Worksheets Don't Grow Dendrites: brainstorming, discussion, and art!

**Note: Please excuse the look of my blog at the moment...I'm trying to figure out where my design went!!**

I'm so so so excited to be diving into this book and go through this book study with so many amazing bloggers! Making learning more engaging and meaningful for my kids is such a huge passion for me. I was really struck by the first strategy "Brainstorm and Discussion". The poem at the very start of the chapter was so true and so telling. "They can't talk in class, they can't talk in the hall, they can't talk in the cafeteria, they can't talk at all!" Yet, as the book says, teachers and talking at every chance they get. But we often have a habit of shushing rather than encouraging discussions between our students.  As I was reading this chapter I was simultaneously thinking of all the ways I already utilize discussion and all and the same time all the opportunities I am missing to bring even more discussion and collaboration into our everyday routine.

As many others have noted, my kids LOVE to talk. They are so so chatty, and of course many times I find myself trying to stifle the "mindless chatter".  I think that my biggest takeaway from the whole chapter is to make it a point to find ways to channel their natural inclination to communicate with each other and turn that into better learning opportunities.

While I know I can improve in this area, we do utilize discussion and collaboration at various times in our day. Anyone who follows me on Instagram knows that I am obsessed with Number Talks in my classroom. Every day we gather together to discuss ways to solve various problems. We talk about different strategies to solve a single problem and as they are talking I am writing down their explanations. We end up with a white board that looks like this.

After we have shared a few strategies with the whole group, I have them turn to an elbow partner (or 2) and discuss how they solved the problem. They get just as excited about finding someone who solved it a different way as they get finding someone who solved it the same way as them.

Number talk time is easily one of my kids' favorite times of day.  Many of them excitedly ask if we are doing one every time we gather to sit on the carpet. After a few months of doing this every day they started doing it on their own during "dessert time" aka early finisher time.  They absolutely love getting to discuss and collaborate to solve problems. I just love this first picture of one of my sweet girls running her own number talk on the carpet.

Another favorite in my room is our I Spy games. I have some of these games for all the phonics patterns that we go through over the course of the year. I give an I Spy Board to teams of 2 students. To start the game,  I give them a "clue" as to what word I am looking for. So I will say "This is something you can eat.." or "This might be in your house.." or "This is a verb.." and the partners discuss the clue, and read together to find the words that might fit the riddle.

After a few rounds, I have the teams work together to come up with a list of "clues". After everyone has their clues they hook up with another team to share clues and solve each others riddles. I love this game because not only is everyone engaged in reading words using the phonics pattern of the week, there is a lot of collaboration and critical thinking involved in coming up with the clues.

I've been really loving using STEM challenges this year in my room also. (There are some great resources out on TPT!) One of my favorites all year was at Thanksgiving when they had to Mayflowers that would float and not let the Pilgrims (marshmallows) drown. I sat at my table with the "ocean" and when teams thought they were ready we tried to float across the ocean. I just loved hearing their discussions and problem solving as their boats sprung leaks, toppled over, or sunk straight to the bottom.

(Find this pack on TPT here)

I'm really inspired to bring collaboration and discussion into more areas of learning.

I really loved strategy 2: Drawing and Artwork. I saw a facebook post today from someone venting her frustration about times when people generalize any crafts in the classroom as "fluff". I wanted to stand up and cheer. There is SO much value in artistic expression for all people especially for little people! One of my favorite things to do in my classroom is to just hand my students construction paper and say "make a pumpkin" or "make a penguin" or "make a Christmas tree". I love to see their brains working as they figure out how to take a sheet of paper and cut it down to make whatever they are making. The first few times I do it they always look at me like "uh, where's my tracer? What the heck am I supposed to do??" but with a little prompting they just start exploring and trying and in the end come up with awesome crafts. Here's a pic of some penguins I had my kids made this way a few years back. No tracers or patterns or examples, just paper and their own imaginations (...and some die cut eyes haha). I just love how they each end up with their own personalities :)

I recently had a classroom experience that related perfectly to this chapter. I will admit that when making a craft with a writing project, while I to like to give them freedom, I almost always have them write first and then do the art part. I'm just gonna be real with yall this is part habit and part manipulation to get my reluctant writers to do some work so they can do the craft when they are done. However, purely by accident, I had an epiphany.

In January we were doing a writing response to the book "Snowmen at Night". My plan was to have them write about what their snowman did at night and how it messed up his/her clothes and pieces, and then make a snowman that showed a hat askew or an arm out of place.  (I'm pretty sure I got this idea from the fabulous Vickie Plant last year). Well, this was one of those Monday mornings where I was printing the paper (yes I have a classroom printer - such a gift!) while I was reading the story. Well, that gift of a printer decided to jam itself up so well that I needed outside assistance, so I decided to let them make the snowmen first and then do the writing after. Yall, I was AMAZED at how much their creativity came out through doing the artwork BEFORE the writing. The stories of their snowmen that they created were so detailed and intricate because they were focused on MAKING the snowmen with the materials rather than having to get through writing the story. When it came time to write, they had some AMAZING stories that they were SO excited to write. I mean some of my most reluctant writers wrote the most amazing things!!

It was in that moment that I realized how much tapping into their artistic side brought out their creativity in a new way. Not only did they come up with more interesting stories, they were REALLY excited to get their stories written down. I really got a new understanding of the importance of artistic expression.  When I read the book In Pictures and In Words a few years ago and it changed my writing workshop world, I really came to understand how allowing students the freedom to get their thoughts out in words can really tap into their creativity and create better writers. But somehow that knowledge never fully transferred over in my head to actual cut and glue crafting. Nothing about that craft was "fluff" and that writing lesson would have been nowhere near as meaningful for many of my kids if we had just done a written response to the book without the art component. It really changed a lot about they way I approach using art in my room.

I also learned that day that every art project doesn't need to be perfect and cookie cutter and uniform. These snowmen were not really "bulletin board worthy" or "Pinterest picture ready" but my kids really owned them as their own and because of that they were awesome to me. (BTW: Don't get me wrong, I love cute crafts just as much as the next teacher!! I'm totally not hating on cute crafts at all!)

This snowman went dancing and her hat slid off...

This guys' face got messed up when he put on a jet pack and flew around the town.

The last thing that really struck me from this project was how much the students loved sharing their snowmen with their friends. I made a note to try to remember to give them more opportunities to share their artwork one on one with their peers. This will let them not only share their point of view but also see how their friends completed the same projects - more collaboration and discussion!!

I'm so inspired by this book already I can't wait to dive into more chapters in the next few weeks!!