Winter break is finally here! Hallelujah! Each year it seems like a sprint trying to get from November to December break. This year’s sprint was even more stressful. In mid-November, I had to fly out to the West Coast and squeeze in birthday celebrations, a wedding, and early Thanksgiving dinner in five days with family and friends. Upon returning home, I also had to deal with formal observations at work, sending off my husband on a two-month deployment, preparing for the holidays, and taking care of the farm by myself in true-to-form New England winter weather. Whew!
I am really glad that the holidays are here and that I am off for the week. Finally, a chance to slow down and just catch a big breath!
Aside from the recent crazy life events, there are some good news. My STEM classes changed over in December and I now have a new batch of students. My first quarter with STEM was a logistics nightmare; I had to figure out what to do each day with thirty students for twenty minutes a day for ten weeks. Thankfully, I was able to quickly find resources from the NSTA science email listserv and TeachersPayTeachers store and set up weekly building challenges. We worked on the Apple A-lympics series from Kerry Tracy’s “Back to School STEM Challenge 5-in-1 Bundle“, built popsicle catapults for candy pumpkin’ chunkin’ and marble maze runs out of cardboard shoe boxes. My take-away lesson from quarter one was that I needed to dial down the number of weekly challenges.
Ten challenges for the quarter was too much! My new goal was to split the next ten weeks into two STEM projects; there would be an independent coding project and a collaborative engineering project, like building paper roller coasters.
We started off the second quarter with The Hour of Code. The Hour of Code is a learning event that takes place during Computer Science Education Week, where teachers and students participate by trying out various one-hour tutorials on computer science activities. My STEM students explored different coding activities in early December. It was a good introduction to the next project, Google CS First. Google CS First is a free computer science curriculum. Teachers can sign up and create theme-based clubs to teach coding.
At first, the students enjoyed the games. According to their feedback, they liked the self-paced video tutorials and that the activities were “not too easy and not too hard”. However, we did run into a lot of frustration (and headaches) mid-December with our Storytelling module in Google CS First. I paused the Google CS First activity to hold a whole-class discussion on what was working and what was not working with the program.
Students enjoyed the Hour of Code activities because they were game-based and the video tutorials were on the same screen as the games. With Google CS First, students had a hard time toggling back and forth from the video screen to the Scratch website. They also pointed out that it was hard to stay focused in twenty-minute STEM classes when it took a long time to sign on and watch the videos. By the time they were able to start manipulating the code blocks, it was time to log off again! We took a break from Google CS First, and I had students work with Tynker. Tynker is a learning system offering six free activities that teaches students how to code by starting with visual blocks that then progress to text-based codes. It is more for elementary-level students, but the platform was more engaging for my middle-schools students than Google CS First.
As much as they enjoyed coding, I think that the twenty-minute periods would be better suited to hands-on building activities in the lab. Thankfully the students provided me with some of their own ideas such as tower-building, creating egg-drop contraptions, and exploring Robotics. I’ll have to look for those resources over break…
Other good news: Board of Education approved my advisor position for the school’s first LEGO Robotics after-school program. This December I have been co-advising a group of upper-elementary students with the elementary STEM teacher. Our goal is to create student awareness of STEM and Robotics, and to form an official competing team for next year. It has been a refreshing experience working with younger students, and seeing their excitement as their robots “come to life” from pieces of LEGOs and computer programming. We are hosting a STEM Night with local elementary- and middle schools in February, and a small group of our LEGO Robotics students will be part of the evening’s keynote!
After reading most of the book, “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning”, during my November flights, I resolved to tweak a few of my teaching strategies for quarter two to help students improve their learning. In the beginning of the year, I used weekly 25-point Do Nows that consisted of multiple-choice Regents and ILS exam questions.
The Do Nows were changed to weekly 10-point open ended short written response questions. I was still able to get my spiral review in by using old test questions, but eliminated choices and asked students to solve a problem and justify their reasonings instead. It’s less risk with less points, but students are being asked to use higher-level thinking than simple recall.
Another tweak: frequent low-stakes quizzing. Rather than wait for the big end-of-unit test, I now provide weekly quizzes on top of a smaller end-of-unit assessment. Multiple-choice questions no longer exist on my assessments; they are replaced with diagrams and multiple short response questions. It is certainly a lot more grading on my part (I miss you , ZipGrade) but I have noticed improved retention and engagement during class reviews.
According to the book, frequent quizzing does not always have to be summative.This is still something I am working on right now. In the last two weeks, I brought back the use of Plickrs. Plickrs is a wonderful low-tech way to quickly check student understanding and get real-time data. I printed out the Plickrs codes, and had students glue their assigned Plickr code to the front of their science notebooks. I use it mostly as an exit ticket with three to four questions to see if students have achieved the day’s learning target.
Other tweaks: concept mapping and summary sheets. I rolled these two out earlier in quarter one and it received mixed results. Mid-unit, I give students a page of vocabulary words that they have to cut out, sort, and paste into a concept map. They really struggled with this at first, but I modeled several times and pushed through with it. I’m glad to see that they seem to be getting the hang of it now. They can make the connections, but they still need more practice on articulating and writing down what those connections are between the vocabulary words.
Summary sheets are half-page reference sheets that students create for their unit tests. In quarter one, I told them they can use their textbooks and notebooks to write down anything they think will be on their test. They could write any definition, formula, or diagram they deem important. Few of my students study at home, so having them create summary sheets in class was my sneaky way of getting them to review.
Unfortunately, only several students continued to work on them for homework and an even rarer few remembered to bring them on test day. I gave those students extra credit points to encourage the class to keep up with their summary sheets. Thinking back, I assumed students would know what topics would be important and know how to go back in their textbooks and notebooks to find the information. For our next unit test in January, I will tweak the summary sheet by providing them an outline of topics and modeling how to highlight and place post-it flags on references to find the necessary information.
Winter break goals
While I have not been very good at keeping up to date with my 40 Hour Teacher Work Week PD reading materials these past two months, I have been taking to heart some of its past lessons. One of the most important lessons I have learned so far is that my efficiency and effectiveness as a teacher relies on my ability to let some things go. I can’t have a Pinterest-worthy classroom AND create amazing unit plans and activities ALL the time. I would love to, but since this is my first year in a new district, my time and energy are already spread thin.
I have to focus my energy first on what’s important–my faith, my health, my personal relationships, and then, my work. In the past, my work always came first. This is actually the first time in my seven years of teaching that I am saying no to work first. I have said no to joining committees, no to staying past work hours, no to bringing home work on weeknights and weekends, and no to talking about student issues and work pet peeves with my husband. It has taken me a very long time to realize that saying no does not mean that it makes me less of a teacher. In fact, I feel more of that teacher I strive to be because I now advocate for myself. By saying no, I put myself first and I do better work because of it.
So, even though every cell inside me is screaming that I should take advantage of this holiday break to catch up on grading or plan ahead, I am going to say no. (Actually, I can say no because I did all my grading and printing before I left yesterday!) But still… I’m not going to be that crazy creepy teacher that comes in over holiday break and spends most of that time cleaning out her prep room and inventorying lab equipment. Yes, I actually did plan on doing this because I am still OCD but I will say no and just do ONE DAY.
I will spend the rest of my break to take time off for myself. I will…
- cuddle with my puppy, Bear
- sign up for that hot yoga class I’ve been meaning to take for the past three months
- bake some of those cookies and egg dessert recipes I Pinterested
- go see my friends for dinner dates
- binge-watch TV shows
- try a finger-knitting class from the yarn shop
- start going through the chicken catalogs to order blue-egg layers for spring
- start ordering seed catalogs for next year’s garden
- watch a show at the local stage theater
- sleep, sleep, sleep
- read a ton of books
And then, when January comes, I will focus on my next work projects:
- go over my curriculum map to see what I need to cut out and edit for the next two unit plans and get in review for the ILS exam
- create some DonorsChoose grants for STEM projects and lab equipment
- research topics for my last two magazine column articles
I hope that you too, my friend, have a great and relaxing holiday break. Say no to the holiday chaos and say yes to family. Say yes to sleeping in, catching up on rest, and being a better you for the new year. Say yes to the most important thing in your life: you.