What students can learn from taking things apart

For five summers, I watched an outside dining set melt in the Vegas sun. We don’t have many gray skies through the year but the summers are particularly punishing, topping out at 117 degrees for at least two weeks in July. I knew the chairs were toast when a couple of friends sat down and they fell into the frame as the seat disintegrated beneath them.

I was ready to put the furniture on the curb when I took a moment to examine it closely. Most pieces were actually in great shape despite being in a furnace for years. The metal wasn’t very rusted and I still had some white chalk paint left from a project that I could use to give the frames new life. The glass top of the table was perfectly fine. The seats were the only things that needed mending.

I flipped the chairs over to try to figure out how they were put together. I found four long screws went through cloth then what appeared to be some kind of thick particle board, in order to affix the seat to the metal frame. There were four holes in the frame, one for each screw. Wow. This is an easy fix, I thought. I just need to buy some wood pieces roughly the same size and some thick outdoor cushions to go on top.

As I went through the process of rehabbing these chairs, I felt a great sense of success. “I did this all by myself!” I thought. I wondered how I could replicate this feeling with my students. What experiences did I have in life that led me to tear the furniture apart and inspect it first instead of scrapping it?

There’s a big emphasis on innovation and makerspaces in today’s education circles. And it is a great first step in getting students to use design thinking in their everyday lives. But I think equally important is providing students opportunities to tear things apart and see how they work. Give them time to examine things and make improvements to existing products. In their future lives, they won’t always make things from scratch but they will often fix something that’s broken, whether it’s code, a system for getting messages to colleagues, or even the coffee maker in the lounge.

While thinking about this idea, I stumbled upon some resources from Harvard’s Project Zero – Agency By Design. Harvard has developed several thinking routines around this idea of investigating objects and systems. Their routines ask students to look closely, explore complexities, and find opportunities.

For example, one routine called “Parts, Purposes, Complexities – Looking Closely” asks students to choose an object or system and ask:

What are its parts? What are its various pieces or components?

What are its purposes? What are the purposes of each of these parts?

What are its complexities? How is it complicated in its parts and purposes, the relationship between the two, or in other ways?

In another thinking routine called “Imagine If – Finding Opportunity,” students select an object or system and ask in what ways could it be more effective, efficient, ethical, and beautiful?

But the routines don’t just focus on objects. There are also ones, like “Parts, People, Interactions,” that ask students to analyze the parts of a system, how people are connected, and how changes in one part could change the whole system. I can see many applications for this in every subject area but especially in some of the crucial political conversations of our time.

I haven’t quite figured out how to incorporate the thinking routines into my instruction yet but it’s something that I think could be modeled and taught and then used throughout the year. It is critical thinking at its finest.

My dad recently retired from respiratory therapy in a hospital after 35 years. Therapists give breathing treatments to patients but are also responsible for setting up and maintaining life-saving ventilator technology. I once asked him how he became such an expert at his job and he credited one teacher he had early on in his training. The teacher made him take the whole ventilator apart so he knew what was inside and how it all fit together.

“My instructor told me, ‘Your job is to be the expert in the room regarding this machine,'” he said. “And I was, because I not only took it apart but had to put it back together as well.”

Reading station rotation centers explained

I’ve written a lot about how I structured my 70-minute math block by getting rid of whole group instruction in favor of four 15-minute rotations. Once I got comfortable with this type of instruction, I decided to do the same thing for reading.

In Las Vegas, teachers are required to teach reading for 110 minutes. So I bumped up the rotations to 20-minute stations and added some whole group components to the block that all students could participate in, regardless of their reading level. This included things like vocabulary instruction (where students came up with actions for the words), foundational skills (multisyllabic blending, affixes, etc.), and discourse around complex texts.

Now that you’ve seen how I broke the block up, here are the stations explained in more detail:

Teacher — Before the rotations begin, all students are assigned a few pages to read from a grade level text. We have used the novels Search For Delicious and Phantom Tollbooth for literature and the social studies book and FOSS science kit texts for informational text. The first group at the table is the below level group as they are not always able to read the text independently. The teacher reads the text for them and they respond orally more than other groups. (I’ve also had these students listen to the text read to them on the iPad the day before so time at the table is spent only on dissecting the text). All other groups are expected to read the text on their own before their turn at the table. The objectives are derived from grade level standards and taught through the common text using gradual release (I do, we do). However, the advanced group may be asked to read another article or be assigned an additional task to do on the computer related to the objective.

Buddy Reading/Writing — After the teacher table, students move to buddy reading/writing. On most days, this is where they practice today’s objective (or one they need to practice) in a text at their own level. On some days, students work on visualization. While one student is reading from their book, the other student is visualizing the story by drawing on a whiteboard. If students are buddy writing, they create poems, raps, songs, and plays they eventually perform for the class. If you have a lot of technology, you can also make the Buddy Read station a Google Classroom station where students complete their skill practice online.

Computers  Students work on an adaptive reading program like Lexia, iReady, or MobyMax. These programs know the students’ levels in reading and start their practice at that level. This helps students fill gaps in their previous learning. Once students pass levels, they put up a sticker on our Lexia board and receive a printed certificate.

Read to Self — Students first complete the assigned reading for the day that will be discussed at the teacher station. After they finish, they enjoy reading for pleasure a book at their own level. 

My article in EdSurge: How A Local Tech Meetup Turned My Classroom Into A Startup

EdSurge is collecting stories from across the nation on how personalized learning is being implemented in various ways. I’m grateful for the opportunity to return to my education reporter roots to write a piece about my journey in the classroom. You can read the article here.

What happens when you ditch homework

Our new “homework” in action.

There’s been a seismic shift in the culture of my classroom. Each morning, I greet students at the door — as I’ve always done — but this year, I get to actually sit down next to them and have real conversations during breakfast. They tell me the exciting things going on in their lives. We start the day off on a positive note. Contrast this to every other year when the first interaction with many students each morning included this dreaded phrase: “Where is your homework?”

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Student “arcade” showcases video game designs and critical thinking

One day at recess, I watched two of my third-grade girls playing a video game called Animal Jam on a tiny cell phone screen. They worked together to make all kinds of decisions. Should we adopt this animal? How should we decorate our den? What are we supposed to do on this part? Their conversation blew me away and I thought, how can I get students to talk to each other like that in the classroom?

The answer was right in their hands: video games.

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Give your old, broken laptop a new purpose

RIP Mr. MacBook

When I first started the station rotation model, I had a hodgepodge of eight devices, including my old black MacBook that I didn’t use anymore. This computer was painfully slow and, in fact, wouldn’t work unless the power cable was plugged in at all times. One false move and the cord ripped out from its magnetic jack and shut down, sending whatever you were working on into the cyber abyss. If you closed the laptop (as you should when not in use), it would also completely shut down. You even had to enter the wifi code every time you reopened it.

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A week in the life of a classroom with 1:1 devices

It was really important to me this year to try out activities and strategies that would leverage the power of my 1:1 Chromebooks. My first order of business was to implement two computer centers in my station rotation model instead of one. The second was to better engage students in whole group instruction with interactive tools.

Here’s a look at what blended learning looks like in my classroom in one week:

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The interactive bulletin board that invested my students in our adaptive software


World, meet our Lexia board. I knew when I dove into blended learning that I wanted my students to track their progress on our adaptive reading program. Originally, I planned to make individual data booklets but I soon realized I wanted to go bigger. If I truly believe in the power of this “other teacher” in my room, I thought, then I must make it have a huge presence. So the Lexia board was born.

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How I got 25 Chromebooks for my blended learning classroom

img_1585-1Last year, I was super fortunate to receive $5,000 from the CenturyLink Teachers and Technology Program. I now have a Chromebook for every student in my class that they use 40 minutes per day for an adaptive reading program and Google Classroom. Having one-to-one devices has completely revolutionized what I am able to do in my blended learning classroom.

Education grant writing is too often misunderstood. I think it’s because we hear about full-time job openings dedicated exclusively to grant writing and assume it is too hard or takes too long. But those jobs are for huge sums of money that come with all kinds of strings attached that have to be monitored. There are grants that are super accessible to teachers and are worth a couple days of work. If you have ever considered writing a grant, here are four tips to help get you started and take away some of the anxiety.

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Why a teacher will always be necessary, even in blended learning

I recently began pulling students during intervention time who were struggling on the Lexia adaptive reading computer program. Lexia provides teachers with ready-made lessons to target the skills students can’t seem to master. So, I pulled one girl over and began working on sequencing events, the area in which she needed the most help, according to Lexia.

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