Building a Collaborative STEM Classroom
A high-school math teacher shares tips on building a collaborative high-school STEM classroom at the start of the school year.
By Dr. Roxanne Comegys
Let’s set the stage… It’s the first day back from summer vacation at a high school. The students have missed each other. They have so much to catch up on with each other as well as facing the reality that graduating high school is one day closer. They are slightly dreading the first bell —when they know they will have to go from classroom to classroom reviewing rules, expectations, and meeting their new crop of teachers.
Enter the teacher. During my first year of teaching, I was told that the first day of school is the most important. At the high school level, I should be firm and direct. I was cautioned not to use collaborative activities on the first day of school. I may unintentionally create an apocalyptic situation in my classroom as students would not listen to me, not be engaged, and become hard to manage since I didn’t know them yet. I listened for a few years until I had an epiphany…
In a technology-driven society, the first day of school scene has shifted. The students may have missed being physically near each other. But they have still had authentic social and emotional communication with each other through social media platforms and video phone calls all summer. Their communal norms simply shifted to online and allowed them to maintain their peer bonds across long distances, band camp, sports trainings, break-ups, and make-ups. They have been collaborating the entire week before school about their first week of school. Why not collaborate on the first day? Why should they listen to me when I need to learn about them?
A few years ago, I decided to capitalize on their peer relationships and their collaborative spirit. First, I arranged the desks in fours. From the first minute in the classroom, students knew that they would be working together. I sat on a stool and introduced myself to the class. I explained to them that since it was a math classroom, we had to conduct ourselves like math-intensive STEM career professionals. To do this, we would have to collaborate, work hard, use resources, and do research. Immediately, we started working together, first as a class and then in groups.
Here is what I learned after making this shift to a collaborative student-centered classroom:
- I can learn about my students more easily —both personally and academically. Our first activity usually involves my students taking a stand with each other. They fill out a self-inventory survey. You can make your own to gain perspective on their interests. Then, I randomly call on students to share one quality from the inventory. All of the students who have something similar to the student I selected, stand up on top of their chairs with that student. Immediately students are drawn into each other and I get to see who are already friends. Students become immediately comfortable and see the classroom as a safe space.
- I can observe their communication skills and analyze their ability to collaborate. Some of the activities that I have organized involve the students choosing to work on a puzzle or tangram. I can observe how they accept the challenge to struggle and get a glimpse at their critical thinking skills which makes it easier to differentiate STEM projects or activities.
- I can discern my learners who don’t like school quicker and more easily. During the first self- inventory activity, these learners are immediately engaged and willing to be honest. I can identify the students who don’t like school because they tell me! It’s amazing to have disengaged students open up. I spend the rest of the school year having to write very few if any discipline referrals because these students become my secret weapons for maintaining engaging lessons.
- I have an easier time setting expectations and reviewing rules for the school year. During the class, I can address their missteps in classroom norms quickly and respectively. When I review my rules and expectations, I can use specific examples and applaud students for their good choices. The students are allowed to give their feedback. Students feel empowered and encouraged.
It makes it easier to teach math utilizing collaborative resources like the Defined STEM which offers a library of project-based STEM lessons. I can customize the lessons beforehand which helps me better teach students of various levels — from the struggling student with special needs to the accelerated gifted student who is two years ahead of her peers. Most of them quickly adjust to the collaborative culture. When I introduce their first Defined STEM lesson, they don’t need me to learn — they facilitate their own learning, assign jobs, make a plan of execution, and turn in great products!
It’s worth it to make a change at the start of the school year, to take a risk and embrace our students for who they have become.
About the Author:
Dr. Roxanne Comegys is a math teacher in an AdvancEd BSTEM program in Fulton County. She has taught for ten years which has included both private early grades and public secondary schools. She can be found on twitter @ms_comegys.