I am a teacher. If you had walked into my classroom a few weeks ago, you may have thought you were witnessing some sort of student uprising. Students were dashing around the room, furniture was overturned, trash was littering the tables and floor, and paper wads were being launched from a large slingshot with surprising speed and accuracy. However, with further observation you would have noticed smiles of happiness on the faces of the students, and a look of loving pride on the face of the teacher. Again, that’s me, the teacher.
Let me explain. I’m a special education teacher for “at-risk” high school students. Some students have been tagged as being at-risk for dropping out, or running into major discipline problems that may interfere with earning credits for graduation. Some of my students have difficult home lives that make it challenging to attend school regularly, much less care about school when they do make it. Depression, anxiety, ADHD/ADD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and physical health challenges all find their way into my class. Each of my students is “at-risk” due to different circumstances, but on any given day you will find short fuses and explosive tempers sparking up in my classroom. All in all, I have some of the least academically engaged students in the school, and I love the challenge of tricking them into learning while also trying to teach them to love to learn (or at least sort of liking it … a little bit … sometimes … please kids).
So what was happening the day I let my students make a slingshot and turn the classroom into a scene of chaos? Why would I allow students with behavioral problems to make what could be considered a weapon? Well, basically, I had given my students an opportunity to make. It started off with me presenting a very simple idea, and like magic, my students embraced the opportunity.
My class’ slingshot started with a student who was avoiding doing his work. He turned a chair over on a table, and stretched an exercise band across two of the legs. The band was loud and strong, and a pencil ended up being launched at a wall, splintering into many pieces. After destroying the pencil, the work-avoiding student looked at me, expecting my look of disapproval. He got it, but I also saw an opportunity to engage this student. “Here, check this out,” I said as I went to my computer to pull up the picture of something I saw at Maker Faire Bay Area. The slingshot in the display by the Community Science Workshop Network included a board as the base, two PVC pipes, a few rubber bands and a small plastic cup. “Let me go get some rubber bands and a cup. Maybe we can make something less dangerous.” Other students were now interested as they looked at the picture.
Making and playing happened for the next hour as we constructed two more chair slingshots, and in case you don’t already know, beautiful things can happen as you engage in a making adventure. For example, my students worked on social skills and teamwork (which are important lessons in my class). They shared their ideas with each other, and they all got along wonderfully – a rare occurrence – while working on their common goal of getting to launch paper wads at the wall. My students even accepted my basic rules and guidelines with no protesting. For instance, I asked that they not launch the slingshots toward anyone, and that they not launch anything that could chip the paint off the cinder block wall.
My students also had an opportunity to learn about powering through frustration to finish a task. It’s all too common for my students to shut down and give up when things get difficult, but I watched as they thought on their feet and solved problems to make the slingshot work. One of my students was frustrated at the lack of accuracy of the slingshot, so he set off to improve on the design. We only had one plastic cup to work with, so he grabbed a soda can left behind by another student and went to work. He ended up making an impressive slingshot that became the showcase of the day.
With pride, my students brought it to show to another teacher and show it off to another class. One student even bragged about it on his Facebook status. I even snuck in some science terms like density and trajectory while my students experimented with different techniques of building and using the slingshots. Imagine where a physics teacher could have taken this lesson, but my focus was on social skills such as task completion, teamwork, and creative problem solving.
The school day ended with all of the day’s assignments complete, and the students even cleaned up the mess without me needing to ask. I’m fortunate enough to have the type of class where I can take advantage of impromptu opportunities and provide my students with making activities that allow them to learn without the academic structure required in most classrooms. In fact, my class is called Opportunities, and as I grow as a teacher I plan on continuing to incorporate making as one of the many opportunities provided in my class.