Jul 14


I just wrapped a month of teaching at a summer that was focused on the Engineering Habits of Mind. Each week-long session gave students an opportunity to engage in a variety of challenges as we introduced them to different areas of engineering. Though we had many boys participating in the camp, we had quite a few girls in attendance as well. During our first two weeks we had younger students (entering grades three-five) and saw more females during those weeks, all of whom were rather excited to be there. The older girls (entering grades six-eight) were not quite as enthusiastic, though that quickly changed as the week progressed. It was an interesting opportunity to see how the interests and attitudes of female students can change after they exit third grade.

This video made the rounds in the past few weeks and it’s a great reminder for parents to encourage children to embrace what they are passionate about. As an educator, it’s a reminder to find ways to bring those passions into the classroom and not get caught up in typical gender roles.

At a school where STEM education is the norm, it’s easy to find girls and boys participating equally in engineering projects. The young children I work with are eager to engage in most of the challenges we put in front of them. The girls are not at all reluctant and often prefer to work with other girls so that the boys don’t ‘take over’ and keep them from participating equally. :) The difficulty for me has been in finding ways to integrate engineering in a meaningful way and still have time to address all of the standards I am charged with teaching. I know that these are powerful opportunities for my girls (and boys too, of course!) and find that it makes PBL even more important. That’s really the only way to make it all happen.

Many of the challenges we presented during the camp can be used in the classroom as well so I’m going to share some of those in my next several posts…

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Jun 13


The end of the school year is a great time to reflect on how far we’ve come. This is something we spend time on in the spring, during student led conference season, but it can often get lost in the hustle as the year comes to a close. During the last week, I like to spend some time asking my students think about the growth they’ve made and to really think about the people with whom we’ve just spent much of our year. As a class, we really do spend more time with each other than we do our own loved ones. We don’t always get along and often disagree or get downright frustrated with each other. We are human, after all.

But at the end of the day, we have become a family and this is when it starts to sink in that we won’t have any more days with each other. For some children, the stress of that can lead to some pretty difficult behavior and then there’s just that general feeling of enough, already ~ is it summer yet?! Having some fun is an important element for ending the year on a positive note and reminiscing about our time together reminds us of all of the highs we’ve shared so I have a couple of traditions I like to share with my students to help facilitate that.

On our last day, we set up the desks in a big rectangle, with all of us facing each other at the center and I give each student a sheet of white construction paper. I ask them to write their name in large letters in the center and perhaps include the school year and what grade they are in for this one last day. The placement and size of their name is important so that we can all recognize whose paper we’re writing on. Other than that, I don’t ask that they all detail their papers exactly the same way because I’m big on the idea of ‘it’s your paper so make it work for you’. I think students appreciate (and need!) that flexibility and often find that they come up with much better variations than what I thought up. Some of them like to get really creative, like in Ava’s example above, and others prefer to keep it simple.

Once all of the papers are set up, I share what we’ll be doing with them and my expectations during the activity. Papers will be passed to the left and with each new paper, students will have 30-45 seconds to write something positive about its owner and include their own name, like a signature. Ideas might include:

  • a compliment
  • a funny memory
  • a thank you for something nice she did
  • a wish for the future
  • something about her that impressed you

I encourage them to write something specific for each person and not just a generic statement like “you’re cool!” Easier said than done for some children, especially given the time they have with each paper – but the overall message is this: even if you don’t always get along with this person, she has some great qualities that you can focus on and/or there has been something positive that happened with her during the year that you can mention. Some children will still write “you’re cool” but really, it’s okay as long as they’re not all doing it.

We take a couple of minutes to brainstorm ideas about what we might write and then dive in. I generally set a timer to help keep me on track and the kids know to pass to the left when they hear it sound. We start with 45 seconds but once they get in the groove and I notice them finishing up before the timer, I scale back to 30 seconds. Keep in mind that I have third graders so you may wish to adjust if you have a different age group.

My favorite part of it all is seeing their smiles as they excitedly read what their classmates have written, some reading the messages aloud or showing them to their neighbors. As times, they even approach each other and say, “I forgot all about that” or “Do you really think I’m smart?” It’s pretty great to watch.

This year, one of my boys came up to me and was very upset that some of the kids didn’t take the “be thoughtful” direction to heart. “I wrote really specific comments, Ms. Gannon and some of these are just not thoughtful at all!” I couldn’t help but smile and tried to explain that it’s not always easy for everyone to think of something to write that quickly but before I could finish, he stomped off. He came back to me a short time later, to tell me that he had asked them to “do better” and that he was very pleased with their revisions. He was beaming.


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During the last 45 minutes of the day, we sit together in a circle of chairs (no tables this time) and continue the love. Referring back to the activity we did earlier, I remind them of all we’ve shared this year and ask them to say a thank you to a classmate or two. No pressure – you only have to share if you want to. And I ask that they not focus on me since they have lots of opportunities to do that throughout the year. I want this to be a time focused on them and the relationships they have built with each other. Things generally get started slowly but as they listen to one another, more and more hands go up. Sometimes there are tears. This year, we had LOTS of tears – very passionate thank yous for “asking to be my partner” or “helping me when I really needed a friend” or “talking to me when no one else would.” Really sweet stuff.

As an educator, I have much to teach these little people. Academics aside, there are so many other things I hope they will learn during our time together. These are proud moments for me because I can see how much they’ve come to rely on and trust in each other. All the fighting and bad feelings have passed (for the time being, anyway) as they share their genuine appreciation for each other. Just like in our own families ~ we may not always get along but we have each others’ backs. We will always have this experience in common, along with all the good memories that come with it. Today the low points are much less important and that helps us to walk away feeling good about the time we had together in Room 608.


How do you wrap up your school year? Do you have traditions that you like to share with your students?

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Jun 06


Over the years, I have experimented with a number of different classroom management strategies but I keep going back to the same system of classroom money. It is easy for me to manage, helps develop responsibility and, best of all, the children really enjoy it. I’ll get into more about how it all works in another post but for now I’d like to focus on our swap meets.

Most kids have things at home that they no longer use or need so this gives them an opportunity to do something we feel is very important: to reduce, reuse, and recycle. With permission from their parents, students bring in items they want to sell and set up a ‘store’ complete with price tags and, often, signage. I leave this all up to the children so that they can make decisions about what works well for them. It’s a great opportunity for real problem solving, especially because we have several swap meets throughout the school year.

It’s interesting to see how they adjust their salesmanship from month to month. They make lots of discoveries about consumer demand and how to price things, often mirroring things they see in the stores – or even deals they wish existed in the stores. They partner up with friends they know they can trust and work together to create appealing displays. Sometimes they bundle items that logically go together and call out things like, “Don’t miss this great deal!” and “Who wants to take home this awesome game?”

These swap meets (and the money system in general) are a great way to teach students about economics in a very real way. They repeatedly count money and make change, offering the children a chance to practice valuable math skills. At the start of the year, they can set up a store for free but, as time passes, I ask them to pay for their sales space – just as you would do if you were going to rent a stall at a real swap meet. Most of them become very good at managing their money and learn the value of saving so that they’ll have lots to spend when the next swap meet comes up. They also have to make decisions about what they really want to spend their money on and can actually afford.

Some are very focused on sales and on earning as much money as possible, while others enjoy the shopping aspect of it. They are also incredibly generous with each other, offering freebies as selling time runs out and often make purchases for siblings and parents ~ excited to bring joy to someone else. They walk around the room, proudly sharing their bags full of treasures. It’s all so great to watch and teaches me a lot about them as well.

For some real life, hands-on learning in mathematics and economics, consider having a classroom swap meet yourself! Even if you don’t use a money system, you could try it out as a shorter-term project. Students can learn a lot from the experience but also really look forward to it. And that enjoyment goes a long way toward creating an engaging classroom environment.

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May 27


I’m still a bit shocked. On May 22, the DEN hosted their annual DENny Awards, where they honor STAR Discovery Educators in several different categories. I am proud to say that I was one of four STARs who were given the RJ Stangherlin Award for ‘Best Individual DEN Blogger’. What an honor to be recognized by a community of educators that I really admire!

You can view the complete (archived) ceremony by clicking here. The category I was recognized in begins at about 31 minutes.

Thank you so much DEN!

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May 22

As we began to dig into our study of data collection and graphing, I realized quickly that my students didn’t have a lot of experience setting up their own graphs on graph paper. This became the perfect opportunity to engage the children in taking a closer look their work and creating some guidelines together for what a quality graph should look like. Read on to learn more about our journey…

For Valentine’s Day, I gave the kids Skittles Valentines and we used them to engage in a mini graphing project. They created tally charts of the colors found in their own packages.


Then they shared their numbers with the other children at their table and tallied the colors they had as a group. We had some discussion about the most and least common colors within their group and as a whole class as well.


Each student took the data their group collected and turned it into a bar graph. Once the graphs were completed, we hung them up on the board and looked at them as a group. The children made observations about what made the graphs “look good” and about what made them hard to read. We were careful to refer to a graph by its location rather than name the student who created it.

I should also mention that discussing student work is something we do often so we have some protocols for how to do this in a positive way that isn’t hurtful. I believe this is essential to creating a safe, supportive classroom environment.


Our discussion led to the creation of the student generated rubric shown below. I like to take each aspect of the graph one at a time. I ask for a suggestion about what would make a graph a ‘3’ (proficient in terms of third grade standards) and then ask them what that same quality would look like in the ‘1’ category. For example, the first quality for a 3 is ‘neat, careful coloring’ and, in contrast,  a ‘1’ is ‘messy and not colored completely in’. This method helps students clearly articulate the difference between an effective graph and one that doesn’t quite meet the mark.


This is a somewhat lengthy process but SO very worth your time. We don’t detail what a ‘2’ graph looks like but all of the discussion we have about the ‘3’ and ‘1’ really makes that unnecessary. They can all look at their own graphs and evaluate them using the rubric. Even better, they know exactly what can be done to improve their work – making a ‘3’ very much within their reach. We refer to that rubric often when making graphs and the work they created after developing it was a huge improvement over what they did at the start of the unit. Buy-in from students is high when we use these  rubrics because they have been a part of deciding on their own grading criteria.

Here’s an example of a ‘2’ graph with student suggestions to help the group achieve a ‘3’ the next time:


And here’s a ‘3’. Even a ‘3’ has room for some improvement so you’ll see a couple of suggestions on this one as well! The Engineering Design Process is always at work in our classroom. :)


Do you ever find yourself feeling frustrated that your students just don’t seem to know how to improve their work? Give student generated rubrics a try!

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May 02

Last night I attended a teacher event at the North Carolina Museum of Art. This is the second such event I have attended at the museum and they never disappoint! This one was focused on the connection of visual arts with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and offered hands-on stations where teachers could explore activities and projects for use in their own classrooms.

In my favorite session of the evening, we created little bird nests out of floral wire and a bunch of other decorative items, modeled after Patrick Dougherty’s installation that hangs in the museum restaurant.


The basic idea behind the lesson is to learn about different nests and what they tell you about the birds who live in them. A couple of books that were suggested are:

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Students then create smallish nests using floral wire and adorn them with their choice of decorative items like pipe cleaners, raffia, string, paper scraps, and feathers.

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The nests were so much fun to create and can be so varied. In doing this with students, they should be able to talk about their nests, explaining the reasoning behind the items they chose to add and describing the kind of bird that would inhabit it. I see possibilities for narrative writing, nature walks to search out real nests and photograph them, compare and contrast of their nests…


In addition to all of the great lesson ideas and teaching strategies you will leave with, they really spoil us at these events. They have terrific food set out for you to graze on and all kinds of beverages, beer and wine included. Awesome, right?! This makes for a great opportunity to do some networking with all of the other educators who have attended. As you leave, they send you off with a set of 8 full color, poster sized works of art for use in your classroom in addition to a little bag with other helpful resources.

I have attended similar teacher events at the North Carolina Museum of History and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences that were equally helpful. If you are not in the Raleigh area, check out the museums near you and get on their mailing lists! Museums all over the country love to share with educators and really want you to visit and see what they have to offer to help you bring the arts into your classroom.


Apr 26

Discovery Education puts on these fantastic events called VirtCons. They offer educators an opportunity to hear from some of the DEN’s best on a wide range of topics, all from the comfort of your couch. I participated in today’s VirtCon in my pajamas. Awesome. All sessions are available in video form afterwards so you don’t have to miss out on any of the greatness.

My favorite session of the day was about effectively using iPads with students with Autism. Here’s the blurb from DE about her session:

Using the iPad Functionally with Students with Autism
presented by Sam Blanco
Many learners with autism are highly motivated by the iPad. This presentation will focus on how to utilize that motivation to gets students interacting with you while using the iPad functionally.

You’ll learn how to set up guided access, teach students to use the iPad appropriately, and make good decisions about when to use this technology. She suggested that teachers should not to use an app that they have not mastered themselves and offered some great resources for evaluating apps. Her steps for introducing the iPads are terrific! I found so much of it helpful – for students with Autism, of course, but for classroom management in general.

Be sure to check out Sam’s website because it has tons of helpful information and resources. Here’s a bit more about her from her blog:

Many educators struggle to find motivating items for students with autism. Through ten years of experience and teaching well over 400 students, I have a unique ability to help teachers learn how to find motivating materials. My mission with this site is to help educators understand how to thoughtfully integrate games, toys, and technology for students with autism and other developmental delays. On rare occasions I will feature materials that are specifically designed for learners with special needs, but the primary focus is to utilize mainstream games, apps, and books to teach skills and provide more opportunities for social interactions with peers and siblings. 

This is also not a traditional review site. Everything featured on this site is stuff that I actually use with my students. You won’t find negative reviews or information about materials that I couldn’t successfully use.



Apr 02

One of the blogs I find myself visiting over and over again is TeachThought. It’s terrific!

The blog set up is simple ~ easy to navigate and search for topics you are interested in. They offer great suggestions for technology tools and the kind of innovative thinking that helps teachers to step outside the box to meet the needs of all kinds of learners in new ways. You can subscribe to the blog and receive updates via email or follow them on Twitter or Facebook.

A bit more about the blog from their About page:

TeachThought, LLC is a progressive learning brand dedicated to supporting educators in evolving learning for a 21st century audience.

Most visibly, this starts with thought leadership and practical solutions for K-20 teachers via the TeachThought blog. It then extends to our design of learning models, curricula, technology, apps, and other learning tools to experiment with a combination of utopic opining and data-driven and research-supported thinking.

TeachThought is primarily interested in exploring new learning models, including blended learning, project-based learning, self-directed learning, and the role of play in learning while also supporting existing K-20 educators as they seek to improve their own craft in practice today. So, a balance of reality and possibility.

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Mar 23

Weather conditions over the past couple of months have created unsafe road conditions that have, in turn, closed our schools down for almost two full weeks. This creates problems for students but also for their parents, who often can’t go to work because they have to stay home with their children. We are looking at this problem in our current STEM project.

ASK: How can humans interact more safely with icy surfaces?

IMAGINE: We used DE video segments from the Frozen Planet series to help us think about how animals interact with icy surfaces. I created this video to explain a bit more (and to serve as part of my application for the DEN Summer Institute).

More on the rest of the project, coming soon!

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Mar 19

As we continue to work on improving the descriptive detail in the kids’ writing, I thought it would be fun to integrate some art.

Using a piece from the ArtNC website called The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, we started with a VTS-style discussion about the painting. The purpose of the discussion was to get the children to look more closely at the image and take note of all of its details. One at a time, the children talked about the specific things they saw in the work, at times building on what someone else said or sharing a new discovery. I pushed them to provide further details if they offered a vague statement but for the most part, they noticed things I hadn’t even seen.

I have a poster of the work but thought it would be easier for them to see if I projected it from my computer. At some point, one of the kids asked if they could pull it up on their iPad somehow because the darker parts were hard to see… brilliant! The best thing about them having the painting right there in front of them was the ability to zoom in and see smaller parts of it with much more clarity than I could offer on the big screen. When a student mentioned a specific part of the piece, we could all go to it together, just like we do when we analyze a piece of text. Next time we do a VTS lesson, I will make sure it’s on a day when we have the iPads!

For the second part of the lesson, we made a T-chart in our writing notebooks. We titled the left side Nouns and I set the timer for three minutes, asking them to list all the nouns they could see in the painting independently. After the time went off, we spent another three minutes sharing words as a group. This gave us a chance to add to our own lists and check to make sure that all of the nouns were, in fact, nouns. We repeated the same process with a list of Adjectives on the right side and looked for more ‘juicy’ versions if a more common adjective was provided.


With our lists complete, I presented the challenge of a Six-Word Story. “What?! You can’t write a whole story in six words!” was the immediate response. “How is that even possible?” “Does it have to be a sentence?” After some discussion and a bit more complaining (okay, a lot more) they got to work. As they came up with their initial stories, I offered to tweet them on our classroom Twitter page. This always motivates them in a way I can’t quite explain. You can visit our feed for more but here are a few of our favorites:


I realized as I was typing up their stories that I had forgotten to tell them that they could ONLY use the nouns and adjectives from their list. Oops. There wasn’t enough time remaining to do that today so as we revise, I will ask them to do just that. I do like to give them freedom to alter assignments to suit their own style but I think in this case their writing would have been stronger and more descriptive if they eliminated all the other words.

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