Innovative Arts: Making the class that I want for my own kids

Innovative arts classroom, an example of a makerspace in education

Innovative arts was born from my frustration as a science teacher. I was frustrated because the amount of content I had to teach each year left no room for awesome science fun. I was frustrated that the focus was on a test instead of the love of learning. My teaching had to be a mile wide but an inch deep.

Most of all, it bothered me that many of our best students were unable to think for themselves or be creative.

Failures at first

When I first started as the Innovative Arts teacher, I was naïve about how difficult it would be to help students develop creative projects. Normally, it’s relatively easy to have your students complete a project. You supply the materials, show them the final product, and give them step-by-step instructions. Most projects are completed, and we move on as a class.

The problem: All of those projects will be more or less identical. And I am done with identical projects.

It is very difficult to help students start with their own interests, choose, and customize their own projects. The problem is that they had ZERO experience in doing this.

To be creative with their projects, kids need to:

  • know what they are interested in
  • have been free to be creative in the past
  • have experience choosing different materials (for physical projects)
  • have experience with different ways to affix materials together (for physical projects)
  • be OK with making mistakes and retrying a step
  • adjust their plans as the project progresses
  • stick with a project after that initial rush of excitement wears off
  • be OK doing something different than their peers
  • be able to start a project that might fail
  • admit something went wrong
  • be OK with a failed project

Most kids were not able to even attempt a creative project. This isn’t hard to understand. None of the criteria listed above are a normal part of a traditional classroom.

I have to admit that I almost gave up. On one hand, the kids were excited about ‘being creators’ and using their creativity. On the other hand, it isn’t easy to learn all of the above lessons. It takes self discipline and mindful persistence. The thinking that will help a student get an ‘A’ in a traditional class is different than the thinking of a unique creator.

Eventually, I started to figure out how to explain the goal and help students get started. For example, in the “Creator Spectrum,” these kids all wanted to be the ‘Creator in charge,’ but all of them had only ever had classes with the ‘Teacher in change.’ We needed to start by meeting in the middle with a ‘shared responsibility’ from both the creator and the teacher.

What is Innovative arts now?

For the past few years, I have been creating resources to give kids experience with open-ended projects. Fortunately, in my Innovative Arts class, I get to have students in 5th through 8th grade. Over those four years, we can see so much growth! As students get older and gain more experience and more confidence, they start to work into a “creator type.” The six creator types are engineers, designers, digital creators, wordsmiths, entrepreneurs, and hackers. These creator types give kids a path to start down as well as support to get started.

What’s amazing about this are the lessons I can teach during this class. Individual students might be learning very different skills from one another, but the overarching class topic is how mistakes are opportunities. We can learn how to use creativity tools while students are trying to customize their own projects. And technology has allowed me to multiply myself in the classroom – to help them on the spot when they have a question.

I believe this is the future of education.

For my part, teaching is an honor and a joy. Every day I am excited to get to my classroom and get to work. Soon I will be teaching my own children, and I am so excited for them to experience this class that I have created. But this idea is larger than just my one classroom in Pine Island, MN. It’s truly a window into a possible future of education. Our traditional education system has a critical shortage of student autonomy and creativity. The status quo is unacceptable when there is so much potential for change.

Innovative arts classroom
Work bench in the Innovative Arts classroom

The big goal: Innovative Arts replacing ‘Technology Class’

This site has all of the resources that I have created so that any student can have an awesome Innovative Arts experience, regardless of school budgets. The resources are free and always will be for this reason: everyone deserves the chance to explore their creativity. Even the smallest paywall will exclude countless teachers and students who need this the most.

I am the luckiest teacher anywhere

A staggering amount of extremely talented teachers have recently walked away from teaching after grappling with the various issues that come with the job. Years ago, I was almost that teacher. To be an Innovative Arts teacher now frankly took a lot of luck.

I was lucky to have a supportive school administration. They’re not afraid of an idea failing and being remade which is what I did for a long time. As a district, we’re lucky to have a supportive community which helped build our Fab Lab and filled it full of resources to help kids create. And it’s lucky that technology has become abundant and easy to use in the classroom. To a large extent, technology is what makes Innovative Arts possible.

At the same time, it took years of struggle and failure to start understanding what works in a classroom like this and to both build off the successes and learn from the failures. It took a great deal of work to develop the vision, resources, and the website you see here. This site has been entirely a solo effort that has been self-funded from the beginning.

I am humbled by the challenge ahead of me. I can see the potential for students of all ability levels to benefit everyday, but this will only work if I can create a wide array of resources to support them. So I will need to be working on that for a couple more years.

I firmly believe that the only place that it is possible to reimagine education is from the classroom. Someone needs to vividly show what is now possible in a classroom to rekindle our imagination. More on this in a future post, so stay tuned.

In a few years, my own kids will be starting Innovative Arts as 5th Graders. This helps me to keep pushing and develop the best possible experience for all students.

Innovative Arts using a machine

Support this crazy dream

Someday I would love to have a wider, more diverse community of supporters to fund this initiative, help fund the creation of new resources, and give out new grants for new Innovative Arts classes to get started.

Useful links for teachers:

This site holds the resources for Innovative Arts class, a class that replaced our technology class in our middle school. Students learn to create as engineers, designers, and more. At the same time, we are learning about our brains/mindsets (‘Puzzle‘), engage technology (‘Shift‘) and the creative process (‘Create‘).

New resources are being added constantly, so I send out a weekly roundup email with all of the new resources. Sign up to stay in the loop.

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