What One Word Can Do: a Pathway to Critical Creativity in Any Classroom

Dan Ryder
6 min readAug 11, 2018

I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time this year working with educators across the country who share a common goal: integrating more creative expression into their students’ learning experiences without sacrificing the content knowledge and understanding defined in their curricular outcomes and expectations. Fortunately for me, these folks found much more succinct and conversational ways of expressing this goal that relied on substantial less edu-ese. It would often sound like this.

“What you are hoping to get out of this workshop?”

“I’d just really like my students to have more chances to be creative. But it seems like there’s no time for it with everything else we have to do.”

“It’s overwhelming, right?”

“Oh, completely. There’s baseline testing in the fall then achievement testing in the spring and somewhere in the middle there are all these benchmarks and . . . okay, I’m going to stop because it’s just depressing.”

Didn’t matter if they were in Minnesota, Illinois, California, Massachusetts, Texas, Arkansas, DC or Maine, the story was much the same: where is the time for creativity in the classroom?

and I believe the time is there — it just means letting some of the other assessments that are less successful — or perhaps simply more traditional — take a breather in favor of a more creative means of demonstrating understanding. And those moments of critical creativity need not be sprawling six month interdisciplinary experiential projects that result in red carpet community nights — though they could be. It might just start with one word.

Start here:

  1. Ask students to identify three to five words that capture the essence of what they just read, studied, watched, experienced, heard, etc. (Of course, this can be done as a class or in small groups, pairs or whatnot. Adjust to suit whatever your particular learners may need.)
  2. Ask students to select just one of those words and write it on a slip of paper, index card, post it note, Pages doc, Google slide, what have you.
  3. Ask them to record an explanation — a justification — of their choice. This may be an audio or video recording using a tool such as Flipgrid or SoundTrap, Apple Clips or Soundcloud. Or it might be as simple as a couple of sentences on a slip of paper. The key here is documenting the reasoning why they would distill all of their learning down to that one single word. And the evidence they have to back up that choice.

This admittedly isn’t much in terms of creative expression — it may be critical thinking what with all of the evaluating and asserting and providing of evidence. That’s where the next piece comes into play.

Continue here.

  1. Ask your students to identify three colors that represent the learning that has been taking place, much as they did the three to five words. Because this can be a little weird, provide them an example to help the more concrete learners make the connection. “So folks. We’ve been learning about photosynthesis. For my one word, I chose the word “energy” because the whole process is about moving and transforming energy so that plants might live. And my three colors for my color palette would be blue, green, and yellow because blue reminds me of water and that without water, plants wouldn’t have the basic fuel they need for photosynthesis. Green represents the chlorophyll that helps the plants to capture light. And yellow represents the sunlight that gives the plants strength thanks to the chlorophyll.”
  2. Before they share their color choices, ask them to take it to another level by giving each color a unique name that helps show what they know about subject matter. “ So for my photosynthesis color palette, I’m calling the shade of blue, “Fuel,” and the green I’m calling “Guts,” and the yellow I’m calling, “Power.”
  3. Actually acquire these colors using either analog means — colored pencils are great because they allow for blending and a wide range of hues — or through digital means such as ColourLovers or the color selections in your preferred word processing or slide designing tool. If going digital, encourage students to identify the hex codes that will make it easy to replicate the precise colors chosen. At this stage in the game you might jump right to the next phase or you might ask students to document their color choices just as they did their one word.

And now synthesize the two approaches.

  1. Ask students to illustrate their one word using only the colors from their color palette. This might be done in analog on a single piece of paper or my preferred medium: a blank index card. Or the illustration might be created digitally using Slides, Keynote, Google Draw, Paper by 53 , Adobe Spark or another tool of choice.
  2. During their illustration process, challenge students to think about how font, color, shape, placement, and other elements might all work together to demonstrate the most complete understanding of the subject matter as possible.
  3. Document, document, document the intention and thinking, the reason and rationale, behind each choice made for the One Word and share, share, share.

Without the student explaining why they used the colors they did, why they made the aesthetic choices they did in their illustrated version of One Word, without any of that then it is just another mini-dumpster project. These cards, sheets, slides and whatnot are just some pretty somethings that last for a few moments, but could easily be the product of artistic prowess more than artful understanding. By playing in that world of synthesis, students live in the higher order thinking skills that can be challenging to achieve on a daily basis. What I hope folks realize is that higher order thinking doesn’t require higher orders of time.

Students can make connections, make key decisions, evaluate content, and create arguments in the same amount of time they might take to answer five reflection questions.

That critical thinking resides in the hearts of the One Word (#intentiononeword) and the Color Palette (#intentioncolor)pathways found in our book, Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom, published by EdTechTeam Press. In the book you’ll find over forty other strategies, categorized by medium, aligned to content areas, and amplified for deeper learning.

We’re kinda crazy proud of it. We also love helping schools, districts, PLCs and PLNs run book studies and master classes around its contents. More previews are available at IntentionTheBook.online including four complete pathways.

and I believe creativity is content agnostic. No matter the learning environment or subject matter, there’s an opportunity to use creative expression to deepen understanding. And the pathway to that understanding can start with just one word.

You can follow my valiant attempts at being a good human on Twitter and Instagram as well as visiting DanRyder207.com. Want more ideas for exploring challenging questions and building a culture of acceptance, communication and trust in the classroom? Check out my book with

, Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom from EdTechTeam Press. Ask for it where better books are sold or grab it from Amazon.



Dan Ryder

Educator, design thinker, improviser, Dan Ryder (http://DanRyder207.com) Apple Distinguished Educator 2017 #dtk12chat #EdChatME #makered