From ELA to STEAM

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So much has changed during my hiatus from blogging this spring! I have changed home addresses, schools, and — most significantly — my job description. After four years of teaching second grade at a small, rural school in Maine, I am transitioning into a role as a Pre-K to 8th grade STEM teacher at a slightly-larger, rural school in Maine.

For longtime readers of this blog or anyone who knows me, it’s a bit startling that, come September, I’ll be taking on a specialized science and technology position. After all, I double-majored in English and education, have an M.Ed in Language and Literacy, and am a voracious reader. Yet, as I look back on my four years of traditional classroom teaching, I can clearly see myself transforming — at first gradually and then quite rapidly — into a STEM teacher.

This transition began when I recognized that my students had an innate interest in science and that traditional reading and writing instruction could easily be encompassed within and made more meaningful when embedded in science (and social studies) content and activities. By my second year of teaching, I had largely given up on the traditional “literacy block” in favor of specific literacy instruction that occurred within the context of our science explorations. While many elementary school teachers lament not having enough time for science instruction, with this thematic approach, I was soon spending one-third and then more than one-half of our day on rich scientific activities that incorporated multiple subject areas.

In my third year teaching, I won a grant that allowed me to purchase Lego robotics kits and other computer programming technology for my classroom/school. While watching my students tinker with technology, I recognized that they instinctively began applying all of the Habits of Mind that we also spent a significant amount of our time discussing and practicing. They began cooperating on groupwork, inventing multiple ideas to problems, persisting — essentially doing all of the things that I believe lead to meaningful and lasting learning. I became obsessed with planning our engineering activities and found them to increasingly be the perfect practice zone for all of the skills and habits that I wanted my students to possess before concluding our time together.

And now, planning those STEM challenges that will foster critical thinking is going to be my full-time job. I am incredibly excited about the scope of this role — providing STEM experiences for all 400 students in our school — and the freedom that I will have to build a program that is responsive to student interests and our ever-changing world. Because I love teaching all of the subjects in a thematic context, I never thought that I would specialize, but now that I have made the leap, I am amazed by the clarity and focus that I’m able to bring to my work — and now, to this blog. I hope you’ll journey with me this year as I dip my toes into becoming Mz. Frizzle!

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Epistemological Humility

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Explorations with Sewn Circuits & Makey Makey at Constructing Modern Knowledge

My primary activity this summer has been learning! I spent time in May developing a comprehensive summer learning and professional development plan and, as a result, my brain is bursting with new ideas, connections, and an even-longer list of things that I need to spend more time exploring. It is this familiar run-in with the need for epistemological humility that has me most energized about going back to school and working to help broaden the perspectives of my Curious Questioners to show them that the world contains more information than they could ever learn in six lifetimes.

Here are some of the highlights of my summer learning:

  • Constructing Modern Knowledge – For four days this summer, I was immersed in 21st century MAKERspace land at the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. The learning space allowed me access to all of the technologies that I’ve read about but never seen — Raspberry Pi, LittleBits, Arduino, Lilypads…the list goes on and on. There was no set schedule during these four days, so we were free to dabble and create. Many of the other attendees worked on large, complicated projects, but I was so overwhelmed by the choices that I didn’t want to limit myself to one idea. I spent most of the time exploring sewn circuits, finally figuring out how to use my Makey Makey kit, and integrating projects into Scratch. The experience was rich, tremendously uncomfortable in its uncertainty (in a wonderful way), and inspired me to continue pursuing constructivist tasks and projects with my students. Learn more about this amazing un-conference at http://constructingmodernknowledge.com/.Oh! At CMK I also got to talk about my question mark project (above) with Alfie Kohn, one of my educational heroes. I still can’t believe that actually happened!

 

  • Online Course: 
    • Leading Change: Go Beyond Gamification with Gameful Learning
      It remains flabbergasting that the edX and Coursera MOOC platforms offer such high-quality content for free. In this course, I’ve been learning about techniques to make learning “gamified” in ways that leverage student motivation and encourage risk-taking. The course explores what video games do so well — primarily personalized scaffolding — and how these ideas can be brought into the classroom to create more compelling learning environments.

 

  • Reading:IMG_0400 I’ve had the wonderful fortune of choosing excellent professional development books to explore this summer. No ho-hum or basic ideas here! A Place for Wonder and To Look Closely inspired my Nature Study program, which I cannot wait to begin in the fall. Hello Ruby is just the tool I needed to introduce my students to programming in an accessible and engaging way. Finally, Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets, which I’m still reading, is making me rethink nearly everything I’ve ever done in math. Revamping my approach to math is my focus for curriculum work in these last few weeks of summer.

I feel so fortunate to have a career that allows me the time to continually push my pedagogical thinking. At Constructing Modern Knowledge, we talked about “taking off our teacher hats and putting on our learner hats” — this summer, I’ve been able to do just that, and it’s been invigorating.

Still Seeking a Curious Classroom

“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.” – Margaret J. Wheatly

I have been back to classroom teaching for a year and, during some long rides on my bicycle, I’ve realized that the decision to cut reflective writing out of my overstuffed schedule has not benefitted me personally or professionally. So, here I begin my re-entry into this blog. The work of trying to teach differently remains challenging, messy, and joyful — but documenting the attempt to do so seems urgent in this era of continuing standardization, Betsy DeVos (How? Why?), and shinier-flashier boxed curricula.

Since I last wrote, I spent one year working in an urban elementary school in a non-classroom role and struggled every day with not being the one providing instruction. From where I now sit, I see the tremendous value in the step I took to explore a different perspective and position in education, but wish that the knowledge I acquired could have been gained without such complete severing of my ties to the helm of a classroom. The boxes of school materials I had packed up to take this new position didn’t have time to collect much dust — through an unlikely series of events, I actually found my back to the same rural school (even the same classroom) where I began my career. This year, I welcomed my third bunch of Curious Questioners, a group that tested and challenged me pedagogically, mentally, and emotionally.

Throughout this year, I kept hearing comments about how, as a third year teacher, things get easier, because you know what you’re doing. While it’s true that I know worlds more than I did when I first started teaching, it occurred to me that, while I have created some classroom and learning frameworks that seem to “work,” I still feel a profound dissatisfaction that my classroom and my teaching does not fully embody the ideals that I have for it.

One day in May, I was getting agitated because of students lollygagging on their way to the rug, where I had requested that we meet to discuss or go over something — I honestly can’t recall the circumstances. For some reason, I paused and pondered and then started asking myself a series of questions: Why was I having students come to the rug? Did students need to come to the rug to be successful at whatever was coming next? What did calling them to the rug signal about ownership of learning time in our classroom? Why was I sitting in a “grown-up chair” instead of on the rug with my learners? Why was I getting frustrated with students who wouldn’t stop what they were doing just because I asked them nicely? And then, it hit me — I had, once again, fallen into the trap of routines and traditional teaching when, it seemed likely, that a far better and more student-driven approach could be found.

Of course, there are times when it makes wonderful sense to have students gather on the rug together. But does it need to happen each time an activity changes? And how many times should I be changing activities? Also, why was I expecting all of my students to be working on the same thing at the same time? These questions had fallen absent, as — under the pressures of end-of-the-year-assessment-madness and the weight of (perhaps) too many afterschool commitments — I was struggling just to make it through each day of learning.

But now it’s summer — my most productive season for professional development and instructional reconfiguring. It is my hope for the next nine weeks (and for the next year) to critically examine my practice, to finally go “all-in” on those practices that I have seen bring students (and their teacher) most fully into sustained and engaged learning, and to constantly ask, “Why am I doing it this way?” I hope you’ll join me.

“On the Way to School”

It’s been a long, busy, frigid week here in Maine. I have one more week to go until my February vacation, which will hopefully offer a much-needed break for both my kiddos and me — I think the cold and “cabin fever” that sets in during this part of the winter is impacting all of us!

This morning, I went to a local cinema to watch a film in the documentary series that they are doing on Saturday & Sunday mornings. The film this weekend was “On the Way to School,” which chronicled the journeys that four children (and, in some cases, their siblings) make to school. The locations covered were Kenya, Argentina, Morocco, and India — the scenery in the movie was fantastic and it was fascinating to observe the differences in lifestyles and means for getting to school. It goes without saying, I think, that there wasn’t a school bus that was coming to collect the students featured, but I was surprised by how arduous the journeys were, particularly for the boys in India, who not only had to walk 75 minutes, but had to do it while pushing their brother on a makeshift wheelchair through some pretty difficult terrain. As an educator, I felt moved that students would travel so far with such intrepid determination to pursue an education.

What was perhaps most interesting to me were the universal aspects of childhood that appeared throughout the film — the squabbles with their siblings, the amusement in small things, the sense of pride and responsibility when they are given the opportunity to be independent.

I think that this film would be a great one to show and discuss in the beginning of the school year with slightly older students than the ones that I currently have. Too often, kids are not aware that coming to school is a privilege that shouldn’t be squandered. I’d be really interested to hear their reactions to the film — I think it could be a powerful experience for them to see children their own age (~11-13 years old) and the odds they tackle to make it to school.

Considering Character

For the past few weeks, I’ve been taking an online course about Teaching Character. Throughout the course, I’ve been reflecting on what I already do to work on building character with my students and how I can make those practices even better.

One thing that I have decided is that I want to become more intentional with my use of language around character. I think that, often, when I am giving character-related feedback, I often describe what my students have done, but don’t tie it to a specific word or set of words that would be meaningful for my students and which would be frequently discussed and used over and over again. For example, I’ll usually say, “Wow, you really stuck with that task” or “you didn’t quit” without mentioning the words “perseverance” or “grit.” After taking this course, I think it would be so wonderful to teach my students this vocabulary and then have them be able to apply it in our classroom to describe their own or other students’ actions on a routine basis.

So, this week, I am going to be working on coming up with a list of the eight or nine most essential character traits that I hope to cultivate in my students. I had done this, to some extent, when designing my own version of a character-education curriculum called “Things Curious Questioners Do,” but I think that I can be much more specific and intentional in my use of language.

As someone who believes that developing character in my young students is at least, if not more important, than developing academic skills and knowledge, I am both daunted and invigorated by the task of trying to pin down just what it is that I hope my students will do and what type of people they might practice being while in my classroom. Defining what character strengths I most desire to cultivate in my students seems like a logical jumping-off point for developing character activities, but too often it is easy to overlook this defining step in favor of specific lessons and activities that sound interesting and worth exploring.

I’ll let you know what character traits I settle on in my post next week. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions, please let me know.

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Finally, as an unrelated side note, I added Alan Turing’s name to my list of “under-appreciated heroes” to introduce my students to during our biographies unit after seeing The Imitation Game last night. It was a fantastic film and I especially appreciated what felt like an honest and authentic portrayal of someone human, with flaws and strengths, rather than the whitewashed, heroic representations we often get of prolific film protagonists in biopics.

Wrapping Up 2014

I can hardly believe that 2014 is coming to an end. It’s been a good year for me, particularly professionally, as I completed my first year of teaching and dove into a second with much greater confidence. I’m hard at work now thinking about what my aspirations for 2015 might be. It is definitely going to be a year with a lot of changes for me, personally and professionally, and it is difficult to envision what the year might hold in store due to the uncertainty surrounding those changes.

But, for now, I’m content to merely reflect on the last year. When 2014 began, I compiled a reading list that I hoped to tackle during the year and, for several months at least, wrote about the books that I had read here on this blog. My intent in reading these books was to try to maintain a connection to the broader world of education beyond my school and classroom and to become more informed, inspired, and more critical in my practice. While I fell off the bandwagon in terms of providing updates about these books, I did read all of the books on my list, except for one. In so doing, I definitely achieved my goal of becoming more informed about the world of education and keeping my finger on the pulse of what is happening in the field. Additionally, a number of these books inspired me with a profound vision of the classroom that I want to continue to work towards this year — a classroom with meaningful, relevant curriculum that helps my students become savvy and considerate citizens.

I’m copying my reading list here and am annotating it for anyone who might be interested in reading one of these books!

Gender and Sexuality:

  • The Second Sex – Simone de Beauvoir (Not explicitly about education, but I found this book to be such a powerful mediation on what it means to be female. Fortunately, some of the conditions de Beauvoir reports have been improved, but so much of what she said seemed relevant today, decades after the publication of this seminal work.)
  • Real Boys – William Pollack (The male counterpart to The Second Sex; more information here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/453/)
  • From the Dress-Up Closet to the Senior Prom – Jennifer Bryan (Without a doubt, the most comprehensive and relevant book for educators on gender and sexuality that I’ve encountered; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/07/25/reading-update-2/)

Language and Literacy:

  • Literature as Exploration – Louise Rosenblatt (An excellent read for English nerds — an apt summary of the work Rosenblatt did in advancing her transactional view of reading; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/502/)
  • The Experience of Reading – John Clifford (A collection of responses to Rosenblatt’s work; see same link as above.)
  • Mosiac of Thought – Ellin Keene and Susan Zimmerman: (A practical text advocating for the teaching of reading comprehension strategies as a means for attaining higher-level thinking; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/647/) 
  • Readicide – Kelly Gallagher: (A brief but powerful text advocating for a return to reading for pleasure, for the use of powerful and relevant texts, and a turn away from the skill-and-drill reading associated with standardized tests.)

Instruction:

  • Teach Like a Champion – Doug Lemov (Going to try to read this later — when I am in a mindset to reflect on my practice as a whole. I’ve also heard mixed things about this volume recently…)
  • Make Just One Change: Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions – Dan Rothstein (A highly readable text that shows you how to encourage higher-order thinking by having students create their own questions, rather than respond to the ones that we develop for them; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/07/25/reading-update-2/)
  • Invent to Learn – Sylvia Martinez (A down and dirty guide to the “Maker” movement, which encourages students to tinker and create as a significant piece of the learning process; this book captures and projects a vision for what I think is the greatest potential for using technology in the classroom.)
  • Place-Based Education – David Sobel (A brief but lovely book that outlines an ecological, relevant, and community-centered approach to education. This book stuck with me all year and inspired a year-long, nature-based, writing project that we are working on in my classroom; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/05/11/place-based-education/)
  • Real Talk for Real Teachers – Rafe Esquith (Rafe Esquith is one of my heroes — hearing him say that he has bad days in the classroom was incredibly grounding for me. This book has tips for everyone, from novice educators to seasoned veterans.)

The Broader World of Education:

  • Reign of Error – Diane Ravitch (An intelligent and searing indictment of the problems with contemporary education policy in the United States; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/471/)
  • The Smartest Kids in the World – Amanda Ripley (A fascinating and readable examination of education in Finland, South Korea, and Poland; more here https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/647/)

  • The Death and Life of the Great American School System – Diane Ravitch (Highly recommended for those wanting to understand the roots of current education policy — this was the book that we read in the course that I TA-ed this fall; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/05/11/place-based-education/)
  • The Flat World and Education – Linda Darling-Hammond (My first encounter with Darling-Hammond; this book is an examination of the how the achievement gap and inequities play out across the many different domains of education — student outcomes, teacher preparation, school resources, etc.)

Inequality, Diversity, and Multiculturalism: 

  • Teaching Toward Freedom – Bill Ayers (This book profoundly inspired me and pushed me to return to the essential questions about why I teach. Highly recommended and a quick read!)
  • Rethinking Multicultural Education – Wayne Au (Rethinking Schools) (I love anything Rethinking Schools offers. This book did not disappoint — it was full of articles and ideas for incorporating multiculturalism into the classroom.)
  • Open Minds to Equality – Nancy Schniedewind and Ellen Davidson (Rethinking Schools) (My favorite book of the year — this volume is chock-full of ready-to-implement lesson plans that all revolve around social justice and activism; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/02/09/open-minds-to-equality/)
  • The Skin That We Speak – Lisa Delpitt (An edited volume examining language politics, practices, and identity. Essential reading for those interested in literacy and social justice; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/509/)
  • Multiplication is For White People – Lisa Delpitt (An excellent work from Delpitt, advocating for high expectations for all and proffering ideas about how to prevent an “opportunity gap from becoming an achievement gap.”)
  • The Price of Inequality – Joseph Stiglitz (An economics text that may not be the faint of heart; for those seeking sobering information about the wealth gap in the US, this book will lay it for you very clearly; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/647/)
  • There Are No Children Here – Alex Kotlowitz (Recommended reading for all human beings — Kotlowitz brings a Chicago project to life in vivid detail; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/659/)

What books did you read in 2014 that are worth sharing? I’d love to hear about them!

Two “Snow” Days and The Joys of TA-ing a College Education Course

Today marks the second day of school that we’ve missed this week — the first due to a wild Maine blizzard that knocked the power out at the rural schools that make up my district and the second due to a power outage just at my school. If this is any indication of how the winter is going to go, I’m going to be in school until July!

This post seems like a good opportunity to write about something that I have been doing this fall — serving as an informal teaching assistant (TA) in a senior education seminar at my alma mater. Initially, I was quite anxious about this role, because I felt like I wouldn’t have much expertise to share with students who are just three years younger than me. I needn’t have worried, however, because it turns out that I do actually know quite a lot about being out in the world of American public schools. My role has sort of blossomed into that of a “real-world reality-check” provider. As someone who shares many of the lofty ideals about social justice that the students in the course hold, it is beneficial, I think, for them to hear about the ways in which their paths will not always be easy, the hard choices that they will have to make, the balance they will have to strike between mandates and their own desires. In other words, I’ve fashioned my role to position myself as the person that I would have benefitted from hearing from when I sat in their chairs, about to embark upon the world of teaching for the first time.

The whole experience has been so engaging and enriching. It’s much more effective than any other professional development experience in which I have participated. The students ask the hard, meaningful questions that often are not asked in my school or district, and it has really led me to re-examine the reasons why I am doing the things that I do in my own classroom. In contrast to other professional development experiences, which are usually not about overarching philosophy, but about the latest fad strategy, being a teaching assistant has forced me to really hold a mirror up to myself and check whether what I am doing in the classroom really aligns with what I believe and who I aspire to be as an educator. It has not been an easy process, but I know that I am going to come away with some things that I need to change to re-orient my classroom practices, and that making those changes will help me get closer to being the type of educator that I want to be.

Additionally, I always find it so rewarding to be in a situation where everyone is thinking critically and deeply at every turn. Those spaces often seem rare in our society, where quick-fix solutions and the stresses of daily life are huge barriers to that type of slow, methodical thought process. I hope that I can keep seeking out these types of settings, because they, more than any others, seem to lead to real growth and seem, to me at least, like the best arena for developing ideas that will be truly transformational.