Intelligent Entrepreneurs and Engineers were not Expected

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Are you a STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math)  school?  Are you thinking of bringing more STEM to your school?  It’s definitely building in the world of education. In today’s world we need more students considering the study of these fields.  Getting them started early will open doors of possibilities to their young minds.

Today, I found myself in an event that brought STEM to the community.

My colleague had asked me to go with her to an even called Maker Fest.  We heard that it would be full of entrepreneurs and creative thinkers.   We envisioned 3-D printers, adults sharing ideas with how they had found a problem and determined a solution to solve it, and technology based booths.  What we found was something similar, but better.

Upon arrival, I first noticed a large section fenced off in the middle of the building.  Inside this section were very large shapes made out of the type of foam that pool noodles were made of; in fact, there were pool noodles there too.  These large shapes were rectangular prisms, cubes, U-shaped blocks, cylinders, and more.  They were meant to be manipulated and formed to create new structures.  I hadn’t seen anything like it so I took out my phone and snapped some pictures.  (Sorry about the less than stellar quality.) Not only were these new to me, but those engaged in the manipulation were very energetic and having a wonderful time.  Who were these builders?  Children.  “What a great play place for kids after they had walked around the building with their parents looking at all this science and math stuff.” I thought.


My colleague and I continued on to check out the booths.  As we rounded the outer corner of the path, we found a leather works booth.  At the time, the exhibitor was showing a couple of young girls how they could make a leather fob.  “Well, that’s nice.” And I snapped another picture.  I can’t help it.  When I see kids learning, I’ve got to admire it.


Moving on down the line of booths there were sewing machines, carved wooden boats, and a “take-apart table.”  Hmmm.  Was this a place where other exhibiters could get extra parts?  AS I looked more closely, there was yet another child engaged in taking a part an electrical contraption.  Then it hit me!  This wasn’t an event just for adults.  This was actually an event in which do-it-yourself fans and technology fans came together to share their knowledge and to let kids try things out.  It was fantastic!

We continued around the room finding all varieties of STEM work going on.  We found a young man that had designed his own marshmallow shooter, rubber band shooter, and “balloon shooter thing” (that’s what he named it).  He was not only the designer, but he was showing 3 young boys how they worked and how they could make one of their own.  His proud father joked about the number of marshmallows he finds around the house.


Next, we came across a robotics club from the nearest high school.  They were demonstrating the robot they made for competition and teaching younger kids about how it worked.


I love this!  Continuing on we found an artist sharing her talent of weaving long pine needles into baskets and charms.  She was probably about 12 years old, but she ran her booth like a pro.  Another booth had a special projector that displayed via lasers, I think, onto a sandbox showing the topography of the sand and it changed instantly when children and my colleague (LOL) moved the sand around.  Fascinating!  Yet other booths demonstrated fine weaving, sewing, horticulture, virtual reality, electronics, and more.  We also found the 3-D printer booth which completely fascinated my colleague.  When we ran upon R2-D2, BB-8, and some of his other robot friends we giggled and shot even more photos.  I took picture after picture; each with children and adults engaged in science, math, technology, and engineering.


What a day! I went thinking I was going to be hearing from some very intelligent engineers and entrepreneurs and I wasn’t disappointed.  It was even better than what I had expected.


I noticed that as I was leaving my face hurt from smiling so much.  Not from my love of science.  (My parents will tell you about my struggle with science in high school and my peer-tutor turned boyfriend.  But that’s another story.)  My smile was from seeing children enjoying themselves so much and not realizing that they were learning.


As my colleague and I walked back to the car, our brains started thinking about how this would be a fantastic type of event to bring to a school.  Instead of a traditional science fair, where  kids present their tri-fold poster board touting the experiment they took part in, how about bringing high school students in, local STEM clubs, students with ingenuity and ideas, and a ton of materials for students to play with?  My head is spinning with ideas and inspiration.  That’s pretty amazing for a person that avoids the science classes or science staff development opportunities.  Events like today brought STEM to the people.  Families enjoyed a free day to play and learn, and, today, two teachers had their expectations blown away.

Launching a Math Lesson to Increase Rigor and Struggle

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I was speaking with a colleague that teaches kindergarten the other day. She and I were talking about how much kindergarten has changed.  It was just 5 years ago that her days were all about teaching students the alphabet and how to count to twenty.  Now her students are required to learn 60 sight words, count to 100, and know how to make ten with different digits.  The expectations have definitely increased dramatically.

Kindergarten is not the only place that this has happened. I remember when I taught 5th grade about 20 years ago, that our prime goals in math were to master double digit division and multiplication.  Now students are using exponents to explain patterns and to denote powers of 10.  Wow!

I know that to be competitive in today’s world we have to raise the expectations and standards. Students are capable of reaching higher promise. In fact, researchers state that students do better when the expectations have been raised (Boser, 2014).  So, what are we doing to help them to make that reach and fulfill their potential?

Are we rescuing students from higher cognitive thinking?

I’ve been participating in several staff development opportunities lately that have increased my understanding of increased rigor in the classroom. It has been well worth my time.  I’ve also been able to practice the skills I learned in various elementary classrooms within my school district.  I’ve been excited about the results.


One piece that has changed my teaching the most is launching a math lesson. Normally, I would glean from students their background knowledge and then proceed to provide them with information that they do not yet have. While determining the students’ schema is still important, I don’t have to shift into delivering the information right away.  I would spend time unpacking our learning target or objective and what they will need to do to be successful.  This will give students a gist of what they will be learning and what they will be expected to do.  I don’t know about you, but I do a lot better when I know that is expected of me.  Why do we not state this to students as well?

After unpacking the lesson’s objective and the ways to success, I can then pose a problem or question that guides the work for that lesson. From there it is very important to make sure that the students understand what is being asked of them.

So often we read a problem to students in hopes to block out language or reading barriers, but then expect them to understand what to do just because we said the words. How many times after that do students then say, “I don’t get it.”  In our frustration, we might respond, “Well, if you were listening you would know what to do.”  But what if the “I don’t get it” statement doesn’t come from lack of listening?  What if the student doesn’t understand what is being asked of them?  Let me give an example.

Teacher asks the students if they have ever been to a bank with their parents. All hands raise.  Then introduces the following problem:

“Mrs. Wilson had $5,000 in her savings account. She earns 10% interest each year.  If she left the money in the bank for a year, how much interest will she earn by the end of the year?”

Teacher reads the problem and asks if there are any questions. No one responds, so she sets the students off to solve the problem.  No sooner does she do this than several students raise their hands to say, “I don’t get it.”

She might ask, “What don’t you get?”

“All of it?” or “I don’t know.”

In frustration the teacher might say, “We’ve been doing this all week. Perhaps you should pay more attention.  Do the best you can.”

The student then stares at the problem and never even tries, which in turn can cause even more frustration from the teacher and student.


Does this sound familiar?

Did the student not listen? Maybe. Did the student not understand the English? It was just read to them.  The class had been finding 10% of numbers all week.  This student did fine on the assignment using the algorithm.  This is just putting the math into a story now. Why can’t they be successful here?

Perhaps it isn’t about the math.  Maybe it is more about knowing where to start, understanding the vocabulary, or how the answer should be formatted?  Perhaps, instead, the teacher could have spent some time making sure that students understood all parts of the problem or level the playing field for all students by asking questions about the scenario presented.  When we launch a problem for students to solve, we must take time to clarify the problem.  This doesn’t mean defining every word or telling them what math to use or how to solve it, but rather, enabling students to make the understanding clear together. It’s an opportunity to use student talk and ideas to further develop understanding without embarrassing any student.  Let’s look at that scenario again:

Teacher asks students how they might securely save money. Students might respond with: a lock box, give it to a parent to keep safe, put it in a safe, or put it in the bank. If they don’t come up with the idea of a bank, the teacher might ask further questions to guide them toward that thinking. “Where might a person place their money for safe keeping, but could still get to that money no matter where they were?”  Ideally, a question like this would generate the idea of a bank.  Having images of banks available would also be a helpful tool, especially for ELL students.

Follow this questioning with, “Today we’re going to look at a question that involves money that has been placed in a bank and what might happen to it. Let’s look at that question.”  From there the teacher shows the question and reads it to the class.  Questioning continues with, “What do you notice about Mrs. Wilson’s money?”

Students might respond with, “She has $5,000.” Or “It’s in her savings account.” Or “She earns interest.” And other noticings.

The teacher continues to unpack the problem by asking questions such as:

  • “The problem mentions a savings account. What is meant by that?”
  • “What do you know about accounts at a bank?”
  • “What are you picturing?”
  • “How long does she have the money is the bank, according to the problem?”
  • “It states that ‘She earns 10% interest each year.’ What does that mean?
  • What do you know about interest in regards to money?”
  • “What is the problem asking us to determine/do?”

After a short time, and the teacher feels that the students have a good grasp on the problem, the students can be sent to work on the problem independently, or in a group if more support is needed.


From asking questions such as these, you are helping students make sense of all of the information and to discuss, together, any key contextual features of the task, as well as developing common language of the task. All this is done without lowering the cognitive demand for the students.  The questions are asked in a way to elicit students’ understanding and thinking before beginning the technical task of doing the math and to help them gain further understanding of those elements that may block their success as they try to solve the problem.  The teacher has not given the definitions, nor has he/she provided scaffolds that will give clues to how to solve the problem.  This method engages students in applying previous knowledge/learning in a challenging context and making sense of it, but does not rescue them when it gets tough.

By launching the task as a whole group, students also gain understanding through their peers’ thinking. Teachers are facilitating the discussion and understanding, but not providing the knowledge.  The teacher has become more of a coach and less as of a lifeguard who rescues when the student isn’t getting to the answer quickly.  The students are allowed to grapple with the problem together, and then are set out to complete it independently.

All in all, the teacher makes an effort to not lower the cognitive demand by using too many scaffolds or supports, but instead guides the student to their own understanding and pushes them to keep working on making sense of the problem.

As I have engaged students in this type of launch, it has yet to go precisely as I had predicted, but that it okay. They types of conversations that the students have had are fantastic and thoughtful.  The types of solutions we are seeing are much more complex and successful.  And, the numbers of “I don’t get it.” comments have reduced dramatically.  I’m still no expert at this, but I do believe in its potential and will continue to practice this with classes to refine my teaching practice.

More information can be found at:

Do You Want Less Work and More Fun for Your Students?

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If you want less work and more fun for your students, then you’ve got to check out BOOM Learning.  This resource has students begging to work, and it is self-correcting!

I’m very excited to announce that I am now creating and selling digital task cards, hosted at BOOM Learning! I’ve a growing library of resources for the elementary school classroom.  These digital task cards are self-scoring and can be played on a PC, tablet, cell phone, or Chromebook. Students beg to play them!  Not to mention that you’ll love the ease of use and the quick data. Come check them out!

I Found an Amazingly Easy Way to Assess Students

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Have the Back to School Sales got you shopping; lots to do and lots to find?! I hope that you are finding the resources you need for your classroom, home-school, or teaching needs.

One of the ways that I want to help you is by updating my resources. If you shop Teachers Pay Teachers, I encourage you to check out your purchases page and look for those “update” notifications. I’ve updated quite a few of my products on TpT so far, and I suspect many other sellers have too. I will be looking at each one of my resources on TpT and determining how they need to be updated for the new year.  Keep an eye out for those updates!

Recently, I and fellow TpT’ers, were visiting at one of our colleague’s home as a part of our collaboration efforts, and she shared with us some digital resources through BOOM Learning.  (If you have tablets or smart phones, there’s an app for that!)BOOM reminded me a lot of the resources that can be made with SMART and Promethean Boards, but these task cards can be used on PC’s, tablets, and phones so that students can learn, practice, or be assessed individually, anywhere.  Boom Learning even scores the work automatically. Talk about a time saver!

(Check out our view.  Dreaming here.)

I love using technology to help our students today. This Boom Learning was right up my alley. So, I went home and began creating Digital Task Cards on BOOM. I’ve recently created a free one for primary students about how to make a Jack-o-Lantern to go with my sequencing resource.

I invite you to try the task cards.

After completing this fun resource, I began to create a set of vocabulary decks. They currently have students practicing prefixes, but I plan to make more for suffixes and other morphemes. I’m excited about it! These sets are geared for grades 3-4, but anyone who is working on these skills can benefit. Check them out!

But if digital isn’t your method of practice, don’t worry; there are plenty of printable resources too at my store on Teachers Pay Teachers. Come on over and see what is new!

Teachers’ Keeper

This is a Joyful Event with Students

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Eat a Cookie and Give a Compliment

Today I was privileged to be in a classroom while they shared in “Compliment Cookies”.  As I walked into the room, the students were very excitedly moving their desks to the edge of the room. I asked one of the boys what was happening and he joyfully said, “We’re doing Compliment Cookies!”  So, I just had to see what this was all about.

The teacher had asked all the students to move their desks to the side of the room so that they would have plenty of room on the floor to sit in a circle together. After the students, the teacher, and I all gathered together, she brought out a bucket of letters and numbers shaped cookies. (She happened to get hers at Trader Joes) 

The students’ excitement heightened.  The teacher explained: Each student was to select one cookie from the bucket – without digging through it. If the cookie they selected a letter, they were to give a compliment starting with that letter.  If it was a number, they were to give that many compliments.  But to whom?  Well… the teacher used her popsicle sticks with student names on them to determine.  After a student selected his/her cookie, she drew a stick from her cup and told them who they would be complimenting.  There was no complaining.  The students simply said things like, “That’s different.” Or “I wonder who I’m gonna get.”

I can see this being done in various ways as well.  You could have the students give the compliment to the person to their left, right, or directly across from them.  You could have the student whose name was pulled be the one who gives the compliment to the one who selected the cookie.  Or many other ways.

Once the compliment was given, the cookie bin was moved to the next person in the circle and the compliments continued. 

The kids were great. Some of the compliments I heard were:

“You are a good friend.”

“Best at basketball” or “…soccer”.

“You’re pretty, nice, smart, helpful, intelligent, and a good friend.”

“Really nice”

“The best at being quiet.”

And so much more.

One of the fun elements to this was that if a student selected a broken cookie in which they couldn’t tell what letter or number it was, they got to “pop” it in their mouth and select another. Bonus!  The kids secretly hoped they’d get a broken one too, but it only happened a few times.

It was a privilege to be a part of this and to share in the compliments of others. It was apparent that this class had built a trusting, caring community lead by their teacher.  The students were excited to give a compliment and to receive a small treat for themselves.  In today’s world of division, bullies, animosity, and selfishness, taking time to regularly teach students how to give and receive compliments is so important.  I made sure to tell this teacher just how great the activity was today.  I also wrote about it on our staff “brag board” where we get to compliment our colleagues.  Maybe more of us will incorporate these important moments and lessons into our days here at school and maybe even at home.

Leading our Response to Intervention Team

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Coming together to seek out ways to help students be more successful and be stronger learners is a very important part of our work.

Response to Intervention (RTI), Student Support Team (SST), Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT), Behavior Intervention Team (BIT); it can be called by a myriad of names. It is this team that comes together to discuss challenges and successes that students are having within the school setting. The team will discuss interventions, environmental factors, assessments, growth, and action plans. At other times the discussion is around how the student responds to the interventions tried.  I am fortunate to be able to lead this team at my school.  I love being able to be an advocate for our students who are struggling in our world of education. It is rewarding to know that we are making learning more accessible and successful to students.

RTI is a school-based, multi-leveled system to maximize student achievement and to reduce behavior problems. With RTI, schools identify at risk students, monitor the students’ progress, provide evidence based interventions, monitor the progress of the students within the intervention, and adjust the interventions needed in regards to length, intensity, or activity depending on the outcome or response of the students to that intervention.   There are 4 necessary components of RTI, as determined by the National Center on Response to Intervention. They are:

  • Multi-level, three tiered, prevention system
  • Universal Screening
  • Progress Monitoring
  • Data Based Decision Making

I’ve created a set of forms and documents to meet the needs of the various steps in the process of: determining the needs of a student, creating an action plan, engaging in interventions, recording or documenting the interventions and their outcomes, and revisiting these outcomes. After walking through these steps, it may or may not lead the team to consider evaluating the student for special education services or seeking out a 504 plan.  These forms may be helpful to you and your teams as well. Click here for a preview of this resource that can be found in my store on TpT.

One of the first things that I have teachers do when they have a student that they are concerned about is to have them complete our RTI Referral Form. This provides us information regarding the students general information, a cumulative file review, any known information about their health and life outside of school, their strengths and challenges, assessment scores, and the types of interventions already tried. I can also ask those that have provided some sort of intervention to provide their observations and data. This is followed by setting up an appointment with our team, which includes inviting the parent/guardian. If a teacher would like to first talk with the team privately, we may make that accommodation.  I also provide each team member with our agenda.

In my building we are fortunate to have a well rounded team of educators and specialists. We have: the principal or vice principal, instructional coach (me), teacher, interventionist, school psychologist, school counselor, a special education teacher, our family liaison, a speech therapist, and occupational/physical therapist, and our school nurse. I recommend having many representatives from the various departments within your school or district. Since each of these members view the student through a slightly different lens, we are able to come up with ideas that may have not been considered otherwise. The expertise of each member is a benefit to the success of the child.

After setting up the meeting, I then copy the documents that the teacher has filled out, as well as the completing and copying a full set of assessment scores that we have access to, and provide them to each member of the team before the meeting. This allows the team members to get a sense of the child before hand, allowing them to think about the child and generate possible ideas ahead of time. It also reduces our time spent in the meeting going over the teacher’s concern. Not to say that we don’t ask the teacher to share, but it aids in managing the short amount of time that we have in our meetings.

At the time of the meeting, we will start by going over our norms, and reminding ourselves to focus on the facts. We begin with having the teacher answer the questions, “Why have you brought this student to the team? What is it that you think he/she needs that he/she is not getting now?” Other questions to consider are:

  • What do you know about the student outside of the school setting?
  • How might race/culture/ethnicity impact this child?
  • Have you communicated with the family your concerns?
  • Tell us more about the interventions that have been tried already. (This would bring us to the point of using the Tiered Intervention Documentation form.)

We continue the conversations around the needs, challenges, and successes of the child. It’s important that notes are taking about the conversation.   As we talk, we are able to come up with an Plan of Action, which is also documented. Each element of the plan, the time line for the intervention or action, and who is responsible is included. A review date, usually about 6 weeks out, is set.  We also begin to fill out a Progress Monitoring Tool, which is then given to the responsible parties.

After 6 weeks of trying and documenting the accommodation/intervention listed in our action plan and progress monitoring forms, we meet again to see what the results are. Hopefully, the student will have made growth and gains. If so, we may opt for an additional 6 weeks of interventions to see if they will continue to impact the student for the positive. If the result of the interventions did not bring about success, we might move to bring the student to the evaluation team, which is a following step to consider evaluating the student for special education services.

Sometimes students move or withdraw in the process or at the end of the school year. So I have created a page that has several strips with our school logo and a statement declaring that the student was being discussed and possibly monitored by the team. I copy these onto florescent paper, cut them into sections, fill them out with information stating the school year, student’s name, area of concern, and whom they may contact for further information, and then place them into the student’s cumulative file that will move with them to their next school.   To respect privacy, I do not provide the RTI notes and documents to the file, but instead will share them with the school upon request and with the parents’/guardians’ permission.

I’ve also included a “Red-Flag List” for teachers to complete at the end of the school year. This is where they name students that they are concerned about and would like the team to consider discussing next year.   Many times the students on this list are those that are brand new to the school in the spring, that are making strides with interventions but should be further monitored, that the team may have ran out of time to meet about, or that teachers were “on-the-fence” about. It will be from this list that teams might start the following year.

I truly enjoy my work with our RTI team.  Not only are the members great to work with, but I love that we come together to advocate for a student who is struggling.  These students need someone to campaign for them and it often takes a team of educators with the family to find what is just right for that student.  We all know that no child learns exactly like the next, so coming together to seek out ways to help students be more successful and be stronger learners is a very important part of our work.  It is rewarding not only for us, but, ultimately, for the students.

Please note that these are the forms that my team and I use, but that are not endorsed by the Center on Response to Intervention.

This is the Amazing Teaching with the Iditarod

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It’s nearly time for the annual Alaskan sled dog race from Anchorage, (or Fairbanks as it is this year) to Nome! This 1000 mile race challenges teams consisting of a musher and his or her sled dogs to run through the scenic, natural, dangerous, and frozen land of the Great Last Frontier of Alaska.  This amazing race is carefully planned and supervised by professional dog sled racers, veterinarians, and Alaskans. It honors the history of working dogs in the state, the native lands and people, and those that have gone before.

I love using this event as a teaching tool in my classroom. The pure adventure of it, and love of animals, engages students in learning in ways unlike any other.  In my previous post, “The Unique Iditarod Brings Excitement about Learning”, I talk about the history of the race, the amazing men and women who compete, the thrilling event, and how I teach through it.   I’ve made several teaching resources that you may find beneficial to your own teaching. But don’t take my word for it.  Here’s some things your peers are saying:

“I can’t even explain how awesome this resource is. It has everything you need!” Elizabeth S.

“This is exactly what our special education class needed for a unit on the Iditarod. The activities are easily applicable”  SpEdtacular Resources

“This is seriously amazing!!!!” Kimrich33

“Hands down, the Iditarod unit is the favorite every year, and this will add so much to what we do! Thanks!” Linda T.

“Everything I could hope for.” Melissa I

“Love this resource! Saved me a ton of time and work! I will use this year after year!” Heather S.

“Thanks for these activities! My first graders loved them!” Lucy M

“We do a small unit on the Iditarod each year and this provided a great supplement to the unit! The kids enjoyed it too. Amy K

“This was very helpful for our Iditarod unit. A lot of student engagement. So easy to use!” Deb B

“Thanks! This was one more way to bring the fun of the Iditarod in the classroom!” Melissa B

“So many fun activities and useful items in this!” Deborah R

“Was an excellent addition to our study of the Iditarod!” Jodi M

Now how about some links? :

So, come on! Mush into the adventure and learn about the Iditarod! It’s the Last Great Race!

Teachers’ Keeper




The Unique Iditarod Brings Excitement about Learning

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brochure.pic1“The Last Great Race” takes place in Alaska each winter.  Numerous strong and amazing men and women gear up their sleds and tether in their dogs in order to mush from Anchorage to Nome.  The race was created in the 1973, in memory of the great race to bring back serum to Nome after diphtheria threatened to wipe them out and to commemorate the use of dog sleds throughout Alaska’s history.  The official Iditarod website, www., states:

“The Iditarod Trail, now a National Historic Trail, had its beginnings as a mail and supply route from the coastal towns of Seward and Knik to the interior mining camps at Flat, Ophir, Ruby and beyond to the west coast communities of Unalakleet, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain and Nome. Mail and supplies went in. Gold came out. All via dog sled. Heroes were made, legends were born.

In 1925, part of the Iditarod Trail became a life saving highway for epidemic-stricken Nome. Diphtheria threatened and serum had to be brought in; again by intrepid dog mushers and their faithful hard-driving dogs.

The Iditarod is a commemoration of those yesterdays, a not-so-distant past that Alaskans honor and are proud of.”

I was first introduced to the Iditarod when my family moved to Alaska in 1976.  Coming from a southern state, the event was unlike anything I had ever heard of.  Not only was it new and exciting, the event was grounded in a completely new culture for me. With our first year in Alaska, my family bundled up and ventured out to see the start of the race as it began on 4th Ave in downtown Anchorage.  I distinctly remember watching the dogs get so excited to be going.  They were barking and jumping, and ready to run.  There was no forcing these great athletes to go.  As soon as the driver was ready, the dogs ran!  They ran for the love of it and for the love of their driver.

I’ve come to respect this race a great deal and later learned about the Yukon Quest (an 1000 mile international race from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Canada).  They are definitely unlike any other sport most fans/spectators cheer for in the lower 48 (also known as the 48 contiguous states).  I know that there are many that may be against this type of race, calling it inhumane to the dogs.  Yet, I have seen how these men and women care for, live for, respect, and love these canine athletes.  The mushers will voluntarily withdraw from the race if it is in the best interest of their dogs.  There are voluntary veterinarians all along the 1000+ mile trail inspecting the dogs and monitoring their health.  There are also members of the Iditarod and Yukon Quest committees that watch closely, and who will not tolerate any mistreatment of the dogs.  These races do not carry the same kind of cold-hearted competition that you may find in other sports.

Anyway, where I work now, students have had no experience with this culture or this sport.  When I introduce it in winter, the students become quite interested.  I believe, it is the unique qualities that this race holds that brings about new or renewed excitement about learning.  For that, I am absolutely thrilled.

My school district pushes for the improvement of test scores, like school districts all over our country. I believe we do need to push higher and expect more of our students.   So we work rigorously on our math and reading skills.  Sometimes there is little-to-no room for anything else.  But this kind of schooling can stop the love of learning for many students.  Research has shown us that we must differentiate our teaching; we must teach to the different learning styles and levels.  But when we are consistently pushing “fidelity to the curriculum” we can take out the fun of school.  Research has also shown us that if there is not some sort of positive feeling about the lesson or the activity, a student will not learn it…forever.

With that in mind, I take a couple of weeks in February or March to teach students about the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest. I still keep in mind the required standards that our students are expected to meet as I create my lesson plans. I won’t ignore those just so that we can do something fun.  Yet, there is so much we can do with this event to tie it to the standards.  Students can learn about scientific observation as they experiment with different types of insulation materials that a musher might use in his/her gloves.  There is a great deal of math that can be learned such as calculating miles per hour, time elapsed from one check point to another, poundage of food, temperature measurement, and problem solving.  For Language Arts students can write a narrative pretending to be a volunteer, musher, dog, or newscaster.  They can write a letter to mushers, volunteers, or organizers.  Poetry may be written about the race, Aurora Borealis, or the power of the dogs. New vocabulary will be gained.  Close reading and research opportunities are available as well conventions practice There are many books about the Iditarod or the history, such as: “Balto” by Natalie Standiford, “Iditarod Memories” by Jon Van Zylet, “Douggie” by Pam Flowers, and many more that can be used in book clubs, read alouds, and other comprehension activities.  Readers Theater activities can be practiced and performed in order to improve reading fluency. The students may also learn about geography, history, art, music, physical education, character education, and more.  In fact, with cooperation from Target stores, the Iditarod also has a “Teacher on the Trail” program in which a teacher is selected to spend time at the start of the race, at various checkpoints, and finally at Nome; all the while gathering more to use in future lessons, answering questions from students around the world, blogging, and even sharing with Alaskans various things that others far from Alaska have created.

But what about students I work with?  I love to start with having students randomly selected a musher from the list of teams.  For primary students, I might have one team selected for the whole class to follow.  We then follows the status of the selected team/s, write about the dogs and the scenery, and learn about diagrams through images of huskies, sleds, or the dog team. We even play a game with our sight words that uses a sled dog theme. Sled Game Multi use Cover  We work on poems and similes as well as engage in morning math problem solvers related to the race.  Our reading selections are related as well. To finish, we might create a brochure or trifold with facts about the race.   coverWhat excites me is the thrill that the students show each morning as we begin our Iditarod or Yukon Quest lessons.  Older students can’t wait to get on the computer to check the day’s stats. If you purchase a site license to you can follow the mushers via GPS.  At the time of this posting, the Yukon Quest provides Live Tracking and takes donations.  I love that!  In addition, the students’ writing often improves immensely because they are engaged and enthusiastic.  They want to know more. This kind of enthusiasm in class doesn’t regularly occur when I am solely teaching the adopted curriculum to its fidelity.

I’ve created several resources that offer a multitude of activities and lessons.  Some are geared for primary students while others are more for intermediated grades.  Two of those resources are linked above.  I have larger units for each race that provide a plethora of learning opportunities and idea. Slide1Interm. Cover

SMART Bd Iditarod 2017


Now, I respect my administration and will continue to teach to my district’s adopted curriculum, but I would like to also continue to use the Iditarod and Yukon Quest lessons.  They not only engage my students in a new way, but they share culture, and history that my students may otherwise  have not  experienced.

I am glad that I lived in Alaska and was introduced to Alaskans and their amazing, unique culture and traditions.  It has truly enriched my life.

Eleven Secrets for Making Testing Season Less Obnoxious

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Portrait Of Stressed Young BoyIt’s standardized testing season.  Unlike Mother Nature’s seasons, this season is not looked forward to, especially by educators.  You can turn to just about any Facebook page, Twitter feed, or blog of an educator and find some negative comment about these high stakes tests.  Many are even going to their legislatures and those in charge to share their concerns and frustrations.  But I’m not here to write about all the things we dislike about standardized testing.

Instead, I’m writing about how we can help our students decompress from the intense, often very left-brained, thinking that comes from the hours of standardized testing in the classroom.  Though we may not like these tests, we know they are going to happen for now.  So, I’d like to share with you some activities that will engage the right-brained thinking as well as engaging students in kinesthetic and emotional de-stressors.  These can be used after the test is over or during a short breaks that you might provide for your students.

  1. Daydream: As your students finish their test or take their break, hand them a slip of paper that allows them to just dream. You could give them a prompt such as, “Imagine that you are a superhero or unique animal.” or simply state, “Now is your time to dream.” Let your students minds drift to something of delight for themselves.
  2. Walk or skip around: Our brains need oxygen to think and when we walk or skip around, it forces us to increase our oxygen intake. The Director of Human Cognitive Neuroscience, Andrew Scholey, at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, England states that a dose of oxygen or glucose can improve performance on tasks that require great mental effort,” In addition, exercise prompts the brain to create endorphins and these endorphins are natural mood enhancing hormones. (
  3. Have a snack: First of all, know your students’ allergens and never offer food without consenting parents. That being said, berries and oranges are full of vitamin C and can help to reduce stress. Walnuts have been found to keep stress hormones in check. Other ideas might be cheese sticks, celery, peanut butter, pretzels, or other nuts.
  4. Eat Chocolate: Studies have shown that eating chocolate, especially dark chocolate, reduces stress hormones. The glucose may aid in the production of serotonin. Serotonin is a brain chemical known to raise a person’s emotional state.
  5. Draw: Drawing engages many parts of the right side of your brain. It also helps to take your mind off the things that might be increasing your logical thinking. When you are drawing you’re focused on the project in front of you and not on the hard work or problem solving. Art increases relaxation, enjoyment, and positive thoughts. To engage my students in this I’ve created a set of doodle and, what I call, creativity collage pages. Rocks
  6. Chat about anything but the test: During these standardized tests, our students are not allowed to talk. They sit for hours in silence expect to perhaps say, “I’m done.” Or “Can I go to the bathroom?” When your students are on a break or the whole class is finished, let them chat. But there should be one rule: No talking about the test. Not only is that a rule of these secure tests, but getting your students to talk about anything else is better for their break from the intense thinking involved throughout the testing period.
  7. Deep breathing exercises: You’ve probably heard this one a lot. In fact, you might just be one who uses this regularly. But it bodes well to include it here because it is so beneficial and regularly agreed upon as a stress reducer. (See notes above about getting oxygen to the brain.)
  8. Watch a funny movie: I know this one won’t work in many classrooms as there are regulations about movies in the classroom, but try watching a funny clip or short movie.   I’ve included some funny snippets here but I’m sure you have some favorites of your own that would be appropriate for your classroom.:; (Mahna Mahna); ;
  9. Play a game: There are so many great games out there. A quick game of tic-tac-toe, to good ol’ Heads Up 7 Up, or other games you play with your students can definitely break up the intensity of testing days.
  10. Dance: Dance has been proven to be a great energizer and re-newer of spirits. Not to mention how the kids love to laugh at our crazy “teacher moves”. Many of my colleagues are using for some terrific brain breaks. The kids have a lot of fun.
  11. Play: Get out the Playdoh™, Legos ™, or bubbles. I wouldn’t use these until all the class is finished, as I don’t want kids to finish early just so that they can play with the cool stuff on the table, but what a great way to end the day.

For many of us, the standardized tests are here and we have to get our students through them. There will be a lot of left-brain thinking, problem solving, text synthesizing, and the increased depth of knowledge questions being answered. Some students (and teachers) will take it in stride and others will stress. Let’s give our classrooms something positive to take away from the testing season. Maybe the season won’t be as obnoxious as its reputation.

Imagination is More Important than Knowledge.

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Primary school children work together in class, close up

Being creative as a group may be easier than trying to think of something original on his/her own


“I’m not very creative.”  This easily may be a frequent thought for several of our students, especially those who generally prefer to work alone.  These students, whose strongest learning style is Mastery, like to work with logic and structure.  Creativity may feel as foreign as planet Mars.  But have you ever thought that perhaps we, teachers, have been contributing to this negative expression through our instructions and assignments?  You see, many teachers give an assignment to individuals and simply say, “Just be creative.”  The student asks, “How?” or states, “But, I’m not very creative.”  Fortunately, we can make changes and help our conventional thinkers turn to more unconventional notions.

Dr. Art Costa tells us that creativity is a means that we all have inside and that we just need to learn to unloose it (Laureate, 1996).  Children have creativity.  We see it on the playground and in backyards everywhere.  Yet it seems that some have learned to bind it during school hours; others might have trouble accessing it due to biological challenges.  Those that have learned this constriction place expectations of logic and control on themselves and their situations, thus hindering potential innovations.  For these students, we can use others to loosen the strings of restraint.

By having our students work with others they can bounce ideas off each other, generate new ideas together, bring out each other’s strengths, and find that being creative as a group may be easier than trying to think of something original on his/her own (Laureate, 1996).  Sometimes all a creativity-bound student needs is a jumpstart.  By talking, brainstorming, and problem solving for a short time, the creative juices get flowing and turn to a boil.  At other times our independent students may need the support of their group from beginning through to the completion of the project.  When we provide these opportunities we can help our students to become more creative and more self-confident in their creative abilities.

In my classroom we would a significant amount of time throughout the school year learning about various cultures.   The different cultures were introduced and examined through interviews, videos, projects, a mock trip around the world, and through literature.  One text that we read was Yoshiko Uchida’s The Rooster Who Understood Japanese (Uchida, 1976). In the story, a Japanese lady, Mrs. K., and her assorted pets live next to a young Japanese girl and her mother.  A problem arises when a new neighbor complains about the lady’s pet rooster crowing in the morning, and he threatens to call the police.  The young girl comes up with a clever idea to solve the problem.

Before my class gets to the end of the story, and the solution to the problem, I would stop and engage my students in working together to devise their own solutions to the problem, being mindful of cultural differences, traditions, respectfulness, and needs.  After I was certain that the students understand the problem and its limitations, the students were assigned to small groups of three or four.  They were instructed to work together in order to present a unique solution to Mrs. K.’s problem.  At that point I wouldn’t guide their thinking other than to ask, “If you were Mrs. K.’s neighbors, what would your group suggest as a solution to this problem?”  The students are expected to work cooperatively to not only create a solution, but to creatively present the solution to the rest of the class as well.

At this point, students often began to ask questions for clarification or direction.  My answers provided limitations to classroom routines, time constraints, and redirection to discussions with their group members.  In this pre-problem solving time the students were not limited in ideas, other than to say that things must be appropriate for a school setting, and adhere to the context of the story.

Students usually begin by talking and brainstorming.  When I noticed my independent students not participating, I often would encourage their peers to invite them into the conversations.  (Using accountable talk would be a helpful element in this discussion time.)  The children gather together and discuss the various possibilities.  Sometimes groups chose to record their ideas with pencil and paper, and some did not.  For some groups, the ideas seemed to pop like popcorn, fast and furious, while others worked like delicious maple syrup.  It may have needed a little squeeze or change of angle, and it came out slowly, but it was a wonderful result.

Once the group had agreed on a solution, they needed to work together again, brainstorming, thinking, and planning to determine a unique way to present the solution to the rest of the class.  Presentations could be posters, a visual sample, dramatic play, a mock petition, a group explanation with questions and answers, or any number of other ideas.  For some children the lack of limitations might have been overwhelming.  In such cases I might have limited supplies to those found in the classroom.  I also might also limit the time to two or three class sessions.  Dr. Costa (Laureate, 1996) suggests that sometimes limiting materials is an appropriate instructional practice that fosters creativity.  Yet sometimes opening up the possibilities can work equally well.  I see this to be true when we engage in STEM challenges too.

When my students participated and worked together, they came up with various ideas; many of which I probably wouldn’t have thought of.  Sometimes my Mastery/independent workers would get an idea after a brainstorming session and then chose to complete the idea and presentation on their own.  I was completely fine with that.  I wanted them to not only determine a possible solution to the story’s problem, but be willing to consider ideas that may not have seemed logical and structured.  They don’t have to use the unstructured, out-of-the-box idea of a group, but they should be respectful to hear ideas and be inspired by them.  I must say that I never had a group not come up with an idea, though I have had individuals that really struggled with the lack of structure and fell into ideas that showed their lack of comfort or confidence with the task.  It was those situations in which I had to intervene and coach more, encouraging and pushing the child to put themselves in the shoes of one of the characters, or to let them select a peer/group’s idea that they would agree to take a truly supporting role in the idea.  Eventually they would come up with an idea that we could both agree was appropriate or they would join another peer/group.

Activities similar to the one mentioned here, allow the children to see that there can be more than one way to solve a problem, engaging their flexibility (Costa, Kallick, 2000).  It can also give the self-doubting student a safe environment in which to let loose his/her creativity, imagination, and ideas, which in turn may build his/her confidence.  When that confidence is built he/she may change his/her thinking from “I’m not creative.” To “I can try to think of something different.”

It’s important to allow students to work creatively for several reasons.  Much of school is logical, sequential, verbal or linguistic.  Our self-expressive learners (Silver, et. al.2000) need equal opportunities to learn with their strengths, and our Mastery students need to learn and experience being innovative, spontaneous, and un-harnessed.  Creative work provides opportunities for metacognition (Laureate, 1996).  Without thinking, we are like a rock in a river letting everything swiftly go by.  Finally, Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  I’ll take that, and fondly watch as my students demonstrate their creativity.


Silver, H. F., Strong, R. W., & Perini, M. J. (2000). So Each May Learn: Integrating Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (1996). Helping students become self-directed learners. [Video recording]. Los Angeles: Author.

Uchida, Y. (1976). The Rooster Who Understood Japanese. Encore Editions.

Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (Eds.). (2000). Activating & engaging habits of mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.