Composition Creativity David Theriault ELA English Lesson Planning Teaching Writing Writing Activities

Living In The Novelty: Avoiding Cliché

“The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.” –The Awakening 


A bright blue, sail washed ashore. There are many beautiful things on a beach, but why does this Velella catch my attention so? Why does anything…

stand out

The most difficult things to teach our students are the ones that seem to extend beyond their control. The mistakes that serve, not as choices, but as a function of their age and experience. How does a message in the sand get delivered in a way that avoids cliché?


Avoiding cliché in student writing or student art is like avoiding sand. How can a student even know what is cliché to adults when they haven’t lived or read enough to know better? Cliché is probably the biggest indicator that what you are reading was written by a “kid” who doesn’t really know anything.  There are ways….



Crystal Cove State Beach in Laguna Beach


In Keri Smith’s book How to be an Explorer of the World: A Portable Life Museum. She offers a list of ways to respond with awe and wonder:

How to Be an Explorer of the World:
1. Always be looking. (Notice the ground beneath your feet.)
2. Consider everything alive and animate.
3. Everything is interesting. Look closer.
4. Alter your course often. Try something new. Travel.
5. Observe for long durations (and short ones).
6. Notice the stories going on around you.
7. Make patterns. Make connections.
8. Document your findings (field notes) in a variety of ways.
9. Observe movement. Play or draw w/ kids or in a child-like manner.
10. Create a personal dialogue with your environment. Talk to it.
11. Trace things to their origins.
are just a few of the ways to be an explorer.

Keri Smith’s website is rad and her book is awesome, well worth spending money on.

If this interest you, it sounds like you need to take your students on a “wonder-walk.” Have them write, create, or make something after their walk. Put away the worksheets and packets and give them “explore-work” based on one of these principles and then do something the next day in class.

Perhaps each student could keep an explorer log and use these as jumping off points for blog posts. Or maybe they just write down the topic of their post and then do a couple of these activities, one per day, for a week and see where their writing goes. Remember the more time you spend on the idea of your writing BEFORE you start, the better your writing will be.

The key here is that you want students to write or create things that revolve around things that slip past others’ attention. When they walk in a room, you want your students to see or hear things that their classmates didn’t notice. You could even play a noticing game giving them points for noticing things that no other team/group/student noticed. I used to do a similar game in my ESL/ELD class with vocabulary. Put the students in groups. Give them a topic like “A wedding.” Give them three minutes to list as many words as they could that were associated with weddings. Have a representative from each group bring their list up and read their list. If a single word appeared on any other group’s list everyone crossed out that word. The group with the most words left uncrossed won.

You could do that with noticing, in a class, outside the class, in a painting, in a video, in a poem, in a book.



Don’t tell me about the cool tide pools in California, show me the purple starfish you saw when you took your son on an unexpected side trip to Crystal Cove to eat at the Shake Shack. You both enjoyed the lesson in spontaneity and the reminder that nature rarely disappoints. (Neither do date shakes disappoint)

The more specific your story, your photo, your painting, the more likely it is that this has never been shared before.

Students tell me stories, all the time, of the specifics of their life, like a story about a drive-through miracle, and I love these stories.




We were bored as kids. We had no smartphones, no way to stay awake in class except one thing: this…


the Pee Chee folder.

We spent hours adding to those pictures, filling in bubbles, shapes, word clouds, you name it. When we wrote something especially creative or funny we would slide our folder over to the desk next to us and wait for an approving nod or smile, a 1980s version of the Facebook +1 or Twitter favorite. Well what if you took an iconic childhood memory and used it to create a unique front a back cover of your Robots vs. Zombies comic book?


You can also take things that don’t normally belong together and juxtapose them to create something new.


Kids don’t belong on a dirty side street. Kids in old-fashioned dresses don’t belong on a busy San Fransisco street. Kids don’t usually wear creepy masks. Put them all together and you have something that pops, something that stands out, something new.

My co-workers Amy and Elise do this cool “What’s Common” activity in class. At the beginning of the year every student writes down a noun, a famous person, a quote, on a piece of paper. When Amy or Elise are studying something in class, let’s say a poem. They will put the title of the poem on the board and then pick two random words/people/quotes from the stack and write them on the board. Then students have to figure out “What’s Common.”

Why did a similar activity with a recent Twitter #CAedchat chat. We called it “How Are They Alike.” You could not only do this activity in our classroom, but you could do this during a Professional Development activity with your staff.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 8.58.24 AM

View the Google Doc and the Storify of the #CAedchat “How Are They Alike.”

Remember, everything is a re/mix, so how can you help students learn how to create their own new re/mixed creations?



weird art

You are an artist. You do not need to explain your weird/strange take on the world. You are allowed to make people uncomfortable in their understanding. You need to have a reason for doing this. You need to have something behind the work, but art does not need to be explained or understood, to be powerful. How can we cultivate this in our students? Do we ever encourage students to be weird? Instead of a Global School Play Day, what if we had a global weird day?



A few years ago I attended a Myth Busters live show. During the show Adam Savage said that all science comes from a place of humor. A scientist says “huh, that’s funny, I wonder why that happened.” Humor shows us the glitch in the Matrix. Good humor is smart in its observational powers, it notices the unusual. Being genuinely funny is usually a sign of novelty.




So one of the unsolvable problems that contribute to clichéd creations is our students experience. Notice I didn’t say age, I said experience. One of the greatest things we can do for our students is to make new experiences possible. Field trips, hands-on learning, learning to code, learning to control a drone, learning how to paint, to sculpt, to take photos, learning how to make a kite, to fix a toilet, to ride a surfboard, these are all things that not only teach the skill itself, but allow you to mix various lessons into new understandings of the world around you.

The more you try something new, the more you travel somewhere new, the more you try new foods, new websites, new sources of videos, new authors, new video games, the faster you grow in experience and maturity. If all you do is play Counter Strike or live in SnapChat with your same few friends, you will struggle to become something interesting.

If all you are doing in class for the day is having your students try something new, or go somewhere new, you are helping them build a more mature awareness of the world around them. This helps them create a less clichéd take on what they see and what they want to tell others. But what if they can’t go anywhere new, what if they can’t head to the ocean?


Then read, or watch movies. But don’t read just what everyone else is reading otherwise you will sound like everyone else. Don’t just watch what everyone else is watching otherwise your art will sound like a tinny echo. You’ve got to push yourself beyond the traditional. Play unusual video games at least once a week, watch a foreign film, read a book recommended to you by your math teacher. Push yourself to try something new, to take in something new and then the art you create, the writing you share will hopefully live in the novelty.

Besides being new/novel there is another reason why you want students to live or create in the novelty. It feels fresh, it makes you feel alive. Listen to the short podcast below to see why novelty is so important in our lives.

So let’s go over this one more time. If you want your students to avoid cliché:

  • Notice Something New
  • Be Specific
  • Remix/Juxtapose
  • Be Weird/Random
  • Be Funny
  • Have New Experiences/ Read and Watch New Things


PS: Could you do this to avoid creating a boring, cliché lesson plan– of course you can. If you have an activity that you do that cultivates any of these novelty attributes, please share them in the comments below.


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