The Creative Classroom

Teachers share big and small ideas for making any classroom a more creative place.

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

A version of this article was first published in the Champion Creatively Alive Children special supplement to the NAESP’s Principal journal. Find out more about Champion Creatively Alive Children grants or apply for a 2012 grant at

Creativity is on our minds. That’s because it’s central, along with skills like collaboration, critical thinking, and communication, to the shift from teacher-directed learning to a more student-centered, project-based approach. We don’t want our students’ creativity to end with the comments they leave on their friends’ Facebook pages. We want them to look at every problem they face with a creative eye: How can I best answer this question? Am I thinking of all the possible alternatives? What’s the most interesting approach for me?

But creativity faces an uphill battle. The pressures of standardized testing can make any teacher feel as creative as a bubble test. Here are ideas from the winners of Crayola’s Champion Creatively Alive Children grants, schools that found exciting ways to bring more creativity to their classrooms. 


What You Can Do In 4 Minutes 

Use Journals—The Right Way

Forced journal writing is a chore. But when done purposefully and with emphasis on scribbling and sketching, journaling offers students an opportunity to reflect and make connections. It’s integral to the curriculum at Montana’s East Glacier Park Grade School, where students study the state’s American Indian tribes all year long. Every week, students respond to prompts that encourage them to link that week’s material to their own lives. In a unit on the Native American understanding of nature, for example, they draw or write about a favorite outdoor place in their journals. All it takes is minutes a day.

Drop Everything and Create

For years, many teachers have made time each day for independent reading. At Evergreen Mill Elementary School in Leesburg, Virginia, classes are put on pause for “Stop, Drop, and Create.” During these sessions, everyone from students to teachers to support staff tackles the same creative challenge, such as illustrating an imaginary bug or making an underwater creature out of clay. “The creative energy that crackles through our school is incredible,” one Evergreen Mill teacher reports. Begin with your own class and then convince other teachers to join in!

Try Cubing

Cubing asks students to think about a topic from different angles. First, you write a question or task on each side of a six-sided block. For example: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Or: Describe It, Compare It, Associate It, Analyze It, Apply It, Argue For/Against It. Then students use the cubes in discussion, as writing prompts, or for brainstorming. It has become a beloved technique among teachers at P.S. 315 School of the Performing Arts in Brooklyn, New York. They first used cubing in a project on African culture, but the applications are endless—you might try cubing in reading groups or to make scientific hypotheses. 


What You Can Do In 4 Hours 

Invite an Artist to Your School

Host a local artist for an afternoon or an entire day. Students will see creativity at work in the real world, learn specific techniques, and strengthen the ideas they’ve studied in class. The Springville K–8 School in Beaverton, Oregon, calls in local experts to teach concepts that link back to the curriculum. When fifth graders are learning about the ecosystem, for example, a professional illustrator works with students, helping them as they make sketches for a neighborhood field guide. And remember, with the advent of Skype, local has new meaning.

Visit Other Schools by Video

If you belong to a professional learning community, consider spending one of your sessions watching the Champion Creatively Alive Children video series available from The series features ideas and inspiration from the 2010 grant-winning schools. You’ll see teachers and kids in action and discover transferable strategies for your own school. Watch the series with your grade-level team or suggest that your principal incorporate it into your next professional development day.

Let Your Students Be the Guides

Many schools have the occasional open house. Springville K–8 takes it to the next level. Throughout the year, teachers place an emphasis on quality and revision to help students create the finest possible products. The best work is displayed during Exhibition Night, and students serve as tour guides, leading visitors through the displays and explaining the processes involved in creating them. The stepped-up responsibility keeps students engaged and lets them experience the final step in the learning journey—teaching the material to others. Before your next open house, teach your students how to be tour guides. Help them plan what they’ll say and the route they’ll take through the school. Then open your doors and enjoy!


What You Can Do In 4 Days 

Team Up With Colleagues

Whole-school collaboration can be an overwhelming goal. But it all begins with a first step. Start by brainstorming with one or two colleagues on creative ways to connect your lessons. At Flocktown-Kossmann Elementary School in Long Valley, New Jersey, art teacher Melinda Hemberger collaborated with the school’s fifth-grade team to teach students about the artist Mondrian in conjunction with their study in mathematics of the Cartesian plane. Teachers at the school found that students gained a deeper understanding of both subjects when they were taught together.

Make Room for Students’ Work

When educators at the Springville K–8 School in Beaverton decided to focus on creativity, their first step was to fill the school with student work. Previously, the school had only one display area, near the front entrance, but that soon expanded to include many of the school’s other hallways and gathering spots. Take an inventory of your existing and potential display areas, and then recruit volunteers to help transform them. Think outside of the box—consider painting secondhand picture frames in a rainbow of colors and filling them with corkboard. Each month, you can pin new student-generated art in the frames.

Start an After-School Club

If you work with an at-risk population, consider following in the footsteps of the sixth-grade teachers at Harriet Gifford Elementary School in Elgin, Illinois. They submitted the names of boys facing significant academic and social issues. The students were then invited to join a special after-school club promoting teamwork, creativity, and cultural heritage as well as academic skills. The club meets weekly and teachers report that many members have made academic gains. If teachers work together, the groundwork for starting a club can be laid in less than a week.


What You Can Do In 4 Weeks

Paint a Mural

Murals are a perennially favorite project, but how do you tie them to the curriculum and keep them from being just a fun, decorative add-on? At Estelle Elementary School in Marrero, Louisiana, a mural was the culminating project for a school-wide study of the BP oil spill and its effect on the Louisiana coastline. Students at every grade level worked in groups to paint ceramic tiles depicting what they had learned about the state’s unique ecosystem. Current events, local history, and local culture can also provide inspiration for a school mural.

Find Community Support

Many organizations work to support the arts in schools. Look for ones in your area that can help supplement your existing curriculum. You may be surprised by what you can achieve. When educators at P.S. 154 in the Bronx, New York, wanted to boost their character education program, they reached out to two local puppeteer groups, Central Park’s Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre and CityParks PuppetMobile. Soon every  class in the school had seen a professional puppet show, and students were on their way to making their own shows about character education.

Give Students Choice

The journey from teacher-led instruction to project-based learning is gradual, but there are ways to offer more student choice now. Give students a list of projects to choose from, for example, rather than have everyone do the same thing. At Mitchell Elementary School in Chicago, art teacher Julie Toole began moving from traditional art classes to a studio approach. She introduces an idea or concept, then students decide what they want to make, who they will collaborate with, and the approach they want to use. Toole says she’s seen a radical change in students’ engagement and in the work they produce. “The students are intrinsically motivated because they are choosing how to best express their ideas.” Now other teachers are following suit.


What You Can Do In 4 Months 

Have Every Student Write a Book

Can you imagine if every student in your class were a published author? How would it change students’ vision of themselves as readers, writers, and creators? At Orems Elementary School in Baltimore, educators set out to have all students publish their own books. The project was multifaceted. Teachers participated in workshops on bookmaking, while working with students on drafting and revising original stories. In art class, students learned about different illustration styles. Students’ books have been added to the library for others to enjoy. Find out how to publish kids’ books free at

Attempt a School-Wide Project

When an entire school works to learn about the same topic, surprising connections emerge. At Oxford Elementary School in Oxford, Mississippi, students did a school-wide study of Walter Anderson, a local artist, naturalist, writer, and traveler. Teachers across the grade levels incorporated Anderson into their lessons, everyone visited a local museum, and students collaborated on projects in tribute to the artist. The key to launching a project of this scope, says former principal Jeff Clay (now head of the middle school), was discussing the importance of arts-infused education and planning as a team.

Collaborate With Another School

Working with older students can inspire your students’ creativity and offer kids at both grade levels the opportunity to make connections. Over the course of several months, kindergartners at Zane North Elementary School in Collingswood, New Jersey, worked with buddies at nearby Collingswood High School on a project about conquering their fears. Students at both levels read Maya Angelou’s poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” and worked together to paint panels depicting personal superpowers. As the buddies took turns adding to their shared canvases, they learned about respectful collaboration and what it means to work in a creative partnership. 


What You Can Do In 4 Years

Assess Your Teaching Style

What is the state of creativity in your classroom? How many of your lessons involve students asking questions, brainstorming solutions, and working with their peers? How often do you take a break from the books and try making movies or creating dioramas instead? What are your goals with regard to creativity? Where do you want to be in one, two, or three years? Delve deeper by taking the SAILS Teaching Style Assessment at or a Grasha-Riechmann teaching-style assessment.

Embrace Project-Based Learning

Make a plan to increase the number of project-based assessments in your own classroom. A first goal might be to replace one traditional assessment with a project that incorporates cross-curricular concepts and creativity. Show your plan to your principal to get him or her on board. When it’s successful (and you know it will be!), you’ll have grounding to step up the number of projects throughout the year.

Find Like-Minded Friends

Fellow teachers who believe in the value of creativity are your best allies. Together, you can brainstorm strategies for developing new approaches to the traditional curriculum that encourage students to find their own answers to problems, instead of memorizing the ones in the textbook. You can issue creative learning challenges that capture students’ attention and engage their minds. After all, good thinkers  and natural collaborators who approach their world with curiosity and persistence are precisely what we hope our students grow up to be.

  • Subjects:
    Arts and Creativity, New Teacher Resources, Teacher Tips and Strategies

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