Musings and Strategies From the Teachers Next Door

Posts tagged ‘STEM’

The Struggle is Good

If you haven’t yet discovered the Open Middle site, may I introduce you.  Welcome to the world of challenging, thought provoking problems.  Dan Meyer introduced this concept, creating problems that have a definite beginning and end, but have an “open middle” that creates the space for students to solve problems multiple ways.  The open middle is what I love about math, why math is so much more than learning a set strategy.  It allows for understanding based on how you think and how you understand numbers.  I have seen kids come up with strategies that I would have never thought of…oh, how I love those conversations.  For that reason, this site is a gift.

This past week, I used a fraction problem with my 3rd graders.  Here is it: (source:  Open Middle)

fraction_number_line from openmiddle

Students were asked to place 3/4 on this number line.

While I anticipated my students to be a little stumped by the fact that 3/3 would not be at the end of the line, I had no idea the level of difficulty this would pose.  I wish I had recorded all the great discussion that ensued.

They justified their position, even tried to form a coup and overthrow me, when I challenged them placing 3/3 at the end of the line.  Guiding students through questioning is an art that I am practicing daily and there were moments that I wanted to just break down and “teach.”  But then it happened….my favorite sound in the world…”Ohhh, I see it.”  First there was one, one brave soul that walked over to the dark side and placed 3/3 on the number line correctly.  She even grabbed a ruler, measured the distance from 0 to 1/3, and proceed to place 2/3 and 3/3 exactly in the right place.  As soon as she began to measure, the kids got so excited as they SAW it.

At this point, I thought it was smooth sailing.  Next came the true task of placing 3/4, so the first thing they wanted to do was place 1/2.  Perfect.  I loved how they were using benchmark fractions, and I was sure that their misconceptions were suddenly gone.  Well….here is how is actually went down.1:2

The black line is where one student placed 1/2 and the red is where another tried to emphasize and defend that 1/2 would indeed be placed there.  I used all the skills I learned in my acting class and asked them to talk about what they knew was true.  The told me that 3/3 was the same as one whole.  We discussed and discussed.  Finally, they did come to realize where 1/2 should be and eventually 3/4, but not without a clear struggle.  These are not kids I teach everyday, but they are bright students with a wonderful teacher.  I don’t know if it was because they have only looked at fraction number lines with ending points of 0 and 1, but this experience reiterated the importance of exposing students to problems in multiple ways.  If they cannot transfer the information they learned from one type of problem to the next, then their understanding is basic and needs to be developed so much further.  I’m reading everything I can get my hands on…I want to be the best teacher I can be…I want to challenge, push, equip and help students make  a rich web of connections.

Feel free to pass on any wisdom you have.  It takes a village…

We’re All In This Together

I spent the day planning with some wonderful ladies. I’m always amazed by how much my enthusiasm grows when I’m surrounded by passionate people. Two heads are better than one and thankfully, the culture has changed and sharing the status quo.

Remember the days where teachers were afraid to share?

Teaching is so much fun when you realize it takes a village.

Here’s to those hard working teachers that are planning during summer, sharing their best ideas, and pursuing excellence. Bravo!

STEM, STEAM, STREAM….What is in an Acronym?



STEM hands


I admit it. Yes, I love literature, plays, books, movies, musicals, ballet, art. It has been apparent since my first blog post that I am an admitted word geek. Many of you may be wondering, as my husband wondered aloud yesterday, why are you teaching math and science? Wouldn’t you enjoy teaching ELA? Reading?


As much as I enjoy an eloquently spoken poem or an art or music piece that evokes emotion, I love the world of numbers. I love to play games, I love to see how the world works around me. It is a new found joy that, as an adult, I have come to realize that I missed a lot while growing up. I wasn’t the kid who naturally thought of numbers or enjoyed solving complex algorithms, and really it was because of how the subject was presented to me. Science was ok, but I had talked myself into being a fan of ELA. It was easy, so I stuck myself in that category.

Because of my struggle with math and science, I feel better suited to teach those subjects. I know where the kids are coming from who don’t understand. I can empathize with them and that connects us on a certain level. So that’s what I am. I am a teacher of math and science….or am I?

Enter STEM. My dream come true. Wait, maybe STEAM is my dream come true….STREAM? STEMM?… I found this article written by Vince Bertram. He points out that STEM, STEAM, STREAM, etc. regardless of the acronym, is an integration of ALL of the subjects. I get to teach them ALL from my math and science room! This article really points out how in the “real world”, it is all intertwined. The graphic artist…such talent! But really without technology, math, and science, could that artist be as great? If we battle over the letters in an acronym, aren’t we just really missing the point?

I am glad for this time of year at school. Testing is over. We start to accelerate students and get them ready for the year to come. I see many problems being solved, new ideas being sown, created, invented…brought to fruition. Genius hours are close at hand! I can’t wait!

So, at the end of the day, if I were JUST an ELA teacher, JUST a math teacher, JUST a science teacher…I wouldn’t be nearly as passionate about what I do as a STEM enthusiast! I get to teach it all…all wrapped up into one. Which isn’t just better for me…the students seamlessly think of all different disciplines while solving a problem without even realizing it! That not only makes them better students, it makes them better contributors to society regardless of their desired future profession! And yet I am left to wonder…why haven’t we all adopted this strategy into our classrooms? Why are educators so reluctant to change? Why isn’t everyone as excited about this prospect as I am? I have some ideas…but those are thoughts for another day.


TED Talk Tuesday “Math Makeover”

Math Minded

Do you have a go to place where you look for inspiration and innovation?  For us, it’s TED Talks so from now on, Tuesdays are TED Talk Tuesday. Here is our pick of the week.

In this talk, Dan Meyer clearly illustrates the difference between poor math instruction and math instruction that engages students in deep thinking while sharing how he develops real world questions and problem posing.

He states the obvious, that “Math reasoning is hard to teach.  The way we teach it in the U.S. all but ensures they won’t get it.”  We know that, we see it in classrooms often.  Are you wondering how successful you are?

Five Signs You’re Doing It Wrong

1.  Lack of Initiative – Your students are not self starters.

2. Lack of Perseverance – Your students give up, they lack grit.  If the answer is not immediately clear, they expect you to hold their hand and walk them through it.

3. Lack of Retention– You find yourself teaching, and reteaching, and reteaching.  It just doesn’t hold.

4. Aversion to Word Problems-They hate word problems.

5. Eagerness for a Formula…to solve said hated word problems.

We’re guessing you are reading this because you value education and you want to get it right.  You desire your students to excel and your instruction to create depth and understanding in those whose minds you’re shaping.  So why do educators find it necessary to go back to the old multiple choice stand by?  We’ve witnessed students answering multiple choice questions like nobody’s business, but change one nuance and they are lost.

Meyer makes a great point.   Have you ever faced a problem in which you were given all the information necessary to solve it… in advance? Or better yet been given several options to choose from…wisely? We haven’t either.

We were so excited when we saw this talk.  He breaks the development of good questioning down, starting with a picture and getting kids talking, bringing in math, as the kids see the need for finding ways to talk about what they see, and then having the kids pose questions that need answering.

The beauty of starting with a picture, or something that all kids know about, is that it levels the playing field.  One of his examples deals with filling a water tank.  He shows it and then asks kids how long it would take to fill it.  Kids see the picture and watch a video of it being filled.  Now, when they talk about filling the tank, every kid is on equal footing, even those kids that have decided they don’t need to talk about math, because someone else has the answer – every kid has filled something, so they have experience upon which they can draw.  He then takes guesses and writes them down.  He found that in the course of one semester, he could put a new problem on the board, something they have never see,n and the kids would have conversations about it.

The takeaways:

1.  Use multimedia in your class  -as often as you can, the best quality you can.

2.  Encourage student intuition – to level the playing field for all students.

3.  Ask the shortest question you can – and then let the other, more specific questions develop through conversation.

4.  Let students build the problem.

5. Be less helpful – knowing it will develop patient problem solvers.

“It is an amazing time to be a math teacher.”  We have the tools at our fingertips.

For more insight, follow his blog.


April and Diane




Children Make The Best Scientists

The inquisitive and curious nature of children make students the perfect scientists.  As educators, do we believe that is true?

Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist, has done some fascinating work using children AS scientists. (You can view his TED talk for the full description.)  The basis for his experiment is that children do experiments everyday through play.  They ask questions, gather information and make conclusions.  He went into a school and had the children ask questions that they wondered about bees.  From these questions, they worked together to design an experiment to see if bees could solve a puzzle and learn to fly to a specific flower within a specific pattern.  The fascinating part of this story is the students did the observing, the investigating, and the gathering of information.  Funny thing though, he mentioned that the greatest resistance he had in doing this project was actually the teachers.  The teachers didn’t think the kids could do it, AND they weren’t comfortable trying something that might not work.

That made me stop and question my own philosophy of education.  Do I hold my kids back thinking that I am protecting them from failure?  Do I hold them back because of my need for control?  Do I hold them back because I have lost my sense of curiousity?

I decided to jump in with both feet and see my students as actual scientists.  I showed them Blackawton Bee Project and spent time letting them ask questions about the world around them.

After talking about our questions, I let them choose a question they wanted to pursue.  The only criteria is that it couldn’t be googleable 🙂

photo 4 photo 3 photo 2 photo 1

We have been working on our projects for 6+ weeks now, about 1 hour each week.  And they have astounded me – not all, but most.  Here are a few of our topics:

  • Does your zodiac really match your personality?
  • Does your intelligence determine how fast you can solve a maze?
  • Can kids determine emotions by expressions?
  • Do all dogs communicate the same way?
  • Do all people taste food the same?
  • Can you really tell what a person is like from their Facebook profile page.

They designed an experiment that would give them information they could use to answer their questions.   For example, the girl curious about the accuracy of zodiacs, created a questionnaire.  She randomly listed the personality descriptions of each zodiac sign, without listing the zodiac name.  Then she had place for the person to write their birthday.  So awesome!!

As they worked, they asked tons of questions about gathering data, having a good sample, and as they worked on a way to clearly present their material, they have created graph, learned to use excel, and worked on presentations using many different formats.  They are having to learn what it takes to speak clearly, maintain interest, and draw conclusions.  So much learning has happened.

As a teacher, I am learning to be comfortable not knowing how things are going to turn out.  It’s making me better.  It’s making me comfortable with my own “failure.” And it’s transforming my class into a safe place with students can take risks without having it effect their grade.  I’m finding that disinterested students are now engaged and the quality of work has greatly improved.

How has your class improved over time?


A Wish, a Problem, and a STEM Challenge….

Although I primarily teach math, I do have the opportunity to teach reading every morning. It is always exciting for me to see text come alive to students, to watch their eyes light up as they begin to relate to the characters and make those connections. I have to admit, this year, it was a rare occurrence to see this happen for my reading students. I think in part it is due to the inoculation of the idea that assessment is the end all, be all to determining a student’s ability to read and comprehend.  You know what I mean…AR tests, Lexile scores, read so many books from the library then take a test or answer some questions, it goes on and on. But where is the part where we forget about levels and abilities and just encourage reading because they will love it, because it will open a world both figuratively and literally to them?

As fifth grade teachers, we sometimes live by the adage that students have already learned to read and now their job is to read to learn. We no longer offer read-alouds or even just some quiet moments to read for pleasure during the day. Why? Because there is no pleasure in reading. It is now constantly linked to assessment. The fun has been sucked out of reading. How sad! One of my favorite poets/authors, Maya Angelou, voiced her opinion on the subject of reading in schools today here, and I must say that I agree.

So, the year wore on and this weighed heavy on my mind as I watched students struggle to engage with the texts in which we were insisting they immerse themselves and bask in the joy of reading (which wasn’t happening, in case you were wondering) and it dawned on me to read to them. They still need to hear fluent reading so that they can become fluent readers. So, after our regularly scheduled reading group, we embarked as a class on a journey through The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer (see this).

As we journeyed deeper into the novel, we realized that the characters were on the most exciting scavenger hunt of their lives!  A STEM light bulb went off, so I created this STEM from Stories lesson plan.

The students were presented with a problem (Alex and Conner need to get home) and I asked them to think of  ways to help them, a way to solve their problem. A map, of course,  was the consensus. From that brainstorm, the design brief was presented. The students immediately went to work! The world that they envisioned in their minds (with help from evidence in the text) came to life for them as they created the maps. What most amazed me was the self-differentiation that took place! Take a look at the sample pictures and see if you can tell how they self-differentiated. As we continue with the novel, the students still get their maps and add landmarks and details.

Finally, I see a group of students who are anxious to read, to escape to this new found fairy-tale world and to their new found love of reading!

*To all of our blog readers: Leave a comment and you will receive the lesson plan for FREE as a thank you for reading our blog and lending support!*

Bring Storytelling to Science!


mayim bialik



Interesting article that explores exactly what I was talking about this morning!

(And because I am a huge fan of Mayim Bialik, I added a photo of her participating in the NSTA 14 conference in Boston.)
What are your thoughts? Will integrating literature and storytelling inspire more girls to enter STEM fields?
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