A Defining Issue of Our Time

A Defining Issue of Our Time

Creating middle schools where every child can speak a digital language

Jade is a quiet 12-year-old girl who has been in my English classes here in Hong Kong for the past two school years. Because of her in-class demeanor, it took me by surprise when Jade off-handedly mentioned that she has over 4,000 followers on her YouTube channel. It turns out, Jade has been teaching many more kids than I have this past year through her online videos.

Jade has a privileged position in our society. Unlike many of her peers, who can only follow the channels of others, Jade has figured out how to mix words, images, sounds, and ideas to effectively communicate her message in her DIY productions.

We have so far arranged our society so that only a privileged few can successfully communicate in the language that is integral to the operation of our cell phones, tablets, smart TVs, and video game consoles. We ensure this continues to be the case by focusing on math facts and syntax when we teach digital programming classes in isolation from the rest of the curriculum, an approach that only appeals to a fraction of our student population. The result is self-evident: the present divide that exists between those who can instruct our devices what to do and those who can only be instructed by them.

Jade has crossed that divide and is fluent in speaking digitally. She is participating in creating a new kind of literacy.

Those who are fully digitally literate are able to read beyond the surface of electronic texts in order to understand how they function. To be digitally literate means that you can craft the words that express your ideas and then connect those words to other texts through a variety of media. The presentation of words has new meaning, as does the way in which the user interacts with the text. Words are increasingly experienced within an ongoing and interconnected digital conversation.

In an unjust society, only a small subset of the population will be able to speak in such digital conversations. In a just society, we will all be able to do so.

Schools have a central role to play in determining which type of society we will have. Providing opportunities across the curriculum for students to read and write digitally and to speak the language of technology is a defining issue of our time.

Inspired by Jade's example, my Year 8 English teaching team asked our students this year to create YouTube videos on any topic of their choosing. Essentially, we asked our students to create a visual essay. After about two weeks of continuous work time, in which students were absorbed in their tasks, I was amazed by the results. Many of the students in our international middle school are English as an additional language learners, and they often struggle with completing traditional essays. Yet out of nearly 50 students in my two English classes, nobody "forgot" to finish this assignment. Students who have been reluctant to participate in conversations were drawn into working with others by discovery of their shared interests and a desire to make technology do the things they saw it doing for others.

Our kids gained more because they had the power to create what they wanted in a situation where collaboration and conversation naturally led to a better product. For middle schools today, these 3Cs—choice, collaboration, and conversation—seem to be a particularly strong basis for allowing students to begin to speak digitally.

Another cornerstone in creating schools that encourage students to cross the digital divide is to acknowledge that programming languages are exactly that, languages, and should be taught as such.

I first contended this in a 2003 essay entitled "Teaching Computer Programming as a Language" (published in techdirections), based on my experiences teaching both entry-level programming and English courses. I wrote then that, "In the end, it is language that we are teaching, and that should guide the activities used in our programming courses" (Panell, 2003, p. 26).

Since then, much evidence in favor of my argument has accumulated. There was a study presented at the 2014 International Conference on Software Engineering in which researchers imaged the brains of students learning to program and found that as they wrote in code, the portions of the brain "related to different facets of language processing" were activated (Seigmund, et al, 2014). Another team of researchers, at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, tested the use of second language acquisition techniques (SLA) in the teaching of entry level computer programming classes and concluded that, "The results from this project show great promise for the utilization of SLA in introductory programming course content delivery" (Pierce, Griggs, Sun, & Frederick, 2017). I was gratified to see that the team of professors who carried out this latter study cited my original 2003 essay as a rationale for their work when they presented their final results last year (Frederick, Pierce, Griggs, Sun, & Ding, 2017).

The understanding that even complex variations of digital language, such as programming, are still language has great significance for how we teach this topic in our schools. For starters, it means that coding should be taught to a wider group of our students using the best techniques for teaching language more generally, and the earlier this teaching begins the better. This also should include a lot more conversation, collaboration, and building on interests that students already have when they come into class.

A case-in-point is a student named Riche, who enrolled in my elective entry-level web and app design course this year. He became fascinated when I showed the class how to use PhoneGap to put the apps they were creating onto the cell phones of their friends and families to test. Riche likes "memes," so he started making silly pictures with captions to send out as apps. Although his programs didn't really do anything, he was enjoying himself; I decided to see what would come of it. Next, he figured out how to make little apps that were practical jokes—they made a message pop up on the screen that said "ALERT: All of your cell phone files are now being deleted!" Since the program wasn't really doing anything harmful, I let him have his laugh. By the end of the course, Riche had found the code for a Tetris game online and was modifying it to reflect his own unique style for solving puzzles. By letting him build on his own interests, at his own pace, Riche discovered his digital voice.

The goal of patience in an inclusive approach is always to allow more students the time to develop the ability to be part of the digital discussion. A student-centered focus means that we provide opportunities for kids to choose to speak in the digital conversation, however they come to it, and whatever they hope to take away from it.

Middle school teachers should be at the forefront in providing our students with a collaborative environment where the language of technology is integrated into everything they do—as it will be for the remainder of their lives outside of school. Young people in schools should be able to speak digitally within all of the core topics of the curriculum. Children should be given the chance not just to use provided digital texts but to create texts of their own.

An easy entry point to creating texts in this digital conversation is an activity like the one I described earlier, where students create YouTube videos. This allows students to incorporate a wide variety of technologies and digital languages at a pace of their own choosing, and in a way that allows most teachers to be comfortable. Similarly, students could also create animated story boards to gain more knowledge of how to integrate words and digital media.

As they gain skills, students should be challenged to apply their knowledge in a variety of situations. They could create programs that simulate hunter and prey behavior for the science class. In literature, students could analyze both the story and programming of existing game apps with the intention of including these elements in their own creations.

In these ways, technological literacy becomes incorporated across the curriculum, turning school into a digital playground where kids are free to explore. Students could build their own calculating apps, write programs that model the growth of a population of microorganisms, and explore alternate twists to famous events by coding them into a game.

In a fully inclusive and just society every child will be given the opportunity to be part of the digital conversation. Students like Riche and Jade have already crossed over the digital divide, and now are able to speak. We can create that same opportunity for every child in our middle schools today.


Frederick, C., Pierce, M. B., Griggs, A. C., Sun, L., & Ding, L. (2017). Get rid of your student's fear and intimidation of learning a programming language. Retrieved from http://commons.erau.edu/publication/573

Panell, C.D. (2003). Teaching computer programming as a language. techdirections, 62(8).

Pierce, M., Griggs, A., Sun, L., & Frederick, C. (2017). Evaluating student perceptions and learning outcomes: Differences between SLA-aBLe and non-SLAaBLe introductory programming courses. International Journal of Management and Applied Science, 3(9), 92–95.

Siegmund, J., Kastner, C., Apel, S., Parnin, C., Bethmann, A., Leich, T., Saake, G., & Brechmann, A. (2014). Understanding understanding [sic] source code with functional magnetic resonance imaging. Proceedings of the 36th International Conference on Software Engineering - ICSE 2014, doi:10.1145/2568225.2568252

Christopher Dallas Panell teaches web and app design courses at Yew Chung International School in Hong Kong in addition to serving as the English Subject Lead for their flexible middle school model.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2019.
Author: Christopher Dallas Panell
Number of views (205)/Comments (0)/
Blog About It!

Blog About It!

Argumentative writing in the ELA classroom

How do educators continue to reflect on their own teaching while preparing students to be career and college ready with 21st century skills and higher order thinking skills?

The call for integrating technology into our middle school classrooms seems like an easy strategy. Smartboards, Smart TVs, Chromebooks, iPads … using these devices covers 21st century skill building as well, right? Not necessarily! Teachers still need to contemplate creative ways to address standards, technology, and 21st century skills.

During a study done with my seventh grade class during the 2016 school year, I utilized the Common Core State Standards argumentation standards to guide the planning of an intervention package. My initial research questions surrounded student writing, student feedback, and teacher reflection. I decided to employ integrated writing intervention and investigate student learning in argumentative writing.

The intervention's five strategies were conferencing, status-checking, delivering mini-lessons, student writing, and student publishing. The last strategy of the intervention allowed me to have students produce their argumentative writing in a blog. Tying in a multimedia aspect to the learning gave me an important data source: student blogs. I found a kid friendly blogging site that gave students the opportunity to respond to one another's blog and that served as a digital portfolio of their writing so they could go back and access their work. This encouraged student collaboration and effective debating skills.

The Plan
I began planning my argumentative writing unit by reading previous literature on teaching argumentative writing, reviewing the seventh grade argumentative writing standards from the Common Core, designing essential questions around nonfiction articles that I had found, and planning weekly lessons around the intervention's five strategies (conferencing, status-checking, delivering mini-lessons, student writing and student publishing).

I planned four weeks of instruction, with a six week break in between to instruct other components of the district curriculum and to reflect on and analyze the data. I then adjusted my intervention plan and decided to conference with students during the drafting stage. This allowed students to have more individualized instruction on formulating arguments for their blogs. The essential questions are below:

  1. Should soda and candy be a part of the school lunch?
  2. Should you think twice before eating fast food?
  3. Do uniforms affect student learning?
  4. Is homework beneficial?
  5. Is the Internet helping or hindering society?
  6. Should cell phones be allowed in school?
  7. Should the driving age be lowered?
  8. Do television and video violence desensitize society?

Students read nonfiction articles for each essential question. The articles I found on each of the topics contained views on both sides of the argument. I created an argumentative writing annotating checklist, and students annotated and discussed the articles. I created an argumentative graphic organizer, and students began crafting their blog on paper first. Students then received an argumentative conference checklist that they used to work with me and then a peer on revising their drafts.

Mini Lessons
The mini lessons were on argumentative writing structure and citing information. Many of the mini lessons happened during individualized instruction that took place during the conferences.

Blogging was a strategy that gave students the opportunity to produce their argumentative work using multimedia technology. It allowed students to include their writing in an online application and comment on each other's writing, which fostered debate and collaboration.

I found the blogging site called KidBlog, which is a password-protected site designed for teachers working with student writing skills. The site was accessed by the teacher, students, and parents. Students produced one full process argumentative blog each week for two units of instruction. Having 10 laptops in my classroom allowed for station work in which students could use the blogging site to conference with their peers and the teacher.

Status Checking
This part of the intervention included using a checklist to see the components of argumentative writing that were included in the blogs. The students' use of the components was tracked and results from the second unit of instruction are in figure 1.

Figure 1
Student Use of Argumentative Writing Components

  Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Introduction to the topic 94% 100% 100% 100%
Claim 100% 100% 100% 100%
Warrant based in evidence 100% 100% 100% 100%
Analysis of evidence 89% 94% 100% 100%
Rebuttal 100% 100% 100% 100%
Cite appropriately 83% 94% 94% 100%
Transition words 100% 100% 100% 100%
Use of argumentative vocabulary 100% 100% 100% 100%
Use of multiple sources 100% 100% 100% 100%
Conclusion 67% 61% 83% 89%
Explore your own idea 94% 78% 100% 100%
Use evidence to back up your idea 72% 56% 89% 89%
More than one source 44% 56% 83% 89%
Tie your idea to the authors 67% 56% 83% 89%
Social Practice        
Recognize your audience 100% 100% 100% 100%
Comment on peers' blogs 100% 100% 100% 100%
Use evidence to support counter arguments 72% 72% 50% 75%

This data shows that students greatly improved on their inclusion of argumentative elements. Additionally, it was important for me to ask the students what was helping their argumentative writing, and students reported that conferencing during the drafting stage gave them more feedback and support in writing their blogs.

The effect teachers have on student learning is invaluable. Systematic reflection on student work, reflection on teaching practice, and continual learning from student feedback are important aspects in promoting excellence in teacher pedagogy and practice. Placing importance on student writing, student feedback, and teacher reflection bridges the gap between research and pedagogy in ways that will lead to sustained student learning and achievement.

Maria Pesce Stasaitis, Ed.D. is assistant principal at Waterbury Arts Magnet School, Waterbury, Connecticut, and adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport.

Published May 2019.
Author: Maria Pesce Stasaitis
Number of views (918)/Comments (0)/
Middle School Matters!

Middle School Matters!

When a whole school district decides to make middle level education a priority, amazing things happen

The relatively low priority for middle level education is a nearly universal condition particularly well known to those engaged in educating young adolescents. These passionate educators are committed to pouring themselves into educating students in one of the most challenging seasons of life. Nevertheless, funding constraints, our hyper-attention to "what really matters" and other seemingly greater concerns allow public education in the main to forget or ignore what the research demonstrates in regards to how best to educate young adolescents.

What Made Us Focus

Until recently, our school district has followed this pattern, expending great energy on emphasizing the very first and very last years of education. In 2015, however, we were nearing the end of an 18-month process of developing a comprehensive, long-range strategic plan and looking for the factors that would create substantive change for our students. When the first draft of that plan failed to gain board-level approval, the superintendent charged key leaders with identifying strategy outside the usual "school/district improvement" box.

The most significant addition to the plan that was approved two weeks later was a focus on "middle school reform." Our reasons were simple. Our data mirrored most of the rest of the country. Academic performance (on standardized assessment measures), dropped precipitously in middle school. Middle schools generally recorded a much higher per-capita discipline rate than at the elementary or high school levels. Thanks to the pressures of the standards and accountability movement, we were myopically focused on test scores, which were generally very disappointing. We also had no other evidence of deep student learning because we were not looking for it or designing instruction to produce it. In short, because the evidence suggested that middle school was an area of weakness for us, we decided to quit ignoring it.

What We Did

Following the unanimous approval of the superintendent's strategic plan in December of 2015, our work towards "reforming" middle school began immediately. It has included the following so far:

  • A commitment to funding a "true middle school model." As students of best practice in educating young adolescents know, a key feature of a middle school (as opposed to a junior high school) is teaming. This scheduling structure is designed to allow teams of teachers to serve the same group of students and to work together during common planning periods to support those students at a deeper level than is practical when teachers have neither students nor available time in common. While this practice is significant to student success, it costs more. Our board of education demonstrated their commitment to this priority by adding teacher units to middle schools across the system to allow the full implementation of teaming.
  • One arm of our strategic plan is dedicated to significant facility and infrastructure development. As part of that process, our middle school alignment and zoning has been restructured. The changes include merging two pairs of schools, moving one school to a new facility, and instituting an open district transfer policy, allowing students to attend schools that have been built and remodeled to have spaces specifically designed to nurture the practices that work best in middle school.
  • Everyone engaged in work at the middle level committed to studying the research and best practices for educating young adolescents and (more importantly) began applying that learning to every part of our decision-making process. A system leadership and advisory committee of teachers, administrators, and university and community partners led the way in studying and drafting preliminary recommendations for action. School and system leaders formed a PLC and spent 18 months digging deep. All middle level staff participated in targeted professional learning that was built around This We Believe, and each school made a continuation of that study a key component of building-level professional development. We began to restructure the way we do professional learning at the district level, applying an EdCamp-esque structure to our spring system PD day, which we have continued. This bottom-up and top-down approach to adult learning has translated to meaningful action driven by individual growth.
  • As described in a February 2019 AMLE Magazine article ("Transforming Middle School Practice through Instructional Technology"), one of the curricular aims of our district's strategic plan is to implement a "digital transformation." Far beyond a 1:1 device initiative, we aim to make the leveraging of digital and technological tools for powerful learning part of our DNA. For this change to be transformative, we specifically planned to implement this "middle school reform" and "digital transformation" together. We believe that accomplished middle school practice is incomplete without strong technology integration. We also believe that the use of technology in school is not an end in itself but an incredibly powerful tool that requires context and intent. By explicitly intertwining these twin initiatives, we are making greater strides in both areas than we would have done by implementing them separately.
  • From the outset of this work, we have aimed to develop a position statement on our local definition of and vision for middle level education. In the Spring of 2017, we finalized Middle School Matters!, which is that statement and includes our public commitment to our community regarding our practices at the middle level. These principles are incorporated into all the planning each school undertakes: school improvement plans, professional learning plans, grant funding requests, and more. Far more importantly, teachers, principals, and district level personnel rely on this document as the lens through which we make decisions about the education of our young adolescents.

What's Happening as a Result

While we are still working to make this work second nature, the effects of this transformation are already obvious. Here are just some of the changes we have seen already.

  • A sharp decrease in out of school suspensions, particularly for the middle school that recorded more such suspensions before this process and now leads the way in implementing restorative discipline practices through careful study and implementation.
  • During one of the school merges mentioned previously, the focus on what works for young adolescents served as common ground to ease some of the difficulty of blending two faculties and two (formerly rival) student bodies.
  • In addition to the infrastructure changes underway, many of our middle schools have taken steps to achieve radical physical change within their buildings. Flexible seating in classrooms, standing desks, college and international flags displayed in halls, student-created murals, restructuring of cafeteria seating, and many more changes have taken place in the last two years.
  • Perhaps the most significant instructional change that has happened during this time is our collective and individual recognition of the importance of "active, purposeful learning experiences"—hands-on learning. Thanks to shared professional learning, including content-area specific sessions for many, examples of courageous and exemplary practice in this area are increasing steadily.
  • A significant increase in collaborative learning and sharing. Every core teacher participates in grade level planning every day. A growing number of teachers share their learning, celebrate their students, and collaborate via social media. As a result, rich learning experiences for students are becoming the norm. Changing our teaching and learning like this has been slow, but deliberately so because we want the change to last.

Making the Case for a Middle School Focus

Perhaps your district has not drafted a major strategic plan, or perhaps you are not in a position to influence school- or district-level decisions. If you are reading this article, you can make a difference in how the young adolescents you serve are educated.

  1. Know and share the research. Early adolescence is massively different from childhood and mid to late teens. Attempting to prepare students for high school by mimicking high school is a mistake. Prepare for high school by focusing on middle school—active, purposeful learning; exploration; and rounded learning. AMLE offers an incredible wealth of research and practitioner resources for folks in your position. Those resources are having a huge impact on our work!

  2. Advocate that others see middle school as an opportunity, not an obstacle. Popular culture has long portrayed middle school as a time to dread, recover from, and forget as soon as possible. We help perpetuate those stereotypes by our funding priorities and by accepting sympathy for our connection with middle school. Be proud of working with such amazing young humans and help others see the possibility that far outweighs the challenges.

  3. Be the change you want to see. At the very least, determine which practices that work for young adolescents don't violate any specific board policy in your district and just do it. You may have to buck tradition; you may be criticized for questioning the status quo. Your students deserve a teacher who knows how best to teach them and does those things even when it is hard. Do the work it takes to check compliance boxes and engage in practice that really matters for student learning.

When a whole school district decides to make middle level education a priority, amazing things happen. In many ways, our middle schools are beginning to lead the way. It takes hard work and the courage (at all levels) to change. Making school work for students is not magic and there are no silver bullets. There is a significant body of research on what works that can equip committed educators who believe that Middle School Matters! to make it so.

Andrew Maxey is the director of special programs for the Tuscaloosa City Schools, Alabama.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2019.
Author: Andrew Maxey
Number of views (4571)/Comments (0)/
Making School Work Right

Making School Work Right

An update on a district-wide transformation of middle level education and technology for learning

In our article titled "Transforming Middle School Practice Through Instructional Technology," we shared how our district has approached systematic growth by intertwining twin focuses on middle level education and leveraging instructional technology for learning. The first steps of that process began in early 2016 and our article describes progress over the first 12–18 months. It seems appropriate, then, to provide a bit of an epilogue to share what has happened since then.

  • Over the last two years, our district has focused intently on building a culture of shared professional learning. Every administrator in the district participated in study and implementation of professional learning communities last school year. That focus continues at all schools this year. Within that context, carefully developed plans for professional learning have become our norm. The Instructional Technology Department has planned and lead extensive professional learning activities for teachers K-12, including PLUs with teacher "ambassadors," school- and grade-level groups, and administrators. We believe that instructional technology can be transformative for a school and district only when the teachers and students using the technology have the learning and supports to do so purposefully and well.
  • Our strategic plan stipulated that this Digital Transformation would be undertaken in the context of strong supports for teachers. We have followed that roadmap by adding additional technology coaches. As of today, seven coaches with expertise from PreK to upper level high school math support 21 schools with faculty professional development sessions, co-teaching, co-planning, and coaching. Recent middle grades initiatives include podcasting to provide opportunities for student voice, 3-D printing design contests, and Tech Takeovers, where coaches model technology integration from planning around learning targets to formative assessment to implementation. Coaching takes the professional learning to the teachers when and where they need it.
  • When we made the collective commitment to acknowledging the unique learning needs of young adolescents and to serving them appropriately through Middle School Matters!, one of the aspirational commitments was to ensure that each student would be supported by an adult advocate. Today, that discussion has developed into a firm expectation and embedded practice that has spread to high school as well. All students are connected with an advisor in our middle and high schools. The structures we have built to facilitate these relationships have proved the perfect place for much of the other work we know is important. For example, in fifth grade we begin to show students the elective programs available to them across the district. Then student exploration in sixth grade prepares them for interest inventories in seventh grade and participation in a major full-day experiential career day in eighth grade put on by our Chamber of Commerce. When formal four-year planning exercises begin a few weeks later, students enter that process having been exposed to much more of their options than ever before and far better prepared to create a first draft of the learning options they want to explore in high school.
  • Another development that provides an outstanding example of the intersection of middle level education and instructional technology is classroom practices such as small group instruction. Elementary teachers are often bemused by the fact that secondary teachers struggle with small group instruction. But we secondary folks are working hard to deepen our understanding of how to implement small group instruction as a powerful tool for student learning. One way this is happening is through schools' development of teacher collaboration tools. In one middle school, teachers created a "digital data wall" in which they collected a wide range of relevant information about student learning: numeric data (like standardized and unit test scores), anecdotal data (Damien has attended two other middle schools in the last six months), and student work. By leveraging technology to make a complex task more organized and manageable, school-level teams have been able to understand students and their learning much better and make effective decisions in support of their learning.
  • Since this work started, house systems have taken hold in our system. As of today, three of five middle schools are running full-fledged house systems complete with house names, colors, mascots, and other accoutrements. Although organizing and running a house system requires a good deal of work, schools find them to be powerful in a number of ways. They provide students with "layers of belonging," bring structure to citizenship and service initiatives, and provide ready-made opportunities for students to develop relationships across grade-levels and other classifications. Here too, technology is an integral component, providing the tools and the resources for making things work well.
  • While a diploma encapsulates many accomplishments and preparation for some aspects of life beyond K-12 education, we know it is incomplete. The district has adopted the TCS Graduate as our vision for the other skills and experiences that go with that diploma. The six components are Communicator, Global Citizen, Innovator, Leader, Work Ready, and Technologically Advanced, and we are committed to providing opportunities for students to grow in these six areas from Kindergarten on. While the roadmap for the TCS Graduate is evolving, it includes interdisciplinary learning experiences that include collaboration, problem solving, creation of original products, and applied learning with emphases on contexts such as digital literacy, project-based learning, making, or STEAM.

More than three years into the phase of our district's growth marked by the approval of our Strategic Plan, it seems to us that we are just getting started on the work to make school work right for students. Our resolute commitment to bringing cohesion to our work is accelerating our rate of change. We continue to strive to understand young adolescents well and base decisions on that understanding. We are firmly committed to using technology as a powerful tool for transforming teaching, learning, and professional practice. In our case, weaving these seemingly disparate initiatives tightly together keeps us focused on the young people we serve and their learning.

Andrew Maxey, NBCT is the director of special programs for the Tuscaloosa City Schools, Alabama.

Elizabeth Hancock, Ph.D. is the instructional technology coordinator for the Tuscaloosa City Schools, Alabama. ehancock@tusc.k12.al.us

Published March 2019.
Author: Andrew Maxey, Elizabeth Hancock
Number of views (1507)/Comments (0)/
Diving into 3D Technology

Diving into 3D Technology

Students build and print objects while developing proportional reasoning and technology skills

Each year we explore new and innovative ways to teach middle grades students the foundational concepts and skills they need for algebra such as proportional reasoning. This year, we engaged students in a scale modeling project using 3D technology. Throughout the project, students had complete autonomy, engaged meaningfully in proportional reasoning, and took home something tangible to represent their work.

Getting Started

In our scale modeling project, students were tasked with creating a scaled version (i.e., stretch or shrink) of a real-world object. Students had complete freedom to choose their object and were only given the requirement that the object must come from the real world. They could choose real-world objects such as famous building structures, animals, sporting equipment, automobiles, and much more.

Before diving into the task, students became familiar with the 3D design platform Tinkercad by creating a free online Tinkercad account (www.tinkercad.com) and completing tutorials to learn the basics of the program. Some students were already familiar and had accounts of their own. Other students were not as familiar, but quickly became comfortable with this technology. After learning the basics of Tinkercad, students were ready to dive into the project!

Choosing an Object and Finding the Actual Dimensions

After learning how to use Tinkercad, students chose a real-world object to scale. They selected a variety of different objects such as a book, a car, a wooden raft, electronics, sporting equipment, and a pair of shoes. However, a few students struggled with the idea that their object had to be “real-world.”

For example, one student originally chose a picture on the Internet that incorporated music, one of her passions. After having a discussion about scaling and what is considered a real-world object, she readjusted her thoughts and chose a book in the classroom as her object, using a ruler to determine its dimensions (see Figure 1).

Some students were able to physically measure the dimensions of their object while others had to research the dimensions online. For example, one student chose his favorite car, a Nissan Skyline GT-R, as his real-world object and used the Internet to research the dimensions of the car. Another student chose a log raft. When searching online for the dimensions of the log raft, he could only find dimensions for inflatable log rafts. After several minutes he tried a new strategy by searching with the phrase “how to build a log raft,” which took him to a wiki page that showed him step-by-step how to build a log raft and included the dimensions of each component.

Scaling the Object – Fitting the Printing Plate

All students were given the same criteria and constraints for scaling their object. Essentially, the scaled version of their object had to fit on the printing plate of the 3D printer. This meant that the object would need to print with a maximum length less than seven inches, a maximum width less than 5 inches, and a maximum height less than 6 inches. Because every student identified a unique object to scale, each student had to determine their own scale factor (as long as it fit within those dimensions). Because of the uniqueness of each student’s project, there were multiple possible solution paths and strategies for determining the scale factor.

The student who chose the Nissan Skyline GT-R knew he had to greatly scale down his object, but was unsure about how to go about it. We engaged him in meaningful discourse about scale factor. During this conversation he mentioned that half the size of the car would still be too big to print. He determined this by using his calculator and multipling each dimiension by 1/2 in order to show the dimensions of half the size of the car. This allowed us to assess his understanding of scale factor, where we noticed that although he was able to procedurally calculate scale factor, he struggled to understand what it represented.

We encouraged him to think of another scale factor of the Nissan Skyline GT-R dimensions that might be small enough to fit the printing plate. He then tested a scale factor of 1/12 but discovered the scaled model would still be too big to fit the printing plate. To work more efficiently, the student decided to only multiply the length by different potential scale factors as a first step because it was the largest of the dimensions.

For his next attempt, he chose a much smaller scale factor of 1/45, which he found fit well within the constraints of the printing plate, and he opted to find a larger scale that still worked (he wanted to create the largest model car he could). This student eventually settled on 1/26 as his scale factor and used it to find the dimensions of each part of his scaled car as shown in Figure 2.

Building and Printing the Object

After appropriately scaling their objects to fit the printing plate on the 3D printer, students were excited and ready to build their scaled objects in Tinkercad. Students approached the design process in different ways. The student scaling the book started by creating a rectangular prism. She placed the rectangular prism on the grid and changed the size of it to match the dimensions of her scaled book. She then created the spine of the book using the “hole” feature and personalized the cover of her book using the same feature. Finally she added a piece to the top to create a chain and it was ready to be printed! See Figure 3 for her finished product.

The student who created the model Nissan Skyline GT-R started by building the wheel base of his car. He continued adding pieces to the grid, all while using the correct dimensions, to make his object look more like a car (see Figure 4). In the end, although his car did not look exactly like his favorite car, he was extremely proud of the time and effort he put into creating his scaled model. The true excitement of the project came from the building and printing of the objects. Students greatly enjoyed seeing their scaled object printed as well as those of their classmates.


For this scale modeling project, students chose an object, found its actual dimensions, and used scale factors to determine appropriate dimensions for scaling the object that met the space constraints of the printing plate. Students were able to use their scaled dimensions to recreate their object using the Tinkercad 3D design software.

This project provided students with the opportunity to build, personalize, and print their object, allowing for an engaging student-centered experience while also developing students’ 21st century technology skills. The project also gave students the opportunity to recognize the multiplicative relationship with scaling (stretching and shrinking), further preparing them for the algebra learning they would soon experience in high school.

Students finished the project with their own scaled 3D printed object and a more concrete understanding of scaling and proportional reasoning because they physically experienced the scaling process!

Standards Addressed

Our scale modeling project addressed key mathematics content and practice standards (as in CCSSM; CCSSI 2010) for the middle grades. This project aligns to the ratios and proportions domain (6.RP.3 and 7.RP.2), the expressions and equations domain (6.EE.9), and the geometry domain (7.G.1 and 8.G.4). The project also addresses Standard for Mathematical Practice 6, Attend to Precision and Practice 8, Look for and Express Regularity in Repeated Reasoning.

Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI). 2010. Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. Washington, DC: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. http://www.corestandards.org.

Michele Ough is a math teacher at Millennium Middle School, Sanford, Florida.

Sarah B. Bush, Ph.D., is an associate professor of K-12 STEM education at the University of Central Florida, Orlando.

Published March 2019.
Author: Michele Ough, Sarah B. Bush
Number of views (1680)/Comments (0)/
Tags: Math

STEM in the Middle Grades

Research Summary

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education continues to emphasize the teaching of skills that are relevant to today's information driven economy (Jamali, Nurulazam Md Zain, Samsudin & Ale Ebrahim, 2017). Teaching in STEM areas frequently involves real-world problems, problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity that enrich student learning outcomes (Akerson, Burgess, Gerber, Guo, Khan & Newman, 2018; Chalmers, Carter, Cooper & Nason, 2017; Turner 2013). English (2017) argued that STEM has the potential to positively impact student achievement and motivation as long as the integrity of the disciplines is maintained and teachers have the necessary knowledge and resources to effectively implement STEM activities in the classroom. Also, the research agenda of the Middle Level Education Research Special Interest Group (Mertens, Caskey, Bishop, Flowers, Strahan, Andrews, & Daniel, 2016) included several key components that relate to STEM teaching and learning. These components include a call for development of integrated curriculum research and research in problem-based and project-based learning that is relevant to learners. Related research supports the design, construction, and implementation of simple or complex investigations that are critical to effective STEM learning.

Tenets of This We Believe addressed:

  • Students and teachers engaged in active learning
  • Curriculum is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant
  • Educators use multiple learning and teaching approaches

STEM education is a complex idea encompassing multiple content areas and processes including scientific reasoning, computational thinking, engineering design, and mathematical practices (Bybee, 2011). To advance STEM learning and teaching, a better understanding of current research is crucial given the high visibility of STEM education and the paucity of research in this area. A comprehensive review of current research in STEM middle grades education focused on three themes: (a) students: knowledge, attitudes, motivation, and career interests; (b) teachers: preparation, pedagogical practices, and professional development; and (c) schools: curriculum components, after school programs, and assessment.

Students: Knowledge, Attitudes, Motivation, and Career Interests

These research studies, focused on students and STEM education, most often discussed how students develop identities (Tan, Calabrese Barton, Kang, & O'Neill, 2013) and their attitudes and self-efficacy towards STEM subject areas and future STEM-related careers (Guzey, Harwell, & Moore, 2014; Hiller & Kitsantas, 2014). Several researchers argued that the reasoning behind the recent move towards STEM education in K-12 schools is to improve students' motivation for learning (Degenhart et al., 2007). Additionally, disparities in STEM performance based on gender (Levine, Serio, Radaram, Chaudhuri, & Talbert, 2015) and learning disabilities (Lam, Doverspike, Zhao, Zhe, & Menzemer, 2008) are highlighted through quantitative and qualitative studies.

Student identities are critical to successful understanding and learning in STEM environments. Jurow (2005) alluded to this notion in her case study research on how students' figured worlds influence their approach to mathematical tasks. Jurrow's ethnography and discourse analysis found that designers and facilitators of STEM curricula must realize "students participate and are asked to participate in [multiple figured worlds] when we ask them to engage in projects" (Jurow, 2005, p.62). These identities shape students' interpretation of the content and practices of the discipline. Jurow (2005) also highlighted the relevance of understanding student's participation in figured worlds from cultural and historical perspectives.

Kim (2016), using a pairwise t-test of 123 female students' pre- and post-attitude surveys for her study, Inquiry-Based Science and Technology Enrichment Program (InSTEP), found middle school aged girls' attitudes changed positively toward science when participating in inquiry-based programs. Tan and associates (2013) in their case study explored a related concept—identities-in-practice--among non-white middle school girls and their desire for a career in STEM-related fields. By differentiating the narrated and embodied identities-in-practice, the authors highlighted a fundamental issue in our current understanding of the role of identities and learning: "These girls who, on paper, make outstanding science grades and articulate future career goals in STEM-related fields, could be considered exemplary female science students who are 'on track' and who need no special attention, when in fact, they very much do" (p. 1175).

Woolley, Rose, Orthner, Akos, and Jones-Sanpei (2013) reported the importance of using career relevance as an instructional strategy by showing positive effects on mathematics achievement. Their case study looked at how middle grades students used exploratory statistical procedures and multilevel modeling in real-world applications to increase their mathematical understanding. Based on their findings, they recommended school districts focus on improving career development efforts at the middle level as much as they do at the high school level. Other studies have also supported increasing student awareness of STEM careers for both in- and out-of-school settings in order to improve student motivation and attitudes (Chen & Howard, 2010; Wyss, Heulskamp & Siebert, 2012).

It is interesting to note that Levine et al. (2015), using a paired t-test comparison of pre- and post-camp survey analysis, reported that female students tend to change their ideas about STEM to be more positive and are more willing to perceive themselves in STEM careers after participating in authentic STEM-PBL (Problem-Based Learning) activities. Lam et al. (2008) argued for the inclusive nature of a STEM learning environment by highlighting the positive changes in attitudes and beliefs among middle grades students with learning disabilities based on a paired t-test comparison of pre- and post-program surveys. The research studies discussed above highlighted the positive social aspects of project-based learning. At the same time, there are challenges and limitations to using STEM-based pedagogical approaches.

For instance, Mooney and Laubach (2002) researched middle grades students' attitudes and perceptions toward engineering and relevant careers when participating in Adventure Curricula, open-ended and inquiry-based engineering scenarios. Using a t-test comparison of pre- and post-program participant surveys, they summarized that students must have prolonged exposure to affect their perception and knowledge of engineering. While many of these research studies focused on the social aspects of learning in a STEM environment, cognitive aspects, such as exploring integrated content and practices that are developmentally appropriate for middle grades students, were not discussed.

Teachers: Preparation, Pedagogical Practices, and Professional Development

Commonly discussed research ideas in STEM teaching included the attitudes and perceptions of teachers towards their pedagogical practices (Asghar, Ellington, Rice, Johnson, & Prime, 2012), their beliefs on the role of STEM education within and outside their classrooms (Wang, Moore, Roehrig, & Park, 2011), and the struggle with the open-ended nature of student-centered pedagogy when using STEM PBLs (Lesseig, Nelson, Slavit, & Seidel, 2016). Lesseig et al. (2016) in their case study stated that STEM content delivery is successful through open-ended, inquiry, PBL-based learning environments that are student-centered instead of the current traditional structures that offer limited opportunities for promoting such instructional strategies. They also argued for the necessity of a paradigm shift by teachers from a transmitter of knowledge to a facilitator of learning.

STEM classroom practices are directly correlated to teachers' prior educational experiences and perceptions of the role of their discipline area in STEM. In their case study, Wang et al. (2011) reported that mathematics teachers view STEM integration as a way to provide real-world contexts for mathematical concepts, the science teacher views problem solving as the key in STEM integration, and the engineering teacher views STEM integration as an opportunity to combine problem solving with content knowledge of both science and mathematics. Teachers in all three of these areas had difficulties integrating technology into their classrooms beyond the use of computers as a tool for background research. Lesseig et al. (2016) further stated,

Teachers had difficulty creating design challenges that were truly interdisciplinary and admitted that the majority of their projects focused on science at the expense of in-depth mathematics, focused on mathematics with only superficial connections to science, or more commonly, focused on the engineering design process with few explicit ties to mathematical and scientific concepts. (p. 183)

The issue was that these teachers did not learn existing connections between and among science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. For example, one obvious connection is the use of science and mathematics content knowledge and skills inherent in the engineering and design of everyday technological products such as cell phones. Given the lack of teachers' knowledge of these connections, it is important to make these connections explicit for teachers so they can identify and demonstrate them to their students. Typically, teachers are not academically trained in engineering and technology though they are expected to design and teach STEM lessons that include the T and the E in STEM. One obvious solution recommended to address this problem is providing university-based professional development (Lesseig et al., 2016). Other solutions based on a constant comparative analysis of teacher interviews are providing teachers with time and support for more collaboration with subject area teachers and providing access to experts in developing lessons and activities with clear STEM connections (Stohlmann, Moore, & Roehrig, 2012).

Knezek, Christensen, Tyler-Wood, and Periathiruvadi (2013) in their quasi-experimental design-based research focused on improving STEM classrooms recommends "... schools/policymakers/districts/universities should provide additional training opportunities to increase the teaching skills necessary to implement an inquiry-based approach to STEM learning in the classroom" (p. 114). On the other hand, Jordan, DiCicco, and Sabella (2017) in their multiple case study of teachers, found teachers who are content area experts may not be child development experts. Hence, these teachers need additional support in pedagogical aspects such as student-centered instruction, classroom management, and cognitive developments of adolescents. These studies underscore limitations with fast-track alternative certification programs that often reduce exposure to in-depth pedagogical development.

Schools: Curriculum Components, After-School Programs, and Assessment

Research on students and teachers included social aspects of STEM teaching and learning such as attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions towards STEM education, and the factors that influenced them. The central research ideas focused on schools include STEM integration in the disciplines (Guzey, Moore, Harwell, & Moreno, 2016), the different avenues in which STEM-based curricula is utilized with students includes after-school programs (Chittum, Jones, Akalin, & Schram, 2017), summer camps (Mohr‐Schroeder et al., 2014), and the nature of assessment when engineering and technology is integrated into science and mathematics classrooms (Harwell et al., 2015).

The curricular aspects of STEM teaching and learning are frequently explored as part of the design of components, programs, and activity involving STEM integration (Wang et al., 2011). Wang et al. (2011) highlighted, "One of the biggest educational challenges for K-12 STEM education is that few general guidelines or models exist for teachers to follow regarding how to teach using STEM integration approaches in their classroom" (p. 2). Currently, STEM integration is explored through approaches that are multidisciplinary (Russo, Hecht, Burghardt, Hacker, & Saxman, 2011), open-ended and inquiry-based (Mooney & Laubach 2002), hands-on (Lam et al., 2008; Knezek et al., 2013; & Levine et al., 2016), project-based learning (Slavit, Nelson, & Lesseig, 2016), and use of real-world applications (Bozdin, 2011). Slavit and colleagues (2016) noted in their narrative case study that the role of teachers during innovative school start-ups such as STEM-focused schools "... is a complex mixture of learner, risk-taker, inquirer, curriculum designer, negotiator, collaborator, and teacher" (p.14).

Researchers found that teachers faced with integrating STEM in their classrooms lack content knowledge and skills, specifically in engineering and technology subject areas (Jordan et al., 2017; Lesseig et al., 2016; & Wang et al., 2011). In their qualitative analysis of artifacts and videos of classroom implementation, LópezLeiva, Roberts-Harris, and von Toll (2016) recommended collaboration between classroom teachers and university faculty both in the field of education and specific content subjects as a way to bridge the content knowledge and skills gap. Based on their findings, classroom teachers and university faculty collaborated to create MESSY, an integrated teaching and learning experience on motion. MESSY students worked through a process of collective inquiry to co-construct their conceptions of motion. This sub-theme of universities providing support for teachers on content knowledge and research-based STEM pedagogical strategies has been a recurring implication of these studies.

Researchers recommend the use of real-world connections in designing a STEM based curricula. In his mixed-methods study, Bozdin (2011) found that urban classroom learners' STEM-specific skills such as spatial thinking can be formally taught by incorporating geospatial information technology tools such as GIS and Google Earth. Also, Hiller and Kitsantas (2014) engaged students in a citizen science program in which students collaborated with naturalists and professional field biologists to study horseshoe crab speciation. Through a series of statistically significant self-efficacy, interest, outcome expectations, and content knowledge measures, they concluded that "providing this type of experience as part of a formal classroom program is a viable means for promoting student achievement and STEM career motivation" (p. 309).

STEM curricula are predominantly used in after-school programs and summer enrichment experiences as a supplementary intervention. In their embedded mixed methods research study, Mohr‐Schroeder et al. (2014) listed typical supplementary STEM-based experiences such as field trips, hands-on learning from subject experts, and working collaboratively as a team. Chittum et al. (2017) investigated curricular elements that motivated student engagement at Studio STEM, an after-school STEM program. One of the key findings from their mixed-methods study was the importance of presenting information to students in a way that relates to their lives and the real world. Harwell et al. (2015) in their embedded mixed methods research study focused on another area of promise, the development and evaluation of psychometrically sound assessment tools to measure the impact of STEM-oriented instruction. They recommended developing assessments with multiple choice items that are easily scored and include 10 or 15 items per content area including engineering and technology in addition to typical science and mathematics questions.


To date, research has focused on small populations of students, teachers, and schools, generally a la carte STEM programs used as explorations and enrichment. The central research idea involving STEM students is that they must envision themselves as STEM learners, take ownership of their learning, and engage in learning environments that are meaningful to them and directly relate to possible STEM careers. The literature focusing on teachers highlighted the lack of a proper research-based framework to guide and support STEM integration in an authentic manner instead of adapting it based on teachers' anecdotal evidences. Also emphasized in the literature is the need for teacher preparation and sustainable professional development focused on both STEM content and pedagogy. There is a real and urgent need for research-based STEM frameworks to inform curricular and instructional changes for preservice and in-service teacher education. The major takeaway from the literature on schools is that both administrators and teachers need to be more purposeful in integrating engineering and technology into mathematics and science classrooms instead of adding supplementary STEM lessons, activities, and programs. The current state of the literature provides middle level educators with a foundation on which to build effective STEM teaching and learning programs that can successfully address the current limitations to meaningful STEM education.


Akerson, V. L., Burgess, A., Gerber, A., Guo, M., Khan, T. A., & Newman, S. (2018). Disentangling the meaning of STEM: implications for science education and science teacher education. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 29(1), 1–8.

Asghar, A., Ellington, R., Rice, E., Johnson, F., & Prime, G. M. (2012). Supporting STEM education in secondary science contexts. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 6(2), 4.

Bodzin, A. M. (2011). The implementation of a geospatial information technology (GIT)‐supported land use change curriculum with urban middle school learners to promote spatial thinking. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(3), 281–300.

Bybee, R. W. (2011). Scientific and engineering practices in K–12 classrooms: Understanding a framework for K–12 science education. Science Teacher, 78(9), 34–40.

Chalmers, C., Carter, M. L., Cooper, T., & Nason, R. (2017). Implementing "big ideas" to advance the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 15(1), 25–43.

Chen, C. H., & Howard, B. C. (2010). Effect of live simulation on middle school students' attitudes and learning toward science. Educational Technology & Society, 13(1), 133–139.

Chittum, J. R., Jones, B. D., Akalin, S., & Schram, Á. B. (2017). The effects of an afterschool STEM program on students' motivation and engagement. International Journal of STEM Education, 4(1), 11.

Degenhart, S. H., Wingenbach, G. J., Dooley, K. E., Lindner, J. R., Mowen, D. L., & Johnson, L. (2007). Middle school students' attitudes toward pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. NACTA Journal, 52–59.

English, L. D. (2017). Advancing elementary and middle school STEM education. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 15(1), 5–24.

Guzey, S. S., Harwell, M., & Moore, T. (2014). Development of an instrument to assess attitudes toward science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). School Science and Mathematics, 114(6), 271–279.

Guzey, S. S., Moore, T. J., Harwell, M., & Moreno, M. (2016). STEM integration in middle school life science: student learning and attitudes. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 25(4), 550–560.

Harwell, M., Moreno, M., Phillips, A., Guzey, S. S., Moore, T. J., & Roehrig, G. H. (2015). A study of STEM assessments in engineering, science, and mathematics for elementary and middle school students. School Science and Mathematics, 115(2), 66–74.

Hiller, S. E., & Kitsantas, A. (2014). The effect of a horseshoe crab citizen science program on middle school student science performance and STEM career motivation. School Science and Mathematics, 114(6), 302–311.

Jamali, S.M., Nurulazam Md Zain, A., Samsudin, M.A., & Ale Ebrahim, N. (2017). Self- efficacy, scientific reasoning, and learning achievement in the stem PjBL literature. The Journal of Nusantara Studies (JONUS), 2(2), 29–43.

Jordan, R., DiCicco, M., & Sabella, L. (2017). "They sit selfishly." beginning STEM educators' expectations of young adolescent students. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 40(6), 1–14.

Jurow, A. S. (2005). Shifting engagements in figured worlds: middle school mathematics students' participation in an architectural design project. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 14(1), 35–67.

Kim, H. (2016). Inquiry-based science and technology enrichment program for middle school-aged female students. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 25(2), 174-186.

Knezek, G., Christensen, R., Tyler-Wood, T., & Periathiruvadi, S. (2013). Impact of environmental power monitoring activities on middle school student perceptions of STEM. Science Education International, 24(1), 98–123.

Lam, P., Doverspike, D., Zhao, J., Zhe, J., & Menzemer, C. (2008). An evaluation of a STEM program for middle school students on learning disability related IEPs. Journal of STEM Education: Innovations and Research, 9(1/2), 21.

Lesseig, K., Nelson, T. H., Slavit, D., & Seidel, R. A. (2016). Supporting middle school teachers' implementation of STEM design challenges. School Science and Mathematics, 116(4), 177–188.

Levine, M., Serio, N., Radaram, B., Chaudhuri, S., & Talbert, W. (2015). Addressing the STEM gender gap by designing and implementing an educational outreach chemistry camp for middle school girls. Journal of Chemical Education, 92(10), 1639–1644.

LópezLeiva, C., Roberts-Harris, D., & von Toll, E. (2016). Meaning making with motion is messy: Developing a STEM learning community. Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 16(2), 169–182.

Mertens, S. B., Caskey, M. M., Bishop, P., Flowers, N., Strahan, D., Andrews, G., & Daniel, L. (Eds.) (2016). The MLER SIG research agenda. Retrieved from http://mlersig.net/mler-sig-research-agendaproject/

Mohr‐Schroeder, M. J., Jackson, C., Miller, M., Walcott, B., Little, D. L., Speler, L., ... & Schroeder, D. C. (2014). Developing middle school students' interests in STEM via summer learning experiences: see Blue STEM camp. School Science and Mathematics, 114(6), 291–301.

Mooney, M. A., & Laubach, T. A. (2002). Adventure engineering: a design centered, inquiry based approach to middle grade science and mathematics education. Journal of Engineering Education, 91(3), 309–318.

Russo, M., Hecht, D., Burghardt, M. D., Hacker, M., & Saxman, L. (2011). Development of a multidisciplinary middle school mathematics infusion model. Middle Grades Research Journal, 6(2).

Slavit, D., Nelson, T. H., & Lesseig, K. (2016). The teachers' role in developing, opening, and nurturing an inclusive STEM-focused school. International Journal of STEM Education, 3(1), 7.

Stohlmann, M., Moore, T. J., & Roehrig, G. H. (2012). Considerations for teaching integrated STEM education. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER), 2(1), 4.

Tan, E., Calabrese Barton, A., Kang, H., & O'Neill, T. (2013). Desiring a career in STEM‐related fields: how middle school girls articulate and negotiate identities‐in‐practice in science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 50(10), 1143–1179.

Turner, K. (2013). Northeast Tennessee educators' perception of STEM education implementation. (Published doctoral dissertation). East Tennessee State University.

Wang, H. H., Moore, T. J., Roehrig, G. H., & Park, M. S. (2011). STEM integration: teacher perceptions and practice. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER), 1(2), 2.

Woolley, M. E., Rose, R. A., Orthner, D. K., Akos, P. T., & Jones-Sanpei, H. (2013). Advancing academic achievement through career relevance in the middle grades: a longitudinal evaluation of CareerStart. American Educational Research Journal, 50(6), 1309–1335.

Wyss, V. L., Heulskamp, D., & Siebert, C. J. (2012). Increasing middle school student interest in STEM careers with videos of scientists. International Journal of Environmental and Science Education, 7(4), 501–522.

Annotated References

Chittum, J. R., Jones, B. D., Akalin, S., & Schram, Á. B. (2017). The effects of an afterschool STEM program on students' motivation and engagement. International Journal of STEM Education, 4(1), 11.

This research on Studio STEM, an after-school STEM program, explores two different aspects, (1) the student beliefs of science, and (2) the components of the curriculum that motivated students to engage. Both qualitative and quantitative data including science beliefs surveys, a Studio STEM questionnaire. and interviews were analyzed. One of the major findings is that motivational beliefs about pursuing a college degree of the participants of the Studio STEM program were more resilient than the control group. The statistical analysis reveals a significant difference in achievement values, perceptions of achievement, and intentions to attend college. Authors also highlight that participation in the STEM program was voluntary and, hence, the students could already have better beliefs about STEM. One possible solution to rectify this limitation is to compare the pre- and post-beliefs of the same set of students to see if there is a change in beliefs before and after participation.

Mohr‐Schroeder, M. J., Jackson, C., Miller, M., Walcott, B., Little, D. L., Speler, L., ... & Schroeder, D. C. (2014). Developing middle school students' interests in STEM via summer learning experiences: See Blue STEM camp. School Science and Mathematics, 114(6), 291–301.

The authors of this article use a mixed-methods approach to investigate and report their findings on the changes in middle level students' attitudes, perceptions, and interest in and toward STEM fields and careers before and after participating in a summer STEM camp, an informal learning environment that utilizes STEM pedagogical strategies. The students at the See Blue STEM Camp were exposed to engineering design, visual-spatial reasoning mathematics, neurobiology, environmental sustainability, astronomy, LEGO Robotics, aerospace engineering, mathematical modeling, and neuroscience. The findings include an overall 3.1% increase in middle level students' interest in a career in STEM while comparing their responses in a pre- and post-career survey. Two themes emerged from the qualitative data, Camp is "fun" and therefore they want to learn more and camp is engaging which further explains the increase in STEM career interests.

Wang, H. H., Moore, T. J., Roehrig, G. H., & Park, M. S. (2011). STEM integration: teacher perceptions and practice. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER), 1(2), 2.

This article compellingly presents the impact of teacher belief systems on their use and integration of engineering in their classroom through directly collected data from the case study. It is evident that teachers will integrate engineering in the manner that is most comfortable to them and that this decision is highly correlated to their beliefs about the value and purpose of STEM integration. Each of the specific cases clearly correlate to the above claim, and all case study teachers believe that problem solving is the key to the integration process and technology was the most difficult aspect during STEM integration. The professional development for the teachers that the authors used focused majorly on the students' and teachers' understanding of engineering design principle and lacks a holistic approach of informing the teachers about the influence of theirs as well as parents' and students' belief systems on teaching and learning.

Focus on the STEM subjects (2011). [Special Issue]. Middle School Journal, 43(1).

This special themed issue provides practical exemplars of STEM in middle school classrooms. The articles respond to a vision of a challenging, exploratory, and integrative curriculum and meaningful learning for students as identified in This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (NMSA, 2010). Articles include examples of STEM integration and discussions about issues in building STEM related skills across the curriculum. Articles include examples of using inquiry-oriented instruction (Hagevik; Longo), promoting the use of real-world STEM connections (Kalchman; Zuercher), developing literacies for STEM contexts (Wood, et al.), and an overview of a STEM program implementation in an entire school (Stohlmann, et al.). The issue takes a special look at engineering with an emphasis on technology tools and content connections to mathematics and science that are used to solve real-world problems that are of interest to bettering humanity.

Recommended Resources

Engineering Everywhere. https://www.eie.org/engineering-everywhere

K-12 Resources for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education. http://www.nsfresources.org/

Resources and Downloads for STEM: https://www.edutopia.org/article/STEM-resources-downloads

Teach Engineering: STEM curriculum for K-12. https://www.teachengineering.org/

Ten Great STEM Sites for the Classroom. http://www.educationworld.com/a_lesson/great-stem-web-sites-students-classroom.shtml


Premkumar Pugalenthi is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is interested in the cognitive aspects of learning and teaching when engineering and technology is integrated in science and mathematics classrooms.

Alisa B. Wickliff is the associate director of the Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education. She is interested in STEM education leadership and STEM learning and teaching.

David K. Pugalee is professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he is the director of the Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education. He is interested in language and communication and how they influence STEM teaching and learning.


Pugalenthi, P., Wickliffe, A.B., & Pugalee, D.K. (2019). Research summary: STEM in the middle grades. Retrieved [date] from http://www.amle.org/Publications/ResearchSummary/
Published March 2019.
Author: Premkumar Pugalenthi, Alisa B. Wickliff, David K. Pugalee
Number of views (2372)/Comments (0)/
Transforming Middle School Practice Through Instructional Technology

Transforming Middle School Practice Through Instructional Technology

Understanding the middle school learner as the basis for implementing a district-wide digital transformation

In December 2015, the Tuscaloosa City Schools Board of Education approved the superintendent's strategic plan, a broadly ambitious plan that prioritized capital improvements, human resources, and curriculum and instruction. Two key areas in the last category were a focus on middle level education and the execution of a digital transformation. As part of the plan, the district committed funds for hiring the personnel needed to bolster the middle school team structure, hiring instructional technology coaches embedded in schools, and obtaining the equipment needed for a multi-year one-to-one initiative. The task we faced was to apply these resources to make middle school and digital transformation blossom. Thus, the planning for and execution of these two projects has been tightly intertwined by design, yielding outstanding initial results in both areas.

Why Middle School? Why Digital Transformation?

Like much of public education across the nation, schools in our region pay close attention to the early years of education and to high school. That focus has allowed us to forget things we once knew about educating young adolescents. State funding formulas for schools place middle grades at the bottom of the list; in an effort to "prepare students for high school," we engage in practices not appropriate to this developmental level and we perpetuate stereotypes and generalizations about middle school. And students' academic performance trends sharply downward. So, we decided to do one thing: commit to understanding adolescence well as an entire school district and base all our decisions on that understanding.

At the same time that we committed to making middle school a priority, we began a digital transformation. Many educational technology initiatives have achieved only modest success or failed miserably because they focused on the equipment rather than the people and the practices. Districts pursuing successful technology integration must consider the conditions in which the devices are used, not the devices themselves (Walker, 2015). Research has identified specific keys to successful technology integration including ongoing teacher learning, teacher collaboration, student collaboration, teacher access to support, and positive teacher attitudes to student technology use (Penuel, 2014; Goodwin, 2011). Aware of these challenges, the district initiated its digital transformation by placing a priority on meeting the needs of teachers with technology coaches. Guided by the International Society for Technology in Education's (ISTE) standards for students and teachers, this team leads a digital transformation with a vision of

  • Increased confidence among all constituents that students are prepared for the future;
  • More efficient and effective feedback and communication with students and families;
  • More effective technology use by teachers and students;
  • Consistent use of best practices when using digital tools for learning;
  • Greater teacher collaboration; 
  • Increased implementation of learning experiences that are complex, purposeful, innovative, student-centered, engaging, and relevant;
  • Evidence of student mastery of standards, experiences, skills, and goals;
  • Growth in digital citizenship awareness and practices among students, employees, and parents; and
  • More effective relationships between students and teachers.

Why Together?

The decision to implement these twin change initiatives together in middle school was deliberate. The existing structures of the schools across the system, staff and leadership capacity, and readiness for change were among the factors that contributed to the decision. And, our middle schools wanted to "go first." Both initiatives would clearly require a great deal of work, but our faculties were hungry for specialized support—they welcomed the spotlight that came with blazing these trails. Given that willingness, our shared philosophy that instructional technology should serve as an integral component of effective teaching and learning practices (and not as a stand-alone) suggested implementing this digital transformation in the context of a commitment to effective middle level practice. In other words, effective instructional technology practices are part of effective middle level practice. Why should we tackle growth separately? From the beginning, the system- and school-level leadership teams committed to cross-integrate the key concepts and practices in both directions. Professional learning sessions focused on middle school highlighted relevant technology practices; sessions specializing in instructional technology explicitly demonstrated the relevant middle school concepts.

For example, after the start of the school year, the school-based technology coaches and literacy coaches recognized a need for teacher growth in the area of active, purposeful learning. We leveraged a half-day of professional development to plan teacher professional learning in which they experienced active, purposeful learning to better understand and plan for such experiences for their students. The learning culminated in teachers working in cross-district groups to create standards-based learning experiences that incorporated active student engagement. As they worked, the teachers collaboratively compiled their plans in shared online folders they could access anytime, anywhere.

Examples of Success

After one year, there were clear signs of transformation taking root. The six middle school principals attended the AMLE conference together and committed to collaborative growth. They capped their learning by producing a district-wide commitment to excellence in middle school practice titled Middle School Matters! Guided by this document in the coming years, all district middle schools committed to excellent practices including valuing the uniqueness of early adolescence, providing an adult advocate that knows and supports every student, and creating forums in which students share their learning with their families and teachers. Direct links between Middle School Matters! and digital transformation include guiding student growth as digital citizens and empowered learners and a commitment to building critical thinking, communication, and collaborative and problem-solving skills by engaging in active, purposeful learning experiences.

As administrators grew towards these commitments, their faculties pursued a wide variety of connected and intertwined professional growth processes. Excellent showcases of this growth have occurred during recent teacher-led professional development:

  • Science teachers and their students led a session on creating digital portfolios.
  • Project Lead the Way teachers and an English teacher led colleagues into the STREAM (Science Technology Reading Engineering and Mathematics).
  • A history teacher introduced zombies as a context for instruction in history classes.
  • A math teacher engaged colleagues in leveraging the learning management system for accessing online resources, assigning and assessing original projects, and providing up-to-date information about student learning.

These practices are both transformative middle school practices and technology integration.

Keys to Success

  1. Intertwining these broad initiatives requires sustained, purposeful collaboration in order to have meaningful impact. That collaboration occurs at multiple levels from a common vision to purposeful planning to overlapping communities of learners to daily collaboration in classrooms.
  2. Extensive and purposeful planning is not negotiable. Change is hard work. Positive and sustainable change is even harder work! For educators who have a vested interest in systemic, long-range, and sustainable change, taking the time to plan carefully is well worth it in the long run.
  3. While the visible evidence of this change spread rapidly across our system, this progress was years in the making. We made the decision to invest deeply in the time necessary to build a common vision of what a digital transformation is, the nature of adolescence, and the implications for our practice as educators. This long view of change allowed us to achieve broad buy-in from the individuals involved.
  4. In the process, we focused intentionally on becoming a community of learners, top down and bottom up. Part of the learning was a formal PLC that included building- and system-level leaders; faculties, groups, and pairs of teachers also engaged in deep learning over time. Not one of us believes we have arrived in our knowledge about educating young adolescents or effective instructional technology practices; though, we all know much more than we did at the beginning of this process.
  5. Teaching is immensely complex work. Understanding young adolescents and engaging in transformative digital practice are not easily integrated into that work. Our study suggested that one practice common to successful schools (particularly regarding creating and sustaining a culture of powerful student learning) is peer coaching. Our district invested heavily in these positions and is already reaping the benefits through the transformation of learning experiences and outcomes for students.

Lessons Learned and Next Steps

As this initiative unfolded, we had to make corrections as we hit bumps along the road. Scaling from a team of teachers to a grade level to a school to a district requires more complex advanced planning and continual recalibration of the vision. Initially, the technology coaches worked with a school faculty in relative isolation from the coaching occurring at other schools. When it became apparent that there was drift away from the common vision, the technology coaches occasionally swapped schools or co-coached and began holding weekly video conferences to share successes and work through challenges. The coaches were also challenged in their efforts to translate broad buy-in from administrators and teachers into action in practice by teachers who did not readily engage in the coaching process. Thus, the coaches shifted from offering assistance to initiating one-on-one collaborations built around teachers' big ideas.


While we worked to attend to the well-known keys for success, such as communicating clearly with our community, building consensus and buy-in, and planning carefully, we found two other critical keys. The first is to work out of your lane. We placed a high priority on building trust within our organization and using that trust as the grounds for breaking out of the silos that tend to exist in school systems. Because we trust the intentions of our colleagues, we developed a culture that values collaboration and feedback instead of rigid role execution.

The second is to purposefully make technology secondary to teaching and learning. From the beginning we said out loud, clearly, and repeatedly that our mission is rich learning for students; technology is simply a (often very powerful) tool to make that learning possible. In that context, we learned to reframe our questions from "What cool ways could we use tech product X in class?" to "How can I make learning objective Y come alive for students more effectively … possibly through the agency of the tech tools available." For us, there is not a line between effective middle school practice and effective instructional technology practice. It's all the same because Middle School Matters!


Goodwin, B. (2011). Research says… / one-to-one laptop programs are no silver bullet. Educational Leadership, 68(5), 78-79. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/feb11/vol68/num05/One-to-One_Laptop_Programs_Are_No_Silver_Bullet.aspx

Penuel, W. R. (2014). Implementation and effects of one-to-one computing initiatives. Journal of Research

on Technology in Education, 38(3), 329-348. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15391523.2006.10782463

Walker, T. (2015, December 1). Are school districts getting smarter about education technology? Retrieved from http://neatoday.org/2015/12/01/school-districts-getting-smarter-education-technology/

Zielezinski, M.B. (2017, Summer). Promising practices for education technology. American Educator, 41(2). https://www.aft.org/ae/summer2017/zielezinski

Andrew Maxey, NBCT is the director of special programs for the Tuscaloosa City Schools, Alabama.

Elizabeth Hancock, Ph.D. is the instructional technology coordinator for the Tuscaloosa City Schools, Alabama. ehancock@tusc.k12.al.us

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2019.
Author: Andrew Maxey, Elizabeth Hancock
Number of views (2842)/Comments (0)/
Tags: PLCs
Laptops: A Tool to Improve Reading Comprehension

Laptops: A Tool to Improve Reading Comprehension

How one South Texas school district is taking middle school reading comprehension to another level

Nearly six million middle school students today are reading below grade level—a shocking number. The National Center for Education Statistics' 2017 report, The Nation's Report Card: Mathematics and Reading Assessments, shows minimal improvement in reading scores for middle school students on recent assessments. School districts are extremely concerned about these literacy deficiencies and are struggling to find methods to improve reading comprehension. Laptops are one solution for schools looking to encourage collaboration and engage students in the classroom during literacy and core subject instruction.

Middle school reading deficiencies can affect student success in all subject areas. If middle school students cannot read, they struggle with comprehension in each core subject classroom, from social science to math. Creating an environment that promotes collaboration and active learning in middle school classrooms can facilitate improved comprehension, but it is an ongoing process for school districts.

Laptop usage has sparked educators' interest with its versatility and ability to provide technology on demand. Since many students are already plugged into technology 24/7, it makes sense that using these familiar technology tools in the classroom will further motivate and engage students. Laptops can be utilized to promote collaborative and active learning for academic instruction, encourage students to work together and solve problems collaboratively, and bring the learning process to life before their eyes. This approach makes real world content more accessible and applicable for students.

At a South Texas school district, laptops are proving to be more than a classroom furnishing. These mobile devices are a successful digital tool providing document sharing, collaborative problem-solving, and access to real world content at the touch of a student's fingertips. The additional benefit of document sharing, etextbooks, and less paper usage is reduced expenses for school campuses.

Assessing Middle School Reading Deficiencies

The results from the National Center for Education Statistics' National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2017 Reading Assessment found that 24% of eighth grade students nationwide scored below the basic level of proficiency, with only 36% of the same group of eighth graders performing at or above the proficiency level. Educators and administrators have been alarmed by these results and have begun to seek other teaching methods for improving student literacy and comprehension.

Old and New Methods of Reading Instruction

Past methods of middle school reading instruction involved using hard-cover textbooks and paperback novel series, which often made collaborative work among groups of students more difficult. Computer-based technology has also been used previously in many middle school classrooms via desktop computers in conjunction with software programs such as READ 180, Accelerated Reader, and Scholastic reading programs. However, usage was limited since bulky desktop computers could not be moved, and the limited number of computers often prevented easy collaboration and sharing among classmates. Since their earlier classroom computer use, many software reading programs have added mobile applications for use with more portable classroom devices like laptops.

Laptop usage for literacy instruction can be a positive approach and potentially improve middle school reading comprehension and proficiency. Understanding that technology has altered the way we live, work, and communicate, it is important that schools hone in on these technological resources to improve reading instruction. Student use of laptops in an educational environment contributes to collaborative and active learning environments in the following ways:

  • Provides access to online search engines for real world content (news stories, periodicals, ebooks, journal articles, etc.)
  • Allows use of educational apps, digital tools, educational games, and activities specifically designed for literacy instruction to heighten students' literacy learning experience
  • Encourages collaboration as students work in teams to solve problems and develop research skills
  • Enhances inquiry-based learning through online research

Research Study

A school district in South Texas addressed the challenges of middle school students' poor reading assessment results by providing every middle school student with a laptop. This district was interested in confirming that laptop usage enhances reading comprehension. The study addressed teacher perceptions concerning laptop usage and its effects on reading instruction to promote collaborative and active learning environments.

Teacher participants consisted of middle school instructors who were directly involved in classrooms where laptops were being used for reading instruction. The participation number was comprised of 12 teachers from each of the seven middle school district campuses, totaling 84 potential participants. From the total number of teachers, 70 participants (83%) responded. Data were collected using a survey distributed through Survey Monkey that featured a Likert scale format and open-ended questions, which provided teachers the opportunity to share perceptions and experiences. The survey questions were developed to reflect the 2016 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) student classroom standards.

Interpreting the Results: How do Laptops Help Students?

A high percentage of teachers agreed that laptops contributed to collaborative and active learning environments. Participants found that laptop use promoted students' active learning and inquiry-based learning through access to real-world content, enhancing collaborative problem-solving, developing online research skills, and usage of digital tools, apps, and resources.

How do laptops help students with reading comprehension? According to teachers with students using laptops in their classroom, these devices can positively support students in the reading classroom in the following areas:

Digital tools—Students have immediate access to their etextbooks online, along with access to a multitude of educational tools and websites, from online encyclopedias to electronic books and research databases.

Apps and resources—Students can access applications and resources such as online dictionaries, thesauri, highlighting tools, and comprehension tools that can bring additional clarity to their learning experience.

Online research—Students can search beyond their etextbooks to engage with and incorporate more real-world content, including news stories and online articles.

Document sharing—Students can share documents with their classmates and instructors at school and at home, taking their collaborative learning beyond the classroom.

Student engagement and active learning—Students develop ownership in their own learning process. By exploring and sharing content from their laptops with other students, they take control of their learning environment and often become more independently motivated.

Inquiry-based learning and real-world content—Students become more engaged when they can make real-world connections that render their learning authentic and meaningful to their existence.

Connecting the Findings

Teachers' perceptions of laptop usage in the middle school reading classroom revealed many factors that contribute to students' improved literacy experience. Some of the teachers' comments and reflections concerning laptop usage include:

Students can collaborate on documents using cloud storage and students develop a sense of ownership for their education. It really transforms the classroom.

It gives my students opportunities to think beyond textbooks and passages, utilizing real world experiences as they learn reading objectives.

Students have the tools they need to collaboratively work together, in real time.

Access to research tools makes research seamless—educates students for group work in the workforce.

It is a wonderful tool we use that allows students to have what they need at their fingertips.

Step Up to Improving Literacy and Comprehension

Finding positive approaches to promote collaborative and active learning in middle school classrooms is an ongoing process for many school districts. Study findings reveal that laptops can be a solution for middle school teachers seeking to encourage and engage students during classroom instruction and improve reading comprehension. The South Texas school district study showed that laptops in the middle school classroom provided many positive benefits that can contribute to students' improved literacy experience.

Laptops are one technology that can assist in improving the middle school reading deficiencies that plague many school districts. Engaging students with this type of familiar technology in the classroom may not only further encourage collaboration and engage students, but could potentially result in improved student performance across subject areas, including social studies, math, and science—ultimately making them more college and workforce ready.

Maridale Still, Ed.D. is an adjunct professor in the Digital Learning and Leading Master's program, Department of Educational Leadership at Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas.

Cynthia Cummings, Ed.D. is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas.

Tilisa Thibodeaux, Ed.D. is an assistant professor in the Digital Learning and Leading Master's program at Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas.

L. Kay Abernathy, Ed.D. is a contributing faculty member in the Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership, Walden University and retired associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas.

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2019.
Author: Maridale Still, Cynthia Cummings, Tilisa Thibodeaux, L. Kay Abernathy
Number of views (1668)/Comments (0)/
Redefining Learning Without Computers

Redefining Learning Without Computers

Repurposing available tools in new and innovative ways to transform learning

We've all had those days when technology doesn't cooperate, leaving that innovative lesson plan we've worked so hard on to fall apart. I crafted a differentiated lesson using a popular web-based educational technology (ed tech) software for a drawing unit. Enthusiasm quickly dissipated when 32 of my 36 students couldn't even access the Internet.

As I reflected on this disastrous day of teaching, I was reminded of an ed tech reality that presents a popular dilemma: using netbook laptops does not necessarily produce learning in the classroom, using expensive tablets and LMS systems do not guarantee learning in the classroom, and teachers cannot simply substitute technologies for traditional instructional methods and expect results. Results come from transforming instructional learning experiences to engage students on deeper levels and give significance to content.

Obstacles in Ed Tech

Reflecting on days like the one above has motivated me to share a positive experience that illustrates how it's possible to weave technology into classrooms to achieve mastery and engagement. The following examples illustrate that despite roadblocks we too often encounter, teachers can successfully integrate technology to transform instruction.

Many educators do not realize that any tool repurposed to achieve a more efficient and engaging learning experience is educational technology. A piece of paper repurposed for use as an argumentative brochure is technology. A whiteboard used as a hands-on "chalk talk" symposium is technology. Educational technology does not have to involve high-end computers or tablets—any device used for instruction can be repurposed as new technology. Having a misunderstanding of educational technology is common, often causing hesitation and a general sense of overwhelming pressure.

Fear and failure are inevitable as teachers expand their instructional repertoire. Educational technology is no different. Take for example the collapse of my LMS drawing unit. Innovative, yes, but successful in reaching and engaging all of my students, definitely not.

With American schools spending billions of dollars on classroom technology, the fear of failure cannot handicap teachers as they plan their learning experiences. Educators need to buy in to the idea that through the use of technology (computers as well as whiteboards), they can meaningfully redesign and redefine learning to further engage and connect students to the world around them.

Transforming lessons using educational technology is ideal. But what if your school doesn't have access to computers, multimedia software, cameras, wireless Internet, or resources on ed tech? Redefinition is still possible.


Redefining Learning without Computers

By transforming ed tech in our classrooms, we can completely redesign learning experiences, making them more meaningful for our students. To support this shift, Dr. Ruben Puentedura's Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition (SAMR) model presents a way to weave all levels of ed tech seamlessly into our curriculum. The end goal for the SAMR model is to redesign instruction by providing students higher levels of understanding through educational technology while making connections to 21st century learning skills. The model is a laddered progression between substitution, augmentation, modification, and redefinition. No rung of the ladder is necessarily bad to stand on; teachers will spend time on each step no matter how ingrained technology is in their curriculum.


In October 2016, six teachers in my building had committed to collaboratively organize a Community Night event that led to redefined learning experiences throughout the grade levels. These projects represented a diverse sampling of technology in the classroom: there were multimedia PSAs created using computer technology and animation platforms, five-foot tall painted murals, and 213 ceramic bowls created with the intent to raise money. Not every teacher used traditional technology to showcase student learning; teachers repurposed available tools in new and innovative ways, redefining the educational experience for our students.

Science Fair

To showcase sixth grade student success and mastery of science curriculum, students worked in pairs to create a project relating to content. This project required students to substitute books for digital research to expand content knowledge, modify poster boards to illustrate their learning through visual media, augment the Google Drive system to collaborate with their peers digitally, and supplement traditional invitations with tweets sharing information about the event.

In other words, the science teacher used various forms of technology to create a completely new task that was previously inconceivable and provided greater learning than a test. The majority of these projects used repurposed materials found in a science lab to prove their findings; expensive technology, again, not necessary.

Hunger PSAs

To engage the eighth grade class, teachers focused on reading articles and doing math activities on the statistics of hunger locally and throughout the country. To extend learning beyond the confines of an assessment's rigid structure, students created public service announcements focused on hunger issues, connecting course content to meaningful real-world issues. Teachers redefined iMovie and other web-based technology to provide a project that was previously inconceivable without access to technology. Students' PSAs and other multimedia projects were displayed on a projector during Community Night.

Empty Bowls

The hunger epidemic is an unwanted guest in the homes of many of our district's students. To reduce and eliminate hunger in the community, the students and I organized an Empty Bowls Fundraiser to raise money to donate to the local food bank. Empty Bowls (www.emptybowls.net) is a community-based service project in which students create a bowl out of clay, then host an event where family, friends, or people from the community come and purchase a bowl. With the purchase of a bowl, they will be given a meal of soup and bread, and 100% of the proceeds benefit a charity working to end hunger. Guests are asked to keep their bowl as a symbol of the empty bowls around the world.

To inspire student creativity and compassion, art students discussed the issue of global and local hunger. Students brainstormed how they could make a difference in the fight to end hunger and participated in the planning and organization of the event. Each grade had different inspiration for the design of their bowls; all required research and brainstorming. I integrated technology intermittently through the project, augmenting demonstration videos as differentiated instruction and modifying the students' sketchbooks to be interactive "inspiration boards." Students redefined their own learning with non-digital technology as they found new uses for everyday art room materials: toothpicks to carve designs in their bowls, the texture a popsicle stick makes when it's pushed into the clay, using a PVC pipe to cut perfect circles as decorations, and so on.

Instruction was on all levels of the SAMR ladder throughout this process. The Empty Bowls project was a tool I redesigned that allowed for the creation of a completely new task: redefining content (how to use clay) into an empathetic, powerful learning experience for students (no expensive computers or tablets necessary). Student learning was pushed beyond the content knowledge of clay building and the art curriculum to actually organize an event that demonstrated the students' ability to connect old and new learning while developing an important empathetic perspective.

Pulsera Project

To build on the art students' hunger study, the seventh grade Spanish and social studies teachers teamed together to design a learning experience based on the economic disparity between five dollars in America and Central American countries. Instead of writing an essay to assess mastery of these concepts, teachers redefined the learning experience by letting students collaborate using various forms of technology to illustrate their understanding of the wealth imbalance. Students created multimedia projects such as murals, animation videos, and digital infographics to demonstrate what they learned about the value of a dollar and costs of living.

Additionally, students sold bracelets through the Pulsera Project (www.pulseraproject.org), a nonprofit organization that educates, empowers, and connects Central American artists with students in more than 1,600 U.S. schools through the sale of colorful handwoven bracelets, or "pulseras" in Spanish. Seventh grade students set up a sales table during lunch for a week leading up to the Community Night event, selling bracelets to their peers. The majority of sales came from the constant flow of guests who attended Community Night, purchasing bracelets from the brightly decorated table run by volunteer students.

Again, learning was augmented, modified, and redefined through the use of traditional technology (i.e., netbook laptops) and repurposed tools that became new technology (i.e., large paper rolls used to create murals). In a cross-curricular effort, teachers redesigned a unit focused on currency and Spanish cultures into a significant learning experience that pushed students to connect their classwork to the outside world and implement real, positive change.

Community Engagement and Technology

With the complete transformation of learning and instruction across the building, Community Night was a tremendous success. Teachers and students raised more than $3,000 to aid local and global efforts to improve living conditions and provide essential food items to those without. The building was abuzz with family members, students past and present, the city's mayor, local newspaper reporters, and district personnel. The turnout was greater than that of fall parent-teacher conferences. And to think, the technology used to make this Community Night experience possible varied dramatically—from online design platforms to a bag of clay. The teachers in my building truly understood that educational technology can be anything substituted, augmented, modified, or redefined to design a deeply meaningful learning experience for students.

SAMR Model Resources

Dr. Ruben R. Puentedura's, "SAMR: Beyond The Basics" http://www.hippasus.com/rrpweblog/archives/2013/04/26/SAMRBeyondTheBasics.pdf

Introduction to the SAMR Model. https://www.commonsense.org/education/videos/introduction-to-the-samr-model

SAMR Model - Technology Is Learning. https://sites.google.com/a/msad60.org/technology-is-learning/samr-model

Ellen Gessert is a middle school art teacher in Milan, Michigan, currently working towards her Master's in educational technology through Michigan State University.

The author wishes to thank the following editors and contributors: Lindsey Segrist, Elizabeth Kur, Stacy Sutter, and David Schmittou.

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2019.
Author: Ellen Gessert
Number of views (534)/Comments (0)/
Let's Make a Video

Let's Make a Video

Developing communication and leadership skills through community engagement

During the middle school years young adolescents not only become aware of the changes associated with physical and emotional maturity, but they also adjust to new learning standards and expectations. The goals of middle school include fostering the self-esteem, self-worth, and confidence necessary for young adults to function in a technologically advanced society. A public middle school in a community with high socioeconomic status in Northwest Ohio has provided opportunities for such growth by implementing a communications course called Video Production for its 120 seventh and eighth graders. The school’s focus on self-motivation and perseverance in the 21st century classroom while fostering relationships with the community grew into a project transcending the classroom.

Middle school administrators and teachers partnered with members of the local chapter of Rotary International to develop specific goals centered on student success. First, the overall goal was to implement a relevant project to increase the rigor of the seventh and eighth grade language arts and technology curricula. Second, the educational goal of this project was to enhance technology instruction in the middle grades through computer navigation and video production programs resulting in proficiency in 21st century communication skills. Finally, students in the class focused on mastering professional communication, including interviewing skills.

Members of the community quickly showed their support for the initiative and donated funds to purchase equipment to offer two nine-week video production classes in the middle school. Both the middle school administrators and the community members recognized the importance of public speaking, developing negotiation and communication skills, and executing a plan of action. The key benefits of the course involved major interpersonal skills that the middle school administrators and staff members sought to develop in all students: leadership, determination, and self-confidence.

The Video Production Course

Once the educational goals were narrowed down, concrete steps for implementing the program were taken. The local Rotary chapter donated a large sum of money to purchase equipment to be used by the seventh and eighth graders: a green screen, lights, high definition video camera, headphones, wireless and lapel microphones, mixer, high quality editing software, and soundboards to minimize the echo in the video room. The technology teacher worked closely with administrators to prepare a broadcasting room with editing equipment for student use during the class.

The middle school students involved with Video Production during its first year had no previous experience with similar technology. A language arts teacher partnered with the technology teacher to address specific professional communication skills, aligning with the speaking, listening, and writing strands of the 2016 Common Core Language Arts standards. Students were taught how to conduct interviews: They performed mock interviews while focusing on making eye contact with the interviewee and the camera, demonstrating interest and enthusiasm, and asking thoughtful questions. Then they learned to show active listening skills through nonverbal communication and follow-up questions.

In addition to on-camera communication, the students practiced professional written communication. When teachers, coaches, or community members participated in the videos, typically as interviewees, students were required to write them letters of thanks, reinforcing some of the content covered in the regular language arts class in a realistic setting. Students were taught traditional business letter format, which they could use in the future, for example, after interviewing for a job. Students were able to fulfill the instructional goals of the language arts classroom and apply them in a real-world setting.

The Product

The first video produced by the middle school students focused on events occurring throughout the building and involved students in every production aspect. They used the broadcasting room (green screen room) to interview members of the community and open a line of communication between them and the school. The students learned to cut and edit their interviews and to maintain eye contact and proximity to the interviewer. They used a software program that allowed them to remove a green screen and import a background of their choice; furthermore, the editing software allowed them to create animated effects and add text and titles along with pictures and audio.

Students learned Photoshop and used various video production programs to create their videos. All students in Grades 7 and 8 took the course, and all participated in video production at some point. They organized each weekly project from the ground up and practiced their negotiation skills while communicating in groups. Students learned the value of careful planning and preparation by writing scripts and executing prepared plans. They improved their public speaking and writing by mastering professional communication skills.

Benefits and Future Plans

Video Production was a course that developed from the desire to improve technology instruction for our middle school students. The school administrators recognized the need for students to leave their comfort zones and learn to take chances. A core belief at the school is that growth occurs through adversity and learning to be comfortable while uncomfortable. Through this project, the students took a chance on learning a new type of technology and put themselves in the spotlight. Leadership and determination were necessary to accomplish their task successfully week after week. The community recognized its role in this project as the facilitator of the goal for better technology education in the middle school. With the generous donation of the local Rotary chapter, young adolescents were able to take part in Video Production and learn workforce skills that they need to have exiting high school and entering the workforce or college.

Students learned major life skills, including proper behavior in a professional setting. They learned to set up client interviews as well as research and prepare scripts and questions, to execute interviews, and then to watch, evaluate, and reflect on their own performance. Students applied professional written communication skills, which they can use in the future, as they wrote letters to thank the representatives of the organizations taking part in their video productions. Thinking carefully about the objectives for their videos, then adding, rearranging, and deleting content, students learned valuable editing skills that can easily translate to other types of work.

The benefits of Video Production did not go unnoticed by the members of the community. Members of the local Rotary chapter that donated funds for the equipment were impressed by the leadership displayed by the young adolescents and by the relationships created between the school and the community. Two years after the launch of this exemplary program at the middle school, the original donors contributed additional funds to establish a full-year elective video production program for all 240 students at the secondary level. At the high school, the Rotary chapter donated similar equipment but on a much larger scale: a larger green screen requiring additional lighting, two cameras, two mixers, four lapel microphones, a teleprompter, and a professional editing program. To have continuity within the program, the chapter also donated a partial salary for the Video Production teacher to teach in both the middle and the high school. The Rotary chapter has applied for a grant to cover future funds to expand their involvement with the Video Production program.

The result was a vertically aligned program establishing standards for professional communication in the middle school grades and preparing high school students for additional development as they focused on communication and written skills for workforce and college readiness. Video Production in the middle school represented one way to develop critical thinking and execution skills in young adolescents. Students gained leadership and technological skills as they learned to communicate in professional settings. The students who participated in this program were held to high standards; thus, they gained much more than technological skills: They gained the opportunity to develop key communication and leadership skills that can be used throughout their lives.

Paulina Rodgers is a middle school language arts teacher at New Bremen Schools, New Bremen, Ohio.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2018.
Author: Paulina Rodgers
Number of views (4956)/Comments (0)/

Related Resources

No items

Topic Matter Experts

Bring professional learning to your school. More info...