Musings and Strategies From the Teachers Next Door

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You’ve Got This!

You've Got This

Do you ever wonder if you have what it takes to make the transition to STEM? As teachers we are constantly being pushed toward the newest trend and expected in implement it flawlessly with few resources. Our creativity has been stifled, and our lessons have become bland as we seek to please the mighty test gods to order seek proficiency on our new evaluation. STEM, we think, is just one more trend that will be thrown away in few short years, so we keep our head down and just continue day in and day out without ever adjusting our teaching. Well, let me say, let me shout…. TEACHERS – WAKE UP! Our time as come. We CAN be creative, we CAN have excellent scores and we CAN infuse life back into our students. And here is how:

  1. Mistakes will happen…it’s ok. 

Our mistakes are not about a lack of ability. Mistakes do NOT equal failure. We have to change our thinking. Our mistakes provide fertile soil to model risk taking and an opportunity to teach students how to use “failure” as a way to learn.

  1. Learn to embrace problems.

STEM is all about problem-based learning. When you are planning a lesson, train your brain to identify a problem for the students to solve. It takes a paradigm shift and some time to develop, but once you start, it gets easier. STEM is so much more than simply a hands-on activity, it’s using problem-based learning to teach. It REQUIRES kids to think and it levels the playing field between different types and levels of learners.

If you don’t even know where to start, here is a free starter pack to help you get started.

  1. Restore the fun.

Teachers, we have complained too long about having to teach our curriculum a particular way. We have seen how it is inadequate and does not work. This is our chance.  Gone are the days when skill and drill is considered an acceptable way to teach. We aren’t trying to produce robots or regurgitators of information. We want students that love to learn and take initiative and let’s face it…facilitating and guiding students to learning something new is LOTS more fun than lecturing!

April and Diane 🙂




Unlock the code of life!

Unlock the code of life!

One of the exhibits found at the National Museum of Natural History that I really wished I had more time to explore is the Genome Lab. If you live in the D.C. area and you are a lover of science, make sure that you see this before it is gone on September 2, 2014. It then goes on a world tour! I hope Atlanta made its way to the list!!

All Hands-On DC

Washington Monument

This weekend involved the much anticipated, for both teachers and students, 5th grade trip to Washington, D.C. I had visions of all of the STEM lessons that I would create as we toured around the Capital City. I had already thought of math lessons that would involve scale and proportion, geometry, and many others. It was going to be INCREDIBLE!  I imagined that students would be in awe of these topics and, of course, would just naturally observe them and bring them to my attention rather than me being the one to point them out. After all, we almost completed the year! I am sure you can imagine that this is NOT how the trip went.

While I was able to catch images that would help with future lessons in proportions and scale, and yes, many other lessons that I am sure will be fun, this whole discovery of and passion for project-based, hands-on learning was reinforced. I truly thought that being in 5th grade, the students would read at the different exhibits which we visited, look at the artifacts, and be on their way, intrigued and more informed. While they did read, it was other exhibits that brought about the wonder and awe I was expecting them to experience while in D.C.

One of our first stops was at the Holocaust Museum. I was a little worried about this stop because of the content of the museum and the fact that I had never been there, although I had heard different stories of visitors’ reactions to the museum. While we did visit the museum, we actually experienced the exhibit entitled “Daniel’s Story”. An interactive experience of a child’s perspective of the Holocaust, the students had a chance to experience Daniel’s journal as they walked through the different experiences of the young boy. A video of the exhibit can be found here. The kids were absolutely enthralled with the experience as they fought to read the diary entries and then to look under the bed, through the hole in the wall, etc. The kids were on their hands and knees interacting with the experiences this young boy had. They were able to immerse themselves in reading and left with a new appreciation of the Holocaust. At the end of the exhibit, I watched as the students eagerly wrote letters to Daniel about their feelings for him and his sister as they read their stories. Did you read that?? They eagerly READ and WROTE. These kids don’t normally do that. How awesome would it be if we could make all of our lessons come to life as this one did?

Again, when at the National Air and Space Museum, NOTHING sparked their interest until we entered the “How Things Fly” exhibit. Completely hands-on and discovery based, this exhibit reinforced to me the importance of students using discovery to solve a problem. Different parts of the exhibit were labeled with the things needed to make an airplane fly such as: lift, weight, force, and drag, the four forces of flight. They were able to experiment with each of the different forces and discover how it works. They literally ran to and from the activities calling me to show the force with which they were experimenting. They then would explain how it worked. Amazing. Kids are explorers at heart, so why would we stifle that need and desire while they are in the one place those qualities should be encouraged….school?

In the end, while I set out to be the “teacher” on this trip, I (once again), have been schooled by my students and have been encouraged to change the equation that equals learning. Too bad it’s Spring Break…I’m ready to get back in the classroom!


Epic Fail or Harsh Reality

thinking-capHave you ever been so excited about a lesson that you could hardly wait  for the day to start only to have it not go smoothly?  Oh my goodness, I was pumped, I mean pumped about a project I was using to accompany our book What is a Cycle?.  We finished our book, we had covered all kinds of cycles and now my kids (1st grade) were going to get to do a STEM activity by creating a free standing doll and then creating an outfit for each season.  I had gathered awesome (I thought) building materials:  cardboard, card stock, construction paper, pipe cleaners, glue, markers, etc.  I knew they were going to love it and it was going to be their first real experience with STEM.  One minute into the project and 3 out of the 8 kids were saying, “I can’t”.  Can you visualize it? I’m pumping them up, asking questions to try to get some ideas flowing without offering them a way to do it, and reminding them that trying something and having it not work was actually good because they would still be learning something.  By the end of the first day, 2 had not only accomplished nothing, they were vocalizing how much they hated it.  Stellar lesson….UGH!!

All day, I went over how I could have set them up for success. That afternoon I shared my “epic fail” with a second grade teacher.  She laughed and couldn’t believe that I would have attempted that project without showing them how to do it first.  My gut reaction was to agree with her, but I don’t.  See, the problem with some of the kids in my reading group is that they have lost their sense of wonder.  How sad!  They had no ideas and they weren’t even willing to try.  As teachers, do we communicate to our students that OUR way is the only way, that WE are the holders of all knowledge therefore they have to wait on us to share.  Come on now…we teach – we don’t  just spit out knowledge for them to regurgitate.   Think about it, when a student graduates college, most of what they have learned is already obsolete.  If we want them to be successful, contributing members of society,we must teach them to think, to generate ideas, and to have the confidence to test them out.

“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” – Malcolm Gladwell from his book Blink

I know the more we do, the more comfortable they will become with attempting the unknown.  Day 2 was a big improvement.  And I won’t give up.  I’m teaching kids to THINK and it’s not a task I take lightly.




Aha Moment


Making the switch to problem based teaching has been a progression for me.  Each and every time, I’m amazed at how engaged even reluctant students are when faced with a meaningful problem.  We have heard this time and time again.  As teachers, we all want to connect with our students and guide them to thinking critically, tapping into their creativity.  At the beginning, it seemed to take  forever to plan a lesson.  I wanted to do it often, but my own excuses kept it from happening. You know what I’m talking about – not enough time and not enough money to purchase supplies.   I thought each lesson had to be an event, a memory maker that kids would talk about long after elementary school.  Well, I’m here to tell you I was wrong!  Once your thinking shifts toward problem based learning, the ideas just come…small ideas, meaningful ideas, teachable moments are birthed on the fly.

Here’s an example.  I’m teaching a small reading group (1st grade) while others students are working on various activities.  One particular boy (I’m sure you have multiple kids like this in your class) has such a hard time staying focused, he is incredibly energetic, and has a wonderful imagination.  I’m teaching and notice he is not doing anything productive.  I quickly call him over to redirect him and ask him about the book we had been reading together.  I asked him what the problem was in the book. He said that the King and Queen were trying to get the baby to stop crying.  Next, I asked him how he would solve the problem.  He quickly replied that he would sing the baby a lullaby.  Guess what I asked him to do…that’s right…I asked him to write a lullaby.  He RAN to get paper and pencil, sat down and wrote the cutest lullaby about Spiderman (hey, I gave him no criteria).  He was so excited to show me.  I even let him record himself singing it on my iPad.

It was short, sweet, based on a problem from his book, and he was completely engaged.  He left feeling like a rock star, which sure beats moving a magnet/flipping a card for being off task.


Monday already?!


     Where did the weekend go?? I am not going to lie: this week is going to be crazy. Our fifth grade leaves for its annual trip to D.C. on Wednesday. As a fifth grade teacher, this means that I get to accompany them! Exciting! As a mother of three boys, this takes a LOT of preparation! Picture the most laundry you have ever done at one time. Now I bet you can double that and you will have a pretty good idea of the amount of laundry I got done this weekend! It is done, though, and I am ready to go!

     Except that I also had to plan for my classroom while I am gone. Not all of the fifth graders will be going, so some of my buddies are going to be hard at work here at school. The state mandated CRCT is just around the corner, so we are in full out prep mode. Now, we are new to this blogging thing, but if you knew me, you would know that I detest test prep. Don’t get me wrong: I am all about reviewing! I know that the kids need to review what we learned at the beginning of the year and I am more than happy to help them remember. What I do not like is the endless drill that CRCT review can sometimes look like. Kids start to block it and check out…right into summer break and then where does it leave them?

     SO! Keeping with my belief that real world applications make for better retention of information, I went searching and I found this gem! Thanks to Teaching With a Mountain View, I have some really awesome real world activities to leave behind! So, yes, I am a little overwhelmed. The end of the year will do that,but this morning I am feeling ready to take on the week!

*Disclaimer: This also means that you can look forward to lots of posts including teaching ideas as we travel around the Capital City…I foresee lots of STEM lesson opportunities!!*


Creativity…Not Cramming…Makes sense!

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