The Zone of the Unexpected

Posted by Mary Jones - 03 November, 2011

At the beginning of the school year, students in 2nd through 4th grade were given a white piece of paper with the same line drawn on it.

They were instructed to look carefully at the line, to turn the paper each way and see what images the line brought to mind.

They were asked to think of at least four things, explaining that we were after something different, something that no one else would think of.

They were given permission to think as “nutty” as they wanted.

Once they had their image in mind, they were asked to add lines, shapes, color or anything to make this ordinary line into something, a person, a place, a thing, real or imaginary.

The children were all assured that they would not be graded or judged on this, that is was just an exercise, so most of them jumped right in. A few took longer, but with reassurance that if they were quiet and let their mind play, that an image would come…and it did!

The results were fabulous and showed great creativity. As the children shared their drawings with each other we began to realize where ideas come from. They come from past experiences, “spaghetti and meatballs for dinner last night” reported one student, from our imaginations, from things we like, from needs that we may have, “I wish I had a Popsicle”.

Being called “creative” has not always been viewed as a positive attribute. In the past it has been used to explain or soften the blow to parents when their child does not meet the norms of what was viewed as a “good student.” I can hear the teacher now, “Oh, Mary has trouble reading, she doesn’t focus very well on her math and she day dreams a lot, but she is so creative.” Dad was not pleased!

Or the term was used to describe the student who was…you know, “different,” the non-conformist. All of this occurred while our culture was rewarding conformity. We wanted to dress alike, talk alike. Have you seen the re-runs of “Leave it to Beaver”? Then you know what I am talking about. Being creative was and for many of us even now is most commonly associated and limited to artistic pursuits.

Many of our parents report to me that they are not creative and don’t know where their child gets it from. Well, I can tell you, it comes from within and it is there in all of us, but it needs to be nurtured, encouraged and it can be taught!

Currently a great deal of thought and energy has been spent looking at graduates, people entering the work force, and we begin to wonder about students who were great test-takers, but seem to lack initiative, the ability to think for themselves, to ask great questions and develop new ideas, solve problems. Researchers, writers and educators are questioning our approaches to education. Perhaps students need more than the ability to do well on standardized tests.

Author Daniel Pink in his bestseller, A Whole New Mind, suggests that what we need more of in this new age are more right-brained people, creative, inventive people, unafraid to think freely, to synthesize information and create from it. He is not alone in his thinking as much has been written about this topic recently.

So, creativity. How do we define it, why is it important, and how do we nurture it in our students and ourselves? Creativity can be defined in so many ways but put simply, it means the ability to come up with something new.

Who needs creativity? We all do! It is what drives innovation, initiates change, and will hopefully solve problems facing us all!

How are we here at Randolph trying to nurture creativity?

First and foremost, we have embraced the need for it. We are making headway with the idea that we are all creative beings. Even you. You have ideas, ideas that perhaps you are afraid to share, afraid of ridicule so you keep them to yourselves. We at Randolph are trying to take away that fear for ourselves and our students. We are beginning to realize that creativity is not only essential to our being but can and must be taught. So how do we teach it?

One way is through exercises like the one described. These exercises give permission to think differently, to come up with personal solutions that do not merely repeat what an adult or other students have created. We would never send our athletes onto the playing field without prior exercise or practice. The same is true for our minds. In order to allow them to create, the creative juices, as I like to call them, must remain fluid through opportunity supported by an environment that embraces the need for new ideas!

We have made efforts to create a physical environment that stimulates thought, displaying pictures, photos, artwork throughout the School. We provide access to books, print materials, writing materials, art materials, and internet resources, when appropriate.

More importantly, we are establishing an emotionally safe place for students to ask questions , express their ideas, make mistakes, and not be judged for thinking “differently,” but rather encouraged to do so, to come up with new ideas, to be unafraid to ask questions, to produce original work without fearing failure or ridicule. We applaud a great question, respect a child’s ideas, even those we might be tempted to label a little “nutty” … remembering that Thomas Edison’s teacher, the Reverend Engle, was once overheard calling him "addled".

Children have great ideas, ideas that I have often incorporated into a lesson for which I credit the student. I have a knot used in weaving that I learned from Ally Below, I refer to it as the Ally Knot. When you credit the student, it opens the door for other students to share more freely because they know student input is valued.

Teachers are encouraged as well to try new approaches, to be creative, innovative and to share with colleagues. Our ideas are also valued.

Rather than ask students to simply recall facts, we ask them to apply knowledge. For example in art class, rather than have students just list the Elements of Art, they are asked to look carefully at a piece of art and describe how the artist used them. We talk about what they see in the work, what is happening, is the artist telling a story or sending us a message? After an experience with Georgia O’Keeffe, instead of asking students to recall facts about her, I ask them, “What would O’Keeffe think of your painting?”


When a student makes what might be seen as a mistake, they are encouraged to look at it as “just an opportunity to make a rapid design change.” Students can often be overhead saying “Wow, now what can I make out of that?“

They often hear me say, “Well yes, yours is different, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong“. Teachers try to ask more open-ended questions, questions with more than one “right” answer. Little ones create stories, complete with pictures and are directed to not worry about correct spelling too early, the ideas, the story, the imagination are valued more in these early stages of developing writing skills. We try to provide opportunities for children to direct their own learning, time for them to practice, to learn, to think, and discover without threats or fear of immediate evaluation.

We understand and value the importance of generating new ideas and we realize that ideas must be shared, before they can have any real impact. We work with children to develop the skills and confidence so that they may communicate more effectively through words, oral and written, as well as through the images they create. I need to be clear that the creative classroom is not a “free for all,” there is direction, a plan, and there are rules to be followed.

We value time spent in thought. We applaud the unordinary, we often push our students to think beyond the obvious into what I like to call the “Zone of the Unexpected.” From that zone will come the answers, the solutions, the cures, the inventions, the artwork and music of tomorrow, and the ideas that will move us forward today and into the future.

You can see a gallery of more line drawings here.

Topics: 2nd grade, 3rd grade, 4th grade, After, art, creativity, Goal 3, Lower School, training

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