Reading Day: Making Time for Professional Development

The past several weeks have been a blur — two November snow days (oh, Maine!), report cards, and the holiday season have kept me in a perpetual losing battle with my to-do list.

It’s this continuous sense of hustle and bustle that has led me to create an intentional shift in how I think about scheduling my time. In an article that I recently read (the author and title escape me), the author discussed how we spend so much time working on things that are unimportant because they come with a false sense of urgency — email comes to mind as the big one for me in this area — or because they are quick and seem easy to get done and cross off our list. What happens as we chase all of these small, urgent-feeling tasks is that we lose all of the time for the bigger, deeper things that we’re always saying we’d like to find the time to do.

For me, the thing that I’m always copying and pasting from one week’s to-do list to the next is professional reading and creativity time for curriculum and activity development. Because it never feels as urgent as my other to-dos, it’s the first thing I tend to push aside, even though it’s the thing that would actually be most effective in helping me to reach my goal of being a real-life Mz. Frizzle, who makes learning an adventure with interesting and challenging activities.

Over the Thanksgiving Break, while I had a few moments to catch my breath, I decided that I was going to prioritize this time for my own professional development. In creating my month-at-a-glance, I scheduled in one school day a week to be my “Reading Day.” On this day, the only thing I can do during my prep or those little pockets of time that crop up during the day (what typically becomes compulsive email checking time) is read and gather ideas for future activities. The time to do this is never going to magically appear and planning to do it only during the summer isn’t practical, as I’d like to be continually refining my practice while embedded in my daily context, not just creating plans during the summer when I’m not in the rhythm of teaching.

Thus far, keeping all of those to-dos away from my reading day has been HARD. Way harder than I expected. I keep having to remind myself that email can wait just one day, that I can catch up on setting up materials tomorrow — I’m having to retrain myself to more accurately judge urgency.

Today is actually my reading day, so I shouldn’t technically be writing this now, but this an idea that I wanted to ripple forward. Now, it’s back to my read for the day — Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager’s work Invent to Learn. Already, in my reading at breakfast and when I first arrived at school, I’m feeling that rush of inspiration that comes from reading about new, exciting ideas.

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Student Entrepreneurs

For our first unit with the 7th & 8th graders, all of the specialists in my building have crafted projects that encourage students to take positive social risks. In STEM class, my project took the from of students coming up with an idea for an invention or product that would help a target user somewhere in the age range of Pre-K to Grade 4.

This project challenged teams of students to identify a meaningful problem that children encounter, develop a viable solution that addresses that problem, create a prototype of the idea, produce a slide deck aimed at persuading an audience to support their product, and presenting their product in a “Shark Tank” style pitch. Oh — and they had only 6 days to complete all of these tasks! It was certainly a heavy lift, but my students more than rose to the occasion.

After having five classes of 7th and 8th graders complete this project, I was blown away by their engagement, passion, and creativity. They have displayed a keen ability to put their fingers on challenges faced by younger students and their products have attempted to help students with problems including making friends, reaching or using things not designed with children of their size in mind, avoiding getting lost, losing things, staying focused and motivated in class, helping when they experience bullying, and encouraging them make healthy food choices at school.

The biggest takeaway for me in this project has been the magical results of allowing students voice and choice in their work. While I provided a frame that included specific “must haves” and a target audience, the assignment left plenty of room for students to develop something that mattered to them. While there was some variance in total effort, all but a tiny handful of my 70+ students clearly cared deeply about their projects and showed determination and perseverance in bringing their ideas to fruition in their prototypes and slide decks. The diversity in the resulting projects also created a lot of “buzz” and excitement in the classroom, as students were also curious about the work being completed by other groups.

The amount of spontaneous exploration and learning that happened due to this project also impressed me — I had groups engage in experimentation with LEDs and circuits, structural integrity when working with cardboard, sewing, programming, working with a saw, and a host of other skills. I am excited to continue to look for ways to allow learning to unfold authentically as it did in this project; my students’ work confirmed what research tells us — that immediately applying skills learned “just in time” leads to more meaningful and durable knowledge-construction.

Frightfully Fun Fall STEAM!

October is upon us and that means one thing is on my youngest students’ minds: Halloween. In fact, back in September, during one of my very first classes with one of my kindergarten groups, when asked to respond to the prompt, “Tell me something that you like you do,” one little person replied, “Go to the Halloween store to pick out costumes.” So, needless to say, they’re definitely thinking about it!

In order to harness some of that energy, I created a series of Fall and Halloween themed STEAM challenges for my youngest engineers (Pre-K and kindergarten). I find that many STEAM challenges targeted at this particular age group often tend to be simplistic and not as open-ended as I’d like, so I wanted to find some tasks that would strike a happy balance between being independently accessible but also highly scalable, that is, leaving room for boundless complexity or creativity in devised solutions.

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The ten activities that I devised for the month were incredibly fun to create and I couldn’t wait until it was finally time to roll them out this week. My plan with implementing these activities is to offer four different choices each time that my kindergarten classes come to the STEM lab. I’ll rotate and mix in different stations as we go to help keep it interesting, but also will offer the same activity over multiple weeks to hopefully see growth in the sophistication of their creations.

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Week one of these activities has been a sweeping success! My kindergarteners particularly loved “Pumpkins on a Fence” and “Ghost Tower.” Here are a couple of their creations.

 


Having the students engaged in these activities also allowed me to introduce our BeeBots to small groups with a task I’m calling “BeeBot Trick-or-Treat.” I created a set of cards that features different types of human and animal homes. I put one set on my BeeBot grid board and kept the other as a set of cards. When I gathered my small groups, students took turns selecting a card and then trying to program the BeeBot to reach the corresponding spot on the board. It’s been a great opportunity to practice perseverance, as programming the Bee and understanding that he moves from his perspective and not his driver’s has been tricky for many of my kindergarteners to grasp. But, once they do reach the goal, there’s been a lot of dancing and celebrating!

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Looking to add some STEAM fun to your classroom this fall? You can purchase a copy of my Frightfully Fun STEAM activities pack by visiting my TPT store. (This Way to the Product Page!) (Note: the product doesn’t include the BeeBot cards, but I’ll send you the set if you email cultivatequestioners@gmail.com.)

 

Get your own set of these STEAM tasks!

 

Parts, Purposes, and Complexities

 

 

Ever since I stumbled upon the Agency By Design thinking routine called “Parts, Purposes, and Complexities,” I’ve been excited to try it out. (Check it out here.) In essence, it is an activity designed to get students looking closely at objects, thinking about what parts comprise them, and analyzing how they are put together. I conducted “Parts, Purposes, Complexities” (both in discussion-based and written form) and was blown away by the detail and complexity of thinking that my 4th grade engineers showed in their work.

To introduce the routine, we did a whole-class version of the task using a standard #2 pencil. I gave each student a pencil, as having the tangible object in front of you is critical for this thinking routine. Working together, we identified the parts, then came up with the purposes for each of those parts, and finally observed and noted complexities about the item (e.g. how the parts work together or noting other objects with which the item is designed to work.)

After the whole class analysis of a pencil, students were invited to choose an item of interest from a bucket of random things that I’d collected from around the classroom. I tried to select items that were interesting, but that weren’t so complicated that they’d require a whole notebook to describe all of the parts. For this initial application of the thinking routine, I also tried to avoid objects that had components inside that would be difficult for students to discover. (Though, I’d like to repeat this routine later in the year in a take-apart activity.)

I created a guiding paper to help students go through each step of the “Parts, Purposes, and Complexities” routine. The first step was to create a close drawing of the item, as drawing is a great tool for helping students notice details that they might not if they just held onto the item. Here are a few 4th grade samples of this part of the routine.

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The next part of the routine is to make a list of the parts of the item. We spent some time discussing that it was important that you list all of the parts, but that you did not need to know the technical names for all of the parts and could feel free to make up names that made sense to you. Here’s a sample of a list of parts (from a student working with a screw.)


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Following the examination of the parts, students copied their lists into the next section of the routine — purposes. Then, for each part, students had to describe what they thought the purpose of that particular part was. Here are a couple samples, from students describing a bottle of Elmer’s glue and a hot glue gun.

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The final step of the routine was the one that pushed my engineers’ thinking the most — identifying the complexities of their item. I defined complexities as the ways in which  the parts work together, specific functions of the item that require multiple parts, or other items that were considered in the design (e.g. a stapler is designed to fit standard-sized staples.) Below are two samples — one from a student describing complexities of a syringe and one from a student examining scissors.

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Overall, this routine was a great way to get my students thinking like designers and hopefully has started to spur their curiosity about and recognition of the parts, purposes, and complexities of the millions of objects that surround them.

If you’d like to try this activity with your students, you can grab a copy of the handout I gave to students here.

Teaching Teamwork: Broken Squares

 

 

Much of the work that my students will be doing in STEM class this year will require them to work collaboratively with their peers. Working in groups is challenging for many students (and adults!) and, like most things, practice does lead to improved performance. However, as many people (myself included) with past negative groupwork experiences will tell you, simply grouping students and telling them work together does not always lead to effective outcomes or equal contributions.

Last year, I read a wonderful book all about facilitating improved collaborative experiences called Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom (Cohen & Lotan). [More about the Book] While the book covers many aspects of designing purposeful groupwork, my biggest aha! from the text was the suggestion to conduct explicit “groupwork training exercises” with students. While I often required my second graders to work in groups to complete tasks and assignments, I realized that I was just throwing the students together, providing a few platitudes about how to get along, and then expecting them to know how to work as a group. Cohen and Lotan argue that, far too often, this is the norm in our classrooms — we expect that students will know how to work together when, in fact, they have never been shown or taught what that entails.

One of the training exercises that the authors suggest is called “Broken Squares.” Here’s how it works. Teams are made — I’ve found that groups of three or four work best — and each team member receives an envelope. Inside the envelopes are a variety of puzzle pieces. When these pieces are combined with those of their teammates, they make a set of squares.

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Envelopes prepared for a group of three.

Sounds pretty simple, right? Two rules take this task from one that could be dominated by one member of the team to an activity that (literally) requires all hands on deck. First, no one may speak during the duration of the activity. Second, the only pieces you can touch are your own. Taken together, these two caveats require students to come up with diverse ways to communicate and ensure that everyone needs to participate in order to be successful.

 

 

I’m currently using this task with my three classes of third graders and finding that it’s just the right amount of challenge for them. This is the fourth time that I’ve done this task (I’ve also used it with 2nd graders and 4th & 5th graders) and I find that, despite being a pretty simple task, it never fails to fully engage the student participants. A hush will fall over the classroom, punctuated only by gasps of excitement as a first square is successfully created. This has, thus far, held true even in very boisterous, outgoing groups.

Following our completion of the activity, we spend some time debriefing the task and discussing its connection to teamwork. I’ve used the following questions to help prompt my students to share their thoughts on the activity:

  • How did your group go about solving the puzzles?
  • What was challenging about this activity?
  • What strategies did your group use that helped you make progress?
  • What does this task teach us about effective teamwork?
  • What did you learn in this activity that you might use the next time you work in a group?

Interested in trying “Broken Squares” with your learners? You can use the link here to get more information and access to the templates I used for my square sets (https://web.stanford.edu/class/ed284/csb/Broken/BC&Stext.doc) This link also contains another activity — “Broken Circles” — that is the same task, but uses circles instead of squares and which I’ve found a bit easier for younger learners.

Teacher Tips:
I copied my “Broken Square” templates onto cardstock and used a different color for each complete set. This makes all the difference when you find a stray puzzle piece while you’re cleaning up!

When preparing for the task, don’t agonize over how to divide up the pieces — just make sure that no participant can create a complete square from their set of pieces.

Imagining Possibilities: Repurposing & Not a Box

This week, the focus of my lessons with my K-2 students was our first STEM class principle — Imagine Possibilities. My goal in structuring these lessons was getting students producing lots of possible ideas and then choosing one (or more) to explore.

My three second grade classes completed a simple repurposing activity, which also tied in with our yearlong focus on resources. We reviewed the terms reduce, reuse, recycle and then learned the new word repurpose. Students then got to choose an item from a bin containing all sorts of boxes, containers, and other miscellany that I’d been diverting from my recycling bin for a few weeks. Their excitement about getting to repurpose grew as the week went on — when I was walking groups of students to my classroom, the kiddos in the front of the line would ask, “Are we going to be making things like the other kids did?” My hope is that their interest in repurposing will spill over into their home lives, as it’s such a simple (and cost-effective) way to get kids making and engineering.

Here’s a look of some of their final products — I was blown away by their creativity!


Meanwhile, with kindergarten, I tackled “Imagining Possibilities” with a favorite lesson framed around Antoinette Portis’ Not a Box. I gave each of my kindergarten students half a cereal box (I have over 50 kindergarteners and my stock of boxes didn’t run deep enough!) and encouraged them to use it to create their own “Not-a-Boxes.”

Again, students created a wide range of responses to this task. And, my goodness, did they have a great time making them!

 

I’m excited to see what else my students will create as we continue to practice and build a culture of imagining possibilities!

First Activities: STEM Mystery Bags

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I wanted to pursue an open-ended task to kick the year off with my sixth graders, so I created STEM mystery bags. Preparing this task was simple —  I rummaged through my storage closets, compiled a random assortment of objects, and tossed them into grocery bags. I chose to use the same starter materials for each bag, but this activity could also work by creating unique bags of items. After an introductory name game, my students broke into small groups, selected a bag, and were prompted to “make something.” In addition to the items shown in the photograph above, my students were allowed to select two additional materials from our Maker Station, which gave them a chance to access and learn about the potential materials that they’ll be incorporating into their projects all year long.

Observing the students working gave me some initial insights into which students are drawn to one another, as well as the class-wide comfort level with ambiguity and open-ended tasks (e.g. students asking, “What are the requirements for the final product?” or “Can we use the materials in any way we want?” versus students being completely comfortable cutting up or taking items apart to meet a group-determined objective.) Best of all, this activity was a perfect illumination of our first STEM class principle — “Imagine Possibilities.” In our concluding gallery walk, we focused on and discussed the wide range of products created by groups starting with the same initial materials.

Here are some photographs that illustrate some of that variety.