Saturday, December 3, 2016

Let's Make a Mess

Learning is messy. Very least when it's done right. As classroom teachers we are faced with the immense challenge of diagnosing each of our students: What are their strengths? What are their goals?  Where to they need to grow? How can I help them get there? What ignites a passion within each one?

We work at it daily knowing that simply teaching content area standards is not enough. Our students must have ownership over their learning, see a relevance to what they are doing and employ strategies that work for them. Our learners crave the opportunity to apply what they are doing in a way that makes sense to them. They want to be creative, they want to communicate, they want timely feedback, they want the challenge of critically analyzing and problem solving.

As teachers, how can we provide meaningful experiences for students that are personalized? I wrestle with this question daily. In my ongoing quest to find answers, I began digging into research on the Maker Movement. I wanted to provide my students with the opportunity to prove mastery of content standards, while giving them the freedom to explore, design, create and make. The challenge was that it was my responsibility to facilitate the mastery of ELA standards with my 6th grade students. As an ELA teacher, my administrators expect to see ELA instruction and learning taking place every minute of every day. How could these two things live in harmony? The answer to that question came from a who I had not yet connected with until I saw his laser focus and passion while building and coding a  Lego Mindstorm kit on our Innovation Day (Students Learning the True Value of Literacy). He saw what I had been missing...

We were going to turn our ELA classroom into a Makerspace. Students were going to design, make, or create anything that interested them in order to teach it to a group of 3rd grade students through informational "how-to" writing.  As my intern, Caylyn Harden, and I began planning out the specifics of how to provide students with ELA content instruction and how to manage a Makerspace within our small classroom, she asked if she could take on this challenge for her 10 day unit. 

Students were given an interest survey to determine what types of projects and topics interested them. Caylyn created a basic supply list with a parent letter explaining the what and why of what we would be doing and included a Sign-up Genius request some of the basic supplies that we would need (cardboard, pipe cleaners, masking tape, poly-fill, fabric, thread, yarn, etc.). The focus was never on the materials, but on the learning that would occur when students dove into making. We were creating a host of learning opportunities where students were safe to explore, investigate, fail, persevere, and have fun while harnessing their literacy learning to propel their individual growth.

Learners were exposed to new ideas and methods before they embarked because how can they know what they want to make if they've never experienced something? Caylyn created a collection of about 70 different open-ended challenges providing students an opportunity to find their own path to the destination.We had all kinds of materials (mostly donated) for students to use in meeting these challenges, including four sewing machines (which turned out to be extremely popular). Due to student interest, learners also had the opportunity to build and make with coding, Makey Makey, Google cardboard, Snap Circuits and a variety of other digital tools.

After 2 days of hands-on fun, our learners began making a plan for their creating and their writing. Each student conferred with us one-on-one explaining their plans. Every single one of them was excited about the opportunity to make a mess, document it and share it with an authentic audience. Every single one of them chose something different. For us, that meant we had 90 different projects being made...being made in our extremely tiny classroom and the hallway and the storage closet and the outside courtyard and in any space that they could find to spread out.

Was it messy? Absolutely. It was the biggest, most wonderful mess. Students were 100% focused on their project, on their writing. They could wait to get started and they didn't want to stop at the end of class time. And as their teacher, how could I ask any more than that?

But, I couldn't help but wonder, how can we do this on a regular basis....

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