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What Process Activity Works Best with Your Students?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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How hard is it to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? How many different ways can it be done? I am certain that every way possible has been explored in this tired process activity. After observing a teacher recycle this much-used activity, I couldn't help asking, "What would be the more appropriate modern version of this activity?"

Out with the Old

I watched a teacher try to get third grade students to use sequence words by having them write down a recipe for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Then she had them switch recipes and proximally follow the other student's recipe to make their PBJ. The ultimate result was that this was easy, comfortable and mildly interesting for the students. First of all, it was a formal, announced observation. Secondly, considering all of the time spent in this activity, only five minutes were spent writing the recipe (it could have been done in one) and twenty minutes were spent handing out crackers, then peanut butter, and then jelly and only then making the cracker sandwiches. In the end, the activity won out over the learning.

As I sat watching the lesson unfold, I asked myself what would be a better connection to the students that would push their sequence word use. Right off the bat, I considered technology. Commencing with my own experience, I know at my house, just to watch a movie, there are several steps that must be taken in order to get the TV talking with the DVD (a lot has changed since we just turned the TV on and turned the channel knob). Continuing this vein of thought, another idea occurred to me that would draw out the students' vocabulary skills.

Step by Step

In turn, I thought of a couple of questions. "What steps do you have to take in order to play a video game? What do you do to win a video game?" Students could first write their step-by-step procedure and later their partner could illustrate it based on what was written previously. Nah -- much too complicated for the teacher; the students would know more than the teacher would. Aha! Decorating sugar cookies!

To start off with, there are obvious steps (i.e. frosting comes before sprinkles), also it matters which side of the cookie is used, following this, students could be really creative on their procedure designs, and ultimately the students could eat them afterwards. Nope, that would not work. The federal lunch program would not allow teachers to do that because it doesn't qualify as a "highly" nutritious snack and additionally, there would be way too much sugar. Paper airplanes! That's an idea. First of all, classrooms always have lots of scrap paper and secondly the students could describe in detail how to create the planes, and thirdly they could describe how to test the planes to see if they work. No, that won't do either. Kids don't make paper airplanes anymore; neither do teachers. Perhaps alternatively, they could Google directions to build a paper plane. Hmmm...but consequentially they would only know one plane design, then they would be back to the peanut butter sandwich problem again -- only one way to do it.

In with the New

Starting off, I thought about what kids do today that is done in sequence. Initially I thought about reading books and finding sequence words used there. In quick succession, I discarded that idea because they don't read books in sequence; they often read the end first. Following that thinking, it occurred to me that they really don't watch that much television in sequence; with commercials it is hard to maintain continuity.

This led me to another idea. They listen to music, they watch music videos, and they dance! That's it! To begin the learning activity, the teacher can have the students write an eight-count dance routine. Then, have them trade with their partner and read how to do it. Next, we turn the music on and watch the fun. Afterward, the students can reflect on what happened, then circle the sequence words used, and finally correct their partner's instructions. The consequence is that each one would be different, crazy, fun and memorable. Wait -- teachers can't do this. The result would be too chaotic and too noisy and the classroom next door would complain. In conclusion, kids don't like noise anyways.

Ultimately, I quit trying to find an answer to getting students to sequence. After all this thinking, my brain began to get fuzzy, then I started losing focus, next my ears began to ring, and lastly, my fingers would only cooperate with the computer long enough to type one question: How would you get the students to use sequence words?

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fritzi huber, ms. huber, art teacher's picture
fritzi huber, ms. huber, art teacher
art teacher grades K-8, as well as adult workshops on hand papermaking.

I like your attitude. This recipe thinking has inspired a project that I'll experiment with this coming week (I like a little flex in a plan).

Everyone has a snack or dish that they create on their own when they're hungry. Get them to write the directions, then exchange it with another student, then illustrate the the result of the recipe they've been given - discuss results.

Katie Dorr's picture
Katie Dorr
Seventh Grade Teacher

One way I have encourage my students to think about sequencing and writing instructions is by having them create their own game. The game must cover basic concepts we are learning in the classroom (the building of a civilization or a novel we have read) and have step by step instructions of how to play. On game day all groups set out their games for their classmates to play. The students who created the game are not allowed to instruct their classmates on how to pay the game, they need to have communicated all requirements in the instructions. I have found that this is a great way to review concepts learned in class and a great way for students to work on writing step by step instructions.

Angelina Fortin's picture

In response to your question, I am not sure I can give a specific answer. What I do think is that when teaching, it should be done with a purpose. It should also be engaging to the students. So if you are in a technology class, a turning on a computer scenario would fit, but that may not work so well in the home economic class. In science, you could show the life cycle of a caterpillar/butterfly and keep it in the classroom. I think that if teaching the sequencing skill initially, it should be concrete facts. Once the skill is down, more abstract thinking could be encorporated into the lesson. I do like the creativity of the game idea listed above, which could fit into any category.

Alissa Cox's picture
Alissa Cox
Fourth Grade elementary teacher Billings, MT

I too often wonder if there is a better way to do what we have always done in one specific way. In regards to your question about teaching sequencing, one needs to think of the generalized purpose of using sequencing/transition words. One example that I frequently do is to have the students write down how to do a math problem with the audience being a student in a younger grade. This activity forces the students to do 2 things: 1.) use transition words and 2.) having to explain in a way that the younger grade could understand. Also, teaching the students technology and then having them talk out what they are expected to do before they partake in the activity allows them to use the sequencing/transitions words while discussing.

Alissa Cox's picture
Alissa Cox
Fourth Grade elementary teacher Billings, MT

It is important to keep in mind the purpose of teaching sequencing and transition words/phrases. As I think of the true purpose of these words and where the students in my classroom will use them I think of game directions, directions, and instructions on how to accomplish a task. This leads me to further thinking on how this looks in their lives. Most of them have to use technology when coming across this task; whether it be in an email, reading instructions on line, reading about how to get something up and running, etc. Therefore, I would think that using technology integrated into these lessons would result in high engagement and a meaningful lesson for each student.

Sam's picture
Intervention Specialist

FIRST off, I like the sarcasm! :) Secondly, I too have trouble with my students not using sequencing. They often write the concept or main idea and omit words needed to create their stories. When discussing recipes, for an alternate assessment piece this year I used a recipe. We followed a recipe card, however it was with pictures. It displayed details using words, but the pictures were very helpful so my student could understand the main idea.

Magister novum's picture

What child of any age does not enjoy or relate to games. Katie Dorr's idea of creating games is something that each child can relate to. It is interactive, no health code issues, the noise level can be controlled appropriately,and there is higher level thinking involved. They learn not only to write the directions to follow but to follow the other directions that have been written. A follow up activity or even a sheet that they take with them to each game to record the sequencing words that they had to follow is a good way to access their recognition of the words.

I would love to hear what you came up with.

Sarah's picture

It is important that you engage your students and find a way for them to sequence something that is of interest to them. While in a pre-k classroom, I taught the idea of sequencing through building a snow man. We actually went outside and built the snow man first. When we returned to the classroom we discussed the sequence in three stages and then the students had to sequence pictures. It was only the beginning to sequences for them but they got the idea! I think the best idea for older students is the board game.

Roslyn Green's picture
Roslyn Green
Elementary Teacher

I often wonder the same thing. Every year there are many teachers in my school at different grade levels using this same lesson. I am sure by 5th grade the students know what to expect and can teach the lesson for us. I like this idea of writing about something they just made. I also like the idea of using a video game, even though you joked that the teacher might get lost in the process. Perhps they copuld write it for the teacher and have the teacher try by following their directions. In any sense, I think the activity needs to go out and make room for something new.

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