Sunday, June 14, 2015

Things I Learned During the 2014-2015 School Year

A little less than a few weeks ago, my eleventh year of teaching intermediate students came to an end. I must say "intermediate" because I taught fourth graders for nine years and fifth graders for two years. Although every year has been a learning experience, I believe this year taught me the very most because I took risks.

The Maker Movement

Honestly, I have not proclaimed to be a "Maker" for very long (though I've always been one, if you understand what I mean... there just wasn't a term to describe it). Individuals I met about a year and a half ago educated me on what the Maker Movement was, and I heard the term "makerspace" for the first time. Prior to then, I had never heard of the MaKey MaKey, Arduinos, or littleBits. Then I learned about LadyAda from Adafruit and I was mind-blown. Last August, I came into the school year immensely excited to delve into the unknown and initiated the middle school Technology Club (I teach at a K-8 school). I remember setting my sights high at the beginning and by the end, achieving some excellent things while gritting my teeth about others because the Maker Movement is not a minor thing to delve into. It is, to say the very least, immense. 

Last September was when I attended my very first Maker Faire, and this January was when I attended my first Otronicon, both held at the Orlando Science Center. I remember seeing 3D printers at both and not having one in my possession, yet a grant made that possible mid-school year. Then by April and May, I invited in a wonderful sibling of a sixth grader who made video production and green screen technology possible with the group. I had heard about green screen technology since connecting with individuals from Scholastic's Teacher Advisors in 2009, and yes, it took me that long to finally experience how phenomenal it was. 

I was also able to incorporate a technology music group with some of my enthusiasts and a super-epic parent volunteer who did quite a lot for my students this year. I purchased a Yeti microphone, and he utilized all kinds of intriguing musical apps with the students. He also knows a lot about littleBits and was able to really keep his two groups engaged. They met in my alcove one day a week during the middle school study hall period (3:25-3:55).

I think what made the first year of club successful, too, was a wonderful new friend I made who willingly accepted the title of "Technology Club Co-Advisor" not even a month into our friendship. Last year was only my second year at the school, and it's a huge campus, so it took me a while to know who everyone was. She is an eighth grade Language Arts and Spanish teacher, so we never crossed paths before one day by the stairwell when I asked her, "You're ____, right?" I guess the rest was history from there because we have had some grand adventures since that fateful day!

My Technology Club experiences are something I know I can incorporate with my fifth graders next year, and that excites me because I would have jumped for joy having those experiences afforded to me at that age. (I remember being excited over using Print Shop and Oregon Trail as well as programming my Commodore 64 at that age, but that's besides the case, right?) 

I have set some realistic goals for this coming school year: 
  • This summer, I am beginning to learn about wearable electronics, Arduino, and 3D printing so I can help the students to master both next year. I am visiting all kinds of Makerspaces to expand my knowledge as much as possible. 
  • I am speaking to some other individuals in our community about potentially being guest speakers and mentors for those in my club. 
  • We are going to offer quite a bit more than we did during our inaugural year, but fortunately, I feel like I can tackle much more now. 

Take Your Time With Your Students to Make Memories. 

This went for both my fifth graders and middle school Technology Club students. I don't think either of my last two fifth grade classes will ever forget when they dissected cow eyeballs and sheep hearts. There are even specific engineering challenges that will remain in their minds for quite some time because they were still reminiscing about them the last day of school. Some may not even forget when 33-year old me actually ran all four bases in kickball when practicing for their fifth grade championship. It WAS pretty epic because one of the last adjectives one uses to describe me is "athletic". 

One memory from Technology Club will never be forgotten, though-- sleeping under the Space Shuttle Atlantis. I barely slept that night (I actually turned out eating some Samoas at midnight) and felt so exhausted the following day that it wasn't even funny, but the experience was unparalleled. We met astronaut Bruce Melnick and then headed to the Shuttle Launch Experience for a thrilling ride. A few of the individuals there provided us with a phenomenal guided tour. The following day was "on our own" for the most part (except a incredible breakfast and hearing "The Final Countdown" blaring QUITE loudly for our wake-up call, which was beyond humorous), but we headed on the bus tour and marveled at the stunning Saturn V rocket, which never ceases to amaze me. 

I would never trade that experience for the world. It's not just an experience everyone is afforded to have, and I am immensely grateful I made it possible for those in the club.  

I think with both my fifth graders and club members, something that will keep the memories fresh are how many photographs and videos I took this year, which I can share with them in a few years and... reminisce once more.

Expand Your PLN. 

I am always expanding my PLN, which means "personal learning network". (Learn more about what a PLN is here.) It began to build when I had my first teaching domain online in 2005, and it took flight when I met individuals from Scholastic in 2009. Afterward, it strengthened even more when I attended two Tweetups at Kennedy Space Center in 2011 and Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center (which is a part of the Air and Space Museum) in 2012. It expanded even farther when I attended Space Camp for Educators in 2014. 

However, this past year, I felt like I finally understood the power of Twitter and began posting quite a bit more at @love4thgrade than I ever had. I think my desire to learn more about the Maker Movement propelled me, to be honest, but I noticed far more. 

Many of the individuals on Twitter embrace innovation and are forward thinkers. When I had the opportunity to attend my first Edcamp (which was just one week ago), which was EdcampMagic in Orlando, I met some educators who are incorporating Disney in their classrooms and Dr. Howie DiBlasi, who pretty much is the epitome of "awesome". I also met a sensational administrator named Todd Nesloney who worked diligently to bring inspiration to an intermediate school in Texas. Then of course, I reconnected with Krissy Venosdale, who inspired me to come to Twitter in the first place and has enriched my life quite greatly in the past seven or so years, to say the least. 

Twitter (which I called "purposeless" and "insipid" when I signed up in 2009) has turned out to be a sensational tool for connecting with other educators. I have been able to share all kinds of articles about educational inspiration and delve into all kinds of educational reform I never considered trying before. 

Go For It. 

My students won the district science fair this January (we tied with another fifth grade class in the district, actually, which was awesome). I believe it was all because of a risk we took-- constructing a wind tunnel using directions from NASA (which had to be modified, but the framework provided was incredible) and identical model rockets (with the only variance being different nose cones) to test aerodynamic drag. It was one of those projects where immense stress was endured... I am not kidding... because the tunnel did not always behave, but we steadied it so we could get phenomenal results in the long run. It certainly was not an easy project, but... nothing that is epic is all that "easy". 

I also attended yet another conference-- ISTE Orlando. I try to enhance every year with some kind of conference or opportunity to connect with others, and this one certainly did not disappoint. I turned out winning a gorgeous microscope months later... and while there, got to make a life preserver for a toy soldier, learned about black holes with a balloon/aluminum foil, and used electrophoresis to analyze DNA that had been extracted from chips and amplified using PCR. 

Even More Than Before, Presentation Matters. 

Would you want to be a student in your own classroom? I am going to be honest; I could not envision being ten or eleven years old and bored, nor would I want to remotely know what that feels like. Would you want to be lost in the doldrums of a lecture you didn't connect with? 

These past two years in particular are when I learned about the importance of presentation with students. I think the most important thing I learned of all was that not everyone's learning style resonates with your teaching methods. Most importantly, you have to find a way to keep your students engaged. I did as well as possible incorporating kinesthetic, interactive, and relevant experiences-- but after each experience, I did something else I had not done as much in the past-- I evaluated myself. 

I stepped away from some traditional methods, too-- although I used textbooks, I did not let them rule my instruction. Even when using a textbook, I connected the concepts to something my students found important. In math, we made connections to space, being a theme park ride engineer, taking road trips, world records, heights and depths of geographical locations, food, and even Minecraft. In science the connections were even easier to make, but we explored all kinds of careers and scientific research that related to our standards. I incorporated Mythbusters a few times, did over 75 science experiments during the 2013-2014 school year (probably closer to 60 during the 2014-2015 year), and even connected some great concepts in our electricity unit to the MaKey MaKey and littleBits. 

In Conclusion...

Was the year perfect? No. I know there are things I want to do better next year (and without a doubt, I will). Was it productive and exhilarating? Most definitely. 

This year will go down in the books as one that changed me forever as an educator... for the better. 

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