One English class. One math class. One music class.
One common thread of creativity, both in teaching and learning.
One hour at Dawes Middle School.
Students in Nikki Sheets’ eighth-grade differentiated English class have written questions that spark their curiosity on white sheets of paper, which now plaster the whiteboard in the back of her classroom. Some questions on these “curiosity sheets” are serious (Are we stuck in augmented reality? How hard is the middle of the earth? What influences your dreams?). Some are silly (Why do socks always disappear? Why did curiosity kill the cat? Is a hot dog a sandwich?).
On a recent Friday afternoon, students started class by pulling their sheets off the whiteboard and spending 10 minutes researching one of their questions. Then they shared what they learned with a partner.
“What did you learn, what new piece of information did you find, is your question answered?” said Sheets, now in her eighth year teaching at the school nestled in a neighborhood near North 48th Street and Cornhusker Highway.
Sheets uses this as a warm-up exercise, something to get her students’ creative juices flowing. After they attempt to answer life’s big – and not so big – questions, they dig into the day’s lesson. Students are currently reading one of two novels: “Spare Parts,” by Joshua Davis, or “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” by Bryan Mealer and William Kamkwamba. Both novels center around youth who take a chance and invent something that benefits their communities.
Students split off into pairs again, this time discussing what they’ve read since the previous day. Sheets mingles among them, asking questions and offering feedback. The novels are part of a larger unit centered around inventions. One of their essential questions: “Are inventions realized through perspiration or inspiration?” They’ve talked a lot about hard work vs. creativity.
Sheets’ classroom is clearly a combination of both. There’s plenty of reading, writing and analysis. But Sheets also creates space for the kind of free-flowing creativity that, for most people, is unique to childhood.
“So, with the algebraic rule, if you move side to side, either left or right, that’s going to affect your X value,” Bukoskwi said as she worked with one student. “So we’re either going to add a value because we moved right into the positives, because the numbers get bigger, or we’re going to subtract because we’re heading into the negatives.”
At the same time, students at their desks received the same one-on-one attention – but in a very different way. Students intently watched their Chromebooks, where Bukowski’s hand would appear on the screen and write notes for the day’s lesson. Wearing headphones, students also listened to a recording of her explaining the lesson as they copied the notes. Students could pause and rewind if they missed something or didn’t quite understand the first time.
Bukowski and Auffert thought of this creative solution to what they identified as a problem shortly after the school year began. They saw that students had a wide range of abilities in each of their classes. Whole-class activities weren’t always effective, as students who quickly grasped the concepts grew ansty waiting for Bukowski as she helped students who were struggling. Eventually, they would have to move forward with the lesson no matter what.
“We knew we had to change something,” said Bukowski, who’s in her fifth year at Dawes.
After brainstorming, they realized students needed individual feedback on guided practice – when they work through a problem with a teacher – not feedback while taking notes over a new topic. So they came up with a new routine. Students now start with an introductory activity to explore the material, talk among their teams and activate prior knowledge. They move on to the video notes, reflect over the notes by writing a “take-away” or “wonder” on a whiteboard, then shift over to small-group tables for guided practice. When they’re done with guided practice, students start on independent practice back at their desks.
“All this time, students are able to work at their own speed, and Jess and I can really tell who is struggling and what they are struggling with during guided practice,” Bukowski said.
She can relate to students who struggle. Bukowski is a math teacher who wasn’t always good at math. “I was always interested in math but I did struggle with it in high school.”
She earned an undergraduate degree in wildlife biology but eventually went back to school to earn her graduate degree to teach math. She student-taught at Pound Middle School with longtime teacher Gary Furse. That’s when she caught the “middle-school teacher bug.”
“I think every teacher lives for the ah-ha, light bulb moments, maybe more so in math since there are so many topics to cover. That never gets old, and I feel like the new setup of my lessons has helped me make sure students experience more of these moments. I have a lot of students who have previously struggled in math classes, and they have low confidence in trying problems on their own. So I am genuinely happy when they can do a problem on their own – but not because they got it right, because they had the confidence to try, even if they might make a mistake.”
Leaving Bukowski’s classroom, walk through the commons area inside the main entrance and head down the hall a little farther. Before long, you hear the familiar start and stop of band practice. It permeates the walls and can be heard next door in room 105, where Abbi Newby is teaching her sixth-grade general music class — in almost complete silence.
Students are spread around the room, working individually on their Chromebooks and wearing headphones. They’re composing their own music using a software program called Flat. Newby, in her sixth year at Dawes, asked students to think of a title based on something they are thankful for and create music based on that title. They chose two to five different instruments they thought were a good fit for the title and aim for 12 to 20 measures of music.
“Music education is imperative. Not only to combine cross-curricular content like math and literacy, but to teach and practice collaboration, self-discipline, responsibility and the ability to be vulnerable and get along well with others. Music can provide a spark or sense of purpose for students, which may ultimately keep them coming back to school.”
“Those super high notes, it’s almost like the chills you get when you’re super cold.”
“That almost sounds like the process of making waffles – wow!”
She turns back to the entire class, “I just had a great conversation about how to write about something, like a dog, if there aren’t any dog sounds lifted. Maybe you could use a tuba or trombone or trumpet, depending on how big the dog is.”
It’s not all about technology, though. Near the end of class, Newby leads the class in singing scales: “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti.”
“I am a little old-fashioned,” Newby said afterwards. “It’s really important that students have the basic theory skills to provide a solid music foundation. From there, it becomes more personal and we can use other strategies, like technology, to bring the music to life.”
As they start to sing more on this day, it’s a predictable mix of students who are willing to belt out a tune and those who keep it just above a whisper. More students loosen up as Newby prods them, “Don’t be shy, you’re great singers!”
After class, Newby acknowledged that teaching a middle school class that sometimes involves public performance can be a challenge — but one that she welcomes.
“Middle school is a really tough time. Working through vulnerability is a big part of my job. Building an environment that is safe takes a lot of time and grace but it’s imperative. I set high expectations but allow students to take their time to work through some of the fear and shyness. I also model making mistakes – I have voice cracks, too! – and stress that it’s not about being the best, it’s about doing your best.”