Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Great Marble Machine Race

You’ve heard it before, there is no box in my classroom – actually, my teammates have quite a great time reminding me that I have no clue there is a box that I’m “supposed” to fit in!  I’m not someone who thinks inside boxes and boundaries (which made my own learning experience horrendously unbearable), but I do respect people who work better within defined parameters.  It’s not that I want to cause panic among “newbies” to my room (well, um, okay, there IS a certain amount of pleasure I get from pushing people to think).   I want to provide a space that is comfortable for ALL learners and if that means it needs to look and feel different, then it will be.  I suppose pillows on the floor around a coffee table doesn’t constitute as a learning space for some!

We recently planned to begin our simple machines unit.  In the past I’ve used a “canned” program (do this “experiment”, with an already determined/expected outcome, first, followed by the second unrelated experiment, wait until the end to barely relate concepts, etc....), but over the past few years I’ve slowly moved into inquiry/project based units.  The biggest challenge I’ve discovered isn’t about budget cuts, or lack of support or supplies, but it’s been kids having difficulty thinking.  I know that sounds crazy, but the way education is turning, kids are used to “just doing worksheets” and not having to think, wonder, or connect learning.  That’s really my biggest goal in my room – kids HAVE TO think and take risks!   It’s not easy, it takes time, it takes coaxing and lots of encouraging.  By 9 they already believe that they’re supposed to give me the “right” answer and wait for a number or an obnoxiously large C placed prominently on their paper, be done with the task and move on to the next – factory style.  Now, they see learning as continuous and connected – we don’t do one thing without it somehow connecting to past or future learning which doesn’t end with a’s seamless, it’s related.

I started planning from the end – where I wanted them to get to and worked backward to the beginning of the plan.  Once I wrote the project “must dos” I started my “teasers” – I planted pictures on our Twitter feed asking the kids what they thought we were up to next.....first a picture of the pegboard....then of the pegs, no that point, many of my kids started guessing and as they guessed I sent them a bonus picture clue of marbles encouraging them to keep thinking or asking questions for them to think about – no answers, no further hints.  They were SO excited that by the time I revealed the project I thought they’d come unglued!  By this point, they were so hooked that the next day that started research, several kids came in armed with things they had printed out or written down that they had already learned at home (have I mentioned how I feel about teacher assigned homework versus a genuine intrinsic motivation to learn outside of the classroom???)!

At the end of the unit I need the kids to understand friction, force and motion, identify simple machines and explain how each works.  The road we choose to get there is where I have the power to make a difference.  This year’s task appeared simple – “The Great Marble Machine Race” (insert collective gasp – it was amazing!) .... and then I introduced the “monkey wrenches”:  the race is based on the slowest machine, your machine must include a minimum of three machines, each team will be provided a peg board (2x4), 16 pegs, and each team member will receive one marble.  Mouths dropped, eyebrows furrowed, sighs were heard.......and magic.... the kids started turning to their shoulder buddies whispering ideas, asking questions.   

Once they started working in their teams, they whole heartedly jumped into it.  Kids scrambled to pull up links to begin to generate ideas for the best machine they could.  They are required to keep notes, draw diagrams, and create & continuously redesign their prototypes based on what they have learned.  They quickly began their research and watched what others were up to – which so many would deem as “cheating”......but me? I think of it as being vested, in a genuine desire to improve themselves, as being resourceful - they’re using each other as teachers (with me fulfilling my role as “co-pilot” on this learning trip), and they’re being driven and pushed by their peers.

As they first worked to understand friction and why it was important to their machines, I heard kids talking about using carpet on their run:  “maybe I can ask my dad and use a piece from our basement” or deciding to use something similar to carpet, “but not that scratchy with a little less friction” and “ice would NOT be good because it would be water before we could use it”.  It was pretty amazing to witness – in less than an hour these kids had a pretty strong understanding of friction, some a little more than others, but all without my help - simply relying on themselves, questioning what was read, and apply & making  connections to what they knew in their own lives.

The hardest part of a classroom working on project based/inquiry learning is giving up “teacher control” and being “in charge”.  Many times I want so badly to jump in and guide the kids as to where they should look, but I have to let them grapple with ideas and question each other and ideas in order for them to learn and build confidence in themselves as thinkers.  It’s easy to jump in, it’s easy to spew out an answer, it’s easy to “fix it” for them.  I need to reassure myself that they have parameters, but the rest is up to them to grab hold of and run with.  As we regrouped after that first day of research, the kids asked if they could go off the sides of the board, if they could use tubes, if they could use toy cars, could they bring in carpet pieces......I simply smiled and gave no answer because they knew, they only needed me to encourage & support them.  Some even asked if they could keep researching at home and start gathering supplies......I’m getting good at just smiling.  They are the only ones that can hold themselves back.....but their ingenuity has already been sparked.

And by the way, if you find my box?  Please don’t bring it back – I love my world.

"If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid." – Albert Einstein

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