Being a Woman in STEM

Today is one of my favorite days of the year: International Women’s Day. I love celebrating my womanhood and speaking out to advocate for my rights as a woman. It’s a great feeling to be surrounded by incredible women regularly, and it’s even better lifting up a collective voice that screams “girl power” with every breath.

On this day in particular, I think about what it means to be a woman in STEM.

No, I’m not an engineer or an astrophysicist or a marine biologist (to my fourth grade self’s dismay I’m sure), but what I am is a science teacher to middle schoolers in the greater Raleigh area.

Wake County Public Schools is the 14th largest school district in the country, serving nearly 160,000 students. 76,862 of those students are female and I get the chance to work with a portion of those students daily.

I revel in the fact that I get the opportunity every day to make magical moments of science happen for students, especially female students, every day. These moments can be as simple as looking under microscopes are stomata to as complex as using a CAD system to design a spacecraft to colonize a planet.

IMG_3126

Giving young girls the chance to see themselves in a STEM-filled future is such an amazing gift. I love teaching about women who have influenced the scientific community and giving girls hands-on experiences to engage in science content (also, #girlsdoingscience is only my favorite hashtag of all time — just check my lab Instagram account). I get so excited watching these students grow into confident, strong young ladies who are willing to get up and independently lead a class science review and completely OWN it.

I have girls who want to be everything from astronauts to cosmetologists to veterinarians and beyond, who never fully realized they could achieve those dreams until hitting a sixth grade science lab.

When I taught elementary school, it was maybe even more imperative that I displayed what a woman in STEM looked like.

IMG_1097IMG_1224In third grade, I had students performing soil tests on our school grounds’ soil to figure out where the best place for a school garden would be (then they presented websites they made to a panel of PTA, Garden Club, and administrative representatives to state their cause – they even stayed within a budget!). These students also designed spacecraft by taking measurements in their notebooks and noting what elements of flight were present in their craft. We analyzed weather patterns and matched those to potential rocket launch dates. We read books and articles and wrote essays about science topics, growing content vocabulary daily.

Sparking a love for STEM starts in elementary school, but ultimately this isn’t just about the beginning; rather, it’s about the sustainability.

According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, women make up less than 30% of the science and engineering workforce (and women make up a total of half of the college educated workforce in the country!). Sure, girls might “outperform boys” on standardized math and science assessments, but this isn’t about a test score.

This is about a radical shift in highlighting the natural talents of women and honoring their words and ideas. A shift in treating women like equals and paying them as such. A shift in making STEM interests more accessible to girls of all ages and races and socioeconomic statuses.

We must be a proud community of women in STEM. We must show our girls that it’s okay to be a boss because that doesn’t make us bossy. We must demonstrate leadership, compassion, and grace in all aspects of our lives. We must continue to thirst for knowledge and be models of impassioned learning.

If not us, then who? Who will teach our girls that it’s okay to ask questions and challenge the notions of boys in class? Who will empower our girls to speak up and advocate for themselves and others? Who will ensure that women will end up making more than 30% of our science and engineering workforce?

I love being a science teacher as it is a total joy for me getting girls excited about STEM. The only thing better than teaching girls to embrace science is the waiting to see what they’ll do with their excitement, for their future is limitless.

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Growing Pains & Transition.

I completed teaching my first quarter of sixth grade science on Friday, September 25.

Honestly, the transition itself wasn’t nearly as hard as I expected it to be. The first day of school I was more nervous than anything in my entire LIFE and at this point I am clueless as to why I was terrified in the first place — maybe because they’re bigger than me? Regardless, I’m realizing that sixth graders are basically big third graders with more emotions, and you know what? I love it.

The biggest and most difficult transition for me was, hands-down, the copious amounts of grading. I think in part I was overcompensating since I had zero concept of how many grades I should have for the quarter, and that ran me into a pretty deep hole by the end of the nine weeks. All I was doing in my free time was grading (well, grading and watching The Wire sometimes…) and it was driving me to tears some nights.

I’ve worked in a classroom without a TA before, but what’s different is that now I have nearly 100 students as opposed to my 26 that I kept all day in Durham. 100 students, no TA to help grade, and a desperate need for copious amounts of coffee to manage the morning after few hours of sleep the night before (because of this, I should probably invest in stock with Bean Traders down the road from my apartment).

I’m already planning my amendment of this for quarter two, and it’s pretty simple: don’t grade as many assignments. I’m also going to start using some quick quizzes with Google Forms (all hail Google) and use an app called Flubaroo to grade them for me — then, all my data is already in a nice spreadsheet that can be turned into graphs! And there’s color-coding! And YAY!

Another thing that was hard, and it was more of just a growing pain, was that I felt myself teaching differently. I still used technology and we still talked about vocabulary, but it was in a very different way than I am used to. I realized that I didn’t really read with my kids as much as I would have liked, and I didn’t focus on vocabulary as much as usual. I didn’t do TPR with them and my “word wall” was really lacking because of the wall space I have in my classroom.

#lablife

#lablife

I’m not accustomed to teaching in a classroom that…isn’t really a classroom. The wall space is limited and inconvenient for students to access with cabinets and sinks standing in their way to the wall; shelves take up nearly the entire length of one of my walls which leaves little room to hang student work or academic aid.

World, I need y’all to know that I geeked out SO HARD when I found out I was teaching in a lab, but this is foreign territory for a former third grade teacher. In my last classroom, my walls were donned with exceptional environmental print (100% biased since I made everything that went up on my walls) and vocabulary with pictorial and TPR support was abundant. I read books and articles with my students about the science topics we were learning and we had discussions about those things.

I realize that middle school teaching probably should be a little different than what I did in elementary school, but I also see so much value in holding onto some of my elementary principles for my middle school classroom.

Next quarter, I’m going to do a word wall with words/pictures paper clipped to the blinds of the windows where my students have the best access. I was initially apprehensive to do TRP with middle schoolers because I wasn’t sure if they would buy into the concept of hand motions for words, but I’m going to do it and get really hype about it, since the hype factor is a big thing for some of the kids who think they’re “too cool for school” (who even came up with that phrase? School is the coolest!). I will be even more intentional about vocabulary.

I’ve also been on a serious hunt for some middle school science books, fiction or nonfiction, to help teach our next unit concept. Since we’re studying Earth, I thought it could be neat to read through parts of Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne and kind of “mythbust” the science in the story. I see books as a way to rope students into science who might not be instantly turned on by it, especially if it’s a topic that might not interest them right off the bat.

It’s kind of strange not doing small group instruction in my former blended learning model from last year…though I’m working on that concept with a fellow teacher on my team for a little teaching experiment with our kids in November.

Planning didn’t feel too overwhelming, but then again I was teaching concepts I was already pretty familiar with. Our first unit, which lasted the entire first quarter, was about plants and ecosystems; these topics are also taught in third grade, so I was able to just scale up some activities for my middle school babies (can I still call them babies if they’re all a foot taller than me?). Our next unit about the lithosphere and Earth structure might be a little more of a challenge since that wasn’t a third grade science topic I’ve been used to teaching, but regardless I’m looking forward to brushing up on my geology skills (insert the assistance of my geology-major brother here)!

I spent a decent amount of time last quarter grading learning about this new school and how middle school works on a large scale level, but I think I kind of get it now. I’ll continue to learn this upcoming quarter, but I’m excited to implement a little more of what I know is best for kids from my elementary experience. I’m thankful for teammates who are open to cross-curricular collaboration and students who are willing to take any academic plunge with me. These kids seriously stepped up their game toward the end of our first unit with their big project and I was wildly impressed with them.

I’m so grateful for these growing pains. When I first started thinking about the things that didn’t work out the way I wanted them to, I got kind of frustrated; as I continued to think about those things, I saw a window of opportunity to learn more about a practice which I knew so much about at a different grade level. This experience is challenging me in a way I’ve longed for, and I can tell that by the end of the year I will have grown immensely, and THAT is always a plus.

What’s been something you’ve been growing with lately? For my traditional calendar friends, I know y’all are only halfway through first quarter — anything you’d like to implement before the nine weeks are over!?

Back to (a Different) School.

Middle school, where have you been all my life?!

I’ve spent the last three years teaching third grade and I truly loved every minute. Every hug, every letter, every lightbulb flickering endlessly before finally illuminating.

After three years of third grade, I realized how desperately I wanted to go deeper into content with my kids. I constantly wanted to give them more time to explore and more time to research. I realized that I was outgrowing third grade, that I needed something different. I longed for a change of pace in both curriculum and environment.

This year, I’ve graduated from elementary school and am teaching sixth grade science at Centennial Campus Magnet Middle School (because hey, why not try my luck with a multiple of three if three years in third grade was so great?!).

I just finished my second week of school (working on a modified year round schedule), and let me tell you something: magic is about to happen in the sixth grade science lab.

I can’t recall the last time I was so nervous. My nerves were palpable as I paced back and forth in my four-inch heels, trying to make sure I didn’t forget anything for the first day.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Four-inch heels. I know my mindset was in the right place (Must…be taller…than…the children…), but the practicality of my decision was dim. Hindsight is always 20/20.

The bell rang and you could hear students shuffling through the hallways, first day chatter echoing off of the lockers. My heart was beating faster and I could feel my face getting warmer.

EL and CM walked through my door, hands clutching their backpack shoulder straps and eyes wide looking around the room.

My heart was beating so fast and loud that I could feel it all the way down in my stomach.

What.the.heck.am.I.doing?! MIDDLE SCHOOL WHAT?!

We engaged in conversation and the second I shook their hands I knew I was in the right place.

More students trickled in, eyes big and excited, terrified and happy. You could hear a pin drop in all my classes that first day. Unbelievable.

Another bell rang and it was time to start class. It was time to go back 15 years and re-enter the world of middle school, only this time on the other side of the desk.

I started talking and it was so easy. We made jokes, I told stories, kids played games. I was connecting with these kids just like I had connected with my little ones for the last three years.

Every year I do a letter writing activity the first week of school. I have a letter prepared for the kids on their first day so they can learn a little bit about me. In the letter, I ask them to share a little bit about themselves. It can be as long or as short as they want; it’s just for me and it’s just so I can learn more about them as people, not just learners. The greatest piece of this puzzle is that I take the time to read every single note and I write each kid back.

I was well aware of the daunting task I had before me, seeing as I have nearly 90 students now. To stay sane, I could only do a few letters each night (hey, if they had a week to write to me, I get a week to write all of them back, right?!), but the information gained from reading all these letters is invaluable. Students want to feel important and heard, and I love letter writing because it opens this door of transparency that many students haven’t experienced.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve probably said it a million times: teaching centers around relationships with students, and what better time to build strong relationships that in middle school years?

I’m so thrilled to be in middle school and I can’t wait to encounter everything that accompanies it — every hug, every letter, every lightbulb flickering endlessly before finally illuminating.

And also probably increasingly high levels of sass, but shockingly enough I’m still excited about that, too. 😉

Innovation.

This post brought to you by the #flipclass #flashblog all about innovation and how I use it in the classroom. Enjoy!

To innovate is to make changes to something that is already established. It’s introducing new methods or ideas to something that is currently in place. This concept of innovation is something that really resonates with me, because I feel like it’s something I try to do every day. Innovating is when I’m adapting lessons and projects for my students because I know what they need.

A teaching model that has already been established and widely-promoted in my district is Reader’s Workshop. I’ve taken this model, pieced together aspects of it that I enjoy and that work well with my students, and have turned it into a blended learning model so that I can reach every student on a daily basis. I analyze the data, put students together based on their needs, and groups are born. They rotate to me or my ESL co-teacher, an online reading program (KidBiz3000) on the Chromebook, or engage in book clubs (either reading independently to meet their self-selected goals, writing about their reading, or discussing the text).

This has been a highly effective model for my classroom, and I’ve seen higher student results from switching my class to a blended model. I spent a quarter doing blended learning with one of my classes and kept the traditional Reader’s Workshop model the district promotes in my other class. I looked at the data last week with my co-teacher and the literacy coach, and we saw greater gains in the blended learning block, which was amazing! Student engagement is higher and the teaching points are more targeted than a broad-strokes mini-lesson. I allot time for my students to go to the library one day a week while I progress monitor them, and one day is spent as a whole group doing a rigorous text discussion (RTD). We use the RTD in our weekly group lessons, which has been great since all students have a deep understanding of the text.

If you’re looking for an innovative way to spin your reading block (or any block for that matter!), definitely check out blended learning! What innovative practices have you started using in your classroom this year?

Warm & Fuzzy.

There are a lot of things I really love about my job. I love creating and implementing engaging curriculum. I love using every day moments to teach kids about something greater than themselves. I love reading books out loud to kids and watching the way their eyes light up with every accent I utter. These are all wonderful things, but there are some moments, as stated in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where “there are no words.” These moments are the warm and fuzzy moments.

Today I let my class listen to music through their headphones while working on their Chromebooks (it was a big step of trust for all parties), and they seemed pretty engaged in their work; everyone turned in their biography drafts on time at the end of class. When I told them it was time for them to pack up and go to recess, one of my kids came up to me and said this:

Miss Stewart, this is why I like your class so much — you let us do fun things like listen to music when we work. I listened to some music to calm me down a little bit and it helped me focus. That was really cool.

I felt a smile stretch across my mouth and a warmth deep in my chest.

I adore moments like this; these moments are the best part of this job.

Last week I was working with a student on her biography, and another student came up and pulled on my arm as though he needed something. I quickly turned around and said, “One second, baby,” giving the boy a smile that hinted that he needed to wait until I was finished helping his friend. Before that second could even go by, I felt these tiny arms wrap around my waist and a head pop up under my arm.

He just hugged me and walked away. That was it.

My heart nearly exploded.

Small moments of love and appreciation are so thoughtful and needed in the lives of teachers, and I think kids are the absolute best at bestowing these moments.

Warm and fuzzy, y’all.

A Taste of 1:1.

Yesterday we rolled out some ChromeBooks for my third graders, and let me tell you something: it was awesome.

LP's so excited that she decided to strike a pose

LP’s so excited that she decided to strike a pose

I’ve read about the benefits of 1:1 technology and I’ve often pondered its possibilities in my own classroom, but yesterday’s ChromeBook rollout got me way more excited than I thought I could be.

Watching my kids engage with technology in a meaningful way makes my heart palpitate with joy. Here’s how I plan on using our new technology:

  1. Google Classroom. If you haven’t used this, you should (I’m using it with third graders, so it can basically be used with anyone). Now that each student will have access to a ChromeBook every day, I can start holding all students accountable to turning in work on Google Classroom. I can also start pushing out more assignments, rubrics, and reminders out using this program, knowing that every child will check it every school day during class. Love making the moves toward a paperless classroom!
  2. Google Forms. This is going to make exit tickets, feedback, and perception data so easy. I’ve used Google Forms for exit tickets before in the past, but having limited computers has made it a little more time-consuming than I’d like. With no computer-sharing, I don’t have to worry about kids logging on and off and back on again to fill out a two question exit ticket. Praise.
  3. Differentiated Instruction. I can have some kids watching videos, others reading articles, and still others collaboratively writing on a Google Doc. This is going to benefit my kids as they work on projects especially, so that they can work at their own pace and continue to extend their learning by watching some sweet flipped videos to teach them how to use various programs. They will have autonomy in the research process and really take ownership of what they’re learning. They’ll have the opportunity to choose what medium in which they’d like to present their information. All of the real world experiences are making my brain spin.

The kids will also be able to use the technology for regular reading practice, using programs such as KidBiz3000 or RazKids, and they will also continue to use their Gmail accounts to communicate with their book clubs, but y’all — this technology means so much more than just day-in and day-out practice.

It’s 11:30pm and I’m still awake because I’m thinking about how much my kids will benefit from this technology. The way I see it, this will only enhance the learning that’s already happening, and that is absolutely exhilarating to think about. It’s 11:30pm and I’m so excited to go to school tomorrow because I can’t wait to watch the endless teachable moments unfold before my eyes, because these moments aren’t even about me teaching them, but these kids teaching each other.

Look at these kids helping each other. #comolosjefes

TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK #comolosjefes

If y’all don’t know what magic is, this is it.

That hand clap, though.

That hand clap, though. Heart: full.

Narratives, Personally.

Right before break, I spent some time giving my students some background knowledge on personal narratives to set them up for a project they’ll do in Spanish after Christmas. It’s Monday night and I’m on winter break, but I’ve been meaning to share with you what we did!

We started with exposure to personal narratives. I read multiple personal narratives through the course of a week and we discussed the important vocabulary we need to know to understand personal narratives. These words made it up on our word wall and include not only pictorial representation, but TPR hand motions, too!

"Experience" is supposed to be a scout badge..oops?

“Experience” is supposed to be a scout badge..oops?

Once students had the vocabulary and exposure to what a narrative is, we discussed key elements of a narrative — essentially, what makes a narrative a narrative?! To make things a little more interesting and aesthetically pleasing, I decided to run this activity using sketchnotes. Students told me what the elements of a narrative are, and I wrote them down and sketched a drawing to match our words.

Our narrative sketchnotes!

Our narrative sketchnotes!

From here, we engaged in an interactive writing kind of activity, which is called a Language Experience Approach (LEA) activity from the Biliteracy Unit Framework (BUF). In an LEA, you look at an experience that is shared by every child in the classroom so that you can write together about it. For this particular LEA, we wrote a personal narrative about our class field trip to the Morehead Planetarium (this worked as a great extension from our solar system and space flight unit we finished a couple weeks ago).

The next day, we looked at our LEA again. This time, students had to work in pairs and revise our personal narrative by adding details to make the narrative stronger. I gave each partnership a copy of the story, and they worked together to add and subtract pieces to the writing. At the end of the class period, we shared our new narratives and discussed the importance of details!

All of our learning in one place in our classroom!

All of our learning in one place in our classroom!

Samples

Samples of student work revising our class narrative.

Reasons why I would do a lesson similar to this again:

  • Engagement: My kids really enjoyed working in partnerships to revise our class narrative. It was amazing to hear some of the details they remembered, and it also made for a great teaching point — when we add details, we make it so that the reader is on the story’s journey with us! I didn’t have to redirect one kid during their time working together on this activity, which is always a plus!
  • Relevance: I’m really big on making learning relevant for my kids, and this narrative-writing experience really did just that. We looked at an experience that the kids had, one that they enjoyed, and we wrote about it. There were so many connections we were able to make in discussing narratives, too (like they can be real or imagined, and we see examples of narratives in fiction and nonfiction (biographies), which opens up a completely different door for student learning.

How do you build background for students when introducing a new topic? What successful activities have you tried this year that you’ll do again in the new year?