By Jeannie Fulbright
“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”
Young children tend to beam with pride over their own creations. Every picture they draw, every tower they build, each new discovery is cause for celebration. Indeed, joy in creative expression and delight in learning are as natural as breathing for the young learner. Yet as our children age, too often joyful creativity fades, while delight in learning suffers a slow and painful demise. And many parents of homeschooled teens wave the white flag of surrender in acceptance.
As a college professor, Albert Einstein believed it was his job to awaken joy in his students. He sought to bring to life in older learners that which comes so naturally for younger ones—unbridled joy in creative expression and the acquisition of knowledge.
We all know how important knowledge is. But what about creative expression? Today, American high schools typically relegate anything creative to the arts department. However, Einstein believed creative expression to be an essential element in all academic fields of study, including science. Einstein actually connected creative expression to knowledge, thus revealing a powerful truth concerning learning—a truth we, as homeschoolers, can use to improve our children’s high school education.
Consider this: Could creative expression be the missing link between joy and learning? Can the lack of joy in our teen learners be traced to modern methods of education? These methods are so often void of imaginative awakening. Although it’s common practice, perhaps it’s unwise that as learners progress toward high school, we shift their assignments from creative pursuits toward mundane busywork, namely filling out worksheets and cramming for tests.
Is this really the best way to educate our youth? Are we giving them a genuine education, or are we blindly following ineffectual procedures steeped in institutional tradition?
The Presence of the Past
Consider your own schooling experience. Completing worksheets and memorizing facts for tests characterized much of our public school education. So let me ask you this: How strong was your knowledge of science, history, government, and foreign language when you graduated high school? Most of us would admit that although we made decent grades, we left school with very little working knowledge of these subjects. Why? Aside from the distractions of our social lives, what was the cause of these gaps in our education? Could it be that delight in learning was rarely awakened in the classroom?
Think about the classes you loved or found the most interesting in school. What was different about those classes? How was creative expression encouraged by the teachers of these classes?
I remember well the two courses that awakened in me a joy of learning: government and creative writing. Both classes were taught by passionate professors who gave imaginative assignments. These teachers had mastered the supreme art about which Professor Einstein spoke. Every class included a new lesson requiring imagination and creativity: role playing, interviews, contacting lawmakers, designing our own constitution, writing our own legislation. Tests were essay questions that allowed for creative thought and expression. Therefore, I graduated with a strong understanding of American government and an ability to write creatively but, sadly, very little else.
Unfortunately, most of our public schools today default to the protocol of tedious assignments and uninspired tests in the hopes of improving standardized test scores. Memorize the material, take the test, make the grade . . . and then forget it. Such methods do not encourage the student to ruminate on the material being taught. On the contrary, students are encouraged to quickly and efficiently output that which has been input. No deep thought required.
Creative assignments, on the other hand, stimulate the mind. Student are encouraged to imaginatively contemplate and consider what they have learned. The intellect is fully engaged, actively recruiting the neglected long-term memory. This higher level of focus actually develops the critical thinking skills so many American children fail to acquire before college.
If we neglect to tap into our students’ imaginations as they learn, we stifle both their joy in knowledge and their long-term retention of the subject. But when we nurture the imagination, knowledge increases as the mind engages with the material.
My teen boys took a Shakespeare course that required students to break into groups and make a movie about one character in the play Julius Caesar. Throughout the course, their conversations would often lead to whether or not Brutus was justified in killing Caesar. They talked about it as if it were breaking news, not ancient literature. If engaging the imagination can ignite this response in two teenage football players, creativity coupled with knowledge may indeed be the key to a lifelong love of learning.
Einstein also wrote, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” If he is correct, then our high schools are going about education all wrong. As we have seen, their methodology restrains creativity, focusing instead on a system of input-output-delete. “Is this going to be on the test?” is still a common classroom refrain. Studies by the National Center for Educational Statistics show that American twelfth-graders don’t know even half of what they should. As homeschoolers, we do not have to continue this failing legacy! Let’s instead strive to keep alive our children’s youthful imaginations, so full of ideas and inspiration. It would be tragic not to nurture and refine this beautiful gift from God.
So how can this be done? How can we engage our students’ creativity in order to increase their knowledge? There are many ways we can do this, but my favorite method is the notebooking journal. The notebooking journal is an educational scrapbook of interesting and creative assignments—a place where all the student’s creative efforts can be preserved.
Notebooking: Creativity with a Purpose
Although homeschoolers coined the term “notebooking,” this creative approach to learning is as old as the hills. Leonardo da Vinci, Lewis and Clark, and Alexander Graham Bell are just a few of the brilliant thinkers who employed this method when acquiring knowledge. When these men encountered new concepts, they wrote their thoughts down, recording their experiments and ideas in sketches, drawings, and diagrams. In doing so, their imaginations were released to explore tangents and even discover and design wonderful inventions. Although the notebooking approach has evolved, it retains the same elements that blend creativity and knowledge.
So what exactly does notebooking look like? Basically, students creatively record and preserve what they learn in a notebook of some kind. The notebook may be a published work that includes puzzles, activities, and writing prompts, or it may nothing more than a collection of blank pages bound together. Written narratives, illustrations, diagrams, photos of projects and activities, newspaper clippings, articles—all may be included in the notebook. The students essentially creates his or her own book about the subject being studied. The student then becomes not just a learner but also an engaged author in that field. Creativity then becomes both purposeful and productive.
Notebooking has been shown to be extremely effective at both fueling joy in learning and enabling long-term retention of subject matter. So why do we as homeschoolers typically discard notebooking when our children get older? Could it be because this approach utilizes open-ended creativity? Indeed, we have been indoctrinated to believe that creative expression in learning is only for younger children. We’ve been taught to think it’s not “real school” if our teens are drawing and writing creatively about science or history. Of course, students must learn how to take tests and write timed essays for college, but there’s no good reason why they must abandon creative expression as they pursue knowledge.
How to Use Notebooking in Junior High and High School
Perhaps you’re now convinced to give creativity a try with your teens, but where do you start? The best way to incorporate notebooking into your students’ courses is to replace some or many of the assignments in their textbooks with creative activities. Instead of answering rote questions about the kingdom Plantae, have them create a scrapbook with live samples of the different phyla in the plant kingdom. In place of a chapter test about the three branches of government, let them create a storybook that teaches this subject. Have them make a civil war alphabet book or write a “personal” scrapbook of a soldier in WWII. Creating board games, writing and acting out plays, drawing comic strips, and even producing videos and PowerPoint presentations are just a few of the many creative and imaginative activities you can use in place of standard assignments. Not only will your students spend time contemplating topics longer as they work on these assignments, but by the end of the year, they will own a work of art created by their own hands and imaginations. Indeed, their notebooks will become treasured possessions.
Purposeful and Passionate
As our children grow, let’s be purposeful in cultivating their creativity as they learn. With their imaginations unleashed, the possibilities for their lives become limitless. As we seek to keep alive the natural joy in learning, our children can envision a bright future and pursue their dreams with passion. As Francis Schaeffer says, “The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”
Jeannie Fulbright is the author of Apologia’s Young Explorer Series. She homeschools her four children in Atlanta, Georgia. Her oldest child is graduating this month and will be heading to the University of Georgia in the fall.