Tuesday, November 19, 2013


In my position as a Teacher Librarian I get an endless supply of problem-solving opportunities.  It is really one of the best things about my job.  I get to do something different every day.  I get to challenge my mind and I get to solve puzzles.  I learn every single day as a result of those occasions.  Which brings me to the million dollar question, how can we give our students those same chances? How can we provide our students with openings to problem-solve and learn within our classrooms?  Or better yet, how can we instill the same passion, that we, as educators have for learning.

Let me tell you about Joe.  Joe is a student that I have been working with rather closely because he is involved in our student technology group.  He is one of our few volunteer members that show up every day to assist with technology issues in the building.  This is Joe’s second year in the program.  As a freshmen, Joe came in on an after-school basis to be here in case any student had issues with their iPad or if our technician needed help troubleshooting in the building.

I didn’t know Joe at all when he started but figured that eventually as time passed, I would get to know him a bit better.  Joe didn’t say much, in fact, more times than not, if he did say anything, I had to ask him to repeat himself because he mumbled and spoke in such a soft tone that I couldn’t hear him.  It made it difficult to develop a working relationship as I wasn’t able to have a productive conversation with him as often as I would have liked. 
Since we were in the first year of our student technology group, I wanted to make sure that our student volunteers were not letting their grades slip as a result of their time spent troubleshooting.  I regularly checked their grades in their classes to see if they were keeping up with their homework and/or passing. Joe was a challenge.  I talked with Joe on a number of occasions about missing homework, projects and low scores.  He was failing some of his classes and when I met with his teachers, I found out that he just wasn’t doing the work.  Was he playing on his iPad? Probably. Was he distracted by the technology? Yes.  The cycle was always the same.  I would check Joe’s grades and email his teachers.  When I had a list of assignments and projects that he needed to complete to raise his grade I would wait for him to come in after school and I would have a discussion with him.  The discussion was always the same.  Do you have these assignments done? If you have them done, why didn’t you turn them in?  Why haven’t you finished your homework?  All of the questions that you would expect a teacher to ask a student who was not passing.  Joe, almost to a fault, would listen to me, nod his head and every once in a while mumble something incomprehensible and then I wouldn’t see him for a couple of days.  Why? He didn’t want to have to explain to me why his grades were so low.  Did he understand that not doing his homework was going to cause him to be short on credits at the end of the year?  Did he understand that when he was supposed to be a sophomore, he wouldn’t be because he would have to make up credits first?  Yes—he understood all of the implications of his actions (or lack of)—he just didn’t care.  He was bored.  He was interested in technology and didn’t see the need to do work that he did not consider beneficial.  He was able to pass most tests without doing the work but couldn’t pass the class because of his outstanding assignments. 

I think if you were to ask Joe today, he would tell you that he spent way too much time playing games on his iPad—time that he could’ve spent doing his homework.  If you don’t do the homework in school, you aren’t successful.  That is just the way things are…. 

Homework has been a hot topic for a very long time.  Expecting students to put in time outside of school reading, practicing math problems, writing and researching is a long-standing practice.  Some would consider that time essential, others would consider it a hoop that students must jump through in order to get the grade that will allow them to pass the class.  We’ve all done it—complete the task at hand so we can move on.  Is that what we want homework to be?  Why can’t homework become something that students can’t wait to do? How can we change homework into opportunities to problem-solve?  What if homework became an occasion; to learn, to push the boundaries, to try something new, to grow?  If we can create openings for students to exercise their curiosity and their passion, I’m not sure we could stop students from taking advantage of these learning opportunities.

Joe took a Multimedia Art class this year.  He was so intrigued by the software he was using and by the products he was creating that he couldn’t wait to share these with me.  He would come in to work at lunch or after school and couldn’t wait to show me the latest change he had made on his design.  Joe, the kid that would barely talk, was now talking my ear off.  What changed?  Sure, Joe had matured some over the summer.  He was now making up those credits he was missing and was passing all of his classes (which is huge).  But the real change that I noticed was that Joe was more than willing to take time out of his day to show me what he had created, what he was working on and how excited he was for me to see his designs.  What happened to that student who didn’t want to do a simple homework assignment for Biology?  He was now a student who was spending an hour after school fussing with one aspect of a design to get it “just right”.  He wanted to spend so much extra time after school, there were some days I had to push him out the door because I wanted to go home.  Wow—what a difference a year makes!  Not only that, but he had found something that he was passionate about.  He loved designing digital art.

We were lucky enough to purchase a 3D printer with the help of a grant and when I asked our Art teacher to give me the names of students from her class that may have an object that they would want to print—you guessed it--Joe.  I asked him if he wanted to see if he could get his file into the proper format so that we could print one of his objects.  Now, Joe is no longer in Art class but he has spent the past two weeks, every day after school and sometimes at lunch working on getting his file ready to print.  First, he had to figure out how to convert his file into the correct file format.  Once he had that done, he opened the file and part of his object was missing.  He then had to research why that part of the file didn’t transfer.  He came up with a hypothesis, tested it and he was able to put the file back as it was originally.  Mind you, this was all being done on his own free time—with no pressure from anyone to turn it in or to finish it by a specific date.  When his file was ready to go—we printed it and he now has a solid object that was created from a digital file that he produced.
Original Digital Art File (top view)

  File after rendered (top view)

3D printed object (spaceship)

I had someone ask me “So what is he going to do with it now?  I said, I don’t know, but I guarantee that the process Joe went through to create his design, convert the file, fix the issues that arose, and produce his object will do more for his learning than any worksheet ever could.  And the smile on his face when he saw it for the first time......Pretty cool stuff!!!!

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail"
                                                                                                         Ralph Waldo Emerson