Fear and Courage that Stands Five Feet Tall

It was first period Friday morning and the exhaustion that always accompanies the end of my first week back had slammed me.   I was looking over the circle maps and surveys, the “getting to know you” homework from the previous night, that my students had turned in while they were taking a pre-assessment.    They were mostly filled with the normal things you usually see from middle school students: lots of things on extra-curriculars and interests, lots of “a good math teacher explains things and answers questions” and “a bad math teacher doesn’t teach you”, some “I like to work in groups” and some “I hate to work in groups”.   There was one thing, though, that stopped me dead.   It was in a section that parents were supposed to complete.   It asked for one thing that the parents wanted me to know about their student.   The parent had signed it, but the student had clearly written it.

The week leading up to this moment had been jam-packed and the days had been long, long, long.   I spent my first official day back reading IEPs to make sure that service hours matched qualifications and that schedules matched service hours, working to fix any scenarios where qualifications/service hours/schedules did not match, documenting modifications and accommodations for all the kids on my caseload and getting those out to teachers so that they would have them before students arrived for the first time.   Day two was  registration and training on the new discipline plan.   Day three I attended district professional development and administered math placement tests to new students.   Day four I led professional development on formative assessment all day and squeezed in an hour for JumpStart with my new 6th graders.   Day 5 was my first day with my students.   There had been a couple of math department crisis thrown in for good measure sprinkled throughout the week.  Every single day I had spent 11 plus hours at school and was pretty much running on empty, just trying to make it through to the weekend.   So,  you could say it was a fairly typical first week.

What did the student say?   “I’m afraid ________ is going to ruin everything.”   I’m not going to fill in the blank for the sake of the student’s privacy.      I will only say that a sentence that begins with “I’m afraid…” is a sentence that requires courage and that demands action.   Getting to know students is important, no matter how old they are.


Zoom – Promoting Clarity in Communication

Roughly fifty percent of my time as an engineer was spent on communication in one form or another.   Writing documents, engaging in meetings, and giving presentations are an inherent part of the job.   In order to succeed, one has to be able to communicate well.   The same is true in my classroom.


Since experience is a better teacher than telling, I let me students experience the value of communication during the first week of school.    I use the wordless picture book Zoom.   This book shows a series of pictures, each of which zooms out a little bit from the previous page:   you start with the comb of a rooster,  then you see the rooster, then you see some children looking out a window at the rooster, and so on.


I have removed the binding from the book so that the pages are separate.    The pages are such that the front side has a picture and the back side is black.    I laminated the pages to protect them a little bit.

The Activity

Each student is given  a page from the book and told not to show the picture to anyone.   Students are then told that the pages form a book and they must put the book back together in the correct order.   However, they may not show their picture to anyone.   They must figure out the order simply by talking about what they see on their page and by listening to what others say.   When they think they are done, they lay the pages (picture side down) on the floor side by side in order.    When all the pages are on the floor, they reveal their picture and step back to see how they did.

The Debrief

The final stage of the activity is to discuss the activity.    Why did some of the pictures end up in the correct order while others did not?    What worked?    What didn’t?    What was essential for success?   How does that relate to communication in general?


Students learn the importance of detail and clarity in communication.

I learn a lot about my students.   I get to see who the leaders in the group are and to see their leadership style.    I get to see who has great ideas but needs to find a voice.   I get to see who the followers are.   I get to see who the questioners are.    I also get to hear how students think and how they communicate.

Proportional Relationship Anecdotal Records

You just can’t hurry some things.   They take time.    In middle school, grasping the big ideas of proportional relationships seems to be one of those things.    Students need to build an understanding of a constant rate of change and how it presents in tables, graphs, equations, and verbal representations.   They need to build an understanding of what it means to have no “start-up” value in each of these representations as well.   They need to explore these ideas in a little of different ways in order to make sense of it.

Because there are so many pieces to this idea, there are a lot of different places that understanding can break down.   In order to know where that breakdown is happening for each student, I like to take anecdotal records.   At the end of the day, I can go back and see who knows what and make decisions about what I need to do the next day to help each of them move forward.   The thing is, I don’t have time to write a paragraph about each kid as I walk around the class looking at their work and listening to their discussion.    I need something that just takes a second or two for each kid at any given time.    To that end, I decided to create an anecdotal record form specific to proportional relationships.

I started with what I want to know my students can do.

  • Recognize a proportional relationship in a table
  • Recognize a proportional relationship in a graph
  • Recognize a proportional relationship in an equation
  • Recognize a proportional relationship in a verbal representation (word problem)
  • Be able to connect proportional relationships represented in a table and a graph.
  • Be able to connect proportional relationships represented in a table and equation.
  • Be able to connect proportional relationships represented in a table and word problem
  • Be able to connect proportional relationships represented in a graph and equation
  • Be able to connect proportional relationships represented in a graph and a word problem

If students can’t identify a proportional relationship in a given representation, I also want to know if the break down is the rate of change or the y-intercept.

I came up with this Proportional Relationships Anecdotal Records form.    I have one box for each student (I can use more than one page for a given period).   I put the student’s initials in the box and then circle the place where a breakdown is happening.   If the student is not recognizing a proportional relationship, I can write in k if the breakdown is the rate of change or the letter b if the breakdown is at the y-intercept.


I will probably use this to drive a brief review activity the following day.    I will pair students to do a card sort or to use the cards to play rummy.   Initially, I will pair them so that a student who has the idea down is working with a student who doesn’t.  After working with the idea for several days, I may place them so that kids who are struggling with the same issue are working together.     At that point, I can work with that small group to address whatever disconnect is still in place.   You can get the card sort here.

Building Academic Vocabulary Review Games Part Two

I like to use games to review concepts and skills.     They are highly engaging (as documented in Marzano’s The Highly Engaged Classroom ).   They promote student discourse.   As students play, they are constantly evaluating opposing players’ work because they are competitive and want to win.   They are generally fast-paced and can build a lot of review into a little bit of time.

In my last post ,  I shared a set of cards and directions for using them to play several different games (Draw Me and a couple of versions of Charades).    In order to add a little more variety to my vocabulary review, I have also created a version of Taboo.   Students play in table groups.   A “talker” is designated (I will do this by seat position within the group).   The talker tries to get the team to say the name of the word at the top of the card.   However, the talker can not use any of the words below the line.   You can download the set of cards by clicking Taboo


Table groups will compete against each other to identify the most vocabulary words.    I will have them  play for a specified amount of time.   The group that identifies the most words in the game will be the winner (and will each get a piece of candy).

Building Academic Vocabulary – Review Games Part 1

I’m not sure if there is a kid alive who doesn’t like to play games.   Granted, they like some games better than others.   Given the choice of a game or not a game, though, they always seem to choose a game.   Marzano uses that fact as a key component in his recommended systematic approach to building academic vocabulary in Building Academic Vocabulary .


As I said in my last post, I have been working to incorporate more instruction in academic vocabulary but need to do more regular review of the vocabulary.  To that end, I spent the last few days building a set of cards I can use in a couple of different games.  (You can download the cards by clicking on Charades )  I normally spend the last five to ten minutes of  class every day for some kind of review or as some kind of differentiated instruction.   These vocabulary games will go into that rotation.


Draw Me 

This is essentially a variation of Pictionary.   Students will work in table groups.  One student per group will be assigned to draw for a given round based on seat position.  ( I explain how I use seat positions in this post)  The drawer will get a cluster of terms that are related (eg., mean, median, mode).  He or she will draw pictures representing the words until the team guesses all of the words in the cluster.  When the team has guessed all of the words, the drawer stands and says “Got it”.   At that point, all other teams stop drawing.  The winning team gets a point.   Ideally, the game continues long enough for the drawer task to rotate through each member of the group.   In reality, I know there will be days when I just don’t have time for that, so the game will stop when time is up.   The winning team is the one with the most points.  (They will each get a piece of candy.)

I will have a set of cards for each table group and give the drawer the cards that are the cluster for their group.   I could do this by posting the words on the Promethean Board, but then I would have to ensure that everyone except the drawer was facing away from the board.   That seems like it would take more transition time than I want, so I decided to go with the cards.


This can be played with two different variations.

Variation 1:  

Students stand next to their desks and act out the word card displayed using the document camera or Promethean Board.   Students get “think” time after seeing the word and then are told to act it.   This feels more like an activity than a game to me, so I will probably use this when I am shorter on time.

Variation 2:  

Students work with their table group.   A designated group member is the actor (the actor will be determined by seat position within the group – e.g., Deltas do the first round, Sigmas the second, and so on).  Each table group will be given a set of cards.   The actors stand in front of their table group and begin to act out the term.   When the team has guessed the term, the actor raises the term card in the air to indicate his  or her team has correctly found the term.    The first team to identify the term gets a point.   The team with the most points at the end of the allotted time is the winner.



A Week of Wonder – A Wonderful Week With AAUW TechTrek

IMG_1499Sixty rising 8th grade girls descended on New Mexico Tech last Saturday to spend a week exploring STEM at Tech Trek New Mexico, a free week-long residential camp supported by the AAUW.      For many of these girls, it was their first extended stay away from home.   For all of them, it was their first opportunity to attend a STEM camp.   They all seemed to be filled with a mixture of equal parts nervous anticipation and excitement.  I would have to say those feelings were shared by the all-female faculty and staff who greeted them.

I was one of the core class teachers for the camp.    I have taught engineering classes at summer camps for about five years, but this was my first chance to do so for a group that was entirely female.    It was something I have always wanted to do   As  a high school student, I had attended several STEM camps and had really great experiences but the camps had always included both males and females.   It was inevitable in those environments that things surrounding gender stereotypes would always arise.   I was curious to see how things would change when the room was completely filled with women and girls.

Core Classes 

Each day, the girls spent the morning in a core-class.   The girls were sorted into core-classes based on their stated preferences before camp started and then spent the entire week exploring a central theme in that class.

  • Stellar Explorations – The students in this class explored stellar systems by creating models and engaging in simulations.
  • Cyber Security – The students in this class learned how information is translated into a binary system, how to encode/decode information using a Caesar Cypher, and about safe internet use practices.   They also created Women in White Hats – a group of young women who hack for good.   They learned how to evaluate cyber security on a web site.
  • App Invention – The students in this class used a platform developed by MIT to create a functioning app for an android device.
  • Motorized Toys – The students in this class responded to an RFP for a motorized toy.   They built an understanding of gear ratios, measured/analyzed the performance of motorized simple and compound gear trains speed and rim force),  measured/analyzed rim force on different sized gears, calculated torque, and determined what type of gear ratios will yield different performance results.   They then designed/built a motorized toy to meet the criteria outlined in the RFP.   After completing a testing cycle to ensure performance criteria were met, they presented their proposals.
  • Robotics – Students in this class learned how to build and program a robot that would track a line.   Next, they added an arm to the robot that would carry a ping pong ball.   They were challenged to program their robot to track a course and conclude by depositing the ping pong ball in a box.


Students spent their afternoons attending workshops.   Each workshop was an hour and a half, enabling them to attend two different workshops each afternoon.   They had workshops on a wide array of topics. Each of these workshops was taught/facilitated by a female technical professional.

  • Photonic Cooking
  • Science Writing
  • Weather
  • Optics
  • Ozobotswi
  • Nanotechnology
  • Physiology
  • Electricity & Magnetism
  • Music with Raspberry Pi
  • Water
  • Rocks & Fossils
  • The social life of pennies


Evenings were filled with fun and further exploration.   Monday, the girls had a pool party.   Those girls who did not want to swim stayed at the dorm and played board games.   Tuesday, the girls split into two groups.   Half of them went to the Mineral Museum and half of them  learned about Ham Radios.   Wednesday, the girls attended a dinner with professional women in STEM and had the opportunity to talk to them about their work.   Thursday was a repeat of Tuesday with the girls switching to the activity they did not attend earlier in the week.   Friday was movie night.

A Week of Wonder

Everywhere I turned, all week long, I was filled with wonder at so many young women actively engaged in STEM.

  •   Girls were solving problems, analyzing things, creating things.    They were thinking at the highest levels  on Bloom’s Taxonomy.
  • Girls were building knowledge and experience that will help to level the playing field with their male counterparts in the future.


  • Girls were demonstrating extraordinary competence in STEM.    In my motorized toy class, two of the groups demonstrated the most innovative solutions to the challenge I have seen among students  in the last five years with this project.  One of those groups created an axle by stringing together wire in order to create a three-wheeled vehicle to reduce weight and improve performance.    They are the only group that has ever been able to create a toy that would travel 3 m in 3 s, climb a 1 meter course at a 15 degree slope in less than 2 s, and also climb a 20 degree slope.


  • Girls were defying stereotypical thinking  about girls in STEM and building a foundation of self-efficacy that will serve them well.
  • Girls  were actively engaging with female role-models, making it a little easier to see themselves in roles usually held by men.

I think one of the girls summed it up best when she responded to the question of what she liked best.   She said, “getting to be with other girls who are just like me.”   Being a girl who likes math and science can sometimes be a lonely place.   This week, the world got a little bigger for each of these girls and that is a wonderful thing.

As I reflect on the week, I see so many ways that the camp worked to address the variables for women’s success in engineering and computing.   In the AAUW report,Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing the research speaks to the need to combat stereotypes and biases, the need to emphasize social relevance,  and the need to cultivate a sense of belonging.   It also addresses what needs to be done by the various stakeholders.    I think the section for educators is particularly relevant.

  • Emphasize that engineering and computing skills are learned, rather than innate.   Practicing and developing skills are part of the process, as is persistence.
  • Adversity is a common experience to everyone.   It should not signal to a student that she does not belong.
  • Students should be taught about the effects of stereotype threat in order to reduce their effects.  (Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele, a Stanford professor addresses the impacts of stereotype on academic performance – it impacts high achievers the most-and should be a must read for every educator).
  • Give a broad range of students exposure to computer science.
  • Highlight the broad applications of computer science and engineering.
  • Highlight the ways in which engineering and computer science help people.  (Many young women are drawn to the idea of making the world a better place).
  • Provide opportunities for girls to interact with women and men with whom they can identify in engineering/computing.
  • Create a welcoming environment for girls in math, science, and engineering.
  • Provide opportunities for girls to tinker and build confidence and interest in design and computing.

One Regret…

Roughly one fourth of the girls who applied to this camp were admitted.   The applicants who were not accepted were well-qualified, but only a certain number could be accommodated.   The AAUW and other sponsors were incredibly generous in their support of the camp.   I am thankful for all that they did to support STEM education for girls. I just wish that every girl could have this kind of experience.

Teaching Interdependence

In the progress of personality, first comes a declaration of independence, then a recognition of interdependence.
                                                                            Henry Van Dyke


Independence and interdependence seem to be at the center of life in middle school.   Kids are figuring out who they are and how to grow up (sometimes much too fast).   They are often all to ready to declare independence when it comes to “rights” or “privileges”.   Oftentimes, they struggle with the responsibility part of the equation, though.

As a middle school teacher, I can’t wait for them to figure all of this out before they get to the recognition that we are all interdependent.   Because so much of my class is built around student interaction, I want students to recognize their interdependence from the statr.    To make sure that happens, I give them the opportunity to discover it during the first week.   I give them a somewhat challenging task to accomplish as a group and then I give each group member a limitation that makes the task even more challenging.   The limitations ensure that the task can only be accomplished if they work together.

The Task

A group of four students are given a set of five envelopes.  Each student gets one envelope and the fifth envelop belongs to the “table”.   Working together, the group must build five equal-sized squares using the pieces found in the envelopes.  No group member may ask another group member for a piece.   (Members may give a piece to another member).


The task is taken from A Handbook of Structured Experiences for Human Relations Training.    You can download the files for the square pieces here

The Limitations.  

I want students to experience the need for interdependence and to recognize that each person has strengths and weaknesses.   Each member of the group is given a role that he or she must play as they complete the task.


The group member with the “See No Evil” card, must complete the task while blindfolded.   The group member with the “Speak No Evil” card must complete the task without speaking.  The group member with the “Look Ma, No Hands” card must complete the task without using his or her hands.   The group member with the “Mean Girls” card does not appear to have a limitation.   However, he or she must take on a “mean girls” persona, using only put downs in his or her communication.

The Ground rules

Groups may begin working on the task when I say “go”.   Oh, one more thing.   The task is a race.   The group to complete the task first is the winner.

The Debrief

After a team has won, everyone looks to see how they did it.   Then we talk about what happened.   I usually begin by talking to the winning team about their process.   What did they do that helped?   Then I ask other groups what they found helpful.   It becomes really clear that they had to work together, to fill in the gaps for each other, in order to succeed.  From there, we talk about what didn’t work.   At this point, the impact of the negative talk always comes out.  We wrap up the activity by talking about the implications for our work as a community.    We document this in a circle map on “Good group work”.   (I explain circle maps here. )