Relationships (and a few ideas to make them better)

It is redistricting time here in HSE, and for those of you who have been through that, you know what that means – not only do we have students who will be shuffling schools, we also have some teachers who will be shifting. As a school who will be growing as a result of the redistricting, we have 4 new positions to fill in my building. At the same time, there are multiple buildings around the district who will be losing positions. All of this goes to say that there is a LOT of change going on around our district.

As a result of those changes, I have had the opportunity to sit in on interviews with a TON of super talented, motivated, and innovative teachers from all over our district. As I reflect on those interviews, one of the things that was reaffirmed is the fact that ALL teachers that I talk to seem to value relationships with their students above all else. For several years now, one of the school improvement goals at our school has been developed around the idea of the importance of strong relationships with our students.

This year our district embarked on a new process to be able to gather data from multiple stakeholders to better understand the beliefs that students, families, and teachers have about our schools. This was done through a survey called Panorama. The survey allows us to learn about a multitude of aspects of what happens at our buildings. We even got data from that survey about the perceptions that we all have about those student to teacher relationships in our building.

What was fascinating to me is that the data shows that within three percentage points, our students, teachers, and families all scored the strength of the connections between teachers and students almost at the same level. I was a bit concerned to learn though, that almost 30% of our responses on these questions were not favorable. Now, many of you know me – I love data. Out of the 851 students who were able to respond to this survey, somewhere close to 250 of those students responded unfavorably on the questions that related to teacher-student relationships.

No significant learning

So that got me thinking – as teachers, we know that relationships are important, and we work hard to create them. Even with that effort, we’re still looking at a significant portion of our student body who did not respond favorably when self-reporting their beliefs about relationships between teachers and students.

You know, when we look at a percentage, saying that our results are a little over 70% favorable sound pretty good. But c’mon, 250 kids did not give a favorable response in this category. That’s an average of about 7 kids per homeroom! Yikes!

So that has me reflecting on 2 questions:

  1. What are the things that are burning our relationships with kids?
  2. What can we do to improve those relationships?

I’m sure we all have theories on why students might not have a favorable response to questions about those relationships, but ultimately we want to think about what things we can do to build relationships. One of the other awesome things about our Panorama survey data is that you also have access to a section called the Playbook. Here you can find ideas for activities that support certain topics. One of the topics on the playbook is Teacher-Student Relationships. Here are a few examples that I think would provide huge bang for your buck in terms of building relationships:

  • Proactive Community Circles – The benefits of circling up and talking about what matters to kids is huge! When we begin looking at data from the Panorama survey, the schools who have already integrated these circles into their daily schedule have higher outcomes in the teacher-student relationships section of the survey. Want to build better relationships with your kids? Start circling up to have a conversation a few times a week!
  • Game time – What if you randomly selected a student to pick a couple of friends and come play a game with you during non-class time? It could be at lunch, during prep, or after school, but think about the opportunity that creates for you to get to know your students in a new way, and for them to get to know you!
  • Contact parents with positive information – make it a point to pick one day a week that you call the parents of a handful of students to share something positive about them. Especially target a student that you might have been struggling with. See if you notice a difference moving forward!
  • Form book clubs with students – Personally I love to read, and I love to talk about reading. What if you picked a group of students to do a book club outside of normal instructional time? Let the students select the book, and find a time once a week or every couple of weeks to get together and chat.

It’s clear to me from the data that teachers value relationships with students, but for some reason there seems to be a disconnect between what we as educators understand and what our students perceive. Maybe some added intentionality in our relationship building will help achieve stronger connections!

What are some of your favorite ways to build relationships with your students? Share some ideas in the comments below!


Boundaries and Supports

Last week, we were lucky enough to have Kristina Hulvershorn from Peace Learning Center come visit our school to lead us in a Level 1 Training on Restorative Practices. I have attended this training before, but was excited to participate with the teachers in my building so that we could have a shared understanding of what Restorative Practices are, why we want to integrate this way of thinking into our classroom setting, and have some support on the role of proactive circles in developing a classroom community.

While there were many aspects of the training that were valuable, one of the things that really resonated with me this time was this chart:


As I have reflected on the training, this chart has come back to me several times and got me thinking about the person I have become, as well as how I got here. All of us have had people in our past who helped us to get to where we are now. As I think back on the mentors who helped shape me, many of them offered me support in the form of encouragement. But along with that support, there were definitely boundaries, that put limits on me and created guardrails that helped to keep me on the path. This combination of boundaries and supports are what I credit in leading me to where I am today and continue to push me to be on the growing edge where I feel a little bit uncomfortable. I’m ok with that feeling though, because I know I still have mentors and colleagues that will offer support as I travel my path. If you think back on what has molded you into the person you are, you’ll probably be able to identify examples of boundaries and supports that helped you grow.

Our students need the same thing to be able to learn and grow. Each child needs someone (or many people) who can offer them support so that if they fail, there is someone to help them. At the same time, there have to be boundaries too, expectations for all our students that push them to be their best self. In our training, Kristina used an analogy that really allowed me to think about this combination of boundaries and supports. I wanted to share it with you.

Imagine that it is a school morning, and you are running late. As you approach school, you see the flashing yellow lights to signify the school zone, but you’re running late. You keep right on at the speed you were going. As you crest the hill by school, you see a police officer. Let’s look at the four different quadrants of boundaries and supports and imagine an officer from each one:

Neglectful: This officer is in position, but he’s got better things to do. He sees you speeding but doesn’t bother to chase you down. No boundaries, but also no support! So, what happens if you’re running late tomorrow? No lesson learned, so you might as well speed again!

Permissive: This officer actually pulls you over, but when you share that you’re a teacher who’s running late, he puts his lights and sirens on, escorts you to school, and then calls your principal to let them know that it’s his fault you were late. This time you’ve got lots of support, but no boundaries. When you’re running late the next time, you’re hoping that he’s the officer on duty! Again, no lesson has been learned.

Punitive: This is the officer who pulls you over, asks for your license and registration, but doesn’t want to hear anything about why you were speeding. He doesn’t care you were running late, or anything about why. He’s writing a ticket, and all you feel is mad and unheard. When this guy lets you go, all you’re doing is fuming about what happened, and seeing the experience as his fault. There are strong boundaries, but no support. Since you’re so caught up in being mad at the officer, you aren’t going to learn anything about the experience. Tomorrow you will probably speed, and hope that he’s not the officer on duty.

Restorative: Like the punitive officer, he pulls you over, but this time the experience is completely different. He approaches the car and asks if you knew you were speeding. When you say yes, he asks why and listens compassionately to your story. This officer starts asking you questions like: What time did you get up? What time did you leave home? In the process of the conversation, the officer talks to you about setting your alarm earlier, and actually asks you to set a new alarm on your phone for 15 minutes earlier so that you don’t have to be in such a rush tomorrow. Finally, the officer talks to you about a family he knows that was impacted by someone speeding in a school zone. In the end, the officer still writes you a ticket, but unlike last time, you feel that you were heard, you have some strategies to avoid being late tomorrow, and you better understand why there are lower speed limits in school zones. There are definitely boundaries here, but you also have lots of support. After this experience, you make a commitment to be sure to be out the house earlier so that you don’t have to speed.

So, what might these quadrants look like in a classroom setting? Let’s take a look:

Neglectful: In this classroom, there are no boundaries, and no supports. If you were to walk into this classroom, it would probably appear to be in chaos. Students are doing what they want, but it’s probably not got anything to do with the content they are supposed to be learning. The teacher probably has the best of intentions but doesn’t understand how to provide more support or appropriate boundaries for their students. When problems arise, this teacher looks the other way, or simply ships the students causing the problem out to someone else to deal with. Chances are, everyone walks out feeling stressed at the end of the day, and very little learning has happened for anyone.

Permissive: You might hear this teacher say something like “My sweet babies just can’t handle anything more.” The students feel like they are supported. So much so, that they don’t really accomplish anything. They are never pushed out of their comfort zone, and as a result they don’t learn much either. In this classroom, the teacher does all the work. When you walk in, it may appear that students are engaged in learning, but the learning that is happening is simply surface level. And when problems arise, this teacher steps in the middle and works to solve the problems between students. The efforts may lead to short term solutions, but in no time at all the problems are occurring again. At the end of the day, students walk out of the room feeling mostly happy, while the teacher probably walks out feeling tired.

Punitive: I think any of us who have been in education have a memory of this type of teacher in their past. I’m not going to name anyone here, but some examples from my past: The teacher who took away the baseball cards that I brought to school because someone else took them out and was looking at them. They were never returned. Or the teacher who would throw chalk at anyone who did not appear to be paying attention. One time I was writing notes about the class in my notebook, but he threw chalk at me because he thought I was drawing. These are the classrooms where students are living on the edge of fear. The only kids that are successful in this classroom are the ones who “play school” well. Kids may appear to be well behaved and on task, but really, they are living on the edge, waiting for the next moment that the teacher will yell. When problems happen in this classroom, they are handled quickly by the teacher with severe consequences. Students may not understand the why behind what went wrong, which means that the problem may occur again. Learning may happen, but again it is probably surface level because students are more concerned about not upsetting the teacher than focusing on learning the skills in the class. At the end of the day, the teacher probably feels pretty good about things, but the students probably are still in fear of what might happen tomorrow.

Restorative: In this classroom, there is a different feel in the air. When you walk into the class, you can feel a sense of community. Problems are rare, but when they arise students are able to try to work it out with their own conflict managements strategies. When these don’t work, they may get help from peers or the teacher. Students trust their peers and teacher because of the community they have created. When a major problem happens, the class is able to circle up and talk about it. It may sound like this is time consuming, but the time invested in early community building saves so much time later in the year. This teacher intentionally chose to not begin content work until the second full week of school, devoting all the earlier time to community and team building strategies. Since students have learned to solve their own problems, things that happen at recess or during unstructured time are less likely to take time away from classroom because the teacher can allow students to hash it out on their own or with the help of a peer mediator. At the end of the day, people walk out of the room feeling happy about their experience. Learning has happened, and the community has continued to be strengthened.

So, take a moment to think about where you fall as a teacher. Which quadrant are you in? As with any continuum, you could fall in lots of different locations, and it may be that you feel pretty comfortable with where you are and what you are doing. But remember what it was that helped you become the successful person you are. It took boundaries and supports to be successful. Keep looking for ways to make those boundaries and supports clear to your students. Everyone will benefit from it!

What are your thoughts? Have you thought about integrating Restorative Practices into your classroom? What do you see as the benefits? What are the potential hurdles? Share your ideas in the comments below!

What’s luck got to do with it?

Recently I was listening to an episode of the TED Radio Hour. If you’ve never heard it before, this show takes a theme, then pulls clips from a few existing TED Talks that tie in to that theme. The host, Guy Raz, interviews the speakers about how their talk ties in with the theme. One of the recent episodes was titled Luck, Fortune, and Chance, and one of the segments in particular got me thinking about the work we have been doing around Equity in my school district. You can listen to just the segment of the show here:

Mark Sutcliffe, a talk show host from Canada who is also an entrepreneur and runner gave a recent TEDx Talk on the role that hard work and luck play in our stories of success. Our society has traditionally put an emphasis on the idea that hard work can lead to success. The reality is though, that this is not true for all.

Hard work is an element of success in life, but it’s not the essential element… The secret sauce is luck.

Sutcliffe shares that he won the genetic lottery the day he was born. Because of the makeup of his family, their experiences, education level, socio-economic status, and so much more, Mark had an excellent starting point on the day he was born. Not everyone has those same chances. As a runner, Mark makes the analogy between our starting point in life, and the starting point in a marathon.

If you’ve ever run an organized marathon, half-marathon, or possibly even 5k, you’ve started the race with a timing chip attached to you in some way. When the starter at the front of the race says go, the timer starts for everyone that is right at the start line. But if you’re anything like me, you probably aren’t at the front of the pack. In the last half marathon I ran, it was almost 20 minutes between the time the starter said go and the time I crossed the official start line. Thanks to the help of that timing chip, my time didn’t officially start until I crossed that start line.

Sutcliffe shares that life isn’t quite like that. There is no computer chip that levels the playing field. As he points out, if you’re born as a visible minority, a member of a lower socio-economic class, with a physical disability, with a mental illness, or of a different sex, then you start your life further back. And, as Sutcliffe goes on to point out, “You carry that disadvantage your whole life.”

I was raised as the child of a middle class, college educated, white family. I remember conversations about the key to being successful was through my effort. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and being told that if I worked hard in life, I would be more likely to be successful. And when I think about the life that I have led, I know that I have worked hard to get to where I am. But as I come to grips with what I am learning in my work with equity, I’m beginning to realize that not every one of my students starts at the same point. Merit does not drive all success in life, and what Sutcliffe is trying to get at is that when you start your life in one of those lucky situations, chances are pretty good that we will continue to be lucky throughout our life.

In the actual TED Talk the Sutcliffe gave (linked at the end of this post), he shares his plan to run his next marathon starting 3 hours after the official start time. His reason: he wants to remember that anyone who starts life at the back of the pack is likely to get a lot less help and support. He knows that he will most likely be running alone when he runs this marathon.

Some of our students are the ones who are starting the race a little farther back. As the people in their life who make it our goal to help them learn and grow, we have to keep remembering that some of our students may have started their life a little further back in the pack. As a result of that starting point, they may need a little more support in order to be successful.

And some of you may be thinking of someone who likely started further back in the pack and led a truly successful life. Sutcliffe shares that “When the winner comes from the back, it’s an exception, not a rule.” Hard work simply doesn’t do it all.

This past weekend, as the ideas for this post were bouncing around in my mind, the following tweet showed up in my timeline:

Before my work with equity, I probably would have said something very similar. I would have believed that everyone started on an equal playing field. The reality is though, and I think Sutcliffe’s talk does an excellent job of putting it into words, is that not all of us start at the same point. As one of the “lucky ones” who got to start near the front of the pack, I now make it a point to take Sutcliffe’s suggestion of what to do with our luck: be humble; kind; and generous. I can help those who may have started a little further back than me. I do it because it’s fair, it’s smart (there’s a cost of others not having the same opportunities that I do), and it makes me happy.

What are your thoughts? As you reflect on your starting point, where were you in relation to the start line? Do you believe that you have led a lucky life, or is your position in life based solely on hard work and effort? What steps to you take to help level the playing field? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

If you’d like to listen to the entire episode of TED Radio Hour that the idea of this post came from, you can find it here:

And if you’d like to see Mark’s full TED Talk, check it out here:

Trauma-informed as a way of being

maya-angelou-know-betterI’ve always loved this quote from Maya Angelou. Over the past several years, there’s been a lot of opportunities for learning about better ways to interact with our students. In the summer of 2017, several of us had the chance to learn from Jim Sporleder about the idea of Trauma-Informed Care based on the work he did in his school in Washington. Many of us walked away with new ideas about how we work with kids. Others of us may have seen the movie “Paper Tigers” documenting his work with trauma-informed schools. Last year, several teachers read the book Lost at School by Ross W. Greene, and it gave us more to think about. Last semester several of our teachers attended a training on Restorative Practices at the Peace Learning Center. We are currently working on a plan to be able to provide this training to all of our teachers. At the beginning of this school year, we did a training on de-escalation techniques. For the past 2 years, I have worked as a member of our district wide Trauma-Informed Team, where we have talked about ways to expand this knowledge. All of this learning has taught us new strategies for how to handle difficult situations with kids.

Some of you have heard about the concepts of trauma-informed care, and many of us have tried to implement strategies that we’ve learned through our various experiences to better support our kids. That said, there is a question that I continue to hear from time to time: “How do I know if this kid has trauma?” My response, more and more, is “Many times we won’t know.” But then I also wonder, does it matter?

Between what we have learned about Trauma-Informed Care, through Lost at School, Restorative Practices, and so much more, I’m beginning to think of these strategies not so much as something we do with “those kids” but more as something that we do with ALL KIDS because we know they work for everyone!

Let’s start thinking of all of these various new strategies not so much as something that we do with some kids or with the kids that need it, rather, these are strategies that we can use to support all kids because they work for all kids! Trauma-Informed should become part of our tier 1 process that we use with every child every day.

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

So I’m curious, what have been your experiences? Have you tried using more trama-informed practices in your classroom? Or have you begun instituting proactive circles (sometimes called community circles) as a part of your learning about restorative practices? What have you noticed with your students? What works? What are you still struggling with? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

This is hard…

Recently I was talking to a friend who is a teacher. I noticed some cool project-based learning activities that she shared on Twitter, and I was talking to her about them. She’s a fairly experienced teacher, and one of the things that she said really struck a chord with me:

“You know, I used to teach really differently than I do now. Ten years ago, the things I was doing were easier for me. The things I do now are harder, and I keep hoping that those things will get easier. As I reflect though, while things have gotten harder for me, the learning experiences for my students have gotten better. I guess I’m not sure that I’m hoping for the right things. It’s not easy for us, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Woah! What a powerful statement! A favorite author of mine is George Couros. In his book The Innovator’s Mindset, he says:

“I’m defining innovation as a way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either ‘invention’ (something totally new) or ‘iteration’ (a change to something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of ‘new and better,’ it is not innovative. That means change for the sake of change is never good enough. Neither is using innovation as a buzzword as many organizations do to appear current and relevant.”

And in a recent blog post, AJ Juliani took it a step further… He argued that just being new and better isn’t quite enough. We need to make sure that it is also better for our learners.

Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.

And here’s the thing about that – we all know it is difficult to plan for a project-based learning experience. It’s difficult to build an inquiry project for your students. It’s difficult to create learning opportunities that integrate Language Arts, Math, Science, and more into a single unit of study. But what about the opportunities it creates for our students?

We talk about preparation for the next in education all the time. Whether we’re thinking about the next year, the next step, the first job, whatever… The reality is that with the world changing so rapidly, we’re naïve to think that we have any idea what the future really holds. I’m sure my elementary and middle school teachers never imagined that some of the kids in their class would be making money by taking pictures and posting them to Instagram. What amazing things that we can’t even imagine will our students be doing when they are out in “the world”?

So, given the fact that we can’t predict the future, more than anything we need to provide a skill set to our young people that prepares them for anything. We have no way to know where they might go!

So often we have been talking about 21st century skills, but we have to remember that we are now almost 2 decades into the 21st century, and some of the students sitting in our classroom will actually see the 22nd century!

So here’s the question. Why do we do these hard things? We know that it takes us more time and effort to create these deep learning experiences for our students but look at the results. Most students are more highly engaged when given true project-based learning experiences, or student driven inquiry projects. And with that higher level of engagement comes stronger learning experiences. And with those stronger learning experiences our students will be better prepared for whatever their future may hold.

If we’re worried about preparing kids for the “real world,” then this should concern us:

Yes, it’s harder to teach this way. The reality is that it’s harder for administrators to lead this style of learning. But when we look at the children walking into our building, and we remember that we have no way to know what their future may hold, we’ve got to focus on those skills that take them anywhere – critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication.

As you have shifted to deeper learning activities, what has been your experience? Have you noticed a greater desire and drive for learning from your students? Share your experiences in the comments below!

Gone sailing…

Gone sailing…

As I sit at my kitchen table tonight, just after having received the news that school has been cancelled tomorrow, and trying to wrap my mind around how cold a -40°F wind chill will actually feel like (yes, I do plan to go outside just to say I did it!), I find myself thinking about summer and much warmer weather. For some reason, I started thinking about my summers spent on Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin at Camp Brosius, and the time I spent learning to sail on one of the many Sunfish sailboats.

The sunfish that I learned on may very well be one of the boats in this picture, with one of the buildings of Camp Brosius in the background.

My first experience with sailboats involved a Hobie 16, my dad, and a little help from the rescue boat. We were both learning what we were doing! Over time he became better, and I recall as a young boy enjoying riding with him while he guided us around the lake – sometimes on the Hobie, other times on a Sunfish, or any one of the other boats that the camp had available to use.

Eventually, around middle school, I decided I wanted to learn to sail all by myself. I remember Jim, the camp director, pulling one of the Sunfish into the swim area one morning, teaching me about the various parts of the boat, and what they did. As I reflect on it now, after a shockingly short lesson (probably not over 30 minutes), he had me climbing aboard and shoving me out into the lake. I can hear Jim saying “You don’t learn by talking about it and looking at it, you learn by getting out there and trying!” The wind wasn’t that strong yet that morning, it normally picked up in the afternoon, so I was planning to tool around just off the shore in front of the camp’s waterfront. I grabbed the rudder and main sheet, set my sails, and I was off! Or so I thought…

As I got further from the shore, the wind caught a bit more of my sail, and instead of heading straight, as my rudder was pointing, my boat seemed to be sliding sideways across the top of the water. No matter how I moved my rudder, the boat just wouldn’t go in the direction I wanted.

As I drifted further from the shore, without any real control, I could hear someone yelling at me from the swimming t. Jim, the camp director, was yelling “You forgot the centerboard!” I looked, and sure enough, the centerboard was laying inside the cockpit. I quickly pulled it out and placed it down the middle of the hull. Next thing I knew, I was moving (mostly) in the direction I wanted (remember, I was just learning).

Thinking about sailing got me thinking a bit about teaching and learning. Part of what I love about the Sunfish is how simple of a boat it really is. There’s the hull (or body of the boat), the mast that holds the sail up. Then there’s the sail that absorbs the energy of the wind and translates that into motion. The rudder helps the sailor to guide the boat in the correct direction. And finally, there’s the centerboard. Even if everything else is working in perfect harmony, without the centerboard, the best sailor isn’t too likely to stay on course.

What’s the connection to learning? The hull of the boat is our classroom. Then let’s think of the rudder as being our standards. They help us decide on what our students “need” to be learning about. It gives our boat direction. The sailor on the boat (most of the time) is the teacher. You get to make the decisions about how to set the rudder and the mainsail (although hopefully your students are getting some input here too). You point the boat in the direction you think it needs to go. The sail is our students, and the wind is the constant opportunity for learning. So that sounds like most all that we need to think about, right?

Not quite. For true learning, we need to have the centerboard to help keep us on course. That is our North Star of Learning.

Moving the RockGrant Lichtman, the author of Moving the Rock: Seven Levers WE Can Press to Transform Education, has often used the metaphor of the North Star to talk about the idea of having a shared vision of where we want to get to in terms of great learning. If we don’t agree on where we are going, we have random movement, in random directions, and we end up nowhere! Think about the North Star, no matter where you stand, we can all find it, we can all point to it, we can all figure out our route to get there. In that same way, when we have a shared vision of learning, and we understand that no two educators are moving towards it from the same place, we all have to set a course of our own.

As educators, we are used to the idea that our students all come to us from a different starting point, and we have to adjust our teaching to meet them where they are in order to get them to where they need to be. What does it mean though if not all educators are starting their trip towards the North Star from the same place?

It means the day of one size fits all professional development has passed us by. It means that each of us has to be reflective on where we are on our path towards our North Star. It means recognizing our own strengths and weaknesses, accentuating our strengths, and being willing to seek out opportunities to professionally grow in order to move closer to our North Star. It means deciding to take your own learning into your own hands. If there’s something you need to get better at, seek out a resource. It might be someone just down the hall, it might be a blog post or article, it might be a book. It could also mean approaching your administrator to ask for ideas on how you might continue to grow in that area. Given that our focus is on LEARNING, I would hope anyone would feel comfortable to ask for assistance in finding the best possible resources for their personal growth. I know that I am constantly seeking resources from colleagues, mentors, and leaders that are around me.

As an educator, I’m hopeful that this post encourages you to reflect on a couple of things. First and foremost, do you feel that there is a North Star for your district or school? If not, start a conversation with your colleagues, ask your administrator, reflect on your own opinions and beliefs, and start that conversation for a true shared understanding. Next, take a moment to reflect on where you are as an educator, and what it is that you need to do to course correct so that you can help your students to reach that North Star.

As we come to the end of this post, take a moment and think about what your beliefs are about students. What is your personal North Star of Learning? Share with us in the comments below!

Indiana STEM Education Conference

Last week I had the privilege to attend the Fourth Annual Indiana STEM Education Conference at Purdue University. Purdue’s College of Education sees K-12 STEM education as one of its two signature areas of focus for pre-service teachers. In this K-12 STEM path, Purdue is “preparing teachers who can weave STEM subjects throughout their curriculum and introduce the concepts through real-world application. Our focus goes beyond the specific STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and math – to include literacy, social studies, problem-solving, critical thinking and communication.” This belief fits well with the Indiana Department of Education’s STEM Six-Year Strategic Plan (can be found here: This plan has the stated mission to “Ensure Indiana teachers are prepared to provide every student in grades K-12 with an evidence-based, effective STEM education…”

aldrinThe opening of the conference included a guest speaker that I was super excited to see – Buzz Aldrin!  It was cool to hear Aldrin talk about his experiences, as well as his hopes for continued space exploration. Aldrin is a huge supporter of getting a human being to Mars. Not to mention, there’s something pretty awesome about being in the same room as someone who actually walked on the moon.

The rest of the conference was made up of several break-out sessions, and I have to say that every one I attended was excellent. I want to share some of the tidbits I picked up while I was there.

My first session was on the connection between STEM and Project Based Learning. In that session, we began by talking a little about the Science and Engineering Process Standards (SEPS). If you look at the science standards of any grade level or science curriculum, the first two pages of the standards are made up of these process standards focusing on 8 key areas:

  • SEPS.1 Posing questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
  • SEPS.2 Developing and using models and tools
  • SEPS.3 Constructing and performing investigations
  • SEPS.4 Analyzing and interpreting data
  • SEPS.5 Using mathematics and computational thinking
  • SEPS.6 Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
  • SEPS.7 Engaging in argument from evidence
  • SEPS.8 Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

By looking at the specific standards for your grade level or subject area, you can see a deeper description of those process standards. Look here for more info:

In two of the sessions I attended, presenters talked about the value of STEM Challenges or Engineering Projects as a way to help meet some of these process standards. Here are a couple of examples:

  • The Paper Chain Challenge: For this challenge, students need 1 piece of paper, scissors, and tape. The challenge? Try to make the longest possible paper chain. As a constraint, you could change the materials allowed. Another variation on this was that you do not provide tape, and you had to make the longest continuous piece of paper without using tape, paperclips, or any other objects to connect the paper back together. When we did this challenge, we were only given 5 minutes, then had a 5 minute conversation to process our designs, compare the length of each chain, etc. In those 10 minutes, we hit on 5 of the SEPS!


  • Drop Copter Challenge: Have you ever made a drop copter? For directions, click here: Once you have the students create their drop copter, then you add in the challenge. Now they have to make one modification to their copter to improve the way the copter falls to the ground. I’m sure there are a variety of ways you could define “improve”, so you can figure out what it means for you (or even better, let the students decide!). After the adjustment and testing, spend another 5-10 minutes processing the challenge with students. Again, several SEPS hit in less than a half hour!


  • Parachute Challenge: Provide students with large sheets of tissue paper (like for wrapping a present), tape, 5 paperclips, and 2 pieces of string (you can decide on the length). Give students 5-10 minutes to design, build, test, and redesign a parachute. The goal is to design a parachute that takes the longest to reach the ground. When time is up, have all the students come to the front, drop from the same height, and compare the fall time. Finally, spend some time processing the challenge with the kids. Again, we’ve just hit on multiple SEPS in less than a half hour!

These are just a couple of the potential STEM Challenges that were fairly short. Another session I attended also hit on the SEPS, but they were coming at it from the Engineering Design process. I’ve seen lots of different models for the Engineering Design Process, but I liked the language that was used by Science Learning through Engineering Design (SLED). Check it out:


SLED has an awesome website,, but I wanted to direct you in particular to their Design Resources page (check that out here). This page lists a multitude of activities and various grade levels. When you click on a title, it takes you to a page with more information about the project. Want to see more (like the lesson plans, materials needed, etc.)? Click the purple Download button to the right of the title. Unlike the STEM Challenges above that could be done in a half hour or less, these are more in depth, long term projects that will take your students through the design process you see above.

real worldI wanted to briefly touch on my final two sessions, which were on similar topics. One was about an intermediate school in Ellettsville that implemented a school-wide genius hour program. At this school, every other Friday, the entire school basically shuts down for the last hour of the day. Students then work on their genius hour projects. These projects are ungraded, student-led, and lead to a STEAM Night Showcase where students share their findings from their genius hour project. The teachers, administrators, counselors, custodians, and other adults in the building are all able to serve as advisors for students who choose projects on a topic that they have an interest or understanding in. The school has even partnered with outside professionals who can come in and help be mentors for topics students are interested in. Being located near Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center and Cook Inc. opens up the possibility of some great partnerships for this school.

recipeThe final session of the day that I attended was put on by the innovation director and principal from New Palestine Intermediate. This year they created a new day in their related arts rotation called Innovation Hour. Other schools might call this learning clubs, or choice activity time. To create the clubs, staff members signed up with something they were passionate about. Examples include gardening, drones, coding, woodworking, etc. Students then sign up for their top three choices. Once assigned to an Innovation Hour, then they meet every 4th day from 8:30 to 9:20, and all the students are able to participate in the club they are assigned to. So far, everyone has been able to get one of their top 3 choices.

One of my current goals is to figure out how to bring something like either the Genius Hour project, or the innovation hour to Riverside Intermediate. On February 6th, our students will be participating in the Global School Play Day, and we have it set up with choice activities that students will be able to get involved in. It is my hope that this will serve as a jumping off point for one of these more long term learning opportunities for our students!

So, what are your thoughts? Anything here that you plan to use in your classroom? Anything that you already do that you can share with our readers? I’d love to hear what you have to say!