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A school that fosters creativity creatively

Editor’s note: This article was submitted by Traci Buckner, instructional leader (principal) at the National Inventors Hall of Fame School in Akron, Ohio. She spoke at this week’s “What Matters and What Works”  breakfast.

Being “creative” is no longer reserved only for art or English class.  Times have changed, and many states and school districts are now faced with fiscal challenges and high stakes testing mandates that require creative solutions. It is now imperative that creativity and education become one – beyond art class.

The “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching is a concept of the past.  Just as our own health and wellness thrive on specific prescriptions from the doctor, so too does the academic health of our children.  Such prescriptions require innovative thinking and collaboration.

The old saying “there is strength in numbers” rings true not only in war, but also in the fight for the education of our children.  Vast partnerships, ones in which the relationships benefit all entities involved, are the ones that make a difference. In many places around the nation, schools and businesses focus on their own agenda day-to-day.  In my position as Instructional Leader of a school in which the vision is to promote creative and inventive thinking, collaboration has been at the core of our creative approach to education. In other words, creativity thrives in our school because it is rooted in a rich collaborative community.

As a school that has received a designation of “Excellent” from the Ohio Department of Education since its opening, NIHF STEM School is deliberate and disciplined in implementing its educational strategy. Our approach to learning is creative in its design:  We do not allow time and space to limit our learning goals.  To illustrate, I will describe the element of our program that stimulates and drives our creativity: our Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).

PLCs: Creativity and collaboration in action

NIHF STEM staff meet bi-weekly in PLCs to work on deepening our content knowledge and to learn from each other through this process.  PLCs are teams of educators who are organized into working groups in which they share best practices and set measurable goals to attain student success. Teachers, who are addressed by all as “learning coaches,” are relieved of direct instructional duties during this time.

As coaches are building their instructional expertise and developing their craft, students (whom we call learners) are not sitting in a classroom with a substitute, completing word search puzzles. Oh, no!  When I say our approach is creative in its design, I mean we have built innovative skill-building experiences into every element of our curricular program – for both coaches and learners.  On our PLC days, learners rotate through multiple theme-based instructional sessions. Here are the highlights of a PLC day for one of our learners.

7:30 a.m.: Arrive for breakfast carrying materials for the day, including a school-issued HP tablet PC.  We are a 1:1 laptop school.

8 a.m.:  Begin morning meeting in which all learners and coaches meet to celebrate student and staff success stories publicly and to get pumped up for the day.

During this time, we recap learning experiences from the previous day, honor learners from each grade level who have been recognized by their learning coaches for exhibiting one of our Core Values for the month, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance and the NIHFS Learner’s Pledge:

‘I pledge to do my very best, whether work in class or on a test. Today is new and I’ll find a way to learn more than the prior day. It’s good to try, this is how I grow. Teach me coach, I want to know!’

8:10 a.m.:  Move into advisory groups, which are located in classrooms.

Each learning coach advocates for their students’ social and academic success by engaging approximately 15 learners in activities to strengthen organizational skills and commitment to service learning.

10 a.m.:  Attend content-area class or a “special” class such as Digital Literacy.  Here, the learners engage in the following 21st century skills, which are aligned with academic standards:

  • Information literacy
  • Research
  • Creativity through visual art

This session culminates with learners applying what they have learned by creating a final product that includes one or more of the following technology elements: a downloaded image within a document, a multimedia project, or participation in various digital discussions.  An example of a final product can be viewed here:   http://voicethread.com/share/2293605/  (See Voicethread snapshot below)

12:30 PM: Begin afternoon instructional sessions.

Afternoon sessions are led by University of Akron teacher education candidates. These pre-service teachers are an integral part of our instructional program, as our school serves as a Professional Development School for education students at the University of Akron.

Learners move through 30 minute sessions:

1) Core Career Moment Speaker Series, where a professional from a STEM field addresses the entire grade level about the journey that led them to a STEM career.

2) Junior Achievement session, where students learn about entrepreneurship and financial literacy through experiential, hands-on activities.

3) Classroom learning (university candidates teach lessons they have designed as part of their course requirement)

4)  Mathematics Enrichment and Intervention Aleks Program, which students access online using their laptops. Learning coaches are in their Professional Learning Community location within the building during this timeframe.  They are with learners during the morning.

3:00 PM: Dismissal for those who are catching the bus home or being picked up.

The remaining learners participate in our extensive after school program, a program that offers extended learning opportunities such as Club Invention, Mad Science, Chess, Soapbox Derby, First Tee Golf, STEM Cyber Challenge Team, and academic intervention or enrichment, to name a few.  In one club, the visual art/digital literacy learning coach is working with learners to prepare a project that will be featured at the City of Akron’s New Year’s Eve celebration of the arts.  They are charged to create Quick Response (QR) codes about our city.  QR codes are two-dimensional matrix barcodes which consists of black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background.

Right now, they are beginning to research and collect information about downtown Akron.  When a community member arrives at the project site, they will be able to use their smartphones with QR readers to download interesting information about the city of Akron, such as its architecture and historical sites.

5:30 PM: Last learner departs for home.

New learning for a new day – getting creative

The learning experience my students live each day is unlike any I encountered as a young person.  Not only has teaching and learning changed, but society is very different as well.   Priorities in education have shifted to meet the global demands of our nation.  We understand that stakes are high and we are called to do our part to make the investment in our own futures.

We know the children we teach today will one day be the orthopedic surgeons operating on us, the biomedical engineers designing our knee replacement materials, or the computer scientists conveying the information to our government on whether information they have learned will help keep our nation safe.  We must fill the shortage of college graduates qualified for these and other STEM positions.

National Inventors Hall of Fame School is doing its share by “getting creative” in the classroom.  I invite you to join our efforts and to think of ways you can “get creative” on behalf of schools and children near you.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.