Good News, your STEAM class is going to become more successful. Your students will experience this success for themselves because you will be spending your time on the stuff that really matters. I’m telling you this from the front lines of STEAM instruction, naptime to Newton my kids are building knowledge and confidence every class and I keep them learning and having fun by focusing on 22nd-century skills. I help them learn to make choices, by making their choices matter. They learn to trust the creative process by working through it, again and again, finding more ways to use the information they are learning.
Keeping these Ideas in mind as I create learning experiences makes my work sustainable. I am sharing these here in hopes it gives other teachers the support them need to reframe STEAM to better meet the needs of their students.
Assignments Need Open Options
A lesson that works in my classroom always has an open option. As a student, my best work was almost always something no one had asked for, or even imagined before I did it. Of course, I didn't have too many opportunities to realize the power of choosing how I completed an assignment until I got to college.
There was a drawing class, which I took because I could not draw. I soon learned that most people enrolled in the class could draw and paint and do all of the artist things I felt were well outside of my abilities. You see I had messy handwriting. Straight lines and neat letters had never been my thing, but here I was learning shading and perspective as best I could.
Early in the class, we had to draw charcoal still life of a giant pile of cooking pots. The pile was huge and lit dramatically. This was a mad collection of curves and shadows. I didn't know how I could possibly be successful. This was not something I could draw. So I zoomed in. I drew a few square inches of this clutter of curves and I filled a giant sheet of newsprint with all the detail and shading I could. In the end, it was not good.
I saw what the other students created (why were they in this class, maybe why was I in this class?) BUT, I had a piece that was recognizable as part of the pile. My teacher noted that I had subverted the assignment, simplified the challenge and highlighted my strengths, and I had not done a bad job of it.
While she encouraged me to take more risks, she also helped me understand the choices I had made in the process. I want to give my students room to make choices, and then I want to be there to help them understand the choices they have made.
Student Voice and Student Choice
My best assignments have important choice points early on, something they have to commit to, a choice that makes it possible for all the students to be doing different things. I learned this while teaching writing.
As a teacher of writing, if you are not very intentional about your assignment design you get a pile of papers that read like a low-quality transcript of what you said in class, usually with a funnel introduction:
Since the dawn of time, students have tried to please the teacher instead of engaging a real challenge that compels them.
So the assignments I craft need to have many open choice points and still get the students to focus on the skills we are building together. The choice isn't chaos, it is simply inviting the student further into the work we are doing together.
Cost Effective Is Key
That's right, each lesson has to have a very low per-pupil cost or it becomes something I can only do once. That hardly seems worth it, see “Is Repeatable.” Lessons that start with kits have a number of problems in my classroom and the first one is the cost per kit. If the parts can be reused, then maybe. I look hard at each recycle bin I pass, always looking for a bunch of something. If I can pull 20 one liter bottles from the blue bin, that is almost a class set of rocket bodies. Of course, those bottles cannot take up too much space because there is only so much room in the closet and there is not yet a magic storage portal that leads to another dimension. The laser cutter and my craft cutter are very helpful in this because they let me build pieces out of wood, cardboard, paper, chipboard, or felt.
Has a Rich Process
Basically, the work has to defy step by step directions. I need a rich process for my students because navigating a wide variety of choices is how we learn to make decisions. WHat is a rich process? a rich process has many different components that can work together in different ways. It works best if the process does not always have to be done in a particular order. In any group process, there will be points that take longer, things the bottleneck the progress, and you can tell when it happens because kids who were doing suddenly they are waiting.
Waiting is not compatible with my goals, our time is so short each week and once they are waiting, my kids don't always make great choices. Waiting is boring and when the kids get bored we start getting interpersonal issues.
A non-ordered workflow is a difference between needing 7 hammers (or glue guns or saws) and needing 30. If we can do the steps out of order then we don't all need the hammers at the same time. This helps the harmony of the class, the bottom line, and even the storage situation. If I don't need 30 of each tool, I have more space to store student work and bubble solution.
– A rich process has a large number of permutations allowing for a wide variety of successful endpoints.
Process Bears Repeating, it Begs it.
Creativity is an iterative process, you have to do it over and over for it to work. So often we give kids an opportunity to make one thing and we encourage them to be creative. If they are only making one thing, that thing needs to work, it needs to do what they want it to, it needs to look how they want it to look, that is a ton of expectations for one process to meet. The student spends most of their time disappointed in what they are making because it does not look like they pictured it. If we are not making one thing, but many, then the student begins to really experience the change that happens through a long process and the implicit assessment of ONE is removed. If you really want to learn how to do something, do it at least 50 times. The learning is a process that must be reiterated, and the repetition allows us to clearly see the process and not just the artifact in our hands.
If you are looking for more ideas about technology curriculum and how to make it relevant and accessible for all teachers, please check out my book “Programming in the Primary Grades”
Let’s work together!
In conclusion, I would love to know what ideas guide your lesson building. What have you learned to do to keep your work sustainable?