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Month: September, 2013

Meaningful Maker Mistakes

I put a high premium in my classroom on honoring mistakes as part of the learning process.  Students are encouraged to try and try again.  My grading system is set up around this concept (see my syllabus post).  Knowing this, it should not have been a problem when yesterday I made a whopper mistake.  In my physics class we are using the LEGO Education advanced simple and mechanized machines kits for the first time. I could not find a color brochure for the simple machines building so I spent a large portion of my prep period making color copies and laminating.  It was incredibly overwhelming (6 building activities – 3 or 4 builds in each one – 4 versions of each for the class…a lot of color ink and a lot of lamination) so I took a break for lunch.  I  gave one last look through the kit to clarify the challenges I did not need to copy and miraculously found color brochures of what I had just spent an hour making color versions of.

This seems silly to spend even a paragraph writing about but it put me in a total funk.  I could not get over it.  I still had at least an hour of the day left of prep period and my time is valuable but it was a mistake and mistakes are part of learning…yada, yada, yada all the things I tell my students all the time weren’t working.  Department meeting and some chatting with another physics teacher ended my day without the run I wanted and I got deeper and deeper into my funk.  Then it came to me early this morning lying awake, (doesn’t it always?) why I was so upset.

Trying to make an engaging, hands-on “maker” physics class that integrates art and design is a messy process.  I would love to make pretty color copies, organized into color-coded folders of simple machines. I would love the content that links to the hands on projects to be organized into perfectly sequential order into shared notes with my class but this isn’t going to happen right away either.  This mistake was made out of wishful thinking and spending time on something that I cannot control or make better or fix right away.  The mistake was important and I did learn something.  Not only was I reminded that LEGO is super organized and has already though of anything I could ever imagine to need, but I was reminded that learning can be messy. Planning can be messy and teaching can be messy.  It is both an art and a science and the art piece cannot always be put into boxes in a neat planning document to be shared during my teacher evaluation.

So I have learned from my mistake and that is what makes one truly embrace the mistakes.  Based on what I learned things are going to get a little messy and there are going to be more mistakes so hang on for a bumpy ride.  I guess we will draw some force diagrams about it!



Its all about the questions

The most dramatic shift I noticed moving to high school from 5th and 6th grade was that the students struggled with asking questions.  Since we are teachers and “supposed to” (my yoga teacher says there are no shoulds), provide answers this was an odd conundrum.  By the end of the year I also noticed that the students who struggled to ask questions also struggled in science in general.  Then I did what teachers often do not have time to do, I Googled and I started to read.  Not shockingly because this always happens, I was not the first person to make this observation and think asking questions was really important.  I felt better and got really excited.  Then April, May and June came.  I tried a few things but didn’t get very far but in glorious summer it started to come together.

I found http://rightquestion.org and their book Make Just One Change, Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.  I found Ewan McIntosh on Twitter and changed my entire planning method based on their lab at http://notosh.com.  They had lessons and ideas on Googleable and Nongoogleable questions and September has come and I am back (and better than ever I hope).  Simply just asking students to differentiate between Googleable and Nongoogleable questions has been invaluable already and we are only in week 2.  Googleable questions are lead to the background for our lab reports and students are eager to find the answers.  They love that a teacher is giving them permission to “Google it”.  Students who are developing self-directed projects in our “genius period” are using it to help them find essential questions to guide their project.  Nothing seems more valuable to me that a students struggling to identify what she is passionate about and then what she might want to know more about that topic.  Isn’t that what learning is all about.

Now before any assumes that this is smooth sailing, its not.  In my focus on student directed questions I have started from scratch on how I plan (7 years of UBD is hard to walk away from).  I am constantly struggling with the balance between being well prepared and open to student inquiry.  I still buy into Daniel Willingham’s (not his but he shared the cognitive science data in my favorite book Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answer Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom) notion that higher order thinking is not accessible without a base of factual knowledge and so I do not want to abandon that.  Having done project/product/design-based learning for a long time I know student-directed doesn’t mean free and demands scaffolding especially with those who it is new for (most of my students).  I am still struggling with this.  I think I am getting better by picking better immersion opportunities that lead where we want to go.

We made paper airplanes in 12th grade physics.  There are an endless list of sources of errors and maybe it will not reveal the best position over time graphs but we got some great questions about force, position and motion and its all about the questions, right?

Learning science will be the easy part

Today I started all my classes asking students “What do you expect from class today?” It was interesting to see what they expected and that the younger the student, (I teach 9th-12th graders) the less they were sure about what they expected. We were going to spend the day getting to know each other but I was curious what THEY thought the first day should be. This year I hope I lean more toward following student direction and worry less about planning. My strength is planning and organization so there is some room for exploring. I will choose more interesting questions because I really want to know what they have to say. I hope if I give them enough chances and really listen they will feel their thoughts and their voices matter. Although I did not identify Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs by name I described how their personal lives impacted their schooling so I never can ignore that. Learning how to overcome personal adversity is an important life skill. We can’t learn much science without having thoughts and voices and overcoming when the going gets tough.

We finished with generating ideas on the roles and responsibilities of teachers students and parents/guardians. I have done this activity before in elementary and middle-school and think it might be part of Responsive Classroom (I am level I and II certified). Last year I abandoned the “foundation week(s)” so common in elementary school probably because in my first year teaching high school, I was insecure about being a “serious high school teacher” who spent the first day going over the syllabus then jumps right in. Not so this year. We are laying the foundation now. Tomorrow we discuss being social, communication and social thinking. It might have been called classroom rules and expectations at one point in my classroom. Tomorrow I want to describe why certain behavior gives other students and teachers good thoughts and feelings and how your behavior influences what people think your intentions are.

Right now all is rosy, everyone is happy to be back in school but our foundation week(s) will hopefully be what gets us through when things are not going so well. When we are tired, grouchy and sick of each other we will hopefully remember why we are here. The syllabus will come, grading and units of study will be next but for a few days we are going to remember we are all people first and students and teachers second. If we treat people well, learning science will be the easy part.