Student Entrepreneurs

For our first unit with the 7th & 8th graders, all of the specialists in my building have crafted projects that encourage students to take positive social risks. In STEM class, my project took the from of students coming up with an idea for an invention or product that would help a target user somewhere in the age range of Pre-K to Grade 4.

This project challenged teams of students to identify a meaningful problem that children encounter, develop a viable solution that addresses that problem, create a prototype of the idea, produce a slide deck aimed at persuading an audience to support their product, and presenting their product in a “Shark Tank” style pitch. Oh — and they had only 6 days to complete all of these tasks! It was certainly a heavy lift, but my students more than rose to the occasion.

After having five classes of 7th and 8th graders complete this project, I was blown away by their engagement, passion, and creativity. They have displayed a keen ability to put their fingers on challenges faced by younger students and their products have attempted to help students with problems including making friends, reaching or using things not designed with children of their size in mind, avoiding getting lost, losing things, staying focused and motivated in class, helping when they experience bullying, and encouraging them make healthy food choices at school.

The biggest takeaway for me in this project has been the magical results of allowing students voice and choice in their work. While I provided a frame that included specific “must haves” and a target audience, the assignment left plenty of room for students to develop something that mattered to them. While there was some variance in total effort, all but a tiny handful of my 70+ students clearly cared deeply about their projects and showed determination and perseverance in bringing their ideas to fruition in their prototypes and slide decks. The diversity in the resulting projects also created a lot of “buzz” and excitement in the classroom, as students were also curious about the work being completed by other groups.

The amount of spontaneous exploration and learning that happened due to this project also impressed me — I had groups engage in experimentation with LEDs and circuits, structural integrity when working with cardboard, sewing, programming, working with a saw, and a host of other skills. I am excited to continue to look for ways to allow learning to unfold authentically as it did in this project; my students’ work confirmed what research tells us — that immediately applying skills learned “just in time” leads to more meaningful and durable knowledge-construction.


Framing Learning in STEM Class

My new position as a STEM teacher is everything that I’ve always wanted — open and flexible, with ample opportunities to infuse creativity into the classroom. All summer, I’ve been working on creating a developmental progression of where I want students to be in their learning after each year that they’ll spend with me, from Pre-K to 8th grade. For weeks, I spun my wheels without getting much traction.

Despite having a steady stream of ideas about activities and projects, I eventually realized that what was lacking was an organizational frame, some specific capacities and skills that would function as the overarching goals for all of our work in STEM class. Fortunately, I’ve been immersing myself in reading about making and STEM all summer and, in Maker-Based Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape Their Worlds (Clapp, Ross, Ryan, & Tishman; 2016), I finally found the framework for which I’d been waiting.

Maker-Based Learning is a book born of work done by the Agency by Design working group at Harvard’s Project Zero. Throughout the book, the concept of maker empowerment is presented as an overarching goal of maker-based learning. The authors define maker empowerment as “A sensitivity to the designed dimensions of objects and systems, along with the inclination and capacity to shape one’s world through building, tinkering, re/designing, or hacking” (p. 98). In other words, students who are empowered as makers recognize the designed nature of our world, see objects and systems around them as malleable, and believe that they can act as Makers upon their world. This is exactly what I want for my learners and what I couldn’t articulate myself.

Clapp et al. argue that the necessary steppingstone to maker empowerment is developing a “sensitivity to design” and then offer a set of three capacities that help facilitate this sensitivity — looking closely, exploring complexities, and finding opportunities. Here’s a graphic from the Agency By Design website that explains each of these capacities.

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After encountering this framework and coupling it with Engineering Design ideas from the Next Generation Science Standards, my developmental progression almost wrote itself. I was able to clearly picture what I want a kindergartener to be able to do in terms of looking closely versus what I want a sixth grader to be able to accomplish in that domain. What excites me most is the way that these capacities offer opportunities for noticing growth — while “maker empowerment” or “sensitivity to design” feel dauntingly broad for someone who has to note student progress, these three, interrelated skills are things that I can clearly monitor as I capture and document student work.

Perhaps most significantly, finding a framework closely linked to my overarching goals for my STEM class will help me keep my focus more panoramic, rather than zoomed in on one project at a time — hopefully yielding alignment between my end goals for my students and the activities transpiring in our classroom each day.

As Julianne Wurm writes in Working the Reggio Way (2005): “It is not a question of right or wrong answers, but of determining what you really believe about children and education, and then making sure that all of the millions of decisions you make as you work with children reflect that vision to the best of your capacity” (p. 13).

The Benefits and Pitfalls of Themes

2017-05-13-07-51-11-900x675When I was teaching second grade, I would always use themes to organize our learning activities. Over the years in my classroom, we studied bees, trees, inventions, holidays around the world, advertising/media literacy, robots, and Antarctica. These themes helped my students by providing multiple exposures to vocabulary, content, and ideas as we explored our topic across different subject areas.

As I think about my new role, I’m contemplating what themes might offer to a STEM classroom. Specifically, I’m wondering whether to pursue a whole-school theme, a theme for each group of learners, or to forgo a theme altogether. Here’s a bit of my thinking about the benefits and pitfalls of themes in a Makerspace/engineering setting.

Benefits of Themes:

  • Help learners make connections and introduce them to important ideas they may not encounter on their own
  • Offer increased cohesion between projects tackled by different students
  • Provide a jumping-off point for learners who may not respond well to a completely blank slate
  • Help stimulate observations and conversations about projects between different groups of learners
  • Connect learning and making to the real world

Pitfalls of Themes:

  • Can be constricting if too narrow — students may not be able to find an entry point into the theme that relates to their interests
  • May prevent students from stumbling onto other ideas or content of interest through natural pursuit of their own ideas
  • More likely to lead to students trying to create products to meet a perceived expectation instead of considering what they want to make

As I consider my role as a teacher of students in Pre-K to 8th grade, I am drawn to the idea of having a whole-school theme, as learners in different sections of STEM class could witness the thinking and creating done by others thinking about a similar topic. I am also particularly interested in the potential of the authentic audiences that a theme would create — students would be able to design products to be shared with another group of learners. A theme could also streamline my content delivery and help spark a common conversation that could happen across groups of learners, rather than every group doing something wholly different.

To me, the linchpin of a theme’s success in a setting that aims to foster creativity and innovation is flexibility. I want my theme to be a source of inspiration for my students to dwell in possibilities, rather than a restrictive block to their thinking. Naturally, this leads me to think that broad themes would be best — presently, I am leaning towards Sustainable Planet, Inventions, or Robotics. I would love to hear suggestions of other themes!


A Vision for Curriculum

On Tuesday night, while watching a Youtube Live event hosted by one of the great folks at Go2Science (, I was struck by a comment made regarding the Go2Science materials, which I’ll do my best to replicate here:

“Feel free to take the materials and rearrange them and make them your own. We know we’ve made a good lesson when you can can take it and make it your own.”

This insight struck me because it illuminates a vision of what a curriculum could be. It’s a thought that I needed articulated three months into the implementation of new curriculum materials that have been introduced in my district. These materials do not espouse such an open-source or teacher-empowering stance and it’s caused quite a philosophical struggle for me as an educator.

As a teacher whose favorite part of the job (other than the kids) is curriculum development and creating learning activities, I’ve been fortunate to grow into my practice as an educator in a district where the directives were to use curricular resources as just that, resources. For five years, I’ve been pulling ideas and inspiration from a host of sources and combining them together to create what I believe are rich, meaningful, and integrated learning experiences for my students. The act of creating a mosaic from all of these sources allows me to flex my creativity muscles and is, for me, almost spellbinding. Many of the other aspects of the job often feel like chores, but I’ll happily spend an entire Saturday engaged in designing curriculum.

Most significantly, I’ve relished the opportunity to create materials that respond directly to my students’ interests and current needs. All teachers know that in any given classroom there are a wide range of skills and diverse personalities; for anyone who has spent an extended time in a classroom, the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach seems both irresponsible and irrational. Yet, one-size-fits-all, with subtle changes for “differentiation” continues to be what the big education publishers proffer and is, unfortunately, the turn that we appear to be taking in my district.

Last year, during the curriculum exploration phase, I had several conversations with folks at school about how mass-produced curricula are market-driven, responding to the latest zeitgeists and repackaging the same old stuff in newer, flashier packaging. And, when looking at national publishers, we’ve seen in films like “The Revisionaries” that states and districts with the largest budgets often get their needs and requirements enshrined in the packages offered across the country. It hardly makes sense that my students in rural Maine should have their educational experiences dictated by the pursestrings thousands of people thousands of miles away.

At any rate, I now have in my classroom a 750-page, two-volume phone book of math activities and worksheets for each of my students that is supposed to guarantee “Common Core Success.” And, it’s been a struggle to grapple with balancing directions for implementation with the boxes of resources that I’ve developed and tested. It’s hard to rectify trading conceptual understanding for shallow coverage and to extinguish all the work I’ve done to teach kids that math isn’t just about the right answer with solution-focused worksheets. For now, I’ve struck the balance of using the curriculum to loosely frame what I cover, picking and choosing those activities that make sense as resources, but not being afraid to use a tried-and-true lesson that I know is better.

These small actions are allowing me to teach while retaining my conscience and allowing me to keep focused on my vision for what quality curriculum is and could be.

Making Morning Meeting Meaningful

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I am finally back up and running at my usual pace after developing walking pneumonia a few weeks ago. I don’t get sick very often, but this particular condition had me feeling fatigued and off for weeks. The experience of missing some school and then coming home from school completely exhausted illuminated the importance of self-care — something that I (and probably most teachers) are often guilty of sacrificing in order to put our students first.

Today I’m excited to share that I’ve finally completed a months-long project that I’ve been plugging away at a little bit at a time. Since I started teaching, Morning Meeting has been a cornerstone of my classroom practice. I developed routines for giving every student the opportunity to share, started incorporating singing, and built in cooperative games and activities and eventually, started adding activities about character.

Last year, I decided to try structuring the cooperative portion of the Morning Meeting around social justice topics. My teacher training took place in a social justice-focused program and I have always sought to integrate issues of equity and diversity into my classroom, but found that they were often feeling like “add-ons” to my other thematic units. I realized that I could utilize our whole-class Morning Meeting as an opportunity to dive in and grapple with some real-world issues. By connecting these topics to Morning Meeting, I could also ensure that these topics entered the classroom conversation on a daily basis, rather just time-to-time when certain topics or activities fit into our other learning. Thus, the idea for a “Meaningful Morning Meeting Mini-lesson” curriculum was born.

This year, I’m running my Morning Meetings with the following structure. Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 3.03.20 PM

The changes that I’ve made to Morning Meeting are going well!  I’m noticing a new level of engagement during Morning Meeting and I am pleased that we’re not just playing games or doing unconnected activities during this time. (Please do not take this as an insult to classroom games, as I  love games and fun activities and use them as breaks throughout our day.) It is exciting to be building towards the completion of meaningful projects and getting these important topics into our classroom each day.

Thus far, I’ve taught my students the lessons in the first two units of the Meaningful Morning Meeting Mini-Lessons (MMMM) curriculum. I’m about to start the media literacy unit and am excited that one of my big passions will finally be brought into the classroom in a more sustained way.

I finally completed unit nine of the curriculum and all of these units are now available on my TPT store. I’ve tried to cover a wide range of topics that connect to social justice and have incorporated many different types of activities into the lessons, including reflection activities, discussions, art projects, poetry writing, and reading response activities. In the later units, students work on larger projects which require them to synthesize their learning and to create products and practice activism.

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I am excited about these units and am eager to share these activities with like-minded educators who want to bring meaningful issues into their classrooms.