My STEM Units

Friday, March 21, 2014

No Child Left Inside

All across Arizona, teachers and students are ramping up for the AIMS test.  Every year, students in grades 3-12 take the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS.  Whereas most students take the Reading, Math, and Writing portions, 4th graders also take the Science portion.  Daily, 4th grade teachers must make a decision to cut into Reading and Math instruction in order to teach Science standards.  Unless they integrate

Integration is the concept of teaching more than one subject in a single lesson/unit.  For instance, a teacher may have students measure water in a bowl before placing it outside in the sun.  Then, hours later, the students measure the water remaining the bowl.  Not only is the teacher covering the Science concept of evaporation, but they are also using Math concepts of measuring and using appropriate tools. 

Integration is more than the sum of the parts. 

Integration shows the students that we don't move from Reading modules to Math modules in our everyday lives.  When we are at the grocery store, we read labels and compare prices in the same minute.  STEM is the integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math in Project-Based Learning units.  Not only do the students learn the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, but also English-Language Arts standards.  Federal mandate "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) put pressure on teachers to only teach Reading and Math.  While NCLB goes through the re-authorization process, teachers are free again to teach other content areas, such as Science, Social Studies, Art, and Engineering.  Teachers are free to take their kids outside again, to learn about nature.

Last week, our fourth graders were able to attend Science Camp at Retreat at Tontozona near Payson.  The students were bussed in from Whiteriver (about a 2 hour drive) on Wednesday morning and returned to the reservation on Friday afternoon.  In the three days at camp, the students attended 8 modules with a culminating presentation.  The modules were carefully selected to cover 68% of what would be tested on the Science portion of AIMS. 

The modules included:
  1. Changes in Environments: Students went on a hike to look for evidence of natural events (floods, wildfires) and their effects on the environment.  (AZ 3.1.1) 
      • The hike led to an area affected by wildfire some years ago.  The instructor explained that fire can be used in beneficial ways to help a forest as well.  The students diagrammed the forest and noted that all was not dead.  In fact, many trees were sprouting again.
  2. Diversity, Adaptations, and Behavior: Students took a nature walk and looked for animals with adaptations such as camouflage and mimicry. (AZ 4.4.1)
      • This hike led students to a tree who's roots had been exposed due to years of flooding.  The roots had developed bark to protect the tree. 
      • Students were instructed to look for hidden pictures along the hike.  The pictures were tacked right onto the trees but they were "hidden" because they were camouflaged.
      • Students also learned about the mutualistic relationship between lichen fungi and lichen algae. 
  3. Earth’s Processes and Systems: Students did hands-on experiments outside to observe the effects of weathering and erosion. (AZ 6.2.1) 
      • Students went on a nature hike along a river.  They found natural occurrences of rocks being weathered due to water and roots.  They found evidence of erosion in the sandy banks, muddy pools, and rock slides.  At each occurrence, the students sat and diagrammed in their Science Camp Journals.
      • When the students returned to the fields, they created sand towers to mimic erosion. By blowing on the sand towers, students could observe first-hand that wind erosion is a slow process, as is ice erosion.  When the instructor poured 3 cups of water onto the sand tower, they instantly observed that water is powerful and fast!  Since most of the water was absorbed into the sand tower, instructors were able to have natural conversations about groundwater and natural springs. 
  4. Organisms and Environments: Students used an engineering kit to make renewable forms of energy (solar, wind, etc.).  (AZ 4.3.1 and AZ 5.3.1) 
      • Students watched a short video clip to give them background knowledge of solar energy and how to harness it.
      • Students were taken outside the classroom to see a commercial solar oven in use.  The instructor had placed pineapple upside down batter into baking dish, along with a thermometer, into the solar oven in the morning.  As each class went through this module, they observed the temperature inside the oven and outside. 
      • Students were then presented with the challenge to create their own solar oven with the available materials (cardboard box, foil, black construction paper, saran wrap, and tape).  Although there was not enough time for the student-created solar ovens to bake cookies, a competition has been planned for Friday, April 4th.  The winners will be recognized at Innovation Nation
  5. Changes in the Earth and Sky: Students took weather measurements with digital tools and graphed the results. (AZ 6.3.1) 
      • Students began this module with a short video to describe the difference between weather and climate.  Then, they learned about typical weather patterns.
      • Students moved quickly through centers where they watched thermometers moving when placed in successive containers of hot and cold water, raced to find matching thermometers, and track current weather conditions.
      • Students ended the session with an experiment of mixing hot, blue water and cold, green water.  Would the colors mix or separate?  What is your hypothesis?
  6. Animal Sounds: Students took a hike at night to listen for animal sounds. 
      • Students started their lesson in the dining hall with a talk about our five senses and how each helps us and animals.  The conversation then turned to how a creature of the night might use their senses differently and which would be more important.  Before heading out, the students listened to animal sounds in the dark and identified what animals made those sounds.
      • On the hike, students were instructed to leave the flashlights off and to let their eyes adjust naturally to the moonlight.  Students ate wintergreen breath mints and observed sparks in their partners mouths.
      • After howling in response to several packs of coyotes, the students stargazed.  Students correctly identified a number of constellations and were verified with a smartphone app.
  7. Reading and Writing: Students were given nonfiction text and journal space to read and write.
      • Students chose an area to research (renewable energy sources, electricity circuits, etc.).  They relaxed by the reflection pond, reading their nonfiction texts and planning an engaging presentation.  They were given a poster, markers, and time after dinner to practice their presentation. 
      • The final presentations included such original ideas as a news broadcast, a song about the water cycle, and a human electric circuit, among others. 
      • Although students are not tested (yet) on the Common Core standards of Speaking and Listening, the presentations were an excellent way to practice these important skills.
  8. Leadership: Students engaged in several scenarios where they worked together as a team. 
      • Students were given the opportunity to step into leadership roles.
Although Science Camp was extremely fun, it was also educational. As in most educational programs, it's all about the data. So, what does the data say about Science Camp?  We gave our students a pre-test a few days before leaving for Science Camp.  We then gave them a post-test on the Monday, immediately following their return.  After three days at camp, the students averaged a 27% percent gain! 

We have proved that taking children outside, to learn about nature, in nature, and to integrate Reading and Writing into Science shows tremendous growth.  We have left the era of No Child Left Behind.  Our new slogan should be "No Child Left Inside".

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Finding Common Core Passages Online

Common Core, or as Arizona calls it, Arizona's College and Career Readiness Standards, states,
To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts....By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas.

Some school districts are purchasing "common-core aligned" curriculum to help their teachers find those complex texts in other disciplines.  However, many school districts do not have funds for this.  Teachers are left to search endlessly on the internet to find informational texts at their students' reading levels.  Until now..... is a non-profit website which offers high-interest passages and comprehension questions.  The passages are fully-searchable.  Teachers need only type in a keyword, select the reading level, and search.

The site is free and sign-up is quick.  There are hundreds of high-quality passages for grades Kindergarten through 6th grade. 

Go to to start searching now.  You can search in the box in the top right corner. 

When you have created a profile, you may save passages to "My Binder". 

If you don't know exactly what you want to read about, you can search by standard.  Click on "My Standars Alignment" at the top.  If you already have a profile, it will direct you to your state standards.  If the pacing guide (curriculum map) for the week says "Cause and Effect" you can select that standard.  **Make sure you select the correct grade level.

Lesson plans are designed with the Gradual Release of Responsibility framework of "I do, We do, You do".  Most lesson plans also include:
  • learning objectives 
  • a vocabulary routine
  • guided practice
  • graphic organizers to scaffold understanding
  • student engagement strategies (Turn and Talk, Buddy Buzz, etc.)
  • independent practice with multiple choice questions and constructed response prompts
  • extension ideas
  • novel studies (for 5th and 6th grades, however, I have used some of those novels in 4th grade)
  • paired text
I want to take a minute to explain the paired text feature.  Common Core asks for readers to make connections between texts.  If your district-adopted curriculum does not provide paired texts, it can be very time consuming for teachers to find texts on the same subject and reading level.  On, the work is done for you! 

For a tutorial on finding specific texts, watch this video:

Vocabulary Lessons

ReadWorks now offers vocabulary lessons for 2nd-8th grade.  They include:
  • More than 1,200 carefully selected vocabulary words, from ReadWorks’ authentic non-fiction and literary reading passages
  • Multiple sentence and paragraph examples from other texts, of how the vocabulary word is used in different contexts
  • Spanish cognates
  • Student practice/formative assessment template
  • Basic and advanced definitions with syllables

Final Preps for the Big State Test

Can you believe we made it!?  It seems like just yesterday that 25 strangers walked timidly into the classroom.  Now, 8 months later, those same 25 children come bounding in at 9:00 every morning, filled with stories of what happened at home, over the weekend, or on the way to school.  They came in with basic multiplication facts and now can multiply any multi-digit number by another multi-digit number.  They came in able to read most words, but now have the tools to figure out ANY word they may encounter.  They have worked hard and are so ready to "Show What They Know"!

I am not a fan of cramming before the test.  One reason is, I feel that if they don't know it by now with awesome, hands-on lessons, they aren't going to learn it by doing mindless worksheets.  Another reason is, I feel that if I feel stressed and pressure them, they will think I don't believe in them and then they won't believe in themselves either.  Here are some things I have done in my class to relieve stress and prepare our minds for the Big. State. Test:

1.  Encouraging Letters:  We write encouraging letters to our Reading Buddies.  Our buddies were in 2nd grade and will take the Stanford 10.  This was their first year taking a high-stakes test, whereas my students had taken tests for 2 years now.  In return, the buddies wrote letters of encouragement to us.

2.  Stretching:  I teach stretching positions to my students.  I did this every year and I like the way it calmed the room down and brought a sense of community to the kids as they learn this new skill together.  I taught the poses the week prior, so the following week we did them in the AM and I didn't need to take the time to teach the positioning.  We also get all the giggles and insecurity out the week before.  I use this website for pics of the positions.

3.  Encouraging Posters:  At the third quarter parent-teacher conferences, the parents made encouraging posters for their students (I stole borrowed the idea from my good friend Tonya Bidtah).  I hung them in my room to encourage the kids during the test.  If they ever got stressed out, they can look up and see Grandma's note to them or Dad's encouraging word.  Hint: the glitter REALLY pops on the neon posters!

4.  Testing Treats:  I found this cute blog a few years ago.  Jessica at the Polka Dotted Teacher blog created these cute printables.  

5.  Inspirational Videos:  Every morning, I play a different inspirational video set to popular music.  This one is especially for our state (Arizona).

What cool ideas do you do in your class/home to prepare your kids for the high-stakes test?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Tooting My Own Horn

I need your help.  

As many of you know, I am working through the National Board Certification process.  It is a humbling experience.  Just when you think you are an accomplished teacher, you read the standards, watch your videos, and realize you have so much more to hone your craft.  Or is that just me?

I'm actually ok with the "humbling" part.  I get that. I get the fact that teachers can work a lifetime and still have areas to improve upon.  In fact, after ten years in the classroom, I actually see more "areas of potential growth" as opposed to "perfection".  

But, here's the hard part for me: tooting my own horn.  We have been taught since childhood to not brag and to not be proud.  In college, we were taught to write in the third person.  In the workplace, we learned to give credit where credit is due and highlight the accomplishments of our colleagues.  However, in National Board, you need to document the evidence that you are an accomplished teacher, i.e. toot your own horn.  

Entry 4 requires that candidates list their accomplishments as a partner with parents and community, learner, and leader/collaborator. I had no problem listing the classes, conferences, and books I read as a "learner".  I am even having fun with the parent/community piece, listing all the PAC nights and contacts with local experts.  However, I need "evidence" of being a leader/collaborator with other teachers in the form of letters.

That's where you come in.  Hopefully.  

I need letters from other teachers in the state (or nation) that document that I have shared teaching tips and techniques with you and it has had an impact on your students' learning.  I know, right?  

Basically, I need an email from you, sent to and include my first name (Susan) and be signed with your first name.  Please indicate which city (if in Arizona) or state.

Here are some sentence frames I took from Bobbie Faulkner's book What Works that would be simple to fill in the blanks.  

National Board Candidate's Name: Susan (no last names)

Date of Presentation/blog post: your choice which one has the biggest impact on your child

Describe how the presentation impacted your teaching of the skill/concept:

  • In Susan's presentation, I learned that I can help my child to _______________ in a new way.

  • Learning ___________________ the way Susan showed in her presentation changed the way I help my child at home (or teach my students) to practice that skill.

  • I saw the impact of what I learned at Susan's presentation when my child ( or students) _____________.  Before I attended Susan's presentation, my child (or students) would __________, but now they ___________.

  • In past years my child would ___________, but after this presentation they _____________, which helps them ________.

Please include this:  This impacted my child's learning by ____________.

I will try to list the presentations I have given here, but seriously, I have given so many over the years I might have forgotten some.  You might remember something that I have forgotten.  Or, you might have gleaned some nugget from a previous post on my old blog or the new blog.  Feel free to scroll back through my blog posts to ones about my classroom.  

Teacher Presentations:

  • Digital Storytelling (Tech Ready Conference/Pre-service):  I shared how you can use various apps to have students retell a story and/or write their own.  
  • Preparing for PARCC:  I showed you the sample test items and we made a plan to embed testing vocabulary and digital items into your weekly routines.  
  • Vocabulary Routines and Games:  I shared Vocabulary-Roll-A-Word and Vocabulary Word Art along with gestures to enhance your vocabulary routine.  
  • FOSS in the Classroom:  I showed you how to embed FOSS into your weekly schedule for reading and writing. 
  • Academic Parent Teacher Team Meetings:  I brought that new idea to our school and shared a new way to involve parents in their child's learning.
  • Literature Units:  I created a PowerPoint to guide the students deeper into the novels.  
  • Free Walking Field Trips:  I shared free field trip ideas.  
  • Literacy Stations:  I shared what I learned from a conference about Literacy Stations and Menu Boards.  
  • DonorsChoose:  I have showed you how to write a project on DC for your own classroom.
  • Social Studies WebQuest:  I have showed you a WebQuest to use in your classroom.
  • Literature Circle:  I shared my passion and organization for Lit Circles to help the students talk about the reading and share their opinions.

Blog Posts:
  • Family Literacy Night:  I shared strategies that parents can use to help their young readers at home.  I linked videos for parents to get more comfortable with the strategies.
  • PARCC Navigation: I created a tutorial for teachers (and parents) to use to prepare their students for the digital test.
  • PARCC Sample Test:  I created a tutorial for teachers (and parents) to offer suggestions of how to embed digital testing items into daily routines.
  • STEM@home Series: I wrote a series on how parents can encourage STEM at home.  

  1. STEM@home: Science - Watching Science on TV
  2. STEM@home: Science - Exploring national parks
  3. STEM@home: Technology - Using apps to support your child
  4. STEM@home: Engineering - Using Legos and K'Nex 
  5. STEM@home: Math - Playing math games at home
  • National Parks - Treasures for Teachers Series:  I wrote a series on how to use our (mostly) free resources at National Parks to bring the outdoors into the classroom.

  1. Teacher Workshops
  2. Traveling Trunks and other Materials on Loan
  3. Virtual Field Trips

Parent Presentations:

  • 8/17 Parent Day meeting: I taught Math Fluency Games with a deck of cards.  I provided you with a new deck.
  • 9/24 PAC Family STEM Night: I taught how families can do STEM activities at home.
  • 10/24 Academic Parent Teacher Team Meeting: I taught you how to time your student reading fluency passages for one minute.
  • 11/7 Academic Game Night meeting: I provided you with dice and Math Fluency Games and a nice Reading Response Journal and asked that you encourage your child to write in it daily to enhance their reading comprehension and their writing skills.
  • 1/16 Academic Parent Teacher Team Meeting: I shared Vocabulary games with you and you made a game board out of stickers and construction paper.
  • 2/25 PAC Family Literacy Night:  I shared strategies that parents can use to help their young readers at home.  Parents role-played and got more comfortable with the strategies.  

Again, thank you so much.  I know that no teacher works in isolation.  I have gleaned so much from other teachers as well over the years.    

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Off to Science Camp

Well guys, I'm off of to Science Camp.  I have had the amazing opportunity to write the curriculum for 4th grade Science Camp to prepare our students for the Science portion of AIMS.  Specific modules include:
·         Changes in Environments: students will go on a hike to look for evidence of natural events (floods, wildfires) and their effects on the environment.  (AZ 3.1.1)
·         Organisms and Environments: students will use an engineering kit to make renewable forms of energy (solar, wind, etc.).  (AZ 4.3.1 and AZ 5.3.1)
·         Earth’s Processes and Systems: students will do hands-on experiments outside to observe the effects of weathering and erosion. (AZ 6.2.1)
·         Changes in the Earth and Sky: students will take weather measurements with digital tools and graph the results. (AZ 6.3.1)
·         Diversity, Adaptations, and Behavior: students will take a nature walk and look for animals with adaptations such as camouflage and mimicry. (AZ 4.4.1)
·         Leadership: students will engage in several scenarios where they must work together as a team. 
·         Reading: students will be given quiet time throughout the camp to read nonfiction articles regarding the concepts they are learning.
·         Writing: students will have a journal and will be given quiet time to reflect and journal their learning.

·         Animal Sounds: students will take a hike at night to listen for animal sounds.

Although I will be out of wifi range (and exhausted from all the hiking), you know that I will blog all about our adventures when I return.  Best. job. ever.

*If you are interested in starting a Science Camp at your school, send me a private message.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Where Does Writing Fit In?

Science cannot advance if scientists are unable to communicate their findings clearly and persuasively. (A Framework for K-12 Science Education)

 When you think back on science in high school, there were probably lots of hands-on experiments.  Probably just as many lectures to teach you about the theories and laws of science.  But, how many times did you write about science?  "Well, that's for the English Language Arts teachers to worry about."  Not anymore.

The Common Core State Standards (or as Arizona calls them "Arizona's College and Career Readiness Standards"), specifically state that writing and reading is now the job of all content teachers.  "The Standards insist that instruction in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language be a shared responsibility within the school." 

The percentage of nonfiction text increases as students move up the grades
as well as the percentage of nonfiction writing projects.

Our STEM Curriculum Developers have looked extensively at the Model Content Frameworks to embed writing into the STEM units. 
We don't wish to replace the novel studies and literature circles.  Quite the contrary.  We aim to step right alongside those fourth graders reading City of Ember to start a STEM project on renewable resources.  And we know that teachers have nine hours of content to teach in a seven hour day.  The solution seems to be integration.  Let's use interdisciplinary units, that have nonfiction text, that prepare our students for 21st century jobs, and that produce writing projects for a global audience.

Common Core asks students to "write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences" in Anchor Standard 10.  We have embedded 

journal prompts:
Journal page for 2nd graders with sentence stems

constructed responses: 
Writing activity after Close Reading of text
online forums:
Students write in an online forum and comment on peer's threads
and final writing projects:
Digital Poster for final project

Website with digital media for final project

Our STEM Curriculum Team actively seeks the input of our teachers.  As we look to future STEM projects, what writing projects would you like to see?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Family Literacy Night

Almost everyone knows that STEM is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  However, there are a few organizations which add a letter or two (or three!) to the simple acronym.  I have seen STEAM, adding Art to STEM.  One group even uses the acronym STREAMS to encompass Reading, Art, and Social Studies. STEMx uses the x to represent all other variables.  I like them all because they show us that these subjects work best when integrated.  How can you do Science without Math?  Social Studies without Reading?  Actually, how can you do anything without Reading Language Arts?

A number of brilliant writers have compiled Science lessons based on children's literature.  Click here for a link to some great resources.  Yet, these lessons are always classroom-based.  What can a family do to encourage literacy at home?

Family Literacy Night

I recently held a Family Literacy Night at our school.  Our attendance was one of the tops (Family STEM Night was tops).   This speaks volumes.  Our parents want to learn how to help their children. I have heard presenters and administrators talk for years about "the need to extend the learning" or "the need to extend the school day".  Family literacy extends the learning.

We know the statistics of reading at home versus not reading.  We know it's important.  Parents know it's important.  What they need is the "how".  How does this look in my home?  And, how can I help my child?

I set three goals for the evening.
  • We will see ideas for setting up a reading spot
  • We will learn additional ways to support our child while reading
  • We will learn how to encourage Journal Writing

I used QR codes on the parent hand-out to extend the workshop to a later time at home.

While explaining the importance of establishing a reading spot, I shared personal struggles with this.  For instance, I thought I was "mom of the year" when I bought huge floor pillows for my boys to lie on when reading.  My boys HATE those pillows and they are now in the closet in the guest bedroom.  Nice.  But, I didn't give up.  I asked them what they wanted, and they wanted to transform a large box into a reading spot.  I agreed and set it all up.  When I came back 10 minutes later, I found my youngest asleep in the box.  Surely there had to be a better way.  In the end, it turns out that the living room couch works best for us.  Parents, keep trying until you find what works for you.

How do I help my young reader?  Hint: don't give them the answer right away.

I know that I have an advantage over the parents in that I have been extensively trained how to help struggling readers.  More than likely, our parents have not.  And that's what I really wanted to focus on.  A few years ago, two books became the focus of Professional Learning Communities in schools all across the continent.  Daily 5 and Cafe are great books and I recommend them to any elementary teacher.  One of the strategies that I learned from the books is "Coaching or Time?"  The two sisters paint a scenario where a reader struggles with a word and someone shouts out the word, in order to help them.  Yet, this is akin to a coach reaching in and grabbing the basketball away from a player.  The coach shoots and scores!  But, what did the player learn? What has the reader learned?  Nothing.  As a coach, we need to guide and give strategies with the end goal that one day, they will internalize those strategies and make that shot (read that word) without our assistance.

We took some time to review those strategies with examples of each.

Just as students need lots of practice, parents do too.  We spent a few minutes role playing and trying out "coaching or time?" and specific strategies.  They were hesitant at first, but soon, the whole room was abuzz.

But what about older readers?  What can we do to help them?  I found a great video clip for just that.

I explained to the parents what graphic novels are and that we have 250 of them in our school library.  Our librarian stated that the graphic novels were the most circulated genre.

My final goal for the night was to encourage journal writing.  Reading and writing are reciprocal.  One does not exist without the other.

Two years ago, I watched a Laura Candler webinar about Reading Response Journals.  It has transformed my English Language Arts teaching.  You can view her webinar here.  I use her prompts as the cover for the journals, with a slight modification.  Common Core refers to fiction text as "literature" and nonfiction text as "informational text".  At the top of those pages, I have the students write "literature" and "informational text".  Simple, but I want to make sure they are comfortable with the new verbiage.

Another modification is to make the journals interactive (that's a whole another blog post!).  It has been said that "you don't truly understand something unless you can explain it to someone else".  This is the premise of reciprocal teaching.  My students know that their homework is not complete until they tell someone at home what they learned that day, then the parent (or older brother or grandma) write in the journal what the student had taught them.  Reading, writing, reading, writing.

You might be wondering what the children were doing during this entire presentation.  They were in the library with another teacher.  She taught them how to pick a book that is a "just right fit" for them.  She then let them choose 10 books each to keep (the books had been donated to me for this purpose).  They also had the students choose a journal and personalize it with their name.  Finally, they were able to personalize a bookmark.  The "bookmark" was really a list of the strategies I had taught the parents for "coaching or time?".  This way, the parents will be able to reference the strategies.


So, how was the workshop received?  What did the parents have to say?  I closed the workshop with a question and answer session.  This continued for twenty minutes!  I shared additional strategies and suggestions.  The parents also filled out the feedback survey.  I cannot post all of them here, as there were just so many, but here are some snippets.

One feedback I noticed over and over again, was the request for more literacy nights.  Yes!

What does the data say?

I wanted to know if families actually took these strategies and started to read with their children at home.  I had the librarian do a little research.  She looked at the circulation rate for a time period last year and the same time period this year.  What did she find?  Our circulation rate rose 272%!

**If you wish to hold a Family Literacy Night at your school and would like a copy of my PowerPoint, send me a personal email at