After spending the first days of school getting to know one another, the first full week of school I set aside the last hour of the day for team challenges. The focus of each team challenge was to determine the essential agreements for successful collaboration. As each challenge was happening, I asked my students to reflect on what actions helped their team successfully complete the challenge. These have become our “Rules for Collaboration.”
All team challenges had a STEM focus that required students to work together in order to be successful. Each day the challenges increased in complexity, and while they all focused around STEM best practices, the challenges were designed without any academic connections in order to promote a focus on inquiry and collaboration. Students participated in a cup stacking challenge, an index card challenge, a bubble wand building challenge, and a cardboard creature challenge. As I observed my students working collaboratively, I noticed that engagement was high, and students were excitedly working together to brainstorm ideas for solutions. Based on these beginning team challenges, my students began to ask me each day what challenge they would be working on next. From there, I have introduced team challenges in math, reading, writing, science, and social studies, in addition to non-content area challenges on a regular basis. These challenges have created an increased excitement for learning in my class, and individual students who have not felt successful in school are now beginning to take more risks in order to learn more.
While I could see the benefit of these team challenges as a teacher, I didn’t realize the extent of their positive influence until I had a fall conferences last month. As part of conference preparation, I had my 5th graders write letters to their parents explaining what they had been learning for the first quarter and what goals they wanted to set for themselves. As I read these letters with parents, every student mentioned the team challenges. But the best testament to the success of my implementation of team challenges came with a conference with one particular parent and student. As I sat with this family, the mom shared with me that school for this student had always been a struggle. Since kindergarten, this student has missed 5-10 days in the first quarter each year. She would cry each night and beg not to go to school the next day. I was shocked; this student was so engaged and excited to be at school everyday. When I asked both the student and the parent what they think had changed for her this year, they both said it was the team challenges that had made the difference for this student. Based on this alone, I will continue to use team challenges as a basis for creating an engaging classroom environment.
How do you create a collaborative and inquiry based classroom environment that promotes student engagement and learning? Please share your successes in the comments. I look forward to hearing what has worked for you.
Keeping it eleSTEMary,