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- Creativity and Student-made Materials in Elementary EFL Classes: A Reflection on Practice
Creativity and Student-made Materials in Elementary EFL Classes: A Reflection on Practice
Roxy Lee is an elementary school English teacher working in South Korea. She has an MA TESOL from Dankook University. Her research interests include critical thinking, critical literacy, and critical pedagogy. She is a member of Korea TESOL’s reflective practice and social justice groups. Contact: email@example.com
Stewart Gray is an English teacher at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, a graduate of the Dankook University MA TESOL program, and is Ph.D. student at the University of Leeds. His research interests include language and identity, reflective practice, critical thinking, and critical pedagogies. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Creativity is enshrined in the South Korean school curriculum as a core objective of education (Lee, 2013). Yet, in practice, it can be challenging for teachers to find space for encouraging creative thinking within the constraints of the Korean public education system, focused as is it often is on rote learning of correct answers for achievement on standardised tests (Roh, 2011; Lee, 2013). For this reason, two English as a foreign language (EFL) teachers (the authors) in Korea chose a private, class of four young, early-stage EFL learners as a project site. In conducting this project, which took place over sixth months with two, 90-minute classes per week, our goal was to encourage students to create their own works of art, stories, and games as part of their English learning, and to use assessment as a tool to guide them in their creation (Payne Young, 2009). This reflective account of practice outlines our approaches to class and assessment design, and the experiences we had while implementing these – thus, it represents a particular example of the process and practice of incorporating creativity into EFL pedagogy for the reader’s consideration.
Creativity in EFL education: Rationale
Creativity is among the most prized goals of modern education. Students educated in creativity have demonstrated everything from improved social skills and self-esteem (Lee, 2013) to improved capacity to handle ambiguity, recognise patterns, and take risks (Richards, 2013). Further, many modern forms of employment now demand creativity (Pink, 2011), and governments (including Korea’s) have passed on this demand to their teachers (Lee, 2013).
EFL teachers, in particular, are arguably well placed to encourage creativity – language acquisition involves developing the ability to use language in creative ways as surely as it involves mastery of grammatical forms and set phrases (Pennycook, 2010; Roh, 2011; Thornbury, 2017). For this reason, there have been calls to incorporate more open-ended activities that provide opportunities for ‘divergent’, creative expression (Richards, 2013) into Korean EFL education, alongside or at the expense of the ‘convergent’, correct answer-focused approaches that are more usual in the context (Roh, 2011). The present paper recounts a project conducted by two EFL teachers trying to put this into practice.
Project design considerations
Definition of creativity
The first step in this project was to define ‘successful’ creation – no universally accepted definition exists (Treffinger, et al., 2002; Starko, 2013), and there is pronounced disagreement among commentators about how creativity can be assessed (see, for example, Baer and McKool, 2009). So it falls to teachers to select a definition based on literature and on sound, context-specific pedagogical goals (Richards, 2013), then shape teaching/assessment practices to fit this definition (Treffinger, et al., 2002; Payne Young, 2009). With this in mind, the authors (hereafter, we) decided that in order to be considered successful, students’ creative expression would need to satisfy the following three criteria:
1. Novelty – our first goal was to encourage students to be creative, and we took our core understanding of this from Stein (1953): creativity involves ‘a reintegration of already existing materials’ into something that ‘contains elements that are new.’ (p. 311)
2. Value – Csikszentmihalyi (1999) describes successful creativity in terms of its social value (the approval of others). As a goal of ours was to make our classes enjoyable (motivation being essential for creativity [Starko, 2013]), we defined value as the enjoyment derived from a creation by others.
3. Use of English – successful creativity must be ‘effective’ (Runco, et al., 2012), meaning appropriate to the context (ibid) and useful for those in it (Stein, 1953) – our context was an English class, and so we defined the usefulness of a creation in terms of English employed by the creator and by other students in the class in response to the creation.
Curricular constraints discouraged us from experimenting with a creativity-centric pedagogy in our primary workplaces. However, we happened to share responsibility for a small, private EFL class involving four early elementary-age students, all with some, limited experience of formal English study in public school, and beginner English proficiency (with one student being notably less confident). In this class, we had the freedom to design our own curriculum, and so it was in this class that we elected to conduct the present project.
Chosen approach to creative expression: Student-made class materials
With regards to the manner in which we would encourage students to be creative, we decided to have students create materials that could be employed as class activities (i.e., materials appropriate and useful [Stein, 1953; Runco, et al., 2012] for an EFL class). We reasoned that such creations would provide two opportunities for English practice, once in creation, and once in use as activities, and that the requirement that creations produced be used by peers would encourge creators to use clear, level-appropriate English, which might contribute to their development of communicative compentence (Swain, 1985). This product-oriented focus (Lubart, 1994) would also make it possible to assess the materials created and language used, allowing students and us to know whether and to what degree the creations satisfied the above-mentioned three success criteria (Payne Young, 2009).
In terms of products, we decided to give students three options: a comic, a game, or a picture. We offered three options because the freedom to make autonomous decisions about one’s task is important if one is to be creative (Pink, 2011; Pichugova, et al., 2016). Further, we provided these options because we knew they would be valuable (enjoyable) for young students, and because these particular creations can involve a combination of language and other expressive modes (visual, kinaesthetic, etc.) (Kress, 2015; Canagarajah, 2007). By contrast, other creations such as poetry or songs would have required more complex and exclusive use of language, rendering them less accessible to beginner-level students.
Project class design: Outline
Linguistic and creative input: Extensive reading
In order to provide students with the input (‘existing materials’ [Stein, 1953, p.311]) needed for their creations (Lee, 2013) and for their language learning (Krashen, 2008), and, again, to maximise student choice (Pink, 2011; Pichugova, et al., 2016), we decided to base our curriculum on extensive reading (ER) (Day and Bamford, 2002): students were given a wide selection of English children’s books from which to choose once a week. They were encouraged to select books that they could read comfortably, and that appealed to them (ibid). In the first of the two classes each week, students would read stories, and tell them to the other students. Then for homework, they were instructed to produce one of the three available types of creations in response to one of the books they had read, and then bring their creation into the second class of the week for use as an activity. We judged a rate of one book and one creation (done as homework) per week appropriate time for students to absorb the relevant language and contents (Stein, 1953) and create something from them (Starko, 2013).
Student-made activity class procedure
For the second class of each week, time (90 minutes) was divided into two halves. The first half was given over to the students (around 10 minutes each) for them to play their game with their peers, present their picture, or tell the story in their comic. In the case of pictures and stories, we encouraged all students to comment, provide feedback (peer-assessment), and ask questions of the creator, in order to practice English and help them clearly understand the creation. The teacher (whichever of the two authors was teaching that day) supported them by providing a range of level-appropriate question prompts. The teacher sometimes provided verbal feedback and advice for future creations, also. This portion of class was audio-recorded, and the teacher would take real-time, observational notes about students’ successes and struggles, including the sort of language support they needed.
After each class, the teacher would listen to (and occasionally transcribe) the recorded audio, make reflective notes, and discuss these with the other teacher – these notes and discussions were used to design activities for subsequent classes. These activities were employed in the second half of class. This half would involve storybook readings by the teacher, and, in relation to books read, a variety of open-ended language practice activities (Richards, 2013): games, role-plays, art activities, story-creation activities. The purpose of this time was to support students in their English practice and to establish a class environment in which the expectation was that novel things would be created (Mauzy and Harriman, 2003, in Oh and Cho, 2014, p.516).
At the end of each student-made activity class, two forms of assessment were employed: (1) the teachers would refer to a rubric they had designed around the three success criteria and assess each student’s creation; also, (2) each creator would complete a Likert scale self-assessment sheet also based on the three success criteria. These two assessments included questions such as: was English used in the creation? Did peers speak English in response to the creation? Had the creator used the language/themes of the book? Had the creator added anything new to the original book contents? Etc.
In combination with peer feedback already given, these assessments allowed both the teacher and the students to recognise areas (novelty, value, English use) where improvements could be made. The intention here was to make transparent the goals of the class (Payne Young, 2009; Jonsson and Svingby, 2007) and thereby encourage students to internalise these goals (Jonsson and Svingby, 2007), and potentially improve their creations over time (Starko, 2013). Both of the assessment instruments (available on request to the authors) were regularly reshaped and reworded upon post-class reflection and discussion by the two authors.
Project experiences and insights
The following (3) sections are based on observational and reflective notes made by both teachers, and collected examples of student work. Student comments were gathered via survey towards the end of the project.
- Students demonstrated impressive capacity for creativity
By the time the project concluded, the four young students had produced many creations, and the later ones in particular were often highly impressive to us – that is, they exceeded our expectations. In terms of novelty, students would often re-write the ending of their story book, insert their own characters, or otherwise manipulate the story in the comic or picture they created. Otherwise, they would extract a linguistic or thematic element from their books and make these the basis for a game of their own devising; and this without direct guidance from a teacher (the creations were homework). Further, they often produced visually impressive materials. For example, image 1 is a game produced by one student: as can be seen, the student took time to produce a beautiful game set.
This game was created from a book with a ‘food’ theme. Play involved asking questions to one’s partner in order to claim a food picture: ‘Would you like to eat….?’ Thus, the creator, unassisted, extracted both theme and language point from their book, and created a game that required their peers to practice speaking English.
In some cases, students would produce materially simple but nonetheless effective materials. On one occasion, a student brought in a game that resembled nothing the teachers themselves had used – it was a game in which pieces of paper were hidden around the room, and had to be found following the creator’s clues given partly in English and partly in Korean. In the event, this game was so entertaining that other students emulated it in their own creations for weeks after.
- Students creations broadly improved over time
In contrast to the above, creations made earlier in the project tended to be more clumsily designed, less obviously novel, and involved little English, if any. Games produced were often poorly thought out with overly complex rules, leading to a lack of understanding and enjoyment by peers. Comics and pictures were often hastily produced, lacking colour and, more importantly, English. An example is image 2, a picture created early in the project by the student least confident in English. This picture is roughly drawn, and is a direct copy of the student’s book’s cover, without novelty.
However, as time went on the ‘quality’ of student creations improved, overall. Image 3, for example, was also created by the same, somewhat unconfident student, but this time involved far greater colour and detail, a wider variety of English vocabulary, and drew on the themes of the original book, but with the addition of the creator’s own character and objects.
It must be noted that improvement was not unilateral – on occasion, even late in the project, students would sometimes bring in creations that could not satisfy our success criteria. As for the gradual, overall improvement that did take place, exactly what caused it cannot be certainly known, but students’ survey comments suggest that a combination of criteria-focused self-assessment and peer feedback were helpful. As one student commented: ‘After assessment, I want to fix the parts (that needed improvement)’ (translated from Korean). Another factor may have been the ER curriculum – indeed, not only did the volume of English in students creations gradually increase, but by the end all four self-reported improvements in their English. Again an exact cause is difficult to ascertain, but one student’s survey comment was suggestive: ‘Before I couldn’t read a book in English, now I can.’ (translated)
3. Students particularly desired praise and autonomy
The time and energy students voluntarily invested at home in making their creations was often considerable. Though they were never punished (or materially rewarded) by the teachers, their motivation to create detailed and enjoyable (i.e., socially valuable) materials often seemed high – this may have stemmed from a desire for praise and approval from their peers and the teacher. The teachers’ reflective notes record occasions on which students reacted somewhat negatively to constructive comments made by the teacher – they seemed aware of insincerity in praise, or total lack thereof. For instance, a student once remarked on their self-assessment sheet: ‘I worked so hard, and yet nobody praised my game – I felt really bad.’ (translated)
Whatever the source of their motivation, students grew more proactive in seeking autonomy over their creative work as the project progressed. We periodically asked them for feedback on the class, and they requested, variously, that they be allowed to collaborate on their creations (we obliged); that the number of classes per book be extended from two to three to allow for more creations based on the same book (again, we obliged); that we consider permitting creations involving outdoor activities and cooking (we declined this one, as the project period was almost finished). By the end of the project, student input into the class had been considerable; and while all students declared in their surveys that they found the classes enjoyable, a comment by one student stood out: ‘I like this class because it is not rigid – please keep it that way!’ (translated)
The authors hope that the present reflective account of practice may serve as an example of the design and implementation of creativity-focused EFL classes. While this class of four students, in which we had total freedom to design everything, is quite a special context, it is conceivable that a highly similar project could be conducted in an after-school class, private tutoring, or public school English club context. Those teaching in other, perhaps more rigid contexts, who wish to explore creativity may benefit from considering our approach to defining creativity, choosing the sorts of creations on which to focus, and assessing those creations. While our particular choices may not suit other contexts, many of the principles we used in designing our own project could be used to design projects to suit other contexts as well.
The authors also hope that our experiences will be of interest to teachers, particularly in that they demonstrate young students learners’ capacity to be creative as part of their EFL studies, the potential benefits of peer and self-assessment for creativity (Jonsson and Svingby, 2007; Payne Young, 2009), the potential usefulness of ER as input for language learning and creative expression, the potential importance of praise and positive feedback as part of students’ motivation to be creative (Pichugova, et al., 2016), and the autonomy over time, team, and task that students may desire (Pink, 2011). Such insights may be of use to EFL teachers as educational policies and curricula shift increasingly towards creativity.
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Creativity and Student-made Materials in Elementary EFL Classes: A Reflection on Practice
Roxy Lee, South Korea;Stewart Gray, South Korea
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