Have you ever found yourself marking the same pupil responses over and over? You asked them to be creative; you asked them to use their imagination. Instead, they regurgitate countless clichés onto their pages, leaving you wishing you hadn’t bothered.
“The sky was blue.”
“Really?” I thought, as I read this for the thirty-second time. Now, I get that the sky is blue, but it can be so much more. Vocabulary can be a sticking point when it comes to creativity. You can only create using the knowledge that you have. Therefore, if you have a limited vocabulary to begin with, chances are that the sky will remain blue and your creative writing will remain dull. I had two problems that I wanted to tackle that week. My classroom was as dull as the pupils’ writing - could I kill two birds with one stone?
The solution came during a discussion with our specific educational needs expert, classroom assistant Lisa Heart. As a fan of Vincent Van Gogh, she was leafing through one of his books and explaining to me how she loved his descriptions of colour.
“Theo, what a great thing tone and colour are! And anyone who doesn’t acquire a feeling for it, how far removed from life he will remain!” - Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo
If only our pupils could describe colour like Vincent Van Gogh, we thought… and an idea sprang!
The set up
With Van Gogh as our inspiration, we wanted to create a classroom that inspired through colour. We wanted to create a room that felt like you were entering an art gallery. It should inspire conversation and ooze with rich vocabulary that would be easy to pick up and use. Lisa headed off to the local B&Q to gather every colour that the paint companies had to offer. She also worked on creating mini colour charts that included gradients of the main colour palletes linked to objects and feelings. We collaborated to create our classroom of colour, complete with images for stimulation, colourful materials as a talking point and examples of writing that went way beyond “The sky is blue.”
Standing at the classroom door, I held a box full of pebbles. On the board was the question: “What colour is your pebble?”
Each child was handed a pebble as they entered the room and asked to consider their starting question. When I took in their responses, they consisted of grey, black and brown. How inspiring!
On each desk was a colour chart card. I asked the children to take hold of these. They had 30 seconds to write down the colour on the card before passing it on and writing down the next colour again and again. Their pages began filling up with words like ruby, sapphire, dazzling, powder, opaque and so on. After a few minutes, I asked them to stop and compare the colours on their pages to the colours they had chosen for their pebbles. They could see the difference. They recognised the need to gather more vocabulary for their colours. Stage one was complete.
To see how real writers used colour, the children explored different stories, plays and, of course, the letters of Van Gogh. How did other writers use colour in their work? They experimented with images that we found online and tried out the new vocabulary gathered from the colour charts. It was important to allow the children freedom to explore, but equally as important to critique their creations.
Some children had produced wonderful descriptions: “The opaque water shimmered a silvery sheen against the coral moon.” Others needed work: “The so snazzy, antique gold was pinky purple in the blue light.” Some had thrown the whole paint pallet in without consideration of the effect upon readers. By listening to each other’s descriptions and exploring the effect that it had on us as listeners, we were able to develop some special and unique sentences.
Practice, practice, practice
At least once a week, we would have a go at describing different images as a starter to our lessons. Success came when they began asking me if they could get out of their seats to use the walls. They would get handfuls of colour charts to choose appropriate vocabulary for their descriptions. They would read the examples and use them to form their own sentences and I even found adaptations (not copies) of Van Gogh’s work in their own writing. If we had only one colour lesson and the colours had gone back into a box, never to be used again, we would not have had as much success as we did. We had to practice!
About one month after creating the colour room, I once again gave every child a pebble asking, what colour is your pebble? The responses this time were astounding. Those children could work for Dulux! They had stopped seeing the obvious first answer and were now drawing upon a much richer vocabulary to describe the everyday. The vocabulary was not limited to their writing either. The colour room inspired conversations about the colour of characters’ moods in novels, choices made by Shakespeare to characterise through colour and exploring how writers used colours differently.
The colour room was a platform for accelerating creativity through sparking conversation, practising new vocabulary regularly and creating a safe space to experiment and explore. Collaborating to create a space that allowed creativity to grow was a joy! The next time you read the words, the sky is blue… look up at your classroom walls and ask yourself, could you collaborate to create a colour room that inspires? We did and we loved it!
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Remember when you were in school and you were given weekly lists of words, with little or no relevance to your lessons or your life, and made to commit them to memory? How about those little primers that focus on mundane activities with a set of vocabulary words artificially embedded into the storyline? Well, chances are those same wordlists and primers are still being handed out today. Nothing has changed for decades.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a word nerd. I have always loved language - as a teacher and a writer. Vocabulary knowledge, I first noticed years ago as a young teacher, is the key to unlocking meaning for your students. It also gives educators insights into the world, as lifelong learners. How can we make learning interesting, colourful and complex words an exciting part of the fabric of classroom life? Or, how can we cultivate word geeks in our classrooms? And how can digital tools help?
Students love to share how they do things. This is especially true when they are working on iPads.
I have started to collect and document some of these workflows to share with other classes and other schools, all from my conversations with Yr 4, 5 and 6 kids.
What interests me is how reflection of both the process and the product is so important for them; if they are not satisfied with the product they will modify or enhance it further.
These posters can be used as a simple visual prompt for students - they get to see a quick process and how each step works, giving them scope to adapt it if they don't like their final piece of work.