Monroe NY Teacher Tackles the Serious Business of Creative Thinking
By Melissa Finnemore, For the Times Herald-Record
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That’s one of the questions Bob Barlow might ask his fifth-grade students at Pine Tree Elementary School when he finishes a lesson early and has a few minutes of free time. It’s also one of the questions in a book he wrote to help teachers encourage creativity in their students.
“From the very beginning, humans have relied on creativity for survival,” said Barlow. “That creativity brought us things like Michelangelo, helicopters and the polio vaccine.”
And that’s what Barlow tries to do in his classroom every day: foster creativity, encourage self-expression and create a positive environment for learning.
His book, “Bob Barlow’s Book of Brain Boosters,” is filled with 125 writing prompts that help develop creative and critical thinking skills. The book, which has sold more than 15,000 copies since it was published by Scholastic in 1997, is used by Barlow’s colleagues in the Monroe-Woodbury School District, said Pine Tree Principal Jean Maxson.
“What Bob is doing in his classroom is really what so many teachers do: integrate a lot of different curriculum areas into one project,” said Maxson.
Growing up, Barlow remembers being bored at school. He also remembers what it was like to feel challenged, encouraged and free to take risks to learn.
“I remember what it was like sitting there, watching the clock,” said Barlow. “And I remember the teachers who made me get out of bed in the morning.”
Born in Newark, N.J., Barlow grew up in a creative environment. His father was a writer and graphic designer, his grandmother was a writer and his great-grandfather wrote for Yiddish vaudeville. His parents practiced humor and ingenuity — two things Barlow works to bring into his classroom each day, he said.
Barlow moved to Monroe as a fifth-grader and attended Pine Tree Elementary School — sitting as a student in the same classroom where he stands as an educator today.
And that’s cool, he says.
“This is the best work I can imagine doing,” said Barlow, who has been teaching in Monroe for six-and-a-half years. “I think everyone should try it.”
Before becoming a teacher and author, Barlow worked as a journalist, copywriter, filmmaker, guitarist, actor, singer and comedian. The sum of his experience adds up to an enriching and creative life with his wife, Randi, and daughters, Ally and Julia.
Comparing teaching to improvisational comedy — “You’re up there without a net” — Barlow says all teachers should be trained in improv before going into the classroom. In his case, that training came as a member in the now-obsolete local improv comedy group Random Acts of Humor. The experience also helped him compile ideas for his second book, “Oral Presentations Made Easy,” released this year.
“Kids are great natural speakers,” Barlow said. “They just get nervous.”
In his new book, also published by Scholastic, he provides teachers with steps to help their students overcome their fear of public speaking. Barlow offers improvisational techniques, like talking in gibberish, nonthreatening warm-up exercises and easy-to-follow instructions for preparing an engaging speech and activities.
“The rewards of the fun stuff are almost immediate,” he said.
Lights, camera, creativity
For the past few weeks, Pine Tree Elementary teacher Bob Barlow has used his cinematic expertise and some video equipment on loan from Monroe-Woodbury High School to help his students make movies.
Their results were showcased last Saturday at the Orange-Ulster Tech Fair 2000.
Working in small groups, the fifth-graders wrote, rehearsed, filmed and edited original stories. Their characters and themes are off-beat: stolen dogs and aliens, a giant snail and people trying to make a movie.
Ashleigh Rivera compared the activity to doing a puzzle: different thoughts, different colors, fitting together to make one picture.
Asked what they’ve learned, the students raised their hands: Cooperation. Respect. Creativity. Acting.
“We’re making movies and trying to cooperate with each other,” said Lidya Dedenko, one of Barlow’s students. “It’s kind of hard in the beginning, easy in the middle and fun at the end.”
“Bob Barlow’s Book of Brain Boosters” and “Oral Presentations Made Easy” can be found at www.amazon.com, through Scholastic Book Clubs and at bookstores.