Moonshot Thinking – An Ongoing Lesson in Perseverance, Risk Taking, Connection and Apollo 11

Our school mascot is the explorer.  Our symbol is a rocketship.  So when I first heard the term “moonshot thinking” I was intrigued.  Digital Learning Specialist and Educational Keynote Speaker, Jenny Magiera brought it to my attention last summer as I was following the BLC15 hashtag on twitter.   Mageria challenges all teachers to create a classroom where it’s okay to fail.  It’s her belief and mine too, that mistakes are usually opportunities to try again.  And it’s often these second attempts in learning that push us to take bigger risks, and in the classroom, even a 1st grade classroom, these risks usually lead to deeper more meaningful learning.  

I picked up Brian Floca’s book,  Moonshot – The Flight of Apollo 11 in the fall.  I knew that not only did I have a mentor text for my 1st graders first non fiction unit of study but I also had a book that would inspire my students to ask questions.  After reading Moonshot my 1st graders put many of their questions on sticky notes.  “How do you get to be an astronaut?   Is space travel dangerous?  Do you sleep in space?  How long does it take to get to the moon?”  These questions led to spending a good chunk of our We Wonder Wednesday researching  Neil Armstrong, space travel and the effects of gravity in space. Videos from this historic time helped us learn how to  make meaning of images.  And my students marveled, as together, we watched the grainy, black and white footage of Neil Armstrong taking his first step on the moon.  We even tweeted our questions to Moonshot author, Brian Floca and to our surprise he tweeted back.


That connection alone was enough to inspire my students to think big.  They were so proud that the author of our favorite read-a-loud was talking to us.  But even more importantly, at least to me, this book started what is still an ongoing conversation in my classroom. How do we set goals and what does it take to meet them?  Learning is a lifelong adventure and if we want to to accomplish great things, all of us have to try, fail, persist, try again and even repeat many times before we can  reach the the highest of heights.  Moonshot thinking.img_5188

We Wonder Wednesday -My Unexpected Learning

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I’d like to think that if you walked into my classroom on any given day, you would see students engaged in learning.  My classroom is a place where students have lots of choices.  I believe in the workshop model, a quick minilesson, and lots of opportunity for practice. I also believe in teamwork and collaboration. My students learn quickly that a huge part of  first grade is  learning how to work with others.  After all, I tell them again and again that “none of us are as smart as all of us”.  And when they start coming to me with stories of how  “so and so”  is sooooo hard to work with, I remind them that working with others is not  always easy.  And yet I believe that even our youngest students can learn to  work with anyone, no matter how difficult the personality.  I will confess that getting first graders to collaborate is messy.  And sometimes it’s just plain hard.  And yet when I heard that teachers in classrooms around the world were actually setting aside time for students to plan their own learning I was intrigued.

I started We Wonder Wednesday in my classroom two years ago. We Wonder Wednesday is similar to 20% time, or genius hour. The idea, simply put, is that students are given the time and opportunity to pick their own project, to wonder and learn about anything, to have complete voice and choice, even in a first grade classroom. In the beginning, I struggled. There is always so much that we have to make sure we are teaching day to day and I wasn’t quite ready to use that time and just hope that I would get results.  So I dabbled in “we wonder” – I did it a few weeks on, a few weeks off, you get the idea. But even then I saw results.  So last year, I decided I wasn’t going to waffle in wonder anymore. I would commit one 45 minute block of time every Wednesday morning to students and let them direct that time.   And what do you know?  It worked. Soon  my first graders were researching pollution and interviewing our school custodian to find out how much garbage we were creating at school.  That led to an interview with our school secretary who was worried that we were wasting paper in our building. Another group was studying elephant conservation efforts in Africa and ended up creating maps that highlighted elephant habitat.  I had two students who wanted to learn more about Ruby Bridges and so they read books together and watched video’s and then created their own book about her. 

These girls got the opportunity to show this book at a gathering of Seattle educators and parents who wanted to learn more about how students were using these devices in our classrooms. After their presentation, I asked them, what they were going to do next, and without hesitation they told the audience that they had learned so much they wanted to write a new book about other heroes in the civil rights movement.

I will say that having a 1 to1 classroom made our “we wonder” time even more successful.   These devices  gave my class the opportunity to research, to do interviews, to make videos, and to keep all that research and work in one place.   But not everyone wanted to use their iPad.   I had many students who did their work on paper and poster boards. One  group of students spent several months writing their own play. Their idea was to mash-up some of their favorite characters, Dr. Seuss, Koala Lu, The Grouchy Ladybug, and create a new story.  The result a 3- act play that was produced, written, directed and performed by first graders. 

These are just a couple of examples of the learning that I didn’t plan or expect this year.  Every Wednesday my students were choosing their own adventure in learning.  And while they were learning they were also collaborating, sharing, and lifting each other up.  And after awhile, this learning didn’t just happen on Wednesday. Most of my students worked on We Wonder during choice time or asked me if they could stay in at recess to continue working.   I have always called my classroom a community of learners and this year it truly was.  I learned that by lifting my expectations and giving students a chance to lead the way, we all learned more than expected.