Who Determines the Success of a Lesson?

DSC_0941Last October 2014, my colleague Dr. Dorothy Suskind approached the fifth grade team with an amazing idea: to have the boys create catapults from common materials such as popsicle sticks, paper towel rolls, tape, and other recyclable items to launch a candy corn.  The boys would then compete to see which catapult launched the candy the farthest.  My team was right on board…except for the fact that we were making these plans a week before Halloween, which is when we planned to conduct the competition.  As you can imagine, our short timeline created some challenges with planning.  We wanted to make this a meaningful experience for the boys, and ultimately they loved it, but this year we were determined to reflect on our 2014 Candy Corn Catapult Challenge and make it even better.

The bones of the challenge were simple, and it already incorporated many of the core values we emphasize with our Second Century Vision, such as risk-taking, collaboration, and creative thinking and problem solving, just to name a few.  What we felt like could really give it that POW would be to strengthen the boys knowledge of catapults before constructing their own.  Mrs. Gordon and I, the other Math teacher, offered research opportunities for boys to study simple machines such as levers. They also watched videos on Pumpkin’ Chunkin’ challenges in which contestants built catapults on a much larger scale then launched pumpkins.  We even watched a competition that took place right here in our own backyard, Glen Allen, VA, via home videos and pictures.  Mrs. Gordon and I also worked with boys to explore angles and how their measurements would produce certain outcomes (i.e. which degree will launch the candy corn the farthest?).  I think the beauty of this exercise was it really captured the boys’ attention.  They were getting a small taste of what was to come, and they were successful with it, which was really powerful for them.  To hear things like, ” Wait dude, we have to make sure we’re putting the right amount of tension on the spoon to get it to go far,” and ” It’s launching the candy corn really high but it’s not traveling very far.  We want to make sure we stay away from that angle with the lever when we make our real catapult,” were music to our ears.  You could tell by their conversations that they were excited about the experience and couldn’t wait to bring their ideas to fruition.

In addition to the exercises they were exploring in Math, the boys read books that connected to Medieval times and wrote fantasy stories in Language Arts.  The central theme of their story had to somehow incorporate their catapult creation.  I think this collaborative approach to the challenge inspired the boys in more ways than one.  All of a sudden, the catapult had life.  It had a back story and a history behind it that they created.  By this point in our journey, they were invested.  Mind you, this process only took several days, but I think it was crucial in establishing a purpose for the boys.  They wanted to create a successful catapult in the same way you want an art project you’ve sweat over to win a prize or a test you’ve stayed up late to study for to earn an A.  

The day of the challenge came, and boys were ready to make their ideas come to life.  They were able to work independently, with a partner, or in a small group, although many of them chose to work in a small group.  They had already made plans the day before so it was time to test out those ideas.  Would the materials come together like they had hoped?  Would the angle of the spoon produce the distance they were hoping for?  Would the integrity of the structure be compromised after multiple testing trials (meaning, would the darn thing break?!)?  Some boys had to re-create their catapult more than once because they realized their initial idea wasn’t working.  Other boys struggled with tension and how they could pull the lever, or spoon, back with enough force to produce a successful launch.  They were focused, determined, and on a time crunch – they only had three 45 minute sessions to build their catapult.  After the building time, boys began launching their candy corns outside in our “preliminary trials.”  The top 5 distances then competed in a final round, ultimately resulting in a winner.  What I found fascinating was that while some boys asked, ” Will there be a prize if you win?” the majority did not.  And even when our response to those boys was ,” No,” they were not as bothered as I suspected they would be.  I think their motivation to do well was fueled more by their desire to meet the challenge than win a prize.  

DSC_0971When I look back at this activity and ask myself, ” Was it worth it?” I really have to look to the boys’ reflections.  Because while we had some bumpy moments (boys engaging in minor warfare with rubber bands and cap erasers, boys upset because they felt like they were being copied, boys frustrated that their catapult didn’t perform well when they stepped up to the launching line…) I think their feelings toward the lesson are what validate its success or failure.  And the boys had some really profounding thoughts.  They enjoyed the friendly competition, the actual building of the catapult, being able to see their candy corn launch, and working with a team.  They did not enjoy the time limit, the limited amount of materials, if they had to rebuild their catapult, or if their catapult broke and they felt embarrassed.  Some life lessons they said they learned, and I’m quoting the boys on this, are,

to always try,”

” I have not failed, I have just found a way it will not work, ”

” if you try, that is all that matters because you might be in the finals and not win and this competition is friendly so it is not the world championship,”

”  you shouldn’t just be happy when you win, but also when other people succeed,”

” not to expect to go out and do it right. It takes time and practice to perfect something,”

” be patient and try different things if your original idea did not work,”

” sometimes things aren’t going to go your way. Especially when you don’t have enough money to buy a medium slurpee AND candy. That stinks,”  

” not everyone can be the best at everything.”  

Man, I can only hope my daughter is able to learn those lessons that the boys have so beautifully articulated.  So yeah, I’d say it was worth it.


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