Browsing: Thoughts from the Classroom

I See Race Cars…

I have a confession. I collect bottle caps.  Small, large, from all sorts of bottles, everything from Gatorade to milk. In the summer, when my collection reaches mammoth proportions and I can be seen begging bottle caps off strangers and relatives alike, this obsession seems undecidedly bad.  But in the winter, when the first race of the season is underway, and my collection has been put to good use, it’s easy to see this was never an obsession at all.  Because in that moment it’s finally clear, I never saw bottle caps, I saw race cars!

There is growing research to support the use of hands-on, inquiry lessons in the science classroom (Kauble & Wise, 2015).  In fact, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) adapted by most states puts a great deal of focus and emphasis on collaboration and student-led discovery.  But how does all this research and theory translate to the day-to-day of the classroom?

When I first started building race cars with my 8th grade students, pre-NGSS, I used it as a culminating activity. It was an active, engaging way for students to summarize and evaluate 4 weeks’ worth of Newton’s Law knowledge about how things move on Earth.  Powered by balloons, students had to engineer a car that could move fastest and furthest down the raceway.  Each of Newton’s three laws must be put into action for students to experience success and though the task sounded easy to most students at the beginning, a lot of hard work and critical thinking is needed in the end.  Race day was always a well-remembered highlight of the year and the students walked away with a much better understanding of motion after experiencing the hands-on engineering project.

But two years ago, when I started to evaluate my teaching in light of the new standards, I started to wonder… what if I didn’t teach Newton’s Laws?  What if students built the cars first?  Would they make connections and ask questions that would lead to a self-discovery of the laws of motions?  Or would my classroom devolve into a not-so-glorious mess of recycled boxes, glue, and, yes, bottle caps?  I decided to take my chances… we would build without knowledge of Newton or his laws.

When I first posed the question (Who can build the fastest race car made only from recycled materials and powered only by balloon?) there was a lot of excitement in the room.  But after the first build session, excitement turned to frustration… quickly.  A pack of frustrated middle schoolers can be a little scary, so it was important to channel this energy, thus the debriefing, an important strategy I discovered as I was making my transition to student-led inquiry.  I learned that it’s important to take time (10-15 minutes) to stop and generate questions when using this style of teaching.  Why are you frustrated? (The wheels don’t turn; the car won’t move.)  Responses from that first question turned into new questions.  (Why don’t the wheels turn?  Why is it important for the wheels to turn? (Newton’s Law #1!) How do wheels turn on actual cars?) And these questions became topics for research.  At this point, building stopped and research began but more importantly an atmospheric shift occurred in my classroom.  Suddenly the classroom atmosphere had shifted from ‘I want my students to know why’ to ‘my students want to know why.’  There was deliberate purpose behind their search for knowledge.  They had a mission to accomplish!

So, how did my quasi-experiment on the use of student-led science projects fair?  Well, as I would tell my students, more data and research would be needed to fully gage the impact of this method (they would roll their eyes too, don’t worry) but here is a bit of qualitative data I found… my students were far more engaged and present in the lessons.  The truth is, there is still direct instruction needed here.  The difference is instead of me saying “today we will learn about Newton’s second law of motion which involves the math formula force = mass x acceleration” the students are asking “why does my car stop moving when I add decorations?” and I am responding with a lesson. Additionally, students are assigning themselves homework, a phenomenon I find hilarious!  I am not a big advocate of homework and I don’t often assign it but in this situation, I found that most students would go home and do something related to their project.  Whether it was asking someone for advice, taking to the internet, or reading a book, the majority of students were considering the science well outside of the classroom.  And finally, the students were turning to each other for help and advice (collaboration anyone?).  Discussions about why wheels that turn are better than wheels that don’t turn supported by information from Newton’s laws and a few tests we did on friction were happening all around me.  It was enough to bring this curriculum nerd to tears.

So, the next time you see a bottlecap, or an old box, or even a scrap of paper, ask yourself what possibilities it might hold.  What could a little science, a little engineering and lot of middle school creativity bring to life from that simple recyclable?

Check out the complete balloon powered race car lesson here!

Reference:

Kauble, A., & Wise, D. (2015). Leading Instructional Practices in a Performance-Based System. Education Leadership Review of Doctoral Research, 2(2), 88-104.

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Reflections of a not-so-first-year teacher

For years I taught middle school, and despite what most people might think, I loved the age group of kiddos I worked with at that level.  But this year I changed districts, schools, and yes, even grades.  This isn’t my first time being a not-so-first-year-teacher (a veteran teacher learning the ropes in a new school) but this year, my fellow newbies were, in fact, newbies.  The 4 other teachers hired with me are experiencing their very first year of teaching and watching their tired faces grace the halls first thing Monday morning has made me take pause and reflect on my very first year.  (Ironically, that very first of first years was in the same district I am currently employed; my teaching career has officially come full circle!)
My very first year of teaching was also my first year of motherhood, so to say I slept very little is quite the understatement!  I can remember clearly picking up my son from daycare before they closed at 5:30 only to whisk him back to school with me, rushing down a quick dinner on the way, so that I could finish some task like inputting grades or prepping a lab.  On Fridays, I would load up my car with a 100+ student notebooks and other materials, prepared to spend my weekends strategically grading and planning from one nap time to the next.  The first half of that first year was a blurred whirlwind of barely making it from day to day.  I confess to showing perhaps one too many Bill Nye videos during that first half of the first year, clamoring for any extra time I could get.
But even though those first months were unbelievably crazy, I also made sure to take advantage of every conference and professional development opportunity that came my way.  Through these tools I gained an abundance of knowledge and know-how.  By the time Winter break rolled around, I have no doubt I was zombie like in appearance.  Still, I spent a decent chunk of my two-weeks  reworking everything I had been doing up to that point.  New lessons, new methods, new ideas (and a decent amount of sleep too!)  When I returned, Bill Nye was no longer a fixture in our weekly line-up.  The students were taken aback for sure, the level of rigor and accountability had certainly risen ten-fold.  But it was a few weeks in to our new regime that I realized just how much my students had taken notice of the change.  “You know Ms. Green,” a student said as I was passing out the latest assignment, “I liked it better when you didn’t know what you were doing.”
To this day, that comment makes me laugh and I think about it at the start of every new year.  But I have especially thought of it this year as I have found myself surrounded by so many new teachers.  We have amazing teacher preparation programs in California and yet, just like with parenthood, there is simply nothing that can prepare you for that very first, first year.  So as I watch their tired faces roam the halls in zombie-like fashion, I offer up this little blessing: your kiddos love you no matter what, and sometimes they love you more when you don’t know what you are doing.

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