Student choice and voice is a big part of my classroom atmosphere. They are allowed to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways for most of what we do. Sometimes I show them a new tool which they must use, but there is still freedoms within that tool. Their creativity and critical thinking skills improve with each project. However, I noticed that some of them are at a plateau and aren’t going beyond what they always do. So I decided to change the rules and have them think inside the box.
Once a week we work on Genius Hour projects which give the students a chance to investigate a topic of their choice. They typically research the subject, then write an essay and create some type of project and presentation to share with the class. Many of these are the same no matter the topic or the student. They are stuck in their ideas of what a presentation needs to look like. How many times can the class watch the back of the student while he/she reads directly off the slideshow???
For the current project, I am giving them some rules to follow and taking away a little of their choice. Each student must create a Google Slideshow or Microsoft Sway. Within the slides I am limiting them to only 5 words per slide and 25 words total for the whole presentation. The class was mixed in their reactions. Some grabbed their computers with great anticipation of the challenge. (Some of that may have come from only being asked to summarize their notes in a quick paragraph to refresh their ideas rather than writing a full essay!) Others actually groaned aloud. It was like I recess was cancelled for the rest of the month.
As I observed their thinking process and the beginning of their projects, I noticed a distinct division in the class. There were those who thrived with the constraints and figured out how to add memes and images that had words already done for them so the words wouldn’t count. Others figured out how to add one word captions to images to prove their points. These were the creative thinkers who figured out how to make the rules work for them instead of against.
And then there were those who were stuck in the 5-word sentence per slide that made a “paragraph” if you put all of the slides together. These are the students who I am concerned with. As they grow older and find classrooms that are more traditional than mine I want them to see it’s possible to express their creativity by “thinking inside the box”. The only way to really show them this can happen is to give them constraints to see what they can do. It’s uncomfortable for all, but worth the effort.
As adults we are often asked to work within our own boxes. Change your teaching but use the required curriculum. Do things differently but make sure your test results are the same as or higher than if you did it the same as you always have. Sometimes this seems impossible but if given the opportunity to test limits with constraints we (teacher and students) just might rise above what was ever expected.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing Dave Burgess, author or Teach Like a PIRATE, speak. About two years ago I read his book and learned what it took to become a PIRATE. It reinforced some of what I was trying to change and gave me new insights into other ways I could better my teaching for the good of the students. Seeing Dave in person reminded me of how great (and easy to implement) his ideas are.
One of the ideas I was reminded of is the passion (the P in PIRATE) teachers bring into the classroom. I hear/read many complain lately about what is going on in their classrooms and their schools. They doubt they can continue beyond the year they are in. Healthy venting/complaining is normal. Wondering if you can last beyond your first few years in the classroom is worrisome. Some of what is happening is beyond the teacher’s control (admin issues, parents that feel schools work against them, a system where teachers aren’t always valued), but some of it can be used to change the negative.
Dave shared some stories from his time in the classroom, most of which made me want to be one of his students! He also shared how he has certain content that he just can’t get into. No matter what you teach, there are certain units you wait the whole year to get to. It’s one of those areas that you can’t wait to share with the students. For some it’s Shakespeare or fractions or penguins. No matter what it is, you are passionate about it. THEN, there is that unit that you dread every year and hope the students understand quickly so it will pass. For me, it is 4th grade long division. (Thankfully I’m not a 4th grade teacher this year and get to miss it!) It’s hard to have passion for every content we must teach, but that’s okay. Students need to see that not everyone is thrilled about everything they must do. That doesn’t mean you should complain the whole way through, but it’s these times where we lean on the second passion.
Here is your professional passion. Why did you become a teacher? This answer is different for every one of us. It’s the reason behind what we do. It’s what gets us through the tough days (weeks, months and even years). It can be a simple answer (I like working with kids) or more complicated (I want to give kids a better school experience than I had). Mr. Burgess shares how he uses LCLs (Life Changing Lessons) to bring his passion to this times where he doesn’t feel that content passion. How can you bring your professional passion into the classroom on those days when it’s harder? Try bringing in your personal passions.
The last passion mentioned in the book is the personal. Many teachers say they try to keep their personal life separate from their school life. (How they do this I will never know. I’m still working on that whole balance thing 20+ years into this.) However, bringing your personal passions can make the class more engaging for the students (and you!). Dave brings his passion for music and magic into his lessons. My passion for ed tech has transformed my teaching. Students can tell when you are 100% engaged in what you are teaching by how you are teaching it. Why not bring in what you do outside the classroom to make those difficult lessons and days more interesting? Your passion doesn’t have to be subject related. Maybe you are the worst singer in the world. Students don’t care. They will just know that you light up with every song you play for them. Find ways to bring your passion into as many lessons as you can. It will make it fun for everyone in the room.
I could go on for hours about Teach Like a Pirate and Dave Burgess and the ideas that can help change your teaching. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it. I also recommend seeing Mr. Burgess in person. To get a glimpse, check out his TEDx talk. For the truly passionate, try participating in the #tlap chats Mondays at 6PT/9ET. Are you now or will you become a PIRATE?
Last year our staff embarked on a personalized PD game (See past blog post). One of the activities I had to do to get my points (even teachers like to be point collectors!) was something called Novel Engineering. My wonderful friend, Robin Glugatch, who works in our Library/Makerspace, found it and brought it to the school. Since I wanted my points and I am always looking for something to try with my class, I was up for the new adventure.
I began by reading a picture book to the class, “Weslandia” by Paul Fleischman. I figured I would start with something we could do as a class for our first time. It was a cute book that the students enjoyed. But it was the activity afterward that made it so much better. I liked it so much that this year I decided to not only do it again, but to share the experience.
The point of novel engineering is to get the kids to go further into the book to improve their comprehension, but to also develop critical thinking and problem solving skills through a hands-on activity. It is STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) all rolled into one activity. Since it also involves literature, it’s a cross-curricular dream activity.
We start with the Engineering Design Process (see image). This really helps students to understand what they need to do and how being perfect isn’t required to be successful. It’s also great for those students who need a graphic organizer to plan out their thoughts.
Students are then asked to find a problem in their book. I allowed the students to work independently, in pairs or groups of three. Since we are reading 6 different novels in the classroom as part of our novel studies activity, they were limited to who they could choose to work with only in that they had to be reading the same book. This didn’t seem to be an issue for the majority of the students.
Once the problem has been identified, students have to create a physical solution to the problem. This is the part that created an issue for some of the students. They wanted to either copy the solution that was already given in the book or had a hard time coming up with a way to make the solution into a model that they could create. With a little help, most of the students are able to get past this.
I love hearing the students discuss the book while they go through the process. They are able to think of the action in a way that answering questions on a worksheet or online test would never access.
Next up, the students are going to be creating a possible solution for endangered animals from a non-fiction text we are going to be reading. I can’t wait to see what they come up with!
20+ year teacher, mother of 2 kids and 2 dogs, wife, lover of all things M&M, interested in tech in the classroom, and changing up my teaching