found that my students are looking for real life experiences that can be translated into experiences outside of the classroom. I feel that our students need to be taught the skills to handle experiences outside of the classroom. I believe that we as GIS, need to focus on four overarching skills (you may tweak them based on your students), and technology skills. These skills will help students to be successful in a Project Based Learning classroom.

Before we can begin to discuss how to infuse Project Based Learning into the classroom, we first need to discuss what it is. According to  Project Based Learning (PBL) is “a dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore real world problems and challenges. With this type of active and engaged learning,  students are inspired to obtain a deeper knowledge of subjects they’re studying.” Every teacher should want this from their students.There is a difference from doing projects and PBL. The major difference is that when you do PBL you are teaching through a project, not so much teaching to do a project. You are developing skills while working in PBL.

Why would PBL be good for Gifted Education? There are several reasons. One such reason is the obvious, it is engaging and goes in depth. The addition of the complexity it adds to the depth of study is one of my favorite aspects of PBL. For example, if your student’s project requires them to do research you may have to teach them how to collect data, organize data, and how to use that data in a way that makes sense.

PBL also adds choices for students. Students can take a variety of ways to answer the overall driving question of the unit.

Another reason PBL is important to Gifted Education is the fact it makes the student accountable for their learning and teaches them organization. I feel these go together, because keeping a journal, portfolio, or using a plain old manilla folder to hold all of your work is important. It saves time and keeps students from re-doing unnecessary work.

Finally, PBL incorporates real world skills into the classroom. By doing some of the same type of collaboration, study, and testing that professionals do in their field in the classroom makes PBL come to life for students.

On the other side of that engaging and in depth learning comes the need to know and use technology. In our day and age we are surrounded by technology that keeps improving every day. So we need to not only teach our students how to use technology we need to teach them how to use them in the context of learning. I feel there are four major skills that we need to impart in our gifted children. They are organization skills, collaboration skills, interpersonal skills, and divergent and convergent thinking skills. We know many of the characteristics of gifted children. One of them is the fact that so many are unorganized. Many find it mundane, and not needed. But in the real world, organization skills can help you get a job done faster and more efficient.  Teachers along with myself, need to show students the importance of good record keeping, labeling data, and organizing all of this into a portfolio of some sort so they can get to what they need at any time.

Collaboration skills and interpersonal skills are connected. Gifted students need to know how to collaborate in a group. They need to know they don’t have all of the good ideas, but by listening to the ideas of others, and collaborating with each other they can all come up with several good ideas. Those interpersonal skills are so important. Gifted students have to know when they can take control of a collaboration session, and when not to. We need to show them not to sit back and listen too much and not contribute to a session, because they don’t like the trajectory of the conversation. They need to know that everyone may have an idea, some just need more revision than others. As a side note, if they fail, the group as a whole fails. Many gifted students fall apart when they fail. They take that failure as they did something wrong. Sometimes by going back to a point and seeing where the failure stemmed from and being able to fix it can be a success. They need to be shown that.

Finally, divergent and convergent thinking skills are important for the fact that many gifted students can do these well by themselves, but demonstrating that for a group or in a group can be a bit difficult. Which is why all the other skills mentioned above, I believe, are so important. To me they build on each other. Divergent thinking is defined as “out-of-the-box thinking; thinking that moves away in diverging directions so as to involve a variety of aspects and which sometimes lead to novel ideas and solutions; associated with creativity” according to Wordnet. Also, convergent thinking is defined as “thinking that brings together information focussed on solving a problem; especially solving problems that have a single correct solution.” Both of these have to be used to solve problems in the real world. So we need to show our students how to use these skills effectively.  By being able to use these skills gifted students can investigate a topic in depth.

Continuing on the technology side of things. Teachers need to give our students skills they need to be successful in today’s society and in tomorrow’s world. One of those skills needed in a PBL classroom is research skills. We all use Google, but do your students do it effectively? Teach your students how to use the advanced search option. This will help to keep down the unusable websites.

Another aspect of technology that students need to master is using the cloud. Cloud services like Dropbox or Google Drive are great examples.  These services are free and they are easy to use.

Students should be taught how to collaborate using wikis, Google Docs, Twitter,  Facebook,  Skype,  or Google Hangouts.  All of these allow for interaction between students in and outside of the classroom.  Gifted students need to know that learning isn’t confined to a classroom. It can be anywhere.

Finally, we need to teach our gifted students to communicate.  In our society,  communication is important. In a PBL classroom students use real audiences. They should be encouraged to blog, create YouTube videos, or podcasts using Voicethread or Soundcloud.  Interaction with a real audience is important.  It gives real feedback. That’s where real learning is experienced.

In conclusion,  if we are expecting our gifted students to lead and succeed in the 21st century then we need to give them real life, engaging and diverse experiences along with the skills needed. There needs to be some choice in their learning. Gifted students need to be given the opportunity to see there is more than one solution, and more than one way to get an answer for a project. That’s the gift of Project Based Learning.





Project Based Learning for Gifted Students: A Handbook for the 21st century classroom by Todd Stanley