Posted in Education, STEM, Teaching

Reaping the Benefits from Trying Something New

I love it when things go well.  Especially when those things are new.  Trying new things can be very scary.  I remember the first time a student of mine gave me a piece of Mexican candy to try.  I love candy and so I thought, “Hey, this should be tasty.”  Oh no, it was spicy.  Candy should never be spicy.  Needless to say, I haven’t eaten another piece of candy from Mexico since.  Who thought mixing spicy with sweet was a good idea?  Yucky, I say, yucky.

Sometimes, however, trying new things can be amazing and eye-opening.  While I generally don’t like mellow acoustic music, I took a chance on City and Colour because Dallas Green is a member of one of my favorite bands Alexisonfire.  So, I took a listen.  Wow, was just about all I could say.  His voice is amazing in Alexisonfire, but alone it is even better.  It’s like listening to a beautiful lullaby about death and real-life situations that aren’t always so beautiful.  Amazing.  So, trying new things is clearly risky.  But, if we don’t go for it, how will we ever know what’s possible?

Each week in STEM class, I like to highlight current events in the world pertaining to our unit of study.  As we are currently learning about astronomy, we’ve been discussing various current events about Pluto, Mars, Space travel, and the likes.  It’s been pretty great.  But, what I’ve noticed recently is that some students seem unfocused while their peers are sharing about their current event.  While there were no big distractions, some of the boys were not fully engaged in the conversation.  I worried that they weren’t getting the most out of the activity.  What could I do to better engage all of my students in the discussion?  I tried sharing just one pertinent current event with the students last week in hopes that they would be more engaged if I was leading the discussion.  Nope.  There were still some students fidgeting, looking around the room, and not participating in the discussion.  So, now what, I thought.  What else can I try?  The students seemed to really enjoy when they were running the show.  But, what about student engagement?  If not everyone is feeling the love, is it really an effective lesson?  Should I try something different?

Then, I had an epiphany.  What if I create a note taking worksheet for the boys to complete while each student is sharing his current event?  Might that help?  What would the worksheet look like?  What kinds of questions would I ask?  Would it work or just be busy work for the students?  Since I had tried everything else in my arsenal, I decided to give this new idea a go.

So, I generated a notes worksheet with three questions for every presenter:

  1. What is the main idea of this student’s current event?  Answer in one sentence.
  2. How is this student’s current event related to astronomy?
  3. What questions could you as this student about his current event?

That was it.  Three higher-level thinking questions.  I wanted the students to be able to practice several Habits of Learning all at once.  This worksheet incorporated the skills of communication, critical thinking, self-awareness, and ownership.  Awesome!

So, today in STEM class, I took this new worksheet for a test drive.  I prefaced handing out the worksheet with my rationale for creating it.  “I’ve noticed that some of you have had difficulty staying focused during our current events discussions over the past few weeks.  To help you all stay focused and allow you another opportunity to positively impact your grade in STEM class, you will be completing this worksheet while each student shares his current event with the class.”  I then handed out the worksheet without explaining the questions.  I wanted the students to follow directions and preview the worksheet on their own.  After they had a chance to peruse this new worksheet, I addressed any questions the boys had.  There were only one or two minor questions.  They seemed to understand it and its purpose.

So, then the discussion began.  The boys took copious notes and asked insightful questions.  There was no fidgeting or looking around the room.  The students were focused on the speaker and answering questions on the worksheet.  They asked clarifying questions and high-level ones too.  It was phenomenal.  They were all doing it.  In fact, most of the students were displaying their ability to exceed the objective of effectively participating in a whole-class discussion.  Every student in the class asked at least one question while most of the boys asked more than one.  I was even inspired to ask questions.  Amazing!

The students seemed to gain much from today’s current event discussion.  Was it because of the worksheet?  Did this new novelty help to keep them focused?  Or was it that the students chose such interesting and unique current events regarding astronomy?  Some of the topics today were so engaging.  One student shared about a study being done to test the effects of the lack of up and down orientation in space.  So cool!

Well, regardless of what lead to today’s fruitful current events discussion, it was fun to reap the benefits of trying something new.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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