Teacher? Or Chaos Coordinator?

By: Julie Smallfield

Recently, I used a few of our lessons in my AP Physics 1 classroom.  Typically, my class knows that we need to work efficiently through our curriculum.  We all know that the AP testing window comes quickly, and we need to stay focused until the big test.  However, after the AP test, we can relax a little bit, and I decided to use some time after our test for students to build electromagnets, electric motors, and e-textiles.

My lesson plan was not much more than dumping wires, paper clips, nails, magnets, LEDs, and batteries on a table, and then telling kids to build stuff.  For a teacher who is accustomed to carefully planning the most efficient way through a challenging year, this was like flying a trapeze without a safety net.  Could I trust the kids to do this?  What if they didn’t want to?  What if they refused?  What if they failed?  Would they hate making and physics and computational thinking forever?

Yes, I found that I could trust my students.  They wanted to do this!  Sometimes they were frustrated for a little bit, but they did not fail.  They were able to make decisions about removing or preserving insulation on wires.  They could discuss intelligently whether the bulbs should be wired in series or parallel, and then they could solve the practical issues of where exactly to attach wires and conducting thread.  They could use these materials to create their projects, and they could implement their own designs.

It was chaos.  I had to trust the chaos.  I had to coordinate the chaos.  It was a different way to teach, and the kids loved it.  They learned, and I learned, too.  To make these activities successful for the kids, my planning was still important, but it looked different than my usual plan.  I needed to be ready to drop trouble-shooting suggestions in the right place in the room at the right time, so that students could spread the ideas among themselves.  I had to model debugging, which meant that I had to consciously articulate what I was trying and why.  Like so many other skills, teaching through the chaos appears to be something that gets better and easier with practice, and I’m looking forward to trying again.

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