Guest Post: When the wheels come off


We tell lots of stories about amazing Critical Skills Challenges that rock kids’ worlds and bring powerful, meaningful learning to all kinds of classrooms.  What we *don’t* do very often is tell the stories of the times that things go a little pear shaped, when they go off the rails, when the pedagogical wheels completely come off.  This fall I’m teaching the Instructional Design class at Antioch.  It’s part of our Critical Skills Classroom/ PBL Concentration, so we get a mix of students who are in the program and students who are just beginning their Critical Skills journeys and want a bit of guidance as they start out.  As you can imagine, we have a lot of conversations about less-than- perfect outcomes because that’s what learning is all about in Critical Skills Classrooms- try, reflect, learn, plan, and try again. Today I have a great guest post about an absolutely BRILLIANT First Attempt In Learning from Morag Bradford, Arts Integration Specialist at Creative City Public Charter School in Baltimore, MD.  

So I’ve been thinking about Challenges and, following a trip to a field of sunflowers last Sunday, decided to jump right in…spot the not-so-deliberate mistake that made this challenge go down like a lead zeppelin. (This was with my most easy going and cohesive first grade class.)

sunflower+field-2The sunflowers were amazing- as big as your head and as tall as the kids. I had never stood in a field like this (it went to the horizon!) and wanted to share what I could with my students. So back to school with a bunch of giant sunflowers, photos of the field, a poster of (one of) Van Gogh’s famous paintings and some oild pastels. The kids loved the flowers- were amazed and loved that they got to see them up close and touch all the parts. We talked about the size and the color and the shapes and the textures and we looked at and discussed projected images of the field and of Van Gogh’s paintings. All was well. I told the students, “We are going to work in teams to create life size images of the flowers with oil pastels!”

20140925_160608_1_ The students generated quality criteria- not a new activity as I often create process charts and have the students create the rubric for a lesson as that really solidifies what I am asking for and how the students will know if they are successful ( and if they are finished- goes some way to saving me from the ‘I’m done!’ after two minutes of drawing).

Good quality criteria- all was well. I did a quick demo on the use of oil pastels (hard/soft pressure, blending, qualities of line) and then divided up the students into groups by counting around the group 1,2,3,4.

By the time I had finished counting the first students could not remember which number they were.


Recount, sending children to their tables (four groups of 4 or 5) as I said their number. This is the point at which the wheels came off completely. Right away there was shouting recriminations, loud crying, quiet crying and screaming! The classroom aide and I went from table to table to try and ‘fix’ the situation but there was too much dischord to be able to get anywhere. The noise level was a real problem!

After a few minutes of trying to get everyone to calm down we called all the students back to the rug and adressed what a disaster it was. I noted that the assignment was not going so well and asked how I could have better prepared the class, and what we as individuals and as a group could do differently.

This morning I was reading more of the K-3 Coaching Kit and came across Elizabeth Reid’s statement; “Never mix a new process with new content.” 


So back at the drawing board I am am thinking that my options are;


  • Read Camille and the Sunflowers to give some more student-friendly background on Van Gogh and his sunflower paintings.                 ,
  • Have students experiment individually with oil pastels.
  • THEN- either ask students to work in pairs and have a conversation about how each pair would decide who would draw what- OR have each student create a sunflower and put them all together in a community vase.

 She did *exactly* what Critical Skills teachers are supposed to do.  When the wheels come off (and they will, have no doubt, it happens to everyone), she made the right call when she brought the group back together to talk about what was working, what wasn’t working, and what she could have done differently to make it work better next time (way to model reflection!) She took the time to reflect individually and to take a look at the at different resources (man, those Coaching Kits are are GOLD MINE, aren’t they?) and combined that new information with what she’d learned from her students in planning for the next go ’round. 

You see what she did there? Morag made an Experiential Loop for herself AND herSnail students! It wasn’t the loop she expected, but it was a dang good loop nevertheless!  

Well done Morag!

(And thanks for being brave enough to share your experience with us!)


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