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Greenville Business Magazine

The Missing Piece in Middle School Curriculum

Aug 31, 2017 08:27AM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Natalie Curry
Photography by Amy Randall Photography

Understandably, when Jane DiBridge encountered a disruptive student in her sixth-grade language arts class who wanted to work on a jigsaw puzzle instead of participating in the lesson, she let him.

“I knew that if he went back there and worked on that puzzle, he would not make a sound the whole class, he would be so engrossed in that puzzle,” DiBridge says.

She let the student work on the puzzle, but wished that there were a way to keep the student engaged in the lesson. This experience, along with similar moments in her middle school English language arts classroom, inspired DiBridge to found Standards in Puzzles, a company that produces jigsaw puzzles that align with educational standards and provide a solution to this classroom conundrum. 

DiBridge initially searched for an educational puzzle online that she could purchase for her classroom, but was dissatisfied with the selection she found. What good was a puzzle of the periodic table in a language arts class? That’s when DiBridge decided to try her hand at creating puzzles that mapped out more unexpected learning standards, like figurative language and plot structure.

Creating curriculum-based puzzles is something of a third career for DiBridge, who has worked in marketing, publishing, and teaching throughout her career. The idea for Standards in Puzzles came as she was about to retire from full-time teaching, and the timing couldn’t have been better.

“I was about to hang it up there and I said ‘You know, I would just like to try coming up with some puzzles that were standards based,’” she says.

Now, Standards in Puzzles has produced 12 puzzles in four subject areas: language arts, science, math, and social studies. DiBridge came up with the concepts for the puzzles herself, and with some help from an artist, her visions became a reality.

DiBridge propelled the concept beyond just a tool for distracted kids or early-finishers and into an entire lesson plan based around the puzzle. DiBridge admits that “if a teacher wants to use it as part of their lesson it’s a little more difficult,” but that’s where her eight years of classroom experience came into play. She developed lesson plans for each 513-piece puzzle that include stations geared towards the puzzle’s theme. While working on the ‘Age of Discovery’ puzzle, students might participate in stations that range from studying primary source documents to creating astrolabes out of cardboard.
Besides offering a fun alternative lesson in the classroom, DiBridge sees real benefits in turning jigsaw puzzles into educational tools in terms of student attention and focus.

“If I’m feeling a little agitated and I start working on one of those puzzles, after about five minutes, I find myself focusing on that and feeling much calmer,” she says. “And students have expressed to me that it works the same way for them.”

Anyone who has spent an hour or two working on a jigsaw puzzle can probably attest to similar effects.

DiBridge has been able to see the reception to her puzzles in real classrooms first-hand. While she is retired from full-time teaching, she still occasionally substitutes. DiBridge often asks if she can bring her puzzles into the classroom if the teacher doesn’t already have a lesson planned, and she says the puzzles have been well-received by teachers and students alike.

“I have had it in some other classrooms that have bought my puzzles, and I’ve talked to those teachers, and they said their students love the puzzles,” she says.

The puzzles are currently in classrooms across 10 states, and DiBridge hopes to roll out a second line of 12 puzzles next spring. While there are classrooms in South Carolina that already have the puzzles, DiBridge doesn’t foresee entire school-systems adopting the puzzles.

“This is more up to an individual teacher or principal’s discretion, as to whether this is something they want to put in their classroom,” she says. “So it’s more directed towards individual schools.”

DiBridge has set her sights on increasing the range and scope of the puzzles while sticking to middle school curriculum, the subjects she knows best. Standards in Puzzles is still a small organization, and very much family focused, with the core team consisting of DiBridge, her husband, and her son.

When asked about her ultimate goal for Standards in Puzzles, DiBridge had this to say: “My ultimate goal would be to be able to have puzzles that are available for a wide variety of standards and different lessons and that teachers will see how well students relax and are able to focus and learn with this kind of a tool.”