Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Family S.T.E.M. Night at the Castle

Traditions are a big deal at my school.  We sing beloved songs during assemblies, hard-working students are recognized at special knighting ceremonies, there are favorite field trips and grade-level holiday traditions, and many students look forward to being a "book buddy" with a partnering classroom.  Us teachers have our ways, too.  We willingly cram around a big round table in the staff room at lunch, even if it would be more comfortable to spread out.  There's also an annual "Christmas breakfast" and a White Elephant gift exchange at the staff party (there's one gift that's been passed around for over 10 years!).  We also have special community traditions, like the spring Renaissance Festival, that always draws a big crowd.  Another community event we host is Math Night.  Math night is always fun, but it was getting to be a bit lackluster with the same old stations year after year.  So, when I was given the task to coordinate the event, I knew it was time to shake things up!

The first step was to change the traditional math night to STEM night.  STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is not a well-known acronym at my school. This change not only broadened the types of activities we could feature, it served as a catalyst for great discussions  among teachers and parents regarding curriculum.  Students also began to notice how interrelated the fields really are.

The next step was to plan the activities.  The event was held on a Tuesday night for an hour.  Families used a "passport" to make their way around each station.  Passports were collected and placed into a drawing at the end of the night.  Three winners from each grade-level band were chosen.  All activities took place in the Gym/cafeteria and were chosen for their level of engagement, simplicity, and variety.  Game facilitators were given a page of directions, learning objectives, and talking points.  Some activities were messy, some were creative, some were loud, some were quiet, and some required lots and lots of brain power.  Most importantly, all were relatively simple in terms of supplies and were easily executable by both teachers and volunteers.  Here's a run-down of the events:

Students used cornstarch and water to explore properties of matter. 
Penny Lab
The classic "drops on a coin" experiment demonstrating water cohesion.

Color Exploration Mural/UV Beads
Students used the same marker on both white and black paper, noticing which colors worked best on each background. This was also my sneaky way to incorporate the arts.  The teacher who ran this station also gave away UV beads that changed color when exposed to sunlight.

Aluminum Foil Boats
Students first had to engineer a boat out of aluminum foil.  Next, they tested to see how many pennies their boat could hold before it sank.

Paper Airplanes
Students crafted paper airplanes using three different sizes of paper.  They were encouraged to explore how certain features like the nose, rudder, tails, or flaps change the flight pattern/quality of their aircraft. 

Wind-Powered Cars
Using only straws, life savers, paper, and paper clips, families created a small car and then competed against each other to see who's could go the furthest on a single puff of air.  This was by far one of the crowd favorites! 

Angry Birds
Sling shot, cardboard blocks, and two stuffed angry birds.  'Nuff said.  A definite favorite!

Playing Card Math Games
Families received a packet of math games they could play at home using either playing cards or dice.  Teachers demonstrated a few favorites we regularly use in the classroom.  The playing cards were donated to us by a local organization.

Math Strategy Games
Students learned the ancient games of Canoga and Poison.

Students explored shapes using Tangram sets (cut from craft foam) and several puzzles for families to solve.

M&M Math
Each child got a small bag of M&Ms and were asked to do simple computation problems with their candy, such as find the sum of reds and yellows. Students were also encouraged to explain the different fractions they could make using their M&Ms and also think of ways they could graph their results.

Estimation Station
We had four different estimation jars filled with fun things like little toys, cap erasers, candy, and goldfish crackers.

Digital Citizenship Information
I created a packet of information about Internet safety and digital citizenship to hand out using resources from Common Sense Media.

Other thoughts...

About two weeks before STEM night, my class delved into a persuasive writing unit. I had my students create media publications of their choice to promote the event and persuade others to attend.  It was a really fun way to assess this learning standard and my students loved being able to help me promote STEM night!  We ended up with several commercials/skits, posters, presentations, and morning announcements!  

It paid to be extra prepared.  I created direction sheets for each activity with talking points and leading questions for the facilitating teachers and volunteers.  I noticed many of the students using the academic language from the conversations with the facilitators throughout the night.  Teachers liked having something to refer to, and it also helped me keep organized in terms of supplies.  I also housed all supplies for each activity in their own clear tub.  This made set-up and clean-up quite painless and will make storing activities much easier.  This was a huge organizational feat for me!    

It may not be wise to plan such a large event on the same day as a field trip and the week of professional development and a big trip. Most of this was out of my control, but having so many things in one week through me off big time!

I've gotten lots of great feedback from the students, parents, and staff that attended.  It was totally worth the work that went into it, and I'm already scheming of ways to make it even more awesome for next year! 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Note to Self:

The time to relax is when you don't have time for it.
-Sydney J. Harris

I have an especially busy week ahead of me - class field trip, family math and science night, district professional development, and some other big events.  Not to mention grades, highly capable reports, conferences, and EdCamp Seattle are coming up in the next few weeks.  I spent all weekend trying to get ahead, but still feel incredibly behind.

I am feeling stressed and overwhelmed by all that still needs to be accomplished, but I promise that this week I will slow down.  I will unplug.  I will spend time with those I love.  

I will relax, even though I don't have time for it.     

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Dragon Project

Every day I find myself "kicking out" a small group of students who linger in my classroom at the start of morning recess.  While I love spending time with my students, I think it's important for them to have time away from the classroom to socialize, relax, and play.  Not to mention it's my time to run last-minute copies, grab some tea, use the restroom, and check in with my teaching partner. Very important stuff.

On Monday, two of my students - a boy and a girl - asked to stay in to work on a special project.  It's about dragons, they told me. And magical powers. And battling evil creatures.  It also involves extensive research and lots and lots of sticky notes.  Really, it's amazing, and I had to allow it.

I've watched them work every day this week during recess - reading side-by-side, consulting with one another, furiously taking notes, changing their minds as they go along, and getting excited by possibilities.  They are so engrossed in their collaboration, they rarely acknowledged my presence.  I admire their creativity, drive, and persistence to take on such a big project during their free time, and I've loved watching them work together this week.

Other students have been watching them, too.  They are curious as to the nature of the project and want to be a part of it.  They see that it's something special and part of something bigger.  For the time being, though, my two students have kept the dragon project to themselves.  It's meaningful and important work to them, and others just don't seem to fully get it. 

What I've realized watching this dragon project unfold is that no matter how old we are, we get emotionally attached to our big ideas.  We cling to them, nurture them, and fiercely protect them.  We want them to succeed, we want to see them through with other like-minded folks, and we want to make them our own.  Big ideas are successful when they've got the right combination of imagination and brain-power behind them.

The best part about all of this is that I'm not even sure my two students know where the dragon project is taking them. They are invested because they enjoy each other's company, share a similar passion, and work well together.  I'm confident it will change and grow over time, and perhaps it may even fizzle out.  Regardless, I think it's pretty darn amazing that I can learn so much from my students just by listening and observing them.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Perfect Fail

If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that origami is the most stress-inducing activity I can do with elementary-aged students.  Origami not only demands excellent fine-motor skills, it requires that students are accurate, creative, and patient.  Sometimes kids get overwhelmed by the types of folds.  Sometimes it's the number of steps or the language of the directions.  Either way, when our class finished reading The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, I knew I was in for trouble.

After 30 minutes of "Is this right?" "How do I do that?" and "I can't do it," emotions in the room were running high.  There were crumpled pieces of paper everywhere and I could tell tears were just around the corner.  We took a deep breath, regrouped, and decided to table this activity for a homework choice.

During our closing reflection we discussed the various issues we were having while making our Origami Yodas:

  • The directions/illustrations were confusing
  • I wasn't folding the paper right
  • I wasn't folding the paper accurately
  • I wasn't getting the help I needed
  • I wasn't sure who to ask for help other than my teacher
  • I kept getting frustrated and lost patience
  • I kept getting frustrated and lost interest
  • I didn't follow the directions
  • I didn't understand how each fold related to the larger Origami Yoda
Depressed and defeated, we discussed how this activity relates to our lives as learners.  
  • We won't always get things right on the first try - FAIL is just our first attempt in learning.
  • It's okay to get frustrated when you're doing something challenging.  
  • A break is not the same as giving up.  
  • If something is confusing, seek clarification.  
  • In assisting others we learn more ourselves.  
  • Directions help us to be self-sufficient.  
  • It's important to take small steps forward yet still keep the bigger picture in mind
This conversation struck a chord with many of my students and I could feel the tension dissipate.  As we left for the day, we held up our pathetic-looking Yodas high above our heads and proudly declared failure.  Students left determined to try again, and to do better the next time.  It was wonderful to see them excited and energized from their failures.  

I was proud of their maturity and hard work that afternoon given such a difficult task, but it was the following day when I overheard one student say to another during math, "That was a perfect fail - I'm so proud of you!" when I knew those 30 minutes of frustration were all worth it.