collaborative creativity classrooms

Last week I participated in a leadership conference hosted by my district and put together by an amazing group of people.  The speakers were great – a highlight for me was hearing from Flora MacDonald and learning about the power of one individual to make a significant change in the Taliban-ravaged rural communities of Afghanistan.  She is a “tipping point” individual with an incredible impact for change and it was an honour to listen to her speak.  For now I’m saving my deeper reflections on Flora MacDonald for another post.  Here I want to flesh out some of the thoughts I had as I listened to a speaker on the second day of the conference.

the story meeting

The second day of the conference began with small focus groups listening to speakers who were invited to share their thoughts on creativity and leadership.  The first speaker to work with my group was Laurence Wall, news producer for CBC Ottawa.  He began by telling us about the powerful and creative news stories that his colleague Rita Celli, who now hosts Ontario Today, crafted and delivered while covering the courts in Ottawa.  What set Celli’s stories apart was her incredible ability to capture the compelling angle while infusing her story with creative elements most often associated with a narrative voice in fiction writing.  Listening to Wall describe Celli’s work in this way got me thinking about the importance we are currently placing on non-fiction writing in school.  Asking students to develop their storytelling skills while finding the compelling narrative and connection across content areas such as science, geography and history would provide powerful and meaningful learning opportunities.

Wall went on to explain that the members of his news team came together for a story meeting to share two ideas for stories based on events that were happening in and around Ottawa.  Someone might begin by talking about an idea they have for a story and from there other members of the team would jump in with suggestions for a different perspective on the story or an idea about how to tell the story – what to include, how it plays out in different neighbourhoods, etc….  As ideas are bounced around, the original idea for a story morphs into what we as listeners end up experiencing – a well-crafted and engaging piece of journalism.  The process described is one of collaboration as creativity.  I could picture an almost jazz-like environment where ideas are passed around, added to and improved throughout the discussion.

the end of broccoli learning?

The idea of the story meeting really captured my imagination as a teacher.  I started to think about what it might look like to emulate this type of process across the curriculum in the classroom.  What if there were small groups – production teams – who worked together to grapple with the real story around some of the big ideas of, for example, the science curriculum?  Imagine groups of 5 or 6 students asked to find the compelling story connecting big ideas from the curriculum to issues occurring in and around their neighbourhoods.  What if students developed the ideas for their writing through a collaborative process similar to the story meeting?

Wall talked about the difference between news and gossip and how journalists at CBC select the stories with which they are going to work.  He drew a distinction between news stories that are engaging and compelling and news that you feel you need to consume because it is good for you to know – what his wife calls “broccoli journalism”.  When we ask students to memorize and regurgitate facts and figures, are we condemning them to broccoli learning?  Are the tasks with which we ask students to engage and demonstrate their learning really preparing them to participate in workplaces that increasingly demand highly developed skills in the participatory milieu of collaborative creativity and inquiry?  If we are still asking students to research and write 5 paragraph essays in isolation from their peers, then the answer is no.  If, instead, we ask them to pre-write by working through a story meeting with their peers, then write and publish a blog post and respond to comments as well as adding comments to their peers’ posts, then I think we are moving in the right direction.  If we ask them to work with peers to create and publish a digital story, I think we are closer.  Thoughts?