If We Keep Adding to STEM We’re Going to Create a Nonsensical Word

When I first heard about the movement in science education from regular science class to a STEM offering, I was curious. How does it work? It seems to make sense: Combining the things great science teachers already do. This would make it more meaningful and relevant. Love the idea behind it, but the name seemed a little hokey to me like that cheesy Valentine’s Day card you gave the girl you liked in third grade: “You must be a garden because I’m diggin’ you.” We don’t need fancy acronyms for classes or educational ideas; we just need the idea.

However, people clearly did not get my memo about unnecessary acronyms. I mean, I know we are a lazy society all about making things easier, but acronyms just make us sound uneducated or snobby. Like changing STEM to STEAM. Okay, I get it, art is important. I’m all for incorporating the arts into what I do in the classroom. I do that already, but did some person sitting in an office somewhere getting overpaid for doing unnecessary work have to make a hokey title seem even more ridiculous? In case you’re wondering, the answer is, “No!” I love the idea behind it. In fact, the new class I’m piloting this coming year will do just what the fancy-smanchy STEAM acronym says: Bring art into the science class in creative and innovative ways. It makes a lot of sense. The neuroscience research supports it. However, no researcher has yet to say, “Naming the revamped STEM Class STEAM is a brilliant idea that will change the way students think and learn,” because that’s ludicrous. A name is just a bunch of letters put together to make something sound better or different than what it really is. My name is Mark, but that doesn’t define me. I am a father, husband, teacher, thinker, reader, jokester, music enjoyer, and life lover. My name is just something I was given and is not what or who I am. I am me.

While I may have drifted off-track a bit from my original point, acronyms are stupid. I just read via Twitter the other day that some people or perhaps just one person wants to change STEAM to STREAM to remind people the importance of reading and writing. All effective teachers already know that. Good science teachers make use of reading and writing daily. Again, changing STEM to STREAM would be foolish. STREAM sounds like we’re going to have class outside by a meandering brook listening to Rafi and the Grateful Dead, which of course we’re not because the Grateful Dead made horrific music that inspired millions of people to make horrible choices.

It’s gone too far. We need to reign in our fascination with acronyms and bring things back to the basics. Let’s change STEM to something normal like Real Science or Science Alive. Both names tell people what it is. Engineering and Math are both a part of Science already while Technology is the way we live our lives. So, there’s no need to dress up words. KISS.

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Can the Common Core Fix our Broken System?

Listening to a recent segment on NPR about the Common Core and the fragment of people opposed to its implementation, I realized that our educational system is defunct. It’s broken and doesn’t work effectively in all areas. That’s not to say that some schools aren’t doing great things because they are. There are some teachers that are making learning real, relevant, and engaging for their students. Some great teaching and learning is happening out there. However, there are many gaps in the system that are causing teachers, schools, and students to fail. We need to fix this before it’s too late.

While the Common Core is a great idea and has plenty of merit as way of helping students and families who move from state to state a lot, the way it was introduced and the manner in which schools are employing it isn’t working. Learning should not be about tests. We need to get rid of high-stakes tests in all schools. Tests prove nothing in the end except that students know how to guess and fill in bubbles. We need to take the Common Core and find a way to make it work for each school and each classroom. Schools and teachers need to unpack the Core and put it into language and objectives that will work for their students. Then, as the year progresses, like all great teachers do already, they will formally and informally assess and grade their students on the objectives and standards. This will allow schools to document the progress of their students in meeting the Common Core standards. This data is much more relevant and effective than any stressful test could ever be.

If we eradicate high-stakes testing and find effective ways to utilize the Common Core to create engaging and fun lessons that allow the students to solve problems and work together, we, as a nation may be able to put ourselves back on track to fixing the educational system in our country. We need to look past using these high-stakes tests as a way of testing the effectiveness of our teachers. Teachers are already working so hard and giving everything they’ve got to their students. We need to remember that and apparently remind our government officials that in the end, it’s the students that matter. Every decision they make must be in the best interest of the students or there will never be a solution to our current dilemma.

Teachers Make the Best Students

Having recently taken a class at Plymouth State University, I was reminded how much I love being a student. I did my homework and projects and asked questions throughout the class. However, unlike high school, I actually read the assigned readings because they were engaging and relevant to me as an individual. It was awesome. I learned a lot about how to use place to teach students to write and grow as a community. I also learned about myself as a writer and teacher. The teacher was great, modeling the best teaching practices while allowing us to explore writing and ourselves. I can’t wait to take another class and I highly suggest every teacher take a class at their local university. Not only is it a great learning experience, but it allows you to put yourself in the shoes of your students for a brief moment.

Below is the Process Paper I crafted for the class.

The White Mountains of New Hampshire were at one time one of the world’s largest mountain ranges. So, what happened, you ask? What caused this dramatic change to take place? Weathering and erosion wore down the mountain range to its present-day size. It’s crazy to think that the mountains we see as we drive through Plymouth and places up north are so old and ancient, yet have become smaller in size as they grew, unlike humans who grow in size as they mature and age. Like the White Mountains, I have been carved and shaped over the years as a person and educator. It started out slowly at first, but as time wore on, ineffective teaching strategies eroded from my repertoire while more meaningful and important tools were weathered and shared from other great teachers and resources and settled onto my mountain, forming new hills and valleys. I continued to grow and develop as the old and no longer useful pebbles and rocks drifted away like the face of the Old Man in the Mountain while new particles and rocks were deposited. I was living and changing before my very eyes.
It wasn’t until I started talking and working with new and different educators that I really started to take off and swell up underneath like a magma chamber waiting to explode. When Alexis and I began teaching sixth grade together about four years ago, I thought I was at the pinnacle of my teaching career. I believed I was a polished mineral and had created a solid and sturdy sixth grade bedrock program. Little did I know, how like the White Mountains, much change was in store, and needed, for me.
Alexis and I created a small yet tight-knit community in the sixth grade. Our curriculum changed and evolved like early humans and their need for public restrooms. We completed lesson planning and unit planning together. We bounced ideas of one another. We used the nucleus of one idea to generate another, even more brilliant idea for a lesson or project. We became a small community of teachers. We were carving and changing each other while allowing ourselves to be shaped and formed by one another. Epic teacher building was taking place in the small town of Canaan, New Hampshire. It was amazing.
Much like the mountains I see from the windows in the sixth grade classroom, I know that change is not done with me yet. I have much to learn and much knowledge to impart on others. My journey is far from over and taking part in the Writing Our Communities Institute this summer taught me just that.
Fortunately, I didn’t have any expectations going into this class. I was hoping to learn a lot and do some writing. I was excited, but unaware of the transformation and mountain building that was going to take place. A colleague from my school had taken this class a few years ago and raved about it. So, Alexis and I, being the strong community of two that we are, decided to jump in head-first. Good thing I was wearing my helmet.
Prior to completing this course, I thought I knew what place was all about. I believed what the Five Themes of Geography posters plastered on our wall preached: Place is the human and physical characteristics of a location. That made sense to me. It was simple, yet complex. However, I now realize that place is so much more than just that. While place is complex and does have to do with the physical and human aspects of the location, it’s also about one’s interactions with the location and perspective they bring to a place. Place is a mixture of many different qualities and characteristics like the many faces of the rock ledges in the White Mountains. I learned that place is much more like a mysterious puzzle longing to be unearthed. The many places that exist on Earth, exist for a reason. They want to be looked at, explored, walked on, and learned from. More importantly, however, they also want to be shaped and impacted by us as humans. Clearly, I had much to learn about place and how I fit into it.
Creating the group definition of place that the four of us did together was enlightening for me. I struggle, at times, to listen to others and their ideas. I’d like to think that my way is the right and only way. Of course, that line of thinking has been manipulated quite a bit over the past several years, but remnants of the old rock ways of thinking still lie deep within me. So, for this exercise of group thinking, I forced myself to be open to the ideas of others. I’m not a single mountain peak alone in a sea of nothingness, I am a part of a mountain range community composed of many people, thoughts, and ideas. As Jenn shared her definition of place, I began to take my ideas and put them on the back burner. Her insight was impeccable. While I had some tiny pebbles to add, the crux of our definition was laid by her. I liked it. I liked letting myself go. I enjoyed not having to be right in the center of everything all the time. Sure, there was a nanosecond where I thought, “That’s stupid. My idea is way better.” Luckily though, that short time passed and I came to realize that a community can’t function when one person puts himself and his ideas above others. Teamwork was essential in this activity and I saw that as we juggled ideas and shared nuggets of wisdom to build our own definition of place.
For me, this class helped me realize the importance of teamwork when working as part of a community. While everyone has a role, no one role is bigger or more important than any other. That’s the idea I need to take back with me to the classroom this fall. When I’m working with my students I need to help them realize that while they all have great ideas, the power of listening can sometimes be even more valuable and great.
As our discussion of place bled into place-based writing, I realized that it is so much more than what I had thought it was. I thought that place-based writing was just about using a place as inspiration for writing. I didn’t realize that it encompassed so much more. Place-based writing, I realized, is about thinking, learning, exploring, writing, talking, sharing, listening, and growing. It’s not just a quick activity or side note. Place-based writing is deliberate and part of the much bigger puzzle of community building. We write to process our thoughts and truths learned about a place before sharing our piece with others. We then listen to what our fellow community members wrote and offer kind and constructive feedback. We think about how the writing of our peers affects or is connected to us as individuals. Through listening to Lois, Jenn, and Alexis share their writing, I realized that I have a lot in common with these three women. Lois and I each opened our hearts and families to a Fresh air child. Jenn and I each have a connection to Bethlehem, NH. Alexis and I, well that list could take hours to compile. Let’s just say that Alexis and I have much in common. I wouldn’t have known what I now know had I not genuinely listened to what the other writers ands teachers in this class had to offer.
Being a part of a community is so much more than just being one’s self. I opened myself to others and became vulnerable. It was scary at times. Would they like my writing? Is it too intense or provocative? I was afraid that when I proposed my research topic idea to Lois, she would lecture me on the appropriateness of writing and researching. In college, I had been kicked out of a writing class because the teacher thought my work was too over-the-top. I carried that baggage with me into this class. Luckily, I flushed that useless luggage down the toilet after that first day. I trusted my community of writers and people. I knew I would be supported and cared for. It was a good feeling to let go and just be me.
As I journeyed through the research project portion of the class, I realized that I was having fun. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love reading, writing, crafting lesson plans, and making new projects; however, sometimes when I’m working on a lesson plan it becomes tedious and something I just need to finish. This project kept me captivated the entire time because I never knew what was coming next. What else would I learn about public restrooms? Once I realized that bathrooms were once a community experience I knew that there was much more to my topic than I first realized. I wasn’t just researching public restrooms, I was learning about the history of humans, culture, and life. Bathrooms are a part of us as humans. They haven been woven into the fabric of our cultural mountains. This was no longer just a research project, this was a journey into the unknown. I learned that I wasn’t the only one who always had to go. Many people with chronic medical conditions need restrooms at a moment’s notice. I thought it was was just me that was always on the look out for restrooms. Boy was I wrong. What an amazing journey I had gone on. Even as I transformed my research into a movie, I learned something new. The puzzle pieces of my research fit together in so many different ways that it was difficult to figure out where in the movie to place specific facts and pictures. Gender specific restrooms have been a bone of contention for years in many parts of the world. So, where do I put it? Do I talk about it at the beginning of my video or later when I talk about the changes in health laws? I could even talk about it towards the end when I discuss the Restroom Access Law. It was a hard yet fun decision to make. In the end, I learned that bathrooms, while in our culture are not spoken about because we’d be breaking the Victorian-Era etiquette rules, are a necessary part of our society. We need them, but we don’t talk about them. I’ve never understood that. I would have fit in nicely during the great Roman civilization. Not only could I talk about bathrooms and going to the bathroom, I could talk with other people in the bathroom about about going to the bathroom. That would have been so cool. Well, I guess I’ll heed my advice from my video and spark up a conversation with another dude in a public restroom. I can’t wait to see how that goes.
As my mountains and valleys continued to grow throughout the week, I had this nagging thought continually pop up in my mind as I wrote and walked around Plymouth, NH. My father grew up in Plymouth and I know so little about him and this great town. While my relationship isn’t strained with my father, it isn’t exactly very strong. I’d like to learn more about the man who makes up more than 50 percent of me. I kept thinking and wondering about him as we did our writing marathon and walked around the town. I even wrote about him at one stop. So, now what? Do I just keep letting these thoughts eat away at me like some flesh-eating bacteria or flash flood threatening a local ecosystem? No, I needed to do something about it. This class had changed me in so many ways and fed my brain and soul in such vast ways that I needed to bring about action. I was no longer a huge mountain with a great forest on top, I was a bald-faced mountain full of crags and splits. So, I did something I had never done before. I talked to my dad, just last night in fact, about Plymouth and growing up there. I told him about the class I had taken and what I had done. I asked him if he knew about the D&M building. He said, “Oh yeah, that was right next to the Rochester Show Horn Factory where my dad worked. And up the street was a toy company.” I never knew. So, I kept digging to see what I might unearth. It turns out that the old train station building used to be a lamp assembly factory of some kind that my father worked at on the weekends with his father. They used to make lights and lamps from parts shipped to Plymouth from around the world. Wow! I learned more about my father’s connection to Plymouth from that short conversation than I had ever known. Again, my mountain was being shaped and carved by my family community. We also talked about Fox Pond. He used to go there as a kid and hang out with his friends. The pond used to offer swim lessons and apparently was a lot larger than it currently is. I never would have learned all of this about my dad, the silent mountain that he is, had I not taken this class. I feel like I now have a springboard to propel my mountain closer to my father’s peak. I can’t wait to have more conversations with him and learn even more about the man who made me into the man I am today.
Sure, I am excited to try all the new things that Alexis and I learned from the class with our class of sixth graders starting in September. I can’t wait to do our “Where We’re From” poem as we build a sense of community within the class. I can’t wait to collect samples from our local lake to study the science of our place. I’m excited to try new types of writing and prompts with my students and can’t wait to see what they come up with. Alexis and I are so excited to start planning out the year in our Humanities class thanks to everything we learned in this class. However, for me, I’m more grateful for being able to have had the opportunity to be a part of a an open and accepting writing community that helped me grow and feel good about my writing. I can carry this confidence with me forever. That, along with what I learned about my dad, really changed me and eroded away some of my doubts and self-consciousness. My mountain, like the peaks of the White Mountains, is now different thanks to being a part of a brilliant and amazing community. Unlike what we tell our students as we hike up Cardigan, I’ve taken away far more than just photographs this week and hope that I’ve left behind more than just my footprints.

Was the Book Necessary?

I’ve had plenty of bad food in my life. In college, I was eating a bag of chocolate covered pretzels when I bit into a hard one. I thought it was just thick chocolate and so I bit down harder. Bad decision on my part. It turns out there was a piece of metal melted into the chocolate. Yucky! No more chocolate covered pretzels for me.

I’ve also seen numerous bad movies in my short life. Armageddon with Bruce Willis was atrocious. At times I felt like I was watching an action movie on speed. It was jumpy and overwhelming. I’m not entirely sure the director knew what he was trying to accomplish. It was a mess.

When it comes to books, I’ve read plenty of boring books. I’ve also read many books that made me question the ethics used by the books’ publishers. However, I have a hard time saying that a book is bad as all books are worthy of reading at some point by some people. Books make us human. They shape cultures and communities. Books record our lives in words and pictures. Books are brilliant and beautiful and sometimes bittersweet but never bad in the sense of bad like Starbucks coffee or cell phones.

I just finished a professional development text I was sent as a member of the AMLE Book club. On a side note, I just found out that the AMLE is discontinuing it’s book club as an add-on for members. So sad. Anyway, I just completed the most recent book Getting Them to Talk by Susan Edwards. It wasn’t great and it wasn’t a complete waste of time. It lacked originality and depth. It read more like a collection of resources regarding class discussions one could easily find online than it did a quality professional text. Sure, the book included some good ideas about collegial discussions and class grouping methods. However, the rest of the book was filler or dictionary style definitions regarding discussion terminology, which is all stuff most educators learned in college or by visiting some cool websites or blogs. I’m glad I read it because had I not, I always would have wondered what I missed. I didn’t miss much, but I learned a little. So, of course, like all books, this text deserved to be published and should be read by those teachers looking to incorporate effective class discussions into the curriculum.

All Teachers Need to Read This Book: Book Love by Penny Kittle

So, while Penny Kittle is not presenting an original idea and admits that throughout her book with research from other professionals, she is putting forth an edict which all teachers and schools need to abide by. We need our students to love and enjoy reading. We need them to find their reading niche and passion. We need our students to read, a lot, especially if they are to be prepared for the rigor of the reading expectations in college and beyond. We need our students to read books they love, that keep them hooked. As educators, we need to challenge ourselves in how we think about teaching reading. The classics are just that, classics. While some of our students will enjoy and understand those masterpieces of literature, many of our students will hate the classics and not be able to comprehend them. So, why force students to do something they won’t and can’t enjoy? Neuroscience research tells us this is the wrong way to teach. So, why are we doing it? We need to stop. We need to help our students find books they enjoy, that challenge them and get them hooked on reading. We need to read books ourselves, as teachers. We need to talk about books and create a school culture that embraces reading. Penny Kittle’s Book Love is an important read in this digital age where our students are losing the ability to read deeply. We need to bring them back into the fold. We can’t force feed our students books we think they need to read. We need to change the way we teach reading, now.