I've written about boxes before. And there is much more to my teaching than having kids design boxes from one piece of paper. But, it is one of the coolest and enjoyable parts of my fourth grade classroom. I think my students would agree. And what is so neat about that is they learn a ton of problem-solving skills without even thinking about it.
Without exception, when I show boxes made by 9-10 year olds to adults, the adults are in awe and say they could not make them (they really probably could if they made it through my fourth grade class).
What I have seen over the last few years is just amazing. The box project has gone from a small couple of lessons to an integral part of my classroom - for a number of reasons. Maybe it's not outwardly evident, but boxes overlap with much that kids need to learn: design, goal-setting, trial and error, perseverence, teamwork and creativity to name a few. There are others too: using a protractor, visual literacy of how things fit together, and measurement. The project also overlaps with stories written, differentiation between ability levels, and the consumer boxes we tear apart.
You'd be amazed at the connections people make, as I hear all the time from parents who can't look at boxes the same anymore, kids bringing them back from vacations (I have a pizza box from Macys in NYC!), or other teachers leaving them in my mailbox at school. Even kids and parents from other grades mention them to me. This week, we went on a field trip to Consumer Packaging Group and Quad Graphics - big connections were made between the box project and the real-world business of printing.
That's why when I was asked to teach the box project to Racine Youth for Christ's young men's group, of course I said yes. You might think making boxes with middle to high school boys would fall flat, but it hasn't. We've started small with cubes and then small house-like designs as I've walked them through the process. It's pretty darn cool when a young man designs a small box, adds a small heart to put inside, and then mentions he's going to give the box to his girlfriend. This after one session of boxes! That brings tears to my eyes even now. I hope to continue to bring this project to more students in our area, throughout the region and even further away.
The creativity I've seen has been amazing. One student asked if she could make a box with moveable parts, so she made a safe with a "combination lock" (shown below). As a testament to my current students' imaginaction, we put together a very quickly made, impromptu video yesterday in class. The set isn't fancy at all, with student-made boxes (all one piece of paper) all stuffed into a small area. One student took over as the director and we put together "The Monster of Box City" video as one end-of-the-year mini-project. One boy even made a specially designed marionette box to be used as the monster. It's just one more way students have connected with the box project. Check it out below.
I find it all amazing, and feel privileged to see it all in action on a daily basis.
We had a request from a student during a design thinking session this school year...his idea was students getting to teach teachers. While we couldn't do it the way he originally proposed, I decided to let my students create a lesson to teach me something before the end of the year. We brainstormed on subjects they could teach because they had to find something I didn't already know. They are also required to have a plan, a hook, some instruction, modeling and assessment. It's harder than they thought it would be and they are learning lots along the way, as I guide them.
This end-of-the-year project is helping them to learn in a whole different way. They have to research and approach a subject from a different perspective, and must design a learning experience that is interesting and relevant. Some of the topics are: magnetic fields, cooking, Versailles, the French Revolution, and candy-making. All of the lessons will be on Tuesday, May 31 and most will be about twenty minutes long. That's quite a good thing for 9-10 year olds. I'm looking forward to the learning!
Below is a drawing from one group - notice the "hopeful reaction" from Mr. W.
Since a classroom of students and their teacher spend so much time together, we become like a family. There are ups and downs, emotions shared, apologies offered, and even tears shown, both sweet and painful. It is definitely an adventure, and I try to bring a lot of heart into the room. Actually, although I may bring it up more, all of my students bring a lot of heart into the room, in a variety of ways.
One of the coolest things of spending so much time together are the inside jokes that occur. I tell people I like teaching fourth grade because the kids are smart, sweet and understand sarcasm. And that's a good thing. Sarcasm used as friendly teasing leads to a lot of heart shared, and great smiles and looks. Some of the inside jokes this year actually started out with my traditional use of the acronym, NLA, or in other words, "No Lolligagging Allowed," used in honor of my high school basketball coach, Jack Belden. He used to get on our case for lolligagging in practice, in his old-timer, raspy voice. Now, at the start of fourth grade, I tell my students about lolligagging, and that we don't need it! On our way to build Native American shelters, we have a line of students, some taking their time. That's when "NLA" gets delivered for the first time most years. It becomes a fun way to get my students moving. And it works!
Other inside jokes that have materialized are telling a student who constantly bumps into things that I'm getting him a suit of bubble wrap, the use of the Spiderman wrist-flick, a few nicknames, such as "Far Fetched Ben," and even another acronym, NBF. That one means "No Burning Fingers" allowed when using glue guns. There are so many inside jokes that I can't even name them all. One latest one is JNBW - "Joe Needs Bubble Wrap."
I wanted to write just a bit about the inside jokes, because it gives such a good look into the workings and camaraderie of a classroom. We are a team, all working together to make huge progress! I love it!
Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, kids can sure show us what heart is all about. In our crazy, fast-paced, daily lives, it's easy to lose track of what's really important. Spending my days with 9-10 year olds can be challenging, no doubt, but the positives a teacher receives from the wisdom, sweetness and courage of kids is immeasurable.
When one of my students fell on the risers at last night's spring concert, and had to be escorted off the stage in tears and pain, it would have been very easy for her to sit out the rest of the evening's songs, since the concert was almost over. But after being comforted, she walked out to a nice ovation and rejoined her classmates to sing the last couple of songs, holding a small bandage to her elbow.
I LOVED IT! And had tears in my eyes talking to her as she left the stage. Talk about character, courage, and heart. We've talked a lot about heart in class this year, listened to songs, and shared some activities meant to open students' hearts and minds to how important it is to be resilient, kind and brave. But she demonstrated it. I am SO proud of this young lady for making a choice not to fail, but to fall and get up. That is heart!
© 2015 Peter J. Wilson
Peter Wilson teaches fourth grade at University Lake School, in Hartland, WI.