Harnessing Student Creativity with Fifteen Free Classroom Minutes

Santos Escobar is a Second Year Teaching Fellow at the MLK Middle School in Charlotte, NC

It was 6:24 p.m. and all my 8th graders had been loaded onto a bus, picked up by a parent, or dismissed to walk home.  As I stretched my legs, heading back to my classroom, I sensed a full-out smile break free.  Too often, I found my demeanor to be tense, high-strung and over-pensive, usually from mentally rehearsing how to best ensure the greatest impact in the 3 hours I shared with the kids -- even after the kids were gone!  But not this time.  This time, I felt liberated.  Joy resonated from within as I reflected on what I had witnessed, what I had been a welcome observer of: a rap-off.

Other than a 15-minute time block I had coded as "Team Time" on the day's agenda, my direct involvement in the event was minimal.  After my students had completed homework and sheets ranking Apprenticeship options, the group was anxious for the outside time they had been promised.  Well, most of the group. As I mentally prepared my instructions for the transition, an uproar of dissent from a group of 4 girls loudly reminded myself and the team of their lingering dissatisfaction from our previous outdoor excursion.

"No, Mr. Escobar! Do we alllll have to go outside?!," B.P. bellowed.

I heard "remember we were attacked by fleas?" and "nah-uh, I'm not going," from far right corner of the classroom.  We had gone out for a name game and the young ladies held to their story that there were fleas in the grass from the geese that freely roamed the perimeters of the school. Meanwhile, the guys of the group stared at me agape, wondering if their anticipation for the outdoors would be foiled.

The wrinkle in my plans left me standing stiff and as I worked out my decision.  It was our first week together so my response would have to be timely if I expected the students to remain invested and to trust my judgment.  Suddenly my thoughts were overtaken by a student rapping the words to a song I had heard for the first time on the radio that same morning.  I turned to the student and smiled, forgetting about the present dilemma to praise him for his ability to cohesively string together words at such a fast rate.  Recognizing my amazement, the student beside the newly discovered rapper announced that he could rap too.  Then it hit me: we would have a rap off.

Instantly I was using an attention getter to quiet down the class. The class was immediately bought-in and in a matter of 30 seconds, one of the unhappy girls volunteered herself to function as the announcer while another excitedly rushed forward to set ground rules for the 2 rappers and the audience.  I took a backseat realizing that by being permissive, the activity would effortlessly work itself out.

The first student to rap blew everyone away. Words connected in a lyrical fashion, faster than my hearing could process, engaging all those around.  When it was time for the 2nd student to step forward, he shied away.  Students continued to cheer for the performance that had just occurred and in genuine humility the 2nd student acknowledged our star rapper had won before the contest began.  The contest, however, was in fact not over.

A girl in the back raised her hand.  I turned to her and she spoke: "I can sing."

"I will be singing 'No One' by Alicia Keys," Dez quietly proclaimed in a very collected manner.  The room filled with muted anticipation as Dez prepared.  I didn't know what to expect, but when her song began, I felt as though I had been transported to the filming of an episode of "The X Factor."  Her voice was soft but powerfully moving, holding the class as captive as when our first student had rapped.

When Dez's performance had ended the resounding vibe was that we had all won.  Those who hadn't participated in the display of talent had been lucky witnesses to it.  Of that fortunate group, there was me, the teacher.  I glanced at the clock and realized that the timing had been impeccable.  It was 5:45, which meant it was time to get organized and line up for dismissal.  I promptly led the students out to the cafeteria, the holding grounds where the students were gathered before heading home.  I couldn't hide my pride for my team of 8th graders.  They had tremendous talent and by being a permissive ally to them, the Team Time had presented itself as self-planned, self-paced perfect capstone to another day of program.  The foundation was being set for my team and as I waved goodbye to a lot of happy kiddos, a grin of anticipation revealed my joy for what I hoped the coming year had in store for us all.

What is the coolest, impromptu classroom activity that you've been a part of?