July 28, 2016

Back-to-School Ice Breaker

BTS Ice Breaker, grades 4 -8

I have a confession to make: I hate ice breakers, and I have always hated ice breakers.  When I see those dreaded words at the top of a meeting agenda, it sends an icy chill down my spine -- apropos to its name I guess! Always desperate to escape this forced bit of "fun", I start to plan a way out. Perhaps I really need to use the restroom, or there's an important call that simply can't wait a second longer!

To my mind, these are the biggest ice-breaker offenders:
  • - They are forced and unnatural

  • - If you get stuck in an uncomfortable conversation with someone, you're trapped until time is called ... and doesn't that always feel like forever?!

  • - The questions are tired and old. They frequently yield information I don't find interesting and don't find interesting to share about myself. 

  • - There's too high an expectation that they're going to be a big hit, so when it falls flat, it feels a little like the birthday scene from Office Space:

So I set out to make a better mouse-trap, as they say, to minimize the things I hate about the typical ice-breakers. What I've made is a little like speed dating, with a lot of moving around, and quicker interactions that feel a little less stressful. 

Plus, kids actually get to talk to everyone in the class and it comes with a set of 40 questions, so no one has to listen to the same answers over and over! Another thing that's great about it is that students will hear a lot of different questions they can keep in their "back pocket" for if/when they need to break an awkward silence at lunch or in the halls!  

As a public service to all those who have felt my pain, I'm sharing it for free in my store. :) 


But ... where are the BTS STEM Challenges? 

You make an excellent point. STEM challenges are a fantastic, organic way for kids to get to know each other, so why on Earth wouldn't I mention them in a BTS blog post?! Especially since that's almost solely what I write about??? And since I've made a set of challenges especially for the season??? 

It's killing me, actually, that I can't tell you more about it here, because I wrote about my Back-to-School STEM challenges as a guest post for a colleague's blog that goes live August 4th. This means I really can't post about them here too. 

Two things to tide you over: I will link the product below, and as soon as the guest post is live, you can check back here for a link to that post! You can also get a sneak peek on my YouTube channel!

Full of awesomeness! Click here!

I'm linking up this month with some of my favorite bloggers! Check out their great ideas!

photo credit: Social via photopin (license)
photo credit: Friends via photopin (license)
Clipart: Hidesy's Clipart 
Fonts: Khyrs Bosland

July 20, 2016

STEM Challenge Materials: Get 'em FREE or Get 'em CHEAP!

It's time to talk -- or sing -- materials! Watch the video embedded below, and that will make a whole lot more sense! However, if you prefer to read, you'll find the video transcribed at the end of this post.

(I cannot wait until I get 100 subscribers so I can set custom thumbnails.  The four choices YouTube is giving me are killing me. If your'e enjoying the videos, please, please subscribe!)

As is the (new) usual, the video contains the all the details, with the written summary found below.

The Best Materials are Free

If you plan ahead, you can ask parents to donate materials for your challenges. Although specific materials vary by challenge, there are some basics you'll use quite a bit.

You can find an editable parent-request-for-materials letter in the freebie below:

Click here for FREEBIE!

Amazon.com Wish List

A great way to make it easy for parents to help you is to create an Amazon Wish List for your class. I've linked an example here. You can click through it and basically copy onto your own wish list anything you like.  (If you've never created a public wish list before, the video walks you through it.)

A Few of My Favorite Things

I've linked some of my favorite supplies that can be found on Amazon below. 
Full disclosure, I am an Amazon associate which means I can receive small referral payments for items I recommend if they're purchased through my referral links, so if that rubs you the wrong way, we can still be friends; just don't purchase through these links :)  

Comparison Shopping

I did a quick comparison of some of my STEM basics between the two places I shop most often: Dollar Tree and Amazon.com. Obviously, Amazon can't be beat for convenience, but it can be beat for cost!

As always, reach out in the comments or by email if there's a specific question or topic you'd like me to address. :)


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Video Transcription

Bendy pipe cleaners and boxes of cardboard, straws, clothespins, brass brads and things I can afford. Parent donations of foil, tape and strings, these are a few of my favorite things. 

Well either I've lost my mind or we're talking about materials today. Let's get started. All right, we're talking about materials. We're gonna talk about what to get and where to get it, so let's start with a question, fill in the blank. The best materials are ... if you said malleable, you've been watching the videos, but it's a trick. The best materials are free materials. If you plan enough in advance, you can ask parents for donations and I will put in the description below a link to my parent letter and it is editable. Another thing you can do is set up an Amazon Wish List for your classroom. I will show you how to do that.

You're gonna go to Amazon.com and you're gonna sign in. If you don't have an account, you can start here. I'm gonna show you my example first. I've already made one sample list. You can see I've added some basics for STEM here. Just a quick note, the Crayola model o magic is one of my favorites, but I never buy it for myself, that's a luxury first class, one percentage kind of item. But if somebody wants to buy it for me, I'm very happy to have it. Let's just go ahead and say you've been doing your search on Amazon and you found something you want. You look over here to the right, you can add to list.

Any list that you already have will be there and if this is a new list, well you just create a new list. This will be a wish list. We'll call this STEM sample. Set it to public and create your list and let's continue shopping. I just want to add one more thing to it. So now when I got to add something that I find, when I click add to list, you'll see my STEM sample list is here. I'll say continue shopping, but I just want to show you how to get to your list. Up here, in the menu bar you'll see you can drop down and go to your STEM sample list. For each item, you can update your comments, your quantity and your priority. Let's say I want two of these and I'm going to leave it as medium priority. Let's go ahead and update this one as highest, and let's say I want four of those. Add a little comment there. Now you'll see ... oh now you can see I have a typo there. I will fix that later. 

One thing to know is that if parents do buy from Amazon from your wish list, these quantities will update. You can always go in and change them as well if somebody just buys you one or you decide you don't need them anymore; you can change it. You can even delete items off. When you're ready to share with your parents, go ahead and just come right up here. You're gonna click share and you're gonna get a link that you can put on your class website or put in your class newsletter. You can also send emails directly out to parents this way.

The materials you need are obviously gonna vary based on the challenge, but there are some basics that you want to have around. Pipe cleaners, foil, masking tape, these things did not make it into the song by chance. You want to make sure that you have those things on hand in bulk. You'll use them a lot. You're also going to become a clean trash hoarder. I will show you a couple of examples of some things that I've been hoarding lately. I just started collecting these little fruit baskets. Every time I go to a hotel, I've been getting shower caps and water bottle lids, these are just a few of my clean trash hoards. I don't know where it's going to make it into a challenge yet, but the purpose will reveal itself I'm certain.

Something else you want to think about is to throw in something weird just for kicks. Those shower caps, I might put them into a challenge I think has no business having shower caps as a material just to see what the kids do with it, because it's often ingenious and surprising. I try not to limit what they can do based on what I can imagine. In the event you do not have time to plan ahead and solicit parent donations or you did and plan ahead and do that but the parents did not respond in kind, you'll need to get your own. 

The stores I like to go to most are dollar stores. For me, Dollar Tree is my favorite. I get something things off Amazon and the other stuff usually comes from a Target, a hardware store like Home Depot or even grocery stores. Where's the best place to get your materials? Depends on the material. I did a little bit of comparison shopping just recently, so let me show you what I found out.

So I did do a little comparison shopping between Dollar Tree and Amazon, because those are the two places I get most of my items from. I did not include here anything with a teacher discount. I do believe Dollar Tree gives, it's a small discount, but to current classroom teachers. You might want to look into that if you are local. You'll see that a lot of times, Dollar Tree wins the battle price wise, but Amazon is often very close in price and sometimes the convenience or the quality just beats it out.

I will link in the description below my blog which will bring you to the parent letter and the chart for comparison shopping. I have some freebies and all that on there as well, so just check that out. We started with a song, I'll end with a chorus, my apologies I am no songstress.

Copier's jammed, too much testing, things that make me mad. I'll simply remember my favorite things and then I don't feel so bad. See you next week. Be sure to subscribe, next week we're gonna start back to school challenges and I think you're going to really like them.

July 14, 2016

STEM Challenges: Your Role as Facilitator, part 2

This is part 2 of your role as facilitator (for part 1, click here).

Below you'll find my "Dos and Don'ts" for what to do after the students are done building. The video offers full details, and there is a written summary below. However, if you prefer to read, you'll find the video transcribed at the end of this post. 

Your Role as Facilitator, part 2:

Summarized thoughts:

Things to do when the challenge ends:

1. Gallery walk

Have students line up and snake through the room, quietly observing designs. Note: have them keep hands folded behind backs so they remember not to touch! This should be short: ~2 min.

2. Q & A session

Give each group time to present their designs. Typically, I give 30 - 60 seconds to describe the design, followed by Q&A. At the beginning of the year, I ask most of the questions and gradually pull back to where I ask almost none, letting the students take over.  

Consider having each group call on someone from the class to ask one or two questions. This ensures each member has a chance to practice oral communication skills and take ownership of the design.

Examples of what to ask are in the embedded video.

3. Broader discussion (whole class or in groups)

I have a set of eight questions I like to use whole-class, or in groups, to help students reflect on how well they worked, successes & failures, etc. See the video for details. 

4. Record & reflect on first iteration

It's important that every student record & reflect individually on the designs, even when they work in groups. This information should be used to inform modifications for the second iteration, not as a replacement. You can also gather valuable information from their reflections to help you decide whether to tweak materials or the criteria & constraints prior to the next round. See the video for details. 

5. Extension activities

The specifics of a challenge will determine the extension activities which can be used to review or introduce new concepts across multiple subject areas.

That said, there are a few standards that work with most challenges:

- Ask/answer math questions related to the designs.

- Create process flow maps for building designs. 

- Research

- Writing

- Scientific inquiry/experiments

See the video for more details. 

As always, reach out in the comments or by email if there's a specific question or topic you'd like me to address. :)


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Video Transcription

Well, hello! This is Part Two of Your Role as the Facilitator During STEM Challenges. I did Part One last week and I will either link that here somewhere or in the description below so if you haven't watched that, stop this, go back and watch that first.

So today we're going to talk about what happens once you call time and the students are done building their first iteration. There are a couple different options here. The first one I like to do whenever there is time is a gallery walk so I will have the students all come get in a line and no matter how old they are, no matter what age, I always have them put their arms behind their back and hold their elbows so they don't reach out and touch somebody's design. It's definitely saved a lot of towers and I highly recommend it.

So after the gallery walk what I like to do is have a Q&A session. For the first several STEM challenges that you have you're going to want to do this whole class so that students get the modeling and understand what types of questions they should be asking each other.

If the designs are portable, then you can have the groups bring up their design to the front of the class while the others are sitting. More frequently they're not really very portable unless you actually put that into your Criteria and Constraints list so we usually actually will just walk around to each station, to each group. I usually give a group about 30 seconds to just talk about their designs and then after that we start the Q&A. If it's your very first challenge or one of the very first challenges, you'll probably do most of the initial asking and then eventually you'll start to pull back and you'll let the other students ask the questions instead of you. You'll ask fewer and fewer as time goes by.

One thing that I really like to do to make sure that every student gets practice with their oral communication standards is to allow each student in a group that is presenting to call on a student in the class to ask a question and answer that question.

So what are some good questions to ask? Well let's take a look at a few examples that are pretty universal across STEM challenges.

These are from a Thanksgiving challenge so that's why you see the clip art that you do. The first seven of these are my standard questions and the eighth is always a new quote that I've selected in themes of hard work, perseverance, failure, luck, etc. The question that says, what do you think is the purpose of doing the STEM challenge, actually came from my friend, Mr. Reagen, and I love it so I use it now all the time. It's really fascinating to hear what they come up with.

There are lots of ways to hold discussions. My favorite though is to give groups five to ten minutes to discuss these questions within their group and then I like to call on volunteers or do the thing where you pull out sticks with names on it for people that share out of a couple of their answers, whole class.

So once you've held the class discussion, the groups will record and reflect upon their first iteration of the design. Let's go do an example of what I would use in my class.

Even when students work in teams, I require each student to fill out these forms. You can send them home as homework if you like but I usually have them do this in class. Make sure you don't use this is a replacement for a second iteration. This reflection should serve as the foundation, not a substitution for modifying designs.

So at that point you're probably going to call it a day. They've already accomplished quite a bit. The following days you might want to add some extension activities and I've got a few examples of some things you can do for those. Let's take a look.

Extensions will vary of course based on the specific challenge but there are a few things that work with most challenges. The first is math questions, or task cards. Have students create math questions that can be answered by their design data. The example shown is from one of my challenges called, Pick and Pack, in which students pack a trunk with items of different point values. You can create task cards with your own questions or give the students task-card templates to create their own which is my preference. Then you can use those to play a game of SCOOT or you can save and store copies of their questions and data for math centers, early finishers, sub days, etc.

Another idea is for students to create process flows for the building of their designs. They can turn these into paragraphs or even exchange with other teams to try and build each other's designs based on the process flow. This is kind of like that activity where you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich based on the directions you're given and that can be really fun and also a great way to work on precise writing.

You can also use designs to inspire students to research related topics or conduct scientific inquiries or experiments and there are usually more opportunities for writing if you look. Basically look for all your cross-curricular connections for both new and review concepts, then whittle it down to the time you have available.

With extension activities the possibilities are almost endless. You just want to take a look at what you can use to review, to research, to introduce new concepts across all your subject areas and it can turn into quite a little rabbit hole. You don't have to do extensions with every single STEM challenge but when you can it's a nice jumping off point because you know the students already have prior knowledge.

If you feel like you don't have time to really sit back and examine what you could do for extension activities, you might want to take a look at what's already out there. So take a look at Odyssey of the Mind. They have some great STEM challenges. Take a look at Teachers Pay Teachers, shameless plug. I do have freebies.

Finally, whether you do extension activities or not, you do always want to do the second iteration if you can whenever possible. So one of the things that I would recommend is before doing the second iteration, read whatever reflections the students had on their first iteration. If you ask the same kinds of questions that I do, some of the things that I really like to look at are, what materials did they say they'd really like to have if they were going to build again, and sometimes I actually throw some of those materials in there because a lot of times they were a good idea.

Then another thing that I like to do as well as ... I'll tweak sometimes the Criteria and Constraints. If maybe I made the challenge a little too easy the first time, I might make it a little bit more difficult the next by adding a new constraint or new criterion.

All right. So that's a wrap on Your Role as the Facilitator. Make sure you tune in next week. I'm going to be covering all things materials. How to get them, what to use, a little bit of cost comparison and maybe a few other things.

See you next week. Please subscribe.

July 7, 2016

STEM Challenges: Your Role as Facilitator, part 1

An important aspect of running great STEM challenges is you!  Your teaching philosophy probably already leans away from "sage on the stage" if you're drawn to using STEM challenges, but facilitating takes practice, reflection, and more practice!

Ever caught yourself wondering if you're running your STEM challenges well? Below you'll find my "DOs and DON'Ts" for preparing for and running a great challenge. The video offers full details, and there is a written summary below.  

However, if you prefer to read, you'll find the video transcribed at the end of this post.

Your Role as Facilitator, part 1:

Summarized thoughts:


- Choose a challenge
- Set your group size
- Set your criteria & constraints
- Plan for two iterations & possibly extension activities (more on this in part 2)
- Create your own design ahead of time to help develop criteria & constraints and materials ideas, if time permits
- Have students help you set up materials ahead of time for speedy distribution

During the Challenge

As always, reach out in the comments or by email if there's a specific question or topic you'd like me to address. :)


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Video Transcription

Hi. Today we're going to be talking about your role as the facilitator during STEM challenges, and I'm going to break it into two parts. The first part this week will cover how you prepare for a STEM challenge and then what you're actually doing while the students are building, and then next week I'll post part two, and that will cover everything that happens once the build phase is done, what comes next. So, if you've had kind of a nagging feeling that you're not quite getting everything you could be getting out of STEM design challenges, then hopefully this video will help you get a little bit more juice for the squeeze. 

So, let's get started. If you're preparing, you've already watched the five keys to STEM challenge success that I posted last week, and if you haven't, stop and watch that now. I'll either link it in the video somewhere, or in the description below. Go back and watch that first. So, you've selected a challenge, you've set your group size, you've decided what your criteria and constraints list will be, and you've put in your plan book how much time you need. It'll probably be 75 to 90 minutes if you are new to STEM challenges, and if you're more experienced or you've chosen a more simple challenge, you could probably get it done in an hour, but I tend to like to plan a little bit more time, more wiggle room so you can really take advantage of some of the discussion and extension activities.

One thing that is a great idea if you have the luxury of time, and I know as a teacher you don't have a whole lot of it, but whenever you can, do the STEM challenge ahead of time yourself. One of the things that really helps me to do is figure out where the frustrations will lie, where I might have some problems with materials. Sometimes I think, "Oh, you know what would really be great is if I had just paper clips," and so I can throw that in, and also just ideas as to what to add to criteria and constraints list. So, I know that might not be practical with every challenge, but if you can, I highly recommend it. Also, it's a fun activity to do with your friends or your family. It can be a little competitive as adults, but it's a lot of fun. I enjoy it.

When you are getting ready to do the STEM challenge, you have a lot of materials to distribute. One thing that's very helpful to do is the day prior, or if you have a lunch period that's prior to when you're going to build, to invite a few students in to help distribute the materials into paper bags or bins so that it's a quick start to the challenge. You can just pass out the bins or the bags. If you have parent volunteers, same sort of thing, and if not, you can just have, from each group, have the students divide up who's going to go pick up the pipe cleaners versus the popsicle sticks versus whatever else so that that will go quickly as well.

Once you present the actual challenge to the students and its time for them to get started, there are different approaches to planning, and this is a great place for you to differentiate. So, some people like to sketch out their idea first; some people like quiet time to just think about what they might want to do; some people like to discuss it in a group and then start building, and some people, and I would count myself in this, just want to start putting your hands on the materials to sort of start playing with them and test some ideas out. Now, it's probable that your students don't know which type they are, and so I would recommend varying it and trying different planning methods with different iterations and different challenges to help students see the different approaches and what really works well for them. 

I also recommend doing it that way because if you stick with one approach, let's say you do the sketch before you build, that would be difficult for me. I can't draw anything, and I get really frustrated and annoyed when I have to draw something. Not that that means I should never, ever try it, but if that's the only way I'm allowed to plan, and I can't start building any other way if I don't have a picture drawn, I'm going to be really annoyed and frustrated as I get into the challenge, and that's just not something you want. So, I would recommend trying in different ways, differentiate it for your different learners, and help the students figure out what is the planning method that works best for them.

Remember, you've got to get your mind set, your game face on, and you've got to remember that this is about the growth of the students in their problem solving skills and their resilience, and you might need to have a mantra in your mind in order to make that work for you. So, sometimes I go about thinking failure is fabulous, or facilitate, don't fix, or let them fail and let them recover. I don't say it out loud, but I say it in my mind sometimes when I want to get my hands in on something that they're doing, and for some people that's not an issue at all, but for people who got into the teaching profession, it's often because you want to help, and we just have to remember that it's not helpful to stunt their growth and their ability to help themselves. So, this is something I have to tell myself a lot, and I said the last video, but I will repeat it, I will cross my hands so I don't touch their activities or their designs, and sometimes I cross behind my back as well, just as a physical reminder that it's their design and it's their challenge.

Now the challenge has started. What do you do, and what don't you do? As I mentioned last time, one of the things you can and probably should be doing is calling out a lapsed time so students know how much time has passed and how much time they have left to build. Again, you can have someone in a student group do that, that's a personal preference. I prefer not to do it that way. One thing you don't do is you don't give them extra materials. Materials are constrained for a reason, so when students use their entire length of masking tape and they say, "Oh, but we used it all. Can I please, pretty please have some more?" The answer's no. You don't have to be mean about it or rude about it, just say, "Oh, I'm so sorry. That's one of the constraints, so now you have to try to figure out a way around it and how can you work without having the tape."

You're going to get nasty look from a lot of students, and maybe some rolled eyes or a deep sigh, depending on how old they are, but they do get over it and they frequently do find a way around it. If they don't find a way around it, well, then the next time they do their iteration, they're a lot more careful about the way they use the materials. That's an important lesson to learn. 

So, what should you say and what shouldn't you say as you walk around the groups to see what they're building? Well, one of the things I like to just start with every group is tell me about your design, or tell me what you're building. Then I have some examples of some other questions that I'll ask as I'm going around, so let's just take a look at those. Basically, the key to the questioning is not to be too leading or give your own suggestions. You don't want to inadvertently teach students that when they get to a tricky spot they just have to wait on you to show up and solve it. Engage the students in conversation about their designs, and help talk them through their problems so they can determine their own next steps.

You don't have to wait on them to figure it out before you leave, either. Just be interested and be as perplexed as they are by the problem, encourage them to keep at it, and tell them you'll check back again in a few minutes. Then you just go off to the next group and do it again. Some students might need a little more support than others. You'll noticed I starred the first don't say here. This amount of scaffolding could be appropriate in some cases, but in general, it's too leading. You have to use your own judgment based on what you know about your students. Just be careful that you keep pulling back the amount of scaffolding you provide so the students become more self-reliant over time.

Make sure you help them understand the value of failed designs. I like to point out some of the more happy failures of engineering, like post-it notes and microwaves. I'll link to a site to those and others in the description below. There are many inspirational quotes on the topic that you can share as well. I'm going to talk more about that next week. Finally, you might disagree with me here, but I try not to be too effusive with my praise of student designs. That's not to say I don't compliment. I do. I like to point out something clever or interesting about all the designs, or even the ideas that perhaps didn't execute as planned in the designs. I just try to be very even in my tone, almost observational, and always choose just a detail of the work or a habit, like perseverance. I like to leave the big compliments to their peers. Long story shorter, I don't want them seeking my validation. I want the working with a clear mind on designs they think are cool, not on something they think I'll think is cool.

Beyond the questions that you ask the groups as you go around, you want to be prepared for a couple of things. First of all, STEM design challenges do tend to be on the louder side. Students are working in groups, they're very excited about what they're doing, and they're under a time constraint. If that's the kind of thing that bothers you, the noise level getting too high, before you start the challenge, you need to make sure you set with the students some sort of signal for the noise getting too loud, if it's flashing the lights or whatever, so that they can bring it back down to a reasonable level.

Another thing that might happen is, especially if you have younger students, is there could be tears. Students sometimes do get frustrated to the point of tears, and that's not necessarily a terrible thing. I know I've been frustrated to the point of tears before, and it's one of the things that you just have to learn to get over and to get past. So, when this happens to students, I don't try to tell them that they shouldn't be crying, or anything like that. I do sort of come over and commiserate with them and just say, "I know these things can be really frustrating," and I usually try to give them an example of ... Especially if I've done the challenge ahead of time, then I can sort of say, "Oh, when I was building my tower, the air conditioning kept blowing it over and I was so annoyed that I just had to walk away."

And that's one of the things you can do. If they do get that frustrated that they're crying or they're just really angry, try to give them some ideas for how to handle that, like, "When I get to that point, sometimes it helps me to focus on a different aspect of the design challenge, or a different aspect of the problem for a while and just give myself a brain break, or sometimes I have to walk away for a second. Go to the water fountain and get a drink, come back." Just that sort of break, that physical break with what they're doing can be helpful. Just let them know that's a perfectly human emotion to be frustrated when something's not working the way they want it to. But don't be fearful of tears.

One of the other things that I would recommend is whether the students are frustrated with how the design is going, or frustrated with their teammates, one of the things that I do is I try to talk them through a little bit of those aspects, and then I'll just tell them, "Keep working on it. I'm going to come back and check in with you guys later." And I go around to some of the other groups, and I would say nine times out of ten, by the time I make it back to that group, they've figured out a solution to their problem. So, you just have to give them the time and the space. Take a step back, let them figure it out, almost always they will.

So, those are the basics of preparing for a STEM challenge and then what to do during the STEM challenge. Get excited. You're going to do great. You're also not going to do great, and that's okay. We have a growth mindset for the students and for ourselves here. Even when I do STEM challenges now, always, when I'm walking away from it, I think, "You know, in this interaction with this student, I maybe helped them too much, or maybe I led them a little too much with my questions and the way that I asked them."

It's a learning opportunity. It's never going to be perfect, but you just got to keep trying it. Every time you're going to get a little bit better, and you're going to feel a little bit more confident in your ability to let them develop their own abilities. You just got to give it a little bit of time, and remember, perfect is the enemy of good. Don't get yourself all beat up about it, just keep going forward, just keep trying them. It gets better and better and better, and next week we'll talk about what you do after the challenge.