In 2008 I signed on to to work as a project-based educator at a small charter high school in St. Paul. I knew that I would be taking on far more than the role of "teacher", as most educators do, but I had no idea when I started this job that I would end up being the events coordinator, which included the high school graduation ceremony. I went on to plan a commencement ceremony for 20ish students every year for 9 years.
As some of you can relate, as a newbie, I rarely said "no" to a request. So when my director asked that I take on the graduation planning, I enthusiastically agreed because I wanted to prove myself. As nervous and ill-prepared as I was to take on the responsibility of organizing one of the most important events in a person's life, I did it, figured it out, and am grateful that I did. I got to be a part of something incredible.
Many of my students were first generation high school graduates. Others were told for much of their lives that they would never graduate or amount to anything. I got to be a part of proving their doubters wrong, proving my students wrong about themselves, making them feel special, valued, and worthy, for at least one day. A small graduation ceremony, one with few graduates such as a charter school, alternative program, homeschool co-op, etc., should be intimate, special, and personalized to EACH student. Over the course of 10 years I think I've figured it out, and I'm here to share some of what we did to honor each student and celebrate their unique achievements that brought them to this profound and unforgettable moment in their lives.
Before getting into ceremony ideas for a small and intimate high school graduation, I should note that I was the graduation ceremony coordinator. I did plan it or run it by myself. I organized a student graduation committee that helped plan and execute the ceremony. Students have awesome ideas. I highly recommend putting together a committee.
How to Plan a Small Group Graduation Ceremony
1. Student-Selected Personal Speaker: Each student invites one special person in their lives - a parent, mentor, friend, teacher, sibling, etc. - to speak about that student and introduce the student to the stage to receive their diploma.
2. Senior Theme: At the beginning of the year start making observations about your seniors, and take note. By the end of the year pull seniors together to settle on a theme that represents the group. It could be an adjective that describes the group as a whole, a word that describes an experience that they all shared, or a theme that represents their graduation year. Every ceremony idea that follows below could follow the theme determined by graduates.
3. Personalized Gift Bags: Put together gift bags for each graduate with a few items that represent each unique individual. For example, if a graduate loves to bake you might add a customized spatula, some spices, a cookbook, etc. All of the items do not have to follow a theme, but should reflect the interests, passions, personalities, goals, etc. of each graduate.
4. Personalized Videos: The students in my graduation committee produce a customized video for EACH graduate with photos and videos of students learning, as well as interviews with friends, family, teachers, and more. Those videos are played at the graduation ceremony and are shared with students to keep as momentos.
5. Relevant and Personal Keynote Speaker: Small learning environments organically foster relationship-building, camaraderie, mentorships, and more, because students go through significant life and learning experiences with each other. With that said, an important figure or community collaborator that has been present in the lives of the graduates and have been supportive in their high school journey, make the best keynote speakers. Choose someone that has personal significance to graduates rather than someone random spouting off their idea of "success".
6. Graduate Performance: This is a tricky one to coordinate, but if you have a really small group of graduates, have them create and organize a performance. They can write and perform a song, a skit, a dance, poetry, and so on and so on. This is a group effort that includes all graduates. If this is a logistical nightmare, try to get a graduate or two to perform on their own instead of the entire graduating class. If you can pull off a full-group performance, however, do it. It makes students feel included and important.
7. Student Bios: Write student bios into the ceremony script. At the beginning of our graduation ceremony, the MC's introduce each graduate one-by-one by reading a written bio. The introduction includes graduates' hobbies, interests, shining achievements, and where they're headed or goals for the future.
8. Senior Shirts: Every year our underclassmen design and make senior t-shirts for graduates. Again, this could follow the theme that seniors decide on earlier in the year. Other students in the school, staff members, family, friends, community members, etc. sign the back of the t-shirts, sort of like a yearbook, and those shirts are added to graduates' gift bags.
9. Personalized Graduation Day Frames: In the past, the graduation committee has ordered basic frames and customizes them for each student. Every year one of our staff members organizes a senior photo shoot offsite. We add the photos from that shoot to each frame and give them to graduates at the ceremony.
10. Playlist: Create an album, like a "mixed tape", for each student and share it with them. Each playlist could be customized for each student or the playlist could consist of popular or significant songs from the graduation year.
11. Senior Field Trip: In the past our seniors have organized and hosted fundraisers to raise money for an offsite experience just for graduates . This is not technically a ceremony idea, but could be a field trip that they go on right from the ceremony. My students usually choose to go to our local amusement park.
12. Senior Dinner: Underclassmen plan a dinner for graduates and their parents. Graduates often have family plans post-ceremony, so this dinner doesn't need to take place on the night of the ceremony. It's just another way for graduates to feel special and soon-to-be seniors pumped up for the coming year.
13. Graduate Philosophy Statements: The director of my school started this tradition before I began teaching there, but it was a special experience for everyone involved, so we kept the tradition going for a while. Each senior writes a philosophy statement; a statement that highlights who they are, their dreams, their goals, what life is about for them, and how their high school experience helped shape that philosophy.
14. Photos Exhibit: The graduation committee spends the year collecting photos of seniors in action; on field trips, giving presentations, working on projects, working within the community, etc. The committee organizes these photos onto boards and puts them on display at the graduation ceremony. Friends and family can view the exhibit before and after the ceremony.
15. Graduating Class Slideshow: One ceremony idea already mentioned was making personalized videos of each graduate to play at the ceremony. This is labor intensive, especially if you do not have a graduation committee to take on some of the load. If it's too much, consider putting together a slideshow with videos and photos of the entire graduating class. Play the slideshow during the ceremony or have it displayed while guests take their seats.
There are so many neat ways to make graduates in a small graduating class feel special on their big day. The ones mentioned above are a few that have lasted the test of time. We have tried many other little touches, and have kept some going and have ditched others. Trial and error, right?! I would love to hear any graduation ceremony traditions that you have seen or experienced.
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Project-based learning is a fun and interesting way to enhance learning on any travel experience, whether it's while worldschooling, on a school trip, or even expanding ones' resume or broadening skills and knowledge on a personal or family travel experience.
I am a high school experiential educator. Project-based learning is generally my go-to instructional approach. I have also been a high school travel coordinator for 12 years and make travel with my own family a priority. I have found that the best way to engage students in any travel experience is when supplemented with project-based learning. When students design and lead the project based on their own interests, when purpose is evident, an intrinsic motivation organically results.
Below is a list of end product ideas for travel projects. However, project-based learning is much more than producing an innovative final product. In addition, students reach out and engage with the community, they organize relevant learning experiences, and they share their new skills and knowledge with the world. Authentic learning activities are essential in order to gather information and enhance the learning experience. Encourage learners to participate in service learning projects on their trips, engage in cultural experiences, immerse themselves in ecological and human ecosystems, set up interviews/shadowing experiences/exchanges with locals, and more.
I suggest using my project-based learning tool kit as a guiding tool through student-led projects.
For details on PBL and what sets it apart from other pedagogies (or regular projects), click the "project-based learning" link in my archives.
33 Project-Based Learning Experiences for Student Travelers
1. Travel Journal:
Have students write a travel journal as they go. Have them publish it for personal use and a keepsake for later on in life.
2. Travel Blog:
Students can keep a blog of their adventures, posting at the end of each day. I like this one because they can share the link with friends and family from home who can then follow along on their travel adventures with them. My students kept a school wide travel blog. Check it out at thejenningsexperience.weebly.com.
3. Climate and Culture Project:
My students did a group project on this in hawaii. They coordinated interviews with locals, business owners, tour companies, surfers, park rangers, and more about how climate influences Hawaiian culture. Check out my Climate and Culture PBL project on TpT.
Students can create their own trivia game with questions relevant to their trip.
5. 21st-Century Skills Portfolio:
This is a project that my students do regardless of whether they travel. The idea is that they make a portfolio with evidence of skill-building and reflect on those experiences. Travel would significantly bolster this portfolio. Check out this resource here.
6. Open Inquiry Experiments:
Have students design and conduct ecological open-inquiry experiments. They can test water quality from various water sources, conduct animal behavioral studies, edge effect experiments, soil experiments, and more. Because I am a science teacher, my students do this almost everywhere we go. Their final product is a lab report or science fair style presentation. Check out my open-inquiry tool kit to help guide students through the process.
7. Google Tour:
There are so many cool things to do with Google Maps. Students can drop points anywhere in the world, add descriptions and photos from those points, and publish their "tour". Check out my blog post dedicated to all of the ways kids can use Google Maps as a final product of PBL projects. You can also check out my "hometown tour" PBL resource but rather than complete their project on their hometown, they focus on their travel destination.
8. Behind the Scenes Projects:
This type of project is a great way for students to really immerse themselves in the place they are visiting. They connect with residents, businesses owners, city planners, etc. to fully experience the inner workings of the community. Check out my Hometown Behind the Scenes projects, one on a community event, the other on a local business. The projects are both written about students' hometowns, but could easily be adapted to any location.
Host, produce, and publish a daily podcast on the trip for friends and family to follow along on the adventure.
10. Student Exchange:
Connect with another school, student organization, homeschool co-op, etc. to arrange for your students to experience a day in the life of a local student. Have them journal, video document, or blog about the experience.
11. Write a Book:
Have learners document their experience by writing a book about it. They could write a historical fiction book based on the history of their travel destination, a children's book about their journey, a book of interviews or essays on a specific theme, and more.
12. Plan the Trip:
I don't plan our school trips. Our students plan them with my guidance. Trip planning is a profound learning experience. It includes lessons on finance, fundraising, geography, culture, geology, biology, etc. etc. Check out my free trip planning project guidelines or see my Plan a Trip Around the World PBL resource for all of the guiding templates needed to plan a trip.
13. Biography Project:
Read a biography or memoir about one person from or relevant to the destination and arrange authentic learning activities while traveling. Complete a project on this person. Check out my Biographies PBL project for guidance and templates.
14. Pinterest Profile:
Students create a pinterest profile about travel. They create boards related to traveling such as budget travel, travel bucket list, authentic experiences while traveling, etc. Learners designate a board per destination visited and design and create their own pins to add to those boards on their travel experiences.
15. Tour Guide:
Students write a tour guide about their travel destination. They can add photos of their experiences, write reviews (restaurants, excursions, lodging, etc), and add insider tips for future visitors.
16. Travel Product:
Students design and make a product that solves a travel problem such as young kids kicking your airplane seat. They test their prototypes on the trip and even consider asking other travelers around them to test their products. Check out my Maker Tool Kit for any maker project, which includes a guide and design templates.
There are so many directions kids can go with this. They will choose a theme such as landscapes or environmental portraits, work on a specific camera function or photography technique, or do a photojournalism project, photographing an event taking place in their travel destination.
18. Habitats Project:
Students visit different ecological landscapes in the area they are traveling and design projects around these habitats. My students have conducted biodiversity surveys in Costa Rica. Another group gathered and mapped out climate data from various biomes in California. Check out my habitats project for guidance and templates.
19. Artistic Performance:
Students write a song, poem, skit, screenplay, etc. about their travel experience or specific content relevant to their travel destination.
20. Digital Animation:
Create an animation on any number of things related to the trip. Students can create a cartoon of their experience or an animation about something specific that they learned on their trip.
Students create a physical or online storyboard about their travel adventures. They could also create a storyboard about some aspect of their destination's history.
22. Learn a New Skill:
This could be something that is specific to the place or the culture. For example, when we visited Cambridge, England, we learned about punting and how to do it. When in Costa Rica we learned how to make traditional, wood-fired, pottery. In Italy we learned how to make authentic cannolis. Check out my pbl resource on this concept.
Create quality infographics about some of the concepts learned on the trip. If students spend a lot of time in national parks, for example, they might create infographics on what they learned about each the park's geology, history, biodiversity, etc. This can be done with any number of subjects. They can post infographics on a blog, Instagram, Pinterest board, etc. day-to-day as they travel.
24. Design a Set:
Upon return from a trip, students create a "set" that demonstrates where they were. It should be something that someone could walk through as if they were touring the destination themselves. Host an event for people to tour.
Students design and make their own postcards using photos from the experience. Students can later donate them to the places where the photos were taken such as a visitor center of a local park or gift shop of a museum.
26. Moving Diorama:
Students design and create a diorama that moves. It could be of an ecosystem, landscape, famous street, museum, etc. Use my maker tool kit to help learners through the design process.
27. Interactive Timeline:
Students design and make an interactive timeline on one piece of their travel destination's history. "Interactive" could mean moving, pop-up, reveal flaps, manipulating parts, etc.
28. Heritage Project:
I have my students do heritage projects in school all the time. They are asked to organize authentic experiences about one culture of their choosing. When traveling, authentic learning experiences are much easier to arrange because students are immersed in the culture they are studying. Check out my heritage project to get learners started.
29. Video Promotion:
Create a short movie that summarizes your trip. Produce it as if it were a promotion for your school or homeschool. Or produce it as a campaign that encourages parents, educators, and students to embrace travel as a learning tool.
Students make mini-documentaries on their travel experience. This final product idea could go with any number of driving questions or research topics. The documentary could be about the travel experience itself. Or it could be about a political, social, economic, environmental movement taking place at their place of travel. It could be about specific content such as a piece of the history, ecology, geology, geography, art, and more.
Make a calendar about the travel experience itself or about some aspect of the travel destination. Original artwork and/or photographs of the destination should be included for each calendar month.
32. Make a Magazine:
This is a great group project. Students come together to determine the theme of the magazine, what to include, student roles and tasks, and more. The content should reflect the travel experience as a whole or features of the place itself.
This is a fun one for 21st-century learners. Chances are your students already "vlog" to some capacity. Students will record significant moments, learning experiences, activities, etc. during their travels and post those videos to a blog, website, or social media outlet such as Youtube, Twitter or Instagram. Family and friends from home can follow along. Students should have a focus question or topic, as all project-based learning experiences do. Check out my pbl tool kit (link in intro) to help learners organize this experience.
Some misconceptions about experiential learning perpetuate the myth that it is expensive. One misconception is that experiential learning has to be outdoors. Another is that it is limited to company team-building sessions. You do not need to take your students on elaborate excursions or hire out a team-building company. Those things aren't bad in and of themselves, they're great, actually, but they can get pricey and they aren't a necessity.
So, what do you need for experiential learning? You need a stimulating learning environment and an open-minded educator to guide the journey. Experiential education is hands-on learning through experience. It is also student-led, and personal, based on the interests, skills, and backgrounds of learners. If you keep these things in mind, it's really all you need. You won't need much more.
One of my favorite memories in my career as a teacher was an entrepreneurial project that a group of students did. This group learned how to screen print, set up their own screen printing workshop in the school, started a skateboard clothing company that used their new screen printing skills and workshop, wrote a business plan, created a marketing plan, made a business website, and organized and hosted a launch party for their business. This entire experience was free. This project was experiential learning at its finest without costing the students or a school a dime.
Check out these experiential learning cost-cutting tricks that I've learned over the course of my 12 years as an experiential educator.
Experiential Learning on the Cheap
1. Work With What You Have
Working with what is available is a great skill to have and it adds a challenge to any learning experience. Many of the resources in my TpT store revolve around this concept to encourage experiential education without breaking the bank. When I first began my career as an experiential educator, my school went through a financial setback. There were holdbacks from the state, and public education suffered the consequences. As difficult as this was at the time, this experience was important for me because I had no option but to work with what I had, and when I say "what I had", that literally boiled down to pencils. There were times that we didn't have paper.
This was about the time I started implementing maker education in my classroom. The challenge was often to design and make something with trash or with common household items. Even though finances improved the very next year, I held onto this philosophy because there was no need to spend a ton of money, regardless of whether there was more to go around. A free learning experience is not less valuable than an expensive one.
2. Place-Based Learning:
Place-based learning involves engaging with the "place", taking advantage of the world as a resource. That doesn't necessarily mean taking a field trip to the local zoo. As fun as that might be, it's costly, and doesn't necessarily involve the learner. Experiential learning, again, is to EXPERIENCE the concepts. To get involved. Place-based learning, then, is not only getting out in the community, but utilizing it for the benefit of everyone involved.
Taking your students to the zoo could be turned into an experiential, place-based activity. For example, rather than take students on a tour of the zoo, contact a volunteer coordinator to help students design and create enrichment activities for their captive animals. Students could get behind the scenes, work alongside scientists, and design and create stimulating toys for otherwise restless animals. This is a collaboration benefiting everyone involved. Lower the cost by challenging students to create enrichment activities on a budget, such as upcycling materials. This is one example of working within in the community, taking advantage of the "place", while learning and impacting the community. Win, win, win, win, win.
The skateboarding company students took full advantage of this concept. They sought out a screen printing company that offered to teach them how to screen print and set up their own shop free of charge.
3. Community Experts:
One of the best resources you can have is a portfolio of community connections. The world is the classroom and the real-people living in it will be your students' most important and credible sources of information. Project-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry, service learning, etc. etc. etc. are all enhanced by community experts. Not only are community members your best resource, but they're generally free, especially if you're creating relationships with community members that are mutually beneficial. They WANT to help. You don't need to spend hundreds of dollars on a professional speaker. Bring in local business owners, researchers, city officials, medical professionals, NGO's, etc. to work with your students. These are the most authentic learning experiences kids can have, and it won't cost you a dime.
The skateboarding co. students wrote a grant proposal to a local software company that was looking to fund youth entrepreneurial projects in the city. This company paid for every single material including t-shirts and skate decks, all of the equipment to build a screen printing shop in the school, and the launch party. This company's marketing director also worked side-by-side with our students on branding.
4. Free Resources from Experiential Learning Depot:
I have many free experiential learning resources in my TpT store, which were all created to inspire and guide you through this style of learning. Some educators are hesitant to take on experiential learning, one of which is the expense. Hopefully we've ironed that out by this point. Another is a lack of confidence. These materials will help you feel comfortable facilitating experiential learning activities and allow you to try them out for free before investing too much time and money into the philosophy.
5. Student-Led Fundraising:
I've always been an advocate for student travel experiences. Traveling is life-changing, and there is nothing more experiential than getting right out into the thick of it. With that said, travel is not cheap, especially when you're talking about a large group experience. One way we are able to afford to take school trips is with fundraising. Some of my favorite projects to do with kids are student-organized and directed fundraisers because of the skills gained in the process. They learn how to create spreadsheets, make graphs, manage money, balance a budget, market their products or ideas, and so on. They also raise money for learning experiences that may not be free such as traveling, field trips, STEM materials, technology for the classroom, and more.
Check out a previous blog post for great student-led fundraiser ideas. You can also head to my TpT store for free travel resources and fundraising resources.
6. Learning Activities with Few Materials
This cost-cutting trick is a combination of the others. Some learning activities simply require fewer materials or less expensive materials than others. Student-directed project-based learning, for example, only requires a computer and internet access for information, communication, and community outreach. Any additional materials would be on a student-by-student basis. If you don't want to spend money on materials, ask that students design their material free. This is much easier than it sounds. If you already do project-based learning or are interested in starting it, make budgeting a part of the experience from the beginning. Slip into that mindset from the start. Make it an expectation. Make it part of your classroom culture.
The interesting thing about experiential learning is that it isn't expensive by nature. Reducing costs also tends to enhance the learning experience, not hinder it. How do you provide interesting and effective learning experiences for learners on the cheap? I'd love to hear your tricks!
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In short, inquiry-based learning is a student-centered instructional method that promotes learning through discovery. Rather than have "correct answers" delivered directly from teacher to student, the learner explores the world around them, asks questions, and investigates.
Inquiry-based learning exists on a spectrum from teacher-directed to entirely student-directed. If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know which end of the spectrum I stick to. If you're new here, I believe student-directed learning is where it's at! An example of teacher-centered inquiry would be a recipe science lab where students follow prepared instructions and the outcome is predictable and uniform. Student-directed inquiry-based learning, on the other hand (open inquiry) gives learners the freedom to make choices in question, experimental design, etc. The student leads the experiment, they do not follow one created for them.
In my opinion, teacher-centered should only be a starting point, not the norm. It's an okay place for beginners to start, but in time, learners should gain the confidence and skills to direct their own inquiry learning experiences. When the activity is student-led, learners gain content knowledge in addition to a hefty portfolio of skills essential for life in the 21st-century.
The role of the educator changes in student-directed inquiry (or anything child-led for that matter), from director of learning to facilitator of learning. You have an important job, which is to scaffold and guide. Use the questions on the graphic below to encourage students to come to conclusions on their own. There are so many other questions you can use to scaffold. The idea is to help learners lead their own quest for knowledge.
Check out the list of inquiry-based learning resources from Experiential Learning Depot below, and use the questions in the graphic to help with implementation. You can also look back at some of my other blog posts on inquiry-based learning for more implementation tips and inquiry details.
Inquiry-Based Learning Resources for 21st-Century Learners
**Note: The resources below were designed with high school students in mind.***
1. Inquiry Bingo
Inquiry bingo is basically trivia, but the questions are obscure; they cannot be answered with one Google Search. It's an exciting way to practice a plethora of 21st-century skills. Students have to think outside of the box, dig in obscure places for information, and potentially communicate with experts. They also gain a portfolio of resources that they may not have been aware of prior to this experience. Click on the photos below for links to inquiry bingo.
2) Ocean and Climate Inquiry Stations
How does climate work? There are so many variables at play when it comes to what influences climate, making this topic fairly complex. It would be difficult to make complete sense of the role that the ocean plays in global climate if conveyed through lecture. This resource encourages learners to make discoveries on their own by connecting their experiences, observations, and background knowledge to real-world scenarios. This particular resource is a series of mapping stations. Click the photo to get to this resource. This activity is also included in a bigger bundle on the science of climate change.
3. Scientific Open Inquiry:
Scientific open inquiry is experimentation that is entirely led by the child. The student asks the question, makes a prediction, designs an experiment, and conducts the experiment. You can start with a specific topic or theme and let students develop questions and experiments around that theme, or you can leave it completely open-ended, similar to a science fair project.
STEM, project-based learning, problem-based learning, and maker education are all forms of inquiry as well. Students start with a driving question and interview experts, collaborate with community members, line up authentic learning experiences, conduct experiments, and so on to answer that question. Find these resources at Experiential Learning Depot on TpT.
You also don't have to be a science teacher to do inquiry-based learning with your students. Most of the resources listed above are scientific in nature because I am a science teacher. But inquiry crosses-disciplines. It doesn't matter if your students are learning about climate or economics; if they are exploring and examining the world by asking their own questions and coming to conclusions on their own, then it is inquiry, regardless of the topic.
This list is always growing, so check back with Experiential Learning Depot on TpT occasionally. I will also try to keep this post updated as more resources are added to my store. For free tips and resources on inquiry-based learning continue to follow along right here.
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The ability to reflect is a skill - an essential skill - not just in an educational context, but in life. Your students will need to reflect on their parenting in the future, their careers, personal and professional relationships, mistakes, and more. If there isn't reflection, than there isn't growth and improvement, and in turn there isn't progress. If we as educators never pondered over botched lessons, analyzed specific interactions with students, or contemplated feedback from others, we wouldn't be very good at what we do. Let's give the same sense of continuous learning and improvement that we embody in our own lives to our kids by making intentional reflection a regular and expected occurrence.
Reflection is an elemental piece of experiential learning, therefore, every learning experience is followed by reflection. Learners identify challenges faced in the experience, they note progress made, they determine the next steps, and make goals for the future. The new year is a great time to start building reflection into your curriculum if you don't already because that mindset is already there. Make reflection habitual in your learning/teaching environment
Below you'll find a few critical moments in the learning process or specific learning experiences that necessitate reflection, which strengthens and reinforces learning that took place in that time. You might find some of the following reflections more relevant or suitable for your students than others. Scroll through, feel some out, and give a few a try.
Click on the "Experiential Learning" link in the archives for more on experiential learning.
6 Ways to Enhance Learning with Reflection
1) Any Given Time Frame:
I have had my students write daily reflections and quarterly reflections. They reflect on completed seminars. They write end of the year reflections. They even reflect on their high school careers before they graduate. The idea here is that students look back on a designated time in their lives. In doing this they develop important skills that they can apply in their lives over the course of a lifetime.
2) Learning Activities:
As I said above, my students reflect on all learning experiences. Projects, presentations, problem-based learning activities, STEM challenges, service learning experiences, science experiments, watching documentaries, reading novels are all examples of learning experiences that can (should) be followed by a reflection. ALL learning activities can be reflected upon, not just the ones mentioned, as long as there is something to ponder. If a follow-up reflection seems irrelevant or tedious, than a reflection might be necessary on your part to determine if it's a learning activity worth doing.
Check out my FREE learning activity reflection on TpT. It is generic and could be applied to most learning activities. Every resource in my TpT store (except inquiry bingo and Vice resources) includes an activity-specific reflection.
3) Educational Travel:
Travel is the mother of all learning experiences. I didn't include it in #2 because it is so much more than a "learning activity". Conducting a science experiment in the lab is a cool learning experience, of course. Giving a presentation for the first time is a huge accomplishment. Team STEM challenges help learners build many essential life skills. BUT TRAVEL. Travel is all of this combined and more. It is completely life-altering in a way that nothing else is; the experience and outcomes cannot be replicated.
I have found, in my own experience, that reflection comes naturally after travel. My students always seem to have epiphanies, not while on the actual trip, but upon reflection long after the trip has come to an end. That is the power of reflection.
Download my free trip reflection on TpT. All of my educational travel resources are free. You can also head back to the many posts I've written on learning through travel for tips and resources. Click on the "student travel" link in the archives.
4) Authentic Learning Experiences:
Authentic experiences are those that are relevant and are connected in some way to real-life. For example, rather than learn about habitats from a textbook, you might have students do a conference call with a wildlife field ecologist. My students were able to do this with adelie penguin researchers all the way from Antarctica. Reflecting on such unique and consequential experiences like this not only encourages personal and academic growth, but also boosts the desire to have more experiences just as substantial.
5) Group Work:
Reflecting on group work is SO important. Rather than have students "grade" their partner(s), I have them reflect on the experience as a whole. It helps learners navigate conflicting personalities, understand the role that they played in the experience, come up with creative and effective resolutions to challenges, etc. We all have to work side-by-side with others at some point in our lives whether we vibe with those people or not. That's the reality. The ability to analyze a group's dynamic, accept feedback from a teammate in a professional manner, DO something productive with that feedback, evaluate team progress, and modify when things aren't going according to plan are skills that are fortified through reflection.
6) Personal Growth Reflection:
This is a really important one in my opinion. "Behavioral issues" on a high school level more often than not lead to out-of-school suspensions; at least they used to. Look up "school-to-prison-pipeline" if you're unfamiliar with this phenomenon. This is a problem. In the case of my students, many either invited suspensions or feared them. For some, our school was their only safe place, so displacing them from it felt wrong and ineffective. About five years ago we stopped suspending students for this reason, among others. Instead, students reflected on their "offense". They either wrote reflections or participated in a restorative justice circle, depending on the situation. The results can be really powerful.
I know many homeschoolers read this blog, and although suspensions do not apply to your children, growing up does. ALL kids do things in the process of growing up that we wish they wouldn't. I'm not a child psychologist, so I'm not going to tell you how to parent, but I do suggest asking your children to reflect on those frustrating behaviors. Reflecting helps kids develop a healthy self-concept, figure out who they are and who they want to be, determine whether their relationships are healthy and positive, build self-confidence, establish a moral compass, and more.
I want to add before I go that "reflecting" can take many forms. Not all reflections have to be written. Get to know your students and what works well for them. I had many students who needed to verbally reflect. This was especially true after travel experiences. I often had one-on-one reflection meetings with my travelers. Just do what works well for you and your students! Good luck and happy reflecting!
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YES! Winter break is upon us (many of us), the holidays are in full-effect, and you want to spend this break, well, taking a break! This is a great time to spend time with family and friends, reflect (blog-post about reflection on the horizon), and practice self-care, so that you can head back to teaching with renewed energy and spirit! Don't spend this break planning learning activities. Take that badly needed break, and use these quick, low-prep, New Year's-inspired learning activities when you return to reality.
Each of the New Year's-inspired activities included here could be implemented on your own; you can organize the experiences yourself. If you're looking for guidance or ready-made resources to implement these same activities, click on the activity link included to get to Experiential Learning Depot resources.
10 New Year's Inspired Experiential Learning Activities
1) Set Goals Through Artistic Expression
My students are hands-on learners. That is why they end up coming to me, because they thrive in an experiential learning environment. One of the first activities I give my students after the break is a hands-on way to reflect on the year and make goals for the new year. PBL Maker Challenge: Goals Through Artistic Expression asks students to set goals and illustrate those goals artistically. They create an art piece with visuals that symbolize or represent their goals. This maker activity mixes things up a bit and really gets learners thinking about what they want and where they're headed this year. The final product can be displayed in a place that provides a consistent reminder.
2) Community Action Projects
A popular New Year's resolution or goal for the new year is to give back. Community action projects give students an opportunity to play an active role in giving back to the community. They choose an issue that they are passionate about, explore ways to make an impact, design their project, and take action. Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for my community action project guide.
3) New Year's Inquiry Bingo
This resource is brand new! My inquiry bingo resource is a game best suited for middle and high schoolers that encourages inquiry. Students investigate a series of questions that cannot be answered with one simple Google Search. Finding the answer to each question requires research skills, teamwork, communication, critical thinking, problem-solving and more. This activity helps learners practice finding credible and accurate information through a variety of avenues. This particular inquiry bingo is based on a New Year's theme.
4) Dinner Party on a Budget
Although the holiday season is wrapping up, "planning" a New Year's themed dinner party on a budget (hypothetical) would not only be a lot of fun, but would be an important learning experience. One of the most common New Year's resolutions centers around personal finance. This activity is a great way to learn some important lessons about saving and budgeting.
5) Learn a New Skill
This is a GREAT project-based learning experience for educators and/or students that are new to PBL. This project is a good way to introduce project-based learning into your teaching repertoire. The new year is a great time to start fresh and try something new. Educators, maybe project-based learning is your "something new" this year. And your students can kick of the new year by learning a new skill!
6) New Year's Themed Student-Led Project-Based Learning
Well that's a mouth full! What I do with my students is child-led project-based learning. Learners choose the topic, method of gathering information, community experts, final product, community impact plan, authentic presentation plan, and can even generate their own rubrics that reflect their personal skills, goals, interests, etc. Transitioning to student-directed learning can be a challenge, as many students are accustomed to learning experiences that are designed for them. If you are interested in making the transition, use my Project-Based Learning Tool Kit to make the change much easier. Start the process by asking students to do New Year's-themed projects. They will design their own project around a subtopic of their choosing related to New Year's (history, research studies, cultural traditions, etc.)
7) History Through Artistic Expression
This is a another PBL project, and this is one of my students' favorites. Learners recreate a historical photo of their choosing. The resource, as it is written, is wide-open as far as topics go. Students can choose ANY photo from history. However, honing in on a theme, such as New Year's will make that choice a little less overwhelming, especially for those that are new to PBL. Ask students to choose a historical photo from New Year's Eve or New Year's Day. For guiding materials click on History Through Artistic Expression.
8) Behind the Scenes of a Community Event
This is another student favorite. It may be a little late in the season to get rolling on such an experience, but the gist of this project is that students choose one community event to help organize. Students go behind the scenes to help coordinate the event, or even shadow. The purpose is to invest time and energy in their own communities as well as to understand how these events come to fruition and the enormous amount of work that is involved. You could assign this project to students specifically for events going on in the community ON New Year's or to celebrate the new year. Click on Project-Based Learning: Behind the Scenes of a Community Event.
9) Current Events
This is a good learning experience to start after break. Students can research current events from New Year's Eve or New Year's Day. Once they have honed in on a current event of interest, they can design their student-led PBL project. Click on Project-Based Learning: Current Events for a guiding resource from Experiential Learning Depot.
10) 21st-Century Skills Portfolio
This project is the essence of Experiential Learning Depot. Students gain content knowledge, 21st-century skills, and social-emotional skills with this activity. They also build their resumes. Students organize authentic experiences that help them build elemental 21st-century skills, they reflect on those experiences, and they document the experiences in a portfolio that can be shared with employers, college admissions counselors, etc. Post-New Year's is a great time to start building a 21st-century portfolio. Students will be thinking about the past year and the year ahead. This project is a great way for seniors to harness the skills they will need in the coming year.
I also encourage you to check out last weeks blog post for after-break STEM activities, winter-inspired! Click on the STEM link under archives to take a peak.
Thanks for stopping by. Have a GREAT winter break, and remember to take care of yourself! Recuperate! You deserve it. Happy New Year!
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I don't know about you, but pretty soon here (in Minnesota) it is going to get outrageously cold outside. January is notorious for its stinging, cutting, numbing, eyelash freezing, breathtaking (literally), bitter cold temperatures. By "cold" I mean -20 degrees F for weeks at a time. That kind of cold makes it difficult to want to go outside to grab the mail let alone go out for a nature walk.
So here we are. With questionable weather and winter break on the horizon, parents and educators are going to be scrambling for some fun, stimulating indoor activities. STEM is the way to go. If you're an educator just trying to survive until winter break, try some of these STEM challenges. These activities are fun, they will occupy the antsy kiddos that are hopped up on holiday madness and break anticipation, and they are educational. STEM is a great way to learn content knowledge and build essential 21st-century skills.
The STEM challenges below are great for beginner STEM educators who might feel a tad intimidated by the prospect. I know the feeling. These activities are also adaptable for all ages and skill levels. I have done the sled challenge mentioned below with my 5 and 3-year-old, as well as with my high school students, I modify my facilitation method, level of involvement, and expectations of my learners. Tips provided below! If you're not quite sure what STEM is, head to these posts on STEM 101.
Below you'll find challenges that can be done using standard household/classroom items, trash, or recyclables. These activities are also highly flexible. If you don't have a "bigfoot" toy, for example, use something else! If you don't have a sledding hill, make one! Don't spend money, be open-minded, let kids get creative, and have fun!
Snow Day Inspired STEM Activities
1. Animal Rescue
The goal of this STEM challenge is to "rescue" an "animal" by engineering a contraption that will bring the "animal" to "safety". In other words, learners will design and build a tool that will bring a toy animal from point A to point B. I place the animal at point A, walk about 15 feet, and place a strip of electrical tape on the floor marking point B. Students cannot step over this line to rescue their animal.
I have done this activity with my own young children as well as my high school students. My children did exactly what I described above, only I added a little background story to make it more interesting - the animal was trapped on an island surrounded by lava. My high schoolers did the same activity except I used this challenge as a way to simulate adaptations and variability as they relate to natural selection. I threw a pile of paper clips on the floor (bugs), made a large circle around the paper clips using electrical tape, and asked students to make contraptions (birds) with the goal of collecting the most paper clips (bugs) from the center of the circle. The students gained content knowledge AND skills in a fun, interesting, and relevant way; my goal for any learning experience.
2. Yeti Escape
Students will make a "yeti" out of basic household/classroom materials and recyclables that will be placed on top of Sphero, like a cover. As Sphero moves, the "yeti" moves with it. The challenge is to create the fastest "yeti". If this isn't making sense, check out the pictures below. Hopefully they will clarify some things!
If you have used a Sphero you know that they are not very powerful because they are round and made of smooth plastic; they slip easily. The covers, then, need to be engineered in a way that promote quick movement, as the goal is for students to create a yeti that makes the fastest escape. My kindergartener did this challenge and had to modify his design many times playing around with yeti weight, materials, and weight distribution. Older students could design and conduct their own experiments around the same idea. They could also play around with coding Sphero. They could create a maze and code Sphero (and Yeti) to move through it. Get creative! Or give learners the freedom to lead their own learning experience using Sphero.
If you like this challenge but don't have Sphero, don't go out and buy one! Just alter the mode of transportation. A balloon car is a good option that would demonstrate similar concepts and offer the same skill building opportunities.
3. Lego Float
This is a favorite because my child initiated the experience. He was playing around with a helium balloon that he got from a birthday party. I noticed him tying LEGO figures to the balloon string. Then he began to add and remove LEGO accessories to the LEGO figure tied to the balloon. He continued to do this until the balloon hovered at a level that was within his reach. He basically eliminated the need to hop on a chair to retrieve his balloon. Problem-solving at it's finest, and completely self-led.
For children his age, then, a great activity would be to design a balloon weight using whatever materials available to keep the balloon within reach. LEGO's were great, but so are toothpicks, paperclips, cotton balls, and more. Tie this experience to lessons about mass, gravity, gas and so on, or just let kids enjoy the experience of working with their hands and solving a problem as a team. Older students could take it up a notch by, again, designing their own experiments and conducting them. This is scientific open-inquiry; a student-led scientific inquiry investigation. Click here for a scientific open-inquiry tool kit
4. Sled Race
Learners design and engineer a mini-sled with the goal of winning a sled race. This is a fun way to introduce Newton's Laws of Motion. Students take many factors into consideration including sled material, track material (you do not NEED an actual sledding hill for this experience), angle of the track, weight distribution, etc. They also practice many of the skills already mentioned that STEM challenges have to offer. I have done this with my children and my high school students. Although the outcomes were different between the age groups, the process was the same. Both groups are encouraged to fail, identify solutions, modify the design, try again, fail, and so and so on.
I recently started a STEM Challenge product line in my store, and STEM Challenge: The Great Sled Race is the first resource in the line! It includes all of the materials to guide you and your students through the experience seamlessly from start to finish.
5. Obstacle Course
This is a great one for those stir-crazy youngsters that are trapped indoors, during break, for example. This is best suited for younger children, as space is a factor. I told my children to make an obstacle course in our basement using only items that were within sight. They propped couch cushions against each other to make tunnels, placed pillows on the floor to use as stepping stones, and even added rules and a background story creating a full-blown adventure.
This may sound fairly basic, and it is. But it's one of the reasons why I love this activity. It's easy to get started, it's child-led, it involves play and make-believe, it gives kids an opportunity to practice social-emotional skills, and so on. It is even a good way to introduce some math and science concepts. For example, my 5-year-old propped two couch cushions against each other to create an A-frame to crawl through. Every time he crawled through the A-frame it would topple over. He played around with it, adjusted the angle, explored propping the pillows on different planes, and more.
6. Winter Shelter
This is another challenge that can be done across age groups and skills levels. I did this challenge with my toddler! The challenge is to build a shelter that can withstand cold temperatures using any materials that you have on hand (tin foil, styrofoam, play dough, clay, egg cartons, cardboard, etc. - one of my high school students even used snow). The goal is to build the warmest shelter. Have learners build their shelters, place a chunk of banana in their shelters, put their shelters in a freezer or outside if it's cold enough, and let them sit there for at least one hour. Take the shelters out of the cold and check the banana's temperature in each shelter using a candy thermometer.
This is a fun way to play around with the concept of heat transfer. Older students could do this exact same experiment, and mine have. They could also design and conduct their own open-inquiry investigations around this same idea. Head back up for the link to my inquiry tool kit.
7. Ski Lift
This challenge involves getting a skier (a LEGO figure is one option) to the top of a ski hill (actual snow hill or ramp of any kind) using a simple machine or a combination of simple machines. In other words, students cannot move the skier to the top of the hill with their hands. They will design and build a pulley, lever, wheel and axle, etc., that will do the job for them. Students could get as elaborate as they would like with their systems, using a combination of machines. There is no limit to ingenuity!
8. Zip Line
This is such a fun and easy challenge. It is exactly how it sounds, and is a common introductory STEM activity. My 5-year-old did this a few months ago. The goal was to get his Batman LEGO figure from one end of the room to the other by making a zip line. The number of factors to mull over in this challenge is high, including the zip line material, angle of the line, weight of the rider, friction between the line and the glider, and so on. Use this activity to teach about angles, gravity, motion, friction, and more.
9. Stuffed Animal Hotel
Again, this is exactly how it sounds! Learners build a stuffed animal hotel using cardboard as their basic framework. For younger students like my 5-year-old, building a stationary hotel is a challenge in itself. Building stairs was a hard concept to grasp as was keeping a ramp from caving in. This is a great activity for younger children to learn some geometry concepts such as shapes and angles.
Older students could add to the challenge by including several moving parts such as an elevator, lift, garage opener, etc. And rather than create a hotel for stuffed animals, toys that they most likely lost interest in long ago, have them create something more relevant to their lives such as their dream home or school. They could even extend this experience into a full-blown project-based learning experience. Check out the many posts that I have written on project-based learning for details and implementation tips by clicking on PBL in the archives. You can also head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for project-based learning resources.
10. Bigfoot Trap
My child has been on a bigfoot kick for years, so I only use bigfoot as the subject here because I have many bigfoot figurines in my house, AND, if you follow me on Instagram, you know that a "bigfoot hunt" has become a winter family tradition. However, you do not NEED to use a bigfoot toy for this fun challenge. Use anything!
Students will design and make a trap for bigfoot using a hodgepodge of whatever supplies are available and trap it! Placing the bigfoot or other object on a target will trigger an action that will trap bigfoot. Kids will draw from observations and experiences, test their traps, make adjustments, try again, and so on until they have created an effective bigfoot trap!
So there you have it. STEM is such a fantastic way to encourage discovery through observation, questioning, failure, and problem-solving. It organically integrates subject matter and provides opportunities to practice and build important skills. All great things. Why learn about natural selection or Newton's Laws of Motion by reading about them in textbooks when kids can learn about these concepts with hands-on experience?
What are some STEM activities that you do with your kids or students? If you try any of the STEM activities I mentioned above, I'd love a report on the experience. Let me know how it goes! Have a great break, everyone!
I have been writing this blog for a little over one year. I have spent a lot energy in that time reading books on education, talking with educators, researching pedagogy, and simply observing common trends. This post includes trends that fit my philosophy. My list of top educational trends of 2019 comes from observation and experience. I have not run any fancy analytics programs or produced any actual data. So do with that what you will. You can take it as a grain of salt, or you can try some of the trends on my list and see for yourself.
Many of the trends I list below are not new. The philosophy of the school where I have spent 12 years of my life is structured around many of these trends. These trends have had such a strong presence in the educational scene within the last couple of years because we know they work for 21st-century students. They are based on the rapidly evolving world we find ourselves in. What used to make sense or what we used to do just doesn’t make sense anymore. With the world changing as quickly as it is, we are forced to really consider these ideas. Social media and other forms of technology have completely altered the way we communicate and learn.
Notice patterns as you read the list. A few themes that I have identified include student-centered learning, hands-on learning, inquiry-based learning, connecting content with real-world issues, relationship building, student choice and voice, and technology and innovation. The overarching theme is a student-centered model necessary in developing the skills needed in the 21st-century. Therefore, I don't see these trends going anywhere. But we shall see!
Note: All resources on Experiential Learning Depot on TpT are up to 25% off until midnight tonight.
Top Educational Trends of 2019
1) Social-Emotional Learning -
"Social emotional skills" is a buzz phrase in education now because those are skills students need today, arguably more so than content knowledge. Information is at their fingertips. Impulse-control, empathy, compassion and so on are essential.
2) 21st Century Skills -
This one is highly interconnected to the other trends listed here. The others provide learning opportunities that develop the essential skills needed in the 21st century. Some examples include problem-solving skills, communication, creativity, technical literacy, and critical thinking, among others. Looking over my archives of posts, you'll find that MOST of my them are related to skill-building in some way or another. Click on the link in my archives titled "21st-century skills" for specifics. You can also check out my 21st-Century Skills Portfolio resource in my store.
3) STEM/STEAM -
STEM and STEAM are hot right now. No pun intended! - STEAM...;) Both strengthen many of the 21st century skills mentioned above. STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. STEAM is the same but includes art. Look back at my guest posts on STEM and STEAM for details, and stay-tuned for future posts and resources on practical STEM applications.
4) Maker Education -
Maker education is a student-centered learning model that emphasizes design thinking. Learners identify everyday problems, brainstorm solutions that they can "make". They ideate, make a prototype, test their product on an authentic audience, make adjustments, and so on. This instructional approach is highly student-centered and helps learners build important skills such as teamwork and critical thinking. "Failure" is not only acceptable, but encouraged. It deepens the learning experience. Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT to check out my maker resources. You can also head to the archives and click on "Maker Education" for posts.
5) College and Career Readiness -
This is an important aspect of any secondary learning environment. Authentic experiences MUST be a priority. My coworker is a genius at this. She started something called a "life plan" that all students must have in order to graduate. I have a few college and career readiness resources in my store, one of which is my 21st-Century Skills Portfolio, which I already mentioned. This is a GREAT way for students to build skills and add authentic experiences to their college and career portfolios. You can also check out my project-based learning resource, Career Exploration.
6) Blended Learning -
From my understanding, blended learning is a combination of classic schooling with online learning. I'm realizing, however, that it's not that simple. I think people that practice true blended learning have a precise understanding of a much more complex picture than just a mix of tech and teacher. I think there is a little personal learning thrown in there as well, among other principles that are still a bit of an enigma to me.
7) Project-Based Learning -
My pride and joy. My entire career has been dedicated to project-based learning. Check out the blog posts I've done on PBL for details (links to some below) and check out my project-based learning resources on TpT.
8) Genius Hour/Passion Projects -
Genius hour and passion projects are two very different things. I lumped them together because students direct the experience in both. The learning experiences are interest-driven. Genius hour, for example, gives students one hour to dive deeply into one topic of their choice. I love the idea, but would love to see it change to genius day. An hour is not enough. Passion projects are similar in that students choose one topic to research. Rather than spending one hour on the topic, the students spend a significant amount of time on this project.
9) Brain-Based Learning -
The point of brain-based learning is to teach in a way or provide a learning environment that supports the brain and cognitive development. This comes up often in the debate about whether kindergarteners need to be or should be learning to read and write. It also includes the very popular whole-brain teaching strategy. Brain-based learning means taking into consideration what the brain needs (safety, camaraderie, enrichment) and what it doesn't need (shaming, humiliation). The philosophy of my school is based on the child's brain and cognitive development, which is why we take an experiential approach.
10) Trauma Informed Practices -
I don't know enough about trauma informed practices, unfortunately. I have worked with at-risk students for almost 12 years. Every one of them has experienced one or more traumatic experiences in their lives, yet I'm still ill-equipped to help. Number 9 and trauma informed practices are interconnected; they go hand-in-hand. Understanding how trauma impacts the brain is essential. If you're interested in trauma informed teaching, ACES is a great place to start. I also recommend reading the book "Eyes are Never Quiet". If you have any resource or training suggestions that are about trauma informed teaching, leave it in the comments!
11) Alternative Grading Systems -
This concept is simple. Some schools are starting to move away from A-F grading systems. Many combine letter grades with portfolios. Others have eliminated grades all together and complete narratives for each student instead. Others combine the two. The purpose is to reduce academic related stressors. Check out my post on colleges that have moved to alternative grading systems.
12) Personal Learning -
Personal learning focuses on the student. It addresses student needs and skill levels in addition to backgrounds, homelife, learning styles, intelligences, and most importantly in my opinion, INTERESTS. Students are designing their own educational journey with teachers there to facilitate. Check out my posts on personal learning for details.
13) Problem-Based Learning -
Rather than students receiving a lecture with numbers and stats on an assigned issue, students identity real-world issues that are relevant to their own interests and realities, they learn about the issue by making their own observations, they ask questions, explore the issue, brainstorm solutions and propose the solution to an authentic audience. The number of 21st-century skills developed in problem-based learning is astounding. Head to my store for problem-based learning resources, including my student-directed tool kit.
14) Lifelong Learning -
Lifelong learning encompasses all of the trends listed here in one. It is having the tools to learn long after "schooling" is over. College and career readiness, 21st-century skill building, social-emotional learning, brain-based learning, etc. all instill a passion for learning. When students WANT to learn, when they KNOW HOW TO learn, they will continue to learn throughout their lives.
15) Growth Mindset -
There is a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. A growth mindset acknowledges that skills can come through hard work and determination vs. fixed mindset which is the opposite. Promoting and encouraging a growth mindset with students is a major trend right now, and I can see why.
16) Self-Assessments -
This is when students take an active role in a learning outcome. Students grow by periodically self-assessing. They learn how to fail, pick themselves back up, go back to the drawing board, modify and try again. To take it a step further, students can even create their own assessments. I have my students create their own project rubrics. That rubric template is available in my TpT store. Check it out here - Student-Generated Project Rubric.
17) Authentic Learning -
I've already mentioned authentic learning several times in this post because so many of the trends that I've listed here depend on them. Authentic learning experiences are those that are relevant to the topic and the student. Project-based learning can be distinguished from other approaches to learning by its emphasis on authentic experiences.
18) Homeschooling, Worldschooling, Outschooling, Road Schooling, Unschooling!
I have always been curious about homeschooling. I left my full-time teaching job three years ago to be home with my kids. I started this blog, started an Experiential Learning Depot Instagram account, and was instantly blown away by the homeschooling presence on Instagram. Of course, homeschooling is not a novel concept, but I do think it is becoming more common, and access to social media outlets make it apparent just how popular home education has become. The variety of homeschooling styles is vast, and almost all of those styles encompass the experiential philosophy, of which I am, of course, a huge fan. I am so fascinated by worldschooling right now and hope to worldschool my own children someday. For now I will continue to live vicariously through the hundreds of thousands of worldschoolers and other home educators on Instagram! ;)
19) Student Leadership
This post is an updated version of last years post, "Educational Trends of 2018". A reader commented last year that I should add student leadership when it comes to school improvement. My response to him at the time was that I wasn't sure if student leadership trended in 2018, but I wished that it would in 2019. Personally, I don't see students taking the lead when it comes to school improvement as a common occurrence. It doesn't mean that it's not happening. If you know of cases, schools, instances, where students are taking leadership roles in school improvement, I would love to hear more about that. Drop your comments.
There are, of course, more trends in education than what I listed here. The ones that I listed are my favorites and those that I believe are worth nurturing and fortifying. What are your favorite education trends of 2019?
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Happy New Year, Everyone!
As someone with a background in biology, the first place I would think to go for scientific inquiry experiences is outside. The second would be the kitchen. Winter weather in Minnesota can get extreme and those extremes tend to last awhile. Cooking is an indoor activity that is loaded with learning opportunities, particularly in science. It's also prime season for baking!
Scientific inquiry is a method of gathering information and gaining scientific knowledge by making observations, asking questions, making predictions, and experimentation. It is a student-centered way for learners to make discoveries about the world in their own way. They are not handed information. They are not given "correct" answers. They play around with ideas, draw on background knowledge to predict outcomes, experience the concepts through hands-on and authentic learning experiences, challenge prior thinking, and adjust that thinking upon the advent of new and unexpected information.
And, as I've already said, the kitchen is a great place to start! Below is a list of winter-inspired dessert ideas for students to bake while learning about kitchen science through the process of inquiry. My recommendation is to have students conduct open inquiry. The student directs the inquiry investigation, starting with their own question, designing an experiment to test that question, and conducting the experiment. I have a scientific inquiry tool kit in my store that is perfect for open inquiry. It includes all of the guiding materials for child-led inquiry experimentation.
Another option is to have students investigate the specific question that I pose for each recipe in this post. The same inquiry tool kit can be used for that. A final option is to just cook the food, make observations, ask questions together as you go, research the answers using a variety of resources from books to experts, and have fun with it. That is also inquiry-based learning. Just because it does not involve a scientific experiment, doesn't mean it's not inquiry. This approach is usually what I do with my own children, a preschooler and kindergarten. My high school students conduct open inquiry experiments based on their own observations and questions.
Enjoy the following winter-inspired kitchen science ideas! I have done all of these projects with either my own kids (pre-k) or my students (8-12 graders). Each is fun and doable. Happy holidays, everyone!
Oh! Check out my new maker project, "Dinner Party on a Budget", and Inquiry Bingo: Food Theme, both fun resources for the holiday season stir-craziness. For resource updates, follow Experiential Learning Depot on TpT.
Winter-Inspired Kitchen Inquiry Activities
The Question: Does speed at which eggs are added to the hot milk effect texture of eggnog?
In other words, how do I make chunkless eggnog? ;) My children and I made homemade eggnog. It wasn't good. My kids despise it in general, but our final result was scrambled, so I certainly wasn't going to convince them to like it that day! The fun in this activity it the trial and error.
The Science: In order to make smooth eggnog, you have to temper the mixture, controlled heating and cooling. Pouring the eggs into the hot milk mixture too quickly is not controlled. Heat coagulates the proteins in the eggs, so adding the eggs to the heat too quickly causes them to scramble. Tempering, slowly controlling temperature, keeps the protein structure at bay.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making eggnog. They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments. Click here for the recipe that we used. Or they experiment with the question posed here, trying and experimenting with different methods.
2. Tye-Dye Sponge Roll Cake
The Question: Which ingredients prevent a "roll cake" from crumbling when rolled?
This was such a fun recipe to make with kids. My kiddos made two different types of cake to see how particular ingredients (or lack thereof) might impact the cake texture, making it more or less suitable for rolling without cracking. We made a roll cake and a regular white cake.
The Science: A mixture of eggs and sugar provide structure, in part by trapping air bubbles during the whipping process. In addition, adding baking powder causes a chemical reaction resulting in carbon dioxide, increasing the amount of bubbles in the batter. Proteins and starch in the flour add stability to the air bubbles, but the high ratio of sugar to flour gives it that flexibility that roll cakes require.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making roll cakes. They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments. They can make a variety of different types of cakes, experiment with baking powder, eliminate an ingredient from a standard roll cake recipe to see what happens, etc. I used this recipe for the roll cake.
3. Pie Crust
The Question: Which fat makes a flakier pie crust, butter or lard?
My high school advisory students started an annual holiday pie fundraiser many years ago, and part of the planning process was creating the BEST pie to sell. We asked around, talked with professional chefs, they surveyed consumers, perused caking blogs, etc. The ultimate influence was my grandmother! She said the secret to her flaky pie crust is animal lard. So we tested it.
The Science: Lard is fat. Period. Butter on the other hand, is fat plus some water. Lard has a higher melting point than butter, making it easier to handle in the making process. Lard also results in flakier crust because the 100% fat in the lard solidifies into crystals, separating the dough into layers, creating that flakiness we were testing for.
Inquiry Activity: Whether flakiness is desired is a matter of opinion. But we did find that lard, in fact, does make pie crust flakier, whether we prefer that texture or not. Learners can investigate their own questions about variables that inspire or interest them. They might investigate why pie crust recipes usually ask for cold water versus hot or room temperature water. Students might experiment with different types of flour such as whole wheat, all-purpose, and pastry flour. Students could play around with crust width, baking temperature, fillings, glazes, vents created for baking, and so on and so on. Find any number of pie crust recipes on Google.
Note: Lard is not required to make pie crust! Learn about your students and be sensitive to their needs. Allergies, food sensitivities, religious food practices, etc. need to be considered and respected.
4. Whipped Cream
The Question: Which milk product will result in the foamiest texture - skim milk, whole milk, or heavy whipping cream?
The Science: The heavy whipping cream turned out to be incredibly important. No matter how long we blended the skim milk and whole milk mixtures, they never became frothy. The fat in the heavy whipping cream envelopes air bubbles added from the whipping process, creating a network that stiffens the mixture. So, fat is what gives it the foamy texture.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making whipped cream. They can make observations, ask their own questions, and design their own experiments. This is open inquiry. Or they can design an experiment that tests the question I asked above. Click here for the recipe that we used. I let my littles played around with coloring the whipped cream as well (with food coloring).
5. Cream Puffs
The Question: Does the number of eggs affect the structure of cream puffs?
My kids and I have made many bread-type recipes, but this one called for an unusual number of eggs. We made three batches of cream puffs, some with the number of eggs suggested in the recipe, one with half of the number of eggs suggested in the recipe, and one with no eggs at all. The batch without eggs collapsed completely.
The Science: Cream puffs also have a lot of fat, so the egg protein is necessary to keep the structure. Eggs also act as a leavening agent and an emulsifier for a smooth and light final texture.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making cream puffs. There is so much science involved in these little desserts! For this reason, I would encourage open inquiry. Otherwise you can offer up a specific question, such as the one above. I found there to be a few unusual cooking methods in this recipe as well, such as melting the butter in boiling water and milk first. Those types of investigations are fun as well. Try this recipe. Combine this cooking activity with the whipped cream inquiry above for a really tasty treat!
6. Hard Candy
The Question: Does the temperature of the sugar mixture when removed from the heat source impact the hardness of the final product?
This is a question that my high school students and I investigate every year. I am hesitant to make hard candy with my own children, who are 3 and 5, because of the burning risk. I burned myself making this candy three days before my wedding and it wasn't cool! This recipe is probably more appropriate for older learners, but regardless of age, safety should be a priority and taken seriously.
The Science: Hard candy ingredients include only sugar and water (and flavor extracts and food coloring if you wish). You combine the sugars and water and boil the mixture until it reaches 300° F (hard crack). Boiling the mixture to this specific temperature results in the evaporation of most of the liquid, leaving behind a lot of sugar, thus it sets as hard candy. If the mixture only reaches 250° F, in contrast, not enough water will have evaporated to harden the sugar, leaving a softer consistency such as that of toffee (hard ball), or 270° yielding a taffy-like consistency (soft crack). If the mixture over-evaporates, reaching 320° F, for example, the liquid sugar will caramelize. Temp is critical, and evaporation is the reason for that.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore different evaporation times (cooking temperatures) to test the question that I mentioned above. They could also investigate their own questions and experiment with variables other than temperature such as ingredient quantities or types of sugar (raw sugar vs. white, glucose syrup vs. corn syrup, etc.) Click here for the recipe that we use. I always add flavor extracts to get into the winter spirit, such as peppermint and cinnamon.
7. Gingerbread Cookies
The Question: Does the amount of time that the cookie dough chills in the refrigerator impact the shape and texture of the cookies?
This was a question asked by my kindergartener, only it was more like, "why do we have to put this cookie dough in the refrigerator, I want to make them now!" We were able to explore this question together with my assistance. We simply made two batches of cookies, one with dough that we didn't chill and one with dough that was refrigerated for two hours. It would have been better if we added a couple more batches, one chilled for 20 minutes and one for 12 hours, for example.
The Science: Turns out that the fats in the butter solidify when chilled, giving it more structure. This was important to keep its shape during the rolling, cookie cutting, and the baking processes. You can see an obvious difference between the cookies that were chilled and those that were not. The non-chilled cookie dough cookies were essentially shapeless blobs. It also takes longer for the butter fat to melt in the chilled cookie during the baking process, making the final product slightly chewier and softer.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the cooking process of gingerbread cookies. They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments to test the questions. Click here for the recipe that we used.
The Question: What gives marshmallows their smooth, foamy, stretchy consistency?
Making marshmallows came up once by accident while my students and I were making hard candy (mentioned above). Our candy thermometer was broken. We significantly underestimated the temperature of the sugar/water mixture when removed from the heat source, which resulted in a squishy, stretchy substance comparable to marshmallows. After some investigating, students discovered that marshmallows have a key ingredient, however, that other types of candies lack.
The Science: That ingredient is gelatin. Water, sugar, and corn syrup are heated on the stove. Some of the liquid evaporates. The remaining sugar/water combo is removed from heat, slowly added to a gelatin/water mixture, and beaten, which adds air bubbles to the mixture. As this blended foam cools, the corn syrup prevents crystallization and the gelatin turns from a liquid to a gel, trapping bubbles inside. This special and specific combo of ingredients and cooking method gives marshmallows their structure and consistency.
Inquiry Activity: Students can ask their own questions about marshmallows and conduct open inquiry experiments. Or they could explore something specific such as the importance of temperature, sugar quantity, gelatin quantity, the timing of adding gelatin in the making process, the type of sugar used, and more. They can even experiment with marshmallows that they have already made, such as the hot chocolate temperature required to melt a marshmallow, or how the amount of time in a microwave affects the shape and consistency of a marshmallow. Click here for the recipe that we used. There are many others!
The Question: Does the the blending speed impact the stiffness of meringue peaks?
My students and I discovered the answer to this question by pure accident. My high school advisory students participated in a school pie-baking contest. They decided on lemon meringue, but we didn't have a blender on hand. We hand-whisked the egg white mixture. It took a very, very, very long time, but we did eventually get those peaks. But I wouldn't call them stiff. I have made many meringues since, but used a blender. I highly recommend it.
The Science: As you blend egg whites, air bubbles form. The proteins from the egg whites break up from the blending and rearrange themselves, surrounding the air bubbles and securing them, leaving a foamy consistency. By blending too slowly or weakly, the proteins will not "denature", and thus will not incorporate the scaffolding necessary to keep air bubbles in place. Or by whisking limply, you may not be adding any air bubbles to the mixture at all! You can absolutely hand-whisk very quickly, but expect a labor of love!
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the cooking process of meringue (cookies, pies, etc.) They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments, such as why sugar is added slowly, the result of overwhipping, using whole eggs instead of egg whites, leaving out cream of tartar, the ideal baking temperature, etc. Click here for the recipe that we used.
10. Chocolate Dessert Bowl
The Question: Does the quality of the chocolate affect the texture after it has been tempered and hardened?
My own children and I tried to make a chocolate bowl using a Pinterest recipe, and it didn't work out. At all. We wondered where we went wrong, and if the type of chocolate matters.
The Science: There is cocoa butter in chocolate, which is fat. The fat forms crystals when the chocolate is tempered (controlled heating and cooling of the chocolate). Tempering chocolate breaks up crystals made from the fat and creates a new, more orderly crystalline structure, giving it a glossy look in the end. We wondered if a higher quality chocolate, one with better or different amounts of cocoa butter would make a difference.
Inquiry Activity: We never tested our question, but think it would be a great way to start kitchen inquiry, especially for beginners. For those that have more experience with inquiry science, encourage open inquiry investigations. Ask students to explore chocolate in general, not necessarily a specific recipe. What gives it its shape? What is the difference between chocolate syrup and the chocolate on a candy bar? How is chocolate made?
I mentioned on Instagram that I would be adding ice cream inquiry to this post. I decided against it because it is just not wintery! I'll save that for summer-inspired kitchen inquiry in a few months! Well, nine months ;) Happy holidays, all!
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Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.