As a teacher, if your principal gave you a $500 budget, what would you buy? Would it be books, consumables, or software subscriptions? Would it be hands-on learning tools or equipment?
Admittedly, $500 does not go far enough to buy technology, furniture, or curriculum. But individual teachers really can't buy those things anyway because of volume discounts, uniformity for troubleshooting and repair, and in the case of curriculum, the teachers all have to agree on what to teach. I would venture that some of you might be saying, "If only my principal would give me a budget of $500!" But if he did, what would be the best investment of this relatively small chunk of change?
As a principal, I became a bit frustrated when I gave teachers a budget and they bought paperclips, tape, glue sticks, colored paper -- normal office stuff. Why would they want to spend their treasure on mundane stuff like that?
What I want them to buy with their budgets are things that will help students learn. I understand that a creative teacher can use office stuff to help students learn, but I was ecstatic when a science teacher asked if she could buy perch for dissections. "Yes!" I replied.
One of the best things that help students learn in a constructivist way is manipulatives. So that I am clear in what I mean, a manipulative is a learning tool that the student can use to increase understanding and comprehension, through exploration and discovery. In my viewpoint, there are only two types of student manipulatives: data testing and data gathering.
Data testing manipulatives can be as simple as Legos (nothing beats medium size; the small ones are hard to use and get all over the place). Students of all ages can attempt to build different representations of what they know. As they do so, they test basic principles of construction, gravity, and design. Mathematics teachers use data testing manipulatives to help students visualize the abstract concepts. Cuisenaire rods are a good example of how students can test their understanding of math creating the visual representation of the mathematical process.
Data gathering is one of the pillars of science learning. It sets the stage for a large number of brain-building activities that require analysis or analytical thinking and evaluation or critical thinking (very different skill sets are used in critical and analytical thinking). Data is everywhere, but the best data are those that the students have gathered themselves. For example, most schools have Texas Instruments (TI) calculators. I went on the TI website and found 61 different probes that connect to the calculator. These probes gather data on how much light, temperature, color, and motion is being displayed. Even the iPad has accelerometers for data gathering; and then there is the Clinometer app, the Compass HD + Vector Magnetometer/Gravitometer app, and another neat little app called iPocket Tools 11-1 HD Lite. All of these apps all take advantage of the built in accelerometers in the iPads. They all have free versions, but the versions to purchase are very reasonable and well worth the dollar or two spent.
The perch that my science teacher purchased could actually be both data testing and data gathering manipulatives. Dissection would be a data testing use of the perch. Students would perform the dissection to check to make sure the perch had all the right parts and discover what the unknown parts were. The class could then measure the sizes of the perch and their parts and create data tables for further analysis. Students could write poetry about perch, they could describe how to cook perch, and can even discover the history of perch. Imagine the hours of fun-learning activities that students can have with a bucket full of perch!
While classrooms would not operate well without sticky notes, glue, and pencils, student learning may not be directly affected by these things. I would suggest that the most "bang" for your buck(et) would be to obtain things that students can manipulate to gather and test data.
What would you do with $500 for your classroom? Please comment in the section below.