Sunday, January 28, 2018

3 Word Design Challenges

Ignite maker learning in just 3 words.

If you are like most teachers, you are always looking for ways to new engage your students.  Active engagement leads to student learning.  So, how can spark engagement in just 3 words?

The inclusion of engineering design challenges is becoming a part of many classrooms.  Those who embrace the Maker Mindset carefully craft hands-on tasks that will get learners thinking, collaborating, and creating. Developing effective prompts for design challenges can take time and imagination.  I've boiled it down to some 3-word challenges that you can take, adapt, and use in your classroom tomorrow!

Some are specific to engineering certain structures or adding components to an existing design.  Other are more general and could be used for open-ended tasks of any kind.

  • Hack a Toy
  • Build a Bridge
  • Drop an Egg
  • Create a Game
  • Re-purpose a Box
  • Can it Float? 

While these examples are pretty straight-forward, some prompts may require a little more explanation.

Team design challenges have become pretty popular for getting learner thinking critically and solving problems.  These challenges can be done with students or adults with everyday materials.
  • Two Concurrent Towers
    • Give each team a bag of random materials.  Something that can serve as a surface (Styrofoam cup, cardboard scrap), a structure (plastic fork, Popsicle stick) and a connector (pipe cleaners, straws)  Given the materials provided, build two concurrent towers.  You can create additional challenges within the challenge by informing teams that the towers can't use the same exact materials for each tower.  Or at one point in the challenge, you could stop the groups and allow one member from each team to go and steal one item from another table, causing teams to rethink their plan.
  • Ship a Chip
    • As an alternative to the egg drop challenge, teams will need to carefully pack and ship one potato chip to another location with the goal of keeping the chip perfectly intact.  Choose clean recyclable materials including bubble wrap, duct tape, tissue paper, plastic wrap, etc.  If you need a partner school to ship you chip to--please contact me.  We'd be happy to exchange in this challenge with you!
  • Make it Move
    • Again, using some general materials, challenge teams to create a vehicle that can roll across the floor.  Possible materials include index cards, straws, paper clips, Lifesaver candy (or other wheel-like option).  For those who need more explicit directions, check out PBS Kids .
If you are looking for a techy-themed challenge, try these 3-word challenges that require a few more materials.  

  • Create Wiggle Art
    • Using a 3 volt motor, some AAA batteries and a battery pack with wires, teams can create a vibrating bot that, when markers are attached, can create some wiggle art.  You'll also need a plastic cup or other plastic recyclables and some tape.  Here's one version from Lemon Lime Adventures.
  • Shed Some Light
    • Using the bot you created in the prior challenge, add a feature using LED lights.  How can you get your bot to shed some light adding a coin cell battery and pack? 
If you are more of a bookworm, there are design challenges for you and your students too.  
  • A New Setting
    • Reading a good book with your students?  Have them consider how the story would be different if it was in a different setting?  The wild, wild, west.  Undersea.  In a galaxy far, far away.  In the jungle.  Can your students write about it?  SURE, but let's have them create it instead.  Maker challenges can support creativity and collaboration while developing literacy skills, too!
  • Design a Solution 
    • Every great story has a character with a problem that needs solved.  Students can design a solution to help your favorite children's literature character.  Clifford can't get to Emily Elizabeth fast enough, create a vehicle for him.  Charlotte's Web is too sticky, design a new home for her.  Ramona can't take another minute with Beezus, build her a secret clubhouse.  The possibilities for story connections are endless!  Check out my website STEAM Makers for more great ideas.  
I'm sure there are tons of other 3-word challenges out there.  Please share yours! 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

No More Sitting in Auditoriums: 3 Ideas for Remaking Professional Learning

Raise your hand if you are tired of sitting in auditoriums listening to someone lecture for your school district in-service.  OK, now that everyone's hand is up, ask yourself--why, in 2018, is this still happening?  With all that we know about engaging learners (students and teachers) why aren't we infusing more meaningful work into our professional learning?

Not to worry--there are lots of leaders out there who are hacking the traditional professional development model in favor of hands-on learning opportunities that are collaborative and fun!  As I think about planning for some upcoming PD days in the new year I remember what it was like to sit in those auditorium seats as a teacher. I think about how easy it was to disengage, catch up on some reading, or play on my phone. We've all been there.  Instead of draining our educators, let's take advantage of our time together and re-energize our teams during this cold and dreary time of year.

These three ideas might be the shift you need to plan professional learning that fuels your team.

Make it Hands-On
Over the course of the last year, our district has provided opportunities for teachers to learn skills in Maker Education that can be used to enhance instruction in their classrooms.  Through our work with the Beaver County Innovation & Learning Consortium we have shared professional learning with two other area school districts.  Our teams spent time learning about creating LED Wearables, using Virtual Reality in the classroom, and programming with robots through Bird Brain Technology . Hands-on learning engages teachers and creates practical applications to new learning.

Bring Teams Together
Try a team design challenge.  With all that schools districts are doing to promote critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity with our students, we can't forget about developing this within our teachers.  Going out of your comfort zones may be easier with friends and colleagues to support you.  So build those spaghetti towers and tin foil boats! Work as a team to solve problems and learn together.

Connect it to Curriculum
Last spring, we opened our first elementary makerspace.  YAY!  In order to build capacity within our teachers, we offered workshops over the summer where teachers could come into the space and learn a new skill.  While the skills in isolation were valuable, we also took time to connect this new learning to children's literature.  Elementary teachers learned how to solder and weave.  They became cardboard connoisseurs.  Some collaborated on maker activities that connected to the Global Read Aloud.  Others considered how their makerspace learning would enhance a story in their reading series or their favorite children's book.  They explored ways that this hands-on learning fit into the existing curriculum.

So, whether you shake things up with a rock, paper, scissors tournament or a scavenger hunt, let's get our teams active and engaged during in-service.  And while we are at it---can we call in-service something else? (I've never been a fan of that term.)

Consider how you might build camaraderie and bring teams together for some fun in the new year.  Be sure that the professional learning aligns with the curriculum so that teachers can see exactly where the new learning fits in and equip them with some new skills to revitalize their lessons.

No more sitting and listening to lectures.  Let's flip the traditional model of in-service (blah) training and remake our professional learning!

Need help with planning some upcoming professional learning?  Is your team looking to engage teachers in hands-on workshops that build creativity and collaboration?  Check out my workshops at   I'm booking now for summer workshops and keynotes.

Monday, January 1, 2018


OK, so it killed the cat--but curiosity is where great ideas start!

New ideas fuel me.  I get excited to share ideas and talk with other educators about what fuels them.

Sometimes its contagious the way ideas can flow when you surround yourself with curious, innovative people.  So, I've decided that my #oneword for 2018 is CURIOSITY.

In my role as a school district leader, I hope to cultivate curiosity within the schools that I work in--with our teachers, our leaders, and most definitely with our students. 

I wonder:  How might I support passions and new learning?  How might I share new opportunities for growth with teachers?  How might I provide resources for innovative projects for students?

I will say YES to ideas that empower teachers and learners.  I will work to push my own thinking and the thinking of others. 

I hope to cultivate curiosity in myself.  I want to take the time to pursue the things I'm curious about (and not feel guilty about it).  I want to read more, travel more.  I want to spend time talking with people who I can learn from and grow with.  If there is something I was to learn more about--I'm gonna do it!

I hope to cultivate curiosity within my own children.  Active boys, almost 4 and 6 years old, my kids are interested in everything.  They love reading books, building with cardboard, trying out "science experiments", and have already learned some basics of coding.  (You think their mom is into STEAM maybe?? 😊)  My hope is that they never lose that spark!  I hope that new ideas are ignited from their wonderings and that they stay ever-curious.

As I move into this new year.  I will pursue the spark of new ideas.  I will chase my curiosities and encourage you to do the same.

Happy New Year! 

Friday, December 29, 2017

It's All About Relationships

As I reflect on 2017, I think about all of  the people who have I have connected with this year.  Whether meeting an "Edu Hero" or a long awaited face-to-face conversation with a Twitter friend, I am lifted up by the connections that I have with inspiring and supportive people.  Face-to-face conversations with friends and colleagues or long-distance email exchanges, it really is all about the relationships.

This summer, I attended the International Literacy Association Annual Conference in Orlando.  What a jam-packed agenda!  The biggest names in reading were there--truly amazing to listen to so many experts (Fletcher, Richardson, Ripp).  What was even better was meeting some of my Twitter friends in person.  Sean Farnum @magicpantsjones and Jennifer Williams @JenWilliamsEDU were even more friendly and motivating than I could've imagined.  With a big hug from each, it reinforced the importance of a digital #PLN.

This fall I had the pleasure of being a part of a mentoring project with a fellow Compelled Tribe member, Jodie Pierpoint  Talk about a go-getter!  She has orchestrated a phenomenal match up of aspiring administrators and experienced school leaders.  With Twitter chats and webinars, she is facilitating some amazing work.  I am happy to serve as a mentor working with a talented up-and-coming school leader.

With mentoring in mind, I am thankful for the ongoing support I have received from from an accomplished author who reached out to me several years ago after I reviewed one of her books.  Since then, Cathie West and I have corresponded via email about the ups and downs of being a writer.  Though we have never met, her always positive outlook and encouraging words keep me pursuing my love of writing.

Earlier this month, I attended a state conference.  I love presenting at conferences, as I get the opportunity to talk with others about my passion for STEAM and Maker Education.  But with a conference theme of innovative practices, I was grateful to meet some truly remarkable innovators in our field.  Randy Ziegenfuss @ziegeran and Lynn Fuini-Hetten @lfuinihetten shared the awesome work in their school district.  After participating in their podcast earlier this year, it was great to meet in person.  A session on innovative PD with Rich Czyz @RACzyz was a must-see.  High energy and great ideas, meeting Rich was a a highlight of the conference.  I couldn't possibly forget the show-stopper of the conference George Couros @gcouros .  He was incredible!  Honest, inspiring, funny, and encouraging.  It was so great to meet him, after following his work for so many years.

At the conference, I was joined by a team from our district, as well as other educators in our county.  The time spent at the conference strengthened our relationships and allowed us to build new friendships.  Over the course of several days, we talked, learned, and laughed together, which is after all a foundation for a great relationship.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Your Best Self: The Power of a Learning Network

This week I had lunch with a group of teachers from 3 neighboring school districts.  The group is a part of a consortium of educators working in our county to support creativity and innovation in our classrooms.  We had just finished a classroom visit where an eclectic team of teachers planned a lesson together and one implemented it while the co-creators observed.  (Think “lesson study”, but a hacked version that better met the needs of our team.)

The team reflected on the lesson, highlighting the evidence of learning from the students who were engaged in a variety of tasks, all centered on the holidays.  The students collaborated, used technology to research, and discussed their learning.  They persevered through some challenges which resulted in the creation of a cool hands-on project.  Some students succeeded quickly, where others failed and tried again.  Some worked cooperatively, while other worked alone.  Students had voice and choice in where they sat and who they worked with.  It was a very positive visit for all involved, but it was the reflection from the teachers that made it all worth it.  

Over lunch, the team described the way that they worked together as educators.  (This hacked lesson study was a part of a 2 month project with multiple classroom visits.)  They shared how they had texted each other last night with a new twist on the lesson.  They talked about their plans for what they wanted to do next.  They wondered about the possibilities of a classroom swap.  Their enthusiasm was truly infectious!

Keep in mind, these aren’t teachers who knew each other well or were friends outside of this project.  These are teachers from three very different school districts, all teaching completely different subjects and grade levels—elementary, middle school social studies, high school English, and high school biology.  They were assigned to a group to participate in this professional learning endeavor through our consortium, but somehow have come together to become an innovative thinking powerhouse.

The team gushed about the energy they felt during the morning’s lesson.  They marveled over the skills and empowerment that the students demonstrated during the lesson.  They begged (pretty much) to continue working together because they loved the opportunity to visit each other’s classrooms and share insights on how to improve their instruction.  They confessed that they wouldn’t want to work on any other team—that their placement on this team felt so right.  They asked to take on a leadership role within our consortium and were overjoyed at the thought of being able to mentor new teachers coming into the project in the New Year.  They continued to brainstorm ideas and talk about things they wanted to pursue together.  Professional learning is their passion.

As their colleague and “coach”, I am amazed at their drive to become better educators.  I am ecstatic about the possibilities for these teachers to be leaders and learners, but I think one teacher summed it up best when she said:

“When I’m with this team, I’m my best self!”

And that my friends, is the power of a professional learning network.  As you reflect on 2017 and consider what you will accomplish in 2018, I hope that you surround yourself with a team that helps you to become your best self.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

3 Last Minute Gift Ideas for Every Maker

The countdown is on!  Holiday shoppers are beginning to panic!  What last minute gifts are still on your list?  Here are 3 easy, last minute gifts for every young maker.

1.  Create Your Own Maker Kit

Head to the local dollar store.  Spend less than $20 and create a maker kit that every maker with love.
  • craft sticks
  • pipe cleaners
  • balloons
  • plastic cups
  • straws
  • marshmallows
  • tape
  • glue sticks
  • rubber bands
  • construction paper
  • scissors
  • playing cards
  • foam shapes/sheets
  • colored pencils
  • aluminum foil
  • play-doh
  • notebook
  • and basket or bin to hold all the stuff !

2.  Children's Books

There are so many great children's books that support creativity and the maker mindset. These are perfect for teachers, parents, and kids!  Check out my website for a full list of books that support STEAM Maker learning K-12, but here are a few amazing ones:

3.  Duct Tape!

Sometimes a cardboard box is better than the present inside.  The box is the gift--the gift of creativity.  So, buy some duct tape and grab some of those Amazon boxes you tossed into the garage.  Build a race car or a rocket ship or a secret hideout--the possibilities are endless!

Happy Making One and All!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Thanks for the PUSH !

As a part of the Compelled Tribe, I am not always the best at keeping up with our goal to blog every month.  OK, I'm pretty bad at that part, but I love reading the blogs of my colleagues from all over the US.  I appreciate our Voxer group and reflect on those conversations often.  It is the support from this group and others in my life for which I am grateful.  They provide the push I often need, even if they don't know it.

The push comes from  colleagues, friends, and family members, too.  It's the encouragement I often need to keep moving forward that think about my next step, personally and professionally which comes in the form of an encouraging word, an friendly text, or a call-out that holds me accountable.

Accountable towards our work, our vision as a school district, and my pursuit of innovation as an educator and learner.

Its even more interesting when push or a nudge comes from a stranger--well not really a stranger but someone who you've never really met.  If you've ever been lucky enough to hear George Couros speak, then you know he can challenge your thoughts and cause you re-imagine your practices.  He nudges people within his talks--well OK sometimes he downright shoves you!  But in a good way.  In a way that makes you momentarily second guess your stance on things and potentially question your practices.

At a recent conference he blatantly tells a group of school and district leaders--if you didn't bring a device to this session, you are making yourself irrelevant!  He goes on to push the audience further and explains that social media is an necessary tool in the world we live in.  Within a few minutes, a superintendent in the audience who vowed never to join Twitter did just that.  She was pushed out of her comfort zone to try something that she didn't consider doing before.  That was a risk for her but one that will surely pay off in the open communication that she will create in her district and within her personal learning network.

While this superintendent shared this news with the group she had a huge smile on her face, but you could see that she was still nervous about taking this leap.  The reality is, we need to use social media in education to connect with others, build relationships, and share our stories.  As school leaders, we need to model social media use for our teachers and students.  George shared insight from a student he worked with who said, "Social media is like water.  You can either let us drown or teach us to swim."

The superintendent in that session is now taking on this responsibility to teach the students and teachers in her district the power of leveraging social media.  It was the push from a stranger that propelled her forward.  It is that same push that often drives me to Persist Until Something Happens.