Thinking Futuristically

MIDLOTHIAN, TX — Midlothian would be a different community today if not for the industriousness, creativity and hard work given to it by a certain group of students called the Problem Solvers. Manna House, the Senior Citizens Activity Center and the town’s storm sirens, which warn the community of approaching danger, have all had their genesis in the Midlothian ISD Problem Solvers classes. “This program is so precious to this community, because it is literally changing it,” stated Christina McDaniel, current instructor of Future Problem Solvers for sixth-graders and Community Problem Solvers at both middle schools and the high school.

This is Christina’s eleventh year of teaching, and the Problem Solvers program fits her teaching style perfectly. “This program just fits me. My goal with the community kids is service first. I tell them, ‘That’s why you are here — to put other people before yourself.’ It’s challenging to find something that is a need and not a want.” In keeping with that spirit, the group has successfully completed many projects for the improvement of Midlothian. One of their missions was Project Play, in which they helped make the Hawkins Spring Park playground area more accommodating for kids of all abilities. The playground was modified by putting in special needs swings, learning boards all around the park and talking tubes on the playground. They also took out the pebbles and replaced them with wood chips, so wheelchairs could maneuver better on them. “We raised $27,000 for Hawkins Park. That was the most money we’ve ever raised,” Christina said.

The group finds a need, follows through the process of identifying challenges and comes up with appropriate solutions. “To be successful, you have to complete the project — see it through to the end. If you don’t complete it, then you didn’t finish servicing the need you identified,” Christina stated.

The Problem Solvers concept begins in the sixth grade. “Sixth-graders have futuristic stories. They are given certain topics to study for the year, and then they are given a charge or a task. When they get in the seventh and eighth grades, they move to the Community Problem Solvers class. I teach the process to sixth-graders, and the students take that knowledge and put it into real life from seventh grade through high school,” Christina explained. She uses a very systematic approach to problem solving that the students practice on a future problem. Starting in seventh grade, the problem-solving skills are put to use solving life problems.

“When you go through the problem-solving process, you always run into something that isn’t working the way you thought it would work, and that is where problem-solving skills come into play,” Christina said. “You’ve anticipated certain problems, so once they come up, you’ve already thought about potential solutions. That is what I start teaching them at a younger age. They can use that skill in other classes and throughout their experiences. If you are able to anticipate something that could be a challenge for you, you are much more prepared than if you are hit with it unprepared. So, teaching them how to think futuristically in a critical way is one of the goals for the classes — to think beyond today and tomorrow.”

A current project for the class at Walnut Grove is to give backpacks of food on Fridays to students in need. The latest completed project is Divergent Outdoor Teaching, known as DOT, a new teaching/learning area that is located outside at the high school. “Our goal was to get the students and teachers outside of the classroom to learn in a different way,” Christina stated. “Students did research at the beginning of the project by polling teachers and students to try to find out how people learn best. Many of them said hands-on learning and being outside the confines of the walls of the classroom would interest them more, and would capture their attention.”
That led to having a designated outdoor area for teaching at the high school. To heighten the learning experience, the team designated certain sections for different topics or classes. The sections are Social Studies, The Arts, Life Studies, Language Arts, Psychology and Biology, with the name of the class painted on the outdoor wall. In addition to the learning experience, the group painted the United States map and a world map on the ground. “We drew the outlines of the map but did not label or color it. It makes a better teaching moment if it’s blank. You can write on it and, for example, draw the original colonies or name the states.”

The maps on the ground are part of the Social Studies teaching station. The Math and Science area has a long vertical and horizontal ruler affixed to the wall. There is also a portable putting green, with a putter and balls available to talk about physics. There are picnic tables around the area for the students to use. One picnic table is very special. “We have a periodic table. This is a pride and joy of my students,” explained Christina. The actual periodic table is drawn onto the top and seat of the picnic table.

The Fine Arts section has paintings of theater masks on the wall as well as musical notes and a color wheel. The Life Studies area sports a pyramid that could be used as a food pyramid. “Because this is Life Studies,” Christina said, “it could be the different classifications of animals. The students were the ones who did the work of drawing and painting.

They identified what things they wanted in each area, so in the Psychology and Biology area, they chose the skin diagram. The students chose this because it is something the teachers can use. A teacher can come out and expand on it. They can write on the walls with chalk, and it comes right off.” There is also a painting of the parts of the brain and the structures of the eye. The Divergent Outdoor Teaching is now completed and in full use by students and teachers.

Whatever future project or task is chosen by this select group, the community will certainly benefit. The students benefit personally by giving back to the community with their service, and even Christina benefits. “I really enjoy helping people,” she shared. “That’s why I teach. I like to see that transformation of a person. I can see it in their eyes when something clicks. Then I know I’ve helped someone or taken a load or stress off of them. It makes me feel better. It takes a special person to wrap their mind around this type of thinking, and it just fits me.”

Written by Betty Tryon.