Leadership · Curriculum · Lifelong Learning

There’s a lot out there.

Especially for teachers doing all the things, trying to stay abreast of current research, tools, and pedagogy–it’s a lot.

There’s no shortage of new technologies, popup vendors, and gadgets and gizmos galore. While it sounds like a booming business of all the best stuff, it can be overwhelming, inefficient, and eventually ineffective to go for the smorgasboard spread. So… What if, for a minute, we didn’t bite off more than we can chew?

What if we whet the appetite with a simple sample?

What if the appetizer could satisfy the hunger?

What if the appetizer could become the whole meal?

While there’s plenty to put on the plate, what if we focused on finishing all the food before seeking out seconds… and thirds… and fourths?

One of my passions is using the same tool in different ways.

While listening to Michael Matera‘s Hive Summit a few years ago, I remember Matt Miller applying the less is more concept to technology tools. When analyzing Google Slides functionality, Matt said:

“We don’t have to get a million different digital tools to do different things in the classroom. We can use the same tools, but in different ways.”

I’m sharing one way this quote has impacted my thinking in my elementary STEM practice so far. This is Part I in a series on tools and management. I’m hoping that you might chew on a few bread crumbs with me here, and hopefully share some small bytes of your own, too.

Problem: One Kit, Many Students

Have you ever heard of the Hummingbird Robotics Kit? According to Birdbrain Technologiessite:

“The Hummingbird Robotics Kit is an easy-to-use, creative robotics tool which allows students to design, build, and program a personally meaningful robot out of any materials, with any device, in multiple programming languages.”

The kits are amazing, but they might be considered on the pricey side. It’s not likely that one teacher would ever have enough kits to serve one whole class at a time. In fact, my district might only have a few kits to pass around, and that’s why I was so excited when it was finally my turn. Still, I knew I would only have this kit for a short time…

So… How would I use one kit with many students? Zooming out as a specials teacher, how would I use one kit with several classes? Blogger’s Note: Caution! Here’s another time when it’s easy to get caught up in the flashy resources and forget the purpose, goal, or learning target altogether. End Blogger’s Note.

If you can’t rotate manipulatives to all the students, rotate all the students to the manipulatives. Teachers have been thinking like this and managing like this for years, but there’s a management twist I didn’t see coming. Even while choosing one grade (fourth grade) to use the kit first, there were still seven fourth grade classes coming to STEM.

As a STEM specials teacher serving about 900 students on a seven-day rotation, and with all the hands-on materials, different tools, and lack of space to store hundreds of ongoing projects, I was somewhat conditioned to think about class time as students meeting one, simple, design challenge, mostly for design’s sake. These had to be quick hitters with a finished product in less than 45 minutes out-the-door. Again, I’m well-researched on how authors, Pinterest boards, TV commercials, and even fellow educators are defining STEM nowadays, it’s just that, when converting theory into practice, or sometimes fantasy into reality, there simply isn’t enough time, space, or manipulatives to do long, ongoing projects in every context. Blogger’s Note: This is one more reason why STEM isn’t just a stand-alone specials class, separate space in the school building, or out-of-the-box idea, but can also be integrated into everyday learning. End Blogger’s Note.

Solution: One Product, Many Processes

Looking back now… What was I thinking?

Real life doesn’t come at us all pretty and neatly-wrapped with a beautiful bow on top. So… Why would our learning experiences? Why do I continually strive to perpetuate that in my practice?

Real life is rarely about one, simple, design challenge beginning and ending in 45 minutes.

In fact, the opposite is true. I find myself beginning, continuing, finishing, and extending projects at all different places in the process every day. My life has never been pretty and neatly-wrapped with a beautiful bow on top. Most of the time, it looks like a STEM space with materials, manipulatives, and directions strewn about tables, floors, and shelves. There are always multiple processes and works-in-progress.

Every day, one small group of one fourth grade class would use the kit to “recognize the basic forms of energy (light, sound, heat, electrical, and magnetic) as the ability to cause motion or create change (NC 4th Grade Science Standard 4.P.3.1).” Next time, a different small group would rotate to the table until all small groups in all fourth grade classes had access and experience with the kit.

Rather than have each small group meet one-time, simple, design challenges, we focused on the big picture. Rather than many small products, we invested in one overall product, with many processes, challenges, tasks, and nuances along the way. All we needed was a tool to organize, archive, and track our ongoing progress.

The most underrated function of Flipgrid? The archive! Being able to record several different videos and store them in one, organized, topic space with a user-friendly interface has a meaningful way of sharing and telling a story.

At the end of each STEM class, fourth grade groups recorded and posted their progress in a Flipgrid video. Then, the next group picked up where the previous group left off, and also recorded a video to communicate progress to the next group. It’s kind of like a progressive learning party? From the very beginning of getting connected and taking an inventory to completing one circuit to coding multiple steps in sequence, students told one, whole story of learning with their Hummingbird Robotics Kit peers, one, small group chapter at a time.

Why This Matters

Before the next group begins, they watch the previous video(s) recorded by their peers so they can see where they are in the process, how their piece might fit the puzzle, and how to adapt their thinking on-the-spot. Especially post-pandemic-ish now, I can’t think of a better skill to grow and develop than learning how to be flexible and how to pivot at any given moment. I can’t conceive of better lessons to learn than empathy and collaboration. I can’t envision a journey wrought with more meaning than one of interdependence, navigating the unknown, and persevering through challenges unforeseen, together.

And that experience hasn’t been all pretty and neatly-wrapped with a beautiful bow on top.

What are your thoughts? Comment here!

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