By Middle School Language Arts Teacher Patti Donnelly

In a discussion with sixth-graders, creativity is:

"When you imagine things that can help people or can do a task." —Marco

"Expressing yourself through art or through an idea." —Katherine

"Thinking and culture." —Riley K.

"Being able to create something out of nothing." —Riley A.

"Your imagination running wild." —Alex C.

"Divergent thinking." —Alexandra

"The ability to come up with ideas and think of ways to solve problems." —Alex H.

"Arbitrary. A lot of creative ideas I have come in random bursts. After a creative story idea is formed, it needs to be grown with word building and depth, like a seed. Then the bursts come again. I know this because…" —Gracie

Do you know creativity when you see it? Some of the most rewarding moments in my day are revealed when a student takes something that exists, an idea or a curious question and creates something new. That perspective may not show up on a pencil-and-paper test, a timed test, or an assignment in which he or she is momentarily demonstrating proficiency. Personally, I know that for many years, I did not own the fact that I am creative. I recognize that I listen intently, look for patterns, assess needs, use the infinite pieces I see in my bottom-up thinking brain and then put them together in a unique way. However, I learned in time that creativity does not always have to be something completely new in every way. Whatever we create is most often seen differently, or it is brought forth to someone who did not even know they needed it yet.

We have infinite opportunities throughout the school day, both on and off campus, to engage in as well as observe creativity. Our sixth-grade year begins with an adventure to Camp Cheerio. We get to see students approach new and often complex tasks in a challenging but supportive environment. The first person to the top of the Vertical Playpen may not be the first person to finish an assignment in the classroom. Problem-solving is valued and alternative, yes even creative, solutions emerge. Each experience requires communication, a bit of trial-and-error and innovative thinking.

When the process is valued over the final product, there is room for identifying needs, creating empathy, generating ideas and sometimes coming up with something tangible like the electric house project in science or something that can be shared with others like the Journey of Man book project in history. Is this sounding familiar to all of the makers out there? Design theory is currently happening in enrichment classes like STEM, art and movement, as well as in core subjects here at Durham Academy. We even have clubs in which teachers and students learn from each other during the school day. Design thinking — creativity — is happening at all levels at Durham Academy Middle School, from a club working on the new campus design to educators using their ingenuity to create a prototype to solve a problem.

In an ideal classroom experience, curious questions arise from talking, sharing, listening, doing and observing. It is an active scene. There can be high energy and it is seemingly chaotic at times, but master educators actually have clear expectations and a structure to allow the creativity to emerge. Collaboration is the norm. We may experience the process, document on paper and even share it with the world while we expand our digital footprint.

Perhaps someone in the family participated in the Hero Book rite of passage in sixth grade with local artist Peg Gignoux and the sixth-grade team. In language arts, we get to make the entire book — including  painting, collaging and writing the heart of the story. Our sixth-graders illustrate their vision and tribute to their hero using images and words. Some find ways to keep the creation of gratitude a secret until the book is revealed to their hero in person.

Yes, we learn about the parts of the brain and how we learn best, but what does metacognition look like? At the end of the year, we get a glimpse of our sixth-grade brain. If this were a written assignment, would we get the same sense of what matters or how the creative learner sees his or her world?

I am grateful to collaborate every single day with such innovative, resourceful and visionary minds. We are not just consuming knowledge and information but also creating it. As I carry supplies down to the art room to set up our Hero Book project this year, I see yet another spontaneous moment of originality reflected as images of last year’s sixth-graders looking in on what is to come. And there is much more creativity to come!