On Creativity

The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas, but were paid to be teachers or patent clerks or petty officials, or were not paid at all. The great ideas came as side issues.–Isaac Asimov

Late last year, MIT Technology Review published a recently discovered essay by famed science fiction writer and professor Isaac Asimov about the creative process. The essay was found in a file owned by one of Asimov’s friends and was written in 1959. In that year, Asimov had briefly joined a research team at MIT investigating new approaches for a ballistic missile defense system. Asimov decided to leave the group soon after joining, but wrote an essay about creativity as his one contribution. It languished in a file for over fifty years. “How do people get new ideas?” the legendary author wondered in his opening sentence. He then went on to describe the creative process and the kinds of environments that promote creativity. After reading Asimov’s essay, I can’t help but wonder how his ideas can inform how we teach and inspire our students.

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it…The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display. –Isaac Asimov

Do we give students time to think and work out problems? For Asimov, he advocated working initially in isolation. In fact, history is rife with examples of the isolated genius–Alan Turing running, Darwin in his cabin on the Beagle–where someone alone thinks of something great. In an age where time is at a premium, do we allow students to take a deep breath and think?

No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon…It seems to me then that the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts. –Isaac Asimov

For Asimov, the initial isolation phase was followed by what he called a “cerebration session,” what we would today call a brainstorming session, or group work. Asimov felt this was an integral part of the creative process but also one that can create problems. Group members need to have roles or run the risk of feeling marginalized by unhealthy competition. He advocated for what he called a “session-arbiter” to lead discussion. “In the same way, a session-arbiter will have to sit there, stirring up the animals, asking the shrewd question, making the necessary comment, bringing them gently back to the point,” Asimov writes. “Since the arbiter will not know which question is shrewd, which comment necessary, and what the point is, his will not be an easy job.” Asimov also advocated for group size to be about five individuals. When students are assigned to work in groups, do we create roles for students? Do we allow students to choose their own groups? Do we create stakes that are too high, creating an environment where inquiry is replaced by a focus only on task completion? For a group to function well, according to Asimov, “there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness.”

Of course, no assignment we give students is ever perfect. Sometimes we’ll need to create groups for students and sometimes we’ll let them create groups. However, I think the lessons of Asimov are important if we want to encourage creative thinking in students. Independent thinking followed by group discussion can help the creative process. Perhaps having students think before they begin a task might help spur creativity. Establishing group roles and norms might help build equity between group members. And there is the issue of time. Students need time to think. A group of motivated students with time to explore can create the unthinkable.

A few years ago, with some teacher colleagues, I carved out time during the year for students to create and explore any topic they wanted during a genius hour freshman capstone project based on Google’s 20% time philosophy (you can read more about this project in NASSP). Student projects could be about anything; however, they had to deal on some level with biology, English, computer applications, and history. Every year, we started the project by giving students class time to think–alone. Then like-minded students got together and worked out their ideas. Students who wanted to work independently were permitted to do so. One small group decided to look at the comics of Rube Goldberg, famous for creating intricate contraptions to complete some of life’s easiest tasks. My freshman students got creative and decided to build their own Rube Goldberg machine. You can see the results below. They nailed creativity. I wish every project I had students complete turned out like this.

Something For Your Teaching Toolbox

Just a quick post to share a formative assessment strategy from one of the greats. This is from Carol Jago’s fantastic book With Rigor For All and is one of the more interesting ways9780325042107 I’ve come across to assess student understanding of reading. Since it’s now almost March, it’s also that time of the year when a new teaching strategy can energize you and your classroom. So, here’s a quick one for your teaching toolbox.

In With Rigor for All, Jago describes a method she has used to check for reading comprehension without resorting to a conventional multiple choice quiz. She starts class by telling students to “close their eyes and visualize the most powerful image they remember from last night’s reading” (58). Then she has students fold a piece of paper into four squares and quickly complete a four-step process to describe the scene.

  • In the first box, students draw a picture of a powerful image from what they read;
  • In the second box, students put their picture into words;
  • In the third box, students imagine they are professors of literature and write a brief lecture to a college class describing the scene they drew;
  • In the fourth box, students write a poem describing or responding to the scene they selected.

It’s clear that for students to be able to complete this task, they will have had to read the text. More importantly, questions like the four Jago used with her students will give a teacher a more complete picture of student understanding than they would have acquired from a standard quiz. A teacher will be able to see what scenes resonated with students and how they are responding to the action in the story. Teachers can then adjust instruction based on this robust student feedback. An activity like this might also get students to engage a little more closely with a text since they are the ones determining what is important in the story, not the teacher. Indeed, for Jago, this kind of assessment empowers students with choice. “Students,” Jago writes, “explored a scene from the level that they–rather than I–found powerful” (59). Choice, creativity, artistic interpretation, analysis, informational writing, poetry–all in one simple formative assessment.



Jago, Carol. With Rigor for All: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2011. Print.

More from our iPad Pilot Program

This post is by Bree Valvano


Skitch and ThingLink

As I continued to explore ways to utilize my classroom iPads, I came across two apps that I believe will help make the classroom experience more interactive and fun for my students. After viewing a professional development webinar on using iPads, I learned about Skitch and ThingLink. Both of these apps allow users to pull images from their saved photos and make them interactive.

Skitch allows the user to annotate images. Users are able to upload an image and add text,Skitch Image and Link arrows, stamps, and other annotations. The app could be used to annotate a passage from a novel with students in the English classroom, identify the different parts of a model plant cell in a science classroom, label a map in a history classroom, or record the steps of an equation in a math classroom. The app is easy to use and takes models and annotations to the next level. When users finish adding their notes to the image, they are able to share it via social media or email. While I believe this is a valuable tool, the next app, ThingLink, is just as cool.
ThingLink allows users to take a photo and add videos. Similar to Skitch, users can upload
an image. However, ThingLink allows users to add video content to the image. Users could use the iPad to record a video explanation to add to the picture. They could upload a prerecorded video, or they could search for a video on YouTube to upload to the image. After adding one or more videos, users can share their creation with others.
What is ThingLink?
While I think teachers could use these tools to create engaging content for their students, I envision students using both apps together when completing a project. For example, when
studying a poem from the Harlem Renaissance, students could start by taking a screenshot of the poem. Next, they could annotate the text in Skitch, making notes and identifying rhetorical devices. After they save the image,  students could upload the annotated poem to Thinglink and add videos about the author, time period, and/or theme. Finally, the students could share their presentations with the class and/or upload it to Blackboard or other social media sites to share with others. The same process could be used in different disciplines when researching or studying a scientific process, a historical event, or a variety of other topics. I am pretty excited to try these new tools out in the classroom, and I hope others try out these new tools too.

Bree is an English teacher at Randolph High School

#innovateNJ Twitter Chat Recap

innovateNJ logoDid you miss our #innovateNJ Twitter chat on Wednesday? Here is a recap of the chat in about thirty tweets. For more information about innovateNJ, here is the January newsletter. The community will be meeting at Rider University for the winter convening on January 24th. The application to join the community is open until February 18th and can be accessed here.

Topic: What does an innovative leader look like?

Continue reading #innovateNJ Twitter Chat Recap

3 Alternatives To PowerPoint


Bored of PowerPoint? Consider trying something new in your classes with these three presentation tools you might not be familiar with:


Emaze calls itself “the next generation of online presentation software.” Students can select from different templates to create visually stunning presentations. Presentations are made using proprietary HTML5  software that runs seamlessly on any browser. Emaze is an impressive tool that can help students focus on visuals and the audience instead of text.

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 1.00.37 PMPros: Free, very impressive 3-D-like templates, easy-to-use, cloud-based, fluid transitions between slides, easy to incorporate graphics and other media

Cons: Limited number of templates, might not be best for displaying a great deal of data, not optimized for tablets (yet)

Here’s a link to how Emaze works.


Haiku Deck helps users create “presentations that inspire” by limiting text, simplifying a message, and incorporating  images that add depth. It is a wonderful product that is easily shared online and lends itself to visually stunning presentation. It’s as if the coolest graphic designer around created a presentation tool just for you.

Pros: Free, many stock images to use, can upload images and screenshots from desktop, can be used on tablets, perhaps the best graphics and fonts on the web, public notes can be added to slides to help give them context, easy to share online, creates beautiful presentations

Cons: A bit of a learning curve to master software, no videos can be embedded into a presentation

Here’s a link to how Haiku Deck works on a desktop; here’s a link to how it works on an iPad.


Prezi is not necessarily a new presentation tool (it’s been around since 2009) but it’s one of my favorites. It’s easy to use, cloud-based and great for including multimedia. Presentations created with Prezi might not be as stunning as ones created with Emaze or Haiku Deck but they can be just as fun and effective. It’s a great product to use with groups since students can edit presentations at the same time and from different computers. Prezi is like an old, reliable friend–one that can still help you create fantastic presentations.

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 1.47.35 PM

Pros: Can be modified by different users at the same time, easy to incorporate video files, can accommodate substantial text, fun to use, can be used on an iPad, incorporates motion into a presentation (see cons), will auto-sync your presentations across devices

Cons: A bit of a learning curve to master software, limited space unless upgrading to the paid version (I pay $59 a year for more space and the ability to keep presentations private), too much motion can leave viewers with motion sickness

Here’s a link to how Prezi works.

All three of these tools can be mastered by students quickly and will encourage less text and more audience interaction during a presentation. During a future lesson, consider training17having students choose one of these three tools and create a presentation using them. As students move into college and the workforce, they will likely have to give many presentations. These three platforms can help students develop important presentation skills while also helping them avoid some of the traditional bad presentation habits that can form when using only PowerPoint and Keynote.

Everything You Need For SOLE

The idea of SOLE, or a Self-Organized Learning Environment, began as the brainchild of Sugata Mitra, a professor from Newcastle University in England. In 2013, Mitra was the first-ever recipient of the $1 million TED prize for his ideas about how to improve education. Mitra is a proponent of student-centered learning and his SOLE model was developed as a way for teachers and schools to better understand and implement his philosophy. While SOLE lessons are traditionally geared toward younger students, teachers at our high school have found tremendous value when incorporating them into their daily lessons at times during the school year. Here is a movie I made about how teachers at our school have embraced the concept of SOLE, what they have learned from implementing these lessons, and why they think SOLE lessons work.

Click here for the SOLE Toolkit for everything you need to get started developing your own Self-Organized Learning Environment at your school.

Click here for information from Mitra’s School in the Cloud and here to register to join the SOLE community.

Here is Mitra’s 2013 TED Talk that inspired schools throughout the world to go SOLE.

The Essentialness of Essential Questions

question-diceIt is clear to me that classes function better when learning goals are framed around essential questions and are continually referred to by a teacher throughout a unit of study. This is not a hypocritical post. I readily admit I did not do this enough when I taught. Now that I get the chance to observe many classes a year, I have come to the conclusion that classes often run smoother, have more engaged learners, and are more relevant to students when learning goals and essential questions are tied to each other and are present during lessons. I find that even the simple act of writing these down on a room’s blackboard can help focus instruction and the students in class.

It is one thing to list what students will learn or accomplish during a unit of study (this will still help!). It is another, more powerful idea, to tie these to essential questions. An essential question is a big idea-type question. Essential questions cannot be answered with yes or no and their answers cannot be right or wrong. They can lead to debate and will hopefully spark further inquiry in students.

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 1.45.54 PM
Grant Wiggins from Big Ideas, An Authentic Education e-journal

In the many classrooms I get to visit, I find that essential questions can help frame a unit of study by giving students an indication about why the information they are receiving is important. As a teacher, think about using essential questions this way: To answer these imagesquestions you will need to learn _____? This exercise can help focus instruction and demonstrate to students why the information they are pursuing is relevant. To further guide students, it is vital that both the lesson’s objectives and essential questions be made available to them. It sounds like a simple thing, but it can make a HUGE difference in a classroom. If I went back in time, the first change I would make as an instructor is to do this on a more regular basis.

If you are daring, try delivering essential questions and learning goals in a variety of formats. Sure, writing them down on a chalkboard will work, but how about including them on handouts, quizzes, or correspondence with students? How about making an iMovie trailer about them? Here is one I put together that includes two essential questions from our district’s world history curriculum to introduce a  unit on the Renaissance:

Be creative with the questions you ask (many curricula today have essential questions in them) and be creative with how you deliver them to students. Refer to them often as you teach. Have students attempt answers as closure at the end of lessons. Most importantly, do not keep these locked up in a closet with your curriculum. Due to their essentialness, make them available to students every day they are in the classroom.