Putting the A in STEAM, Part 2: The “One More Thing” Thing

An occasional series on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.

A number of organizations, including GriffinEd, serve schools for free; but money is not the only thing our schools are short on. When I was a full-time teacher, if you had given me a choice between more money for field trips, supplies, computers, etc. or more time with my students, I would have chosen more time without hesitation. Here’s why: there are always places teachers can go for more money, including (alas) own own wallets; but we cannot make more time for all the things we are expected to cram into our instructional day.

There is a chain of well-regarded charter schools whose main innovation is time: a longer school day, Saturday classes, and several more weeks in their school year. As far as I can tell that’s the only thing they do differently, but guess what? With more time to teach, they get more done. Regular teachers don’t have that option, so we learn to vigorously guard every minute of our instructional day; and we STILL cannot possibly fit in everything we are asked to do. Then some guy (me, for example) shows up to run a staff training on STEAM, and the teachers naturally and rightly get suspicious. What? One more thing you want us to do? Yeah, sure.

If we are serious about making it work, we need to bear in mind that everything we do in the name of STEAM has got to be focused on the curriculum the teachers are teaching right now. If the students are reading a biography of Ben Franklin, the last thing they need is an actor coming in with a brilliant one-man show about Mark Twain. And yes, this happened to my class. I don’t call that STEAM, I call it a big waste of time: not only is it taking time away from our Ben Franklin unit, but the kids won’t even learn much about Mark Twain because there isn’t time for any follow-through on the Twain play, no matter how many Twain-related word searches you gave me. They’re all going in the recycler as soon as the actor leaves.

Now, here’s the good news: if we can align our STEAM activities to the stuff we need to teach anyway, it stops being one more thing to add to our day; instead it becomes a faster, more efficient way to get our job done. A well-written song about the periodic table of the elements, for example, will bring the kids up to speed on the topic faster than a conventional introductory lesson. A dance activity where kids make different kinds of angles (acute, right, obtuse) with their bodies can be great. Painting a mural of the different layers of the rainforest (emergent, canopy, understory, floor) is fantastic; but the art has got to be aligned to the stuff the kids are already working on or it will just be one more thing. The teachers may out up with it (barely) while the artist is on campus, but as soon as the artist goes home that cute project will be forgotten.

When we do it right, STEAM makes our lessons more inclusive, more fun, more effective. The kids get up to speed on the topic faster and it sticks longer so teachers won’t have to do so much reteaching later, which in turn frees up more time for other stuff; maybe even more art!

But it’s got to fit into the curriculum we’re doing right now, or it’s just one more thing.