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Jason Renshaw on Ideas and Creativity

By Tara Benwell
Jason Renshaw shares his thoughts on creative ideas in ELT
Jason Renshaw
Jason Renshaw

Tara: Your blog is full of ideas for teaching English, creating lessons, writing coursebook materials, parenting, and just being a creative human in general. Have you always been full of ideas? Tell us a bit about “The Raven” before he became a teacher and writer.

Jason: I guess I have always been full of ideas, and I think that can be traced to five aspects of my childhood:

1. Growing up without much in the way of TV or video games.
2. Being crazy about Lego from a very young age (and never all that interested in making the model on the box cover – always wanted to make new stuff!).
3. Spending my formative teenage years in a tiny rural town in Victoria, where to have fun you needed to be creative!
4. Being an avid reader and story-writer all the way through school.
5. Being a regular player (and later gamemaster and materials writer) of adventure role-playing games.

Other than that, I think I’ve been heavily influenced by my father in terms of always doing a job to the best of your ability, including being willing to challenge authority or the “done thing” when and where necessary. I had a range of different jobs (everything from supermarket work to managing pubs and even tourism marketing) before getting seriously into teaching, which gave me a good wide perspective about living and working, but also gave me chances to be creative in roles one might otherwise assume were boring or without much scope for thinking outside the box. I also went to one of Australia’s most prestigious universities and found it awfully stuffy… I think rebellion is a natural part of a lot of the creativity we see in people!

Tara: When or where do your best ideas come to you (such as your “live reading approach”) and how do you catch them before they float away?

Jason: The very best ideas come when I least expect them, I guess, but usually when I try not to think too hard about something. It’s like allowing yourself to see a scene out of the corners of your eyes… Most of my best teaching ideas have come to me on the way to work (often in a rush, with some sort of pause – like at traffic lights) or in 5-minute breaks between classes, or even 30-second breaks in class (like when the learners are busy with something).

But these are the initial sparks. They need to be blown on to create some flame, and you need to be willing to risk burning your fingers on them from time to time as well! To make them into something more, there needs to be that risk-taking, reflection, recycling.

Other than that, I think also that my best ideas for teaching in particular have come through allowing real life (including my personal life) to seep into my teaching practice. Everyday experiences and things happening at home often provide a lot of sparks for what turn out to be great teaching ideas.

Tara: Do you ever worry that students won’t be open to your new ideas? For example, when you called a doctor to make an appointment for your child during class time, did it worry you that some students wouldn’t appreciate this as a brilliant listening exercise?

Jason: No, not really. But this isn’t some sort of uber-confident “to hell with it!” thing. I honestly think this comes down to relationships with students and classes, and the way new ideas are timed and presented. I don’t often do really new or experimental things with new classes in the first couple of weeks. That’s a time for tried and true reliable techniques, and concentrating on building a good open relationship with the learners. Every class has its own pulse and character, and as these evolve it becomes more apparent what sort of experimentation is likely to work and be well received by the group. That all-important relationship also creates an atmosphere where learners can be grateful for your attempts to do things differently, but also patient and forgiving if they don’t always work out. So relationships come first, creative ideas and experimentation later!

Tara: In our #ELTChat discussions, great ideas are always shared, but should we also share those that bombed?

Jason: Absolutely! Ideas that bomb can be just as rich in learning experiences for us as those that succeed. But we also need to share these ideas because the idea itself might not have been the “bomb” factor – it could be something in the planning, delivery or follow up. I see too many potentially good ideas thrown on the scrap heap because they didn’t work the first time around, and because teachers didn’t share them and get different perspectives on them. In all honestly, I’ve had more failed or sub-failed ideas than successful ones. This is part of casting the ideas net out there – it doesn’t always catch you fish (or the particular fish you were looking for). But yes, I think sharing the apparently “not so great” ideas is an important move.

Tara: How do you get ideas for blog post topics? Do you have any suggestions for those who are thinking about starting up a TEFL blog?

Jason: In all honesty, I think different ELT bloggers go about this in vastly different ways, and that is in essence the great attraction about the blogosphere – the variety. I think the really important thing is to be yourself, and to basically think out loud in a lot of cases. But I recommend drafting, because a lot of that think out loud can turn out to be rubbish (or look/sound like rubbish). So for me, I draft my think out loud stuff, then sift through it and select and improve what might be posts that others could find interesting or gain something from. It’s also important to try not to “perform” or put on a show through blogging. It’s okay to bitch and moan in posts, so long as you’re balancing that with enough positivity and suggestions for ways forward.

Beyond all that, never for a minute think an idea you have about teaching, no matter how trivial it seems at the time, isn’t worth sharing. We can never have too many ideas in teaching, and never have too many people putting them forward.

Tara: I admire your ability to make TOEFL practice fun. How do you come up with ideas that make grammar and usage interesting for your students?

Jason: For me I think the key principles are involvement, discovery and personalisation. Test prep and grammar are such bugbears for so many learners – and teachers. Dry, rules-based approaches work for some, but almost always end up with a boredom factor. So it’s important to create ways to have your learners personally and creatively involved in a lesson, to find ways to help them discover things on their own (with your guidance skill being more important than your lecturing skill), and then personalise that experience. Sorry if that sounds vague, but I guess those are the basic principles that seem to work for me, and generate materials and approaches for test-prep and grammar usage that come across as creative and stimulating. One of the best ideas of all is to learn how to stand back and let a current develop in the classroom.

Tara: What do you do when you have too many ideas? Does your own creativity ever overwhelm you?

Jason: Oh yes. Sometimes I almost drown myself in them! Other times I frustrate the hell out of myself when I can’t (or don’t have the time to) bring the ideas to the surface to make them clearer, more useful. I’ve found it’s important to learn to go easy on yourself, and just enjoy the process of pondering ideas without putting pressure on yourself to document them all and somehow turn them into winners. Good ideas never truly vanish from your subconscious, and many of them end up fused to other ideas that come up later. So let ’em swirl and glide around you – it’s a circular current and so long as you maintain the flow there should be good chances to rediscover them at the right time later.

Tara: Do you find that you have more teaching ideas now that you are a parent?

Jason Renshaw
Jason and daughter Hannah

Jason: In some ways yes, in other ways no.

Yes, being a parent gives you a fresh perspective and the invaluable experience of seeing the world and how it works through young, unjaded eyes. Your kids teach you how to be a kid again, and a lot of fresh creativity flows out of that for sure. You also learn to enjoy the learning process again.

No, in terms of the time/prioritisation factors. Parenthood keeps you really bloody busy, and there are new pressures and stresses in trying to balance work and family life. I simply don’t have the time I used to have to just sit and think my way through new ideas, or to realise them in ways that can be brought to the classroom or my materials.

On the whole, I guess parenthood has reduced the overall number of ideas I have time to come up with, but it has trained me to make better use of my time and be more selective.

Tara: You seem to work very well as a solo artist. Do people regularly come to you with ideas for collaboration? If yes, how does this usually go over?

Jason: That’s a pretty accurate evaluation. The formative years of my teaching and writing experience happened in environments where colleagues usually wanted someone else to come up with the ideas for them. Many of the ones I did see ideas crop up in still lacked the all-important willingness to take risks and do the hard yards to bring the ideas to fruition.

However, the times I’ve been in an editing situation, this seems to bring out the best in me and (I like to believe) the people I’m working with. I’m actually an avid listener. I love helping other people realise and apply their ideas just as much as I love working on and sharing my own, and there’s nothing more precious than having people constructively criticise your ideas and make suggestions. Having a blog and regularly reading and commenting on other blogs has been fantastic, in this regard.

I haven’t been approached very often with ideas for collaboration, but when it has happened (and the party or person is genuinely as willing to invest and work at the idea as hard as I am), it’s been magic.

Tara: In his book “Making Ideas Happen”, Scott Belsky talks about the project plateau, the middle stages of a project that can feel like forever to get through. Do you ever get to this point when developing an idea? How do you get to the other side?

Jason: For the bigger, more detailed, more ambitious ideas, I can honestly say this happens each and every time. And I’m still trying to cope with it! I have at least a dozen ‘larger’ ideas that are still wallowing on that plateau.

The way I get through depends on the nature of the idea. It is, for example, a lot easier to get projects finished when a publisher and editing team is constantly reminding you, pushing you and (hopefully) encouraging and helping you. You need a lot of discipline in this case, along with coffee! I also used to have to design and format up to 40 different coursebooks in 5-day periods between terms at some of the schools I managed (while all the other staff went on holiday!). Gosh that was hard, but if there’s anything that can put me into super work mode, it’s knowing that students are waiting at the other end of the project and if an opportunity to provide them with good material and methods is squandered, that’s time out of their lives.

For my more independent ideas, I’ve found it’s important to take things as they come. I often put ideas aside for months or even years at a time, and come back to them when the interest and motivation has rekindled enough energy. I honestly want to enjoy what I do, and if it feels like flagellation, then it isn’t fun. The world isn’t going to stop or break down if you put your idea aside for a bit.

In the meantime, concentrate on the small ideas. Let them come, let them happen. Often they’ll surprise you without needing to drag them up onto any sort of plateau!

Tara: What is the best idea you’ve ever had?

Jason: Ooh, you’re cheeky, you are! How does one evaluate “best”? How does one declare best ideas and not end up coming across as full of him/herself, or withdraw from the question and end up looking full of false modesty? Anyway, here goes…

The best idea I’ve had in terms of a basic teaching technique supported through materials design is the concept of “finding out” (a simple grid pattern where learners come up with their own questions and apply them to as many classmates as possible) backed up with a simple reporting system in writing that creates solid composition skills. This might not sound so grand or original, but part of that idea’s appeal to me was coming up with something so simple which put learners’ own ideas and communication right at the core of things, which integrated all of the major skills in one activity, which could be applied through coursebooks regularly, which teachers and learners could grasp quickly, and which had virtually endless options for adaptation or variation. As with most of what I might term my best ideas, it was an almost ridiculously simple one.

In terms of coursebooks, I’m genuinely proud of what I achieved with Boost! Writing. With five skill strands and four levels (20 coursebooks in total), there are a lot of books in that series, but Boost! Writing takes the cake as far as I am concerned. Somehow I managed to address almost everything I think is important for writing with tweenage learners and yet come up with a smooth series of interlocked lessons that learners find genuinely interesting and motivating. I say that based on my own experience using the books in class. There were honestly times that I looked at them and thought “Did I really make these? These are actually really bloody good… They work!”

But the very best idea… I’m still having it. And working on it now. Actually, it’s one of those independent ideas I mentioned, that has dropped off for months or years at a time. But I always end up back at it. Have never stopped believing in its potential. Have never stopped enjoying it.

This is the prize tree in my garden. I hope people don’t mind me taking the time to grow it properly, nor become disappointed when it finally emerges and isn’t what people expect or feel they want for their classrooms.

But that’s the thing with teaching ideas… Sometimes you have to nurture one for yourself, based on what you truly believe and want for learners. And it’s a big world out there with lots of creative, open-minded people. Someone somewhere will like your most precious idea!

Written by Tara Benwell for Tefl.NET February 2011
Tara Benwell is a Canadian freelance writer and editor who specializes in materials for the ELT industry.
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