Creative Constraints, Passion Projects, and Those “Bird Reports”

Librarians have been thinking long and hard about how to help redefine the “Bird Reports.” We help far too many students in the library locate information on subjects the student neither cares about nor really has an understanding of the scope of the topic, much less the task. Inquiry – that wonderful process of directing our work through the asking (and answering) of questions – is central to the process of redefining report writing into a task where students work from an initial place of wondering to an ending with a presentation (whether an essay, infographic, or media) of their claims and/or conclusions on a topic of their choice.

This kind of assignment, that of allowing students to choose whatever excites them, is a difficult one to get a handle on. Passion Projects, while seemingly freeing, and exciting to–finally–get to work on a topic of personal interest can be far too overwhelming. Students often flounder as they try to set their own limits without any background in doing so. This is where the concept of “creative constraint” can be most helpful.

Over the course of 4 meetings last year, selected teachers from several Sonoma County schools worked with the leaders of Girls Garage located in Berkeley, CA, to design our own hands-on lessons. Girls Garage teaches girls ages 9-17 how to build things. Their motto, “Fear Less, build more,” encourages these girls to take risks, look for solutions, and build, build, build. We teachers spent each meeting building and learning how to incorporate a “make” mentality into our teaching. We were introduced to the idea of creative constraints with an activity where each group of 3 or 4 was given a plastic bag, a bit of tape, some string, and a pair of scissors. Our task was to create a piece of clothing that one could wear on the last day of earth at the end of the world. Each group chose a team member to model their creation at our own end-of-class fashion show. Our constraints were that we could only use the materials given to us and we had a time limit. It was hilarious, of course, and the results were definitely creative. We quickly learned to work together, brainstorm ideas, and perform quick tests before making the first cuts.

Scientists of all kinds work within the constraints of the physical world, which means that they have to think “out of the box” in order to “fit in the box.” This requires them to think through the process and look at each obstacle as a way to re-think how to get around, over, through, or to use the obstacle itself as the means to find the answer to their task.

When approaching a problem, whether it’s a physical task (How can I build a better mousetrap?) or an information problem (What shift occurred in the culture when women began wearing pants?), the first step is always to ask questions, identify the  constraints and any boundaries, and begin to work our way toward solutions. Warren Berger, in A More Beautiful Question, gives us three beautiful questions that we can use to guide the process of moving through the inquiry stages.

Why?” opens the door, “What if” lets us in to explore and expand our vision along with the many possibilities and “How” collects the tools and gets us moving toward solutions.

This breaks down the inquiry process from the “What do I want to know” question to the “What are my possibilities” where we check what’s been done before, ask more questions, brainstorm ideas, and then move toward the “How the heck can I complete this thing I’m thinking about” to create the solution we imagine will work. This research process is played out regardless of the task at hand when we have an information problem to solve.

“Constraints are not the boundaries of creativity, but the foundation of it,” says Brandon Rodriguez in this video from TED. Imagine the many ways we can apply creative constraints on various assignments. In the library, we can offer maker activities that utilize such constraints, or collaborate with our classroom colleagues to change up existing assignments to employ some ideas that by their very nature of constraint, require students to think harder, think critically, and yes, think creatively.

Here are some quick ideas of activities to get started using creative constraints:

Sorting things. Hand students a list of things; for example (depending on the subject at hand), the top 100 Milestone Documents from the National Archives, or the list from the  Library of Congress of the Books That Shaped America or a list of the battles of WWII, or a list of the elements on the Periodical table. Ask them to sort them. But… give one constraint; for instance, “you may sort the top 100 docs in any order except by date; the book list in any order except alphabetically, the battles of WWII in any order except date.” These small constraints force thinking beyond the obvious – the top 100 documents sorted by date gives a particular timeline of thinking, but asking other questions of the sorting process requires students to look at other criteria. What about sorting them by what they limit or free? Sorting by who benefits from the decree or idea? The top 100 books sorted by author or title alphabetically helps to create order to a list but asks little of students to think about context or the importance of each title within an historical period, a geographical area, or how they shaped America. World War II battles are often sorted by timeline… what about sorting by number of casualties, location, or types of battles (air, land, sea)? Once the class groups have sorted, sharing out discussion is most important. How did each group sort (and why?). What did they conclude? Be sure to create a class-wide discussion or object (a timelime, a map, a diagram) that brings it all together and shows how the perspectives bring about a complete picture within a larger context. Let the discussion begin: what happened along the way that created the this kind of list?
Goals to be met: developing context awareness, creating categories.

Limiting things. The marshmallow challenge is a classic example of giving participants particular objects and an assignment to do something with them. The limitation of being able to only use these materials within a set time frame forces the group to work together to meet the challenge of the assignment. This is a really fun lunchtime library activity for all ages.
Goals to be met: group dynamics, brainstorming, critical thinking.

Limiting words. Give students a word limit for their next essay, test, or reflections in their journal and make it a short number. Writing reviews for the School Library Journal’s “Adult Books for Teens” column includes a 250 word limit. It’s really hard to gel big ideas into small spaces. But the process is amazing. I found that I usually write “off the top” of my head and generate about 350–400 words. Then I have to set it aside, look at it a day later, and ask: “What is the essence of this review and how do I capture it best? Which words must go away?” Maybe let students craft their essay without a word limit as a draft. Teachers can correct it for content. Hand it back and have students reduce it to a shorter word limit — what is the essence of their essay idea?

The newest NY Times columnist, Michelle Goldberg, mentions in an interview about her new job, that coming up with only 850 words – the defined limit for her column – is really rather liberating because “I like the idea of being forced to slow down and let my thoughts develop.”

In the Information Literacy class I teach at the local junior college, students are required to end each class period with a “tweet” length (144 characters max) reflection of their learning for that day. I’ve had many a student complain that it was just “too hard” and could they “please have more words?” It is hard to say things in fewer words, but it forces us to work hard to identify those things we really mean to write.
Goals to be met: using concise language; determining the most important ideas.

My favorite activity of constraints is black out poetry – using only the words on a single page, black out those you don’t want to use. Make a poem using those you do want. Talk about constraint! You have a limited number of words already written in a specific order. Your task is to use only those words in only that order creating your own poem. It’s lovely.

Makerspaces, research skills, information literacy, writing, experimenting are all subjects that we already assign activities for – let’s try adding in some creative constraints and really let imaginations fly!


Thank you to Anna Koval, Assistant Principal of Healdsburg High, for some incredible resources on creative constraints, inquiry, and learning:

The World Needs More Inventors, Starting with Kids
The Project H Design website
The Unprofessional Development website

These sites will shake you up!
Share them widely!

Author: Connie Williams

NBCTeacher Librarian and author of “Understanding Government Information: a Teaching Strategy Toolkit for grades 7-12”. Member of the CA State Library Services Board, and History Room Librarian at the Petaluma Regional Library [Sonoma County Library]. She welcomes all conversation.. give a holler!

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

6 replies

  1. I love the post-assessment idea above of “leaving class with a Tweet — 144 characters summarizing!” #yayforengagedlearning! – Thanks Connie!

  2. I love this! So many good ideas and practical applications. Thank you!

  3. Great post. I’m thinking too that the sorting exercise requires synthesis and could be a good way to practice that skill. It also gets kids thinking of differing ways to express their learning.

  4. Thanks, Connie! I am going to use several of these ideas with a new project I’m collaborating on with a 7th grade teacher. Students will be writing several different types of blog posts to demonstrate understanding of a core novel, including news articles, how-to pices, reviews, a marketing pitch, etc. So, the news article will now be limited to 200 words, the marketing pitch will have to be an elevator speech, and so on. I can’t wait to share your article with this teacher!

  5. When I saw “Bird Reports” in the title, I instantly thought of David Loertscher and his great book Ban Those Bird Units: 15 Models for Teaching and Learning in Information-rich and Technology-rich Environments. Even though it was written over ten years ago, the main point is the same. He gives many great ways of redesigning assignments to make them more meaningful. I referenced his ideas with many teachers.

  6. I definitely should have credited David here – I think that I’ve incorporated “bird report” into my regular educational vernacular – sort of a catch-word for all of those standard essays. Maybe by using inquiry strategies..and some creative constraints, we can watch those bird reports disappear!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.