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!

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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.

“Constructing” Relationships: Share & Build

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In my new role, I’ve got to learn about 400 names (insert teacher in a cold sweat just thinking about it!), which means that I’ve been starting off all of my first classes with name games. Because I’m teaching STEM, I came up with this simple little idea that achieves the dual purposes of having students introduce themselves and working together to create something.

The activity, which I’m calling Share & Build, is super simple. I put Jenga blocks into a bucket. Students passed the bucket around the circle, each taking out a block. I modeled the process by going first and sharing my name, something I like to do, and then placing my block down on a table or the floor (whichever makes the most sense for visibility.) I then chose a student to repeat the process. That student selected the next participant, until we had gone through the whole class and had created something together.

My second graders loved this activity and were highly interested in seeing how their classmates would choose to add their blocks to our classroom creation. I found it interesting to observe the way that, as the top photo shows, some classes ended up working to create a neat, orderly design, while others were more focused in looking for novel placements of the blocks. We definitely had some toppling action, which provided a good first opportunity to discuss the importance of mistakes and experimentation in STEM.

If you’re considering trying out this idea, I think that, with a smallish class, having students have two blocks each could make this activity even more engaging.

Framing Learning in STEM Class

My new position as a STEM teacher is everything that I’ve always wanted — open and flexible, with ample opportunities to infuse creativity into the classroom. All summer, I’ve been working on creating a developmental progression of where I want students to be in their learning after each year that they’ll spend with me, from Pre-K to 8th grade. For weeks, I spun my wheels without getting much traction.

Despite having a steady stream of ideas about activities and projects, I eventually realized that what was lacking was an organizational frame, some specific capacities and skills that would function as the overarching goals for all of our work in STEM class. Fortunately, I’ve been immersing myself in reading about making and STEM all summer and, in Maker-Based Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape Their Worlds (Clapp, Ross, Ryan, & Tishman; 2016), I finally found the framework for which I’d been waiting.

Maker-Based Learning is a book born of work done by the Agency by Design working group at Harvard’s Project Zero. Throughout the book, the concept of maker empowerment is presented as an overarching goal of maker-based learning. The authors define maker empowerment as “A sensitivity to the designed dimensions of objects and systems, along with the inclination and capacity to shape one’s world through building, tinkering, re/designing, or hacking” (p. 98). In other words, students who are empowered as makers recognize the designed nature of our world, see objects and systems around them as malleable, and believe that they can act as Makers upon their world. This is exactly what I want for my learners and what I couldn’t articulate myself.

Clapp et al. argue that the necessary steppingstone to maker empowerment is developing a “sensitivity to design” and then offer a set of three capacities that help facilitate this sensitivity — looking closely, exploring complexities, and finding opportunities. Here’s a graphic from the Agency By Design website that explains each of these capacities.

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Source: http://agencybydesign.org.s219538.gridserver.com/edresources/ 

After encountering this framework and coupling it with Engineering Design ideas from the Next Generation Science Standards, my developmental progression almost wrote itself. I was able to clearly picture what I want a kindergartener to be able to do in terms of looking closely versus what I want a sixth grader to be able to accomplish in that domain. What excites me most is the way that these capacities offer opportunities for noticing growth — while “maker empowerment” or “sensitivity to design” feel dauntingly broad for someone who has to note student progress, these three, interrelated skills are things that I can clearly monitor as I capture and document student work.

Perhaps most significantly, finding a framework closely linked to my overarching goals for my STEM class will help me keep my focus more panoramic, rather than zoomed in on one project at a time — hopefully yielding alignment between my end goals for my students and the activities transpiring in our classroom each day.

As Julianne Wurm writes in Working the Reggio Way (2005): “It is not a question of right or wrong answers, but of determining what you really believe about children and education, and then making sure that all of the millions of decisions you make as you work with children reflect that vision to the best of your capacity” (p. 13).

STEM Class is All About IDEAS!

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I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past week or so thinking about how I’m going to go about establishing norms and expectations with so many (25!) different sections of learners. When I’ve worked with just one classroom of students, I’ve tended to devote most of our first week together to discussions about what we want our classroom to be like, what rights everyone in the room should be guaranteed, and what responsibilities everyone has to help make sure that those rights are upheld.

While I don’t want to move completely away from those democratic conversations, because I’ll be working with students for only 30-35 sessions a year (and don’t have wall space for 25 different sets of rights and responsibilities!), I’ve decided to define a set of expectations that will articulate to all students, Pre-K to 8th grade, the type of mindset that they’ll need to engage most fully in our STEM classroom.

The result of this thinking is a set of qualities and dispositions that I hope to encourage in my scientists and an acronym that I believe is perfect for STEM class — IDEAS. 
Imagine Possibilities
Dig Into Mistakes
Embrace Challenges
Ask Questions
Share and Show Kindness

In our first classes, I plan to introduce these qualities, one or two at a time,  and then engage the learners in a discussion and an accompanying activity for each one. Hopefully this will bring a balance of meaningful discussion about key STEM (and general learning) qualities while opening up plenty of space for student participation in  shaping what our classroom will be like.

If you’re interested in getting a copy of these posters for your own STEM students, you can find them in my TeachersPayTeachers store.
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A note about graphics in this file:
The blue question mark — Q — is my original artwork and my classroom mascot.
Gear borders available for purchase & download from Elementary Inquiry on TPT.
Critical Thinking Clipart from Teacher Karma on TPT.

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The Benefits and Pitfalls of Themes

2017-05-13-07-51-11-900x675When I was teaching second grade, I would always use themes to organize our learning activities. Over the years in my classroom, we studied bees, trees, inventions, holidays around the world, advertising/media literacy, robots, and Antarctica. These themes helped my students by providing multiple exposures to vocabulary, content, and ideas as we explored our topic across different subject areas.

As I think about my new role, I’m contemplating what themes might offer to a STEM classroom. Specifically, I’m wondering whether to pursue a whole-school theme, a theme for each group of learners, or to forgo a theme altogether. Here’s a bit of my thinking about the benefits and pitfalls of themes in a Makerspace/engineering setting.

Benefits of Themes:

  • Help learners make connections and introduce them to important ideas they may not encounter on their own
  • Offer increased cohesion between projects tackled by different students
  • Provide a jumping-off point for learners who may not respond well to a completely blank slate
  • Help stimulate observations and conversations about projects between different groups of learners
  • Connect learning and making to the real world

Pitfalls of Themes:

  • Can be constricting if too narrow — students may not be able to find an entry point into the theme that relates to their interests
  • May prevent students from stumbling onto other ideas or content of interest through natural pursuit of their own ideas
  • More likely to lead to students trying to create products to meet a perceived expectation instead of considering what they want to make

As I consider my role as a teacher of students in Pre-K to 8th grade, I am drawn to the idea of having a whole-school theme, as learners in different sections of STEM class could witness the thinking and creating done by others thinking about a similar topic. I am also particularly interested in the potential of the authentic audiences that a theme would create — students would be able to design products to be shared with another group of learners. A theme could also streamline my content delivery and help spark a common conversation that could happen across groups of learners, rather than every group doing something wholly different.

To me, the linchpin of a theme’s success in a setting that aims to foster creativity and innovation is flexibility. I want my theme to be a source of inspiration for my students to dwell in possibilities, rather than a restrictive block to their thinking. Naturally, this leads me to think that broad themes would be best — presently, I am leaning towards Sustainable Planet, Inventions, or Robotics. I would love to hear suggestions of other themes!

 

From ELA to STEAM

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So much has changed during my hiatus from blogging this spring! I have changed home addresses, schools, and — most significantly — my job description. After four years of teaching second grade at a small, rural school in Maine, I am transitioning into a role as a Pre-K to 8th grade STEM teacher at a slightly-larger, rural school in Maine.

For longtime readers of this blog or anyone who knows me, it’s a bit startling that, come September, I’ll be taking on a specialized science and technology position. After all, I double-majored in English and education, have an M.Ed in Language and Literacy, and am a voracious reader. Yet, as I look back on my four years of traditional classroom teaching, I can clearly see myself transforming — at first gradually and then quite rapidly — into a STEM teacher.

This transition began when I recognized that my students had an innate interest in science and that traditional reading and writing instruction could easily be encompassed within and made more meaningful when embedded in science (and social studies) content and activities. By my second year of teaching, I had largely given up on the traditional “literacy block” in favor of specific literacy instruction that occurred within the context of our science explorations. While many elementary school teachers lament not having enough time for science instruction, with this thematic approach, I was soon spending one-third and then more than one-half of our day on rich scientific activities that incorporated multiple subject areas.

In my third year teaching, I won a grant that allowed me to purchase Lego robotics kits and other computer programming technology for my classroom/school. While watching my students tinker with technology, I recognized that they instinctively began applying all of the Habits of Mind that we also spent a significant amount of our time discussing and practicing. They began cooperating on groupwork, inventing multiple ideas to problems, persisting — essentially doing all of the things that I believe lead to meaningful and lasting learning. I became obsessed with planning our engineering activities and found them to increasingly be the perfect practice zone for all of the skills and habits that I wanted my students to possess before concluding our time together.

And now, planning those STEM challenges that will foster critical thinking is going to be my full-time job. I am incredibly excited about the scope of this role — providing STEM experiences for all 400 students in our school — and the freedom that I will have to build a program that is responsive to student interests and our ever-changing world. Because I love teaching all of the subjects in a thematic context, I never thought that I would specialize, but now that I have made the leap, I am amazed by the clarity and focus that I’m able to bring to my work — and now, to this blog. I hope you’ll journey with me this year as I dip my toes into becoming Mz. Frizzle!