Teaching Online (Network)!

“Collaborate with people you can learn from.”

– Pharrell

This is how I cope with uncertainty: I bring people together, we share ideas, and I share the journey. Like you, I have little to no idea how to prepare for next school year’s students, 6th graders new to middle school to boot. You know, the 5th graders who were sent home so suddenly and had to remain there for months, with civil unrest and widespread hardships. These are the students I’m spending all summer thinking about.

Won’t you join me in my Adventure to share best practices with fellow 6th grade teachers as we navigate the uncharted waters to successfully begin the 20-21 school year?

Resources are in order through the SPECTRUM Acrostic

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.07.13 PM“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.”

– Henry Ford

In another metacognitive loop similar to the one I spun in grad school, I’m helping teach teachers how to teach online, online. Both as a TA for a course through my alma mater, and as a leader for an informal network with my fellow 6th grade teachers, called 6TN.

Together, we are facing the unknowns in our world by exchanging best practices in building online communities, lessons and courses in our subject areas, and, shit, I don’t know what else. We’re just building as much as we possibly can to prepare, feel ready, and be helpful. It’s what we do.

At time of writing, we (as in teachers from anywhere in the USA, so like, millions of us) have so little to base their planning for online, “hybrid,” or face-to-face instruction. Same with knowing how often we’ll need to shift, how little notice we’ll have to change, or how to keep ourselves and others safe during this challenging time. 6th grade teachers face an even more unique challenge in that they’re 1 of about 7 core teachers introducing students to middle school, all with varying tech-savvy backgrounds and limited opportunities for compensated professional development. Ready?

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.08.07 PM“If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.”

– John Dewey

Working with fellow teachers is therapy.

We share what we went through this spring as schools “closed” overnight and instruction continued. We share stories of what we did just to get by and survive, knowing we can never know how much all this has severely impacted all families and teachers with families alike. We share the dashing discoveries we made to suddenly deliver instruction online, and we share the improvements we make as we enter a world where we can? will? have to? should? struggle to? want to? are able to? plan for anything.

At least we have this summer to regroup.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.12.45 PM“If we marry educational technology with quality, enriching content, that’s a circle of win.”

– Levar Burton

Let’s begin with the end in mind. No matter the class format, I can provide students with immediate opportunities for engagement and community. So I created 6TN – yes to cope – but also to experiment with new techniques for teacher- and student- engagement.

Welcome to the 6TN Virtual Workroom. If you join, you’ll learn methods for building Virtual Classrooms, Communities, and Conferences along with me using such tools as Google Slideshow, Choice-Based Google Forms lessons, Google Sites, and other platform-agnostic features which promote a blend of both synchronous and asynchronous engagement.

This experience is teaching me to think about students’ FIRST exposure to both online learning last spring and well as meeting us this fall. I don’t know what they hated or loved about online learning, or what misconceptions they will have as a result. I can, however, help teachers provide seamless experiences for their students, no matter the classroom. Starting smoothly is the end goal of 6TN. Join us!

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.13.45 PM“Teachers have three loves: love of learning, love of learners, and the love of bringing the first two loves together.”

– Scott Hayden

This Adventure is all about beginning a new journey, so it’s fair to expect reports from the field as we come to an end later this summer. I’m enjoying the new experience of working with teachers of all grades and subjects this month! From what Kindergarten teachers did to teach with their families to working with Marine Biology teachers in high school. We ARE the entire spectrum 🙂

I’m creating more reference materials in Google Sites, Google Classroom, Canvas, Virtual Tours, and other STEM-related courses with a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning for my students. Stay tuned, and contact me if you’d like a hand.

Meanwhile, my own summer time classroom is on a hammock with SPECTRUMClassrooms Book Club’s long overdue discussions in service of anti-racial education. I am joined by my esteemed education partner, Kim Cole from the instructional leadership team at her Haverhill middle school, MA. We are finishing up Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris and moving on to the uncomfortable albeit necessary learning from White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo soon. We’ll also read All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Oh, and I got Black Women in Science by Kimberly Brown Pellum, PhD and can’t wait to read it to my niece and nephew. Also, here’s a Black Lives Matter virtual library for kids.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 11.50.31 PM“Collaboration allows teachers to capture each other’s fund of collective intelligence.”

– Mike Shmoker

Despite the circumstances, global responses to COVID are teaching me to be proactive, not reactive.

Skipping the irony of that statement, I’ll share how my experience in online instruction is informed by the hundreds of teachers I’ve worked with this summer so far. Basically, while K12 has endured a tsunami and working through the aftershocks of the COVID quake, our higher ed peers have been swimming laps near the shore. Not to say our higher ed peers were not tremendously affected, but they could see the shore. There is so little literature to support the unique needs of teaching students with multiple courses in the same grade and school, special education with assistive technology education, and parent education – all necessary, NOW.

Yet, we must turn to our peers in higher ed, like in this Expert Panel for online teaching I was lucky enough to be a part of, to begin. It’s just a start, but this Adventure is all about beginning somewhere.

My biggest take-away so far is we as a K12 body of educators MUST be more proactive in helping students with the whole experience of online instruction, not just content delivery. We must foster relationships with the student AND family, we must provide time for instruction on online instruction (like helping students use a platform and better yet, a platform consistently used by all teachers on the team), and we must provide differentiated support for teachers and students alike. No matter the classroom, we need more help.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.42.40 PM“None of us is as smart as all of us.”

-Ken Blanchard

When I’m done with this amazing experience TA’ing the Foundations to Online Teaching course and 6TN, I’ll share the next steps to this incredible journey. I’ll be teaching a little STEM here, producing a little STEM Professional Development there. I’ll be helping where I can as a private producer and coach, and if I’m lucky, get a little rest before planning with my cohorts and team.

For now, that is enough.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.43.14 PM“Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.”

-Helen Keller

I used “hybrid” in quotes earlier because while I’m a proud graduate of a hybrid online graduate program in Science Education, I see misconceptions with new use of the term. Traditionally, hybrid is the mix of online VS. face-to-face classes. Moving forward, I see educators adopting a hybrid online AND face-to-face classes, as in rotational weeks of instruction in and out of the school building.

I hate to be a stiggler for specifics, but if I had an Undo, it’s clarifying some vocabulary just in case the whole world comes to a screeching halt again. Schools don’t “close,” they close their physical doors and open their online doors. Schools must help all students, no matter what, no matter the classroom. And we must fund them.

  • That said, brick and mortar schools will ALWAYS be necessary as a place for equal access to education, food, family support, sporting and arts events, technology with mobile internet, and yes, teaching.
  • That said that said, there’s a value to blending asynchronous learning (self-paced modules combined with group discussions) with synchronous learning (online or face-to-face sessions) that online education fills nicely, even with existing expertise.

Complicated? Yes. Current funding not designed to cover both? Correct. OK to send schools back to session this school year without a better plan to keep teachers and students safe? No. Additional expertise needed to support technology education for all learners, including families? Yes. Do we need a plan for both physical schools and online schooling? Yes, and frankly we’re already expected to do both.

The good news is thousands of teachers are ready to help, no matter the classroom. So let’s help teachers help students and families – while remembering they are paid for 10 months of work and willing to volunteer much of their time to meet the demand. Write your senators and Vote.org.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.43.53 PM“Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.”

– Bill Gates

This week in 6TN, we invited Maryland teacher Steven O’Neill for an AMA on teaching these specific 5th graders, soon to be our 6th graders. Thank you so much Steven! Leave questions for him in the posts below or in the Live Q&A form below, and take a copy of “How to Make a Live Q&A Form” as our thanks for joining us!

Download & Thanks

Live FAQ! Questions for Steven, 6TN, or other cool projects we’re working on? Fill out this Google Form and see my answers in real-time. (Also, please leave comments in the blog post, too!)

Want to build a Live FAQ just like this for your students? Here’s the same form with instructions on how to use inside (PLEASE MAKE YOUR OWN COPY, THANK YOU!)

This Adventure is dedicated to the students who called me their favorite teacher this year. One, supported by our emotional disability program, blossomed in the sudden online environment, as if freed from pressures unknown before. Another said they sworn they’d fix the Pacific Garbage Patch the day they learned about it in my class. And my favorite is the anonymous one, even to me, who said they “used to think science was all about mixing chemicals and doing experiments but now I think it’s about recording data and seeing things from different perspectives.”

The mission of SPECTRUMclassrooms.com is to engage teachers as they cultivate student-centered classrooms, one Adventure at a time. Site content and SPECTRUM acrostic copyright © 2020 Jess Rowell, learnmore@STEMJourneys.org. All Rights Reserved. Not responsible for any third-party content.

Follow our adventures with #thisiswhatstemlookslike #stemjourneys #6TN #prepareforanything #spectrumclassrooms #foranyclassroom


Synchronous and Asynchronous Remote Learning.

“Rather than reinvent the wheel, build on that which is already great.”

– Auliq Ice

Originally, I’d intended to dedicate this entire reflection on “Re-Invent the Future,” or my school’s efforts to extend our students’ ideas to the community through a live “Invent the Future” Zoom Panel on May 9. The breakneck speed of creating online solutions to teaching in the last six weeks advised me to combine this special event, in lieu of the now-cancelled county-wide event called the “Challenge Summit,” with other burgeoning projects. As the online/at-home/distance/virtual/ or, what I’m referring to as the remote classroom resources explode, I give you my current take at synchronous learning like “Re-Invent the Future,” asynchronous updates with Choice-Based self-paced modules, and the necessary blend between the two.

We’re ready to teach, no matter the classroom. This is because we’re all somewhere along the path to strengthen student engagement, no matter where the classroom falls in the physical vs. online spectrum.

Resources are in order through the SPECTRUM Acrostic

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.07.13 PM“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”

– Malcolm X

Like you, I don’t necessarily like the term, “new normal.” For those of us who have taken a biology course or seen Contagion, we know a global pandemic was plausible if not probable, especially given the human population factor. Now that it’s here and changed our lives forever (with the fortunate use of the Internet), there’s no such thing as normal anymore. We all knew there were some very outdated features to the traditional “brick-and-mortar” education system, and the online sector continues to grow response to demand. Now, we have both, or some future hybrid blend between the “new” system.

As I slowly accept how recognizing MY 6th graders’ voices on Zoom with no camera, possible only because of the connections we’d made prior to school dismissal, is a temporary phenomenon, I can’t stop thinking about what’s next. What comes next is up to us – as in ANY person teaching (yes, parents and teachers alike). As I “meet” my rising 6th graders, likely online, I appreciate how much more unique today’s 5th graders are as they going through this chasm AND transition to multiple teachers in middle school soon. Yet, online or in person, it’s still up to me to create those connections and engagement as before. Same job, different classroom.

From somewhere on the Internet.

Also like you, I don’t necessarily dislike the term “new normal,” either. I realize my unique blend of experience in online curriculum and formal classrooms gives my team a slight head start, but I’m not rare (and I’m sharing!). There are thousands of us innovating new ideas EVERY DAY to connect with students, their families, and online learning. These solutions will continue to collect in our already clever practices. If a spike in this or another disease comes along, we got this. We’re ready for anything, so PLEASE share your ideas and comments below so we can keep those great ideas flowing to help each other and students.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.08.07 PM“One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.”

– Malala Yousafzai

So where do we go from here? Like I told my “Re-Invent the Future” students, we must problem-solve together to a) make sure our voices are heard b) present new and plausible solutions to the community and c) be the change we wish to see in the word.

I’m fortunate to work with a supportive staff who sees my potential impact of synchronous and asynchronous connections with students as helpful and timely. In short, when I asked my boss if I could keep doing the after-school STEM club, she said yes.

For “Re-invent the Future”, we held live meetings “after school” each week to prepare for the culminating Challenge Summit Live Zoom Panel. I used breakout rooms, “Presentation Pop” sentence stems to help students communicate effectively WITH EACH OTHER, and other rehearsals to essentially produce a show for our community. I had volunteers as stage managers and others as co-hosts to keep me on track. The event, held May 9, helped serve as “a” model, not “the” model for how to engage students in live episodic events like science competitions or engineering fairs.

For asynchronous self-paced learning, our work in producing “Use”-Your-Own-Adventure Lessons with Google Forms, has engaged over 250 students in our school and seems to be a crowd-pleaser online. What a great solution to simplifying the student’s experience for any topic, and if you want more tips on this, see my Adventures and join our Facebook Group. Also, please stay tuned for some new materials combining the Choice-Based asynchronous delivery with synchronous roles and collaboration.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.12.45 PM“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”

– Einstein

I mentioned Re-Invent the Future. Last year was our school’s first year in participating with the county’s Invent the Future and Challenge Summit in its traditional format. Other than some improvements to include volunteers from last year, add guest speakers like architects and fire fighters, and utilize materials from the Missile Defense Agency’s STEM Education cohort, running this year’s program was pretty much business as usual. Until March 12, the last day I saw all 30 students.

In a rush to sanitize the room before students entered, I had them leave their backpacks in the hall and enter only with their pencil, welcoming them with a squeeze of hand sanitizer. I had reasonable suspicion schools might be dismissed for a couple weeks, and the science teacher/germaphobe in me was silently preparing yet for what, I didn’t quite know. I didn’t want to freak out my science or ITF students, not knowing when/if schools would be dismissed (they were the next day after the National Emergency Announcement) but well, I was freaked out.

Our goal was for students to design the ideas they’d brainstormed in their “interest” groups like Air Quality, Energy, Waste Management, Agriculture, etc., then order the materials they’d need to build their prototypes. We were about a week behind in prototype development as our school’s field trips to the Maker Space in Kid Museum were scheduled prior to our Spring Break. My intent was to focus on building and redesign after Spring Break as we prepared for the culminating Challenge Summit, May 9. As they left that hectic afternoon, leaving their designs in a pile on my demo table, we semi-joked we’d somehow continue the event, maybe even use FlipGrid. On a whim, I grabbed the sketched designs and threw them in my bag, not knowing I would be prohibited to enter the school the next day, for the duration.

As schools and after-school programs were cancelled, my principal quickly approved Re-Invent the Future. Students:

  • voluntarily continued with ‘after-school’ meetings to create presentations in a live Panel with Q&A after.
  • used Zoom breakout rooms and rehearsal schedules during the meetings
  • established more contact time with others and give something like therapy, given the “Q-Life” time warp and sudden vacuum in our work.

Fortunately, we’d been practicing “Presentation Pops” every week with randomly called groups giving quick POPS as practice for the big day, where they’d have the brief attention of a floating group of judges at the county-wide event in May. They were coincidentally primed for “Re-Invent the Future,” yet there were a ton of other intangibles, as well.

Here’s what we produced:

Shady Grove Middle School Re-Invents the Future

In a way, these students made an even larger impact with Re-Invent the Future.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.13.45 PM“There is no way to be a perfect teacher but a millions ways to be a great one.”

– Pinterest

Are you in between classrooms right now? Me, too. How many classrooms do you have?

I have my “brick and mortar” classroom, that I miss dearly. (Yes, even though I’m embracing all the changes in education doesn’t mean I don’t miss the creativity of my lab “studio” tremendously).

I have my “Science with Auntie Jessica” Google Classroom, designed to send fun things to my niece and nephew. I’ll be adding more for their Grade 3 Adventures 🙂 Here’s the code: 7chxwzf

I have my new virtual “Unschool” classroom for students. I JUST JUST started it… I’ve been so busy with the Google Forms project, I didn’t get to this yet. My friends have much more impressive ones so far, but I’ll

get caught up. I have my teaching platform; currently we use Google Classroom but we’ll likely switch to Canvas.

Finally, I have my “home studio” classroom in progress. More on home oasis for STEM teaching and coaching soon.






Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 11.50.31 PM“When we know better, we do better.”

                         -Maya Angelou

So here’s the aha of it all. I’m starting a new classroom, just for us. Over the summer, I pledge to add the materials we use on a regular basis in one slideshow with new my virtual classroom for teachers. It’s also under construction, but please be an early adopter of this catalogue of compiled resources 🙂

From the explosion of resources online to the necessary inventions we create daily to fit out needs, this is what I’ve learned in the last six weeks. We may have gone into the school to help students, but now we’re in the business reinventing school to help each other.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.42.40 PM“Learn to think continentally.”


I’m too busy to write this section because you’re too busy reading it! Sharing, my friends, IS the result. Others have used this opportunity to learn how to make bread, paint, or read thick novels. I write, spend countless hours brainstorming with teachers, and edit. It may not be as photogenic, but it’s rewarding.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.43.14 PM“He who opens a school door closes a prison.”


Opinions aside, we have a responsibility as educators to push for equity. Push hard and push back. Under no circumstances is it ok to let students go, or let them disappear through this literal chasm in our communities. We’ve learned, through the tireless efforts of our Wellbeing Committees and county’s technology distribution efforts, that as students slowly gain access and confidence, they will show up in a Zoom and even start completing work.

Gaining access may take longer, and creating developmentally-appropriate synchronous and asynchronous blends of instruction may take even longer.

Brick-and-mortar buildings called “schools” have proven themselves to be the equalizer of all communities nationwide. They may be outdated, but they are where millions of students are fed and given access every day for over half the year. Going into new “schools” with my prediction of hybrid online and physically-based, we have great opportunities ahead, but only if we are equitable in our approach.

If I have any Undo, it’s to make sure that one-sided articles like this are never published again. If this Undo has, however, pushed me to further fight for equity and access for all students (no matter the classroom), then maybe it’s actually a Do?

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.43.53 PM“There are far far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” 

– C.S. Lewis

I hope you found my INITIAL ideas for synchronous and asynchronous learning helpful, and there are MANY more ideas on the way. Let’s “Re-Invent the Future” together.

Download & Thanks

By request, I’m still providing weekly updates on the Choice-Based Google Forms for my science department. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve developed interest probes, argumentation, and even more for differentiated pathways in learning.

Week #6 Sound Waves Classwork Form Choice-Based Lesson Format with Interest Probe
USER ACCESS ONLY: Please request editable copy separately. https://forms.gle/8wH4FC93k3cJYm1N9

The mission of SPECTRUMclassrooms.com is to engage teachers as they cultivate student-centered classrooms, one Adventure at a time. Site content and SPECTRUM acrostic copyright © 2020 Jess Rowell, learnmore@STEMJourneys.org. All Rights Reserved. Not responsible for any third-party content.

Follow our adventures with #thisiswhatstemlookslike #stemjourneys #inventthefuture #reinventthefuture #kidmuseum

“Use” Your Own Adventures & Teaching Online!

“Necessity is the mother of invention.”

– Plato

My fellow teachers. Like you, I’ve abruptly found myself in the formal online teaching-and-learning arena. Fortunately, I’m from the land of Online Learning and speak Digital Curriculum & Instruction. I was a little rusty at first, feeling the feels of grief as my 105 6th graders were suddenly at home, not challenging me everyday in my classroom. Soon, however, I found my bearings.

If you’re ONLY here for help delivering lessons efficiently using our “Use”-Your-Own-Adventure approach with Google Forms, then proceed to Pedagogy. If you’re here to weigh in on other ways we’re re-inventing that magical – now remote – “bell-to-bell” autonomy we teachers love, then please join me on this whole new journey.

Resources are in order through the SPECTRUM Acrostic

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.07.13 PM

First, a salute to parents. No science is done in a vacuum and the science of online learning must be done together. More than ever, teachers and parents must unite to help students. We are partners, and we got you! I’m here for you and our students, now and always.

Second, to my peers. This has been a creative challenge despite the circumstances. I’m constantly trying to figure out what works for students, teacher peers, admin, and parents. I was so bummed when my Efficient Classrooms Adventure was null so soon after I shared it, just days before schools were suddenly dismissed… I hope you find these resources helpful. This experience is teaching me how much we need to stick together!

Please join my teacher Facebook Group or leave comments in this Adventure so we can keep those great ideas flowing to support each other, and thank you!

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.08.07 PM

The sudden closure of schools nation- and worldwide is teaching me to re-think everything. Sure, tons of free resources flooded the internet, but how can we make them easy to use for students, without overwhelming them? Checklists with hyperlinks didn’t work, access is limited, and Google Classroom is CUMBERSOME at best, especially with multiple links (don’t even get me started on directly assigned docs).

Enter Google Forms. Not just for assessments anymore, we created the “Use”-Your-Own-Adventure Google Form lesson to be self-paced, sequenced, and filled with CHOICE and differentiated content. I’m told this format can work nicely for other subjects, too.

Here are some overview videos. All links are available in the Download section at the end.

Here is a way I use the responses from Forms to review everything in one ongoing Google Sheet instead of individual exports, as well as using “Fill in the Blank” methods to give bonus videos and other optional extensions.

Remember, the settings are set to allow for multiple responses and they will get a receipt, so they can re-enter from their email if needed. Don’t limit to 1 response, and use other settings like Presentation to put in messages to make this work for your individual needs.

Here is the short detailed clip for for using sections in Google Forms as both student repetition and gauging progress in their own learning.

Next week we’re building a similar system for embedding Spanish instruction in sections. Additionally, I want to build in more resources for learners supported with special education programs. Please note every school may use their assessment Forms differently (even per school), so your needs may be a little different. A lot of this is trial and error, and please let me know if I can help you out!

If you use the skeleton file below, it can save you some time. Just remember every MINUTE you spend on this Form can save you HOURS of answering never-ending questions, then motivation-mending time, with your students.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.12.45 PM

Stay tuned! We are very soon launching our own remote school-wide Engineering outreach day in lieu of the cancelled county-wide event this weekend! Our exciting “Re-Invent the Future” project takes place May 9 and incorporates the very best of the student invention and design process – communication. Coming Soon 🙂

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.13.45 PMThis is a good time to reflect on what makes our classrooms (online and face-to-face) equitable, accessible, and engaging. How are you able to incorporate remote opportunities for social-emotional learning (and also, how are you)?

Here are some resources to help maintain connections with each other and our students’ families.




Please share your helpful resources!

MCPS Looking After Our Students: Self-Isolation Support

Reaching Out While Staying In


Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 11.50.31 PM

I’ve started all sorts of new things with my students, sending them Wildlife Wednesdays playlists of fun wildlife videos each week, natural history journals with stories about the birds nesting in my yard as spring unfolds around us, tons of surveys for fun, FlipGrids, a separate Google Classroom for my 2nd grade niece and nephew with fun activities, and my favorite, group-sign birthday cards.

Want to make a group-sign birthday card for your grade-level team to sign for each student? Send to staff with edit access with a deadline, then download it as a PDF to send to your birthday students. They like hearing from their teachers! Click here to make your copy.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.42.40 PM

In an epic but slightly predictable turn, some of my most introverted students are super stars right now. They are blooming with the autonomy of their own learning, sharing accountable discourse with their peers, and seem like they were born for this form of education. Is what we are doing working for ALL students? I don’t know, yet. Are we being given an opportunity to see our students in different light? Absolutely.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.43.14 PM

I wish we could Undo not knowing where our absent students are. Are they ok? We keep calling and trying to connect and doing the best that we can. Everyone is. Can we know where they are and how they are? Nationwide, teachers are reporting more than 30% absenteeism. Where did they go? Are they (and their families) ok? What more we can do?

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.43.53 PM

Thank goodness for the internet, right? Below is  a a copy of the latest Google Form for the “Use”-Your-Own-Adventure style Forms. PLEASE note we are improving this in spades each week, and use both provided curriculum, images from the internet, and quality sources like PhET, etc. Your specific needs might differ, and I’m getting feedback these might work for other subjects, too, which makes sense since this is a really a delivery strategy.

Keep me posted, and I’ll be updating this page with milestones. Thank you and May the Fourth Be With You.

Download & Thanks
EDIT: My favorite, Sound Waves, is here.

Introduction to Waves


Energy Transformations

Magnets and Electromagnetism

Introduction to Static Electricity

This Adventure is dedicated to Google.

The mission of SPECTRUMclassrooms.com is to engage teachers as they cultivate student-centered classrooms, one Adventure at a time. Site content and SPECTRUM acrostic copyright © 2020 Jess Rowell. All Rights Reserved. Not responsible for any third-party content.

Follow more adventures with #thisiswhatstemlookslike #inventthefuture and #sgms.

Special Edition: Adventures in Efficient Classrooms!

“For every minute organized, an hour is earned.”

– Benjamin Franklin

How do I get my students 100% READY and on track in the first minute of class, every day? Plain and simple. Startup routine. I’ve been responding to requests from fellow teachers to share this and decided a special edition Adventure may work better. It’s not in the SPECTRUM Acrostic and instead an easy-to-use checklist. Please leave your feedback and helpful comments below!

Here are THE five simple steps I use every day which waste ZERO time getting students ready to learn. I do this startup routine exactly the same way every day. For us science teachers, I’ve added how I use the second minute of class to engage students in phenomenon-based cooperative learning, accountable talk, and equitable calling strategies for full activation of schema.

Step #1 Line Up

Quite possibly the most effective management strategy I initiated this year! Having students line up at the door, giving a quick pre-announcement, and then quietly entering single file gives a message of purpose. I call the doorway the “science frame of mind,” as they enter. I have my after lunch class sit down first, and have a community circle if needed. If a class is not successful for any reason, we leave the classroom and start again. It’s important to not make starting over a punishment, but a “let’s try again” team effort.

Step #2 Start 

As the last person enters, I or a student presses start on the 1-minute timer embedded in my slide (top right). Like with most functions, we vote on which timers to use and, due to the limited selection of timers on YouTube, use this timer with a fun drum beat. For instructions on how to embed YouTube videos and useful timers into Google Slides, see this link.In the first minute, students see the same screen format to follow the instructions and set up their tables or materials using codes in the “Ready” section. For instance, Binder (T) means binders on tables, where (C) is counters. Roles by suit correspond to their seat/table number and are posted with the codes so they know who does what. In this example, hearts will get their Table Folder, spades will help students by reading the objective, clubs will get new Agenda pages for students if needed, and diamonds will get the accountable talk stems placemat. If they need a pencil they get it from the community mugs around the classroom.

Among the many benefits of this method, the main one is intangible; I don’t have to do anything, including speak. I can circulate for special updates to students, setup my own table for last-minute improvements, or simply watch and admire students running their own classroom. My students know I like my space and respect their need for space. I usually use the routine to take a calm moment to focus on me before I help them.

Step #3: Pencils Up! Organization Prize

Right as the minute timer ends, I call “Pencils Up!” and inspect all tables for their correct setup. If the whole class did the setup and started the activator correctly, I give an Organization Prize, or chainlink for a growing paper chain (the first class to reach a certain distance means EVERY person in the class receives a small piece of candy). Once I forgot to say “Pencils Up!” and was doing something else, then turned to find 30 silent students ready with their pencils in hand like wands. Power of routine!

I give the announcements with goals for the day, and ongoing project notes I’ve included in the Checklist for Success. I ask for a Thumb Time rep (or have one assigned on the board). This person will help me 4 minutes before the end of class to get ready for dismissal. See my Dismissal procedures for information about Thumb Time.

Step #4 Phenominute

Originally the “Accountable Minute” or “Phenomenal Minute,” Phenominute is how I start every lesson with phenomenon, structured accountable discourse, and equitable calling strategies. 

Students look quietly at the daily image for 20 seconds (while I take attendance), and are then given an inquiry-based prompt, “What do you think the buildings are made out of and where do THOSE materials come from?”

For another 20 seconds, they talk at their tables using an Accountable Talk placemat, and diamonds lead the conversation using chosen stems from the daily category on the mat (below). 

I created this strategy to respond to the call to action of incorporating phenomenon in every lesson, as well to combine a Think-Pair-Share with accountable talk and equitable calling strategies, and I needed them to do something quiet so I could take attendance.

Then we have 20 seconds or so whole class share out by Table, specifically calling table numbers and not names. “Table 1, what do you think?” “Table 5, we need to hear what they said.” “Good observation Table 7, the towers do have wide bases and skinny tops.”

The Accountable Talk Placemat is stored in their Table Folder. While this is an incredible strategy for learning and engagement, it’s also a backup plan if an administrator walks in for unannounced observations. It’s why I created Phenominute 😉

On a side note, I normally choose natural phenomenon showing interactions of organisms in nature, particularly because they may have limited access to beautiful nature photography. Today’s example was buildings since we’re introducing them to engineering through architectural STEM careers. Phenominute is very flexible!

Phenominute is even more effective because it’s durable and promotes daily practice of accountable talk and full activation of schema.

For the record, here are some other examples:

A note about transparency. Another intangible to Phenominute is being able to disclose why we start class in this format. The changing-gears primes students’ minds as though stretching before a workout. It may be a longer lesson (aka cardio) or a sequence of shorter lessons (tabata yoga), so doing the same start routine helps prime them for the day to come. I explain “it is scientifically proven that you learn better if you do this format to learn science, so you need practice shifting gears with me.”

Step #5 Random Table Prize:
Structured transition with sequenced instructions.

Finally, the most structured time of our lesson arrives. I structure the transition to their daily work with a sequence and a cue. For ideas on transitions, check out our Facebook Group SPECTRUM Classrooms Book Club, where I’ve included strategies from Engaging Practices by Dr. Crystal McGil. “When I pull the random table prize, you’re going to do this but don’t do it until I pull the prize. When I pull the random table prize, you will put your homework in your binder, make sure your Agenda has the homework assignment on today’s date, and put your binders on the counter because we need clean tables for the STEM challenge, and be seated with empty tables and closed mouths. Today’s table prize goes to…..”

I have all the seat number cards in a black top hat, including two Jokers which, when pulled, we must stop and take three deep breaths. I put four mints in the cup with their Table # and they take the mints as they leave class. Yes, that’s 4 mints for 4 classes, or 16 mints a day, every day for 180 days of instruction. That’s approximately 19 bags of mints (or small candies), roughly $100 investment for the school year, or $.50 per day, I’ve spent on some sanity. Like all teachers, I stock up when I find stores going out of business or use coupons/sales. Also, any time I see a candy wrapper on the ground, I take away the cups and don’t give Table Prizes for a couple days (while still pulling the winning Table number so they feel the sting).

An intangible benefit to this strategy is tables are quicker to come to attention during the rest of the transitions since they’ve identified with each other at the beginning of class. Also, since I change seats monthly, these strategies help me focus on equitable engagement for all students and build even more opportunities for cultural proficiency. 

Of course it took some time to train all students by starting simple, like entering silently and randomly pulling door prizes then adding more complex tasks like the use of my start timer. But with five simple steps, I have every class READY every day without wasting any time. Also, it’s fun. 

Other tools I added to this year’s toolbox that DRASTICALLY improved my efficiency:

Super Smooth Days and Rowell Restaurant

Part of our Community Agreement is to earn “free time,” or what I call Rowell Restaurant Time. Students earn a number of Super Smooth Days toward a set day of individual choice rewards time. I got the idea from our team PBIS incentives and adapt each 1-2 monthly goal around holidays. I enjoy being in the middle of class and rewarding them spontaneously with a Super Smooth Day. They usually just say “yay” and continue on, knowing they were caught being good.

If they get all Super Smooth Days, they get the whole period. Usually, I just give 2 minutes per super smooth day and make a fun list of stuff to do in Rowell Restaurant. I do not allow free time (but overlook if they use the time to play their own games).

Here’s a link to the slideshow and instructions for quick reference.

Dismissal & Thumb Time

Thumb Time is used at the end of class for giving thumbs up or down on how they feel they did achieving the daily objective and is good informal daily feedback on content-acquisition. I’m still building out this system as dismissal is an area for growth for me. Sometimes I forget since we’re deep in concentration by that point, sometimes I’m intervening elsewhere… Ideas welcome!

Responsibility Prize

I have a bag of emoji erasers and when students come to lunch or do extra time, I let them choose their own eraser. Before doing so, I hold the bag and tell them “No matter who you are on this planet, the more responsibility you take for your action, the more choices you get in life. You are receiving my highest honor, which is to choose your emoji.” 

My favorite Call Back

Instead of a basic call back, I combined the tune of “Shave and a Hair Cut” and their corresponding tune of “Two Pence” with a visual cue. They know they need to stop what they’re doing to LOOK at whatever I’m pointing or holding up. Tiny adjustment for a MAJOR gain in classroom management.

Another system I use is calling classes by their nick name (they vote on) or use their code name (they vote on) to call their attention. “When I say Dragon, you save Wolves. Dragon!…”

Organizational Prize Chain

I teach 6th grade which is an organizational shock to former elementary students, and I do a lot of advanced organization in my general instruction. As each class wins chain-links for correctly organized Table Folders or correct start up, the links grow longer and longer. The first class to get a certain length means each student gets a small piece of candy (this is about once a month or two months). The chain grows through the year and reinforces the value of daily practice toward organization in any topic.

Random Reading Prize

I use a top hat with playing cards to pull for random everythings! From random seat prizes, table prizes, and reading prizes. If students vote on random reading vs. say, independent or assigned reading (they always vote for random reading), I pull the seat number for the corresponding reader. They may pass, but the reader will receive a prize. If the Joker is pulled, everyone must stop, take a deep breath, and continue. 

Community Agreement & Student Voice

Student Voice and accessing the affective domain can be as simple as adding a question on an existing quiz in Google Forms to silent journals to “Housekeeping Days” to peer review of each other’s work. Whatever the strategy, it must be ongoing and give the sense of “if not this time, maybe next time.”

I’m constantly polling my students for their insights and making my thinking visible with progression and comparison over time. Showing my students that I’m learning to be a better teacher because of them has only helped my practice, never hurt.

Finally, in my favorite way to promote calm, color, and culture, here’s a little trick I have for keeping the peace. 

Please join our new Facebook Group and share your path with fellow teachers: Journeys with STEMJourneys.org. See you at the top!

Download & Thanks

In the spirit of creating student-centered classrooms, my goal this year was to create a self-checklist for rigorous science and engineering approaches to learning. Always a work in progress, I made this poster to help students understand how they’re learning problem-solving skills in their daily work. Download the PDF and please leave your feedback!

Did I learn it right PDF

This Adventure is dedicated to my mentoring teachers, Mr. Taylor and Mrs. Hobbs. As though full circle, Mr. Taylor got me started on this journey as a student teacher 15 years ago, and Mrs. Hobbs showed me the path I’m choosing now. Thank you SO much and see y’all at the top!

The mission of SPECTRUMclassrooms.com is to engage teachers as we cultivate student-centered classrooms, one Adventure at a time. Site content and SPECTRUM acrostic copyright © 2020 Jess Rowell, learnmore@STEMJourneys.org. All Rights Reserved. Not responsible for any third-party content.

Follow our adventures with #thisiswhatstemlookslike #stemjourneys and #powerofroutine.

Adventures with Missile Defense (Part I)

“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Even if you don’t care about science or STEM, I still need you to read this; it could be a matter of national defense. This three-part Adventure asks which is easier; getting one million students in STEM careers in 10 years or intercepting a missile in space with no warning? Ever since I returned from a week of packed professional development with the Missile Defense Agency in the quaint town of Huntsville, Alabama last summer, the question has been on my mind. The Executive Director of the Missile Defense Agency asked me to do my part; now I’m asking you to do yours. Read this, and maybe you’ll understand why.

Resources are in order through the SPECTRUM Acrostic

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Quick! Throw a small ball in the air, and then try to intercept that ball with another small ball, all in the split second both are in the air. Tough, right? Next time, try the same thing except use a paper airplane instead of the small intercepting ball. Got it? Great! Now, this time I want you to try it with tons of metal at hypersonic speed, above the atmosphere, and little to no warning. This is a bullet-to-bullet interception, and it’s precisely what thousands of people at Missile Defense Agency (MDA) prepare for every day on a global scale. This branch of the Department of Defense is not fed solely by the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines. Instead, it requires extensive collaboration with all military branches, even NASA!

Unlike NASA, however, MDA is not concerned with sending a rocket to space solely for exploration. There’s no satellite on top of their rocket, nor an astronaut. MDA rockets aren’t wheeled majestically, albeit slowly, to a launch pad for all to watch. They are instead buried under silos 65′ underground at various Air Force Bases. They deploy with minutes or even seconds’ notice and, yes, actually intercept something traveling the exact opposite direction of it, somewhere in space at hyper-balistic speeds. Regardless of threat, the STEM involved with such a feat is real.

MDA can’t boast “practice makes perfect,” either. Test missions are expensive; few and far between. Yet, somehow, these folks are expected to protect us should the unthinkable happen and a nuclear warhead is launched in our direction. According to Executive Director John H. James, “if or when it happens, we will stop it.” Before my week with MDA’s brilliant STEM Ed team this summer, I would’ve scoffed at the prospect, thinking I don’t like war movies so none of this applies to me anyway. After hearing his somber and precise keynote inside MDA’s board room, I’m forced to agree and fuel the mission of peace in my own – and considerably less-pressured – way.

Thanks to the STEM education initiative by the Missile Defense Agency, my mission this year is to design approaches, implement activities, and meaningfully reflect on student engagement in STEM. Ms. Rowell (I’m the T in this picture), 6th grade science teacher, arriving for duty.

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We need one million people to pursue STEM careers to remain the powerful tech society the great folks from the Apollo days built. We’re still riding the wave from the Space Race and we haven’t replaced those retiring heroes. By the way, we need to do this in the next 10 years.

Somehow in the 50 years since we landed on the Moon, USA’s engineering workforce fell behind. According to University of Alabama Huntsville’s professor Dr. PJ Benfield, we need 34% more STEM careers filled in the USA and have currently filled 2%. His unique mixture of humor and serious banter delivered the dire messages of the global helium shortage and other dwindling resources. He’s a great connection for education technology by the way, and he specifically asked you to contact him if you need support to fill this mission.

Who can build the tallest structure? (Remind me to tell you about redesign and flow next time.)

Us science (et al) teachers, we think we know it all, right? I mean, we literally show children how to learn how the world works; from the atom to the cell to the universe. Maybe make it fun, too. Just this is enough, right? (Well, no one knows how hard it is until they actually do it.) Also, we rarely know what becomes of the students as they continue down the assembly line of education. In this manufacturing analogy, my work is akin to adding the steering wheel column to a chasis while a high school teacher staples upholstery and installs wheels. It’s ok that we don’t know how the final product drives, because we installed our part correctly and efficiently. This is enough, no?

No. My mind was blown by the additional call to produce one million STEM-career candidates in an ever-changing world. To clarify, MDA did not direct this. They gave us an overwhelming show of support and asked only to spread the word of STEM Education in return. It’s me who took the rest to action. How will I ever know the impact of my work?

Speaking of support, I now have a community of teachers from our summer cohort and a huge box of supplies from the kit by MDA. What’s inside? Come to my STEM clubs, and the Adventures Parts II and III, to find out.

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Meet Stan. Stan is a director for Targets and Countermeasures at MDA who helped me understand the importance of bringing “the why” to all engineering in my science and STEM classes. “Demanding a threshold,” he called it. Injecting pedagogy in teaching STEM – from never giving up on a kid to enriching discourse with building groups – is just some of what Stan does to promote our work with students. As we all know, engineering is more than the design and build cycle. His inspiring words, particularly around how to foster an environment with risk-based mistakes and growth mindset, helped me reverse-engineer my entire approach to inquiry learning. The results are tangible, or else I wouldn’t be able to tell these Adventures. Thanks Stan.

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As Stan confirmed, the general consensus to getting anyone to learn anything – from table manners to swimming to reading – is to start ‘em young. So getting students engaged in science concepts and engineering solutions can and should start in Kinder, right? We all know the importance of starting reading and math, so learning it through the lens, and curiosity, of science should be a reasonable and favorable shift. I teach 6th grade where some students haven’t even experienced science yet, let alone know what it is. Me and my tye-dye labcoat are likely their first exposure to it, even though we’re in middle school.

Filled with strategies to dispel any preconceptions about science, I now teach children to “put some science in it” whenever we need to solve a problem. With a school-based initiative to seek and measure 100% student engagement on the daily, I immediately benefitted from rebooting my tool box this summer. My life got a lot better when I changed my classroom to a place where you can learn anything you want about science, not where Ms. Rowell will teach science itself. If you’re interested in learning and sharing strategies along the many paths to student-centered classrooms, please join our STEMJourneys Facebook Group.

Oh! Stay tuned for my new project: STEM(Fun), where putting the fun in STEM is, well, fun.

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With all my professional development (both as a provider and learner), this was a rare opportunity to experience a 45-hour program solely as a teacher. We had rich, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, discourse while building Project-Based Learning lessons. We teachers are all somewhere on the path to building student-centered – maybe even student-driven – classrooms, so it’s natural to have some bumps along the way. Experiencing this, as well as reading up on best practices like these, helped me see where I am along the journey to 100% student engagement, and immediately paid off in my practices this school year.

As students, we launched biodegradable weather balloons and tracked them using weather apps, built free-standing structures in multiple stages to encourage redesign and flow, simulated precise rocket launches using straw rockets, and experimented with concepts of density, friction, forces and motion, and properties of matter. We toured facilities like U.S. Space and Rocket Center and Boeing Defense Training Facility. Pictures weren’t allowed in the latter, but I’ll post what I can when they are released by MDA 🙂

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In my third formal year in the classroom, I now understand I’m not sure who learns more in education; the student or the teacher. The results of this week, other than the daunting one million STEM careers call to action, included a broader understanding of the military and our current defense strategies. My own scientific literacy about the “lurking threat” to our nation’s security, particularly cyber threats, increased as did my weariness. I read more now, and track the events of meetings with North Korea, China, and Russia. I seek to understand more about foreign policy and how the lives of others are affected by our decisions (and vice versa).

Best of all, I have my new materials kit which has an arsenal of activities; including tendon-based robotics with hydraulic syringes, balsam wood gliders, flex mirrors and LightBlox, and my favorite, straw rocket launchers (pictured here). I’ll be sharing the results of these lessons in Parts II and III, and for ideas on how to use these lessons you can download my DRAFT lesson plan on light called “Star Wars & STEM” in the free download section.

Launching straw rockets with happy children.

According to the National Science & Technology Council’s Strategy for STEM Literacy in December 2018, “all Americans will have lifelong access to high-quality STEM education and the United States will be the global leader in STEM literacy, innovation, and employment.” I think we can more easily guide students to the paths of STEM, and my question is WOULDN’T we choose a career in STEM? The choices are limitless, and the material is FUN 🙂

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I do not have an Undo for this experience, other than perhaps what got us to this shortage of STEM professionals to begin with. Missile defense is always going to be in our lives, and their task is of course more daunting than mine. I’m so impressed by their STEM Education initiative, and appreciate the opportunity to be at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center during the 50th anniversary of Apollo. Try to apply y’all.

(New life goal: Go to all the NASAs. Two down, eight to go.)


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Among the many special guest keynotes we met throughout the packed week, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Shery Welsh, a director for Science and Technology. Her presentation for “The Importance of STEM Education” was not preaching to the choir. It was a token given to us science teachers on how we on the right path with the right heading. If we’re going to get one million people in STEM careers in the next 10 years, then we as educators need support, and more folks like her, no? Yes.

To end Part I of this Adventure, I share this: I recently experienced a former 8th-grader telling me she chose to go into aerospace engineering because of my love of space education. 1 down, 999,999 to go.

Download & Thanks

Once, while walking on the Great Wall of China touring a group of engineers through career-immersion trip, a student told me I’m kind to everyone I meet along the way. One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received.

Inspired by Rise of Skywalker and all things Star Wars lately (Baby Yoda!), I wrote this lesson on light with every intention of providing the WOW factor for my 6th graders.Also, I wanted to play with our LightBlox from the kit. I implemented the lesson just this week so haven’t yet included my final reflections (pardon the pun). There’s much to improve, including adding more discrepant events and more competition, etc. “Be kind,” I tell all my students, as I then tell myself along my own humbling writing journey.

STEMJourneys Activity, Star Wars & STEM

This Adventure is dedicated to the very nice person (Lara) who gave me compostable straws for my straw rockets in my materials kit. You know who you are 🙂

The mission of SPECTRUMclassrooms.com is to engage teachers as they cultivate student-centered classrooms, one Adventure at a time. Site content and SPECTRUM acrostic copyright © 2020 Jess Rowell, learnmore@STEMJourneys.org. All Rights Reserved. Not responsible for any third-party content.

Follow our adventures with #thisiswhatstemlookslike #stemjourneys and #mdastemed.