Writing Outside the Box: Building Students’ Creativity

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students tell me that they don’t know how to be creative. They think creativity is a talent that you are born with or not. While it’s true that some people seem to be better at creativity than others, I really think being creative is more of a skill that can be practiced and honed. And not all our students need to be super creative all the time. However, creative thinking is a great life skill that helps with problem-solving. And in writing, even academic or professional writing, being able to come up with lots of different ideas is important. A creative person can communicate more effectively by being able to vary how the express themselves. What should we be doing to ensure we are building students‘ creativity?

The easiest way to help students be creative is to give them practice. And the best way to come up with good creative ideas is to come up with lots and lots of ideas. Many of those ideas will not be good. Creativity is really a percentage game.

So building students’ creativity is more about getting students to do the work and not putting obstacles in their way. That means doing lots of writing. It also means creating a classroom environment that is low-stress, experimentation-friendly, and failure-tolerant! There’s a time and a place for correcting students and doing more guided work, but generating ideas is not one of them.

Developing creativity also means avoiding prompts that can actually limit or stifle creativity. What characteristics do prompts that may limit creativity have? While every person and what inspires them is different, here are some of the things to look out for.

Limiting Student Creativity

  1. Repetitiveness: Teachers and materials writers (myself included) sometimes forget that students do more than one activity. How many times in a term are they asked their favorite color? Or a book they really like? Or even something like the kinds of things you can do in the summer. A story prompt like this might take the form of “You win a million dollars” or “You become President”. These questions may be fine for other reasons like a fluency practice, eliciting vocab, or practicing a grammar structure. However, the same old prompts can fall flat if you are trying to get students to be creative and come up with new ideas!
    Note that younger learners may not mind this repetition, or may even like it. Most first-graders LOVE to tell you their favorite color, dinosaur, TV show, friend, food, and chair in the house. And their taste tends to change faster too!
  2. Limited Answers A lot of prompts and discussion questions really only have one answer. Take a question like, “Do you think protecting the environment is important?” Who is going to say no? Even something like, “Think of 3 reasons why protecting the environment is important,” is fairly limited.
    Take a minute and think. I’ll bet you said: Save the animals, keep the air and water clean, preserve the planet for future generations. Or a variation on those three points.
  3. Expected Answers: In the same vein, a lot of our prompts have fairly predictable answers. If you do ask a student about saving the environment, and they answer that environmentalism is over-rated, or that the environment should be preserved for economic reasons, do you gently guide students back to the “right” answer? Or do your materials have leading questions that push them in one direction? If you give students a story about a conflict between friends, do you encourage them, intentionally or unintentionally, explicitly or implicitly, to write a happy ending where everyone gets along?
    There is a time and a place for the predictable or expected. We should always allow students to write their true opinion, but it’s hard to be creative if students feel that one outcome is preferred or dispreferred.
  4. Too Open: On the other side, there’s the prompt that is too open or too out there and unpredictable. Some people think that being creative means getting really out there and surreal and random. “Write a story about a pencil eraser and a green squid with a mohawk” might inspire some, but many of us might struggle to put those things together, and come up with a reason why a squid has a mohawk. And it’s interesting that some modern children’s books that feature these kinds of wacky characters end up with fairly mundane framings. “Hi I’m Mr. Mohwak, the squid with a mohawk! Are you an eraser?” “Yeah, but I live in the ocean.” “Weird! Let’s get ice cream!”
    I think there’s a time and place for these kinds of “be totally random” exercises, but it doesn’t always lead to productive creativity so much as randomness for the sake of being random.

So what does make a good prompt for building students’ creativity?

With the same caveat as above, that everyone is different and that there’s a time and a place for everything, good creative prompts are open enough to push students in a few different directions besides the obvious. A haunted house story holds open the possibility that the house really is haunted or that it’s a criminal hideout, or just a hoax.

Students also need support to fall back on. “Imagine you are a broom in Buckingham Palace” is pretty open and creative, but students may have a hard time imagining that. They know little about Buckingham Palace and the role of a broom can be pretty limited. Support can take the form of guiding questions such as, “What’s the weirdest thing you have to clean up?” or a longer story starter such as:

You are a broom in Buckingham Palace. Normally, you are used to sweep the kitchen and other rooms where the servants live. However, one day, the Queen calls for the maid who uses you.

“There is a huge mess in my bedroom. My crown has shattered into pieces. I need you to sweep up every piece so we can put it back together.”

How did the crown get shattered, what happens while you are sweeping up the pieces, and how can they fix a crown in tiny pieces?

Tell the rest of the story.

Now we have a plot and a location, but there’s still plenty left to the students’ imagination.

Finally, there should be no obvious direction the story has to go in. Sometimes this is implemented in the class. As a teacher, you can make it clear that students can write unexpected things. You can even do an opposite activity, where students have to write the opposite of what they naturally would, or twist the starter around. A romantic prompt turns into a thriller. A funny story starter turns into drama and so on.

Often the easiest way to help students be more creative and less likely to follow the obvious path is to design prompts that are outside the box! Instead of asking why nature is good, ask what would happen if we woke up to find all the trees dead. Or we lived in a world where recycling was illegal. Or make the prompt specific. Focus on a particular region or even species.

I hope this has given you something to think about when it comes to creative writing and building students’ creativity! Feel free to share your own creative prompts in the comments!

If you’re looking for some sample prompt ideas that are a bit outside the box, check out our books:

We also have individual downloadable, printable resources on Teachers Pay Teachers.

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