This class just can’t handle it…

When I was in high school, I remember taking a physics class – I believe it was my sophomore year.  At my high school, physics classes were taught in the wing that had once been the area for “shop” classes.  My physics classroom was this huge open space.  One side had a large garage door that once allowed cars to come into the building for students to be able to learn how to work on them. By the time I was in high school, the “shop” classes had been shifted to the Hoosier Hills Career Center across town, and the shop classrooms had been converted for other uses.  On any given day, I would walk into this classroom, and around the outside of the class I would see various experiments in process.  There were large lab tables – at one point there were lasers on every table that were being used to make holograms.  Another time there were these air rails that were angled and allowed people to measure velocity and acceleration based on the time it took an object to travel across the rail.  In one corner, there was Newton’s Cradle built out of cable and bowling balls and hanging from the rafters high up in the room.  I could go on…largest-newtons-cradle2-500x334

As a sophomore, I would walk in and see these awesome experiments that would pique my curiosity.  I made it a point to arrive to physics class as early as possible to check out these things.  I remember wondering how you could use a laser to create a hologram, or just how the timing controllers worked on the air rails.  But then, the bell would ring, I would make my way over to my desk in the middle of the room in front of the chalk board, have a seat, and take out my textbook.  You see, as a sophomore, I was in the basic physics class.  Those experiments were not set up for our class, but were there for the AP Physics class that also met in the same classroom.  Now, I don’t want to imply that we never got to do experiments in my physics class that year, but it was nothing on the level of what the AP class was doing.

Thinking back to my experience as a sophomore in high school in my physics class, I know that some of those experiments probably were things that I did not yet have the true theoretical understanding to be able to carry out and understand, but that doesn’t take away how bummed I was to see cool things set up in my classroom and feel as though I could not participate.  The reality is though, there were probably variations on many of those experiments that would have tied to the standards that my basic physics class was expected to cover.  There were probably ways my teacher could have provided scaffolding and support to allow the students in my basic physics class to participate in those cool experiments.  Would we have gone as deep with the experiments?  No, but we would have had that hands-on experience that was sometimes lacking from my physics curriculum that year.

This memory comes to me when I occasionally hear teachers say things like “My regular class just isn’t ready for this.”  Or “this group is my resource group, so they may not be able to do that activity.”  (I’ll admit – I may have made statements like this when I was a classroom teacher).  That fear that students aren’t ready or aren’t capable can hold us back from such cool learning opportunities for our students.  If you’re worried about kids not being ready, you should know that there are some second-grade classes in this district that have been doing some of the same experiments that I have seen happening this year in some of our sixth-grade classrooms.  I’m sure there were adaptations to make the learning accessible for a second grader, but if a second grade student can successfully carry out activities that our sixth grade students are doing, isn’t it worth finding ways to adapt our activities so that all our fifth and sixth grade students can do them?

Whether we’re talking about a socrative seminar, a hands-on experience, an experiment, or a project, we need to makes sure that all our students have the opportunity to learn in exciting ways.  Think critically about how you might be able to adapt your class so that no matter what level your students are at, they have the opportunity to be challenged.  How could you scaffold and support those students that some might say just aren’t ready?  If you’re struggling to find ways to integrate some of these higher-level experiences into your classroom, find someone to collaborate with – it could be with a teammate, a teacher down the hall, a teacher in another grade level, a TDS, one of our resource teachers, or maybe it’s one of our related arts teachers.  We have lots of great people working in this building, and through working together, we can make sure that all our students are able to participate in amazing learning opportunities!

Also, just so that you aren’t too worried about my long-term well-being, I apparently liked that basic physics class enough to go on and take the AP Physics class the next year.  I was able to participate in all those cool experiments that I was so curious about as a sophomore.  I learned how to create a hologram of a die using a laser, I got to do those experiments with the air rails while learning about acceleration and velocity.  I also remember AP Physics as the most difficult class that I took that year, but at the same time it was the most interesting and rewarding because of the hands-on experiences that we had throughout the year.

The cool stuff, the fun stuff, those are the things that get students excited about learning.  Those are the things that students will talk to you about when they run into you in the future.  Those are the activities that stick with them as they get older, that they can go back to and recall what they learned while they were in your classroom.

Do you have memories similar to mine?  How did it make you feel to not be able to do some of the “cool” things that your teachers did with other classes?  Have you ever talked to your students who don’t get to do some of those things because they “just aren’t ready?”  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Active learning

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The HSE21 Best Practice Model is such a great tool because it reminds us of the fundamental classroom conditions that will help our students be ready for their future.  I was recently reading the book Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Solarz and he spent a lot of time talking about active learning.  In active learning, we see differentiation, authenticity, relevancy, choice, and collaboration – all important pieces of the best practice model.  Think back to your favorite moments when you were in school.  What stands out?  It’s probably an example of active learning.

When I was in elementary school, both of the 6th grade classes in our building collaborated to write, produce, and perform a musical.  I vividly remember working with classmates to write the script, to advertise the show, and to plan the costumes and props for the show.  The skills and strategies that I developed in activities like this were ones that I believe helped set me up for success in middle school, high school, and beyond.  While I remember moments of passive learning when I was in sixth grade (one of my teachers was the queen of having us copy notes from her beloved transparencies), I can’t recall any details that I may have learned in that format of lesson.

So, how can we integrate more active learning into our classrooms?  Here are just a few ideas based on Learn Like a Pirate book:

  • Simulations – What’s a better way to learn about the Boston Tea Party?  Read about it, or take your classroom back to 1773 and have your students simulate the circumstances that led the Sons of Liberty to throw cases of tea into the Boston Harbor?  Or you could integrate some science into your social studies by having your students set up a colony in outer space.  They can experience creating a government for their colony while also learning about the needs for their planet.
  • Debates – The collaboration that goes with a debate can be amazing. If you pick a topic that would have more than 2 sides, you can break your class up into several different groups with different topics, keeping the groups small enough that all play a role, while also large enough that you can put mixed ability students together.  Solarz does alternative energy debates with his students.  He plays the role of President, while his students are the advisors trying to convince him that their energy plan is the best.  While this topic may not resonate with you or your curriculum, there are many other debatable topics that could tie to your standards.
  • Science Fair – This is something that has gone out of style, but why? In a time where we are shifting to STEM classes, and at a period in time when so many of our kids don’t do hands on science projects like previous generations, this seems like a no brainer.  The issue I had with the science fair’s old style was that it was typically done as homework.  The last time I had my students do a science fair, we did everything at school.  Students were asked to bring in poster boards, but I tried to provide most of the other resources they needed (sometimes we had to get creative).  Kids assisted one another on their projects, and were truly excited to share their findings at the end.  I was able to provide feedback, help with data collection, and teach mini-lessons as necessary.  The best part – I knew it was all done by the student on a relevant topic of their own choosing.  A variation on this could be an invention fair, or a coding fair, or anything else you might imagine that lets students be actively involved in inquiry.
  • Project-Based Learning – A trend in education, and one that I was guilty of when I was still in my classroom, is that we teach a unit, and then at the end of the unit students complete a project to show their learning. What PBL asks is that we teach through the project.  Once you have your basic idea planned, students choose their more specific project and dig in.  Throughout the unit, mini-lessons can be taught on content, procedures, or skills that students need to go further in the process.  As a teacher, you are continuously checking in with students, seeing where they are and where they are going next, providing feedback, and deciding if there are topics that you need to build a mini-lesson around.  While we’re giving students choice and freedom, you are allowed to set some parameters up front.  PBL doesn’t mean setting the students free to do whatever they want, there have to be some class norms and expectations in place first.  Think of these expectations as the guardrails to keep your students in the right lane, and heading in the correct direction!  If you’re looking for good PBL resources, the Buck Institute for Education (bie.org) is a great resource!
  • Technology – Sometimes integrating some tech into a passive lesson is just what it takes to up the level into an active learning opportunity. Don’t just use technology for the sake of saying that you’re using technology.  Use technology when it is the best tool for the job.  Remember, HSE21 is not, and has never been, about technology, the iPad, OneDrive, or any of the many apps that are used around school.  However, when we find technology that truly improves or transforms what we’ve been doing, don’t hesitate to add it to your lessons.
  • Reader’s Theater – This is such a great way to work on oral reading fluency.  Students get to practice their part several times with their group.  During that time they can practice pronouncing difficult words, learn to project their voice, add inflection, and enunciate.  Depending on your goals, it could be a single day activity, although students don’t have as many opportunities to practice and they may not be able to create props to go with their performance.  On the other hand, you could do a multi-day activity where students are put into groups and roles one day, have time for rehearsals and planning for the performance (props, costumes, etc.) on a second day, dress rehearsals where you can give feedback on props and costumes that aren’t appropriate or necessary on a third day, and then performance day on the last day.  If you’re really brave, you could record the performances to put on a YouTube page so that parents can see what their kids are up to at school.

This is not intended to be an all-inclusive list of active learning activities, but is meant to give you some ideas of how to create more active learning opportunities for your students.  What am I missing?  Are there active learning examples that you use that I didn’t mention?  Have you tried (or are you thinking about trying) any of the ideas above?  Tell us about your experiences, your thoughts, or your plans in the comments below!