A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days – a sobering lesson learned

A brilliant look at the life of a student – it reminds teachers that it just isn’t about the single experience of your classroom, but the overall experience of our educational system.

Granted, and...

The following account comes from a veteran HS teacher who just became a Coach in her building. Because her experience is so vivid and sobering I have kept her identity anonymous. But nothing she describes is any different than my own experience in sitting in HS classes for long periods of time. And this report of course accords fully with the results of our student surveys. 

I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!

This is the first year I am working in a school but not teaching…

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When Students Run a Middle School

Students should be running their middle schools.  If visions of zoo keepers opening all the cages and setting wild animals free or prison inmates busting out of their cells comes to mind, then maybe the idea of a student-centric middle school might be a tough concept to wrap your head around. What if student leaders ran morning meetings and organized team-building activities?  What if students approved iPad apps and personal device usage policies in committees? How about club leadership? Students who are empowered to become working parts of a school create a much healthier and happier middle school environment for all.

When students and faculty work side-by-side to make decisions about the middle school, great things can happen.

When students and faculty work side-by-side to make decisions about their middle school, great things can happen.

One key way middle school students can create a sense of ownership in a middle school is by becoming leaders of club programs. Having choice as part of a middle school schedule is always good for student growth, and when students become the leaders of these clubs, both teachers and students benefit from that relationship. Traditional middle school club structure usually involves a large degree of organization and planning by the faculty member in charge. Giving the students the opportunity to pitch a club idea, to find and recruit students interesting in joining, and then leading the clubs, helps students understand key concepts such as organization, thinking on their feet, and conflict resolution. Teacher advisers can not only learn something about hidden strengths and what their students are interested in, but student leaders can learn valuable time and crowd management skills from veteran faculty who guide them along the way.  Who knew Johnny knew over 100 magic tricks and was able to teach his club members how to do them all? Who would have expected quiet Jenny to perk up when leading a book talk about her favorite book series?

Clubs allow students to take the lead in creation, organization, and goals of the group.

Clubs allow students to take the lead in creation, organization, and goals of the group.

Every middle school on the planet has students who challenge the rules and decisions made on their behalf. It’s in middle school student DNA. A great way to bring students on-board and feel like a valuable part of a middle school is by allowing them to be part of committees. Student perspective can be incredibly valuable, and letting students hear the rationale behind school decisions and choices can be eye-opening to these students. Where in the building can students go during recess? What kind of clothing can be worn during Spirit Week and school dances? A middle school student body is able to swallow limitations and keep up morale when they know they had fellow students advocating for them in the mix during the decision-making process.

Student faculty relationships improve when students feel part of decision-making and creative process.

Student faculty relationships improve when students feel part of decision-making and creative process.

Middle school is a time when many students are trying to find their identity and individuality. Letting students run a middle school doesn’t mean faculty should just pack up and head home after teaching a class or two, leaving their students to tackle the logistics of the school day. When students are empowered to lead their middle school outside of the classroom, not only do students become stronger leaders, but they develop a sense of ownership and community within the classroom. Simply put, they are happier people who begin to connect differently to the faculty who enjoy and work with them eight hours a day, five days a week. The end goal is that their evolving identities develop into that of student leaders, fellow collaborators, and meaningful contributors.

Tech Tool of The Week – Socrative

I am always looking for interesting ways to think about assessment – great post.


Socrative is an awesome formative (and summative) assessment tool for teachers. And, most importantly, it’s free and usable on any web-enabled device.

I have used Socrative in class with students and with parents at an open house. In a previous post I wrote about how great Socrative was, but recent updates have made it even better!  I really like the preset “Exit Ticket.” Socrative also gives you several ways to get the data out of the app.

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It’s an app that is well worth your time to explore.

Let me know what you think. Do you use any other web based tools with your students for formative assessement?

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The New World Engineer

As an educator, I think it is important to re-visit the material and curriculum that we deliver to our students quite frequently to mesh with the changing world.  In the 8th grade at Allendale Columbia, the somewhat traditional Conceptual Physics course has been tweaked into a more authentic and relevant Intro to Engineering in Your World course.  I think it is crucial that our younger students have an accurate notion of what the engineers of today do in the real world. As I sit and think of their engineering role models, I cannot help but cringe – they are either evil villains like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus, or self-centered, self-absorbed pseudo-heroes like Tony Stark.  Let’s not forget the awkward and self-deprecating mechanical engineer Howard Walowitz on the Big Bang Theory. No wonder our young students aren’t rushing to join a profession where they are feared, mocked, or misunderstood.

I am an emerging twitter user, so an intriguing chat from Big Beacon caught my attention.  Big Beacon’s goal is to transform engineering education under the leadership of Dave Goldberg and Mark Somerville.  The world is a changing place, and according to BigBeacon, the world is ready for a whole new kind of engineer. I’ve read their education manifesto, and it is inspiring to an educator like me.  It’s incredible to think what kind of place the world will be in 2030 and that our youngest students will be facing challenges of which we cannot remotely conceive.

When the twitter feed said there would be a twitter chat starting soon with a topic of the depiction of engineers in popular culture, I was strangely drawn to it.  I’m not an engineer, but I’m married to one, so I’ve had many conversations with my husband over the years about the stereotype of the profession.

Following #bigbeacon, I followed along as the host, Stefan Jaeger, Author of The Jackhammer Elegies, posted the questions.  It was an incredible professional development experience to listen to present and past engineers, almost-engineers, educators, and innovators talk about the way the engineer profession is portrayed.  Having been a middle teacher of 20 years, I cannot help but wonder how many students are turned off from an engineering path as they head off to college. I’m only a small part of the equation, but I will reflect how my own classroom discussions and practices might just influence that new world engineer.

First May Term for Allendale Columbia Middle School

MS May Term 2013

As I walked through the halls between my own sessions, I couldn’t help but smile seeing the flurry of activity on campus. This buzz of activity had purpose, not unlike a hive of intently working bees on a warm spring day.  This was a first time attempt at a May Term, and for us, the week long endeavor was filled with excitement, nervousness, and anticipation.

Walking through the halls was much like that of a movie set, walking from scene to scene. In the Library, students were engaged in Scratch programming. Two or three students are  huddled around the same computer, with phrases like “Cool!”, or “How’d you do that?” coming from the various clusters.  Walk a few steps more, and there is a stage set up down the hall on the Middle School steps. An actual movie set was created, complete with green screen, cast, and scene retakes. Glancing…

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National Science Bowl – A New Coach’s Perspective

Reflecting on our team’s experience today during the U.S Department of Energy‘s National Science Bowl Electric Car Race, I cannot help but smile be so grateful and honored to be part of such a wonderful experience. The coordinators and volunteers that organize this enormous event went above and beyond to make this entire event enjoyable and meaningful to every single student and coach that participated.  From the time and house keepers, to the meal makers and judges, this was the most well organized and welcoming event that I have ever been a part of. Like these cars, this organization ran like a finely tuned machine. Despite there being over 100 middle and high school teams from all over the country, the people here knew us personally, and treated us like welcomed guests.

It was heartwarming to see that the Coordinators took the time to read every single student biography. They welcomed students who mentioned they were singers to sing the National Anthem at the opening of the car races.  They even let our own student, JT, talk about his experience as professional car racer in front of the entire crowd. These are experiences that these students will never forget, and it was clear that this competition is much more than just science facts and car races.

This was Allendale Columbia‘s first time winning our Regional competition and advancing to Nationals, we came in having no expectations other than having a good time and watching some amazing schools do some pretty remarkable things.  After our design document review Friday night, Allendale Columbia was thrilled to advance to the top 6 design documents. We learned we would have to present in front of the entire Middle School student/coach audience, and in front of judges for a presentation score. A coach couldn’t be more proud to see a group of students take that risk to get up in front of an audience and put their knowledge and work up for review and judgement, especially by their own peers. Watching the other schools was such a valuable learning experience for both my students, but also for me as a coach.  I learned how to prepare my students better in the future if we are lucky enough to quality and advance again.

As a coach, what I liked the most about the National Science Bowl National Competition is that it had something for everyone. The academic bowl let students shine in their knowledge, mathematical, and recall skills. The electric car design let students become engineers and showcase their drawing, planning, and team work skill.  As for the electric car race, students were able to learn via play, and the energy and enthusiasm coming from these students was real and tangible.

As a coach, I can say that I will walk away from this changed forever. I met some great educators and wonderful students from all over the country. I learned a bit about competition at this incredibly high level, and I learned that I want to come back next year.

The Science Bowl was kind enough to take some great picture of our team; you can see them below.

Nate and JT working on electric car

Allendale Columbia during Academic Competition

The Team during Academic rounds

One Week until Nationals

It’s been an exciting month and a half since the Allendale Columbia Science Bowl team won the Western New York Regional Science Bowl Competition. It’s all uncharted territory with the team designing their competition car.  The  23 page Design Document, complete with diagrams, pictures, components, design decisions, and most importantly, “What we Learned” section, is on a thumb drive and in the mail. The car, ready for race day, was wrapped in bubble wrap with last minute tuning and inspecting.  Instead of pencils and paper, the team has been carrying around hot glue guns, electrical tape, and graphite powder. The team has learned so much more than a bit of engineering. Here’s my top 3 things we have realized as a team before we set foot on this amazing journey to Nationals next week.

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1) Education doesn’t always happen from a teacher in a classroom. From the shop of the Maintenance Department to the advice of John Frame from Roc Euro, students got away from the desks and in front of a soldering iron and a hole saw. Diameters and circumferences were measured, not in terms of worksheets and sample problems, but in trying to figure out if the car is wobbling due to a wheel size difference. Mr. Mulcahy taught Nate how to use calipers, Mr. Pittinaro taught Danielle how to solder, and Mr. Dardzinski taught the entire team the skill of “engineering on the fly”.

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2) The measure of success does not depend on the team with the newest design idea, or the most well researched car concept. It literally has to do with measure. The team car might not have been the most unique concept, but due to precise measuring, re-measuring and care during construction – our car works.  At Nationals, sometimes cars don’t. Nothing is more rewarding that having a crooked car test the patience and tenacity of the team, except maybe the look on their faces when they troubleshoot and solve the problem themselves.

3) Mentors are important. Textbooks and online resources can give you every formula you’ll ever need learn what is “theoretically” the best choices for building the car. However, in the end, it’s the years of practical experience of doing and building that also should be considered. I cannot tell you how many times I heard the students say about the Maintenance Department, “How’d they know that?” without picking up a calculator, ruler, or checking an online source of information.

As a team, we are excited. Each team member had a role, a strength, a fear, and a failure. We’re in this together, and I am more than confident that these students will represent Allendale Columbia incredibly well. Wish us luck.

A New Team Mentor for Science Bowl

Today, students on Allendale Columbia’s  National Science Bowl Team had a meeting. This meeting was for our Lithium-Ion car battery powered competition at Nationals on April 25-29.  After winning the Western New York Regional Competition in early March, the team has been given the task of building the fastest car. The motor, battery, and dimensions are all provided by the competition. The team has been in brainstorming mode, with plenty of design ideas but no real cohesion. We needed a meeting to help bring it all together. We were incredibly lucky to have John Frame meet with our team.  John is a friend of our art teacher Mrs. Oliveri, and is from Rochester Performance Euro.

Our team of five sat around a table in the Digital Art Lab and began to talk shop. John started by telling the team about the importance of the, “3 R’s” – Reduce, Relax, and Rework. Having him work with the team was invaluable. The team had an experienced designer, engineer, and innovator at their fingertips. I talk to the team as their teacher and coach about the science behind what they are trying to accomplish. However, nothing is more valuable than having someone with real word experience to turn our meeting into an authentic design session.



The team came away with two great pieces of advice from John. First, “there is no “NO” in engineering.”  We chatted about the Apollo 13 mission and getting the astronauts back to Earth after the mechanical failure. There can be successful failures, like the Apollo mission, as well as the engineering of what seems like the impossible. Second, “be accepting of peer review”. The team now has a focus, a plan, and a mission. John was generous enough to offer to re-visit when the team begins testing the actual car. He has and will continue to serve as a valuable mentor for the team.  These future engineers and scientists really respond to role models, especially those who take the time to connect with them.

Heart, Head, Hand Project

Allendale Columbia has a wonderful community service program called the Heart, Head, Hand Project. Although I teach at Allendale Columbia, I am not directly involved in this project, other than that I have a 5th grader, the grade in which this wonderful experience takes place.  Students are encouraged to think about an issue that touches their Heart.  Using their Head, they then think of a way that they can help, and finally, the project comes to fruition with their Hands. It’s a wonderful concept, and over the years, I have witnessed students doing outstanding things. This year, my son has been brainstorming ideas for his project. A parent has to be proud when he came up the idea of beginning a letter writing campaign for the children of those deployed in the military.  After some initial research, he contacted a wonderful woman named Theresa, at the National Military Family Association.  She made an outstanding suggestion to send the letters and cards of support along to Operation Purple Camps, where children come together for support and fun over the summer.

As my son gets older, he is beginning to understand the importance and effective of social media to communicate.  He asked that I post this on his behalf.  Thank you for reading.  Below is the letter he drafted to get support for his project.  Who knows how far it will go.

My name is Matthew Duver, and I am a 5th grader at Allendale Columbia School, in Rochester New York. For a class project called Heart, Head, Hand , I was thinking that it would be nice for kids to send letters to kids whose parents are in the military and away from home to show them support. There is a summer camp called Operation Purple where the kids can go to be together for the summer and share what it is like to have their parents be away. I want to send letters to those kids so they can open them over the summer. If you know a kid who would like to join me in my project, they can send cards, letters and coloring they write to me at school, and I will send them to the right place. Or if you know my mom, you can just give it to her.

Matthew Duver
c/o Allendale Columbia School
519 Allens Creek Road
Rochester, New York 14618

Importance of Play in S.T.E.M Coursework

In order to best prepare our young scientists with the best chance of success in the S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses, a style that is open-ended and looks for diversity in solutions is always key to student enjoyment. An approach of empowering students to make their own choices rather than a structured and uniform path often leads to creative and innovative solutions to problems presented in the classroom.

I teach 6th grade Environmental/Earth Science and 8th grade Conceptual Physics at Allendale Columbia School in Rochester, NY.  In both courses, engineering is a powerful conduit for teaching math and science and should be introduced as early as possible. K’Nex has become one of my favorite pieces of lab equipment. In combination with other equipment, the 8th graders created their own pan balances, which are scales with two flat surfaces, made completely out of K’Nex. With string, pennies and a set of metric balances, students construct their own lab apparatus to accomplish the task of experimenting with mechanical advantage and levers. Once their scales were built and ready to go, the students measured out pennies and recorded the weights, putting their scales to the test. I enjoy how it brings out many elements of the education process; fine motor skills, precision in construction, teamwork, constructive criticism, and full student engagement. Students then were challenged to create a “better” scale, and more collaborative work was set into motion. K’Nex even has a great place for educators to find lessons plans to get those creative juices flowing.

For an 8th grade physics course, play in easily incorporated with every lab. From engineering race cars powered by a single rubberband, to creating an egg drop contraption to learn about free fall and air resistance, students have authentic learning experiences through success and failure.  As a teacher, I’ve set a new goal for myself to toss out the labs that have a finite set of instructions with a predicable result. I am sure there is a time and place for that sort of activity, but in my classroom, I would much rather see the students tackle problem solving, risk, failure, and most importantly, resilience.

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