Over the years I’ve read countless blog posts, forum discussions, and comments over the debate of balancing cute and content. I think we can all agree that there is value to both, and it’s certainly possible to teach with both style and substance. The intention of this post is to share ideas on transforming cute lessons into cute lessons with content.
When I think of cute in regard to classroom instruction, I consider the overall look and purpose of student assignments. For me, the value in cute is that it’s engaging for students. Fun graphics are eye catching, and almost all students enjoy craft activities and projects. I do have to be careful not to use Pinterest and social media to validate the quality of my assignments, because comparison is the thief of joy. We should never feel inferior over the design elements of our lessons. I do believe that the assignments we give our students should be clear, organized, easily read, and student friendly. But a lack of style does not equal a lack of substance. However, the reverse is also true. We shouldn’t confuse cute with a lack of substance.
While I absolutely believe it’s possible to combine both style and substance, it is easy to fall into the trap of focusing on cute over content. I recently read a blog post from The Cornerstone for Teachers, and I read a quote that struck a nerve. Angela wrote, “If the only way to get students to complete an assignment is to put adorable clip art and borders on it, I will submit that it might be time to rethink the assignment itself.” That really made me step back and think about my own lessons, especially the ones I post on TpT for other teachers. Was I guilty of fluff? Were my lessons merely glorified worksheets?
I want to emphasize that while you can have an effective lesson without the cute factor, you cannot have an effective lesson without content, hence the need for balancing cute and content. Typically, I think of cute lessons without content as “fluff”. I believe most teachers already know better than to teach a lesson that does not address a standard. But we do need to evaluate the quality and content of our lessons that address standards as well. With each lesson and activity I use, I have to ask myself: What is the purpose of this assignment? How is this assignment moving my students toward their learning goals? What is the depth of the assignment? How is this meaningful to my students? How does the assignment encourage critical and flexible thinking? Is the benefit from the assignment worth the time they will invest in the activity?
I think one of the first things to do when determining whether a lesson is high quality of merely a pretty worksheet is to determine the purpose of the lesson. I’ll use the worksheet below as an example, because it’s something that could go either way. If I were using this for parts of speech instruction, I’d acknowledge that it was more fluff than anything else. There’s no problem solving or critical thinking. There is no real-world application or authentic purpose for the worksheet. It’s cute, allows students to color a bit, but that’s about it. On the other hand, if we had been studying parts of speech, and I wanted to use this as a quick review, I wouldn’t consider it completely fluff. It’s still not particularly challenging or authentic, but it would serve the purpose of a quick review.
If I were using it for a learning activity, I’d try to replace it with something more meaningful for students. Fortunately, there is usually a way to turn fluff or low level activities into cute and quality lessons! I’ve shared six common traps and ways to ensure you’re teaching with style and substance.
There’s no doubt about it, crafts are fun, and they make adorable hallway displays. About twice a year I do a craft activity for no purpose other than to have fun and to incorporate a little art, and I’m okay with that. If I do any other craft activity, I make sure that student learning is the primary goal of the lesson. There are definitely a few pitfalls to avoid:
Spending more time on the craft than the content:
If the bulk of students’ time is placed on the art surrounding the craft, then more than likely the lesson leans too closely to fluff.
Everyone’s finished product looks the same:
If at the end of the activity, everyone’s finished product looks the same, barring irregularities in cutting and gluing, then the lesson was probably more teacher centered than student centered. Just because students are the ones doing the cutting and gluing doesn’t mean that the activity is a student centered activity.
Everything is pre-made:
If students are simply following directions to make a craft, I have to ask myself is this really teaching a standard or is it something cute to illustrate a standard.
When I use a craft for instruction, I try to make sure that the task is open ended, which will result in many different versions of the final product. I also make sure that the emphasis is on the learning, rather than cutting, gluing, coloring, and/or drawing. For example, in this Area and Perimeter Robot activity, students receive a directions page that tells the area OR perimeter of each part of their robot’s body. Students use graph paper to design each part of the body. This gives the students much more autonomy and creative options.
In this social studies activity, students created a model of U.S. government. It’s tempting to tell students exactly how they should design their model. Then, everything is uniform and neat, but when I give students options and let them decide how to create a model they have ownership over their learning.
Projects are often seen as just an extension for students who have already mastered the standards, not as a learning tool. However, students can certainly learn through projects, especially project based learning.
- Focus on standards: Don’t plan a product just because it sounds like a fun idea or it’s what you’ve always done. The majority of a project’s content should be encompassed by standards that call for students to dig deeper. You can look at a standard’s initial verb to tell just how deep students should have to dig.
- Incorporate it wth learning: A traditional project usually has students to create some type of product to demonstrate what they have already learned. Even when we allow students to present their facts in various ways, we’re spending valuable class time having students regurgitate facts, even though the extra work won’t lead to a deeper understanding of content. An alternative to the traditional project is project based learning, in which students uncover deeper understandings of content while they are working through their projects.
- Take time into account: Start project based learning small and lay out your project week-by-week.
Here’s an example of a project that is certainly cute, but not a quality learning activity. Even with the writing tie-in, I recognize that the real emphasis of this activity was decorating the pumpkin, not the writing. This is one of those activities where the focus is on the finished product more than the actual content of the book. In cases like this, one option is to make the activity an optional activity students can complete at home. This way, I’m not losing class time, and I’m not creating unnecessary stress for families who absolutely don’t have time for projects such as this.
STEM and STEAM lessons have burst into elementary schools, and I love it! As with most educational buzz words, the actual implementation of STEM and STEAM has become misconstrued, so that there are plenty of lessons labeled as STEM, that do not fit the criteria. When I try to design a STEM or STEAM lesson, I think about the following:
- Students integrate and apply meaningful and important mathematics and science content.
- Teaching methods are inquiry-based and student-centered. This means that I am not giving my students a series of steps to follow to complete a science experiment. That would create a teacher-centered lesson.
- Students engage in solving engineering challenges using an engineering design process.
- My school strongly pushes STEAM over STEM, but I’m careful to not tack on a little art activity as an afterthought. The purpose of STEAM should not be to teach art but to apply art in real situations.
While I LOVE the weather instrument booklet below, I don’t call it a STEM or STEAM activity, because I am telling students how to create the weather instruments. It’s still a great week’s worth of lessons, but I would call this more of a project than than STEM or STEAM. You can download the booklet here.
This week we’re working on a water cycle STEM activity that you can download here. I consider this a more authentic STEM activity, because students must develop their own design and working model of the water cycle. The booklet provides some support and scaffolding, and I’ll also have a collection of available materials, but the students will be in charge of developing the design.
Games and Task Cards
I love using games and task cards in my instruction, and I certainly don’t consider them fluff. However, just because something is a game or task card doesn’t mean its high quality. Once again, we must think about the purpose of the game or task card if we’re balancing cute and content. Are we using them for a review, extra practice, or enrichment? The concentration game shown below is great for reviewing place value, but it’s not great for teaching the concept or enriching place value.
If I’m using a game to teach a standard, I try to make sure the game or task card requires students to apply the standard and use higher level thinking. I use the games below to teach and enrich, not review. In the game with the orange cards, students stack the cards and place them face down. Students work with a partner and each draw a card from the stack. Students must determine the total value of their card and whoever has the great value keeps both cards. After students have gone through each of the cards, whoever kept the most cards wins.
The picture below shows a task card activity that requires problem solving and application of math skills, which makes that set of task cards great for enrichment and critical thinking. I certainly see the value in using games and task cards for review as well. I use spiral review task cards as a spiral review. Personally, I think the key is making sure I recognize the purpose for each activity and strive to provide each group of students with what they need. If we’re using centers in language arts or math, it’s essential for us to make sure that there is a balance of review and activities that go beyond the basics: identify, label, name, solve, etc. There should also be a mix of problem solving activities.
Worksheets have received a bad rap over the past few years. I’ve read countless blog posts and articles that share why teachers no longer use worksheets of any type, because they all consist of low level thinking. Just as all crafts and projects are not fluff or low level, not all worksheets are low level either. It is possible to use worksheets to promote high level thinking with meaningful activities. Or in other words, they can be used in a way that is still balancing cute and content.
Sometimes it feels as if our culture equates elaborate with excellence, but that isn’t always the case. Students don’t have to create an elaborate hallway or bulletin board display to learn. However, the worksheet must move beyond basic level thinking. This Decimal Picture activity is an example of a moderately elaborate (for me) worksheet that is combines a bit of craft with higher level thinking. In the activity, students create a picture on a grid of 100 square blocks. Then students complete the decimal picture recording sheet to show what fraction and decimal of their picture each color represents. Then, students combine the totals of different colors together to add decimals. This activity incorporates problem solving and is open ended, because each student will have a different final product.
Math Worksheet Example
Some of my favorite worksheets aren’t elaborate at all. Just last week I used these worksheets with great success. One activity asks students to write four different subtraction problems that each begin with the number 375.
In one problem, students write a subtraction problem with no regrouping. In another, there is only regrouping from the tens to ones place. There is another where there is only regrouping from the hundreds to tens place. Finally, in the last problem, each place requires regrouping.
This activity required students to do more than practice regrouping, and it included written explanations which is always important in math. The other picture shows a place value worksheet that incorporates challenging problem solving. These are just a small example of how something simple (in design and to create) can be an authentic and purposeful learning task.
I’m not saying that I never use basic level worksheets, because there is certainly a time and place for practice. When I do use a worksheet for basic practice, I try to keep it short and sweet, so that I don’t use up too much valuable class time.
Whew! This post became much longer than I expected! If you’ve made it this far, thank you. What strategies do you use to ensure you’re teaching with rigor and purpose and balancing cute and content?