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I am a high school English teacher, and mother of two charming little ones of my own. I teach in a high poverty urban charter school, while I live in a typical American suburb that has frequently been rated one of the safest cities in the country. It is a paradox I struggle with constantly, but it is my life.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A new approach to instructional materials?

There is a whole section of the California State Standards for English that focuses on informational materials, and some of them are very specific, particularly these two:
2.6 Demonstrate use of sophisticated learning tools by following technical directions (e.g., those found with graphic calculators and specialized software programs and in access guides to World Wide Web sites on the Internet).
2.7 Critique the logic of functional documents by examining the sequence of information and procedures in anticipation of possible reader misunderstandings.

To me, the standards are so specific its like... um, how do you really teach this other than just having them do it? But the "it" to me is always so... what do you do? If you make something up and it is not real, then it is sort of pointless and the kids don't get into it enough to really learn from it.

But today was fantastic. I think I figured it out. But it wasn't in my English class. It was with my play production class. You want to teach kids the critique the logic of functional (or sometimes dysfunctional) documents by examining sequences and procedures? Buy them furniture from Ikea and tell them to assemble it.

I literally handed each group of students a box. Most of the boxes contained chairs (one of the more simple Ikea pieces, as far as assembly goes). Two of the groups got a desk to assemble. When they finished with the chairs, those groups moved to helping the groups with the desk. I let them get from opening the box to finishing the piece of furniture with very little assistance from me.

Critique the directions they most certainly did. If you've ever looked at Ikea directions, they are not very descriptive. At one point, a student said, "This is like a whole book, yet I somehow still have no idea what to do."

They argued with me about the necessity of actually screwing in the seat part of the chair. "Can't it just sit on the base?" one girl asked. The same student also kept insisting that it must require power tools, which I would not give them.

But they took ownership. When the bill was ringing at 3:25, I asked them to pack up, but they asked if they could keep working. I had to go to a meeting, but my colleague agreed to supervise them, so they stayed working. When I came back, all 7 of the chairs were complete and one of the desks.

It may not seem like this incredible learning experience, but they learned that Ikea furniture can be put together usually without power tools. They learned how to use an itty bitty little metal tool to put together furniture. They learned to pay close attention to a diagram. They learned to improvise when they mess up. Now, someday, when they go away to college and end up at the local Ikea to buy a desk that they can actually afford, they will not feel as completely helpless when they open the box and find 100 parts.

All, in all, I was very proud of them. Watch the video clip of part of the process if you are interested.

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