Linking Episodes of Learning Through Student Reflection

Thinking and Learning in a Maker-Centered Classroom online course co-instructor, Julie Rains, describes a lesson designed to foster interconnected episodes of learning and student thinking in her elementary media center makerspace.

A sampling of 5th grade student responses printed from Google Classroom to represent student thinking.

Synthesis: Grade 5 Style

To approach learning as a series of interconnected episodes, it has been necessary to create continuity, in the form of our throughlines,  How might we look closely, explore complexity and find opportunity to change our world and also through intentionally facilitated learning experiences?  Each class period, we build our capacity to make connections between previous learning experiences and our own worlds. In the lesson detailed below, I asked students to combine their thinking and learning from three learning episodes, ultimately generating a synthesis that captures the heart of our learning thus far. I’ve included my own thoughts as well as student documentation in the hope of making our own thinking and learning visible.

The Lesson

As I stood in front of the class, I felt my palms beginning to sweat.  The self-doubt began to creep in. What am I thinking?  Am I really planning to ask students to synthesize three very complex ideas and distill them onto a single sticky note? Do I even know how I would approach this as a learner?  Despite my reservations, I began: 
“We are going to examine three ideas we have been thinking about over the past few months. The first, is your initial thinking posted on Google Classroom as we considered our fifth grade throughline, How might we look closely, explore complexity, and find opportunity to change our world?  You will notice that we have compiled and pulled some of our thoughts. They represent a variety of viewpoints from all the fifth grade classes, and they are posted in the kraft paper cloud.”

As a class, we moved in front of our documentation space to closely examine the shared ideas, and possible connections between those ideas.  Students were encouraged to take notes if they wanted to document their own thoughts before we transitioned to the next idea. I’ve shared some specific examples of student thinking below:

  • “When we look closely we can change the world. If we look at how much plastic is in a landfill we would see how much plastic that is polluting our world. We can also see that people are getting bullied and that not ok. If we look closely at the world everyone will have a good life and everyone will be happy.”

  • “We could change the world by treating others better. When I moved to other places, some people were rude to me (Not you guys, I mean in the other places I used to live). People seemed to not like me, just because I was different and not from there. I want to help everyone by being kind to others. I think if everyone was kind, the world would be a better place. People like me that move will feel more welcomed in their new area. Everyone will feel more liked.”

  • “We can change the world by giving each kid a chance to give their idea out and expand and explore, so adults can see what kids have going on in their brain and how they feel.” 

After we spent about five to seven minutes examining the first idea, we moved on to the second idea.  

“The next idea is connected to our exploration of repurposing surplus materials.  We have examined a basket shared from Thailand made of recycled coffee bags and the Bead for Life organization, especially its use of recycled magazines to create and sustain female businesses in Uganda.  This final object (a large mat crocheted using recycled plastic grocery bags) is yet another example of the connection between making items that are good for the environment and also good for people. We can look closely at these objects and explore the complexities of their construction.”

After that brief introduction, I encouraged students to walk around and examine some of the designed objects from our past lessons.  In previous meetings, we considered the parts, purposes, and complexities of each object’s design. Today, some students chatted about those aspects of the new object, while others considered how this connected to their own attempts at designing objects.

Inspired by the Bead for Life organization, students created beads and baskets out of recycled magazines.

Again, after about five to seven minutes, we came back together as a class to think about our final idea.

“The final idea is our thinking and learning as we created our own upcycled objects through research online and experimentation in our makerspace. At the end of our project, you all shared what you learned through making in a mini presentation. I took notes to record your thinking.  We will read through our responses together, and think about the connections and key ideas that keep repeating over and over.”

Here are some of the project reflections that we read together:

  • “We learned that you can make something beautiful out of recycled materials.  You can’t always find materials so you have to substitute and problem solve with what you have.  You don’t have to have store-bought art to make something beautiful, you can make it yourself.” 

  • “We learned that making is faster when you work together as a team and that ideas can be more creative when you combine ideas together to make a new idea.”

  • “We learned that sometimes the first idea doesn’t always work out.  It took multiple tries and multiple tests to finish our project. We learned if it doesn’t work out the first time, we need to persevere until the end.”  

  • “We learned that something that looks easy might be very complicated, so next time, we should plan first and choose one idea and stick with it.”

Inspired by the Bead for Life organization, students created beads and baskets out of recycled magazines.

Afterwards, students brainstormed ideas that stood out to them and possible connections between ideas. Finally, we were ready to begin our synthesis. I introduced our final task of the lesson.  

“After thinking about these three ideas, we will try to synthesize our thinking so far by sharing what we notice on sticky notes.  The word synthesize might sound tricky. Basically, we are going to think about the connections we can make between the three ideas and try to capture the core messages.  If you feel stumped, you could simply start with the words I notice… then write down what you are noticing as you examine each of these ideas.” 

For a final five to seven minutes, students walked around to examine all of the objects and ideas. When they felt ready, they wrote their ideas on sticky notes and placed them in our documentation space:

  • “I notice that many people say to be unbiased and need to step out of their comfort zone to explore new things and be creative to change the world.” 

  • “When I see ideas, it shows me what point of view somebody else may have.” 

  • “I notice that there is so much variety and creativity put into everything here, making it all unique, but bound together at the same time.  I notice this especially in the quotes. Some are lengthy, some are short, but every one contains work, creativity, and experience.”

  • “I wonder if anyone went through arguments with their partner about the project.  I notice how some people had fails and then had successes. I think everybody went through some kind of changes.”

  • “I noticed that everything around us is useful.”

  • “I notice that when you look close at things, you can explore all the details and cool things that people make.  Also, that can make a difference by if you look at something or to notice something, you can see it in a different way.”  

  • “I notice that a good portion of kids who had successes in the projects kept digging deeper and going beyond what is above ground.” 

5th grade students each create a sticky note synthesis and post their thinking.

Process Reflections

Despite my initial anxiety, students approached this task capably and with interest. Some learners felt confident at the onset, putting pencil to paper almost immediately.  Others sought the support of their classmates or asked clarifying questions about the task. A final group stepped back to closely examine each element before recording their responses.  The final product? A collective document representing our thinking over time, at least so far. While far from perfect and only midway through the year, it is my hope that this process will send the message that student thinking is valued in our environment.  We are learning about learning. Over time, we will continue to add to this collective piece as we engage with additional opportunities for thinking, curating the collection by grouping ideas into like categories, or by level of complexity. At the end of the year, we will step back again and reflect on our throughline.  I will encourage learners to use our reflective documentation to frame their responses, using specific examples to shift from hypothetical musings to the personal and practical application of these ideas.

This blog was published on November 6, 2019.
Authored by
Julie Rains

Julie Rains is a co-instructor of the Thinking and Learning in the Maker-Centered Classroom online course, Ed.D Candidate at the University of Michigan-Flint, and Information Literacy Specialist, at Delta Kelly Elementary School in Rochester, Michigan.