One thing I am often asked is, “How are you so creative? How do you come up with all of these engaging lessons?” While I’ve always loved to dream, write, construct, and create, “creativity” can feel just as elusive to me as it probably does for you. I consider myself a creative person, but that doesn’t mean I was born with it. In fact, I disagree with those who believe that creativity is an inherent gift. As creative as I may seem, it doesn’t always come naturally for me. I experience creative ruts often, I get writers’ block, and I have days when I feel like I am totally out of ideas.
The difference is that when I feel this way, I have habits and tricks to help me “train my brain” and jump-start my creativity. In fact, that’s exactly how this blog post was born! I was feeling unmotivated and lethargic, so I turned on some music, did a quick workout, and read a few pages from a book about creativity. Next thing you know, the same person who had previously wasted an hour or two lamenting her “creative rut” had outlined an entire blog post in a matter of minutes. (To be fair, writing + proofreading + preparing this post took a lot longer, but still.) Yep, I just restored my creativity by writing about creativity. Creativity inception! But my point is this: I was able to take steps to induce creativity and fully embrace it when it came to me. And you can, too!
But don’t take it from me, because there’s a growing body of research that shows that creativity isn’t fixed; rather, you can practice it, just like you would with a habit. In other words, you can cultivate creativity and become the creative teacher you’ve always wanted to be.
I’ve learned and am still learning how to “help myself” when I’m feeling uninspired and uncreative, so I wanted to share my best tips for jump-starting your creativity. It turns out that many of my tried-and-true tricks are backed by neuroscience. Win-win! I hope these 15 ideas inspire you to sit down and start creating. If at any point, you feel a creative urge coming on, EXIT OUT OF THIS TAB AND MAKE IT HAPPEN. (Well, you may want to pin this blog post and save the rest for later. But I won’t be offended if you abandon it to pursue a spontaneous wave of inspiration.) Happy creating!
1. READ A BOOK OR LISTEN TO A PODCAST
When you expose yourself to new information, you are more likely to think of creative ideas. It doesn’t even have to be a “teachery” book or podcast; in fact, it’s probably better if it’s something different. After all, creativity usually isn’t thinking of something brand new; it’s making connections, synthesizing ideas, or representing a complex idea with something more familiar. I find that I am most creative after I’ve read or listened to other information.
Whether it’s a blessing or a curse, the, “Oh! I can connect this to a lesson!” happens much more often when I’m regularly consuming information from books and podcasts. When I find myself in a creative rut, I simply take a break to read or listen to something. For example, I took a break while writing this blog post and read “The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday.” (Good book, by the way! I’ll review it soon.)
Exercise is my go-to strategy when I’m feeling down or uninspired, because at the very least, I know it will improve my mood and make me feel better about myself. But according to a growing body of research on the hippocampus and its involvement in imagination, your brain on exercise may be more creative. In this video, Dr. Suzuki explains her hypothesis on how exercise enhances creativity. (Hey, idea alert: This video would make for a cool lesson!) While Suzuki is still testing her hypothesis, other evidence, like this study, suggests that those who exercise regularly are more creative than their peers who don’t.
For me, any exercise seems to get my mind buzzing with ideas, but I’m the most creative after a run. Whether it’s the hippocampus activation that Suzuki is exploring, or just the mood-boosting endorphins, one thing is for sure: I am always happy I worked out, and I feel ready to tackle the work on my to-do list. (And I’m not a “fitness coach,” y’all…just a teacher who wants to be creative.)
3. GET OUTSIDE
If you’re searching your brain for creative ideas, you just might be looking in the wrong place! The answer may be outside! Various studies have shown that simply being out in nature can decrease stress, improve your mood, reduce “attention fatigue,” and boost creativity. If you can, try getting outside to walk during your prep period for a nice creativity-boosting break during the school day. You might not accomplish “All of the Things,” but you may have a creative breakthrough.
At the very least, you’ll get some much-needed peace, fresh air, and Vitamin D, so you have nothing to lose. Even though I am leaving the stack of papers to grade behind on my desk, I find that when I get outside for a little bit, I actually increase my productivity when I return to my work. It clears enough “brain space” for me to focus on a task or brainstorm new ideas.
4. BRAIN DUMP ALL OF YOUR IDEAS
Even if you feel like you have no good ideas, brain dump whatever thoughts you have. Even the ideas that seem stupid, the ideas you know you don’t have enough time to accomplish, the ideas you don’t love, whatever! Just dump them so they’re not hanging out and taking up space in your brain. I brain dump in a variety of places, thanks to my #typeb mind: the notes section of my phone, my planner, Google docs, and a sticky-note idea bulletin board. I get stressed when ideas exist only in my mind because I fear that I will forget them. So the act of writing them down frees up some of that brain space I need to actually accomplish the ideas.
I don’t know if I believe in the whole “manifesting” idea, but I do know that jotting these ideas down makes them more real and likely to be created. Sometimes, I write the same ideas down in my planner, week after week, because I know that eventually, I might have the time or energy to bring them to life. This makes me feel better when I’m in a creative slump or a time crunch. Knowing that I have ideas hanging out in my planner or phone is comforting because when I’m ready, I can hit up that list and start creating!
5. COLLABORATE WITH OTHER TEACHERS
Like I mentioned earlier, creativity is more about combining ideas than conceiving an entirely original idea! One of the best ways to jump-start your creativity is to simply find another human and chat about your ideas. You might not be able to freely brainstorm during your scheduled teacher team meetings, but consider setting aside some time to brainstorm and collaborate with other teachers. If this isn’t an option, find some teachers online, and bounce ideas off of them. If you want to get really wild, try collaborating with a teacher in a different subject area and brainstorm some innovative cross-curricular connections!
6. TAKE A BREAK & SWITCH TASKS
Creativity can be weird and elusive. If you’re anything like me, it comes and goes, so I’ve learned to embrace it when I have it, and I’ve stopped forcing it when I don’t. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is take a break, switch tasks, and return to your creative endeavors later. If you’re trying to lesson plan, but you have no creative ideas, give yourself a break. Straighten up your classroom. Get some grading done. Respond to a few emails. Give yourself some time away from the task, and return to it later with a fresh set of eyes. Take the pressure off yourself and remember that you don’t have to be creative all of the time. You’ll have days, weeks, and even months when you’re feeling less creative. It’s completely normal, and usually your creativity will return when you least expect it (because it’s sneaky like that)!
7. SHIFT YOUR MINDSET
When you’re constantly busy and overwhelmed, your brain has very little space to dream, brainstorm, connect, and create. You’re also more likely to think about negative outcomes instead of positive ones. If you shift your thinking, open up your mind, and embrace ideas instead of pushing them away, you’ll be surprised with the creativity that comes to you! Here are a few ways to re-frame your mindset:
- Ask yourself: If I wasn’t stressed and overwhelmed, what would I do?
- If you think or hear of an idea, say, “Yes, and…” instead of “Yes, but…” Instead of immediately thinking of all of the reasons an idea might not work, consider why it might work!
- Ask yourself: If I knew I wouldn’t fail, what would I do?
8. STOP SCROLLING
Pinterest and Instagram can be a great source of ideas…until they’re just not! It’s incredibly easy for social media to turn into a time-suck or a giant pit of imposter syndrome. If you find yourself losing time or energy, asking yourself “How are they so creative? I could never think of that!” it may be time to stop scrolling. Forget about them and their ideas, and focus on you and your ideas. If you find yourself consuming more than you’re creating, then maybe you need to cut back on your scrolling and give yourself more space to brainstorm. I find that I’m most creative, original when I’m off the teacher ‘gram and in my own world! Sometimes I even forget to check back into Instagram when I’m really on a roll.
9. USE MIND-MAPPING OR SKETCH-NOTING
When you have a spark of creativity or a “baby idea” that you need to bring to life, don’t let it sit there. Do something with it! Take full advantage of your inspiration by mind-mapping or sketch-noting to develop your ideas and make new connections! This kind of visual thinking can boost your creativity by activating both sides of your brain (don’t take it from me — listen to sketchnote extraordinaire Mike Rohde here). I love taking half-formed ideas and visually bringing them to life, even if it’s only on a page or a mind map. Once my ideas have been developed in this way, I can usually tell if they’re worth pursuing in real life.
9. KEEP A TRIED-AND-TRUE LIST
This strategy is really my best-kept secret for staying creative! Keep a list of tried-and-true creative ideas or templates that you can return to when you’re in a rut. This takes the pressure off of creating so it doesn’t feel like a chore! This simple trick saves my life all the time. It keeps my lessons fresh and engaging without creating extra work for me.
I have an escape room template, multiple learning stations templates, a question trail template, a gallery walk template, a speed dating discussion template, agenda templates, novel study resource templates, and more. I have a variety of learning stations for different texts (analyzing theme stations HERE, informational text stations HERE, poetry analysis stations HERE, stations for any novel HERE). These are all engaging, creative lessons, and if I can use them, I’m going to. There’s no sense in challenging myself to be “even more creative” when I have resources that already work.
10. TRY SOMETHING NEW
This goes back to #1 and the concept of exposing yourself to something new! But it doesn’t have to be new information; it can be new people, new experiences, and new feelings! Maybe this means trying out that hot yoga class, visiting an art museum, going on a hike at a local park, trying an escape room, or even hitting up that eclectic coffee shop in town (you know, the one that you’ve always wanted to go). Whatever it is, get yourself in a new environment that will stimulate your senses in a different way.
Sometimes, a little change of scenery and stimuli is all you need. Who knows, you may find yourself creating a “gallery walk” after the museum, a digital “field trip” after the hike, a book tasting after the coffee shop, or an educational breakout after the escape room! See what I mean? Some of the coolest lessons come from living your life! (As a disclaimer, I would like to add that my favorite “speed dating” lessons did not come from actual speed dating…nor did my popular mock trial come from a court date! LOL!)
12. OBSERVE ANOTHER TEACHER
Remember when you were student teaching, and you had the chance to soak up all of the ideas from a veteran teacher? I remember feeling like my head was just brimming with ideas from my pedagogical books and lectures, but mainly from the incredible teachers I had the privilege of observing. While I don’t miss the never-ending stress of student-teaching, I do miss the chance to sit back and watch other human beings teach. Once you settle into teaching, it’s easy to get stuck in your own routines and forget what else is out there.
While I’ll admit that it is difficult to find the time to observe other teachers, I know that any time I’ve done it, I’ve walked away with a new idea. It’s not always an earth-shattering, ultra-creative idea; sometimes, it’s just as simple as a procedure for turning in homework or a new phrase to grab students’ attention. What’s important is that these little ideas remind you that there’s so much out there beyond the 4 walls of your classroom. There are so many educators to learn from and different ways to do things!
13. ASK YOUR STUDENTS FOR IDEAS
If you don’t have the time to dream up a creative idea, ask your students (or just listen to what they’re talking about). What are they up to? What’s trending? What do they care about? I’ve gotten some of my BEST ideas from my students. I actually brainstormed “speed debating” after I heard a student rearranged a pair of desks and joked, “Hey, it looks like we are on a date!”
Asking your students for ideas doesn’t have to be a formal process, although you could easily create a Google form to send out to your classes. I’ve found success having informal conversations with students before/after class, during passing periods, or during a study hall. Students will tell you what they want to learn and how they want to learn it, and while you can’t make all of their wishes come true, you can certainly use their ideas as a springboard.
14. THINK FIGURATIVELY
Symbols, analogies, and metaphors, oh my! Seriously, if you are struggling, stop staring at the standards and start thinking about symbols. (Of course, you’ll connect them back to those standards). If you want a quick shortcut to creativity, challenge yourself to think of 3 different symbols, analogies, metaphors, connections, etc. Here’s an example of this exercise in creativity:
A thesis statement is like: a road map to your essay, a concise tweet that summarizes your essay, a tour guide on a hike!
After you brainstorm your ideas, pick one to serve as the inspiration for your lesson, return to those standards, and start creating!
15. PLAY (YES, REALLY)
Research has shown us that play (yes, even for adults) has a host of benefits for the brain, including boosting creativity. So don’t be afraid to jump on those swings at the park, try out a new board game, or get on the floor and play pretend with your kids. If you’re not into the whole “play” thing, then take some time to reconnect with what makes you happy. This will relieve stress, restore the balance in your brain, and hopefully lead to creativity. You may even find a way to connect your passion to your classroom, or, better yet, incorporate your students’ passions in your next lesson!
I hope these ideas help you remember that creativity is not an inherent gift. Rather, it’s something all of us can embrace, if only we are open to it! 🙂 If you enjoyed this blog post, here are a few others you might want to check out:
What helps you jump-start your creativity? Is it a cup of coffee, a refreshing shower, or a new book? Let me know in the comments!