Teaching for Tomorrow: Sherri Kushner on Creative Problem Solving in the Classroom

An Illinois teacher is getting Northwestern’s education policy center to take note.

Sherri is pictured here with her current and former students at the annual Young Evanston Artists show. Every year students and alums volunteer to help hang the community art display. Displayed in the background are a variety of pieces created by sixth-eighth-grade students in Sherri's media arts program from throughout the school year.
Teaching for Tomorrow: Sherri Kushner on Creative Problem Solving in the Classroom
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Creative problem-solving has always been central to middle school media arts teacher Sherri Kushner’s approach. Every assignment has a problem to be solved.

“I tasked my students with creating a musical instrument that would play a specific sound, and they got to decide how to solve that problem,” Sherri says. “For the next rotation, we had students come up with problems they wanted to solve — real-life problems that took design thinking to figure out.”

During this “real life” round, Sherri worked with students to tackle issues they had in their own lives — not being able to find their smartphones in the dark, for example. While the process was a positive one, Sherri notes the development process took twice as long as the instrument project and many students didn’t finish their pieces.

“Looking back it’s easy to beat yourself up because they didn’t cross the finish line,” she says. “But you have to see it from another angle — they designed this crazy thing and they did a lot of learning. Maybe they should have built it out of wood or maybe they should have made it smaller.”

As long as you and your students learned, she adds, both sides can better refine their processes and create an experience to build from. “That’s something to be mindful of as a creative problem-solving teacher,” Sherri says. “We learn from each other, from our students, and from our experiences. The experience is part of the learning.”

Making the most out of mentors

This is just one example of the innovative projects and processes Sherri brings to her Chute Middle School classroom daily. Her work has helped her diverse student body grow and evolve in their creative thinking and problem-solving while also attracting attention from elite partners, including Northwestern University.

“My lab, TIILT — Technological Innovations for Inclusive Learning and Teaching — has been collaborating with Sherri for the past year,” says Marcelo Worsley, Ph.D., assistant professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and Education & Social Policy at Northwestern. “We wanted to support opportunities for students to have enriching learning experiences — experiences that allow young learners to explore new ideas and technologies that sit at the intersection of different disciplines.”

To support this integrated learning, Marcelo sends his undergraduate students to work with Sherri’s middle schoolers. This, says Marcelo, is a powerful experience for all sides. “Collaborations of this type are important because they bring together research and practice. From our perspective it’s essential to do work grounded in schools. From the schools’ perspective, it is important to find novel ways to assess how students are learning, which is something researchers like us are good at.”

Sherri agrees. “It’s an incredible journey considering where we started. When I got here 10 years ago we had a basic computer lab. But technology keeps emerging and I want to have as many resources as possible.” This includes the new technology Northwestern students provide.

“Last year they brought a laser cutter,” Sherri says, “and they’ve been mentoring us as we put this technology into play. We just wanted to see what we could do with this machine and how we could push our current practice.”

Sherri stands with 8th-grader Faith Brown, posing next to Faith's self-portrait series about stereotypes and skin color. Using Adobe Photoshop, Faith edited this series of photos to be black and white with the exception of the blue shirt, which represents the sadness we feel when judged by the color of our skin. Because the blue shirt captures our attention first, Faith's skin color is not the first thing you notice in these images. Faith imagines a world where people look past the color of your skin and get to know people for who they are beyond appearance.

Speaking their language

Ultimately these lessons and others like it come down to one thing: speaking her students’ creative language. With every project Sherri encourages students to experiment and, ultimately, get results — even when they’re reluctant.

“I’m constantly asking myself, ‘What are the skills students need now, and how can we bring these new technologies to them so that they have an edge going forward?’”

From there, Sherri and her students are constantly trying new things. “I don’t like to teach the same thing over and over the same way. This experience with the Northwestern students was all about how much we could push and what we could do with new technology,” she says.

It’s not just Northwestern that’s taken note of Sherri’s process and pedagogy. Ann Covode, president of Evanston-based nonprofit KIDS Global Network, Inc., has experienced Sherri’s unique style first-hand. Her program supports disadvantaged students through arts education and, recently, they joined forces with Sherri’s middle schoolers for a PhotoVoice project.

During this project, KIDS and Chute students worked together to identify, represent, and enhance their community through narrative photographic techniques.

“PhotoVoice enables participants to record and reflect on their personal and community’s strengths and concerns,” Ann says. “We worked together for eight weeks and focused on important topics in our community — social justice, immigration, and identity — while helping students evolve their photography and editing skills and, overall, teaching students to express themselves artistically.”

“We wanted them to think critically about current events and personal identity,” Sherri says of the partnership, “while helping build confidence and encouraging them to have these important conversations.”

To support this work, Ann explains that “Sherri helped our students use Adobe Spark to showcase the work they did each week. She also helped them navigate Adobe Photoshop so that they could edit photos, and introduced them to Adobe Spark Post so they’d be comfortable with captions.”

Integrating creative problem-solving in the classroom

To her fellow educators, Sherri inspires this same creative problem-solving while encouraging self-expression, diverse thought processes, and not just the end result. “It’s important to set limitations,” she says, “but to be responsive when students want to break them. There needs to be a goal and specific criteria so students have a starting point. But, as students start going and want to take things in another direction, you need to let them. Often that’s when they realize the bigger possibilities. That’s when the magic happens.”

Sherri also wants her students to understand and appreciate these processes. To do this she often sets checkpoints, then wraps projects with recaps that showcase the experience. “I’ll have students create Adobe Spark pages or time-lapse videos to show how far they’ve come with a particular project or concept,” she says. “It’s important for students to look back and see their growth. Sometimes they don’t even notice that learning is going on until they take a reflective look back.”

Overall, her creativity and problem-solving approach is one Sherri is deeply passionate about and committed to. “Sherri is often heard saying, ‘I don’t know, figure it out,’” says Kirby Callam, director of EvanSTEM and one of Sherri’s frequent collaborators. “And her students do just that.”

KIDS Global Network photographer Yancey Hughes agrees. “‘Surprise me’ is her favorite response,” he says, and, given the nature of her work and her commitment to students’ brighter futures, it’s clear they are and will continue to surprise her at every turn.

“You have to play, you have to experiment, you have to try things when you’re working with kids,” Sherri says. “As a teacher you can’t always envision what the end result is going to be.”

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