What 20 Minutes and a Culture of Critical Creativity Can Do

Far from perfect, we have continued to fall forward . . .

In twenty minutes, we went from analysis to synthesis to inventionist, creating constructs from Little Bits that demonstrate how the core line of a poem may relate a theme shared by an entire school of literature.

We’re getting up to crunch time in AP Lit and as happens every year, we are currently experiencing the delightful tension between test prep, content, motivation, engagement and joy.

We have had a remarkable year integrating the principles of design thinking and making into our class. The trend that started a couple of years ago to evolve the project-based learning aspects of the course has taken root as the regular mode of discourse and understanding. We regularly explore creator’s intentions via empathizing with both speaker and writer. We ponder how might we best frame our written analysis, while running rapid ideation sessions to prototype projects. We bias toward action by making representations of our thinking from sketchnotes to sculptures, proving our mettle by justifying each element of our products.

Still, our year has been littered with abandoned challenges and unsuccessful attempts to create in spaces where either the mindsets, the clocks and calendar, my lack of adequate planning or all of the above were stacked against us. There were days when we haven’t been feeling it and when I’ve forced when I should have acquiesced. Far from perfect, we have continued to fall forward, finding ourselves more and more comfortable with the messy and the unknown.

It doesn’t require an entire design challenge or even an whole class period to have the sort of experience described below, if one starts early and often, building up classroom culture where we regularly demonstrate meaning through making. Regular intervals of critical creativity, fusing analytical and evaluative skills with divergent and convergent thinking by way of one’s artistic and craftsman abilities may lead to major impact in a time-poor economy.

Just today, post-explanation of our reading strategy for Heart of Darknessand my seeming non-sequitur — we shall see — paring with Wharton’s “Roman Fever,” as well as the Andrew DeGraff inspired creative blog prompt for the week (create a literary map of one of the works — short or long — we have read this year, a’la DeGraff’s Plotted), and post-on-demand-writing test prep comparing and contrasting Wordsworth and Frost (thank you, 1985 test prompt), we had about 25 minutes to wrap up our work with the Romantics.

. . . the value of experiencing a truth versus the receiving of knowledge . . .

First, I asked them to bust out the poetry with which we’ve been working. Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Lord Byron. Digital, print, the version didn’t matter. Same with Frankenstein.

“What are some of the big ideas, questions, themes with which we know these creators have wrangled?” They spoke and I transcribed, noting their immediate recognition of fate versus freewill, the inevitability of time and fragility of life, the value of experiencing a truth versus the receiving of knowledge.

“Now, what’s the power line from Wordsworth’s ‘Mutability?’ From Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ The line that evokes the whole poem and gets to its core — the line that makes the poem do its work? What is the line that reflects these big ideas we’ve identified?” We worked through the selections quickly — all pieces we’ve wrangled and discussed prior — and stopped short of doing the same with Frankenstein. Seven minutes was all we used.

I broke out the Little Bits electronics, modular tools for tinkering and invention that we’ve used before to demonstrate the power structures ofHamlet. Thirteen minutes.

“When you show me your power quote you are going to use, I will give you a power supply. Then demonstrate the big idea you believe that quote fuels through the Little Bits. Think about inputs and outputs, think about filters and space, about control and fate. Go. Fifteen minutes.”

. . . the idea that the unfiltered, personal experience trumps the lecture or lesson . . .

And so they did, constructing two completely unique constructs, one from Shelley (“Look on my works, Ye Mighty, and despair”) and one from Wordsworth’s “Trust fails not; but her outward forms that bear/the longest date do melt like frosty rime.”). Both involved light, one integrated sound. Both integrated pressure triggers, one used a rocker switch. One expressed the idea that the unfiltered, personal experience trumps the lecture or lesson. The other championed the transformative nature of truth over time.

Both stemmed from a deeper understanding of the literature than a surface read affords, recognizing systems of thought across an entire school of work.

And both made us laugh and shout and high five and fist pump with just enough time to debrief during the afternoon announcements.

Twenty minutes. We can do this.

Dan Ryder is an educator, improviser and design thinker from the foothills of western Maine who spends every day trying to make the world a little more interesting than he found it. A moderator of #dtk12chat and #edchatme, follow him @wickeddecent on Twitter, Instagram, and Medium. Keep tabs on his efforts to walk the talk on his classroom blog at flight307.blogspot.com and with his co-conspirators Jeff Bailey and Matt Drewette-Card at Wicked Decent Learning.

About Dan Ryder

Dan Ryder & Jeff Bailey, co-founders of Wicked Decent Learning, a blog, podcast, Twitter feed and who-knows-what-all-else devoted to teaching and learning in Vacationland and beyond. Teachers, dads, actors, writers, geeks, buds.

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