In a never-ending quest to innovate in the classroom, it can be easy to shun the traditional elements of Western education in favor of those that feel more trendy. Try posting a photo of a Science Fair on Twitter and you’ll get far fewer likes than if you post about students coding video games for a cardboard arcade (👈🏻 as I did). While I totally agree that there are some practices that are as dusty as an old chalkboard, this article is about three old school elementary events that may not be fashionable, but should still be a part of the curriculum.
#1 Science Fair
One of the downsides to putting on a traditional science fair is that it largely can come down to a competition between parents, rather than a good learning experience for the kids. In order to avoid this common problem, I had students bring in materials from home, but complete the experiments and boards in class. It may have taken more class time, but it gave me plenty of information to use to develop lessons that catered to the unique needs of this particular group.
Another common problem with traditional science fairs is that the whole shebang is kicked off with little to no instructions or parameters, i.e. Prepare a science experiment, make a board and show it.
This type of setup inevitably leads to very little understanding of the scientific method, or of basic scientific skills and concepts. Typically students end up creating cool projects like a potato clock or a volcano, but understand nothing about the science behind it. In my class’s science fair, we focused entirely on our UOI’s central idea, which was on the three states of matter. This way, students shared and built knowledge on the same topics. Students were only allowed to choose experiments that contributed to their collective understanding of the central idea, and we spent a lot of time reading texts, watching videos, and compiling information into online resources (Check out how to use Moodle in an elementary classroom).
Finally, this science fair was not a competition trying to pit parents and students against their community members. It was a Year 5-only event that brought parents and students together to talk about the understandings that we had gained over the course of a six week unit. Did some students succeed more than others? Yes. Did anyone lose? Of course not!
#2 Spelling Bee
Now that I just knocked turning elementary science fairs into competitions, let’s talk about the most notorious of all of the elementary academic competitions: The Spelling Bee. Let me be clear: I don’t have a problem with competitions that promote learning. I have a problem with competitions that only exist for competition’s sake (aka for the benefit of parents and teachers). When teachers set up a spelling bee in a way that promotes the learning of year-level spelling patterns, commonly misspelled year-level words, and develops a love of language, I am all for it.
My class’s spelling bee was a culmination of all of the work that we had put into spelling that year, and only included words that students had been tested on in weeks prior. There was home study time built into their homework schedules, but I structured it so that students would not exceed the required 15 minutes that they’d had all year anyway. I made sure to communicate my concerns to parents about turning this friendly competition into something that stressed students out to the point of disliking spelling, and they seemed to be on board. In the end, we were all proud of what the students had achieved, and they consequently did very well on the spelling portion of our end-of-year standardized assessments.
#3 End of Year Awards
Much debate has surrounded how awarding students for every little achievement is turning the next generation (my generation?) into one that is thanklessly entitled and overprivileged. And if we’re giving students awards for something that they don’t earn, I guess I have to agree. At my school, we reward students for achievement in a variety of ways, but only those that deserve an award get one at the end of the year Prize Giving ceremony. We show a particular emphasis on progress, growth and development so that those students that deserve recognition for effort are recognized alongside students that are academically inclined. It may be old school, but it it an indispensable part of setting goals and achieving them in an academic setting.
What do you think? Would you scrap all of these in favor for alternative events? Am I wrong, and all of these need to go the way of the dinosaur? Comment below and keep coming back to educationrickshaw.com and check out our Teachers Pay Teachers.