Balancing Skill Acquisition and a Need for Creative Expression for Primary Students: A story of Reimagination


Continually, I reflect upon my experiences in the classroom, and will admit that leaving students in order to make a greater impact with mindSpark Learning has been bitter sweet. Memories of my journey as a teacher are the foundation of my work today. My classroom story concluded with an amazing opportunity of piloting and driving, along with amazing students, a project of completely reimagining 2nd Grade. This  experience fueled reflective moments, debates, and conversations.  Was shifting a tradition-steeped practice of 12 years easy? No. Did I learn things about today’s learner and their needs for the future? Yes. As I reflect on my journey, I am inclined to call the endeavor a success, tempered by many mistakes and mind shifts along the way. But, I knew it was right every step of the way.


First, I must take a moment to lift up the teachers of primary grades, as it is my conclusion that these teachers have been creating and nurturing creative environments which connect to 21st century skills and needs for many years. However, in the advance of technology - that sea of continuous and instant information - it is clear that some of our most coveted rituals might need to be revisited, contemplated and shifted.

It. Is. Hard. To. Let. Go. Of. The. Rituals. Of. The. Past.

I struggled with this, even knowing that changing with the pace to today’s learner would have countless benefits.

Teachers are in love with content, as it has been a tangible driver for planning and classroom routines for decades. Year after year, as a kindergarten teacher, I recall pulling out my pumpkin unit file, full of tried and true activities. This folder, with it’s creased edges and yellowing copies inside, was a part of my Fall, just like the first cool breezes and falling leaves. Letting it and other folders like this go was scary, but replacing it with explicitly modeled and supported problem solving exercises, passion driven, curiosity-led investigations, and authentic inquiries roused such engagement in my students. These folders were forgotten and retired.

Teaching students through recipe driven outcome units did not instill the skills they needed for our world today. I started to realize that skills such as communication connected beautifully to literacy needs.  Other skill needs started to emerge as I contemplated what was best for today’s young student, skills such such as:  persuading, explaining, negotiating, gaining trust, and building and demonstrating understanding. Although foundational skills (reading, writing, mathematics, history, language) remained essential, a more complex set of competencies was on the horizon for student success.

The heart of today’s primary classroom is still an environment revolving around literacy acquisition AND students learning and practicing literacy skills, everyday. But, there is a “new literacy”, coined by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

According to the NCTE, 21st century readers and writers need to:

  • “Gain proficiency with tools of technology: Kids need to be explicitly trained in spotting everything from blatant pseudo-facts to slightly questionable content. This ability to ‘filter’ will be required of them in both university and work.

  • Develop relationships with others and confront and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally

  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes

  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information

  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts

  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments”

As I contemplate my classroom evolution over the past 3 decades, these skills became  integral pieces of my paradigm. These were not skills that were explicitly taught or even acknowledged before. This is today’s content, the stuff of life - student interest, community causes/problems, 21st century skills (i.e. resiliency, problem solving, financial literacy, global awareness, systems thinking, health and wellness, and civic responsibility).  These skills would grow and flourish in an environment rich with a culture of creativity, communication, critical thinking and communication. This moved me past the folders that I used for decades. There was no way that I could prepare my students without making shifts in my classroom environment and my teaching craft.

In this reimagined classroom my new concern revolved around student accountability and assessment.

How would my students be accountable?

Of course, in the toolbox of every great teacher is the test, the quiz, the grades, the reporting, the finish line. Assessment is integral in the primary classroom and is the vehicle which guides community decisions, learning design and student goal setting.

BUT—I was accustomed to assessments being written for me, by publishers or someone in district offices; furthermore, I was not trained to be writing assessments!-

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I must admit, that was my song, AND then suddenly a newfound love of figuring out the best assessment for MY group of students and/or student began to emerge.

Assessment became a body of evidence, a collection of observations (pictures, notes, videos) and products from students. And most of all, the students were in charge of the collection, accessible to the student and parents, connected to solid goals and objectives for next steps.

Students needed to learn how to work toward personal goals, finding information and communicating their thinking and their success. Did some of them struggle with the self-monitoring demands of this new way of operating in the classroom? Of course, and that is when I moved in to assist, problem solve and support.

In closing, and as I reflect, I ask myself questions about today’s primary classrooms, skill acquisition and creative expression:

  • Do students need to continually practice the skills of reading, writing and math? YES

  • Does the teacher need to monitor this? YES

  • Do some students need remedial instruction? YES

  • Do students need to have a variety of opportunities to communicate and demonstrate their skills as they progress? YES

  • Do students need to create whole class products that are dictated by the teacher as a recipe? NO

  • Do students need to work within an environment of collaboration and human centered learning? YES

  • Do students need to be taught technology applications and programs in isolation all the time? NO

  • Do students need hands-on technology devices in their classrooms? YES

  • Do students need access to technology as a tool at anytime? YES

  • Do the “new literacy” components need to be explicitly taught and modeled? YES

  • Does literacy instruction look like it looked 10 years ago? NO

  • Do students need to learn how to critique, receive and give feedback? YES

  • Is the teacher’s “grade” and opinion all that matters? NO

  • Should assessment be authentic and contained in a body of evidence? YES

Hold on tight, this ride is accelerating, and if you can consider student gains and new horizons, it will be worth the ride, I promise.

“Schools and classrooms must be transformed from being storehouses of knowledge to being more like portable tents providing a shelter and a gathering place for students as they go out to explore, to question, to experiment, to discover.” Center for Media Literacy


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Mary Lisa HarperComment