Getting the Students Excited About a New Unit

When I was in high school, one of my favorite bands was The Smashing Pumpkins.  I absolutely loved Billy Corgan’s voice.  Their music was and still is amazing.  While Siamese Dream was a phenomenal album, the double-disc Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness changed my life.  That album was awesome from start to finish.  Even the cover art created a mood and an atmosphere that could only be summed up with one word: nostalgic.  I remember when I first heard that the album was being released.  I was so excited.  The week prior to its release, I listened to nothing but the band’s previous music.  I was smitten.  I felt like a kid the night before Christmas.  The band put out a video for the first single off of the album.  I couldn’t wait for it to be released.  The local record store in my town opened at midnight the day it came out.  Unfortunately, my parents wouldn’t let me go out that late.  I was so mad.  I just wanted to hear the new songs the band had created.  The first time I listened to disc one, I almost cried.  The songwriting was brilliant and the music was epic.  The band had created a masterpiece.  The wait and hype created was totally worth it.  That album made my senior year in high school memorable in so many ways, despite my moment of projectile vomiting in the middle of Physics class.

Building excitement within people prior to the release of a new album or product is why marketers get paid so much.  Their job is to make people line up for the release of the newest game system or iPhone.  They create commercials and advertisements, helping to create hype and desire within future owners.  As a teacher, I feel that it is important to employ some of these marketing strategies in the classroom prior to starting a new unit.  I want my students excited to learn something new.  I want them to be curious and engaged.  I usually start talking about a new unit a week or so before it begins so that the students start to ask questions.  They begin to do some research on the topic prior to us starting the unit in class.  They become so excited, that when we do actually begin the new unit, they hang on my every word.  Mission accomplished!

For the past few weeks, I’ve been preparing my students for the start of our new unit in STEM class.  Three weeks ago, I had the students complete a survey on what they wanted to learn regarding the unit topic of Astronomy.  I wanted to find out what they were interested in learning more about as most students have been introduced to space and astronomy concepts in the past.  I wanted to make sure that I didn’t cover things they had already learned.   Just knowing that we were going to be learning about astronomy got my students excited.  They couldn’t wait.  They provided me with such detailed ideas and suggestions about the new unit that I was getting excited for it to begin too.  Then, over the past two weeks, I kept reminding the boys of the new unit and that it was starting soon.  I would put quick plugs in at the end of class like, “Can’t wait for our new unit on Astronomy to start soon,” or “Thanks for all of your great feedback on the new unit, it is going to be amazing because of your ideas.”  I had the students asking me details about the new unit outside of class.  They were so curious and excited.

Finally, after weeks of preparation, we began our new unit on Astronomy in STEM class yesterday.  I started the unit with a video hook based on the survey ideas I received from the students.  It was a cool news segment from a year ago about pictures of a far away star that seemed to periodically be blocked by some strange object that couldn’t be explained.  The scientist they interviewed hypothesized that it could be some sort of alien megastructure.  This got the boys talking about aliens and the possibility of life on other planets.  They were so engaged.  I had to cut the discussion short so that we had time for the math pre-test.  I then went over the whole unit online on Haiku.  I detailed the science and math portions of the unit and quickly introduced the group project.  Sounds of, “Yes” and “Yeah” were heard throughout the classroom.  Smiles covered the faces of my budding astronomers.  It was awesome.  I then showed them the Little Bits kits that they would be using to create the space rover in small groups.  You would have thought that I had just shown them a million dollar bill.  I had them hook, line, and sinker.  They were like kids in a candy store, of awesomeness!

Because they were so engaged and eager to jump into our new unit, they completed the math pre-test with a vigor that I hadn’t seen before.  They took their time and checked their work.  They didn’t even check their work on the chapter assessment they completed in class the other day.  That test was graded and this was merely a placement exam.  They seemed to put more effort into completing this pre-test than they did the chapter assessment.  Crazy.  They did quite well too.  I have a few students that moved into the more advanced math group because of the work displayed on this pre-test.  In years past, students do not take the pre-tests seriously.  They usually rush through it as they know they will be learning the material in the coming weeks anyway.  Not this amazing group of students, oh no.  They took this pre-test as if their lives depended upon it.  Was it really because they were so excited about our new unit?  Did that eagerness and anticipation help motivate them to put forth their best effort in completing this pre-test?  It probably helped that I reminded the boys that they had the ability to move into a higher or lower math track based on their results on this pre-test.  I told them, “We want to place you into the math group that will best support and challenge you based on your prior knowledge and skills.  So, be sure to show us what you know.”  I think that might have helped to trigger the great effort and focus I saw in class yesterday.

Being a teacher, at times, is a lot like being in advertising.  We need to “sell” our students on the content, skills, and curriculum.  We need them to see how it is relevant to them and why they would want to learn it.  Engaging our students can be tricky and challenging at times, but isn’t that one of the fun parts of being a teacher?  It’s like trying to find the one key that opens the lock when you have 7,500 possibilities.  Yeah, being a teacher is a lot like being a puzzle maker.  We show our students the brilliant pieces of the picture, and they put them all together to form their image of learning.


Collecting Student Input to Drive a Unit’s Content

I always wished that school for me was more like the Magic School Bus.  I wanted my teachers to come into class and say, “Hey, what do you want to learn about today?”  How cool would that be if students got to choose the content and what they learned about.  Talk about individualized education.  While I know that I wouldn’t have been able to go on fun field trips like Ms. Frizzle’s class because we didn’t have a sweet school bus that changed into anything, it would have been nice if my teachers took my input and we actually learned about something that my peers and I wanted to learn about.  Now I know there are independent schools like that out there, but they are rare and very few students have the opportunity to attend them.  What if all schools allowed the students to help develop the curriculum and content for the classes?  Talk about building relationships and having students own their learning.  This would do that as the students would be learning about what interests them.  I love this idea.  Now, how can I do it in my classroom?

So, I got to thinking a few days ago, What content do I want to cover in my next STEM unit on Astronomy?  What do the students really need to know about space?  Should I teach an overview of the solar system?  Nah, they probably have seen a unit like that ten times prior to this year.  What about something on exoplanets?  That might be fun.  Then, I started to think, What would the students like to learn about?  What matters to them?  What topics would get them excited about space?  That’s when it hit me.  I should just ask my students what they want to learn about and then I can incorporate it into my unit on astronomy.

So, during a free period today, I’m going to have the students complete a Google Form that asks two questions:

  1. Our next STEM unit is going to focus on Astronomy and space.  What topics would you like to learn about?  The Solar System, Planets, Exoplanets, Colonizing Mars, Moons, Space Junk, Satellites, or something else?
  2. Are there any special projects you would like to complete or work on during our STEM unit on Astronomy and space?  Labs, Investigations, Group Projects, or something else.

I’m hoping that the students will take the time to really think about what they want to learn.  I have plenty of my own ideas, but I’d much rather use their input.  If they are choosing the content, they will be much more engaged in class as they take ownership of their learning since they chose it.  I can’t wait to see what kind of fodder and ideas come from this exercise.  I’m thinking that if this plan goes well, I may be able to create the greatest astronomy unit of all time for my STEM class.  Well, maybe not the best unit of all time, but at least the most relevant and appropropriate unit for the students in my class.  Although I won’t be able to fit them into a cool school bus and fly them to the moon, with their input, we still should be able to have an amazing experience in our next unit on astronomy.  To quote one of the greatest space explorers of all time, “To infinity and beyond!”

Reflections on a STEM Unit

Each year, when I adapt a previously used unit in STEM class, I struggle to remember what I had wanted to change the year before when I finished the unit and made mental notes.  I always kick myself.  Why didn’t I jot some notes down about what I wanted to change or add?  As I barely remember what I had for dinner last night, recalling specifics about what went well in a particular class is close to impossible.  So, as I reflected on what went well regarding our recent STEM unit on astronomy, I decided that I didn’t want to keep kicking myself year after year.  I’m now going to document my reflections on each unit so that I have evidence of what I want to change, delete, or add.  It only took me a few years to figure this out.  Oh well, you live and you learn.  I’m just glad I’m finally doing the learning part.

While I think astronomy is a good unit of study with which to begin the year in STEM class because it’s interesting and gets students hooked right away, what is covered and how it’s covered needs to be changed.  Even after making some slight changes from what I did last year, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the outcome.  Time was an issue.  I felt like we ran out of it.  The students were unable to finish their group project because of it.  Now, yes, I could have been more flexible and provided the students with more time.  But, I also didn’t want the first unit to drag on for 10 weeks.  So, I ended it after about seven weeks.  I was disappointed that we didn’t have the chance to test the space vehicle creations the students had been developing over the unit.  This is one of my favorite aspects of the unit, and so I hated to leave it hanging like a chad in Florida.

So, next year I want to arrange the unit differently to allow the students ample time to tinker and play when creating their space vehicles.  After watching the film Beyond Measure recently, I got a great idea about another change I want to make to this particular part of the unit.  Instead of having the students brainstorm materials with which to create their space vehicles, which tends to be challenging for them to do as they aren’t familiar at that age with what materials are available to them, I am going to give each group the materials when they are ready for the building phase.  This way, I can challenge them to learn and do more.  In the movie, the teacher gives the students a bunch of cardboard, tape, and a motor to construct a Mars Rover.  They have to learn how to wire a motor and make it move a vehicle.  I love that idea.  I want to better challenge my students so that engagement continues to go up in the classroom.  I’ve been looking online at some cool coding and computer programming kits that would be fun and exciting for the boys to use.  This might be the route to go.  I’m so pumped for next year already.

Another change I would like to make is in regards to how the foundational knowledge is covered.  This year I tried something different from last year.  I had the students read a textbook entry in order to answer some basic comprehension questions.  While it was definitely more engaging and interesting than what I had done the previous year, it lacked the engagement factor I was looking for.  What if I had the students work with a partner to create a board game that addresses specific questions I want the students to learn the answers to?  That way they practice using one of the Habits of Learning we focus on in the sixth grade, Coexistence.  Plus, they would be able to problem solve how to create a board game based on the information learned.  This activity would engage the boys, provide them with choices in how to showcase their learning, and allow them to work together to accomplish a task.  I love it.  This seems as if it would be far more relevant to the students than completing a worksheet or answering some simple questions.  It also requires more critical thinking than basic comprehension.  They need to apply the information learned in order to solve the problem.  I love challenging my students to do more than just know the material covered.  At the end of the year, the skills acquired are far more important than knowing and understanding the content.  If the boys learn how to effectively work together, creatively solve problems, and think critically about concepts, then they will be prepared to matriculate to seventh grade.

I was also thinking that I wanted to alter the math curriculum portion of the unit as well.  The math book work seemed so contrived.  The boys didn’t seem really engaged with it.  Plus, the whole purpose of the STEM class is to allow the students to see how the math skills learned are connected to other areas of life, such as engineering and science.  I want to involve the math skills more into the group project and the board game.  But, I also need to be sure the students are prepared for the various math classes in the seventh grade.  If they don’t get used to book work or solving lots of problems, I worry that they won’t be prepared for the “rigor” and repetition of their future math courses at my school.  So, what do I do?  Do I better incorporate the math skills into the other portions of the unit so that the students see the relevance in what we are learning or do I keep to the status quo for my school?  Ahh, the dilemma?

So, changes are sure to come for my STEM unit on astronomy next year.  I’m excited to continue to grow and develop my STEM curriculum as I continue to grow and learn as an educator.  Now that I have a document outlining the changes I’d like to make, I will, hopefully, actually remember to adapt and evolve this STEM unit for the next academic year.

The Power of Student Discussion

One of my favorite things to do as a college student was to hang out with my friends and just talk.  We’d discuss everything from politics to bad coffee.  It was so much fun and enlightening.  I loved debating and challenging my friends on certain topics or just adding witty banter to a discussion I didn’t really want to jump into.  To this day, I still love just having a chat with my good friends.  I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about a good discussion that gets me going and keeps me excited.  As a teacher, I try to bring that same enthusiasm for discussion into the classroom.  I’d much rather have my students share ideas and talk than listen to me all period because I rarely have anything good to say anyway.

Today in STEM class, we began the double block with a discussion on astronomy current events.  For homework last evening, the students chose an interesting current event regarding some aspect of astronomy.  They then read the article and prepared some notes mentally or in writing regarding how they wanted to share what they learned with the class.  Each student shared orally his current event with the students.  The boys then had a chance to ask some questions, which usually spurred a short conversation on the topic.  The boys were engaged and excited about the various ideas shared.  They seemed curious about the idea that Pluto might have once contained water.  It was great.  They were inquisitive while thinking critically about the topics shared.  While the entire lesson lasted only about 30 minutes, they easily could have gone for another 30 and been completely enthralled and focused on the discussion.  They questioned their peers and wondered about the world of astronomy.

Now, had I given them this same information in a handout or as a lecture, would they have been as curious or engaged?  Perhaps, but most likely not.  When students take responsibility and ownership over their learning, they are much more focused and engaged.  This engagement, in turn, leads to more learning and the creation of more neurological pathways.  Feeding students information is futile unless they have a chance to process and ponder it through discussion.  As teachers, we need to give the students more opportunities to discuss the knowledge and concepts our curriculum covers.  Rather than cover more content, we need to let students play and explore, orally, with what is being covered.  Let’s allow the students to drive the bus.  The neuroscience of education tells us that students will truly learn much more when they are allowed to choose how and what they learn.  So, to you I say, transfer the power from the teacher to the students and let’s get discussing.