4 Ways to Foster Middle School Students’ Creativity

“Middle school can be a confusing and brutal time — it was for me, at least,” recalls Melissa Smith, a teaching artist with Arts for All in New York. “While you’re still a kid, your workload is increasing, you have to start thinking about your future, and to top it all off your body is changing! Woof!”

Having the right outlets can make all the difference during this overwhelming time. “Creative activities help middle schoolers explore their psyches and the deeper parts of themselves in a way rigid academia does not,” Smith says.

How can teachers foster their middle school students’ creativity? Start by supplementing your existing classroom supplies with arts supplies and projects, then:

1. Give Up Some Control: “The biggest issue teachers have is that they step in too early in the brainstorming session of an assignment or project and thwart a student's ability to create and develop their own ideas without teacher feedback,” says Yolanda Gonzales, middle school global history and social studies teacher at Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, MA. “Provide students the space to brainstorm ideas and create their own vision.” Make a Web page, or a Wall of Fame in your classroom or the hallway, to showcase students’ creative work.

2. Create Opportunities for Collaboration: Group-think isn’t always bad. Build opportunities for group work into your lessons to encourage student collaboration for solving problems or considering different points of view. “At this age, the students are incredibly focused on their social environment, and when given an appropriate social outlet and clear expectations, their creative abilities never cease to amaze me,” says Mindy Stephenson, a seventh-grade teacher at St. Mark's Episcopal School in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Be sure to have the teams record and report their work.

3. Use Technology to Create: “When used properly, technology can provide kids with access to tools that allow them to use their creative minds,” Gonzales says. “Tools that encourage writing — blogging, digital storytelling, brainstorming, mind-mapping — provide students with another way in which to express themselves creatively and expose others to their work.” She likes Spiderscribe, an online mapping/brainstorming tool that helps students visualize their understanding of material. Deploy tablets, digital cameras and other devices to give kids more technology-based outlets for expression.

4. Support Student Expression: “Students need opportunities to express themselves in as many ways as possible — such as academic achievement, arts and athletics — to help them integrate and diffuse the tension that accompanies this transitional period in their lives,” explains Maryland-based teaching artist Suzanne Fierston. Counsel students struggling with expression and creativity to explore the Web and the library for artists and other creative people whose works resonate with them. This helps kids feel like they’re not alone, and inspires them to express themselves in constructive ways.

Nurturing middle school students’ creativity is crucial to helping them deal with the multiple challenges of adolescence. “Creative activities nurture the parts of the brain that kids have to keep in check all day at school,” says teaching artist Franklyn Strachan. “Their creative side teaches them who they are without supervision or class rules. I see kids’ real selves when they are creating. In middle school, anything that reinforces a student's true self is valuable. Children who are encouraged to dream big will seek out a path for themselves grander than children who get little encouragement. If you don't know you can, you will never try.”

Margot Carmichael Lester is owner of The Word Factory in Carrboro, NC. The granddaughter of schoolteachers, she’s a frequent guest instructor, leading K–12 workshops on persuasive, opinion and argumentative writing. She’s a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Find her on Google+.

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