A new beginning at ‘jtlart’
One of my goals for this school year was to make my classroom a dynamic place where kids have lots of choices as they learn about art and get to express their ideas. I would love to see kids choosing topics to explore that pertain to their own interests and creating projects that they have a part in designing from start to finish. This…. is a lofty goal. The reality of the art classroom is that we see about 80 different kids each day, and about 240 kids over a 6 day cycle. Kids only have art 2 out of every six days for 42 minutes at a time, and we have particular things that each kid needs to learn over the course of the year. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for totally self-directed project based learning, or ‘Design Thinking’ as it is called. While I’m no expert in teaching with the ‘Design Thinking’ framework, I am interested in it. I follow John Spencer’s blog which is full of really great ideas for teaching kids using this method. He explains his philosophy here:
Offering JTL students choice
Here at jtlart, Mrs. Shemansky and I are all for giving students choice, but we can’t quite hit the level of choice that John Spencer talks about in his Design Thinking philosophy.
That said, we can give students more choice that they ever had before, and we are working on that goal every day.
The first outcome of our new philosophy is the ‘Fab Lab’. This is our (small but ambitious) project inspired by the makerspace movement. We are committed to giving our students really fun and engaging choices in the Fab Lab, and invite all kids to play here- when their class work is complete! As some kids take a little more time to complete a painting project, those who are done can now explore, play, and create in this new space.
Learning through play
Kids have been jumping at this new opportunity in art, and while to some it’s no surprise, there are bound to be others who wonder about our new concept. Kids aren’t graded for what they do here. They don’t have to do anything in the Fab Lab. They are given virtually no instruction from their teacher, and are told that whatever they do in a class period will be taken apart at the end. There is nothing to show, and no reward handed out for participating. So why do they do it?
The answer is simple- they get to play in school. These middle school years are the first years of their school aged lives that they don’t have a time set aside in their day to play. Where they once had recess, they now have class. They’re growing up, but they shouldn’t grow out of play. So when you give them the chance to play, they leap at it.
But it’s not just play! They are really and truly learning in the Fab Lab! This month, the Fab material is LEGO, and when kids take part in the Fab Lab they get a list of 12 challenges to complete. They can do one or all or any number in between. Each challenge has an engineering goal at it’s heart. For example, challenge #3 is to build a bridge that goes from one side of the sink to the other AND will support the weight of your shoe.
The challenges were borrowed from this website– a great resource for anyone who wants to take this LEGO challenge idea farther!
The thrill of competition
While it’s true that kids don’t get a grade for what they do, we do have a way to track their achievements. Kids who complete challenges get Challenge Cards, and every time a challenge is successfully completed, they get their card signed by the teacher. As they complete more and more challenges, their names will appear on the LEGO Leaderboard in the hall. Kids at the top of the Leaderboard by the end of January will have the chance to win prizes!
When I present this new idea to my classes, the first thing they ask is, ‘What are the prizes???!’. I assure them they won’t be winning an iPhone 7. Prizes will be small and inexpensive. They still like the idea of prizes, and are happy to imagine what they will be. But after awhile, as they get going in the Fab Lab, they forget about prizes. They begin to get lost in the challenges. They help each other, they test ideas, they revise their plans, and they often stick with a problem until they solve it. For some kids it takes them all period- failing and failing and failing with one idea after another. They get frustrated. They say ‘one more time’. But I keep seeing this thing happen over and over- they don’t let it beat them. They make it work. They learn what it takes to succeed.
This is the kind of learning experience we all hope to see with every student in every class. Who would have thought that it would take this- ungraded, unstructured playtime- to see it happen so much? For me, that has been the biggest prize of all.