Thursday, March 12, 2015



After being at school today,  I realized that I made a great decision to make this school year my last year as a full time teacher.  I won’t go into the details of what happened to get me thinking that way, but I will share that it has NOTHING to do with the students.  I dearly love them.

If you know me, perhaps you know of my distaste for anything in education that’s trendy, flashy, showy, or jargonistic.  I’ve seen it all over the last 47  years in school. One fad after another.  Reading labs to computer labs; whole language to phonics; whole village to austerity; basal readers to book study to leveled passages that are two levels too hard. Of late, I've battled the hype demon of “rigor”.  Thankfully, that faddish word is passing from usage by those seeking to impress. Then there’s the case of STEM.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics…or STEAM if you want to cleverly toss in some Arts... or STREAM if you actually think Reading should be a part of this foundation-- not to be confused with Stem which is the basic design of a modern technologically enhanced standardized test question) is especially sticky in education lexicon.  It seems to have greater legs than the acronym for After School Suspension.

I’m no fan of STEM as it’s portrayed to the public.  A good dose of STEM has the same effect on learning as a ranch dipping sauce has to curly fries at Chik-fil-a, we’re led to believe.  STEM activities supposedly lead children to critically think through problems and develop creative solutions. Yet, the rigorously rigid definition of what STEM is and isn't is (love those three is’es in a row?) in direct opposition to the creativity it’s supposed to foster… 

...which led me to attempt my first ever “Anti-STEM” lesson yesterday.

We’ve been studying “Simple Machines” as part of the regular third grade Science curriculum for the past couple of weeks. The children are directed to understand the six identifiable simple machines and understand their uses and advantages.

A STEM simple machine project would require a “Design Brief” whereby the children teams would utilize a series of simple machines constructed of defined basic household/school materials to conquer a real-world problem.  Such a STEM project is time intensive, fun, and educational; but not the savior of all science.

Yesterday,  I decided to rock STEM with a simple Anti-STEM project.  After completing some test review, I passed out a blank piece of white copy paper to each of my students and did not tell them what to do with the paper.  For third graders, this simple action drives them crazy with intrigue.  After staring them down for a minute or so, I finally gave them some direction.  They were to use their one piece of plain, white paper to create sculptures to represent each of the six simple machines. Immediately, I could see the wheels turning in students’ heads.  Of course, some students were already blown away with confusion by that first direction.  Then I told them what ancillary materials they could use.  With STEM projects, paper clips, toilet paper rolls, craft sticks, string are all par for the course.  So they were more than a bit surprised when I told them that the only things they could use to help them create the sculptures were their hands.

“Can we use scissors?”

 “No, just your hands.” 

“Can we use string?”

“No, just your hands.”

“Can we use M’s?”(markers- I hate markers in the third grade classroom, so I ordained that everyone must refer to them, if at all, only by their first letter, and I have banned them…but the kids still like to rattle my chain by asking to use them every time)

“No, just your hands.” 

“Can we….”


Then I fell silent and let them think it through.  I began patrolling the room,  watching with keen interest what happened.  At first, most of them just sat there staring at the large piece of blank paper.  Then some bravely began gently tearing and building simple simple machines.  A tent shaped wedge…a daring paper see-saw lever.  But then they began tackling the more intense machines-a threaded paper screw, wheel and axle, and the impossible pulley.  Amazingly, every single child ended up proudly crafting unique sculptures, and I realized a powerful new educational idea: Anti-STEM.

My Anti-STEM activity harnessed the spontaneous, purposeful truth of powerful, creative teaching.  Back in my formative teaching days, my mentor used to refer to this as “The Art of Teaching.” Alas, the teaching arts have been lost inside the Crackerjack box of educational reform, but they’re still there if you dig all the way down to the bottom of the box.

Thomas Ryder is a 33-year practitioner of the teaching arts working these days in a Roanoke County elementary school.