A note from IHE: Enjoy this guest post from Kate McElderry, a teacher at The Odyssey School near Baltimore, MD. Kate holds a Master’s degree focused in Education, Instructional Systems, and Curriculum Design from University of Maryland.

Let’s make occasions like Earth Day more than simply “awareness.” Let’s EMPOWER students with creative problem-solving skills and examples of creativity that model ethics and responsibility to help the planet and humanity.

Just as there are different kinds of intelligence, creativity takes on many forms. We can think of creativity as the big “Eureka!” moments of inspiration and the imagination acted upon. We can associate it with the arts, science, invention and technological advancements. Yet, we can also define creativity as a way of thinking and looking at the world. I would even argue it is like a practice–like meditation or gratitude. Creativity is a way of being and an approach to life. It is my profession; teaching.

Earth Day

In a keynote speech I heard a few years ago, Dr. Howard Gardner made the case for, “grit, wit, and ethics.” He argued that schools should be fostering creativity within the context of ethics. Citing environmental degradation and the Holocaust as examples, he argued that human creativity has often lacked a “moral code” causing great harm to the environment and humanity. As I listened, I felt charged to integrate real world, messy problems into my curriculum more adeptly and with greater effort. Since then, I have tried to generate opportunities for my students to explore difficult problems in a way that does not impose views or overwhelm, and instead empowers them as investigators and creative problem-solvers. To borrow from Zoe Weil, co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education, I want my students to see themselves as “solutionaries” of the future, in which they feel both informed and confident that they can make a positive impact in the world around them.

When Earth Day was approaching, my students helped me install a bulletin board dedicated to celebrating Earth Day and creativity. I wasn’t trying to save paper combining the two ideas—though I am all for that. Why not just Earth Day on its own, however? So often Earth Day involves overwhelming and dispiriting facts. Often it stops at “awareness.” Yet there are so many fantastic examples of conservation, restoration and positivism around the planet that reflect creativity at its best! As a result, I decided to combine the celebration of World Creativity and Innovation Week (dedicated to helping solve world problems) and Earth Day. 

To honor these important events, my students researched companies and organizations that demonstrate ingenuity and change for the good. Specifically they researched the 4oceanorganization, started up by two surfers dismayed by the soup of plastic in the Pacific Ocean. Through their investigations, the children learned that in less than 2 years, 4ocean has removed over 1 million pounds of trash out of the ocean and employs 150 people worldwide. Using recycled materials, 4ocean sells bracelets that help support their cause. With every bracelet purchased, 1 pound of trash is removed from the world’s oceans and coastlines. My students used this example to analyze how creativity has been used in the clean-up process, employment opportunities being generated and the mass movement being created through social media to stop single-use plastic.

earth day

Students also looked at other examples of creative problem-solving. This included looking at what local community members are doing (a grandparent of one of our students has an indoor composting system) as well as what other children around the planet are doing as well. From peaceful protests on climate change, to fabricating eco-bricks from non-recyclable materials, my students discovered great examples of innovation and resourcefulness. Upon discussion, they decided these were examples of creativity.

But why teach about examples of creativity and how to be more creative for Earth day or any day for that matter? Aren’t people–especially kids–naturally creative? The population I teach, dyslexics, are known to be creative after all. Yet creativity like intelligence, is many things. People can benefit from getting better at different kinds of creative skills they are not initially or naturally good at. Furthermore, learning about creativity and how others are creative–individuals and organizations alike–can inspire and motivate! Indeed, we can always learn from others, grow, change and enhance our thinking skills. Dr. Cyndi Burnett, author of My Sandwich is a Spaceship states this beautifully saying,

“Creativity is the highest form of thinking. Creative thinking is a way of seeing the world, a way of solving problems, a way of thriving in an environment that is constantly changing.”

Teaching creativity is to ask students to stretch themselves. It asks them to consider alternate solutions to problems, expand their repertoire and knowledge as well. Inspiration can’t be forced, however. Hence integrating strategies that tap into children’s natural curiosity and support student initiated-learning, collaboration and inquiry are key to paving the way for creativity and meaningful learning in general. I have found some great resources to help my students to accomplish this.

For framing ideas and stimulating inquiry, I have found Dr. Peter Gamwell and Jane Daly’s book, The Wonder Wall very helpful. One of the main ideas in the book is simple but profound; tap into students’ curiosity. Have them find and ask questions about issues they find pressing. Then come up with subsequent questions worthy of exploration while researching a topic; what is climate change? What does it mean to be environmentally and socially responsible? Instead of feeding students the answers, The Wonder Wall helps set students up as inquirers and investigators.

Additionally, I use lessons from Dr. Cyndi Burnett’s work. She is the co-author of Weaving Creativity into Every Strand of Your Curriculumand My Sandwich is a Spaceshipwhich are excellent curriculum guides. These books make a great case for creativity itself–that it should be of utmost priority in 21st century schools. Indeed the world is rapidly changing and students must be prepared for complexity, uncertainty and opportunity. CREATEtubeITY, also developed by Burnett in conjunction with author and illustrator, Barney Saltzberg, is another wonderful resource. I use these quick on-line lessons as 5 minute warm-up exercises for writing prompts in language class. I find that themes like, “Problem-finding,” and “Mindfulness,” serve as great starters for writing and discussion alike.

earth day

The books, The World Becomes What We Teach; Educating a Generation of Solutionaries and Most Good Least Harm; A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life, both by Zoe Weil are also terrific resources. These books help students “chunk” potentially overwhelming problems and in a remarkably positive way with kindness and caring at their core. Weil’s “MoGO” (Most Good Least Harm) guidelines are good for ALL learners, but are particularly helpful to learners who benefit and thrive off of structured scaffolding as my students do. Providing a framework with the teacher, serving as a support, the MoGO outline allows students to bolster their natural creativity with proactivity. The many examples provided of young people doing good for the planet, inspire teachers and students to also take action.

Teaching creative problem-solving is key to empowering our children as they inherit the earth. Yet there are life lessons to be learned from creativity too; ethics and responsibility as Howard Gardner argues as well as the ability to navigate and thrive with uncertainty, challenge and change. Perhaps more broadly, creativity teaches that learning and life itself are a process. It is for this very reason that Earth Day (which should be every day) and creativity go very well together. Indeed to help the planet and live happy, fruitful lives, we must employ creativity in all its best forms.

Resources

Websites:

  • https://4ocean.com/pages/ocean-plastic-recovery.
  • https://humaneeducation.org
  • CreateTUBEity https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=createtubeity&view=detail&mid=8E8149448CA99FCEF7D48E8149448CA99FCEF7D4&FORM=VIRE

Books, articles, lectures:

  • Burnett, Cyndi, and Michaelene Dawson-Globus. My Spaceship is a Sandwich. Buffalo, NY: icscpress, 2015.
  • Burnett, Cyndi and Julia Figliotti. Weaving Creativity into Every Strand of the Curriculum. Buffalo, NY: Knowinnovation Inc., 2015.
  • Gardner, Howard. “Grit, Wit and Ethics,” Learning and the Brain Conference, Boston, MA. November 2016.
  • Gamwell, Peter and Jane Daly. The Wonder Wall; Leading Schools and Organizations in an age of Complexity. Thousand Oaks, CA, Corwin Press, 2017.
  • Time; The Science of Creativity, August 2018.
  • Weil, Zoe. “The World Becomes What We Teach; Educating a Generations of Solutionaries, “Learning and the Brain Conference, Boston, MA. November 2016.
  • Weil, Zoe. The World Becomes What We Teach; Educating a Generation of Solutionaries. New York: Lantern Books, 2016.
  • Weil, Zoe. Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009.

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