Paper Airplanes Become a Versatile Teaching Tool

A MiddleWeb Blog

For most teachers across the country, the school year is in full-swing. Classroom procedures have been put in place, academic strengths and vulnerabilities have stepped forward into the light, and personality quirks have been discovered. The early beginnings of our classroom community have begun to evolve into a true community as well.

In Room 4-T, we have just begun this process, with only a few short weeks of school behind us. We are still in the early stages. And we are just a small microcosm of a much larger universe. The individuals who make up our community are a diverse sampling of this bigger world.

A recent article I read, by Larry Ferlazzo, entitled Mistakes New Teachers Make & How to Avoid Them, brought me back to another beginning, quite some time ago, when I was a brand new teacher.

Ferlazzo identifies some of the common blunders, and presents some thoughtful advice for newcomers in a discussion with fellow educators Michael Janatovich, Sarah Thomas, Roxanna Elden, Kristi Mraz, Christine Hertz, and Julia Thompson in this first article of a three-part series.

Reading it, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the mistakes I made in years past (and the ones I am still making 20 years in). And while each of these educators relayed experiences that I could completely relate to, Roxanna Elden’s jumped out at me the most when she reminded me to “Get enough sleep.”

She’s right.

We, as teachers, are charged with preparing our students for a much larger world. Mine are little. They are learning. Like me, they need sleep. Like many of us, they don’t get enough. I need to remember that, for myself and the well-being of the 4T community.

There are days and deadlines that are often out of my control. Some days this affects my sleep patterns. In theory, I know that I can’t control waking up in the middle of the night with an idea, but I can control what time I go to bed most days. A 9:30 p.m. bedtime is okay for a fifty-year-old, right?

It’s hard to admit how little I do actually have control over, to be honest. I can, however, control the choices I make as a teacher…and what time I decide to set my alarm for each morning is one of those choices.

Teaching kids about choices

The power of choice is something I want my students to know and embrace. The way I figure, if I model making good choices, the kids will understand choosing more deeply. Perhaps this is even more the case when I model bad decision-making, which I try to keep to a minimum. I need to provide my students with the freedom to make choices for themselves, and to live with the results.

This year, I discovered an amazing tool to begin this process as I introduced the idea of symbolism and a new read-aloud. I’m calling this discovery “harnessing the power of paper airplanes.”

Many abstract ideas can be taught through modeling. One tricky idea for fourth graders is this concept of symbolism. It’s the more critical connections that are harder to “teach” and to truly assess as I probe each of my learner’s level of understanding.

This year, our first example of symbolism is suspended from the ceiling of our classroom. It is a formidable, sturdy, paper airplane, made of thick paperboard (and the back of a large desk calendar from last year). It is a concrete reminder for me, personally, to look back at past experiences.

Our symbol is approximately two feet in length, from nose to tail, with a wing-span of about a foot and a half. It’s sleek. It’s large. It symbolizes the power of choice.

I have a very large class this year, the largest one I’ve had in over 20 years of teaching. This particular group seems very chatty, too. That’s not a bad thing. Teaching literacy is enhanced by lively classroom banter and discussions by the sharing of ideas. But they are really, really chatty…and they have me greatly outnumbered.

They know this. I am the one who pointed it out to them. This current fact served as the anticipatory set for one of our first lessons on the power of choice.

A revealing read-aloud

As I introduced a new read aloud, My Teacher Is a Monster by Peter Brown, however, the chatter subsided. Brown’s story was perfect for our early days together. It is the story of Bobby, also known as ROBERT! when he makes certain, um…choices in class.

One would think, even with a new teacher, that kids would know better than to throw paper airplanes in a classroom. Many of them actually do know this, and they choose not to launch one. But, you see, Brown’s character Bobby wasn’t one of these children. He was far too big a fan of aerodynamics. And his teacher, Ms. Kirby, didn’t like the choice he made that particular day in class.

I don’t want to give away the ending to the story. It was too much fun to read for the first time myself. Suffice it to say that choosing to launch a paper airplane in class is a choice. My fourth graders got that…well, all but one. We’ll call her Roberta.

Thankfully, for Mr. Brown’s Bobby, things didn’t end too badly. Things didn’t end badly in 4-T that day for Roberta either…or for the rest of us.

After completing a class Wisdom Book response and discussing Brown’s characters and their choices, we all settled in for a little aero-origami ourselves. It’s amazing what you can pick up about your learners when you teach them how to fold the perfect airplane…seriously!

While we folded, and the realization of what we were making started to sink in and ripple across the room, I picked up some important data about my newest crew.

By showing them how to make a paper airplane, hints about fine-motor skill development surfaced on desk tops, peeks into the ability to follow oral and visual directions came into view, unique glimpses into a few community members who may have some challenges with spacial relationships and coordination started to appear. A brief look at who is prone to helping tablemates (and who is not) began to take shape. And these were just a few of the unexpected surprises that served as assessment tools that day. Reliable, worthy assessment tools.

The piece de resistance came after we successfully assembled twenty-six planes. That was the moment of truth. Would they (or could they) choose to keep them grounded until we lined up and went out to the grassy front lawn?

Roberta just couldn’t do it. I get that. I have a wee bit of Roberta in me. But hers was a short flight. It was a mistake. She knew it. We all knew it. I pointed it out without being too monsterly. Then we lined up to go outside to fly our new symbols of choice.

Two wisdoms

Here are 4-T’s first two wisdoms for the 2017-2018 school year:

“There is a time and place for everything.”

“The choices we make can affect our relationship with each other.”

Those are pretty good precepts to start off with, if you ask me.

Now, each day, our enormous paper airplane, the one flying high above the read-aloud rug, begs each of us to ask ourselves important questions like,

“Do you want to be Robert or Bobby?” or “Is Ms. Tarashuk really a monster?”

As Roxanna Elden reminded me, I need to “Get enough sleep.” The answers to these questions will sort themselves out much better if I’m well-rested.

Sleep and paper airplanes. The keys to community building. Who woulda’ thunk it?

Mary Tarashuk

Mary Tarashuk teaches 4th grade at Wilson Elementary School in Westfield, New Jersey. Mary has been an educator for over 20 years. She has served as content writer and creative consultant for the national, award-winning initiative The Walking Classroom since its inception in 2005. Mary’s work has been published in Education Digest and was honored with the SmartBrief Education 2016 Editors’ Choice Content Award. Trying to balance her old-school teaching style with New Age methods that integrate ever-changing technology keeps her on her toes. She believes that fresh air and exercise enhance learning and engage students of all ages. Follow her on Twitter @maryrightangle and check out her Kids on the Cusp page at Facebook.

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