“You will design, build, test, revise, and complete a mostly-working prototype of a trap that will humanely catch a tree kangaroo. Ready…go.”
I love giving directions that are clear, to the point, and deceptively simple.
My fifth grade class had just finished reading “Quest for the Tree Kangaroo” in our reading textbooks and I’d exhausted all the book’s suggested activities to go along with the story. My class got the main learning goals set out there, so it was time to move onward and upward. Into the trees. Why ditch the book when there’s so much good stuff in there to jump off of?
“Quest for the Tree Kangaroo”, briefly, is a narrative non-fiction story about a group of scientists trying to capture, tag, and release the rare and elusive tree kangaroo of Papua New Guinea. They way they did it in the book was to climb a tree where a tree kangaroo was spotted, make a bunch of noise, chase the animal to the ground, bag it, sedate it, and do the tests.
I thought my kids could do better.
So I set the above task before them. First we had to itemize what we knew about the physical characteristics of the tree kangaroo so that our traps would be effective.
Next we had to plan and design, keeping in mind that designs are first drafts and they are meant to change and flex as construction moves along.
Then it was into the MakerSpace to get building.
I can’t properly express how much fun it is to watch my kids learn while they make. All the things we struggle with in class like iterating their learning, revising, self-assessment, become natural and automatic (mostly). My kids started building their designs and before I knew it some where already testing. Others were still staring at a box trying to figure out how to make it a trap. At which point they are invited to take a lap around the room to see what other groups are doing (read- find good ideas to steal and use as jumping off points).
As always, with making, part of the adventure as a teacher is being completely unsure what final products I’m going to get. I know most of them will be different. I’ve seen the designs. I’m watching the traps being built. But I’ve got no idea why that group over there just pilfered a camera lens from the Break Apart Box. (It was because their trap would have a live feed running to a tablet on the ground so they knew when an animal had been caught. Extension Lesson For Next Time- Figure out how to make that happen for real. Same with the kids who wanted their trap to close automatically when a sensor was tripped. We can figure that out.)
Once all the traps were completed we brought them back to class and shared out, making short videos explaining how the trap worked, why it was built how it was, and how it was a humane way to catch a tree kangaroo. Soon there will be writing to go along with these videos to go on a blog and student digital portfolios.
And now my class has commandeered the school display case to show off our work for all to see. This does two things for me, one open and one secret. The open one is my kids should be proud of their work, and displaying it shows them I think they should be proud. The secret one (and this is between us so shh) is I want every other class to walk by that display then ask their teacher why they aren’t building cool stuff in the MakerSpace until that teacher comes to me for help or figures out some cool stuff on their own.
Making stuff is all about student choice and voice. Give them a goal, wind them up, let them go. After that all we need to do is act as bumpers, keeping the ball rolling towards the goal.
Doug Robertson is the CUE Blog Editor and a twelfth-year teacher currently talking at fifth graders in Northern Oregon. He’s taught in California, Hawaii, and Oregon in 3rd, 4th, and 6th grades. He’s the author of three books about education, He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One, one novel, The Unforgiving Road, and is an active blogger. Doug speaks at teaching conferences including CUE Rock Star Teacher Camps, presenting on everything from technology to teaching philosophy (or teaching The Weird Way, to use his words). Doug is also the creator and moderator of #WeirdEd on Twitter, which happens every Wednesday at 7pm PST.