When I first arrived at the University of Kentucky, it never occurred to me to teach a class that focused on a documentary as a final project. I saw myself as a writer, and a writer I would stay; I had no experience in film, and it intimidated me. It wasn't until I mentioned the documentary in passing to a friend who was interested in film, and he helped to put things in perspective for me. In order to make a cohesive, interesting film, he said, students have to learn to visualize the big picture as well as the tiny details, to move around large chunks of narrative to make the film work more effectively, to have a keen eye for design as well as narrative fluidity. "Being a filmmaker," he said, "taught me how to write."
For me, that was the moment when I realized that creativity in the classroom is about more than simply tapping into a student's artistic temperment or recognizing that people learn in different ways and so teachers must adapt. It is, instead, about learning how to teach what you want students to know - in my case, writing - by utilizing materials and activities that are clear, engaging, and that help students reimagine what writing is about in a supportive environment. The documentary project assignment is one that does just that: it affords students the opportunity to research a subject, investigate a community, and develop and revise a cohesive narrative in a format other than the essay while still utilizing the same overarching skills. The fundamental principle, however, that aids creativity in my classroom is the concept of universal design.
We often think of universal design as an architectural category; it's a buzzword in home construction, billed to potential buyers as the structural method that will allow you to age along with your home. But universal design is about more than single-story structures and low-lip bathtubs; it can also be used as an approach to teaching, and its simple, intuitive approach, its tolerance for error, its flexibility, and its focus on creating a community of learners all lends itself in particular to the teaching of writing, particularly to new college students. who might be unsure of their place in the college community and unsure of their writing skills.
Every time I develop a new assignment, I try to keep the principles of universal design in mind, from major assignments to minor ones. Another example of an assignment that illustrates this in practice is my visualizing essay organization assignment, which I lead as an in-class activity, and which I also use in creative writing classes to help them understand the structure and form of their poetry or prose. Although students come to class with a draft of their work and highlighters for this activity, they are first asked to watch a color-coding of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and a color-coded visualization of Daft Punk's "The Man in Blue." Not only are their visual and auditory cortexes engaged in what is often a language-centered activity, but they are able to see the broader implications of learning to organize the material they work with.
When it comes time for students to color-code their own work, they have begun to see themselves as structuralists and have begun to treat their material with care and diligence rather than disdain, and, as they identify elements of their work, they also add a new level of engagement to the activity: the kinetic. This activity is often so successful that I often carry it over into other classroom activities; after we complete this, I frequently return to color-coding articles, stories, poems and other texts that we read, sometimes posting sections of the text on the wall in stations and asking students to move from station to station (or, for those with physical impairments, I move stations to them) with highlighters in hand so that they can identify relevant linguistic, rhetorical, literary, and poetic elements.