Posted in Challenges, Curriculum, Education, Learning, Risk Taking, STEM, Teaching, Trying Something New

Why Do We Need to Teach Our Students to Be Creative Problem Solvers?

Problem solving was not a skill taught when I was a student in school many eons ago.  School back then was all about rote memorization, following directions, and doing exactly what the teacher told you to do.  There was no wiggle room when I was in school.  If the teacher said you needed to use complete sentences to answer the questions, you failed the assignment if you did not use complete sentences, even if you answered the question correctly and used support to back your claim.  Creativity and problem solving were not skills we were ever introduced to or had a chance to practice. In fact, when we did get creative or showcase our ability to problem solve as students, we were penalized. “That’s not what I told you to do.  You need to write an essay explaining why America got involved in WWII, not create a poster.  You are so very wrong.  Now you must redo this assignment by tomorrow morning or you will fail the course.”  It was all or nothing back then.  School for me seemed to be more about falling into line and being a drone than it did learning anything useful.

As a teacher, I’m trying to break free from the constraints of what our society once thought school should be.  School is a place to learn, engage and interact with the content and skills, practice failing and solving problems, and be creative and take risks.  Great, effective classrooms encourage creativity and foster a student-centered approach to education.  The students are provided options and choice to showcase their learning and growth as students.  There is no one way to complete a task or meet an objective.  School is a fun-filled adventure where anything is possible and dreams come true.

If we want our students to be able to live meaningful lives in a global society that is rich in pollution, crime, unpredictable weather due to climate change, and many other problems, then we need to equip our students with the necessary tools.  People no longer have a use for memorizing information as we can access it with the touch of a button.  People need to know how to find creative solutions to problems and think critically about the world around them.  We are living in an ever-changing world and we need to prepare our students accordingly.

In STEM class today, my students began working on the final project for our unit on climate change.  Understanding what climate change is, how it came to be a serious issue, and how it is impacting our planet, it is not enough for my students.  I want them to see beyond the information and content.  I want them to apply this knowledge to creating a solution that addresses the issue of climate change.  What can humans do to make a difference and help slow down or reduce our human impact on Earth?  So, the students, working in pairs, brainstormed possible ideas and solutions to the global problem of climate change.  The students used their critical thinking skills to the max today as they sketched ideas, researched information, and created some creative and unique solutions.  I was so impressed.

Some of the ideas my students brainstormed today included:

  • Attach tiny solar panels to the side pieces of eyeglasses that will collect the sun’s energy and store it in a small USB battery device that would be attached to the end of the ear piece.  This battery could then be used to charge electronic devices.  This solution would help reduce the amount of electricity needed to power gadgets, thus reducing the amount of carbon being released into our atmosphere.
  • Create a small-scale greenhouse within a large tube that would be attached to the top of smokestacks of factories.  The pollution being released from the factories would be filtered through various carbon-absorbing plants.  The air and gas would then be released into the atmosphere, containing a lot less carbon and other harmful greenhouse gasses.
  • Build a robot that would float around in the world’s oceans, sensing salt levels.  When the salinization level becomes too low, the robot would release salt into the water to help maintain a healthy balance of salt within the sea water.  This invention would hopefully help to keep sea life healthy and safe.

Wow!  My students are brilliant.  These ideas were certainly not the first creations they devised today in class.  The students would come to me with their ideas and I would ask questions, probing them to think about the feasibility of their idea.  Most of the initial ideas the students brought to me today were not the ones they are using to complete this project.  By challenging the students to think critically and complete more research, they were able to devise new and exciting ideas and solutions.  Perseverance was alive in the sixth grade classroom this morning.  The students worked with their partner to find a way to make the world a safer and better place for all living organisms.  Not only were the students engaged in this activity and having fun, they were creating real solutions that could one day be in use around the globe to help reduce our human impact on climate change.

In almost every STEM project or activity my students complete, I empower them to solve problems and think creatively.  I don’t need them to regurgitate information learned onto a worksheet or poster, I need them to synthesize what they are learning to answer questions and solve problems.  As the students of today will become the leaders of tomorrow, I need them to know how to encounter problems, solve them, fail, try again, and persevere.  Our world isn’t about knowing information any longer.  Although knowledge is power, if people don’t know how to think critically to solve problems, then our world is sure to fall apart within the next century.

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Posted in Challenges, Co-Teacher, Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, Risk Taking, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

Looking Back on the First Sixth Months of the Academic Year

As our lengthy March Break begins tomorrow, it feels like a fine time to reflect on the first two-thirds of the academic year.  It’s hard to believe that when we return from spring break, we will only have about nine weeks until summer vacation.  Where did the time go? It feels like just yesterday we were getting the students acclimated to the world of sixth grade at Cardigan, but alas, they are seasoned veterans on the ways of the classroom and are almost ready for seventh grade and all of the adventures that they will experience next year.  As the end nears, I feel myself getting nostalgic.  Remember when we went to the Sargent Center?  Remember when we had our first Marble Party?  Remember when we first met our bunnies on the farm?  At the same time, though, I’m excited for the fun we still have left and and all of the learning I’m sure to do.

This has been a fantastic year filled with many new experiences:

  • I worked with a new co-teacher this year, who has taught me a lot about teaching and working with students.  While I did have to train her on how our sixth grade program works during the first few weeks and months, she was a fast learner and asked lots of great questions.  I am blessed to have her on my team.
  • I piloted a Farm Program in the sixth grade this year, which the boys love.  They have enjoyed learning how a farm works, raising and caring for bunnies, planting various flora and vegetables, and learning about the importance of caring for the natural world while understanding our place in it.  The boys have learned much as is evident in their weekly journal entries.  This hands on experience was definitely worth all of the hard work that went into planning and preparing for this new program over the summer.  All classes and schools need a Farm Program like ours.  It’s beneficial to the students in numerous ways.
  • I made use of a computer coding online computer program called Code Combat this year.  The students have enjoyed learning all about the Python coding language as they play games and complete various tasks.  It’s helping prepare the students for the technology class they will take as seventh graders.  It’s also opening windows for students who never realized, prior to this year, that they were interested in technology or computer coding.  It’s planting seeds of curiosity within the boys.  I’ve really enjoyed using it and am glad that I happened upon this fun little program over the summer.
  • My mission to have all of my students learn how to solve the Rubik’s Cube fizzled out a bit in the past few weeks.  Earlier in the year, the students would spend ten minutes every week working on learning to solve the cube.  They seemed engaged and excited.  While several students were quick learners and figured out how to solve it within a month or so, there were a few who never really devoted the extra time to figuring it out and have gotten stuck.  No matter how many different ways I try to help those few struggling students, because they are employing a fixed mindset when it comes to this skill, they are unable to figure out how to successfully solve it.  Of course, because our last two units required more in-class work time, the students haven’t had a chance to play with their cubes in almost two months.  I’m hoping to get back into a weekly routine following our long break.  While I don’t want to give up on the challenge I put before myself back in September, I also want to be cautious of not setting myself up for failure.  I’ll have to wait and see what happens in April and May.  Fingers crossed.
  • I utilized Little Bits in my STEM class this year as part of the Astronomy Unit.  The students, working in small groups, had to develop and build a working prototype of a space rover that would help them solve a problem.  The students thoroughly enjoyed this unit.  They loved playing with the circuits and figuring out how to put them together in a meaningful manner.  This new addition was a huge success.  I’m so glad I piloted them in the classroom this year.
  • I restructured our math units so that they were more aligned with the Math in Focus book series we use.  I made sure that the introduction of each new skill was accompanied by a mini-lesson.  I wanted the students to feel successful as they practiced new math skills in preparation for next year.  After a bit of a disastrous math experience last year, I have been very pleased with the outcome I’ve seen so far.  My students are making progress and seem to feel good about math.  Many of my students spend time outside of class working on their assigned Khan Academy course because they want to learn more.  This leads me to believe that the changes I brought about this year in how I taught the math curriculum were successful.

It has truly been an epic year in the sixth grade.  I’ve been pleased with how our classroom community has developed since September.  All of the students seem to really like each other.  They are kind and compassionate and go out of their way to help each other.  It’s quite amazing to see this in action.  They are a fun and insightful group that have made huge strides in many ways.  Our ELLs have made tremendous growth regarding their English writing, reading, and speaking.  Their vocabulary has grown exponentially.  Our shy students have blossomed into social butterflies and our class leaders have become even stronger.  Because we put so much time and energy in during the first two months of the academic year to help our students hone their social skills and develop their emotional intelligence, our students have been able to grow and mature in so many other ways at such a rapid pace.  Fostering a sense of care, trust, and safety in the classroom is crucial to helping support and challenge students.  Our year has been so great in the sixth grade because of the effort and dedication my co-teacher and I put in early on.  I can’t wait to see what excitement and fun will be had during the final two months of the school year when we return from break in late March.

Posted in New Ideas, Risk Taking, STEM, Student Support

Trying New Things to Best Support Our Students

I take criticism and feedback very personally.  While my goal is to continually improve as a person, husband, father, and educator, I am generally very hard on myself when I receive feedback that might be construed as negative, even if it isn’t.  I blame myself and think poorly of my performance.  Yes, my self esteem is low and I’ve been working on it for years.  I am great at what I do, but like a wise man once said, “All of you are perfect just as you are and could use a little improvement.”  I strive to grow, which is why I welcome feedback.  This way I am continually forced to deal with the fact that I’m not awful, there are just always going to be ways or areas in which I can improve.

Recently, I’ve realized that a student in my class is excelled in math.  His abilities in mathematics are incredibly high.  He has mastered most pre-algebra skills and is working at an algebra one level in the sixth grade.  He is humble about it, but wants to grow.  While my STEM class is structured in a very individual way, I only created three tracks based on the Common Core Standards, which my school uses in the Math Department.  I have a sixth grade track, seventh grade track, and an eighth grade track.  I figured this would cover and support every student this year, even my most advanced students; however, this doesn’t seem to be the case thus far.  While we’ve only just begun the year and the first unit tends to be easy as it is review, I’ve noticed, as has this student, that even the eighth grade track is too easy for him.  He has mastered many of these skills.

So, now what?  How can I best support him to help him grow and develop as a math student?  My first instinct was to have him work through this unit and then complete a unit in Khan Academy to further challenge him.  But what about direct instruction?  How will he learn new concepts?  He will need the support of a teacher.  Then, my co-teacher suggested having this student complete the Pre-Algebra Placement Exam used in the other grades to see where he falls.  If he does well on this, he could take the Algebra One Placement Exam as well.  Then we would know what concepts he has mastered and in what level to work with him.  This would allow my co-teacher to tailor the curriculum to meet this student’s needs through a one-on-one pullout during Math Work Days.

Brilliant idea.  I love it.  Then, immediately, I went to a place of, “Why can’t I help him?  Why didn’t I generate that idea?  Am I not good enough as an educator to help this student?”  No, that’s not it at all.  By being open to new ideas and ways to best support this student, I am being the best educator I can be.  I’m using my colleagues for help and guidance.  I’m allowing new ideas to take root.  I’m not trying to control every situation.  I want what’s best for this student and since I’ve realized I can’t give it to him with my own ideas, I need to seek help.  Teamwork is a vital 21st Century Skill which I try to teach my students daily.  Modelling this through my teaching and flexibility as an educator allows my students to see the value in it.  Everything is not all about me and I’m not always in the wrong.  Realizing this allows me to become a better educator and person.  I need to take and employ new ideas and suggestions in order to grow and develop.  If I want to best support and help all of my students, I need to admit that I can’t do it all.  I do need help and do need to try new things even if they are outside of my comfort zone.  Dealing with this student has helped me to realize this.  I guess that saying about great teachers really is true, “I learn more from my students than they learn from me.”