Students taking the creative route to knowledge

In Kathy Watson’s classroom, a little bit of anarchy reigns.

Her students freely give opinions on their assignments, and are encouraged to adapt projects as they see fit. Schedules and due dates are more flexible than hard and fast, and talking with your next-door neighbor is smiled upon.

This freedom, Watson said, is all part of her plan.

“I feel strongly that as much as possible, my students need to be able to make some decisions about their learning and, when appropriate, take the lead in either designing the learning or, at least, the product,” she said.

Her intent, she said, is that each student be allowed to fully express themselves and explore their particular abilities and interests, all while still fulfilling the requirements of the activity.

“Ultimately, the goal is for them to continue to develop their intellectual abilities and to grow as independent, life-long learners,” Watson said.

Fortunately, Watson’s students are especially well-equipped for this largely self-directed learning. She teaches the South Kitsap School District’s Quest students, which are a carefully selected bunch identified as “highly-capable” and represent approximately the top two percent of the schools’ population.

Watson said the job of her and her co-instructor, paraeducator Leiani Sherwin, is more to facilitate learning, rather than to direct it.

“I see our role as encouraging the students,” she said. “Letting them do the projects and learn from each other.”

Once they find a direction, Watson said, they hardly ever need a push. They are off and running.

Top of their class

To be considered for Quest, students are first nominated. Typically teachers nominate students, but often their parents do, and sometimes students nominate other students and even themselves.

Once nominated, students are given three tests. The first one, a Cognitive Abilities Test that evaluates their verbal, quantitative and figural skills, is a screening test. The highest-scoring students — the top 100 in each grade level — are then given the next two tests.

The second is the Torrance Test of Creative thinking, which provides a general indication of creative abilities, specifically the flow and flexibility of ideas, the variety and the originality. The third test is the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children, which is administered and evaluated by a qualified district psychologist, unlike the first two which are given by Watson and her staff.

To be selected, a student must achieve a minimum IQ score of 125, and have scores on the Cognitive Abilities and Torrance tests in the top 15 percent of students tested.

The tests are designed to separate the highly-capable students from what Watson described as “high achievers,” which can sometimes appear to be highly-capable, but aren’t necessarily so, she said.

“There is no one way to tell,” Watson explained. Often, she said, the highly-capable are bored in normal classes and can be low achievers.

“Sometimes, they get all “As,” but not necessarily,” said Sherwin.

A maximum of 25 students is then accepted from each grade, for a total of 100 third- to sixth-graders. Once a week, the students travel by bus to Watson’s classroom at Hidden Creek, with a different grade each day.

Watson said each building has at least one student in the program, although not necessarily one for each grade level.

Once a student is accepted into the program as a third grader, he or she can participate every year until the ninth grade. Students can be admitted in later grades, she said, but only as spaces become available.

Although students occasionally choose to leave the program, often because they don’t like being pulled away from their other classmates or find it is too much of a commitment, Watson said most of the students choose to remain.

Both sides of the brain

As free as her classroom atmosphere appears, Watson said her curriculum is thoroughly and deliberately plotted.

Each grade level completes two projects a year — a research-centered one and a more creative endeavor. Once completed, each student presents the finished product to the class.

Although the themes of the projects and the year they complete them in are already mapped out — such as fourth-graders researching a technological advancement and then creating an island, complete with cities, culture and an adventure-story backdrop — the students are allowed plenty of input. Not only have most of the assignments been created by or expanded upon by past students, present and future students can modify them even further.

For instance, one year Watson asked her students to think about what they would want in a playground. It was designed to just take one day, but students took it and ran with it, she said, until it encompassed designing the “perfect playground” by not only integrating several different architectural elements, but by representing the finished product with three-dimension drawings from all four sides and from above.

Watson said the assignments are carefully designed to use left- and right-brain skills, and engage the student’s own creativity and interests as much as possible.

“I suppose you might call it freedom within a framework,” Watson said. “Within the theme, students have to make choices about their topic, what their final product will look like and the kind of presentation they will make.” This freedom increases with the age of her students, Watson said.

“My younger students, the third-graders, have a more structured and guided project, but the older students can make a wider range of decisions about their projects, with sixth graders having the greatest latitude in their decisions,” she explained.

Sparking creativity, in all its forms, is especially important to her, although many of her students are not used to being creative, and some of the projects are very much “out of their comfort zone.”

“Creativity is very personal,” Watson said, and can be expressed in many different ways, even in how to solve a math problem, and she wants her students to feel comfortable exploring their ideas.

“I want them to know it’s a safe place to be a little odd,” she said. “Making fun is not allowed. My students know that is the quickest way to get into trouble.”

Watson said this nurturing of the students’ ideas results in some astounding presentations that never stop surprising her, such as the girl who carefully compared each aspect of her day-to-day life with that of Laura Ingalls Wilder in “Little House on the Prairie,” or another girl who wanted to research leavening, and how bakers could make dough rise without yeast or baking soda.

“She discovered that snow would work, but it had to be very fresh snow,” Watson said. “We tried it, and it worked!”

Watson admitted she had doubts about that project in the beginning.

“I’ve learned to bite my tongue,” she said. “Some of the projects that I think are not going to work have turned out to be some of the best.

“I truly believe their brains are wired differently,” she continued. “There is a qualitative difference in how they think. And it’s not something that can be taught.”

Eager to learn

Watson’s students sound like a dream for any teacher.

On a recent Tuesday, her fifth-graders admitted to liking to think. They said they usually finished assignments early, then eagerly went on to something else.

“Here, you can work at your own pace,” said Andrea Sherman. “If you finish faster, you can work on something else, where as in my other classes, there would be nothing to do.”

Sherman’s classmates agreed, and many also said they appreciated being encouraged to think “out-of-the-box.”

William Clark said instead of a teacher giving you a research project about a particular person, then telling you which books to read and then “to write a 1,000 word paper,” in Watson’s class you could tailor the project to your interests, decide how you want to research and then present your findings.

Peter Grieser said he enjoyed the structure of the class, and also just being around his fellow students.

“I can relate to a lot of other people just like me,” he said. “I can talk to them about stuff other kids aren’t as interested in.”

Watson said it is good for bright students to interact with each other. It not only helps them feel less isolated, but is a crucial aspect of their growth.

“Studies show that highly-capable kids need to spend 25 percent of their day with their intellectual equals,” she said.

Watson said every attempt should be made to help these students reach their potential, but, unfortunately, she believes they are “the most underserved population in public education.”

“There are laws that protect the lower end, that do not exist to protect the higher end,” she said. “There is a tendency in education to believe that if the kids are making standards, which all of these are, then there’s no problem. But if that is the approach, they are never going to achieve what they are capable of.”

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