Sunday, February 15, 2015

Animal Toy Hack: Re-imagining what's Possible in Science and Literacy

It’s Tuesday morning. MAKER day. Maggie (my current Discovery Place thinking partner) came to class with Michael (Discovery Place educator and my thinking partner from last year). Together, the three of us explained to the class that this morning we were going to have them use the leftover toys from the toy hack (an out of school event held at Discovery Place just a few days prior) to create a representation of the animal they have been researching for our animal adaptations Science unit. This created tremendous "buzz" in the room along with important questions.

With the “buzz” came a bit of uncertainty. The students weren't quite sure what we meant by a "representation of their animal." So, we explained to them that a representation meant that their project would not necessarily look exactly like the animal they had spent time researching but that it would resemble it based on choices they made regarding the toys they used. I could still sense that the students were feeling a little tentative so I provided an image of possibility, with the help from De’Moya, one of my students. I asked her to tell the class which animal she had been researching. She replied, “A horse.” I asked to tell the group one thing she learned about horses. She stated that, “Horses have strong legs.” I asked her to come over to the pile of used toys and pick something out that might give us an idea of how strong a horse’s legs are. After scanning what was available, she picked up a plastic robot. I asked her to tell the class why she picked this toy up. She proceeded to tell her classmates that the legs of the robot looked strong; like the legs of a horse. This made total sense to the rest of the class.

With a firm understanding of the term representation we encouraged the students to look back through the notes they had taken about their animal, to think about things they would want others to know about the animal, and to pick out toys they thought would help them best represent the things they wanted to share that they had learned. The students enthusiastically began to look back over the notes they had captured about their animal; notes taken (in previous class sessions) from books they had checked out from the library, notes taken from sites on the Internet, and notes taken from the textbook; specifically a section that featured different types of animal adaptations as well as the learned and evolutionary behaviors that animals act out for a variety of reasons. Over the course of the next 3 weeks, 5, 90 minute sessions, the classroom transformed into a miniature workshop. Maggie and Michael brought both their expertise and understanding of animal adaptations along with tools for the kids to use. The students continued to look back at their notes, thinking about what they had learned as well as what they wanted the representation of their animal to communicate, "shopping" for the combination of toys that would help them out. I have never seen a more engaged group of students work on a project than I did during this one.

Each session brought with it new and exciting realizations. Without being prompted to do so, the students organically started seeing the value of “real time” problem solving, often times collaborating with one another, sharing materials, helping each other MAKE their projects become a reality. They talked to each other (peer to peer in combinations that do not occur under “normal” circumstances) about decisions that were working and not working. They revised their projects in “real time” based on the problem solving, collaborating,  and conversations. In the end almost everyone had something they could call "finished." As the MAKE portion of this project came to a close Maggie, Michael, and I started thinking about how we wanted to celebrate all that had transpired.

We decided that we would do a gallery crawl. This would involve the students rotating around the room, table to table viewing and commenting (via sticky notes) on each other's projects. We wanted the students to have more than just their representation to share so we started thinking about some writing that would pull the whole thing together. We decided to have them write an informational acrostic poem about their animal and a reflective paragraph that had the students think about the following, 1) Describe one thing you want others to focus on when they view your representation and state why, 2) Talk about your favorite part of the entire process...from reading and note taking to making your representation, and 3) Talk about how this MAKE shows others what they have learned.

Now, some of the students were not fully ready for this gallery crawl as they actually did not "finish" their representation of their animal. These students spent a majority of their MAKE time tinkering and trying to figure things out. I had to be ok with this. The journey was more important than the destination! One of the main tenants of MAKE is the notion of tinkering; having time to play around, in this case with the materials (used toys and tools) that were presented to the students. Being “ok with this” rubs against “the weeds” that we as teachers get “caught up in” over the course of a “normal” school day; that being, getting kids to finish their work so it can be evaluated so we are ready to report out that learning is/not taking place. Getting “caught up in” these “weeds” is no one person’s fault as much as it is a consequence of little to no time at all to reflect collectively on the expectations placed on ALL stakeholders in education charged with preparing children to become productive citizens in our society upon graduation; a topic for a future resource maybe!

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However, if one or more of these stakeholders were to remove themselves from “the weeds” s/he would see that the essence of this project includes several components of the Common Core is currently asking of us; namely the cultivation of inquiry and critical thinking through the tinkering process. During these moments of tinkering, as things were/not coming together, the students were learning. They were learning how to take risks and test theories out with the materials we presented to them. From these risks and tests came success and failure. Students realized that some materials worked better with each other than others, that one tool would assist them in ways that others could not, and that it was ok to seek help from the person next to you, even if that meant interrupting them from their own work. The images included in this resource highlight what was learned throughout this MAKE and as I type these words I cannot help but think what might happen if I myself embraced wholly the MAKE process described here; this notion of tinkering, into the traditional spaces of the instructional day?

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In an effort to help all of the students see the value in what they had learned through their tinkering with the toys "finished" or “not,” we asked them to look at what they had “completed” and reflect (in writing) on what they would do if they had more time. The reflection, like the two other pieces of writing, gave the students the opportunity to look back at all of the amazing work they DID complete; understanding that with any project, there comes a point when it needs to be abandoned, making room for the next learning experience. We asked the students to think of this reflection in this way so that when people came into the class and or to their desk to view their work, they had a “complete” vision of what they were looking at.

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The gallery crawl was scheduled for one, 90 minute session so we could explain to the students what was expected and give them a decent amount of time to view and respond to each other's work. Students rotated around the room in groups of 4, viewing all of the amazing work that they made. Armed with sticky-notes and pencils, they commented and questioned what they saw and read. When the gallery crawl was finished, each student returned to their seat and read through the comments/questions that others had left for them. We then asked if anyone would be willing to share with the group what others had written to them. Even though the kids had the option to leave anonymous remarks many of them signed their names and each student that shared a sticky note from a classmate made sure we knew who the comment/question was coming from. They were so proud of themselves and delighted with what their classmates had to say to them about their work! The whole group sharing that followed the gallery crawl was very emotional in that the students were bonding with each over a project that included so much; reading, writing, thinking, sharing, collaborating, MAKING. It was overwhelming in a very positive way!

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