Creativity In Education: Guest Blog (updated)

It was by kismet-accident that I came across Sally “Alex” Poppe. While trying to find someone with a similar name on LinkedIn, I came across Alex’s profile and thought Comrade in Arms. We connected on the site and I had the extreme pleasure of meeting her for an enlightening meeting about  websites, SEO’s…and education issues. We found a lot of commonality and it is my pleasure to have her write this very positive guest blog.

Bio: Sally “Alex” Poppe is a creative instigator with broad experience across Marketing, Education, Theatre Arts, and Consulting.  She combines elements from all disciplines to develop strategy and exceed goals.  Having worked in the United States, Scotland, Poland, Turkey, and Ukraine, she brings a global perspective and cultural curiosity to problem-solving.  For a complete professional profile, please visit Sally “Alex” Poppe at LinkedIn.

Creativity is as important in education as literacy,” expounds acclaimed British educator and leader in the development of innovation and human resources Sir Ken Robinson.[i]  As an ESL teacher in the United States and abroad, I have used traditional theatre techniques and Theatre of the Oppressed exercises in addition to traditional grammar and skills teaching to foster second language acquisition.  These methods produce huge gains in communicative fluency and accuracy as measured by traditional test metrics and FCE, TOEIC, and TOEFL scores.  More importantly, they also encourage students to explore their cognitive potential and foster camaraderie and team work.  That is why I believe arts funding should come to the forefront of scholastic agenda formation.  It should not be treated as a budgetary leftover. The particular case study I will use for this discussion involves a group of ten 13 to 16 year-old Ukrainian girls I taught in a language school in Kiev during 2009-2010.  Their English class was in addition to their regular academic curriculum and afterschool activities.  In the spring, the school sponsored a project week where most classes make posters.  Using four 90 minute periods these girls created and shot a 20 minute film in English.  The entire process was conducted in English.

One of the reasons this project was so successful was because I had used theatre based techniques throughout the school year.  The students were eager to participate because the activities were engaging.  They could get out of their chairs, move around the space, become collaborators and architects in the progress of their own lessons.  This inspired their trust in me and also in each other. Strong friendships were formed that existed outside of the classroom, even though the girls attended different high schools.  I had similar feedback from my adult Ukrainian students which is remarkable because culturally students do not maintain their friendships outside the school. Getting the girls to agree on a theme for the film was a lesson in negotiation.  I moderated with very limited input.  Practicing speaking and listening skills, the girls brainstormed story ideas, met in small group to discuss story development, then voted on the plot they wanted to explore.  Within this class session, we studied the idea of a story having a beginning, a middle, and an end, thereby practicing reading skills.

Once they had agreed on a story idea, we set to work on character. During the next period, I led the class through a group of character building exercises based on theatre techniques developed by Tim Phillips (character as if), Moni and Mina Yakim (physical manifestation of character),  and Andrea Haring (vocal center for the character).  I used Theatre of the Oppressed techniques to discover what was at stake for their characters.  The girls were interested because it was new for them and participated whole-heartedly.  For them it was fun, and a break from traditional class work.

All creative work was practiced in the target language of English.  Their writing homework that  night involved creating their own character’s personal back story and imagining their character’s future.  The writing homework synthesized many grammar tenses we had studied in traditional ways throughout the year. During the next session, the girls broke down the story into scenes which they wrote outlines for and then improvised in rehearsal.  This session was gratifying for me because I could see them thinking and creating in the moment in the target language.  They weren’t thinking about grammar or translating.  They were creating in English.  The last session was the day we shot the film.  We did a rehearsal  of each scene and shot a take.  One student took the film home and edited it on a computer.

The story they chose to tell was a celebration of their friendship and a projection into the future of how their lives would be.  I was touched they chose to celebrate their friendship, for they had truly become a team.  The use of creative exercises had broken down physical barriers because they were often out of their seats doing non-traditional activities that required team work, trust, and cooperation.  The projection into the future opened up their minds to all the possibilities available to them.  I have since received poems and songs created by my students in their free time.

[i] Tischler, Linda.  “IDEO’s David Kelley on ‘Design Thinking.’”  Fast Company 1 Feb 2009.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Hajra
    Jul 12, 2011 @ 12:05:37

    Building a lesson around an engaging activity remains one of the most creative and most useful tasks in the field of education. Though I am not in the teaching profession directly, I used drama as a technique when we were on a summer counseling program for encouraging lateral thinking.

    This is a wonderful example of how it is to be done and how it works.


    • Inspirative Arts
      Jul 14, 2011 @ 05:53:41

      Really informative post! People underestimate the power of creativity and the arts.

      Could you recommend any books for the theatre styles you mentioned?

      Thank you


      • bornstoryteller
        Jul 14, 2011 @ 06:35:34

        Tracey: I’ll contact Alex to add books on here. I’d suggest you look at Theater Games for Actors and Non-Actors and Theater of the Oppressed, both by Augusto Boal, to start. Alex will add any other books, but for right now, two amazing books and both are part of my personal library. Another book that comes to mind: Theatre for Community, Conflict and Dialogue, by Michael Rohd. Thanks

      • alex poppe
        Jul 14, 2011 @ 08:38:03

        hi tracey
        i was an actor for 12 years so alot of it was a culmination of knowledge, which i know isnt helpful for you. any improv book is a good place to start, Del close was a famous improv teacher. these kinds of exercises are also useful for ice breakers within the business environment. i dont know if tim phillips has a book, but his techniuqes for building character and script analysis are great. threatre of the oppressed techniques could be found in any book on the subject. creating physical character by moni and mina yakim is good for physical exercises that can be translated into teaching techniques for kinesthetic learners. best of luck and thanks for the feedback

  2. Inspirative Arts
    Jul 14, 2011 @ 07:40:08

    Thank you I shall look into those books 🙂



    • alex poppe
      Jul 15, 2011 @ 00:59:52

      hi tracey
      another thought. the creativity can come from anything, eaning without formal structure. in the photos, the girls have pieces of paper on their forheads with voc words. we played celebrity heads a la inglorious bastards to review those words. the girls uses speaking and listening skills to guess their words, so a vocabulary exercise became skills incorporated. i did the same riff with a game called mafia that is popular in kiev to practce modals of deduction. the key for me is to know what stimulates the students and find fun ways to incorporate that.


  3. Penelope J.
    Jul 17, 2011 @ 15:15:00

    This is an inspiring post and I hope it will reach many teachers of English both abroad and in this country. I wish that the U.S. educational system would realize the truth in your quote at the top of your post – “Creativity is as important as education in literacy.” Unfortunately, creativity has been pushed into the background in favor of a more passive, formal system based on memorizing and repeating. The formal methods of learning – parroting, translating, grammar, and even conversational are lengthy and results tend to be mixed to poor. Your method appears to have been highly successful as students are actively involved in the process and become a team working towards a goal. .

    I can relate somewhat as I’m a former teacher of English in Mexico where I had a successful experience with young adults using popular songs as a basis to promote discussion and compose conversations in English with them acting out the parts.


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