Teacher Feature: John Heisey
Creativity has proven to be a key component of brain development as well as an essential tool in building confidence and acquiring strong social skills. Creative people tend to embrace challenges, learn from mistakes and use their imaginations to better their lives. Unfortunately for some students, room for creativity in education often decreases in the older grades. For a lucky few, creativity is alive and well…
Want to get your students’ creative juices flowing again? Check out how a 7th grade Social Studies teacher fosters creativity in his high-tech (almost paperless) classroom.
Mr. John Heisey, our May Teacher Feature and middle school super hero, has given his students the tools, the time and the freedom to be creative. Yes, I said he gives his students TIME and FREEDOM to be CREATIVE.
This Penn State graduate has an impressive toolbox of secret weapons that he uses to create the optimal learning environment for his students. For starters, he holds dual certification in secondary English and Social Studies Education, as well as a third degree in Communications.
His remarkable knowledge of technology has led him to become the technology integration coach for his school. Besides his impressive educational achievements, he is also a skilled outdoors man. He hikes, fly fishes, runs marathons and coaches 7th grade baseball at his middle school.
Finally, he has a fundamental belief in the importance of finding new ways to keep his students motivated. Mr. Heisey promotes independence in learning, conquers stagnation in education and fosters creativity. And, he does all this without even wearing a cape!
Developing Creative Learners in a Blended Environment
In today’s lesson, Mr. Heisey uploads a picture of a rubric using Microsoft® One Note® and a Smartboard®. His students begin discussing the different requirements of a project for which they are about to be introduced. The rubric will provide guidance to students for the duration of the project.
“Today you are going to begin writing your own piece of historical fiction. According to this rubric, what does your story need to include?”
Quickly the classroom transforms into a round-table discussion of ideas and solutions to crafting the perfect writing pieces. His students’ proficiency in Middle-Age history is evident as they begin to discuss specific events and influential people.
Mr. Heisey emphasizes a critical part of the project that encompasses the entire rubric. “I want you to show the readers of your story the Middle-Ages, include elements of the stories we’ve read and most importantly: Have fun and be creative!”
Putting the Imagination to Work
Next, Mr. Heisey passes out completed stories for his students to peruse.
“Here are some examples of stories written by former students. Take a few minutes to read through and critique these stories,” he instructs.
After about 5 or 6 minutes pass, the emergence of quiet conversations among the inspiring writers queues the next discussion…
“So what do you think?” Mr. Heisey interjects.
A few random answers are called out:
“I really like how this writer used details about the Plague and the Mongol attack, but there were a few spelling mistakes.”
“I think this writer got the history wrong.”
“Good.” Mr. Heisey responds. “Remember to get your history correct when you write your stories and be careful of spelling and grammar mistakes, because that can make your story more difficult to read.”
We are only about 15 minutes into the class period when Mr. Heisey provides one more support for his budding writers.
Interactive settings for a Middle-Ages story are projected using the Smartboard. Mr. Heisey and his students have fun discussing a variety of opening scenes, protagonist characters and potential conflicts.
Throughout the class period, students have access to the digital story supports along with a host of other available resources. Websites, previous class projects, text and library books, maps, story samples, magazines and fellow classmates are just a few of the resources available.
“Everyone take a few seconds to meet with your partner and discuss your story idea.”
The classroom becomes a flurry of activity. Students are up and moving about, discussing ideas and talking about the different resources they may find to be helpful. Without changing the activity level of the classroom, Mr. Heisey gives his students the go ahead to start writing. He gives no direction to “sit” or “quiet down.” His students are free to access all the resources provided during class, and like all good writers, they do.
I asked Mr. Heisey about the effectiveness of this type of activity.
“Student motivation is a never-ending challenge in education, and allowing for creativity is one of the best ways around that challenge. Historical fiction, documentaries, political propaganda – these are great ways to get students to show what they know.”
The previous buzz of the classroom has settled into a focused calm. I watch as Mr. Heisey provides support when needed. He is careful not to take away from his students’ own creative thoughts by providing too much direction.
As I observe his students working, it suddenly strikes me that I am in a Social Studies class! This whole time, the students were actually learning about the Middle Ages. I have to smile as I look around the room at these poor unsuspecting students who have just been bamboozled into learning lots of content, while being given the opportunity to grow creatively.
“How important is it to incorporate reading and writing into your Social Studies class?” I ask.
“The line between history and English is a blurry one. Understanding literature means understanding the context in which it was written, and nobody can understand a time period without seeing art and literature that came out of it. The cognitive processes – analysis and critical thinking – overlap in the two disciplines as well. I really approach my classes much more like a general humanities class than strictly a history class.”
Producing Lasting Results
Quietly wandering around the room, I am able to get a glimpse of the writing being produced by these students. Some students are creating outlines, some have sketched a few pictures in what resembles a comic strip, others are developing characters by researching names and living conditions. Once in a while, a student will use the digital story-starters for additional inspiration, while others are typing emphatically to get the story out of their head and onto the screen, before they lose any important parts.
It occurs to me that they are using the same skills used by professional writers. These 7th graders have a solid set of writing, research and communication skills as well as an in-depth knowledge of the 13th and 14th centuries. To say these students are getting prepared for college and career is an understatement!
I happen to notice one girl staring at the screen in front of her – possibly a little lost? “Are you having fun writing?” I ask.
“Oh, I’m not writing. I’m creating a story.” She smiles and begins typing again.
His students are not writers – they are creators of stories. #Superhero.
Thank you, Mr. Heisey!
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