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[Teacher Tips] Alternate Tools

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Watching the “Getting Emotion” portion of Shaundra Daily’s “Secret Life” segment really hit home for me as an educator. It brings me back many years when I was teaching fifth grade. I had a brilliant and very likeable student, John (not his real name) in my class. And he had a personal connection to the very recent 9/11 attack. He was very articulate, but had become a bit of a loner and when asked to write or do any work that required putting pencil to paper, he would barely get any work done.

As you can imagine, this would affect anyone’s feelings of self-worth. A student who could clearly be at the top of a class might suddenly feel like he was “failing,” yet this simply wasn’t the case. Besides, these were apparently new behaviors for John.

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[Teacher Tips] Alternate Tools-legos.jpg
Alternate tools can help you reach a student

I soon discovered that by allowing John to use a few alternate tools, he was able to participate and express himself in ways that for some reason, hadn’t worked before. What did I do? I offered him a few tools I had in the classroom. One was for writing. I had a few computers in my classroom and we had the software, Kidspiration , a visual word-mapping tool that allowed John to create a diagram of his story ideas and then type them out. He had a lot to say, but simply couldn’t get it down on paper; but he sure could type. I wish I had kept some of his work! I encouraged John’s parents to download the 30-day free (full) version so that he could use it at home as well. I believe they ended up buying it because it really helped him with all his subjects.

Another strategy that worked for John was to allow him to use a tool that really stretched his brain. This was LEGO’s Mindstorms . This was a kit of LEGOs where you build things (robots, cars, etc.) and then use your computer to program the “brain” part of the kit. This gives kids like John first-hand experience with construction, mechanism, energy, and programming. Yes, even small children in fourth and fifth grade can do this. (Humorously however, I struggled with it a bit, so I let John teach the other students. Point here being, just because you can’t figure something out is no reason to keep it from the students.) These small efforts on my part really brought John out of his shell and allowed him to do his work successfully and be a Rock Star in our classroom.

I’ll never forget the morning of my birthday that year. I was sitting at my desk taking attendance, when I heard a little motor buzzing growing closer and closer. I looked down and as it reached my desk, it was a car that John had built from the LEGOs onto which he had fastened a small banner that read, “Happy Birthday, Mrs. Kolbert!” Apparently he orchestrated the whole thing with the class, because they had been snickering and anxiously awaiting the moment when they could cheer and yell, “Happy Birthday” too!