A 4th grade colleague stood up in our staff briefing this week and announced that “on Wednesday, the children in grade 4 will be experiencing a ban on pens/pencils/markers/crayons and any other writing tool. So if you teach them that day, it would be great if you could get involved, but don’t worry if you can’t.” Great, this was the start of an already long week and here we were being asked to think outside the box for a day; oh, how we are creatures of comfort and habit.
Amongst the students, the prevailing feeling was that the day would be an ‘easy’ day, with no writing or math! “So aren’t we going to do math and English then?” one curious child asked during the end of day discussion on Tuesday. “Oh, of course you will,” was the reply they received. They sighed in response. Evidently they were keen to have a day off, but they would soon realize how they were in for one of the best days of the semester so far.
The day began with roll call. “How will we mark the register if we can’t write?” they queried. “That’s a good question. Have a think and let me know what you decide,” came the answer. Their solution? A unique system of registering attendance using colored paper and glue sticks. a small square of green paper for present, red for absent, and for those who left during the day, a circle of paper stuck over the top of the green square. The day started with trust and the children set off to their classes in complete ownership of their day.
Coming to science, I was waiting with an experiment about the water cycle. Their goal was to demonstrate they knew about evaporation, condensation, and precipitation. Usually during this lesson, each child would be handed a zipper bag and a box of sharpies and they would draw the water cycle on the bag, add colored water, and hang it in the window to see the effects. But today, things would be different. The lesson began as normal, but when the bags were handed out with the box of pens, the students quickly informed me that they wouldn’t be able to complete the task as writing and drawing implements had been banned for the day.
I looked at the window and the work from the classes taught yesterday and lamented, “But if you can’t draw the water cycle, how will you complete the task?”
It is at this point that I confess to you, dear reader, that I had planned ahead and brought a box of sticky back vinyl off cuts from the art department into the lesson . Soon the keen-eyed pupils spotted it on the counter and announced that they would use it along with scissors to design the water cycle on the bags. I applauded their creativity and set them to it, but not before telling them of the two aligned strands of learning they would be working on: recording their observations and use them to review and revisit ideas (art) and identifying the part played by evaporation and condensation in the water cycle (science).
Sitting back at my desk, I was able to make lots of observations. The conversations centered around how they would show evaporation, condensation, precipitation, evapotranspiration (for those wanting a challenge) and what these terms mean. The level of dialogue was much more detailed than when the children had simply drawn the water cycle on the bags. Art had succeeded in bringing the learning to life.
This was a clear lesson to me about the power of aligning STEAM subjects to create a powerful learning opportunity. What started off as a day of no-pens ended up pushing myself and colleagues out of our comfort zones but, more importantly, allowed the students to take the reins and lead the way. Our objectives were learned, our outcomes recorded, and the children got a day they’ll never forget.
Be brave, colleagues! Take the small step and ban the pen. You’ll be amazed at the journey the day will take.
Editor’s Note: This article was written by guest writer, Tom Collins. Tom has been a science teacher at the British International School of Chicago, Lincoln Park since 2014. A former kindergarten class teacher in the UK, outdoor and environmental educator, and high school English teacher in Japan, Tom now leads a young STEAM department committed to providing students with the opportunity to take ownership of their learning through the integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math.