Capturing Creativity

I remember a high school principal challenging me one day when I told him you can “teach creativity.” He didn’t believe me. In the last ten years educators have realized that you can both teach and assess creativity. Two Pittsburgh educators, Melissa Unger and Anna V. Blake, have captured their personal findings in their new book, Capturing Creativity, to share with fellow educators, parents and higher education programs 20 easy ways to bring low-tech STEAM into the classroom.


I’ve been quite fortunate to see some of the work done by Melissa Unger in person. We began working together ten years as part of grant through the Grable Foundation. I served as a consultant for the South Fayette School District. Melissa was hired by the South Fayette School District to work with students in three environments – urban (Manchester Academic Charter School), suburban (South Fayette), and rural (Fort Cherry) – to deliver a program around computational thinking, Habits of Mind, and project-based learning. The program had been conceptualized by Aileen Owens and the administrative team for the South Fayette School District and now the challenge was to see how this approach could impact a diverse group of students in very different environments. Needless to say the program proved quite successful and Melissa carried on her work becoming an elementary STEAM teacher for South Fayette.


For seven years I joined the South Fayette team to expand the impact of the program to other schools and educators through a Summer Institute. In my role I helped to document the workshops through photographs and to evaluate the success of the program through surveys. My greatest fun was always visiting Melissa’s class. It was obvious that teachers were enjoying themselves. You could see it in the faces of the teachers. They were collaborating in ways many of them had not experienced since they were children. When we looked at the ratings, Melissa always had 100% success. Every educator who participated found something that they could take back to their classroom and use successfully. I know this was the case, since we did follow-up surveys to determine how people were able to use what they learned.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

I can guarantee that you too will have the same kind of success as the educators and students who have worked with both Melissa and Anna. Like South Fayette, the Elizabeth Forward South District has become a national leader in Maker Education. Anna is one of the keys for the school district’s success. I also had many chances to visit Elizabeth Forward over the past ten years and observe teachers and kids working together to creatively solve problems.


What connects Anna and Melissa is a framework that was developed by Harvard University, Agency by Design (AbD). In the Prologue to the book, Peter Wardrip and Jeff Evancho, share the framework and the key values for the project:

  • Curiosity
  • Collaboration
  • Problem-solving
  • Persistence
  • Creativity

In everything I’ve observed Anna and Melissa successfully address these values. Today Anna and Melissa continue to work with the Agency by Design team. They are some of the educators who have had great success developing a STEAM program that works and makes an impact on all students. AbD has added an element of research looking at that question that was thrown at me years ago: how do you know that you are making a difference for learners? How do you assess creativity?


During the recent COVID period when so many schools struggled with hands-on activities for kids, Anna and Melissa took their ideas and created a virtual program, “Pittsburgh STEAM Station.” They invited other educators to join them. Today they have a free resource that includes great lessons from 26 educators representing 19 different schools and districts.

The book is divided into chapters with interviews of fellow educators. The chapter on Curiosity includes one of my colleagues from my days as the Coordinator of Educational Technology for the Fox Chapel Area School District, Stan Strzempek. Stan is a great example of how Maker education has transformed educators. Stan took a traditional computer classroom and redesigned it as a Maker space, the Collaboratory. Stan, like Melissa and Anna, uses commonly found objects. Two of his successful projects are in the book, a parachute design challenge (pp 45-46) and a bubble wand activity (pp 47-48).


In their book Anna and Melissa have not only provided simple and successful examples of STEAM projects, they have outlined the materials you need, the steps to follow, extension activities, and a QR code to the STEAM Station episode that provides a visual representation of the lesson. This is definitely one book that educators, parents, and higher education professionals working with pre-service teachers will want to add to their library.

What’s Working During COVID

While many people have been concerned about the lack of learning during the COVID period, there have been a number of successful strategies and approaches.  Through a dialog with regional educators, my contributions to the work for the Consortium of Schools Networked (CoSN), and listening to personal stories from 2020 HundrED Virtual Innovation Summit, I’ve compiled a list of successes. In this posting, I’ll share some of the ideas I’ve discovered. We’ll look at how at one school in Pennsylvania has students working together in teams and collaborating even with remote learning and social distancing. We’ll hear from an online trainer how the pandemic has opened new learning doors for active learning for students, parents, and educators. We’ll hear from one edtech company that has made robotics a remote hands-on experience for all learners. We’ll discover a school district in California that has found ways to continue to expand the expertise for their professional learning community. Finally, we’ll discover how an African non-profit has had to be pivot to continue to deliver its entrepreneurial program for learners.


Collaboration and Working as a Team

Melissa Unger, the K-2 STEAM Teacher for the South Fayette School District, has been an educational leader for the past decade. The pandemic forced her to rethink how she designs learning experiences, especially to promote collaboration and team-building. According to Melissa, “Being in a Hybrid setting and social distancing has caused us to rethink what it means for students to work together and collaborate. One of the best tools I have used for this is FlipGrid–students are able to share their work, thoughts, or ideas via short videos, and others can comment. In each homeroom, students have only met half of their classmates in person this year, so FlipGrid has allowed for a greater sense of community building and information sharing. I have watched students use others’ videos as a way to add on to their own ideas and form connections. 


“I also think that now more than ever open-ended projects and STEAM tasks are really important for our students. These projects and tasks address an uncertainty that students need to understand – an uncertainty about the virus, school closures, and just what’s going to happen each day. With open-ended projects, I think students start to see that having all the information is not always necessary before moving forward. This new learning situation builds confidence and resilience during this time of uncertainty.”


Active Learning

Active learning is always an important goal. In order to achieve learning engagement it’s critical to think about instruction design. According to Kelesy Derringer, the Co-founder of CodeJoy LLC, ” The job of an educator is not to simply transmit information, but to design educational experiences. Even in online learning, this is still the job, though our delivery method has radically changed. In our classes at CodeJoy, we continue to ask, “What are the students DOING?” We offer opportunities to do more than listen – students can code and control robots, build their own catapults at home with craft supplies, engage in the Engineering Design Process together, talk to a live puppet, ask a florist to cut a rose in half to see what it looks like, strap a phone camera to a horse and go for a ride, or have a dance party with children all over the world! Engagement looks different online, but it should still be the cornerstone around which educators design their learning experiences.”

Lock downs and social distancing requirements have created serious challenges to hands-on robotics education, but also inspired creative solutions, such as 1:1 robotics and remote robots. According to Tom Lauwers, the CEO and Founder of Birdbrain Technologies, “With 1:1 robotics, all students have a robotics kit at home, and use remote collaboration tools like the newly released micro:bit classroom along with teacher-led video instruction to learn coding and robotics. Remote Robots is a new technology that we’ve developed to allow kids to code a robot in a beginner-friendly environment that is not located in the same location as them. We quickly created five 24/7 live-streamed robots in April that anyone can code, and have also created a tutorial for educators to set up their own remote robots. Together, 1:1 robotics and remote robots provide educators with a toolbox to continue physical computing and robotics education in these pandemic times.”

Creating a Professional Community

CoSN for the past three years has assembled a global team of advisors to look at Innovation in Education. I’ve been part of the CoSN Driving K-12 Innovation advisory team. This year in addition to the normal Hurdles, Accelerators, and Tech Enablers, we began to look at examples of innovation due to the COVID situation. Phillip Neufield, the Executive Officer for the Fresno Unified School District in California shared his insights with the CoSN community. According to Phillip, “Over the past five years, our district has moved to more experiential, actionable professional learning where teachers experiencing their learning as we intend teacher practices to land as learning experiences for their students (albeit with adult learning wisdom applied).”


“So in spring we delivered over 100 webinars to prepare teachers for the shift to distance learning with over 1,700 educators participating, some up to 3-5 times in different webinars.  Educators could access recorded sessions.  And we offered competency-based on-demand web training resources with over 10,000 unique visits.”


“We repeated this approach in summer to prepare educators for fall.
We found educators were bringing these new teaching practices back to their grade-level or department-level professional learning communities (teaching practices included the know-why, know-how, and tech mediated activities).”

Creative Pivoting

The problems learners, parents, and educators face in the United States due to the pandemic are truly global. During the Virtual HundrED Innovation 2020 Summit I listened to an African educator, Frank Omana, outline how his non-profit, EDUCATE!, pivoted.

Educate! tackles youth unemployment by partnering with youth, schools, and governments to design and deliver education solutions that equip young people in Africa with the skills to attain further education, overcome gender inequities, start businesses, get jobs, and drive development in their communities. With the appearance of COVID this skill-based model for entrepreneurial studies had to find a distance learning option

Frank and his team created “The Experience on Air.” They began to broadcast on national radio and available via text messaging. They kept the core components – practical experience with mentorships, skills, and assessments. Remarkably the pivot opened new doors for the African learners using the distance learning model.

In each of the cases I’ve outlined new doors opened, while old gateways were no longer available. In today’s world, that’s the lesson we all need to understand. We need to be nimble and pivot so we can maintain our educational goals like Birdbrain, CodeJoy, Frenso, or the South Fayette School District. The real test is how well are we meeting the needs of our learning community.

Teaching Online in a Time of the Coronavirus

With all of the world moving to an online style of teaching and instruction, I’m worried how well our educators are designing their learning lessons. Recently I read an excellent article in the March 2020 ASCD Education Update, Six Teacher Moves for Deeper Learning.

For this article I’ve invited some of my educational colleagues to share how they’re redesigning learning to take advantage of the online platform that is their only choice right now for instruction. I think the key for any good instructional design is to have a framework that provides guidelines. I’ll take ideas from my colleagues and wrap them around the core principles that Monica R. Martinez and Dennis McGrath outline in their article focusing on Deeper Learning.

Empower students as learners.

According to Martinez and McGrath, “Given the social and economic world they will be entering, today’s students need much less passive rule following and rote memorization, and much more guidance and support in becoming self-directed learners. A common practice that all the schools focus on is helping students take responsibility for their own learning and the learning of others. They do this through both their culture and pedagogy.”

What does that look like in an online world where students are home due to the Coronavirus? Melissa Unger, a K-2 STEAM teacher for the South Fayette School District, near Pittsburgh, and Elementary Tech Integrator, Anne Blake, have developed a series of Design Challenges using ordinary materials. The projects can be done with parents, care-givers, or even by the kids by themselves. How many kids turn to YouTube to learn something new? Melissa has tapped into a tool that most young learners already use on their phones, tablets, or computers.

Contextualize knowledge.

Martinez and McGrath follow the tradition of Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. We need to start by asking what are the Driving or Essential Questions. We need to think about how the learning is part of an interconnected fabric. We need our students to not just focus on facts, but the key ideas, relationships, and skills.

For instance, David Dulberger, an educator in the Frederick, Maryland County School District, is reaching out to his colleagues to share ways to improve the way they conduct formative assessment to document the key ideas, relationships or skills that students are learning . David has seen the success of using time-lapse video with students. David started letting students make time-lapse videos during indoor recess with a dry erase board. This eventually led to a realization that problem solving on a dry erase board + time-lapse video could equate to a great formative assessment. Why would this work during the Coronavirus Pandemic? Today almost all students have access to a phone where they can shoot and edit their own videos. The teachers just need to give the students a good example, like David has done.

What exactly is a silent solve video?

According to David, “A silent solve video requires students to demonstrate their thinking without any recorded narration. Students are welcome to talk out loud while making a video but the sound will not be captured when using time lapse. Jen Knox has started to use silent solve videos with her students. See an example by clicking here: Skyy’s Video”

Connect to Real World Experiences

When our students are in social isolation, how do we make them see the real world connection? Jill Tabis, a high school business education teacher and former colleague of mine at the Fox Chapel Area School District, reached out to people around her to do just that. I heard the call and used the opportunity to develop a video around Building an Entrepreneurial Mindset using my experience as an educational technology broker for the past nine years. Jill’s class will have a chance to pose questions for me and then I’ll follow up with a Zoom session to talk about their questions.

Inspire students by customizing learning experiences.

With all students at home, what can a teacher do to make each learning experience personal to the individual student? This doesn’t mean using an adaptive piece of software. It means thinking about projects that tap into personal interests or passions.

For instance, Melissa Unger challenges her online students to come up with their own solutions to the paper airplane flying challenge. Each student can test out new ideas, go online and research other options. This is one of the advantages of working in an online world.

Use tech to purposefully enhance rather than automate learning.

I’ve been a strong supporter of using technology to make students into creative producers. In my work for the Consortium of Schools Networked (CoSN), I helped to develop a paper on this topic three years ago. In the article Sylvia Martinez shared her insights, “What’s different now is the affordable, accessible and fun technology that fosters rigorous learning, Martinez says. “Today’s computational technology adds something that’s never before been available, which is putting computational power into students’ hands—programming through making devices that collect data, process data and interact with the world,” she says. “Physical computing—the interaction between the digital and the physical world—raises the bar. You aren’t able to say, ‘Oh, just making anything is good enough.’”

Birdbrain Technologies is one of the physical computing tools that Sylvia Martinez recommends. (And as a disclaimer – it’s one of my clients.) With teachers no longer in schools to tap into the Hummingbird Kit or Finch, Birdbrain is offering fun projects, live classes, and online courses to inspire deep and joyful learning for students, parents, and educators.  (Most of the workshops require a Hummingbird Kit, but there are some sessions that just use scrap materials.)

Teacher as “Learning Strategist”

Martinez and McGrath finish their set of principles by stating, “For teaching to enable powerful learning experiences like the ones described above, the teacher has to fluidly shift among a range of roles, including learning designer, facilitator, networker, and advisor who coaches, counsels, mentors, and tutors depending on what is most needed to promote student learning.”

What does this look like for the educators I’ve included in this article? Each educator had to look their target audience and create appropriate learning materials for the age of the audience, whether the materials were for a student or teachers. Short hands-on YouTube Design Challenges are perfect for young children, but not necessarily for a high school class. A 12 minute mini-lecture is not the best tool for young children, but when it brings a real world connection to high school students, it works well. Silent Solve videos are great tools for educators to use to discover that their students are really learning at home.