Mary Poppins: Our first game is called Well Begun is Half-Done.
Michael: I don't like the sound of that.
Mary Poppins: Otherwise titled Let's Tidy up the Nursery.
Michael: [to Jane] I told you she was tricky.
In the last day I've had two new teachers ask me about how start to designing a new lab. I didn't really have an easy answer in either case so I'm going to do my best to explain it here.
First, go read Teach like a Pirate. It is focused on social studies but it is a fantastic tool for creating any new activity. The author, Dave Burgess, offers a series of questions to ask yourself to help come up with your hook for the lesson. That really is the hardest part so that would be a great place to start.
If, like me, you've read the and still find yourself stuck I'd say the next step is to think of your central question. Every good lab, in any subject, is centered around the question. That is what turns a lesson from an info dump into an investigation.
Did Julius Caesar want to die?
Should Andrew Jackson be removed from the $20 bill?
Were the Mayans really advanced?
How is marine biology different from whateverwordmeansnonmarine biology?
What happens if we use a number system based on 20 instead of 10?
What did Edgar Allen Poe's stories have in common?
Often these questions come from our standards or framework but they can just as easily come from outside influences. Many times I've been watching something on TV and heard a question or saw a topic that I felt my students would enjoy investigating. Other times my questions have come from looking at other lessons on the topic.
Once you have the question you can start to ask yourself the best way to help students discover the answer. Is it through a guided Internet search? Is it through analysis of graphics? A simulation? A game? An act it out? A modification of another lesson I've done? Sometimes it is as simple for me as looking at my calendar and seeing what lab types we haven't used in awhile. (It's been three weeks since we did a Digging for the Truth? Let's do that!) You surely have a huge tool box of lesson types and ideas that you've picked up in "teacher school" or through your time teaching.
With your question and general lesson idea in hand (or at least in head) you can start looking for additional media to bring into the lesson. You can check out Youtube for connected videos or fire up a Google image search. You can start to think of songs - old or now - that can connect to your lab. This is just window dressing though. Don't hold off on a lab simply because you couldn't spice it up with media. The core is the question and the delivery method.
When in doubt - crowdsource it. I'm a huge advocate of Twitter (less so since October but that's another story...) as professional development. For any subject the teachers at the #TLAP are wonderful. That is the community tied to Teach like a Pirate. It is a community of teachers who want to engage their students and their ideas are fantastic. It is one of the few communities that isn't overrun with political commentary. It is just teachers looking to drive themselves (and each other) to do the very best for their students. When I hit a wall and just can't think of something to do with a topic I'll take it to them. Sometimes they have exactly what I need. Other times I'll just get an idea that sends me in the right direction. And, yes, sometimes I get no response. Even that, though, drives me forward. That just means someone needs to make it happen and well, it might as well be me.
The key to it really is to just began. Mary Poppins was pretty spot on with her analysis. I'd change only one thing. I don't think the job even has to be well begun. I just think it has to be begun period. Burgess writes about the power of our creative brains functioning in the background once we've given it a question to grapple with. Start a Word Doc and put some ideas down. In a few years you may end up with dozens of file names like "Compromise Lab [unfinished]" like I have but you'll also find you end up with many completed labs ready to use, engage and hopefully share.
I highly recommend trying to design your own labs (which are really just inquiry based lessons) and see where it takes you.
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