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.

The Trends and Challenges Shaping Technology Adoption In Schools

[For the past two years I’ve served as the co-chair of the CoSN Emerging Technologies Committee. However, even before I served in this capacity I turned to the Horizon Report each year to better understand the shifting sands of Educational Technology. I used the Horizon Report in my own forecasting as a CTO and in my work as an adjunct professor. In this Mindshift article you’ll find a great summary of the emerging trends, short-term as well as long-term, with the challenges ahead for educators in K-12.]

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Every year for the past 15 years the New Media Consortium and the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) have been taking the pulse of where education technology stands among K-12 educators. A panel of 59 experts from 18 countries discussed major trends in education that are driving the adoption of technology, as well as the big challenges to effective implementation. This collaborative effort helps to paint a picture of where things stand now and where they might be going. This year NMC and CoSN have also put together a digital toolkit to help educators and policy leaders start conversations about these trends in their community, with the hope that some of the changes they see happening in pockets around the world will become more broadly accepted.

“It gives lots of way to facilitate activities at a PTA meeting, at a school board meeting or a local chamber of commerce,” said Keith Kruger, CEO of CoSN. “We’re hoping you don’t see the report as something you read once and file away, but that you start using it to really start stimulating conversation.”

nmc-trends

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How Robots in English Class Can Spark Empathy and Improve Writing

[In this Mindshift article students interact with the Sphero robots to develop stories. For the past two years I’ve worked with Birdbrain Technologies, a spin-off from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). The Hummingbird, a robotics kit, developed at CMU’s CREATE Lab out of a project originally called “Robot Diaries.” In my early days of programming in the Logo language I had students create “Turtle Stories.” There’s definitely something engaging about robots that allows students to expand their literary skills while developing STEM skills at the same time. After I wrote this introduction, Seymour Papert, one of the creators of Logo died. Without the wisdom of Seymour Papert many educators like myself would never have discovered the power of computational thinking.]

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Mention robots to many English teachers and they’ll immediately point down the hall to the science classroom or to the makerspace, if they have one. At many schools, if there’s a robot at all, it’s located in a science or math classroom or is being built by an after-school robotics club. It’s not usually a fixture in English classrooms. But as teachers continue to work at finding new entry points to old material for their students, robots are proving to be a great interdisciplinary tool that builds collaboration and literacy skills.

“For someone like me who teaches literature by lots of dead white guys, teaching programming adds relevance to my class,” said Jessica Herring, a high school English teacher at Benton High School in Arkansas. Herring first experimented using Sphero, essentially a programmable ball, when her American literature class was studying the writing of early settlers. Herring pushed the desks back and drew a maze on the floor with tape representing the journey from Europe to the New World. Her students used class iPads and an introductory manually guided app to steer their Spheros through the maze.

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