Unraveling Challenges Creatively and Collaboratively

One of the most rewarding parts of my work is spending time with students and faculty members in classrooms. Recently, I was visiting a sixth grade art class as students were learning how to create illuminated letters as part of their year-long study of medieval history. They were given a wide variety of choices as they designed their letter, were provided with demonstrations by Ms. Tonetti Dugan, and were given access to materials and tools.
I was invited to create my own letter, and I hesitated momentarily as I was immediately taken back to my own elementary and middle school art experiences. Our classroom teachers taught us art, and we cut out snowflakes, made holiday gifts for our families, and occasionally painted, and I was challenged by every project! My snowflakes had large holes in the middle, and I needed to trace to produce anything recognizable to the human eye. That day in the Ellis art studio, I looked at my blank sheet of paper and raised my hand for help in getting started. Ms. T-D provided some calligraphy books, and my tablemates offered constant encouragement and praise. I felt supported by the classroom community, and I knew that making a mistake was part of the process. As I worked, I became more emboldened to go outside of the lines provided in the books and in my mind, to “get creative.” 

Today, there is debate as to whether creativity is a skill or a mindset. LinkedIn identified creativity as the top “soft” skill companies looked for in 2019. Can we actually teach our students to be creative in the same way we teach them how to read or solve math equations in order to prepare them for life beyond the classroom? Or, is creativity a mindset or perspective that can be nurtured by providing opportunities in our academic programming for students? Jaime Casap, the Chief Education Evangelist at Google, argues that creativity is a mindset that supports both collaboration and problem-solving. At Ellis, we believe that skill-based instruction has a necessary place in school, but that students learn best when they are given the chance to learn in community, with experiential and interdisciplinary projects that encourage them to collaborate, raise questions, design solutions, and solve problems.  

To see our students unleashing their creative side, just read excerpts of the novels seventh and eighth grade students penned in their Creative Writing: The Novel elective, and take a look at their Egyptian canopic jars in fifth grade art. Time and space for students to learn to solve complex problems through the design process are embedded in our curricula. In an integrated sixth grade art and computer science project, students worked with partners on an empathy-based robot design challenge. Solutions ranged from a phone app that used sensors to figure out if the car was in motion to prevent texting while driving, to prosthetic legs for dogs and cats. Soon, the fifth graders will write, direct, crew and perform their own play. As I write this, our Future City team composed of seventh and eighth graders has just presented in D.C. at the national competition. This competition required several months of work as a group of students used a design process to research, collaborate, iterate, and finalize a solution to solve this year’s problem, an issue with their city’s water supply. 

Regardless of their grade, every Middle School student has the opportunity each day to engage in creative problem-solving. Whether working individually on an original idea or collaboratively to unravel a challenge and design an innovative solution, Ellis girls are provided with a variety of opportunities to individually and collaboratively explore their interests, take risks, and develop perspective.