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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

10 Simple Challenges for Hands and Minds

As a mom (of two “active” boys), teacher (of thousands), Science Olympiad and Robotics coach (my self described "Geeks"), scout leader and neighborhood kid magnet (I make a mean pancake),  I have accumulated a great many simple and fun (learning) activities appropriate for home, camp or school.  I always had some kind of “experiment" going on my kitchen counter (and not much else!).  My boys were never one to sit still and do a craft, but if that “craft” became an experiment…they were all in.  Living at a lake we crafted habitats and trapping devices (nets, buckets, jars, boxes, etc) to collect, examine, identify and study the multitude of critters.  (I am sure there are still plenty of turtles with a dab of nail polish on their shells).   For those days when we just couldn’t get outdoors,  I established quite a repertoire of activities that all kids enjoyed (and learn from).
My Box O' Fun
These activities were great for those days when we had outside disruptions (assemblies, field trips, etc) but you wanted your kids engaged and learning.  I called them discovery days at school – where the focus was on engineering, experimenting and re-engineering.  I kept a “box o’ fun”  in my classroom that contained treasures like file cards, old film canisters, plastic water bottle lids, masking tape, cardboard cereal boxes, oaktag, marbles, straws, wooden skewers (my husband could never figure out where they went) and any other thing that could be used as building materials.  Ruler, measuring tapes, stop watches, etc. all added to the fun. 
All I had to do was list a limited number of materials, post a challenge on the board and give them a limited amount of time before they would have to test and share their solutions.  Here are some tried and true problems that I used (any materials can be substituted):
Safe Transport
Materials:  file card, 12 inches of masking tape, two wooden skewers, four plastic bottle caps (you can also add things like scissors, stop watches etc)
Challenge:  Build a vehicle that will transport a Lego man (plastic frog, eraser, whatever) safely down a ramp.  We measured distance and speed, averaged runs, changed ramp angles, talked about variables, graphed data, etc.  (Caution, principal may visit to see what the hubbub is about!)  Motivated by bragging rights, lots of learning occurred – and of course you could challenge them to improve on their designs!
Straw Rockets
Materials:  Straws, clay, tape, cardboard
Challenge:  Make a rocket that will travel the farthest distance (or land closest to the garbage can, etc).  Although there are commercial straw rocket launchers, you can make one (or the kids can) easily out of a juice bottle with these directions.
Even simpler straw rockets can be made with bendy straws and launched the old fashioned way with these directions.
Balloon Rockets
Materials:  Balloons, string, tape
Challenge:  Make a rocket that will travel fastest along a string.  Students can hold the string at both ends.  I liked to get a couple of stop watches from the PE people to time the rockets as they go. There are even links and questions found here.
Want students to study payload?  Change the challenge and have them launch the rocket straight up as in this Rocket Transportation activity.
Materials:  one square foot of saran wrap from the cafeteria, 3 feet of thread (home ec room), tape and paper clip weights.  .
Challenge:  Build a parachute that will spend the longest time aloft.We used the stair wells and stop watches for testing
Materials:    one square foot of aluminum foil and pennies or golf balls, container of water for floating
Challenge:  build the boat that will hold the most pennies (or golf balls).
Materials:  Popsicle sticks (rulers, etc) tape, rubber bands and cotton balls.
Challenge:  Build a catapult that will launch a cotton ball the farthest.
Writing S’more
When we learned about robots, I had the students write the “code” for making a s’more –if I could build the s’more from the directions, they could have it.  Of course they had to write every step…you cannot just “pick up a marshmallow”….you fingers have to open and close on it, etc. Great way to introduce students to programming.
Write it, Build it
Materials Vary:  Legos, clay, toothpicks, Lincoln logs
Give students two identical sets of 10 Legos (or whatever) and have students build something out one set.  Have them write building directions for their partner.  Give the partner the directions and other set of identical legos and see how close they get using the directions.   
Stop-Motion Animation:
Looking for a little techno-fun?  Kids love stop-motion videos.  Show them some great examples (from youtube) and ask them to create their own to demonstrate a concept they learned this year.  Stop motion videos.  Here's how to make them with Windows Movie Maker

What's in your bag o' tricks?  Do you have simple challenges to add to the list?

Friday, May 25, 2012

3 Great Questions for Discussions Around Bullying

Remember when driving drunk was a minor offense?  It was legal to harass someone?  Moon someone??  There is no doubt that while many new laws have made our lives safer and more civilized, there are many people who think that the rush to legislate personal decisions (like helmet and seat belt laws) curtails our rights and should be left up to the individual.  Others think that clearer laws are necessary to keep up with the times. 
Recent headlines have turned this debate towards bullying, specifically cyberbullying.   This is a great opportunity to turn the question over to your students to help them develop respect for different points of view, think critically and speak and write persuasively.  This week Dharun Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail for webcam spying on his college roommate who killed himself in the aftermath.   There are many different perspectives on the outcome of this trial, and many thought that the charges did not fit the crime.    
Should more laws be written to deal specifically with cyberbullying?  Viewpoints range from “not every tragedy should lead to prison” to “privacy invasions last forever.”Why not have your students examine these different perspectives – legal, psychological, cultural- as they apply to bullying?  Room for Debate  is a discussion forum of the New York Times that can provide your students with great written essays from knowledgeable professionals reflecting these perspectives and more on Cyberbullying and a Student Suicide. 
Should offensive opinions and hurtful statements be protected by the First Amendment?  How about having students look at bullying through the lens of the First Amendment?  How do you distinguish between free speech and bullying?  Where is the line between free speech and harassment? Do state bullying mandates leave any wiggle room for common sense?  This Edweek article “Groups Urge Balance Between Censoring, Stopping Bullies  can provide students with highlights of the recently published guidelines “Harassment, Bullying and Free Expression:  Guidelines for Free and Safe Public Schools."
What do you think should be done about bullying? 
How about having your students look at different student perspectives?   Common Sense Media provides the lesson “Taking Perspectives on Cyberbullying” featuring video clips of the Friday Night Lights TV show, providing a lesson plan complete with student worksheets and  video clips.  (caution:  may only be appropriate for older students due to clip content)

You can have students practice civil discourse on these issues practicing good digital citizenship using the SCAN tool at TregoED.  Just register and set up the free cyberbullying lesson for the private URL for your class.   Students will read the cyberbullying scenario and discuss the issues and possible solutions guided by the SCAN problem solving strategy (See the issues, clarify the issues, Ask what’s important and Now, what should be done?) from the built in different points of view.  SCAN is a great way to teach students civil discourse and empathy as they represent the point of view of parents, teachers, administrators and bullied student and collaborate on solutions.

The question remains, do we need to use the criminal justice system to battle cyberbullying or would teaching civility and respect be a more effective solution?  Either way, discussing the question can help students practice those attributes, while they learn to think critically, read and write on this relevant and authentic topic. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Resources to get Kids to Read, Write and Reflect on Memorial Day

On Memorial Day, we traditionally thank those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.  Do your students see the connection to their lives?  Having students connect the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to their daily lives is a great way to develop an appreciation for freedom and the democracy that so many have died to protect.

 Integrating the Common Core
Integrating the Common core with the many resources that are available can get your students reading, writing and thinking.  With these resources, we can move beyond the “What freedom means to me” five paragraph essay and have them:
  • Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research (W9)
  • Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence (W7.1)
  • With the added bonus of focusing on “discipline-specific content” for social studies (WLHST 8.1)”  (Common Core State Standards Initiative)  
Making the Connections
The Bill of Rights Institute features thought-provoking lesson plans, links and resources connecting current events with the Constitution.  Have your students explore the following:

Take a look at “Current Events and the Constitution”  for information on internet piracy, airport scanners and illegal searches.

Or “Bill of Rights in the News”  for lessons on stand your ground, occupy protests or GPS tracking.

Have them read  Education Week articles:  “Students Under Arrest?”  to spark the discussion of bringing police in to deal out discipline in schools.
Or  “Can schools legally block Internet sites?” Can it be argued that it is the same as book banning? 

Check out these free SCAN lessons at to have your students explore topics from different perspectives in an engaging online discussion platform:

A New Approach to Remembering Pearl Harbor- Have students debate the merits of looking at history from all perspectives. Check out the Collaborize Classroom Topic Library for some great discussion topics to enhance this lesson. 
Locker Searches and the Fourth Amendment- Remind students of the freedoms secured in battle by looking at their connection to the Bill of Rights.

More Memorial Day Resources:

Video writing prompts on volunteering and bravery from Teach Hub

Memorial Day is a day to reflect on the sacrifices that have been made to maintain the freedoms guaranteed to us in our Constitution.  How do you help your students understand and exercise this freedom?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

#thankateacher-you rock!

Keep Teacher Appreciation Alive
Teachers come in all different varieties, just like kids do.  While one does wonders with their story telling, another might hold magical discussions.  It never ceases to amaze me how my colleagues can masterfully hold the attention of 25 or more hormone-laced kids and actually teach them something.  Every classroom I have ever walked into, either as parent or colleague, I have learned something I could use- tips, tricks, or strategies for teaching or content long forgotten. 
I thank you for not only what you have done for children, but for all the knowledge, skills and laughs you have shared with me, not just this week, but every day.  We strive to inspire our students each and every class period.  Do we do the same for our teachers?  Why not show a short video clip before each meeting to remind your staff that they make a difference?

 Get out the popcorn (and maybe the tissues):
Check out this 5 minute film festival from Edutopia.  There are videos here that will make you laugh and some that will make you cry but all express an appreciation for all you do.
You are the celebrity in these #thankateacher (check the twitterfeed) films that the DOE has compiled.  They feature celebrities in all areas, science, education, entertainment, etc. Who knew Blossom (Mayim Bialik) from the 90’s sitcom and now on Big Bang Theory had a PhD in neuroscience and was brought up by two public school teachers! 

There’s more:
99 ReasonsTeachers Rock! From great bladders to great leaders, there are many reasons why teachers rock!  Why not start a virtual sticky note wall at wallwisher to have teachers post their own reasons?  Or simply give each student in a school a post-it to post on a bulletin board in the school? 

While it is great to hear celebrities give us a shout out, eat the PTA’s cookies and get that Children First pin  from the principal this week – it should never end.  You have touched the minds and hearts of thousands of students (which becomes apparent as you walk through the grocery store in the town you teach – a celebrity in your own right).  Being a teacher is hard work that gives you a sense of pride and accomplishment- just like being a student.  
And thanks for all the work you do in a sometimes thankless position.

Check out the twitter feed #thankateacher for more inspiration.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Keep on Teaching: Great EOY Activities

My first principal (I broke in quite a few over the years) had a few tenets that he swore by.  One of them was “DON’T STOP TEACHING” (this was before capital letters were considered offensive).  At the end of each year, he had a (typed) memo that he gave us with a list of 35 things that you had to do to get your last paycheck:  inventory your room, collect books, turn in summer address, turn in your technology (which consisted of an overhead and filmstrip projector) and a host of other things.  Tucked in amongst those items at item # 17 was “DON’T STOP TEACHING.”  It was good advice, students were bored with busy work or erasing the marks out of their books.  I found giving them meaningful collaborative tasks (besides erasing the blackboard/whiteboard/hard drive), kept them learning and kept me sane!
 Now is a great time to break out some simple technology infused activities to jazz up your final days.  Here are somethings I have tried:

Vocab Videos:  Borrowing the idea from the Vocab Video site that features great videos done by students to illustrate SAT vocabulary words, I had my students make a short video for any of the vocabulary words we used all year.  Using the videos from site as a model, my understood the basic format expected.  They came up with great, creative work, using webcams, cell phones or whatever video equipment and Windows Movie Maker.   We shared them in class and have saved them to share with future classes.  A great review for them, appropriate for any subject area, and you can even have students vote on them using www.polleverywhere to award Oscars.  Your students will be engaged until the last bell of the last day!

Want to keep kids writing?
There are more than 59 different engaging tools at  You can have students make comic strips, do “Eye on Idioms,” write poetry, generate trading cards for characters, etc.  These simple and engaging tools even come with lesson plans!  They do not require registration, just send them to the site and they are off!

You could have students write a newspaper article/press release  about all they accomplished this year and use the very simple “newsclipping generator”  to turn it into a newspaper clipping.

How about keeping them reading?
You’ll find lots of great articles geared for kids interests at tweentribune.  Students will find highly engaging articles in their area of interest:  fashion, food, movies, animals, school, science, health, sports, technology, US or World.  Articles, geared to kids, range from teachers eating bugs (who would not want to read about that?) or elephants playing harmonicas.   Have them find an article in their interest area and write a blog entry on it.
Looking for some Math activities? 
Have them watch some of these Mathsnacks or develop their own?
Looking for more low tech?
Check out these Top 12 Effective End of the Year Activities from Teachhub.  You’ll find a great list of ideas to chose from. 
Of course, students love using social media type tools like the SCAN discussion tool at TregoED or CollaborizeClassroom.  You can engage your students in guided online discussions on issues that concern them – like locker searches, bullying or cell phones in school as they read write and think critically.
New blog:  Check out "Engaging Activities for the Home Stretch" for a few more suggestions and take a look at these great sites to keep students engaged in the final hours!
The bottom line is that getting students involved in engaging tech infused activities can “keep them learning” until the last bell has rung.  What has worked for you?