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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

Building Community Through Creativity


note bene: while this post is directly applicable to educational organizations, the strategies may be effectively applied to any organization

As schools start back up again, teachers seek ways to “get to know” their students and cultivate a healthy classroom community. Many schools engage in pre-term professional development and other meetings in order to prepare for the new year.


Confession: I have never been a fan of meetings, in particular. In fact, in some of my workshops I recommend a web app called “Tricider”, which can flesh out the opinions and discussion prior to the face to face experience. I think PD should be more fun (check out my post on “Walkabout PD”). Community building, in my opinion, should be user-generated rather than a top-down contrived “organized fun” type of agenda. The best community building undoubtedly comes from impromptu, often ad hoc / informal experiences – something I like to call


“Pub Pedagogy”

(for more on this, see Ewan McIntosh’s TeachMeet – I was able to attend the 10th anniversary whilst in Edinburgh this past May).


Unfortunately (or fortunately?) we can’t all have pubs on or near campus. However, I’ve come up with a few ideas as to how to nurture your school or organization community.

Do a #TIL


The social networking site Reddit features a ” Today I Learned”  I’ve always loved this idea and once tried it in my class using the hashtag #TIL in our G+ Community. What if you tried this across the organization, with leaders participating as well? I think it’s important for students to see teachers and admin as lifelong learners. Moreover, it means the world to students if they can teach something to others – particularly their instructors! You could set this up on a school wiki or have the webmaster collect them and post, or perhaps develop a unique hashtag with your organization’s name plus TIL and use on various social media sites (Twitter or Instagram for more visual responses).

This by no means needs to be digital – what about having a designated wall space in a common area for people to post sticky notes with their #TILs?

Pump it up…


Carry it a step further by asking a student journalist or organization’s marketing team to mash up the week’s #TILs into a compilation video.  Perhaps they can feature one as a highlight (or one per division of the school / department of the organization) This could be done as a printed newspaper format but probably better as video.



A while back I wrote a post that talked about watercooler wisdom. This is the notion that people from different sectors should mingle so that “ideas can have sex”, as it were. I reiterated this in a reflection about the “Madmen Era” advertising world, because for the first time, the art and copy folks were placed in the same workspace, which invariably led to more creative production.

As a high school teacher I’ve always learned oceans from visiting my daughter’s primary classrooms or dropping by the art or science room. Take the concept of the “Australian walkabout” and become a tourist in your own land, as this post suggests.

Studio Vibe


In pre-school or afternoon PD meetings, energize the participants by offering  a period in which folks from different departments “bond” in an authentic way by creating and playing together . This could include dance, visual art, sports, building  something, jamming with instruments, singing or acting – you name it! The “studio vibe” that emerges – even if people are creating individual works in the same space – is quite powerful as a means of connection and inspiration. 

Provide a sign up sheet ahead of time. For each potential activity, include a descriptive blurb. You could ask certain specialists to “host” – for example, the art teacher could offer a mini experience with throwing pottery.

TIP: The less pressure the better. Participants should not feel like they have to do anything out of their comfort zone, or that their creative work will be judged. What would be fun is if you included a showcase or gallery at the end, where people could share their work if they felt inclined.

Blind Dates


No, I’m not talking about actually matchmaking (leave that for the pub)…Albert Einstein said that “combinatorial creativity” is the highest form of intelligence. There is value to sharing one’s tricks of the trade and learning from others – and, perhaps more importantly, getting a different perspective.

Try out “Speed Dating” or “Mill Around the Room” format. In the latter scenario, you can play music as if it were a cocktail party and ask participants to walk around the room meeting different people and sharing their #onecoolthing (this, by the way, could be thematic, like “one interesting form of assessment”).

There are lots of resources on the “speed dating” process (here is one blog post for example). The principal is that there are creative constraints (a time limit) to the sharing so that it doesn’t get too rambly. Again, you can choose themes based on your needs or particular focus.




I think it’s really important to “humanize” people in authority positions (admin/ faculty, CEOs for example). Efforts to do this spark trust in the community, and trust breeds success.

Why not feature the backstory of faculty / leaders in a series of visually impactful posters hung around campus? I did a series of portrait photography once in which I interviewed faculty members about their “B side” interests and hobbies, then shot some snazzy black and whites. I wish I had the examples but they have been lost to two laptop deaths…However, an example was “Principal by Day, Surfer by Weekend”. 

Student Spotlights


When I taught high school Juniors, each year we would do a “This I Believe” project based on the famous series from NPR.  Instead of essays the students were asked to create short films using a variety of techniques. After each film was complete, I asked students to pinpoint their over-arching belief and I did a little black and white photo shoot with them so that we could create posters to hang in the classroom or around campus. 

You don’t have to necessarily create “This I Believe” statement posters, but I do think exhibiting student voice is crucial. What if you asked students what global issues really matter to them, or what their grand hope is? These posters could indeed be portraits or perhaps something more artistically funky – even designed my the students themselves. If the students make related multi-media projects you could affix a link or QR code to the posters so viewers could be directed to their work.

Collaborative Creative Production


There is often a desire or necessity to do cross-curricular and cross-generational projects.  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Older students may animate younger students’ drawings. This works well as part of the tech class if students are learning how to code or use animation software.

Record a crowdsourced vlog (like a “50 people 1 question” format). I did quite a few of these whilst teaching – often sending students out with their phones to record each other, then compiling the footage. The key is deciding upon a good, open-ended question with no definitive answer so that you can tease out perspectives. My favourite was “what is your greatest regret?”

School-wide lip dub. These are quite popular but involve a lot of planning (perhaps designate a video production team). You can always choose a song, have people “sign up” for certain lyrics, then compile the footage. For a more original music video, you could even feature diff musicians a la  “Playing for Change”)

Collaborative art-based video much like the Johnny Cash Project or even Justin Bieber’s video for “Where Are Ü Now”. There are many ways to do this (frame by frame stop motion being the most logical). Feel free to take a peek at my Crowdsourced Creativity G+ Community for ideas. 

Pen Pals across departments.  This simple idea is kids writing to kids, which can take many forms. If you seek to integrate technology you could form some sort of “blog buddy” system and ask certain pairs or groups of four to comment on each others’ blogs. Come to think of it, not a bad idea for educators to do as well.

Art / photo challenge for entire school.  For this you need to offer up one prompt that will lend itself to all types of interpretations – something like “capture the spirit of our school” or “what is most beautiful to me”. You could have a contest of student-generated categories with student judges.

“______looks like_______” This would be something like “Cooperation looks like ….” or “Focus looks like____” …some sort of metaphorical challenge in which folks could try to capture in photography, like a scavenger hunt.

Speaking of scavenger hunts…

Mobile Sapiens Creative Scavenger Hunt. One of my hands-on workshops aims to get people out of the conference venue and into their surrounding environment. Use any or all of my challenges in this G+ community workshop by simply searching within the community using the hashtag #challenge. (this would be great if you trying to emphasize using mobile devices)

Exquisite Corpse type poem or story. Based on this Surrealist parlour game, you can create a story or poem one line or word at a time with all age levels / departments / etc. The director Tim Burton did this using Twitter and a single hashtag in his Stainboy project. Of course, exquisite corpse as a creative model can be applied to almost any sort of production – try it as a mural, video, or song, for example.

Tout Ensemble

Hopefully some of these ideas might work for you as you seek to foster a sense of community in your school or organization.  As Brian Eno says:

“every collaboration helps you grow”

And what better way to grow and bloom together than through creative endeavors?


#organization #schools #community #collaboration #creativity #studio #reddit #combinatorialcreativity #media #projects #pedagogy #watercoolereffect #learning #exquisitecorpse

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