Simple Ways to Promote Problem-Solving In Class

I have the ultimate luxury of getting into a lot of classrooms during the school year and seeing all kinds of wonderfulness (that's a word, right?) that is taking place. What I tend to see (or what I look for) are ways that my colleagues are turning their students into problem-solvers by the activities, lessons, and hands-on learning taking place.  The following are 12 ways that my school promotes problem-solving.

Puzzles! Seriously, they might seem relaxing but they make your brain hurt. Place a puzzle with 500+ pieces that will take days (sometimes weeks or longer) to complete.  Place a puzzle table in class doesn't mean kids sit around it all day, even though that would be fun.  Kids come and go as they please, steal moments when they can, and work together.  Puzzle completion tends to happen organically (along with the problem solving).

Learning to Code is basically the equivalent to learning a foreign language in school these days.  Kids need to know how, or at least, have a basic understanding of how coding works. is the easiest and most functional site for getting kids started.  I've used this site for the past 2 years and it's a gold mine for teaching kids how to solve problems and collaborate.

A Bin of Legos will set you free! Let students build, create, destroy, and build again.  I love LEGOS. I just don't like the Kragle.

Start a Class Newspaper with your students (or nudge them to try it on their own). Writing a newspaper forces kids to make a lot of decisions from picking content, writing, researching, and create the actual newspaper.  We have students in school that make it the old school way--with paper.  Then we upgraded to Google (Yeah!--GAFE) and used free templates provided. 

Celebrate Moments of Failure.  Yes, this might sound a little funny, but it's true. Failure typically occurs with kids because something was difficult. Using failure as a positive platform to promote hard work builds trust with students creating a safe environment. It's all about the mindset. Safe environments tend to allow students to take more risks.  This applies for us, as teachers, too.

Survival Games are fantastic because they allow for imagination and team work.  Earthquakes, lost in the desert, or living on a deserted island are fantastic ways to test their ideas.  These scenarios don't have to involve huge productions and you (the teacher) can even make up the rules as you go along.

Board Games are just the best. Sure, the actual are incredible, but the real magic happens when kids play them.  Most of the times kids bring in new games have have to TEACH other students.  It's wonderful and requires problem solving strategies for everyone involved.  If you only have a few board games, I'd suggest stocking on a few more.  Cataan, anyone?

Play Chess or start weekly chess time with you students. Before I began teaching I'd never played, but I had a teacher who had his kids play every Friday afternoon.  His students taught me how to play.  Most of the time they beat me, but eventually I figured it all out...and I'd still lose. Chess takes skills, patience, and planning...and anyone can learn to play it.

Place STEM Bucket in your room and allow students to different challenge each week.  STEM buckets can be leftover school supplies, pipe cleaners, paper, tape, or even the recycle bin.  It doesn't matter whats in the bin because taking the challenge is the ultimate goal for the kids.

Genius Hour put learning directly into the student's hands as they choose what they want to learn more about.  The HOW is up to them.  More and more teachers are attempting Genius Hour as a way to shake up learning because it allows for students to learn in the way that fits them the best.

And my favorite, Project Based Learning. Giving students a topic or driving question and seeing how they attack it and solve the issues is a beautiful thing. 


What do you do to promote problem-solving in your school?


20 Kid's Movies From the 80's

The 1980's might have produced some of the greatest kid-friendly film of all time. Some were completely goofy, others terrifying (Dark Crystal, I'm looking at you), and many are timeless. They weren't all Oscar contenders, but they hold a place in our hearts.  Nostalgia is a power thing.

Quite possibly, the greatest accomplishment of 80's kids films is that they still hold up today (to a point). My own children have become obsessed with them, and it's been a wonderful opportunity to bridge my childhood with my kids.  Everyone needs little Gremlins in their life.

So, here are twenty films to take you back (or to share with your family).  They're in no particular order because it isn't a contest. Yes, some might be bad. Sure, you've completely forgotten about a few.  Many can still be found on Netflix, Amazon Video, and YouTube.  I've included all the movie trailers to help take you back.

1. Goonies

2. Willow

3. Troop Beverly Hills

4. Princess Bride

5. NeverEnding Story

6. Flight of the Navigator

7. Explorers

8. Harry and the Hendersons

9. Pee Wee's Big Adventure

10. Masters of the Universe

11. Adventures In Babysitting

12. Benji the Hunted

13. Space Camp

14. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

15. Follow That Bird

16. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

17. Mac and Me

18. Monster Squad

19. Karate Kid

20. The Last Starfighter

That's it.  I've left off some of the bigger named titles because I needed to get Benji in there (that movie made me cry like a baby as a kid).

Did I miss anything? What was your favorite?


Five Reasons Why Project Based Learning Works for My Students at Lower Levels

Before we get into the *power of PBL*, this is a good time to remind you that I'm a special education teacher in an K-5 elementary building. I work with a wide variety of students with disabilities (learning and nonspecific) in their classes, my resource room, small group, and one-to-one. I teach with a variety of different tools, from replacement curriculum (direct instruction) to additional identified supports (reading fluency, comprehension, math) with supplemental content and base skills (per grade level). I've had students describe me a a multi-tasker.

Over the past few years I've been including more project based learning activities because I found it was a better way to reach my students and change their focus/mindset for positive outcomes.  Project based learning allowed students to focus on their strengths, which changing their entire mindset for learning. I'm a firm believer that project based learning is crucial for "lower level" learners because it allows students to think differently than how they are normally asked to and be successful (in a nontraditional way). 

Here are five reasons why project based learning works with my students, who learn at a lower levels (or receive special education services, or have an IEP, or are just those kids on the cusp that we're trying to reach). Honestly, there's a lot more reasons but these are the most crucial for my students.

PBL is Differentiation
The big buzz word: differentiation!  Yeah, I said it.  Project based learning allows my students to learn the same content but at different speeds and different depths. You might have some students gathering information from videos while others are reading doctor journals (maybe not that far advanced) but the students (and sometimes you) are deciding how they want to attack their own learning.

How do we hit all kids? How do we make it fair to all kids?  These are some of the tough questions that we face when we teach typical classes.  Well, PBL takes some of the guesswork out of it, asking students to problem solve, create, and research the best way they see fit.

PBL is Self-Paced
Many of our students who learn at lower levels have difficulty keeping up with pace.  Whether its reading speed, comprehension, or whatever--it doesn't matter.  If you're using PBL activities, you're basically letting the students pace themselves and take in content at their own speed. 

I cannot impress upon you how important it is for students to comprehend material at their own speed, not our preferred teaching speed. Right Now!--doesn't work for my kids.  Sometimes it's got to be a slow burn. If we give them the tools and the time, it will make their learning more meaningful. Allowing students to pace themselves is crucial and extremely rewarding.

PBL Can Focus Content 
I love that PBL focuses on content.  It's not always about how fast they can read at grade level or how many math problems they can solve in a minute. It's about the content, and understanding it, and then applying their knowledge.

I've had kids completely shut down (in the classroom or my room) because everything was based on skills, so I've made a fundamental shifts in how I approach students.  There's time for skills and skill building--but there needs to be time for content.  There has to be time for content--expand those life skills!

PBL Levels the Playing Field
Kids who learn at a lower level (whether they receive special education services or are just on the cusp) survive in school because they've learned to adapt, mask, and problem solve better than most kids. Their adaptation skills are strong and they evolve (wait, I don't know if I can use that word).

Then you've got some of the higher level (or above average) students who haven't had to struggle.  Many of these kids don't posses problem solving skills because they haven't had too. They are solely lacking in ability when asked to think outside the box or without limits.

This is where project based learning levels the playing field for everyone. Everyone's equal because everyone brings a different strength to work from.  PBL rewards those kids that problem solve and imagine. My kind of kids! Your lower level kids can thrive in this environment because they're accustomed to taking risks, finding shortcuts/work arounds, and problem-solving.  I can't tell you how many times I have talented and gifted students come up and ask the most specific questions because they're unaccustomed to thinking outside the box. They need each step spelled out and don't know what to do.

PBL is High Engagement
I want my students engaged.  I want them interested, intrigued, and asking questions like to find out more.  I want them to go home excited about school, telling their family how stock markets, running a business, and creating inventions relate to class work. Allowing my students to work in a PBL-format is critical for energizing their interests. I create lessons specifically tailored around my student's interests. Finding out a student's interest and developing a PBL activity about it is one of my favorite things to do.

Case in Point: Over the past few years I've had students obsessed with monsters.  Some of those students absolutely despised writing, so I had to develop project based learning activities that would engaged those kids so much, they didn't care they were writing.  In fact, when we were all done they wrote more in that three week PBL then they did their entire fourth grade year.  At the end, one student looked at me, beaming with pride, and asked, "can we do more?" Engage the student.
If you can't tell, I'm a firm believer in the power of project based learning (both in my classroom and yours).  I love the options it give the teachers, the flexibility for the students, plus the ability to bring real-world situations into a classroom.

Project based learning can come in all shapes and sizes, and everyone does it differently based on their class and teaching style. If you're looking to start it, but aren't sure where to begin check out my top ten tips to get started in your classroom.  

If you'd like to check out some of the projects that I use with my students, click on either link below.  It'll take you to my store, where each PBL is displayed and you can find more information.

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