The times, they are achangin'

So many things have evolved in my 15 years of being an educator in Alabama. When I started my first position in this field, which was serving as a 5th grade reading teacher, corporate email for teachers wasn't even a thing, y'all. I mean, seriously. That alone makes me feel like a fossil. 

And, of course, there is much that hasn't changed at all. In many ways teachers are still disrespected, ignored, and undermined in all the ways that matter when it comes to legislative issues that impact our profession. Our elected representatives talk about us, over us, around us, and under us, but they rarely talk to us. This is ineffective and inefficient at best when it comes to effecting real and positive change for our teachers, students, and communities. 

There was a thing that happened this weekend that gave me hope. A very diverse group of impassioned, extraordinary teachers came together to discuss issues impacting education in Alabama. We discussed everything from Alabama's College and Career Ready Standards to measures impacting teacher quality to National Board Teacher Certification. It was a robust discussion, and my only regret was that we had to cut it off after an hour. This was teachers talking shop, and it was so refreshing to hear the different viewpoints on these issues. 

What made this different from any other teacher roundtable discussion was that, for the first time to my knowledge, a prominent person pursuing an elected office asked for a seat at our table. (*See my friend Julie's blog post explaining just why it is OUR table!)

The times, they are achangin' friends, and in all the ways that will be the wind in our sails to make a tangible difference for our teachers and students in this state. 

STEM for Preschool

The merging of all my posts into one feed has uncovered some old drafts that never got published. Here's one from last year.

Kidzone Discovery School - a place that is and people who are very very dear to our family - invited me to serve as a speaker for one of their professional development days last spring. In response to the administrators' research in best practices for young children, they asked that the focus be on STEM for Preschool. STEM, as some of you may know, is the emphasis on and intersection of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. STEAM is the newest version of this, incorporating Art into the mix.

STEM/STEAM-focused learning activities are pretty on trend right now for K-12 education. At the onset of planning, my approach was taking something complex and simplifying it for preschool purposes and I anticipated some challenges in that area. Would I be able to find enough "lower-level" activities to pull this off?

As it turned out, STEM is so perfectly aligned to instructional strategies appropriate for preschool that there was no shortage but rather an abundance of options for this workshop. Polling together my own personal children's STEM-type tools as well as some materials provided by the preschool made for a powerful, hands-on workshop that the teachers seemed to truly enjoy.

I started off with an interactive quiz to determine that audience's level of familiarity with STEM. We had some basic understanding but for most participants, this concept was entirely new. Then I gave a quick talk on the origin of the STEM movement and how this method of instruction helps nurture curiosity, initiative, and critical thinking skills in our kids. The next chunk of time we spent rotating through stations so that everyone had an opportunity to try out (and evaluate) some activities for appropriateness in relation to their specific age groups. Each station had a challenge/task card with just enough instructions to enable self-sufficiency in exploring the activity.

1. In this challenge, teachers were given rolls of tin foil and were asked to design a boat that would float. They experimented with design of their vessels, and even took on the extra challenge of adding cargo (pennies) to see how that would alter their boat's function.

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2. The next station was simply a box of Magformers. These are magnetized geometric shapes that can be clipped together to build designs from the included idea book or users can branch off and design a structure according to their own specifications.

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3. The next station was creating chemical reactions with baking soda, food coloring, and vinegar. The teachers could use droppers to pull out colored vinegar and create artistic chemical reactions by adding it to the pans of baking soda. Younger kids love this activity, and as long as you prep ahead of time with disposable trays and garbage bags, clean-up can be kept to a minimum.

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4. This was the most advanced STEM activity of the session. The participants were challenged to use tin foil, pins/hot glue, and streamers/ribbon to create a comet. The emphasis on this station for actual use with preschoolers would be teacher assistance and instruction on the various terminology associated with the comet models. The fun part, of course, would be getting to throw their foil comets across the room afterward.

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5. The next station involved using Legos and the Lego Movie Maker app to create short, stop-action videos. I have recently been devastated to discover that Lego Movie Maker has been discontinued, but there are other stop motion video apps out there that would accomplish the same goal.

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6. This station was the simplest yet it yielded the most room for creativity. The challenge was to build Elsa's castle out of sugar cubes, and everyone had such a creatively different take on the best way to assemble a sturdy castle. One of the administrators suggested that we could also use a sugar water paste (similar to gingerbread house icing) to help the "bricks" stick together.

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7. This station was also pretty simple, including just pipe cleaners and beads. Using those two materials only (plus duct tape, of course), the teachers were challenged to see which team could build the tallest structure.

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We rotated everyone through the stations in five-minute increments. Some challenges required more time, others less, but this gave all the teachers a broad sweeping exposure to the STEM/maker concept. A follow up interactive quiz gave good feedback on the participants' understanding of the purpose and details of our STEM activities.

Whether you're a teacher or a parent looking for Spring Break/summer fun, you are welcome to check out the links below to set up your own kiddos' STEM challenges!

Link to STEM for Preschool presentation

Link to supplemental signs for STEM activities

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney)

My students are obsessed with the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. At no less than 5 requests every single day, these items are hot commodities in my school library. At the end of the year I was finally able to wrangle the first installment to see for myself just what all the fuss is about.

The very first observation I had about this book was that Greg Heffley is a little jerk. He's narcissistic, rude to his parents, completely self-absorbed, and the most inconsiderate, selfish "friend" any kid could ever have. But, you know what? A lot of upper elementary/middle school boys are just like Greg Heffley. I suppose at the end of the say, it's all a part of their emotional development and that they are who they are at this stage for a reason. Still. He might be funny, but he's still a little tool.

And he is most definitely funny. Greg Heffley makes some pretty witty observations about the social order in schools that I think most educators and maybe even parents miss out on. There is a tinge of a "bully or be bullied" theme which I definitely believe is part of the under-the-table social interactions between students. Another observation I have is that the books are 5th grade level readers, which I think is overestimating a bit. These books are not exactly solid 5th grade level material. There are illustrative comics interspersed throughout, which make it even more popular with kids. These kiddos do love their graphic novels (sigh)...

Overall, it's a good set to have in the school library. As for me, I'm done with you, Greg Heffley. But I like that my kids like you, so maybe you were worth my time after all.

Too Small to Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most (Wess Stafford)

Today, Wess Stafford is the president and CEO of Compassion International, which is a global child-focused sponsorship organization grounded in Christlike principles. Compassion International helps over 1 million impoverished children and their families with basic needs and education in at least 26 different countries. Today, Wess Stafford is at the helm of one of the largest and most efficient aid organizations in the world.

Fifty years ago, Wess Stafford was growing up in a tiny West African village (with French influence) called Nielle. In this book, he describes his childhood and the wonderful pieces of wisdom he discovered about life through the people of Nielle...the most important being that all children are important. He writes about the differences in typical American culture and typical African culture, and how valued children tend to be in African circles. Children are given important jobs. They are always included, never shut out or sent to a play room to be occupied while dinner was cooked. They were watched over but not hovered over. Life was and is very dangerous for a child in Africa, so they were and are taught responsibility and how to contribute at a very early age. Children are counted on because all children are important.

Stafford's interesting perspective on child advocacy comes from his experiences of being highly valued as a child in Nielle, but it also grows out of some very ugly experiences in a boarding school several months out of the year in another part of West Africa. There he and his sister, along with hundreds of other kids, were abused in the worst ways possible by people who had been entrusted with their care. Describing a few dark memories from this time, he shows how ugly people can be to innocent children...especially when those people know that the children cannot speak out for themselves and will not be heard by anyone who could help them. Their experiences are much like that of millions of children who are abused and neglected on a regular basis. Adults abuse children because they are powerless. Most of the time adults abuse children who are too small to have a voice, or they scare them into silence. Stafford challenges readers to view children as God sees them: as important. He gives several examples from Scripture when God had a big task and only a little child would do. Jesus Himself publicly admonished his disciples at least twice because they were trying to belittle the relevance of children in His presence.

If this sounds like a book for you, be warned that there are some truly horrific stories within these pages. Some of them are from Wess Stafford's visit to Haiti or Rwanda. All of these stories, combined with Stafford's personal childhood, have sparked a bottomless passion within him to advocate for children on every level of society but especially the most powerless: the poor. He presents some specific ideas for changing the way the world thinks about children, and ways to elevate them from being a discarded member or society to an intensely valued member of society. Wess Stafford is intensely passionate that all children are important, and by the time you finish the last page, you'll believe that just as deeply as he does.

David Goes to School (David Shannon)

Poor David. Wherever he goes, someone is always telling him not to do this or not to do that. In this school version of No, David! this mischievous little guy gets reprimanded for everything from needing to go to the bathroom too many times to having a food fight in the lunchroom.

If you work with school age kids in any capacity, you know a David. That kid who always gets in trouble, who always has a rough time making the right choices. I love these books because they remind me what life is like from David's perspective. They remind me how bad it must feel for those kids who have the hard time making good choices and hear about it all day long, everywhere they go-from Mama, from the teacher, from the cafeteria workers... And these David books also remind me of just how good it feels when those kids hear that rare "yes" or "good job."

The David books make want to be that teacher, that librarian who gives my kids a happy encouragement.