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.

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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).

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!

 

Providing Autonomy in the “4 Ts”

Greetings! I’m writing after the second day of a new approach to structuring our mornings in the classroom to be more autonomous and am feeling that mixed bag of emotions that comes along with trying out something new — excitement, uncertainty, confusion, frustration. I’ll share more about the specific changes that I’m making in a future post, once I’ve had more time to observe my Curious Questioners and to reflect on what’s working and what isn’t.

In my last post, I wrote about the research that supports shifting classroom practices to provide students with as much autonomy as possible in the classroom. Specifically, I cited Daniel Pink’s theory about the four components of what he called “Motivation 2.0” — providing autonomy over time, task, technique, and team (Drive, 2009). Today, I’m going to offer some suggestions for small, medium, and large steps that educators may be able to make to provide students with enhanced opportunities for classroom autonomy.

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Giving students autonomy over time involves allowing them to have more say over what they do when and how much time they spend on particular tasks.

Small Step: Let students have some input in the schedule of your day. Have a discussion with your students about your daily classroom schedule and find out from them what they think is working and what they might like to try altering. One year, my students told me that they’d like to do math first thing in the morning. After making the change, I got far greater engagement during our math activities.

Medium Step: Engage students with tasks designed to last multiple work periods, with parts that can be completed flexibly. Giving students a multi-part assignment with components that can be completed in any order allows students to create a plan for completing the task and the freedom to organize their learning and work in a way that makes the most sense to them.

Large Step: Create a flexible work period, where students are given multiple assignments and a larger chunk of work time in which to complete them. These type of work periods are common in the Montessori approach to education and provide authentic opportunities for students to make decisions and to hone their time management skills. (This is the large change that I’m actively working on making in my own classroom.)

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Giving students task autonomy involves allowing them to make choices about the learning activities in which they’ll be engaging.

Small Step: Give students a 15-minute free period each day to spend on anything that they can relate to learning. Observe students during this time to see what tasks they gravitate towards. I call this time “independent learning time” in my classroom. You can read more about ILT here.

Medium Step: Create two (or more!) different tasks that cover the same learning topic or goal and give students a choice about which one to complete.

Large Step: Have a conversation with your students about a specific learning goal. Explain what learners would need to do to demonstrate their understanding of the concept or skill and offer some suggestions about activities students might do to “show what they know.” Allow students to choose one of your suggestions or to create their own idea for a product or task they can complete to share their learning with you.

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Providing students with autonomy in terms of technique involves defining a clear objective, but leaving room for students to develop their own way of getting there.

Small Step: Give students the freedom to choose their own art supplies and materials to complete tasks and assignments. I’ve long been a proponent of allowing students to write with whatever tool they’d like — if I’ve got them happily working on a learning task, I don’t need to control what they write with! (I do work with them on recognizing how to make smart decisions about what to use for specific learning tasks.)

Medium Step: Offer students an open-ended task that allows students to show their thinking in more than one way. A simple example: Draw or write about what you think what happen next in the story. A more complicated example: Using a single piece of paper, share with me what you know about nonfiction books. Math problems can also be a great opportunity to open up the possibility of using multiple techniques — manipulatives, drawing a picture, abstract representation, etc.

Large Step: Begin highlighting student work that is “outside the box.” Discuss how using different techniques makes learning more interesting and allows us to learn more from each other. Celebrate creativity and make sharing different techniques and strategies a part of your classroom culture. This will expand your students’ toolkits and ideas about the many possibilities for approaching a learning task.

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Offering team autonomy involves letting students make choices about how they work — individually, with a partner, or in a small team. It can also mean letting students create self-chosen groups.

Small Step: Open up the possibility of students working together on a task. A lot of research indicates that when students work with others, everyone’s performance is ultimately enhanced. Even if students weaker in a particular area rely heavily on their partners in the beginning, having a peer explain concepts can be more effective than listening to the teacher explain something again.

Medium Step: Create “working together” spaces in your classroom. Set up an area where students can voluntarily go if they are seeking an opportunity to collaborate with a peer. Discuss this space with the students and have them provide input about how this space should function.

Large Step: Allow students to design a team project to address a learning goal. Have students come up with a proposal, a plan, and roles. They should also be able to articulate how they’ll demonstrate what they know as individuals and as a team.

*For more about creating effective groups in the classroom, I highly recommend the book Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogenous Classroom by Cohen & Lohan. Available here.


Beginning to make small changes in your classroom practice in even one of these areas will create a path towards greater autonomy for your students. Let me know if you try out any of these changes or if you have other suggestions for increasing autonomy in the classroom.

Making Space for Autonomy

peanuts_essay.jpgOne of my goals for this year is to broaden my focus beyond my single classroom to the bigger, broader picture of education. I’m contemplating what future moves I’d like to make within the education field and am recognizing that I will probably never be content with just focusing the whole of my attention on the group of students assigned to me during a particular year. Taking a course on education last fall and getting to grapple with ideas and research has reinvigorated my desire to enter the classroom each day as a scientist, an experimenter who explores and advocates for ways to transform our traditional model of education.

In my course last fall, we read excerpts from Daniel Pink’s Drive — having read the book before, this offered an opportunity to revisit the text with an education-specific lens. What has stuck with me and perplexed me for months is the emphasis that the text places on autonomy as a critical component of motivation. (Mastery and purpose are the other two legs to the stool of motivation that Pink describes.) I was particularly struck by a passage comparing the difference between “autonomous motivation” and “controlled motivation,” which I’ll share here:

“Autonomous motivation involves behaving with a full sense of volition and choice […] whereas controlled motivation involves behaving with the experience of pressure and demand toward specific outcomes that come from forces perceived to be external to the self” (Deci & Ryan, cited by Pink, p. 90).

When I read this, it seems clear to me that most of what we offer to students of all ages in education is the latter concept, “controlled motivation.” We tell students what to do, when to do it, and typically outline or at least imply what the consequences (punishments) will be for failing to complete the task in a certain way and within a certain time frame. Often, we do these things while claiming to be “student-centered,” arguing that we are responding to our students’ interests and needs while still dictating nearly every moment of their time in the classroom. Or, we give students a non-choice, “Well, you can choose not to do this now, but then x, y, or z.”

While there are probably few circumstances in education where we could offer students complete “autonomous motivation,” I certainly think that there are changes that we can make to at least restore some autonomy back to students. Even in thinking about the non-academic parts of the day in my school, I am staggered by the control the adults in the building exercise in the name of order and convenience. For example, during breakfast in the cafeteria each morning, students must sit by class, their only options for activities are eating or talking to one another, and you have to keep your dirty and empty food containers in front of you until you are given permission to throw your garbage away. Surely this amount of control is unnecessary — I can’t imagine adults agreeing to eat a meal under such arbitrary conditions. And this is just one small part of a school day, a day that I would argue is governed from start to end by similar unnecessary usurpations of  student autonomy.

Significantly, research suggests that making autonomy-enhancing changes in school would be worthwhile, as numerous studies demonstrate that the more autonomy we can give to students, the better the outcomes. In a synthesis of the research, Pink concludes that increased autonomy “promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, [and] enhanced persistence at school” (p. 90 – 91). There is also a citizenship argument here as well, articulated well by my favorite educational contrarian, Alfie Kohn, in an article called “Choices for Children” (1993):

“One is repeatedly struck by the absurd spectacle of adults insisting that children need to become self-disciplined, or lamenting that ‘kids just don’t take responsibility for their own behavior’ — while spending their days ordering children around. The truth is that, if we want children to take responsibility for their own behavior, we must first give them responsibility, and plenty of it.”

It seems clear that preserving students’ autonomy at all levels of schooling is a noble goal — one that is worthy of deeper exploration. This month, I’m making restoring as much autonomy as possible to my students my main focus for experimentation. In Drive, Pink argues that there are four components to creating an environment where autonomous motivation can flourish — providing autonomy over “what people do (task), when people do it (time), how they do it (technique), and whom they do it with (team)” (p. 94-95). In a post later this week, I’ll be exploring some changes that could be made to restore autonomy to students in each of these areas. I hope you’ll join me in thinking critically about ways to promote autonomous motivation in our schools.

Work Cited:
Kohn, A. (1993). Choices for children: Why and how to let students decide. Phi Delta Kappan: September 1993.

Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.

A Vision for Curriculum

On Tuesday night, while watching a Youtube Live event hosted by one of the great folks at Go2Science (https://www.go2science.com/), I was struck by a comment made regarding the Go2Science materials, which I’ll do my best to replicate here:

“Feel free to take the materials and rearrange them and make them your own. We know we’ve made a good lesson when you can can take it and make it your own.”

This insight struck me because it illuminates a vision of what a curriculum could be. It’s a thought that I needed articulated three months into the implementation of new curriculum materials that have been introduced in my district. These materials do not espouse such an open-source or teacher-empowering stance and it’s caused quite a philosophical struggle for me as an educator.

As a teacher whose favorite part of the job (other than the kids) is curriculum development and creating learning activities, I’ve been fortunate to grow into my practice as an educator in a district where the directives were to use curricular resources as just that, resources. For five years, I’ve been pulling ideas and inspiration from a host of sources and combining them together to create what I believe are rich, meaningful, and integrated learning experiences for my students. The act of creating a mosaic from all of these sources allows me to flex my creativity muscles and is, for me, almost spellbinding. Many of the other aspects of the job often feel like chores, but I’ll happily spend an entire Saturday engaged in designing curriculum.

Most significantly, I’ve relished the opportunity to create materials that respond directly to my students’ interests and current needs. All teachers know that in any given classroom there are a wide range of skills and diverse personalities; for anyone who has spent an extended time in a classroom, the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach seems both irresponsible and irrational. Yet, one-size-fits-all, with subtle changes for “differentiation” continues to be what the big education publishers proffer and is, unfortunately, the turn that we appear to be taking in my district.

Last year, during the curriculum exploration phase, I had several conversations with folks at school about how mass-produced curricula are market-driven, responding to the latest zeitgeists and repackaging the same old stuff in newer, flashier packaging. And, when looking at national publishers, we’ve seen in films like “The Revisionaries” that states and districts with the largest budgets often get their needs and requirements enshrined in the packages offered across the country. It hardly makes sense that my students in rural Maine should have their educational experiences dictated by the pursestrings thousands of people thousands of miles away.

At any rate, I now have in my classroom a 750-page, two-volume phone book of math activities and worksheets for each of my students that is supposed to guarantee “Common Core Success.” And, it’s been a struggle to grapple with balancing directions for implementation with the boxes of resources that I’ve developed and tested. It’s hard to rectify trading conceptual understanding for shallow coverage and to extinguish all the work I’ve done to teach kids that math isn’t just about the right answer with solution-focused worksheets. For now, I’ve struck the balance of using the curriculum to loosely frame what I cover, picking and choosing those activities that make sense as resources, but not being afraid to use a tried-and-true lesson that I know is better.

These small actions are allowing me to teach while retaining my conscience and allowing me to keep focused on my vision for what quality curriculum is and could be.

Serendipitous Mayhem

Untitled 2.pngThe part of my revised curriculum that I’d most been looking forward to was Nature Study. Our first few lessons went swimmingly — students wrote and drew pictures in their notebooks of their observations, they were noticing unusual plants, and there was a keen interest amongst the class in getting to explore lots of different outdoor spaces around our school.

On Thursday afternoon, we went out on a cleared trail for Nature Study. Students were working on a 5 senses observation. We’d been out for almost all of the 20 minutes I’d allotted when, suddenly, this scene emerged: clipboards being thrown in the air, bloodcurdling screams breaking the serenity of the woods, and my 16 second graders scrambling back towards the school.

Yep, probably the worst case scenario — one of my Curious Questioners stepped on a yellow jacket nest, sending a swarm of angry wasps after us. Half of my students got stung at least once and one student began to have a reaction to the stings. (Fortunately, I somehow avoided being stung — that would made things far worse, as I have severe reactions to stings of any kind.) In short, utter mayhem reigned as I tried to ensure that students who had been stung got taken care of and had their parents notified against a backdrop of extremely over-excited and frightened 7-and 8-year olds.

Everyone was okay and things had leveled off by the time Friday arrived. In fact, by the end of the day, many students were citing “the wasp incident” as their favorite part of the week. Additionally, many of our questions of the week were inspired by wasps — a popular one was, “Why do they sting so hard?”

After the students left on Friday, I let out such a sigh of relief. The stress of the past couple of days finally washed away and now we could move on. But then, an idea nagged at the back of my mind — what could be a more clear example of a “teachable moment” than this episode? An opportunity to engage my students in meaningful inquiry about a topic in which they had a vested interest had come right up and “stung” me.

So, scrap the lesson plans! I spent the majority of yesterday designing an inquiry unit around the question, “What stung us?” I’d used the word “wasp” to describe the incident when talking about it with my students, but this word doesn’t pinpoint the species of stinging insect that attacked us (yellow jackets). So, I haven’t answered the question for them, leaving it wide open for exploration.

Tomorrow, when my students arrive at school, they’ll be assigned to a group that will be researching one of four possible stinging candidates — honeybees, hornets, yellow jackets, and paper wasps. I’ve created readings and some other bee-related centers that students will rotate through, learning about their assigned insect, but — most importantly — looking for evidence that might help determine whether or not their species is the culprit.

After groups complete their readings in a small group, they’ll work together to create a collaborative poster highlights facts about their insect’s appearance, nesting habits, and behaviors. Each group will share their findings with the class (and with families during our community meeting this Friday) and students will have to synthesize the information to create a scientific case for which insect they believe attacked our class.

I can’t wait to see them working like real scientists on this inquiry task! While I do wish that we hadn’t disturbed those yellow jackets, I am excited that something meaningful and likely memorable can come out of the chaos.

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