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Active Students Means Active Learning

It’s no secret that hands-on activities and games are valuable teaching tools.   Not only are activities a great way to introduce new concepts to younger students; research indicates that they are helpful for all grade levels and in a variety of subjects to engage all students and bring lessons to life.

Beginning in kindergarten, hands-on activities are expected teaching tools. “My students are very much ‘concrete learners,’” says Janice Lewis, Kindergarten Teacher at The Christ School.  “Kindergarten students do not think in abstract terms rather, they take objects, people, and concepts at face value.” Mrs. Lewis continues, “Younger students learn by doing, so most all of our lessons involve hands-on activities.  When students create and have the freedom to experiment while creating, it helps them understand and absorb the concept.”

In kindergarten, hands-on lessons are used in every subject.  Mrs. Lewis says, “For math, we play group games using a website called ixl. We also watch math videos that present visuals of the concept we are presenting, and then introduce a manipulative that goes with each lesson. Every day, we use cubes, counters, or other objects to help reinforce the concept they are learning.  To reinforce language skills, the students use manipulatives such as blocks that snap together with rhyming words, or pictures that have different ending sounds.” Science involves even more hands-on learning.  Students conduct experiments that help them remember the process and the outcomes.  “When we learn about Johnny Appleseed,” says Mrs. Lewis, “we taste different types of apples and make a graph that depicts which is their favorite. This helps with science and reinforces math skills.” To enhance the social studies lesson, the students make a Johnny Appleseed puppet, to show what he may have worn, what he did, and what he was like.

“We also play a lot of games,” Mrs. Lewis continues. “If you do a lesson a certain way, and call it game, students are more interested in participating, especially if each person gets a turn, and it keeps moving at what we call a ‘perky pace.’ We move pretty fast so the students remain engaged.”

The Christ School’s Compass class, a program distinctive to TCS, provides students of all grade levels with many opportunities to actively practice and enhance critical thinking skills through hands-on activities and games.  Meredith Gibbs, Compass teacher, explains.  “Games help students develop essential skills such as critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, reasoning, and the importance of teamwork.  We play a variety of games in Compass to develop different skills.  Playing challenging games allows us to address the most difficult content in a light and engaging way. They allow the students to take risks that they wouldn’t necessarily take.  In their daily classroom, a student may be hesitant to try, but when it’s called a game, it’s okay to take a risk.  It’s not called math, or science.  You’re not calling it anything but a game.  I truly love to hear students encouraging each other through the hardest parts and celebrating the smallest victories.  Even more, everyone is engaged!  Students engage with classmates that they may not normally engage with, learn background knowledge about each other, and learn skills from one another.  It helps build social interaction. They can sit or stand and sometimes move about the room.  The students are moving, standing, competing, laughing, and cheering each other on.”

Mrs. Gibbs continues, “I love to use hands-on activities because I can teach a concept and the students get to experience the concept through an experiment with actual, physical objects.  Often, I will describe what I want the students to do and ask them to figure out the activity by themselves.  Doing a lesson without a demonstration can be even more impactful, and puts their critical thinking skills to work as they problem solve with each other. Many times, the students are required to explain what they are building or doing to a classmate, so they build language skills at the same time.”

As students travel through middle school, and lessons become more advanced, hands-on lessons keep them interested and excited about new challenges.  TJ Ross, who teaches 7th and 8th grade math and robotics at TCS, uses hands-on activities to introduce lessons that may be difficult to conceptualize.

“In 7th grade math, we are learning how to divide fractions,” says Mr. Ross. “To help the students understand the concept, we use paper plates and scissors, and relate the lesson to something they love – pizza.  For this lesson, each plate represented a pizza.  We divided the two pizzas into quarters, resulting in 8 pieces of pizza.  This helps introduce fractions by giving them a visual to understand the problem: 2 ÷ 1/4.  Rather than memorizing procedures with no context, the students develop an understanding of how and why the fractions divide the way they do through activities.

“In pre algebra, I introduce abstract concepts. Using hands-on lessons helps put some practicality into the abstraction,” Mr. Ross says. “To introduce algebraic thinking, I use a scale; the type that balances on both sides. Thinking of equations as a scale is a very literal way to present them. In algebra, whatever you do to one side of the equation, you do to the other side to keep it balanced.  One side of the scale, or equation, has a known weight. The other side has two or more of the same object with an unknown weight. The other side needs to balance, so our task is to determine the unknown. To do this, we try to get the one unknown item all by itself by dividing, subtracting, or adding. This hands-on activity helps them relate to how algebra works.  Our lessons are really fun. We try all sorts of items in the classroom, such as iPads, staplers, and tape dispensers.  We grab enough items to balance the scale.   Everyone is engaged and eager to take part.”

To help understand statistics, Mr. Ross’ students use manipulatives such as spinners and dice. “To understand probabilities, we play adventure games with dice,” he says.  “We also play basic strategy games based upon the statistical probability of certain numbers coming up. For example, we use two spinners.  One has 6 divisions, and one has 12 divisions, both labeled by numbers. The students must come up with a rule, for example, when this occurs I win, when that occurs you win.  First, the rule has to be fair. Then, they have to make a rule that puts one student at an advantage, and one that puts their opponent at an advantage.  We ask, ‘What are my odds of winning here?’  ‘Is this fair?’  They can make up a rule that appears fair, but in reality it’s not (for example, if we tie, that means I win).”

“Using manipulatives and incorporating games helps develop higher level thinking.  They move the students forward with understanding, and allow them to actively apply their learning to a real task,” says Mr. Ross.

In every classroom, teachers at The Christ School create experiences that reinforce lessons, foster curiosity, critical thinking, and the development of new ways to solve problems. Students are excited to come to school each day to engage, explore, and take part in new discoveries!


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