- The Creative Teacher’s Compendium: An A-Z Guide of Creative Activities for the Language Classroom, an author’s review
The Creative Teacher’s Compendium: An A-Z Guide of Creative Activities for the Language Classroom, an author’s review
Alan Marsh has worked for many years in teacher training and teacher development with language teachers from all over the world. He is a Cambridge ESOL Celta and Delta trainer, an international conference speaker and an ELT author. He is particularly interested in fostering creativity in teachers and learners. After many years working in Italy and Malta, Alan is now based in the UK. He is co-author of The Creative Teacher’s Compendium, published by Pavilion ELT.
About the Compendium
The Creative Teacher’s Compendium is an extensive resource book for language teachers looking for creative ideas and techniques to integrate into their language syllabus and to engage and motivate their learners. It encourages reflection of the principles and practices applied and gives teachers – no matter what context – the tools, inspiration and encouragement to explore the vital role of creativity in the classroom.
The book first of all explores the significance and relevance of creative teaching and learning in the twenty-first century language classroom. This is then followed by a series of chapters arranged in alphabetical order, each of which is packed with practical ideas and techniques.
After opening with an inspirational quote related to the topic, each chapter follows a similar pattern:
- A short discussion of the rationale for its inclusion, an explanation of why this area is important for creative language teaching.
- A number of creative activities or recipes for the ELT classroom, each one of which helps the teacher to go beyond ‘normal’, ‘standardised’ procedure to find ‘creative twists’ to tasks and techniques that may already be familiar. These creative activities are linked to a specific language point – and sometimes more than one – thus enabling teachers to vastly enrich the learning process.
- A focus on teacher development, with questions to reflect on, things to try out and things to share with colleagues. Teachers can work through the section by themselves or in a workshop with other teachers.
Co-writing the book
I remember how Antonia and I first mooted the idea of collaborating on a book. We’d both seen each other speak at conferences which had Creativity and Language Teaching as an explicit or underlying theme, and read each other’s articles on related issues and I suppose we both recognised that we were kindred spirits as far as the importance of creativity is concerned. Antonia was in Malta as a guest speaker for MATEFL, the Malta Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language, and over a delightful lunch by the sea, full of sunshine and (a little) wine – magical ingredients to spark creativity – the idea began to take shape of a book full of creative ideas but which was also linked to language syllabi. And an A-Z organizing framework. Shortly afterwards, we agreed to go for it.
For me, it was an amazing experience. First of all, together with our publisher, Kirsten Holt at Pavilion ELT, we selected the topics for each letter, which wasn’t always an easy task: should D be for Dictation, or Drama, or Dialogues, for example? We then shared out the twenty-six letters of the alphabet: Antonia would take responsibility for A for Art, I’d do B for Beginnings and so on, and we made sure that each of us took responsibility for areas we particularly liked and felt passionate about. ‘Taking responsibility’ meant doing the research and writing the activities up, as an original draft. This was then passed on to the colleague, who responded with comments and suggestions.
Each chapter has an introduction where we explore some of the rationales and theoretical underpinnings of the topic, including the ‘creativity angle’. I found that to be one of the more difficult writing tasks: keeping it succinct, not too academic nor too lightweight, and keeping down the word count! After each introduction, there follow between three and five ‘template activities’. Again, what presented a particular challenge was ensuring that all the steps were crystal clear to readers so that they could easily transfer the instructions to the reality of the classroom.
And that’s where the collaborative writing really kicked in. We were each other’s ‘critical friend’, reading each other’s introductions and proposed activities, making suggestions, asking for clarification, proposing alternative or additional ideas, editing, sharing research articles to investigate a finer point … and supporting each other when either (and sometimes both) of us needed moral support. Yes, sometimes we needed to be told that X was a good idea and that Y was so clear or useful or creative. Mutual moral support was given, too, as the pressures of our professional lives outside the book, and our personal lives, ‘intruded’ on the whole intensive process of writing and completing a book.
And then we needed to turn that moral support outwards, towards our third partner, when suddenly our supportive, enthusiastic, ebullient, creative editor, Kirsten, was struck down by long Covid. This was devastating for her, of course, and filled us with worry and concern. It also helped us to put things into perspective. Thankfully, Kirsten’s fortitude and resilience enabled her to battle through and she’s now well on the road to recovery. That’s quite an achievement, publishing a book while struggling against long Covid. Chapeau, Kirsten!
Where do good ideas come from?
As teachers, perhaps we often ask ourselves: How can I be more creative? I’m not a naturally creative person – what can I do? Well, it might not be surprising, but evidence suggests that most great ideas come when you’re not trying hard to find some good ideas! So if you’re looking for inspiration at work, or when planning a lesson, it’s probably more productive to leave your workplace or your computer and just focus on something else. Albert Einstein reputedly came up with some of his most brilliant ‘Eureka!’ ideas while playing the violin as a break from work; Charles Dickens would go off on daily twenty-mile walks to flee the constraints of his writing desk.
It is often said that creative inspiration comes when you’re least expecting it, when you give your mind a rest and don’t focus so intensely on the search for inspiration. It’s probably the same with language learning. As well as the overt classroom/school/coursebook syllabus that learners may be following, each learner has their mental, internal syllabus. Sometimes language points are noticed and acquired easily by a learner, whilst others pass them by – perhaps because they weren’t ready, mentally, to take them on and take them in. For example, we might be ‘doing’ the present prefect (again!) and learners consciously and intensely focus on an exercise to ‘get it right’. They do OK in the exercise but later … it just hasn’t been taken in. What they probably need are opportunities to ‘notice’ the language feature occurring here and there, and maybe an opportunity to ‘play’ with it in a creative and meaningful way.
So if we engage our learners in a task where the language point is only peripheral and they get involved in the task because they really want to communicate something meaningful, then all sorts of things start to happen. They start noticing features that may have passed them by, or aren’t explicitly being focused on at all by the teacher or the materials. This is probably how most new language features start being integrated into individual learners’ own, ‘internal’ grammatical/lexical syllabus. Pennies will drop, bells will ring, lights will go on. There’s an example of one such activity (the I have … poem) towards the end of this article.
What do we mean by ‘creativity’?
‘Creativity’ is a trendy word. The trouble is, it seems to mean different things to different people. Antonia (my co-author) and I really like the model provided by James Kaufman and Ronald Beghetto (2009):’the four-C model’ in which four different types of creativity are described.
- Mini-C Creativity. This refers to the type of creativity that happens as part of the learning process, for example, when a child does a painting in class, or writes a story. It may not be brilliant or revolutionary, but it is personally meaningful to them.
- Little-C Creativity. This refers to creativity in everyday life, such as throwing different ingredients together to make a new recipe, coming up with a creative solution to a problem at work, or dressing in a new, different way.
- Pro-C Creativity. This refers to professional expertise – the creativity demonstrated by people who are experts in their field but haven’t (yet) achieved eminence.
- Big-C Creativity. This is reserved for those who have achieved greatness through their creative genius – Picasso, Shakespeare, Mozart, da Vinci: their works and ideas have helped shape the world we live in.
As language educators, Antonia and I are mainly interested in developing Mini-C and Little-C Creativity amongst learners and teachers, respectively.
Why is creativity important in the classroom?
A good question. Here are six powerful reasons.
1 Contributing creativity helps learners to make the learning personally meaningful.
If a learner adds something of their own to a task or activity, they invest themselves in the learning that is going on and in a way they appropriate it. For example, in relation to what is being learnt or practised in their lesson, they might contribute an opinion to a discussion, or add a personal experience, or write a story or a poem or a rap, or draw a picture, design a graphic, take a photo in the street or mime an action. In so doing, they are making the learning personally meaningful to them. It becomes something of their own, something ‘inside’ them.
2 Creative learning is memorable
When as teachers we find a different way to approach a topic or focus on a new language item, or if we add a creative twist to a well-known activity (see the Show and Imagine ‘twist’ at later in this article, for example), we are making the topic or the language point more memorable for our learners. If we ask our learners to use language in a creative way (for example, to give three facts about themselves using I used to but to include one which isn’t true – which their classmates have to guess), the language point is more likely to stay with them, in their memory. And when we involve their senses – and more than one mode of perception – and imagery (again, see the poem later in this article as an example), then far deeper processing is likely to happen. The deeper the processing, the more memorable the language becomes.
3 I feel, therefore I learn
Have you ever felt that buzz in the classroom when your learners are excited (in a competitive activity, for example) or laughing – or both at the same time? Immordino-Yang and Damasio point out that learning and the emotions are closely connected. Engaging your learners’ emotions, then, will affect their attention, motivation, decision-making and memory.
4 Creative teaching nourishes us
Here are some things that teachers do which they describe as being creative: finding a ‘fresh’ way of doing things; planning a new lesson entirely from scratch; looking for interesting ways to engage our learners; approaching things in an imaginative way; taking risks; experimenting with new ideas; bringing something of ourselves into the classroom; creating the freedom and space to think.
As we strive to become creative and to design successful, engaging lessons for our learners, we feel good about what we’re doing and our enthusiasm becomes infectious. Interestingly, we in turn motivate our learners who then respond with enthusiasm, which then motivates us. It’s a kind of virtuous circle of motivation which helps us to remain fresh and enthusiastic in our work. Creativity, then, is not only a key factor in avoiding teacher burnout but also becomes a powerful engine for teacher-driven professional development:
5 The world needs more creative thinkers
It’s important to clarify that when we talk about creativity in the classroom, we’re not talking about an optional extra, something to be abandoned when time is a constraint, in favour of more ‘serious’ or ‘efficient’ learning. We see it as an integral part of the learning process. Creative thinking is now recognised as an important 21st-century skill by employers, administrators, policy-makers, educators and others. We need a new generation of creative thinkers to help us find solutions to challenges that we’ll face in the future.
6 Creativity is cumulative and cooperative.
‘I’d like to be creative but I don’t have lots of ideas.’ But there are lots of ideas already out there (including in our book!). Take an idea you’ve seen online, in a workshop or read in an article, adapt it, make it your own. Then, share it with others. Teaching can be a lonely profession but, by accepting and offering ideas and activities with others, we join the great tradition of the teaching community as a sharing, supportive community. Sharing empowers us and our community. It helps us to become better teachers.
Creativity in the classroom
So in the spirit of the sharing teaching community, here are two ideas that have worked well for us, and which we’d like to share with you.
1 Show and imagine
This is a motivating, personalised activity where the students practise speaking fluency. It’s based on a traditional ‘show and tell’ activity – but with a twist. You can also use it as a lead-in or lead-out to a lesson where the learners focus on describing objects. It can be used with any level from strong elementary (A1+) upwards.
Stage 1: Ask the students to draw a picture of something that is really important or significant to them. Preferably, this should be an inanimate object, but if you feel it necessary, they can include a pet. Set a time limit for the drawing, e.g. one minute. It doesn’t need to be a work of art!
Stage 2: Put the students into pairs, A and B. Ask them to look at each other’s drawings but to say nothing. Tell them that, in a moment, they will have to imagine that their partner’s object is theirs, not their partner’s, and they have to make up and tell their partner the following information (display it on a board or screen):
Imagine your partner’s object is yours. Use your imagination to say:
1 what it is;
2 where and how you got it;
3 how long you’ve had it;
4 what it’s made of (if it’s an object);
5 why you like it;
6 an anecdote, story, incident or memory related to it;
7 any future plans you have related to it;
8 anything else you like.
Adapt the prompts to suit the level of your students.
Stage 3: Ask Student A to talk about ‘their’ object (i.e. the one in Student B’s drawing). Tell Student B that they should look interested, nod their head, smile and use other back-channelling strategies (showing that they’re following with interest) such as saying Uh-huh, Really? Wow! etc. Explain that they can also ask questions, eg Where exactly was that? When Student A has finished, Student B tells them the real information. Then they swap: Student B now talks about Student A’s object and then compares it with the real information.
Stage 4: Ask the pairs to report back to the class on any surprising information. Carry out a language review related to what the students actually said.
2 I have … a poem
The students write poems based on memorable, personal experiences, using sensory language. The activity can be used in a lesson focusing on the present perfect for experience. We first learnt of this poem and technique from Scott Thornbury.
Stage 1: Tell the students that you are going to read a poem (they don’t see the text). Ask them to listen for information about the senses (things the writer sees, hears, feels, smells or tastes). Read out the following poem:.
I have ...
I have seen the sun in the morning on the hills,
turning the hills and the sky to fire.
I have heard a bird in its cage
crying for the sky it has lost.
I have touched the grass beside the river,
wet with spring rain.
I have smelled roses, dead roses
in an empty house that no one has visited.
And I have tasted salt from the sea,
alone, at night, on a beach, in a storm.
I have done these things, and these things have made me old.
I have remembered these things, and these memories
have made me young.
Stage 2: Ask the students to recall any of the images they remember from the text. Take feedback and hand out the poem or display it on a screen. Ask them if they enjoyed the poem, which particular images were powerful for them and why.
Stage 3: Give the students the following sentence prompts and ask them to write their own
I have seen…
I have heard …
I have touched …
I have smelled …
I have tasted …
I have done …
I have remembered …
Stage 4: Allow the students time to work on their draft poems. They can ask you for help with any language they need. As they work, go around and help to edit the poems so that they are not full of mistakes. Get the students to share their poems with each other.
What I like most about the book
- The title! I like the old-world feel to the word Compendium and the alliteration, plus the fact that the title tells you exactly what the book contains.
- The cover! Colour, creativity and a light bulb: yes!
- The creative ideas. Imaginative and engaging and all entirely manageable, although you might want to adapt them to different individual classes. Nor do you need to be ‘wild and wacky’ - both authors are experienced classroom teachers and know what works and what doesn’t.
- The organisation of the book. It’s easy to find your way around either by looking at the contents, which are organised alphabetically according to topics (e.g. Dictation, Emotions, Film), or you can go to the index and find a language point you have to teach and an activity related to it. Also, all the materials and worksheets are actually contained within the covers of the book.
- The Professional Development section at the end of each chapter: points to discuss and activities to try out either on your own or with colleagues.
- The language link(s) to each activity so that teachers can easily fit them into the syllabus
- The introduction to each chapter for those who enjoy reading about rationales and theories underpinning the recipe ideas, for example: Why use kinaesthetics? What’s the origin of the word ‘quiz’? What’s the relevance of dual coding theory to using art or music in our language lessons?
- The book is now available on Kindle so you can carry it around on your tablet. Handy!
What would you be critical of?
As this is a review, albeit an author’s review, tradition requires that the reviewer points out areas for criticism, or improvement. But I think it was Michael Swan in a previous issue in this series who, when reviewing his own publication, wrote that every parent thinks their child is wonderful!
However, if the book reached a second edition, then perhaps we’d make more space for topics that have increased in relevance in current times. These might include creative ways of using online platforms, being creative about flipped learning, using apps which encourage creativity, and creative mediation tasks.
But you, teacher colleagues, know that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and you’ll find activities that work for you and (some of) your classes and others that work for other teachers (and classes).
Immordino-Yang, M H and Damasio, A. ‘We feel, therefore we learn: the relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education’ Mind, Brain, and Education 1 (1) 2007
Kaufman, J and Beghetto, R. ‘Beyond big and little: the four C model of creativity’ Review of General Psychology 13 (1) 2009
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Please check the Pilgrims online courses at Pilgrims website.
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