Monday, January 8, 2018

Adventures With Fourth Graders and Finches

This is my first year as a gifted support teacher. Previously, I've taught 2nd and 5th grades. Now I am working with students in grades 1, 4, 5, 6, and it's great! I was hired for my new job in August and had to begin adjusting some of my project plans that I had been working on during the summer. One thing I was able to keep in place, however, was my plan to participate in the Finch Robot Loan Program from BirdBrain Technologies.

My fourth graders were able to participate in a combination of the Finch Loan Program and the Global Read Aloud, a collaborative event where schools read the same book for six weeks in October-November. We decided to read The Wild Robot and to connect the Finches to the story.

As part of a graduate course I took the summer of 2016, I had created some lessons that linked The Wild Robot to a few STEM challenge activities designed to introduce elementary-level students to working with robots, engineering, and environmental awareness. When I became part of the Finch Robot Loan Program, I simply adjusted a robot-focused activity to allow students to use the Finches while still being able to connect to The Wild Robot. It was a great pairing!

The goals of the Finch Robot activities were to help students learn how the Finch operations, to learn some basic programming (we used Snap!), and to complete a challenging task collaboratively. Students could choose to join one of two projects: 1) Use Finch Robot to retell a portion of The Wild Robot story, or 2) Use Finch Robot to maneuver the geographic features found in the setting of The Wild Robot. Eleven students were participating in this challenge, and, fortunately, they were able to choose the project they wanted and have teams that were pretty even.

Students first learned how to use the Finch Robot and the block-based programming, Snap! They did some planning of their projects and then got to work creating the props they would need for their videos. As some students worked on props, others began planning the scripts for the video and started working on the programming that would allow the Finch to tell their stories. Deadlines had to be extended due to the amount of time needed to successfully complete each part of the projects as well as to accommodate for other activities, absences, etc., that took away time. By winter break, however, the students had recorded all the clips they needed to assemble, as best they could, a finished project. As of today, they have not had a chance to do the video editing, but they will very soon. I plan to share the videos as soon as they area ready - so stay tuned!

While our timeline was not quite what I had planned, I was thrilled with the learning that has taken place along the way.  Here are some thoughts about long-term projects and about using the Finch Robots in the classroom.

  • While deadlines are important, when possible, give kids the time they need to try things, make mistakes, stall, rework their ideas. Also, reserve time at the end of the project for all to reflect on the process and think about how to improve how they work for future projects.
  • When kids are given the chance to work with materials, such as the Finch Robot, you can see how excited they are about what they are doing. They commit to the task and have fun as they learn.
  • The fourth graders had a hard time making their ideas work. That's OK. They got frustrated at times, and they were sometimes impatient with their teammates. As their teacher, I provided guidance on how to use the robot and Snap! as well as how to work together and to move forward when things were difficult. I'll admit that sometimes it was hard to resist jumping in and saving the day when things were a bit rough. By allowing the children to work through their problems, they learned valuable collaborative skills. 
  • I enjoyed observing the children as they worked. From the planning, to designing props, to programming, to filming, they showed growth and perseverance. They all had a chance to share their ideas and to have their voices heard. They truly took ownership of their work.
  • The students learned that it's OK to "mess up." Sometimes their ideas didn't quite work out. They had to keep returning to the drawing board to adjust their programming or their props, to re-record their narration and to re-re-record their narration. Once they got into the flow of the trial and error process, it was hard to get them to stop working. 
  • I plan to continue to use the Finch Robot in my fourth grade class as well as in some of my other classes. It has definitely been a great addition to our school!  I am very thankful to the staff at BirdBrain Technologies for all their support and advice. What a great team to work with!
Here are some photos of the process. Remember to keep a look out for the finished videos. I know I can't wait!

The Robots Arrive - Each student got to name his or her own Finch. 

Planning Session

More Planning

Students were able to connect the Finch projects to something else: digital fabrication. Thanks to grants from the Council Rock Education Foundation and the National Education Association, as well as funds from the Fab@School Match Grant Program, our school is working to create digital fabrication stations that use Fab@School Maker Studio. These students needed wooden crates for their story - so they made them!
The Crate
More Crates
Trying Out a Ramp
A View From Above

Props for the Geography Tour

The scenes are coming along.

Almost Ready - Remember to stay tuned for the finished videos!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Summer STEM Academy 2017 - Not That Horrible

For six years, I have facilitated my school district's Summer STEM Academy (originally Summer Technology Academy). There are two, two-week sessions, and kids entering grades 3-8 attend. It is a great learning experience for the participants, and for me, as I am always looking for ways to challenge participants and get them excited about the STEM disciplines. Additionally, in the last couple of years, the program has seen more "repeat customers," which means I need to change each session a bit to accommodate those who have already attended. It's an ever-evolving program.

During each two-week session, I learn about the participants, their skills, and their interests. Then I create experiences that are new for the group, I work to build upon the skills some already have, and I create mini training sessions for anyone who is interested in a certain topic. For example, this year we had a mini 3D pen session and an Arduino session. About half the time we work together on specific activities. The other half the time the participants work on something of their own choosing. This routine works well and creates a community of learners who are working because they want to, not because they have to. Some participants will work by themselves, rarely asking for help, others work in groups on massive projects. Participants can be seen teaching each other new skills, collaborating across grade levels, and working through what might seem impossible so they can create their vision.

This year, we had two high school volunteers join us who were past STEM Academy participants. It's wonderful to have these amazing young people return to the program in this capacity. It's also exciting to hear current participants already making plans to return as volunteers when they are in high school. At the end of each session, some of the participants already began to make plans to come back next summer, and there were some participants who were making plans to stay in touch after the program ended. There is a sort-of "camp culture" feel to it when kids are truly enjoying themselves and making memories and friends that last beyond the program. It's great to see kids from across our big school district and across grade levels finding others with whom they have things in common.

At the end of each STEM Academy, I always reflect on how I can bring some of the STEM Academy routine to the regular classroom during the school year. I couldn't create an identical program, but I think about ways I could build community, inspire independent learning, and encourage our students to be both teachers and learners. It takes some creative planning, but it is possible to bring the "camp culture" to the classroom.

One of my favorite quotes from the program came from an 8th grade participant. He wasn't convinced at first that learning in the summer was for him. When we chatted about the program, he admitted, "Well, it isn't that terrible here." We laughed and I told him I think this might be the best customer testimonial for summer learning ever!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Educon 2017 Session - Mental Health: Finding Help, Getting Help

Educon 2.9 takes place January 27-29 at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA. On Saturday, January 28, from 1-2:30 pm, in Room 209, I'll be leading a conversation about Mental Health, with a focus on mental health and mental illness as it relates to our school communities. The goal is to help each other become better informed, to share resources, and to simply provide a supportive environment for those who want to discuss this sensitive topic. Throughout the session, we will use a shared document to post notes and resources. Finally, participants will discuss some "next steps" that can be taken to help support mental health in our communities.

There will be a brief intro (statistics, short video clip, share-out) and then participants will join in small group discussions about challenging issues related to mental health, including discussions of how schools can support students, families, and colleagues with mental health needs. Here are some of the proposed questions. Keep in mind the conversation will be flexible to take into account participants' needs and expertise. 
  1. Are our learning communities designed to promote mental health for all?
  2. Do we know how to identify signs of mental illness? 
  3. Do we know where to go to find help for those in need? Do schools have supports in place to help children and adults who are part of our communities?
  4. Are schools responsible for reaching out to families or helping family members? 
  5. Are we keeping an eye on our colleagues? Is self-help possible?
  6. What are some next steps for our communities?

Consider attending Educon this year. It's a great opportunity to "recharge" during the winter months. If you are attending, I hope to see you at the Mental Health session. 

Take care!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Sports and Learning

Today is "Sports Day" at school, when you can wear your favorite sports clothing. The ONLY sport-type clothing I own are a handful of Iditarod t-shirts. When I taught second grade, I used the Iditarod dogsledding race to teach the kids many things, and they and their families had a great time and made lasting memories.

The Iditarod race takes place the beginning the first Saturday in March. We used to prepare weeks in advance. You can check out some of what we did here (although I haven't updated the site since I moved to fifth grade).

You can find out more about the Iditarod and how you can use it in your classroom here:

What I am thinking about today is how project-based learning is an effective way to get kids excited about learning and to actually learn. It takes a lot of prep work, but it is worth it. Past students AND their parents often reminisce with me about one of their favorite parts of second grade - The Iditarod. Some have continued to follow the race years after first learning about it in school.

Here is just a quick list of what the children learned through this exciting sport:

  • Reading (fiction and nonfiction)
  • Writing (fiction, journaling, informational, news stories)
  • Data collection and analysis
  • Time zones, 24-hour time
  • Maps, geography
  • Addition, subtraction
  • Statistics and probability
  • Singing, dancing
  • Northern lights
  • Water color painting
  • Technology - tracking mushers and dogs
  • Community service and volunteerism
  • American history
  • Current events
  • Point-of-view
  • Animal care
  • Alaskan culture
  • Marketing

I encourage everyone to take a look at this event and the great resources provided for educators on the Iditarod web site. And they have fun t-shirts!!


Friday, August 26, 2016

First Week 2016, and Beyond...

"A Fresh Page...A Fresh Start" by Kalyan Chakravarthy Licensed under a Creative Commons 
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY2.0). Accessed 25 Aug. 2016. 

There were lots of great things happening during our first week of school. Teachers were feeling excited to work with students and families. Rooms were arranged to be appealing to the kids. It's always fun to reconnect with the building and district community. We also got to meet most of our new students at our annual Meet and Greet. The kids seemed excited to return to school. They enjoyed meeting up with peers and getting a first look at their new classroom and new teachers.

Obviously, that "new class feeling" doesn't last for the whole year as we get to know each other and get comfortable with our group. That's OK and normal. But how can we keep the year fresh and exciting even if it's not new? Here are some ideas:

  • Reserve some time during the year to try something new. Sometimes we get busy and fall back into the usual routine. Put in on your calendar now and lock it in. 
  • Plan to have your students take the lead in learning. Let them teach you and the class. 
  • Invite parents and other community members into school to share their knowledge and skills with the class. You might have scientists, artists, or chefs in your midst!
  • Inquiry - If you do not already engage in inquiry-based learning, do some research and find out how you can incorporate inquiry into your lessons. Even if you just start by trying one thing, your students and you will benefit.
  • Creative writing - "school writing" might be required, but don't leave out the creative writing, and give kids choices.
  • Reading - Read along with your students. Read lots and lots and have kids read lots and lots. And talk about it.
  • Go outside - There's so much to learn outside the classroom. Get out of that room!
  • Party Plans - A lot of schools have holiday parties. Many times the teachers and/or parents plan. Let the kids plan. As appropriate with age, give them a budget, available supplies, and time to meet. Make a food, decoration, and activity committee and let the kids work together to have the party they want. Have parents moderate the committee meetings and help the kids connect with all the parents for donations. The kids will learn great skills and have fun. 
  • Play music - in the morning, during the day, dismissal. Make some playlists that kids and you will enjoy. Also, it will help kids build memories - music sparks memory. When they are 50 and hear that song, they will think back to those great school days!

How do you keep the excitement going?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Reflections on Inquiry Learning - Just Jump in!

For the last three months I've been buried in my new graduate courses in a STEM Education master's program at California University of PA. One of the advantages of committing to this graduate program is that some of the projects we are trying to establish in the classroom are now part of for-credit courses, which is definitely a motivator. I am able to plan activities with the support of the program cohort and professors, and reflection has been in-depth.

My first semester included a general STEM education course and a physical science course. I studied science education basics, the Next Generation Science Standards, understanding common science misconceptions and how to address them, nature of science, project- and problem-based learning, engineering design process, constructivism, interdisciplinary learning, and inquiry learning.

Throughout the courses, I was given assignments to create lessons and activities that demonstrated inquiry learning. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to modify currently used lessons and to introduce some new challenges to my fifth graders.

Below are some of the projects that took place during the fall semester:
  1. Science Notebooks:The goal with science notebooks is to move students toward more independent thinking and analysis of their own understanding of content and processes. Students had a very hard time documenting learning in their notebooks, which is typical. Without worksheets and specific spots to fill in information, students are required to think more carefully about what they are learning and about how to organize their thoughts in an organized way. The good news is that the students are making progress - so wike they are not completely proficient in this task, they are moving forward. This is good news!
  2. Creature Feature, with an emphasis on design notebooks:  This year, we are working to convert our traditional "computer lab sessions" to a STEM Special. Our first project was called "Creature Feature," and each week during our scheduled time in the school's computer lab, students planned and worked on their creatures. Students were given the task of creating a "creature" using any materials and tools available. It could be digital, in the physical world, or a combination. They could work alone or in small groups. Training happened as needed, with mini how-to sessions scheduled weekly on such topics as how to use LEDs, how to create a lava lamp effect, and how to use Arduino materials. Individualized and small group support was provided for those who needed help with their specific projects, including Scratch support, training for LittleBits, and how to work with a Makey Makey. We were fortunate that our district STEM specialist joined us each week and provided additional valuable support. Projects were shared on the day of our Halloween celebration with adults and other students. Students worked up to the last minute making improvements to their creatures. Along the way, students also created "scary stories" that included their creatures, which was a great connections to our language arts program. As with the science notebooks, students had a difficult time writing down their plans, questions, problems, and modifications. Toward the end of the project, however, students began to realize the value of writing down their ideas. For example, one group who needed to recreate the lava lamp effect on the day of sharing creatures realized they should have written down the formula I provided during a training session. They had to do some research to find the formula, and they were successful. Students need support  with their notebooks and opportunities to use the notebooks as a resource so they can understand the benefits.
  3. Teaching Geometry with Scratch:  I have connected Scratch to math on a more informal level in the past. This year students are using Scratch as our introduction to fifth grade geometry, and it is part of their math instruction. Students are given the task of drawing various shapes, including a square, triangle, and circle. This was no easy task! Students benefited from collaboration, discussion of shapes with a need to understand the vocabulary, and having enough time to make mistakes, adjust, and keep trying. They also learned more about how to use Scratch programming along the way. Students took the task seriously, and some who began by spending a lot of their time with the artistic aspects, such as drawing a sprite and choosing various backgrounds, soon realized that they needed to focus on the challenge of creating shapes and learning the programming for their task. It was during this task that I noticed more students independently, without teacher prompting, using their design notebooks to write down their strategies and to record ideas they were getting from their peers. Students also were asking more questions about their work, and they showed progress with their programming along with a growing understanding of the geometry concepts. They also had MORE questions as they explored and made mistakes. When the designs did not match the task, students were excited to try to figure out how their various patterns, created by accident, were made. Fun!
  4. Mystery Matter: This was by far the messiest of our projects! Students began with a basic introduction to matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma) and properties of matter. After the introduction, students were guided through the task of created data recording tables. The students would be given several mystery solids and liquids with the task of identifying various physical and chemical properties of the materials. The data table would be set up to record findings and would become part of their science notebooks. The task of creating the data tables, using Word, became a major learning experience for the students, who are used to being given pre-made worksheets for similar tasks. Student were also given training on how to use the tools and materials needed to test the mystery matter, such as scales, rulers, graduated cylinders, gram pieces, and more. Students had two days to work with the mystery matter, using safety goggles and gloves to keep them safe (students love this). Most students were only able to work with about three of the materials because they invested a lot of time exploring each item. We probably could have spent a whole week exploring, but we were not able to add on days because of our Thanksgiving break. As with the Creature Feature project, as-needed instruction was provided for groups. There were many questions about how to identify properties. For example, while the students had a quick introduction to density, many had questions about how to calculate the density of their materials. It was helpful to have several adults in the room to work with the groups, to ask questions, to clarify misunderstanding, and to learn along with the students. While the students had a lot of fun, they stayed focus on their tasks, and they were eager to learn. With hand-on discovery coming early in this chemistry unit, students were given the chance to use the tools and figure things out by doing rather than by reading about it. As students move through the unit, the expectation is that they will be able to get a better understanding of matter and properties because they have had these beginning experiences. As the teacher, I learned what is most challenging or confusing and can build lessons that support students in their understanding of complex topics. 
Here's what I learned from investing time in the development and implementation of these projects.

  • It's hard - but it's worth it. You really have to experience the type of learning that takes place through inquiry to truly understand how it changes how learners learn.
  • It's takes a lot of time to set up and to complete the tasks. Also worth it. The amount of learning that takes place as a result of investing time in planning and implementing projects is evident.
  • It's messy. Be prepared for messes. Take deep breaths, get students to help with set up and clean up.
  • It requires a lot of patience. Students and teachers will struggle through some challenges. Be patient, observe, ask questions, let students have the time they need to figure things out on their own, with guidance (not all the answers) given as needed.
  • There's more time to talk to and listen to students. With students taking the lead with the learning, teachers have more time to work with small groups and individual students to become partners in learning and to actually sit and talk to the students as co-learners.
  • Students want to be challenged. Students will appreciate being given challenging tasks and being able to be in charge of their learning. They will ask you for help, they will ask you for materials. They will ask for more projects!
  • It can work - just jump in! It can be intimidating to change a traditional lesson into something different. Take one lesson and give it a try. Start small if you feel overwhelmed. Get support from colleagues.
  • Students will have lots of questions. One thing that happened as we worked through these projects is that students had lots more questions the more we progressed through each task. Lots of whys, hows, and can you help me to do...? Lots of times students did not want to stop working because they were trying to figure things out, or they asked to stay in for recess, or they took their work home with them because they were determined to complete their tasks. THIS is what we wish for in all subject areas and with all lessons, right?
  • Support from outside the school is a great idea. If you can get help from parents, colleagues, and experts in a particular field, you and the students will benefit. With today's technology, it is easier than every to make connections. You don't have to know everything to introduce it to students. Just ask for help. 
I hope you will consider trying an inquiry project this year. Here are some basic resources related to the projects above. I could add a lot more but just wanted to provide some items to get you started.

Scratch - computer programming for kids
MakeyMakey - connect to Scratch to bring the digital to the physical world
LittleBits - electronic building blocks
Arduino - defined on web site as, "Arduino is an open-source electronics platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software. It's intended for anyone making interactive projects."
Science Notebooks -here and here
Design Process (there are several versions and no rules that you have to follow them exactly) - Engineering is Elementary
Introductory STEM Readings -  here and here

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Great Questions from Summer STEM Academy Participants


This has been my fourth summer facilitating technology-focused summer programs in our district. Sessions have included Photojournalism, Movie-Making, a Technology Academy, and, for the last two years, our STEM Academy. As technology and interests have changed, we have adjusted our program, and this summer we doubled the number of kids, grads 3-8, who participated. With each program, I've noticed that the children have great questions that help guide the program. Aside from questions about how to use materials and resources, here are some other questions that show kids are thinking...

1.  So now that I know what this does, what else can I do with this? This question is a great conversation starter. I usually give some examples, but I also ask lots of questions. I might ask, "What do you want to do with it?"  or "Is there something that you have in mind?" or I might say, "Tell me some of your interests and let's see if we can connect to ... ."

2.  How much does this cost? Kids, as it turns out, are not willing to spend a lot of money on gadgets, tools, etc. They might want to purchase an item they are using in our program, but they will not consider spending a lot of money if they don't think the item is worth it, even if they really like the item. They think about cost, asking parents, splitting the cost with a sibling, what else they are saving for, and upcoming holidays and birthday. These are not kids who just "want everything."

3.  What can I keep?  While the kids don't want everything, they do want something. We work on projects involving such materials as K'Nex and electronics. Some projects the children can take home, but others they have to disassemble and return to me. The children are obviously proud of their work and are slightly disappointed when they can't take home a project that they've spent several days working on. This is once again a great opportunity to have conversations that help these young children understand the materials they are using and the system within which they are working. It has allowed us to come up with solutions, such as taking photographs and video they CAN take with them. They've learned about how our district or an individual acquires materials and works within a budget. They've learned to document their work and how to post to a web site, and they've learned how to share materials and to care for materials that are used by others. When they work in pairs or groups, they don't need adult intervention to figure out what to do with finished projects. From youngest to oldest, the children learn to compromise in a most impressive manner. Their methods of deciding who gets what are very creative!

Understanding HOW to use STEM materials and resources and developing related skills is obviously a key component of our program. We do, however, want to help the children grow as leaders, which means encouraging discussions related to the above questions and others like them. We want the children to understand WHAT the materials are and to be able to make wise choices as consumers. We want them to think beyond our introductory lessons and to be able to test new ideas. We want them to ask us questions and to consider ideas that we might not have considered before and to be partners in this fantastic learning environment. Let's keep the questions coming!