Monday, May 1, 2023

Let's Design It

How many times have you overhead a student sigh and say, “I’m just not that creative”? Some students do not think that creative thinking is within them. (Maybe some of us educators feel the same way.) Coming up with creative designs isn’t easy for everyone, but we can develop these skills through practice.

If we want to develop our creativity, we need to build our creative agility. Just like an athlete needs to stretch, exercise, and practice the sport or skill that they want to get better at, so must we. The more time we spend flexing our creative muscles, the stronger our creative thinking will be.

Engineering Design

One way that we can engage students in creative design is through the engineering design process. There are several different models that use various steps, but at the heart of the process are these five ideas:

ASK: Students need to think with curiosity about the things around them and ask questions. They can identify problems that need to be solved within the constraints provided.

IMAGINE: With a problem in mind, students can brainstorm possible solutions. Using design thinking, they can begin to consider which solution might best address the problem.

PLAN: In the planning phase of the process, students might sketch a plan, list their materials, or begin to map out their ideas in more detail.

CREATE: Now it is time for students to access their tools and materials to make or build their prototype.

IMPROVE: With a prototype designed, students will test their creation and see if it worked. With feedback from others, they will take steps to improve their prototype.

Design and Creativity

The more students engage in the engineering design process, the more they will get comfortable with the process of coming up with lots of ideas and designing multiple iterations of things. Engineering and design challenges allow students to think about problems and solutions. They can explore different places and situations where problems can occur and determine potential solutions to problems. By fostering creativity in our classrooms, we can unlock the power of imagination with our students.

Sometimes the engineering design process can be in response to a story or a planned prompt. We can create tools that prompt student design experiences. The grid below can offer a guided opportunity for students to create something new to fit within certain parameters. Some students will enjoy this structure, while others might prefer the freedom to create and design on their own. This provides one option for learners who may need some support as they build their stamina for creativity.


How might you use this with students?

  •  Choice Board-students can use this template and choose one item from each column as a prompt for their design challenge.
  • Partner Challenge-print out copies of the template and have students partner up. Each partner will secretly choose and circle  the items that they want their partner to design. Then they can switch back their papers and start designing!
  • Play 4 Corners-Explain to students that they will play a game to determine what they will design for their challenge. Make a note on your copy of the template, randomly assigning A, B, C, and D to an item in each column. Allow students to choose a corner for each of four rounds. Once they get up and choose a corner of the room, announce what each corner will focus on. At the end of four rounds students will know what four items they need to consider in their design. For example, a bike with lots of controls that can float in an underground cave.

 Be sure to encourage students to share or present their creations. Designing “for fun” can be a great way to get students thinking flexibly and trying new materials. Activities like these can spark the imagination and allow students to move outside of their comfort zone. Not only can we engage them in the engineering and design process, but also encourage them to build their creative agility in the classroom.

If you are looking for more challenges/templates like this one, check out this recent post to prompt creative design. You can use lots of different strategies to promote creativity at any grade level.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Create It Challenge

If you are like me, you are always looking for new and interesting ways to engage your students. No matter what grade level you work with or what subject area you teach, it is helpful to have some things in your “bag of tricks” that will spark creativity and offer students the opportunity to think, design, and make.

It is even better when the ideas that we collect in our trick bag are universal and can be used in many ways and with lots of different learners. For example, in this Create It challenge we can use a simple template (below) to inspire some creative making. This can be used within an English Language Arts class, in a STEM/STEAM classroom, or in a library/makerspace. There are so many places where we can connect making to the curriculum.

The challenge template can be used as a whole group lesson or in a learning center. It can be an individual task, a partner activity or completed in a small group. The template can be laminated and placed in a maker corner or can be a “free choice” activity in the classroom.  Let’s explore some ways to use this challenge.


I have used this activity with kindergarten and first grade students, using play dough to create an animal from a story that was read aloud. Fun animal books like Panda-monium at Peek Zoo or Giraffes Can’t Dance are perfect for this creativity challenge. After reading the story, students can create an animal from the book, or use the grid below to create something a little more unconventional.

 With students at this level, let’s make it a game. Have students fold their paper in half and then half again creating four rectangles. In each section, students will choose any number 1-4 and write it.

After selecting their numbers, this student would work to create an insect (3) with glasses (2), that can sing and dance (3) somewhere in your neighborhood (4). With students choosing different number combinations, who knows what their creations will look like!

Upper Elementary

In a 4th grade classroom, students are working on adding dialogue to their writing. They are also using tools like Makey-Makey and Lego Build the Change in their STEM classes. This creative challenge could offer an opportunity to integrate both.

Students can choose one item from each column on the grid to create one animal character. Then they can connect with one partner who has selected a different animal/character. Together, they can create a scene where the two animals engage in dialogue. The students can construct their characters out of cardboard, other recyclables, or building bricks. Each partnership can create movement, lights, or sounds to enhance the interaction between their characters.

Middle Level

This tool could also be used with middle level learners. In a 7th grade class, I shared the book The Secret Seahorse. It is a vibrantly colored book that explores ocean plants and animals. The illustrations are made out of fabric with buttons, ribbons, and sequins creating bold details in each creature. The middle school students then wrote their own narrative stories about animals with an end goal to illustrate and read their stories to their “book buddies” in first grade.

For a different twist, middle school students could use the challenge grid to select their main character, details and setting for their story. Better yet, they might let their buddies do the choosing! The older students can draft the story. The younger students can work on creating creatures out of recycled fabrics and other sewing materials. Then, the partners can come together to create a fabric book of the story.

I call this type of learning, Remaking Literacy. When we add design, engineering and hands-on making to our literacy instruction, we provide a more meaningful and connected learning experience for students. Not only does this approach promote collaboration and communication, but it also taps into creative thinking.

Challenges like these can be used and reused over time, since students can come up with different combinations every time. You might also add a few more rows or even columns of your own.

PS. I plan to share several other versions of this in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!

The 30 Circles Challenge is another idea that can be added to your trick bag. This simple template can be used to spark creativity but can also be used to connect to different content areas. We can build our students’ ability to think outside of the box and look at problems in new and unique ways.

If you are looking for more ways to build creative habits, check out my books Unlock Creativity: Open a World of Imagination With Your Students. I have book study questions and activities available for any school team that buys more than 15 books.

For more ideas, follow me on Twitter @DrJacieMaslyk or subscribe to my website

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

3 Ways Kids Can Help Our Earth

 It’s springtime! We are spending more time outdoors and appreciating all that comes with spring weather. Flowers are growing, birds are singing, and animals are visiting our yards. Seeing the signs of springtime also means that Earth Day is coming.

One part of being a positive global citizen is doing our part to help the world around us. Taking care of our world can mean doing things within homes or neighborhoods. Sometimes it means taking responsibility for our schools and towns. We can also expand that view with our students and encourage them to think about our country and other countries across the globe. 

In the book, 10 Things I Can Do To Help My World, Melanie Walsh shares some simple ways that we can get students thinking about ways they can make a difference. Not only will this book encourage young learners to think beyond themselves, it will also promote sustainability, conservation, and recycling. It is a great book to share with students as we approach Earth Day.

This post will share ideas from Walsh’s book as well as three actionable steps you can take with your students. Through STEAM Maker connections (any way that we can incorporate STEM, STEAM, or hands-on making into our curriculum in meaningful ways) and creating for social good, students can help our Earth.

  1. Turn It Off!

Even our youngest students can learn about conservation. Turning off the lights, TV, or other items that use electricity can help to conserve energy. We can teach students the importance of saving energy and discuss all of the things at home and school that use energy. 

Students can also learn about turning off water sources. Not letting our faucets run when we brush our teeth or not taking extra long showers can help to conserve water. Students will be amazed at how much water they can save just by making some simple changes.

STEAM Maker Connections:

       Create a poster or a short video clip explaining why turning things off is an important task that we can all do.

       Design an invention that can turn off the water for you while brushing your teeth

       Learn about alternative ways that things can be powered (wind, solar, etc.)

  1. Tackle the Trash

Throwing away our trash in the right place is something we can all do to help our world. Putting garbage in the can after we eat our lunch at school or putting plastic bottles in the recycling bin at home can help to keep our world clean.

Better yet, use the trash in responsible ways. Using both sides of our papers at school can reduce the amount of trees cut down to make paper. Reusing plastics can reduce the amount of trash that ends up in our landfills.

STEAM Maker Connections:

       Collect plastic bottles and containers for a week, then design a way to repurpose them

       List 10 different ways that you can use and reuse paper

       Design a way to sort the recycling at home or at school

  1. Take Care

Taking care of plants and animals is another way to be responsible global citizens. We can make sure that birds and bees have places to live and food to eat. We can increase awareness about the amount of pollution that we put into the water, so that animals are safe when they swim in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. We can reduce the amount of pollution that we put into the air from driving cars and using chemicals.

When we take care of our world, we are taking positive action steps towards making a difference. Teaching students this at a young age can help them as they grow into responsible adults caring for the Earth.

STEAM Maker Connections:

       Plant seeds in the classroom or design a school garden

       Construct bee hotels so that they can continue to pollinate flowers

       Research organizations in your area that take care of plants and animals (zoo, aquarium, botanical garden, aviary, wildlife refuge) and find out how your school can partner with them

There are so many ways to get our students involved in making a difference. From planting gardens to recycling plastics and increasing awareness about pollution and conservation. We can engage them through the books we read and the activities that we design for them.

Be on the lookout for an upcoming post with other books perfect for celebrating Earth Day!

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

7 STEM Books to Use With Novel Effect

 7 STEM Books to Use With Novel Effect

I remember coming home from a conference a year or so ago and introducing my young sons to this “new app”, Novel Effect.  We added the app to my phone and looked for a story to try. They immediately picked Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, a childhood favorite. The boys loved hearing the beachy vibe and the waves in the background. They were amazed at the sounds of the coconuts and the effects when the alphabet letters climbed up and eventually falling down from the tree.

The app truly enhanced our reading experience at home, prompting me to share it with the students in the schools that I serve. With my passion for STEM education, I especially love the books in the STEAM category within the Novel Effect app.

This post will share seven of my favorite read aloud selections that can be used with the app. In addition, I share some possible “after reading” activities that extend student thinking and give learners the chance to engage in hands-on learning connected to great literature. 

 Mae Among the Stars by Rosa Ahmed

This is an inspirational story of an amazing woman in STEM. Mae Jemison dreamed about being an astronaut. Her teacher tried to deter her from pursuing this dream, but Mae didn’t give up. With great determination, Mae continues to work towards achieving her dream. She gets support from her parents, pushing her to reach her dream of seeing Earth from space.

After reading:

       Design and construct their own spacecraft including movement, lights, or sounds

       Build a model of outer space using recyclables

The Girl Who Thought in Pictures by Julia Finley Mosca

When Temple Grandin was diagnosed with autism, no one expected her to talk, let alone become a well-respected voice in science. She was a determined visual thinker transforming her ideas into inventions. Temple felt in tune with animals, helping her invent improvements for farms around the globe. Her unique perspective and innovative thinking are shared in this story.

After reading:

       Brainstorm ways you might help different kinds of animals

       Prototype an invention from an idea that you came up with

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom

This is a story of a girl and the important lesson that she learns from her grandmother. Students will reflect on the importance of water in their lives. The Ojibwe people tell the story of a black snake that will one day destroy their land and poison their water. The girl discovers that this “black snake” has already come in the form of an oil pipeline through their land. She takes action to protect their water supply.  Becoming a water protector means doing whatever it takes for the sake of the environment and the people, plants, and animals of the Earth.

After reading:

       Create a digital poster telling about the importance of water

       Build a model showing a important source of water where you live

The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield

As a child Chris loved rockets and pretending he was a brave astronaut. He didn’t feel so brave though, because was afraid of the dark. After watching the moon landing on TV, he knew that he had to become an astronaut one day. Chris goes on to be the first Canadian to perform extravehicular activity in outer space. He flew in two Space Shuttle missions and also served as commander of the International Space Station.

After reading:

       Construct a rocket and a mechanism to launch it

       Design an invention to help kids who are afraid of the dark

How to Code a Sandcastle by Josh Funk

Pearl and her robot want to build a sandcastle before summer vacation is over. They decide to do it using code. Breaking the problem into smaller steps, Pearl uses conditionals and loops to tell Pascal what to do. They find that building a sandcastle isn’t as easy as it sounds when lots of things get in their way.

After reading:

       Build a robot that can move through a maze (or use your favorite robot like ozobots or Dot and Dash)

       Try some unplugged coding activities

Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers

This book is meant to serve as a guide to life on Earth. The author created it for his son as a lesson for how we should take care of our world. Whether on land, in the oceans, or in outer space, it is our responsibility to care for the plants and animals that live here. With a focus on kindness, this is a great book for kids of all ages.

After reading:

       Encourage your students to take action. Make a short video to tell others about taking care of the Earth.

       Design a new planet. What would it look like? What special features would it have?

Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner

In this book, readers will discover the plants and animals that make up the interconnected ecosystem of a mountain pond. The unique illustrations of both under water and sky will interest young learners. With minnows darting, beavers diving, and tadpoles growing, we can see different creatures who make up this rich ecosystem. 

After reading:

       Research and create a model of a different type of ecosystem

       Design divided illustrations (like in the book) where you can see over/under or inside/outside of different things 

From coding to space travel to sustainability and the environment, there are so many great STEM topics to share. Novel Effect has a library of books that keeps on growing! They have books connected to all subject areas and many different themes, perfect for the elementary classroom. 

Pairing great books with STEM activities is a part of what I call “remaking” our literacy practices. This approach offers hands-on strategies to connect with children’s literature, helping students to engage more in reading, writing, and vocabulary, but also activating their creative thinking. For more ideas like these, check out the book Remaking Literacy: Innovative Instructional Strategies for Maker Learning.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Choosing Books to Remake Literacy

Sir Ken Robinson said, “Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” While I would never argue with the wisdom of the late Sir Ken, educators are skillfully integrating literacy AND creativity in ways that can exponentially expand student understanding and innovative thinking. 

I call this mix of learning—Remaking Literacy.  It is a way of thinking that creates new experiences around literacy teaching and learning through creativity and design.  It includes the integration of STEM, STEAM, and Maker Education in meaningful ways connected to quality literature.  

We know that good readers are active readers.  They think, question, consider, and reflect.  They put themselves into the minds of the characters or the author as they analyze dialogue, make predictions, and solve problems.  Students are doing this in classrooms around the world through discussions, research papers, charts, and notetaking.  But what if, instead they could take their understanding of reading and writing and develop it in visible, creative, and engaging ways through hands-on making? 

I have shared in previous posts a number of ways to engage students in "remaking" that is connected to text. Through tinkering with different materials, thinking and planning, and engaging in the engineering design process, our students can engage in learning that activates their curiosity. As educators, we can thoughtfully select books that foster student creativity while also building on important skills in literacy.

Books for Tinkering

The Great Paper Caper by Oliver Jeffers
Extra Yarn by Mac Bennett
The Little Red Fort by Brenda Maier
Building Books by Megan Llyod
Bonaparte Falls Apart by Margery Cuyler
Izzy Gizmo by Pip Jones
The Dumpster Diver by Janet S. Wong
The Nest Is Noisy by Dianna Hutss Aston
Ojichan’s Gift by Chieri Uegaki

Books for Thinking

Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner

Drawn Together by Mihn Le

Agi and The Thought Compass by Betsy O’Neill-Sheehan

The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield

Days with Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel

A House That Once Was by Julie Fogliano

Save the Bees by Bethany Stahl

Just How Long Can a Long String Be? by Keith Baker

Books for Design

Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

I Wanna New Room by Karen Kaufman Orloff

Betty Builds It by Julie Hampton

The Secret Seahorse by Stella Blackstone

Pandamonium at Peek Zoo by Kevin Waldron

If I Built a School by Chris Van Dusen

Those Darn Squirrels by Adam Rubin

Inky’s Amazing Escape by Sy Montgomery

Across the Bay by Carlos Aponte

Stay tuned!

In future posts, I will share lesson ideas for these books including hands-on ways to "remake" our literacy practices. Adding quick design thinking exercises or including an engineering twist to a book, students will not only engage more in the classroom, but chances are they will also build vocabulary and comprehension skills along the way.

In addition, students will tap into their creativity as they brainstorm, design, engineer, and collaborate with others. If you are interested in more ways to incorporate tinkering, thinking, and design into your classroom, check out my book:

Sunday, March 26, 2023

8 Ways to Spark Creativity

Have you tried the 30 Circle Challenge?

This is a great tool to use in classrooms with students (I also use it when I am providing professional learning for teachers and school leaders). This simple challenge created by Robert McKim, Professor Emeritus at Stanford's Department of Mechanical Engineering and popularized by Kelley brothers at IDEO is a fun way to spark some creativity.


The template for the 30 Circle Challenge can be used in different ways that extend beyond the opportunity to provide a quick, creative jumpstart. With simple directions to turn as many as the blank circles into recognizable objects in three minutes, this can be a great warm-up exercises for learners of all ages.

The template doesn’t have to include 30 circles either.  You can create a grid with any number of circles depending on the level/age of the learner or the nature of the activity.  12 or 20 circles work just fine! You could also try it with squares, triangles, or a mix of shapes.

 Whether creative thinking is your focus or you are working within a specific content area, there are other ways to use and adapt the 30 circles. Here are some different options for using the template in other subject areas and for other purposes throughout the school year. 

    Getting to Know You

       This can be used for back-to-school time or as a class icebreaker. Ask students to fill the circles with things that tell about themselves.  Ideas might include pictures or names of family members, hobbies, pets, friends or places to visit. Students can then share 1-2 circles with different classmates as a way to get to know one another.

    Magic Number

      Use the circles in math to show different ways to represent the value of a number.  For example, if the magic number is 12 students can show addition or subtraction equations that equal 12.  They might write the word “twelve” or show twelve tally marks.  They might use dice or a clock or Roman numerals.

    30-Word Summary

      After reading a story, watching a video, or listening to a speech, students can write a summary with exactly 30 words. Summarizing can be a challenging skill for some students. Reading (or listening) and then capturing the gist of the text provides practice for students. 


       Write a poem with 30 words.  It can include rhyming, be free verse, or any other style.

    Make an Observation

      Students can use the template as a way to document things they observe, in the classroom, on a nature walk, or at home.  Draw or write about the things that you see, hear, and feel. This is a great fit for the end of a science lesson or an exit ticket for an art class.

    Word Study

      Write as many words as you can that mean the same as the target word.  For example, write words that are synonyms for the word "good".  This will help students to develop vocabulary and create a bank of stronger or more descriptive words for use in their writing.

    Character Analysis

      Use the template to write or draw ideas connected to a character including things like character traits, important quotes, phrases, or pictures.

    Connecting Ideas

      Draw lines connecting circles together to create a visual timeline, word web, or story map.  Add colors to show ideas that are related and dotted lines to show your thinking path.

      These represent just a few ways to utilize the 30 Circle Challenge in your classroom. What other ways have you tried? Share your comments below!

      If you are interested in more ways to spark creative thinking with your students, check out my book Unlock Creativity: Open a World of Imagination With Your Students



Monday, February 20, 2023

How to Start a STEM Library

*This post was previously published by Carly and Adam.

 How to Start a STEM Library

Kids love the story Inky's Amazing Escape: How a Very Smart Octopus Found His Way Home. The brightly illustrated book engages students as they learn about octopus and other undersea creatures. They gain empathy when Inky is captured in the lobster trap and they root for him when he attempts to escape the aquarium. The story of Inky provides knowledge in science through the exploration of the ocean. It also provides a glimpse into different STEM-related jobs (fisherman, marine biologist, zoo/aquarium workers).

The story can also offer an opportunity for students to engage in hands-on STEM learning after they read the book. Designing a lobster trap, planning for a class fish tank, or constructing a model of a coral reef, students can extend their STEM learning through additional experiences. This story (and so many others) can support STEM learning in a variety of ways. Obtaining a few STEM read alouds is your first step in starting your STEM library.

What exactly is a STEM library?

A STEM library is a collection of children’s books that support STEM content and foster student thinking, design, and exploration. These may be books that are used for classroom read aloud selections, used in learning centers, or ones that students can read on their own. Building these resources in your school or classroom can increase student engagement in both the language arts and the STEM content.  Adding read alouds to your STEM learning can offer many benefits including sparking creativity, promoting more reading, and building student understanding. 

Why is a STEM library important? 

Access to quality reading materials is critical for every child to develop and grow as a reader. Whether you are a classroom teacher, STEM teacher, or a librarian, adding books that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math will create connections across subject areas and deepen student understanding. STEM read aloud selections can also develop other skills and dispositions in our students like flexibility, perseverance, and cooperation.

Where do I start?

Start small. Look through the books that you already have and pull out ones that are connected to science, technology, engineering, and math. Think about STEM-related topics like weather, plants, animals, or machines. These may be some of your first additions to your STEM library. Begin using those as your classroom read alouds or add them to a learning center where students can read them on their own. (You can even add some manipulatives so that students can design, build, and experiment after exploring the books.) 

Books on a Budget

Don’t have much of a book budget? There are lots of ways to find books without spending a ton of money. Be on the lookout for book sales. Online publishers offer a $1 sale every few months, which is a great time to stock up on books. Local public libraries also have book sales. (I’ve been able to grab some great used books for as low as 25 cents!) Don’t forget yard sales as another way to pick up used books to add to your STEM library.

If you don’t have a budget at all, hit up the public library. Librarians can also be a great resource to suggest STEM books. You might also plan a book drive. Ask parents and community members to donate books to your classroom. Sometimes your school book fair can also be set up to allocate book donations directly to your classroom. You might suggest topics or accept any donations of any type. Lots of teachers have discovered the benefits of Donors Choose and #ClearTheLists. These are other ways that you can get support for your STEM library. Posting your projects or lists allows people to see ways that they can donate to help your students. Lastly, be on the lookout for grants. Even if you are writing a grant for technology or STEM equipment, always include some funding for books. 

Ready to Build Your Library?

There are so many great STEM books, it is hard to just recommend a few. Here are some with links to simple STEM activities that are connected to each book.

  • The Most Magnificent Thing is a great book to add to your STEM library. With a focus on the engineering design cycle and persevering through challenges, the story is the perfect way to start the STEM conversation in your classroom. 

  • One Plastic Bag can be connected to different STEM challenges connected to the environment, sustainability, and the importance of recycling.

  • Mr. Ferris and His Wheel provides some history about the invention of the Ferris Wheel, prompting students to build one of their own.

  • Mae Among the Stars is the story of Mae Jemison, the first African American female in space. Students will be asking to design and build rockets after reading this story.

Need more book ideas?

When we connect children’s literature to hands-on learning, not only do we see a rise in student engagement, but also in student understanding. We can incorporate a read aloud to introduce a science concept or align a story to an engineering design challenge. We can add building blocks, circuits, and coding to our read alouds. (Check out Remaking Literacy: Innovative Instructional Strategies for Maker Learning for different ways to connect STEM and great children’s books.)

You can continue to build your STEM library over time. You don’t need to have hundreds of books right away. You might even consider partnering with other teachers in your grade level or on your team and share books with one another. In time, your library will grow. Surrounding your students with quality STEM books will help them to continue to thrive in their literacy skills and their STEM skills, too!