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Teaching Creativity: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Double Purposes

If imitation is the first step towards developing a creative vocabulary, then variation is the first step towards developing one’s own voice. (See the Taxonomy of Creative Design.) So what does this look like in a classroom?

A number of years ago, a colleague created an assignment for Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.  The assignment asks students to rewrite the novel’s opening paragraph describing the main character, Mr. Utterson, using precisely the same grammatical construction as Stevenson, but varying the vocabulary and subject matter to match members of their families.

In this way, Stevenson’s opening sentence,
becomes, as one student wrote,
The students identify grammatical structures, literary devices, imagery, and patterns in content, but they experiment with variations to create their own meaning. The results are not perfect, but through variation, they take steps towards increasingly complex original work.
In classes, we have a dual purpose.  We aim to engage the content of our discipline, but we aim to do it in a way that teaches necessary skills and habits for life success.  This assignment aims at both.  The content of the discipline includes imagery, alliteration, syllabic awareness, punctuation, and more, and the habits and skills include close reading and comfort creating original work, developing a creative habit.

In past years, I’ve used this assignment right at the beginning of the year, in order to focus student attention immediately on emulating someone else’s work.  As the year progresses, I aim to step incrementally away from such exact imitation to work that imitates the principles of the texts we study but not so closely the execution.

What might this look like in history class?  Art?  What about math classes?  Computer science?

I think this is a step towards honing both analytical and creative skill, both convergent and divergent thinking, and I hope to develop measures over the course of this year to see what a curriculum built around this kind of work accomplishes quantitatively.

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