Thursday, December 19, 2013

Community Presentation

     A month ago our public librarian came to a faculty meeting and explained that he was looking for input for a new library.  Our community voted for a bond referendum to build this library, and he wanted to get a sense of what we needed, and how a library should work in this digital age.  He invited us to attend community meetings, but I was already percolating an idea for the students. I saw this as an opportunity for my students to have a say in what their public spaces needed for them to use it into the future.
     My students took this very seriously. They all know that our branch of the library is small, and used for many different purposes. It is also essentially one large room, so toddlers are chattering away while adults are studying for exams to improve their situation. Teenagers use it for study groups, and tutoring, and we're well on our way to checking out loads of materials on our devices instead of needing the physical book (although we still have loads of those too).  My students researched what other communities have created and then synthesized it all into their own recommendations.

Each team of students created their own presentation of what they thought would be useful.  Ideas such as a garden to teach others HOW to garden in your own yard, and also provide food to a local food bank. A  nursery room where tiny ones can play while their parents go find their own books to read, and gaming stations for students to play on for a certain time period.  They thought a small auditorium was important for productions, speakers and events, as well as a maker space where folks could try out programming and new technologies. 

     Each team also provided a floor they thought would work well.  I showed them the floorplanner app on Google, and they enjoyed seeing their 2-D work change into 3 dimensions.  This was more challenging for them because all of their ideas were NOT in the stock library of options, but we made do.  I found it interesting that only 1 group stuck with the idea of a LARGE open space, and instead drew many rooms for different purposes.  Our local library tends to be pretty loud - not due to rudeness, but just because of the open space and high level of activity. The one group who did incorporate a large space also added in a lot of side rooms for a variety of uses. 

     Today was the last part of our process where we presented to the local librarian.  He was very impressed with the ideas that the students had, and told us that many of these ideas are ones that he is hearing from others as well.  They really want this to be a community  building with a lot of uses, but budgets are always the driving force behind a project.  One of the things I wish I could have taught the students was to actually draft the  OUTSIDE of the building.  The librarian shared ideas for making the building more "green" and the students immediately jumped in with more ideas and opinions.    I also wish we could have spoken to the architect.  The librarian is going to pass on our handouts and ideas to the larger group, so we are crossing our fingers that we hear from the members of that group as well.  He did ask me if the students might be willing to present again if needed, so we'll wait to see what comes next. 
     Overall I was proud of the students, and I think they really took a lot of ownership of their ideas, and learned a lot from debating all of their wishes. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Hour of Code

     About a month ago, I started catching the buzz about the Hour of Code celebration.  I remember spending time in middle school and high school learning to program in BASIC and PASCAL.  I really enjoyed the linear organization of everything, and the "sequentialness" of the process.  As my own children have gone through the school system I have realized that while we offer classes on graphic design, engineering and web design, we don't seem to offer programming any more.  Over the summer I mentioned it in a meeting our STEM teachers were having with the local technical college.  I pointed out that as a teacher it would be nice to introduce these things, but obviously my skill set is VASTLY out of date.  When I heard about companies finding ways to introduce students to coding I got very excited about it.

    As Monday rolled around, I emailed my students several links, one of which was a grouping of various coding opportunities to introduce students to the idea.  Most of my kids have experience with the LEGO robotics platform of drag and drop, so this made a lot of sense to them.  Many of them have surprised me by looking at the code underneath and trying to make sense of the "real" way of programming.  If you follow the link you will notice several circles under each example.  Be sure to scroll through those for more possibilities.

Also during the day (starting at noon for us on the east coast), we tuned in to two of the 4 chats from various people in the computer science world.  We first watched the chat from Susan Wolcicki, of Google.  We then watched Gabe Newell from Valve. Now, I have to admit.... I didn't know Valve.  I'm not a huge gamer, so we searched for the company to see what it was and as soon as my students saw the LEGO video games they were super excited. One of the comments he made was above my students' heads, but I found it interesting, as well as something I've been pondering.  The idea being that our economy will change (as will the types of jobs we need) because of the internet.  In our town we are watching some big chains close doors because their website can handle the volume, or a competitor has a cheaper website. We were out of school by the time the last two were scheduled, and the Bill Gates chat isn't linked, so I'm guessing he couldn't do his, but Jack Dorsey of Twitter rounded out the schedule.  We watched him later in the week but found him interesting too. My students are generally not yet on Twitter so they watched in terms of knowing the company.

  I still firmly believe that I need to go take a current class for programming, but I noticed that on the link there is another tab for Beyond Hour of Code.  I've sent home permission slips (because my students are under 13) for them to sign up for an account.  This tab says they have an additional 20 hours of code for students, so I think I'll work through it over break, and then bring it back to my students in January.  I really want them to understand this process so they don't shy away from opportunities in the future.  I would love to know how other elementary schools use/teach programming to students - so if you do something fabulous, let me know in the comments, or find me in Google Hangouts.

Friday, December 6, 2013

STEM Family Night

     I have to apologize for the lack of posts.  It really isn't that I haven't been focusing on STEM lessons, but my personal life got very exciting.  We have added to our family through adoption, so my focus has been on acclimating a 9 year old boy into a new family.

      Tuesday night was a BLAST!  We had a STEM  Family Night, and each classroom was to offer a hands-on opportunity or a presentation to families.  I moved my activity to an empty classroom, brought in a bunch of random "STUFF" from around my classroom, and prepared for the night.  During the school day I showed my students videos of Rube Goldberg, with an emphasis on the videos using toys.  We brainstormed all of the things we saw around the classroom we might use, and packed them up on a cart.  We included: Legos, K'Nex, tape, meter sticks, marble run blocks, toilet paper rolls, empty binders, hot wheels, dominoes, etc.  The goal was to set up a machine that would push one of those buttons from the Office Supply store that says NO!

We started with a group of people, who were supposed to rotate after 30 minutes to another class, but most of the first group didn't leave.  We did have some come in for the second session and join us. 
A match box car rolls down the track..... 
and to the table where.... 

it knocks over the dominoes

that are marching across the table....

to the beginning of the VERY PRECARIOUS steps.... 

of more dominoes (that fall at the slightest touch)

and knock into the bouncy ball which rolls down the ramp....

and tube system, to the.....

next ramp of taped meter sticks supported by bamboo sticks also taped together in a tripod..... 

where it hits the tennis ball and rolls down the ramp....

knocks into the binder, and hits the button that says NO!  

If you'd like the action packed video..... here you go. 

This was really fun to do with the parents.  Our parents were great about letting the kids suggest ideas and then help build them.  The whole thing took and hour to build, and the Dads were quite bummed about the ONE DOMINO fail.  The students, however, are excited and we are now using our engineering time to build another one. 


     After attending the NSTA STEM conference last year in St. Louis, several of my colleagues and I felt we had topics we might like to try to present at a regional or national level.  At the time Boston's conference was still open for application and 4 of us applied.   

We are very thankful that all 4 of us were accepted to present. 

So if you're going to the Boston conference as well, come on by:
STEM, the Maker Movement, and an Elementary Classroom
Saturday, April 5 10:00–10:30 AM
Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, 252B
Find out how a grade 5 teacher uses the Maker Movement as a springboard for incorporating hands-on engineering projects into her classroom.

I'll be the one speaking SUPER FAST because I only got 30 minutes, BUT HEY...... it's a start. I also hope to have a lot of posters up showing pictures of what my students are up to, with lesson ideas attached for you to take if you're interested.  

Mazes! (October)

     Between our two classes, we had a total of 15 students due to a field trip with our QuEST kids. Today we combined classes to do an engineering/math project with the kids. After reading Theseus and the Minotaur we looked at some of the local corn mazes from our area. We also looked at how labyrinths were slightly different than mazes.

We discussed the idea of scale.  We looked at blueprints and found the scale which indicated 1/4 inch equaled 1 foot.  We saw how if we measured those lines we could multiply to find the length the builder should use.  I gave the kids centimeter graph paper and let them sketch their possibilities, but this proved very difficult.  I switched gears and showed them how to make the path and then add in fake paths.  They seemed to understand this better.  They also had the limit of 200 feet of paracord per group so they couldn't go over that amount.

     Once the kids were finished sketching their mazes each group chose one for their team to build and we headed outside. 

     Each team had 200 feet of paracord, staples for tarps and garden weed preventing fabric. They also brought out our measuring tapes, mallets, scissors and highlighters.  The highlighters turned out to be very useful because the students would highlight the lines they put on the ground so they wouldn't get confused. 

     Ninety degree angles proved challenging too because at first they just sort of estimated.  One group decided to use the box the staples came in as a guide (note to self..... get four right angle tools for next year).  It ended up being a fairly reasonable solution. 

     A couple of groups had to pull up part of their finished work when the measurement didn't quite work. One group wasn't measuring accurately, and another miscounted their blueprint and hand to go back. 

      It is rather hard to see, but the following pictures are of the kids in their finished mazes.  They were hot, but incredibly proud.

     Next year I'll probably teach this with area and perimeter (it happens during a colder part of the year), but otherwise I was quite impressed with the kids work, and ability to measure. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Survival Novels

In taking on teaching all subjects in a STEM classroom, the one I was most worried about was ELA.  How do I incorporate all of the common core requirements and still teach good literature?  I KNOW I can incorporate non-fiction with Social Studies and Science, but I also want to find good books that incorporate STEM ideas.  Then it hit me this summer..... SURVIVAL books!  In all honesty, some of these were novels I used when I taught years ago, and so is the writing project, but I have of course updated the work.

 In introducing the idea of survival books as a theme, I had the students read excerpts from two of the books.  I really should have had them read from all 5, but I wanted them to search for evidence to show me WHY these books met the theme.  One night the students read from Hatchet, and another night they read from My Side of the Mountain.  Each day they would come in with evidence as to how the character survived.
   I then logged on to and the students joined my class (I made the above picture larger so you can see what they were doing). The way this works is that the teacher creates a private room, and a temporary website is provided.  The students go to that room's website and join the class.  At that point they can all enter their ideas.  I asked the students to choose only 1 of the novel pieces and type in the evidence they found.  As they typed they labeled the book and posted.  They found the limiting of characters to be challenging sometimes, but quickly understood that as soon as they hit enter their info was posted for everyone. I did not care if information was duplicated.

Once all of the kids had finished their evidence, they broke into teams and analyzed the data provided.  They took the evidence and started to break it down into categories.  They came up with the following without any guidance from me:  shelter, finding food and water, making fire, protection from animals and weather, making weapons, making clothing, and making tools.  When I revealed my list of survival elements they were quite surprised as they were so similar.  The following day the students looked at all 5 novels to choose from and got to pick their title.  I did ask the students who stay in my math/science class to please choose Earthquake Terror as this connects our Science (Landforms) to the theme of survival.

As my students read this novel they are looking for evidence of: shelter, food/water, fire, protection/weapons, clothing, tools, and descriptions of the setting.  See, my list of elements was VERY close to theirs, but they got to discover them on their own which I believe makes it more powerful. I'll let you know their projects to choose from soon.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Chatting about Poetry

     A week ago my intern led a lesson about poetry and elements of a poem, and how to give feedback to each other.  After drafting with her, the students came in with their poems typed on their chromebooks, and then we paired them up to edit.  We gave them the option of sitting together and giving feedback verbally, or using the chat (Instant Messaging) tool.

     The chat tool is something I have to monitor carefully.  It isn't something I want up MOST of the time that I'm teaching.  My students are young and I want them focused on the task at hand, so they know that they are to only use it with permission or face consequences.  At our school, students are to only use technology and their district accounts for emails and work that relates to school.  We are training them to use it appropriately.  In higher level grades other rules apply to them.

Overall, the lesson went well.  A lot of solid feedback was provided. We are trying to get the students to actually help each other instead of just giving the "I like what you wrote" response.  Teaching children to critique politely and help give an honest look is important, as well as receiving opinions about work. Speaking without hurting feelings, or taking things personally can sometimes be tough, but I hope that in doing this often we will become less reliant on the teacher, and more confident in ourselves.

     Here are some of the finished poems:

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

STEM Selfies

     My students crack me up.  I keep the camera on the white board tray, under the smartboard, because honestly..... I use it all the time and I need to know where it is.... just in case.  Every now and then the kids grab it to document something, but in the first couple of weeks they always asked.  Apparently we are all comfortable now because in going through my camera for yesterday's post I noticed some videos and pictures I hadn't seen before.  They were taken during our "stations time."

     This first video is taken by J asking another J questions about what she is building with snap circuits.  I absolutely love the questioning and the desire to document.  This is 100% kid created:

     I love the girls interviewing each other, offering ideas about what in the heck the second knob might be, and the independence of grabbing that camera.

Here were a few more that my math/science group created:
J and his obstacle course.

D and his structure.

     My crew certainly isn't shy.  I'm glad I've created an environment where the camera is to be used by all (as are any of the tools in my room, really) and isn't just saved for the teacher. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Landform experiments

     Our district purchased FOSS kits for our students to use throughout certain science topics, and thankfully also fund them each year.  I pick and choose through the Landforms kit for our standards, but really like the stream table labs.  What I like is that I can guide my students through experimentation and allow them the opportunity to explore some of their own ideas.  During last week's lab we were looking at erosion on hill with a standard amount of water.  The students had some discussion of vocabulary, but this is where they really start to apply it to a model.

     I'm finding that making them discuss the lab on video really helps them to go back and think about their ideas so they can work on writing results and conclusions during the next class. Here are J and J discussing their experiment with the team (and myself):

     I also really like the idea that students see that results aren't exactly the same as other groups. I've actually had groups that thought they had "messed up" because the results weren't precisely the same.  We always take final pictures of the lab so we can include it in our write up and also put it into draw tools and label examples of vocabulary so they have another visual aid for the words in the definitions.  Sometimes they get competitive with how many terms they can label with their picture. 

     I do have to say that after working in a couple of districts that use these kits, I am always surprised by the number of teachers who don't use them with their students. My kids get such a kick out of performing these experiments, and then we'll use the guided experiments to develop our own questions, and figure out ways to test them.  I think with the NGSS the testing of their ideas is something they are going to have to deeply understand so they can analyze test questions for pitfalls and strengths.  

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Building those natural blocks

         A few posts ago (this summer), I wrote about my plan to have the kids learn to saw and use tools in an effort to make something productive.  I started by finding the natural blocks on pinterest and then asking the preschool teachers if they might be interested.

        Today, more than half of my class went to the art museum with another teacher leaving me with kids who really needed some time to explore a topic.  We had a beautiful day and went outside for about an hour. We've been taking apart pallets at recess to stock up on wood planks for a future project.  Just like last year, this teaches the kids to use mallets, pry bars, and hammers safely.

Some of the kids wanted to work on taking apart pallets so that we will have wood for our next design projects. 

        While others jumped right in with the sawing of the tree branch.  Apparently I made it look easy because quite a few of them were surprised at the effort involved in making just one cut. I was thrilled that my intern jumped into the action too. We made sure to remind the students that there was a time that we only had hand saws to work with at a job. 
        After sawing their pieces they worked on sanding, and then wiping them with a beeswax polish to make them look wonderful.

          Here are some of our finished products.  Once they dry we will see if the preschoolers like them. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Building with the cards

Last spring I posted about building by folding index cards, or the business sized cards I cut, and creating sculptures with them.  I wanted it to be an early challenge for this year's class, and I asked them to build the tallest tower they could.  They had one day of learning to build and about 30 minutes for 3 days, to build cubes and connect them. They also wrote about the process.

Very quickly I saw some interesting behaviors.    I found that reusing a lot of the cards from last year required purging.  We found that many were just TOO folded and used to continue so the kids were folding new cards as they recycled ones from last year (those things were used everyday so it is VERY understandable that they needed to be replaced).  I also found that the first day was a struggle for many of them because it was a new idea, and a new way to move their hands.  There was frustration about the blocks collapsing, but after urging many to not give up, most of them moved on.  By the end of the week they were making a lot of connections and figuring out how to work together.

One group made these observations:


"S." wrote:
The challenge of “Building High” is to build the tallest building in the classroom. Our strategies were to make a tower, so we used 4 cubes as the support base, and then we just made the cubes so it could be the tallest in the whole class. But there were some problems in the group that made us want to change our mind about the building.

The thing that was hard about doing the project was keeping it together, building the cubes, and connecting it. We had lots of arguments and the tower fell overnight. We thought someone had sabotaged it. But, we forgot about it and kept building. The tower was too thin and the base didn’t support it enough. It always fell down. When we were finished, one of the people in our group wanted to put another block on top. I didn’t want that because it might fall down and it won’t be the tallest building. So, we stopped building and left it alone. We fixed the problems by taking some of the cubes down and using those as the base to support it.

I would change the structure next time by making the tower thicker and having a base that is thicker than the one that we had this time. But, I had fun with it and that is all that matters.