This is the second in a series of blog posts summarizing my reflections on what it means to provide learning opportunities for every student, every day. Find the series here, at #AllMeansAll
On the first day in Physical Science, we got into teams and built paper towers as an engineering design challenge. Our process followed the outlined by a group of district STEM teachers working together last school year.
The challenge was simple: Build the tallest tower you can with 4 sheets of 8.5 x 11: paper.
First, a little history on this class:
This is our first year of scheduling as a comprehensive high school in about a decade. Students were grouped randomly as per a seating chart sort in our LMS system. Previously, kids were in small schools, so many students did not know one another. Physical science has not been taught in recent history. The course was revived as a 9th grade science course, biology was moved to 10th grade for most students, and chemistry moved to grade 11. The sections I teach are not 9th grade, they are grades 10-12. Students are enrolled in this course because they are bypassing chemistry or physics for whatever reason. Many of the students in my 2 sections have not had success in a high school science class or with school in general. Six teachers have sections of the course, either grade 9, or grades 10-12. We spent some time together this summer, deciding how the course should look. We want all students who take the course to have similar learning opportunities and meet the same standards.We planned together, realizing that the actual delivery and implementation of the learning experiences might vary greatly between the grade 9 section and the grade 10-12 sections, based on what we’d learn about each student once school started.
The design process began with an introduction to the problem: Build the tallest tower you can out of 4 sheets of copy paper, about 20 cm of scotch tape, using only scissors. Students were asked to brainstorm for 5 minutes. Groups were encouraged to think of not just one idea, but to have Plan B and maybe Plan C.
We answered these questions on paper before building, but after discussion:
- What is the problem you are solving? (write out & respond to question)
- What are the constraints/limitations to solving this problem? (write out & respond to question)
Each group leader retrieved their construction materials and worked for 15 minutes. There was much measuring and industrial espionage. There were many last-minute revisions of plans. Students were evaluating and adjusting already. There was much activity. We measured at the end and the winners gloated, but that wasn’t the point.
We then wrote responses to a few more questions:
- How do you think you did as a team? What did you learn about teamwork?
- How well did you manage your time? How might you have used your time more effectively?
- What were some strengths of your design? What worked well and why?
- If you were given more time, what might you do differently? Why?
- Was your group a success? Can a group be a success even if they don’t win the competition? Explain.
- Discuss some examples of situations where people must work cooperatively together in real life. How can you use the experiences from this activity throughout this class?
- Summarize in your own words the ‘big picture’ objectives of why your instructor asked that you engage in as well as reflect upon this activity.
After a little discussion and sharing within groups, we talked together as a class about how their process aligned with the engineering design graphic. I collected their writing because I cared about the thinking they did not share verbally.
We established some unwritten norms for the whole group and for small group work as I modeled discussion within groups and thought out loud as we discussed as a class. From my actions, they learned when it was okay to just speak up and when they needed to raise a hand or signal they’d like to speak. They learned when it was okay to get out their phones (in each class, someone asked to take a photo of their tower and I made a point of thanking those students for their courtesy in asking permission.) Students learned how to submit their work and what to do when they finished early.
I learned a great deal about my students as they worked. I learned who the leaders were. I learned who did not read well by watching who waited for others to write answers first and then asking what they wrote. I learned who the socialites are and who should be offered the chance to spread out their work at a lab table so their fidgeting wouldn’t disturb others. I learned who would speak in a small group, but not speak up in a whole-class discussion. I had the chance to speak to every student and call each student by name, at least once.
Later, while reading students’ work, I learned:
- all students thought they worked well together, although they didn’t know others on their team;
- every student thought the team either planned too hurriedly and didn’t consider enough options, or constructed too quickly and hadn’t made changes as they worked
- every student was able to list at least 1 strength of their team’s design – shape of the tower, tightness of paper rolls, size of base;
- all students were able to describe a specific change they might make in the shape of the tower or base or their team’s strategy in general;
- all students thought their team was a success, no matter whether they won or not, because they’d worked together;
- every student named at least one situation in which working together was a needed skill, listing for example construction work, food preparation, working on a car, planning a project or trip; and
- every student missed the point on the last question. They were expected to bring this full circle to the engineering design process. Instead, they wrote that they were expected to learn to work together, or that they were to learn to use time well.
Not bad take-aways to be sure. I clearly saw that I needed to be more clear about our learning goals each day with these classes. We will re-visit this work next class in order to do so.
From the written work, I learned who follows directions. I learned who takes the time (and has the writing skills) to write in complete sentences. I learned who writes quickly/slowly who will need more time with written work, and which students find writing anything to be all but physically painful. I learned who might be very quiet in class or group discussion but would speak freely behind the privacy of their own paper. I learned who was confident and who wasn’t. I learned a little about each student’s interests from their answers to question 6.
Most importantly, I learned that I’d completely missed the mark on Question 7. We will be revisiting that topic next class.
NOTE: This activity was entered into the grade book as an individual learning opportunity grade (I never give group grades.) Some might consider this a behavior or compliance grade. My district requires me to give grades, today everyone exceeded the goals I’d set for them, and Everyone performed at a mastery level and saw that success as a great start to the semester. Everyone. #AllMeansAll