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.

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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.

More Than Just Jitters.

My teeth are brushed, my hair still damp, my fan (and mind) spinning.

I’m staring at the ceiling because I can’t sleep.

My lunch is packed and in the refrigerator, my coffee mug set out on the counter, my outfit hanging by the door.

Tomorrow is the first day of my fifth year teaching.

Every year this happens — this “first day jitters” kind of deal. I’m beyond thrilled to start the year and get to know my new students. I’m always a little nervous at least, because I want to make sure I don’t forget something big to tell them or show them. The first day of middle school is huge for these kids and I’m determined to make it a positive experience!

But tonight isn’t normal first day jitters.

I’m lying here awake because I feel so incredibly grateful to be this excited about my job.

Seriously, this is like second Christmas for me.

The blessing is real, y’all — I get to go to work and teach kids about the wonders of our world. I get to show kids their own hidden talents and help them realize their potential. I get to facilitate the learning of young people who might march for civil rights, cure cancer, or go live on Mars.

I get to work with a fabulous team of human beings who are dedicated to doing what’s best for kids.

I get to wake up in the morning and know I have a job that provides me with health insurance and the ability to pay a mortgage.

I am so thankful for these things. I am so thankful for the people in my life who aren’t at school with me every day who encourage me, love me, and challenge me. I can only hope to be a conduit of blessing to those around me wherever I go.

While I definitely have first day jitters tonight, I stand in awe of so many blessings God has granted me, including the passion He wrote on my heart to educate young people.

Here’s to a brilliant fifth year, friends — full of gratitude and constant amazement.

Shoutouts & Celebration.

I have always been a person who has valued words of affirmation. When we use our words to encourage others and to affirm their choices, powerful things can happen.

When I taught third grade, students engaged in a Compliment Circle. Everyone sat in a circle on the carpet and had the opportunity to give or receive a compliment (they were also allowed to pass). At the beginning of the year, most students wanted to either pass or receive compliments. After the first couple weeks of setting up our routine for Compliment Circle, a domino effect would occur — once one student started choosing to GIVE compliments, all the other kids wanted to as well.

This was the perfect way to end class each day: reflecting on kindness that you displayed to others or that others displayed to you.

Because of the nature of middle school, the time I have with students is significantly shorter than what I had with my third graders. Sadly, this doesn’t really allow for a 10-15 minute window for Compliment Circle at the end of each period as I’m already desperately pushing copious amounts of content into a 66 minute block.

Enter “Shoutout Sheets.”

A few months ago, I started using these handmade sheets to acknowledge students regularly in class. They’re created so that both myself and other students can give one another shoutouts.

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The Shoutout Sheet!

Because I started implementing this in the middle of a quarter, my consistency wasn’t the greatest. I would either run out of time at the end of class or — well, usually I would just run out of time. Let’s be honest, time flies when you’re having fun and learning in the lab. 😉

I started making these motivator sheets a priority toward the end of third quarter and the kids started getting really interested (again, let’s be honest, who doesn’t enjoy being recognized for good work?).

As we kicked off fourth quarter three weeks ago (?!?!?! HOW DID THAT HAPPEN!? — will answer this question in a different blog post I’m certain), I made a concerted effort to ensure that a student in every one of my classes was being recognized every day.

One day last week, I completely forgot to stop class a few minutes early to give my shoutout. A few kids had left the classroom already but I stopped everyone else, saying, “WAAAIIIT! TODAY’S SHOUTOUT!” I scrambled to my desk to get my paper and saw students standing in my doorway (presumably my third period). I told the students to line up outside the door since second period hadn’t gotten out yet, but I quickly realized it was the rest of my second period standing there.

Well, we heard you had a shoutout, so…we came back!

As my heart grew about three more sizes in that moment, it dawned on me that these kids really care for one another and want to see each other excel.

With each shoutout given, the kids applaud and high five.

This notion was reinforced as I passed back post-assessments for our last unit two weeks ago. I told the students how much growth they made collectively and how some students quadrupled their scores from the pre-assessment they took so many weeks ago. A student raised her hand and asked if some of those kids who made a lot of growth could have their names called; the class was completely on board, so I rolled with it.

With each name called, the kids cheered for each other.

…and we’re talking legitimate hoops and hollers and claps and “good jobs!” ringing in the air.

It amazes me that I get to work with kids and watch them grow developmentally to understand that the world is larger than they are alone. It’s a beautiful thing to see students so invested in one another. Just another echo of the importance of building a strong classroom community that fosters trust and compassion.

Y’all, this is what it’s all about. Kindness. Helping one another. Showing genuine interest in the lives of others. There’s good everywhere — in our classrooms, in our students, in ourselves and each other — so let’s start recognizing it.

How do you recognize students (and even your coworkers!) for all the totally awesome things they do!?

For the Moments I Feel Faint.

The last couple months have been full of some of the highest highs and the lowest lows and I feel as though in the midst of all that, I momentarily lost my voice.

Keyword: momentarily.

In these moments of insecurity and jumble, I always have my kids.

Whenever I experience any negativity or frustration, I can always count on my kids to have my back, and often times they don’t even realize it. The wit, the jostling back-and-forth we have, laughter while we’re learning — all this reminds me where my roots have been so deeply placed.

My school implemented a 7 Habits lesson at the start and end of every week called HOWL University. Normally I get pretty agitated when my instructional time is taken (I am a very selfish teacher in that way), but having the chance to talk about character and good habits is easily one of my favorite things (does anyone else get super stoked when a kid asks you about integrity? Anyone? Bueller?).

Recently, our topic focused on Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind. We talked about student futures and students shared what they wanted to do when they left middle school, high school, and beyond. I posted prompts around the room, like the one below, so students could take a few minutes to reflect.

Love a good Top Ten.

Love a good Top Ten.

As I surveyed the room and made my rounds, a boy sitting at the station above called out,

Ms. Stewart, can I put “science class” for this one?

indicating that science class was one of the things he loved to do. I told him that of course he could list it if that’s something he loved, and he smiled and told me it was. He said he didn’t like school too much, but he loved science class.

I’ve seen huge gains in this kid not only as a science student, but as a young adult trying his best to figure himself out (and aren’t we all still doing that anyway?).

A couple more minutes went by and I found myself at another station with a girl and the same boy I mentioned earlier. The question asked about student talents and how students are using their talents. This girl looked at me and said,

Well…what if I don’t have any talents?!

I looked at her, staring mesmerized at the paper, like she was waiting on it to give her an answer. We talked about how everyone has talents, whether that’s being a strong math student or singing or just communicating with other people. I saw doors opening in her brain when we discussed all the possibilities of talents, and I think she saw herself differently when she walked out of room 208.

These moments where I’m able to simply be real with them and help them through their lives in some capacity — pointing out their talents and giving them the space and opportunity to shine — this is where I find my voice.

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!?

To Not Settling.

Here we have an ode to not settling for average.

A moment where a student made the conscious decision that a 77 wasn’t good enough. A moment where he was frustrated and wanted to leave his paper on the table, face down. A moment where I’ve never been more elated to see an upset demeanor on a child’s face.

This is a kid who would fall through the cracks. He lives in a bad part of town, flanked by strip clubs and gang initiations. His parents aren’t in the picture, and he likes to start trouble with other kids in class. He talks at inappropriate times and flirts with girls like that’s the real reason he’s in school (but isn’t that what we all thought our middle school purpose was anyway?). His exterior says that he doesn’t care about learning or getting an education, but once you crack that shell, he’s all gooey educational brilliance inside.

I passed back the scientific method quizzes today and he got a 77. I didn’t really expect to see any kind of reaction out of him; I mean, it’s a C. It’s average. The status quo. I wasn’t sure how he’d react, so I guess I just thought he wouldn’t.

As soon as I turned my back, I heard a fist slam on a table.

He was mumbling to himself, looking annoyed. I went over to him and said, “It’s a 77 — that’s close to a B!”

He wasn’t appeased.

“You know, a 77 isn’t THAT bad — it’s average!”

Who the heck am I trying to fool here? If I got a 77 on anything, I would have definitely been feeling the same way, begging my teacher to have mercy and let me do test corrections to bring up my score. Here I was, trying to make this kid feel better about his average grade, when I should have been firmer and pushed him harder about what it was he missed. A moment of weakness on my part and he triumphantly brought me back to my center: doing what’s best for kids, and I know what’s best for kids is holding them to high, clear expectations.

His defeated attitude about his quiz score was sad to see, but it also got me really excited.

“You want to retake this quiz, don’t you?”

He nodded and looked away from me, trying to maintain his “cool” status while still attempting to show me that he was interested in academic achievement.

A-ha! I knew he cared!

We talked about when he could come to my room to start studying and showing mastery, and we both were feeling hopeful and better about the current situation.

I should note that this kid, when given the chance to use laptops in my class during homeroom time, was the only one of my students who used them during that half hour block to locate a current event article that was due this past Friday.

I am a firm believer in tough love, not so much in grades and numerical percentages.

After today’s meltdown over an average grade, my heart leaps knowing that this kid wants something better for himself. Yeah, it’s a scientific method quiz grade, but you know what? It has to start somewhere.

We have to push our kids to a higher standard and let them know that yes, average is okay, but you are capable of so much more. Can you imagine what that can do for a child in your class?

Like I said, this is an ode to not settling for average — not settling for average quiz grades, not settling for average work ethic, not settling for average expectations.

Here’s to a great week of learning and watching this kid grow not only as a student, but as a scientist and hardworking human being, too.

Warm Hearts & Good Reception.

I got to do one of my favorite things tonight: make a positive call home about a child to his parent.

I could technically do this every single day for a child; I’m a firm believer in celebrating the good that kids do on a daily basis (and there’s a lot of it). Unfortunately, there are only 24 hours in a day, so making calls home every day to parents and families is a little tricky for a teacher with nearly 100 students.

Tonight’s particular call though left me with so much joy. My heart was so warm and my message so well-received; I was pacing with glee while I was on the phone with this mother.

What made this call so special, you wonder?

Two days ago this child had a bad day, and not just any normal case-of-the-Mondays bad day. I had to have administration remove this child because he was so distracting to others in the class, even though I had given verbal and nonverbal redirects to this child. He was removed from my class on Monday, and again on Tuesday he came close to leaving again. This kid struggles with a lot going on at home, and at the beginning of this week those problems were manifesting themselves in his classroom behavior.

Because he had to be removed by administration, I had to file an office referral. I called the family that night and left a message on their machine giving them the heads up that their son had to be removed since he was so disruptive in class.

Tonight’s call was so beautiful because I got to call this kid’s mom and tell her how incredibly awesome he was today.

I told her how he followed directions in my class, how he stayed focused and did his work; how he was kind and respectful not only to me, but to his peers; how he even offered to put up a girl’s chair for her while she finished packing up.

Before he left for his electives, I pulled the boy aside and told him how proud I was at his engagement level today. I thanked him for being so helpful to others at the end of the day and we established his end-of-day classroom job — to make sure everyone is good to go, that all the chairs are up, and that the classroom is clean. As I told him these things, he stood in front of me, bouncing, beaming.

“You know, I’d really love to tell your mom how you did in class today — does she like emails or phone calls? Is it okay that I tell her how awesome of a day you had?”

“CALL HER! Call her!!!”

We smiled and the boy started to walk away and then quickly turned around to hug me.

Recounting the afternoon’s events, I could feel how happy this mama was. She was thrilled to hear that her son had such a great afternoon with me today, and she was so happy that she wasn’t getting another phone call like the message I had to leave on Monday. She was kind, encouraging, and was up front in letting me know how to contact her in the future if I needed her during the school day. She asked questions about her son’s homework for my class and how she can guide him, and she told me she’s coming to Open House tomorrow night.

There’s something really special about making positive contact with parents. So many times teachers are bogged down with grading (…speaking from the most personal of experiences right now) or planning or even negative classroom behavior that we forget how great it is to let parents know that their kids are fanfreakintastic.

Here’s to you, busy teacher — I know you’ve got a million things on your plate, but why don’t you give a kid’s family a call and let them know something wonderful about their child?

Note: This act is guaranteed to make you smile.