Tag Archives: middle school

A Curiosity Table

A curiosity table.  That’s what I call it.  Whenever my students have a free minute (which rarely happens), I encourage them to investigate the materials on the curiosity table in our classroom.

Today I added something new—an Atmospheric Mat .  20160908_143810

It was a gift from my good friends at Educational Innovations.  This unusual and uniquely shaped article elicited intense curiosity from my students.  They wanted to know what it was, how to make it work, what you could use it for, and what was the science behind it.  “Figure it out,” I told them.

As I watched them explore and experiment, I realized this mat was much more than something to elicit my students’ curiosity.  It was a way to teach them what scientists do.

Students first keyed in on the fact that the texture of the surface mattered.  They decided to try to lift a desk.  The surfaces of our desks are very smooth; we use them as whiteboards.  They could lift the desk a little, but not very far.

Deciding that it was because of the smoothness of the surface (as opposed to the weight of the desk), they decided to try something a bit rougher.  Success.  A rougher surface seemed to work better.  The fact that the second object was lighter was not obvious to them.

Next, they decided to try the hallway floor, given that it is concrete and supposedly rougher.  Obviously, they were not trying to lift the floor, but rather to see how hard they needed to pull on the mat before it came loose.  The floors in our hallway are sealed, which makes them relatively smooth.  This meant that the floor in the hallway did not give much more information about how the Atmospheric Mat worked.

20160908_144339_015-animationTo get back into the room from the hallway, students needed open the door.  Why not see whether the Atmospheric Mat had the ability to open the door?  This trial was followed by hoots and yells as the door opened.20160908_143903

This prompted a huge influx of questioning.  Students tested the mat on the wall.  They tested it on the board.  They tested on their iPads (which did not work, because the iPads are too small).  Would they reach a point where the surface was too rough?

Each test gave additional data which led to additional questions about how and why the Atmospheric Mat works.  They even tried using it upside down, expecting that it would behave like a suction cup.

As you can see, this is an incredible tool to study forces and atmospheric pressure… and more.  At some point, I’ll bring up the fact that there are no “sucking” forces in science. We’ll figure out together that the roughness of the surface isn’t what makes it hard to pull off an object.  That’s it’s atmospheric pressure. But for now, the Atmospheric Mat is a tool that I’m going to continue using to ignite my students’ curiosity.  I’m going to let my students explore it for as long as they want.  Their exploration won’t be driven by me; their curiosity will be what drives them.

At the end of the day, when it was time to stack our chairs, one of my students asked me if she could use the Atmospheric Mat to lift her chair onto the top of the pile.  “Give it a try,” I said.  She was delighted when it worked and worked very well.


“Hey, Mrs. Foote,” she said after the chairs were stacked, “I feel like a scientist today.”

“You are!” I told her.  And it was all due to the Atmosphere Mat that I put on the curiosity table.


What’s in a Name?

Want to strike fear, disgust and dismay into the heart of any middle school students?  Tell them that in class today they are going to “do a worksheet” or that you have a packet for them.  Eyes will roll, groans will erupt, and kids will shut down.  According to students, worksheets are boring busywork that teachers assign when they have something else they want to do.  They are useless time wasters.

Except when they aren’t.  Because sometimes they’re not.  Practice is important. It’s not reasonable to expect that a student who has been exposed to an idea only once can sudden apply that idea appropriately in a problem based setting.  It’s not always feasible to have concept application be problem based, although it would be nice if it was feasible.  Sometimes I need my kids to practice.  Not  practice  in a drill-and-kill kind of way, but practice in a simulation, word-problem, answer the question kind of way.  Practice is a – dare I say it? – worksheet kind of way.no more worksheets theunintentionalgeek.com

But to call it a worksheet is a kiss of death.  So I began to reflect.  Part of this is my National Board Certification mindset, part of it is my natural geekiness for data and rationale, part of it is my how-can-I -get-the-kids-to-eat-their-vegetables mindset.  Why do I need them to complete this practice/application?  What will they get out of it?  If I can justify to myself that it is a valuable use of time (which, by the way, is my most valuable resource), I’ll assign it.  If not, it gets discarded.

I needed to find a way to spin the work – to but a label on it other than worksheet.  The label needed todescribe why the assignment was made and what I wanted to achieve.  I tried changing “homework” to “home fun” for a year.  It did not work for me.  I was not eager to repeat that mistake and I knew I wouldn’t.  Changing homework to home fun only changed the label and not the content.  The stuff was the same.  The difference was what I called it.  (It reminded me of Andrew Clement’s book Frindle.  Nick starts called a pen a frindle, and his friends do too.  It’s still a pen, it just has a different name.)

I decided to call it a “Learning Opportunity” or LO for short.  That’s what it is.  It is an opportunity for a student to learn.  The emphasis is on the LEARNING, not on the working or the keeping busy.  It’s all about learning.

It’s working really well for me.  Students don’t fight LOs.  They don’t roll their eyes.  They don’t moan and complain.  They get right down to work because, after all, they have been given an opportunity to LEARN.

Save Time – Use Plickers


When I went to the ISTE (http://www.iste.org/) conference this summer in Atlanta, I had high expectations.  Extremely high expectation.  Unattainably high expectations.  But I was disappointed.

I’ve always thought that being a teacher was a lot like being a gold miner.  When people first came out west, gold was everywhere.  It was easy pickings.  Now we sift through tons and tons and tons of ore just to find a little nugget (if we’re extremely lucky) or some gold dust.  That’s what it’s like to be a teacher.  A new teacher finds gold everywhere and can’t pick it up fast enough.  But as the years go by, it is harder and harder to find gold.  We search websites, go to conferences, read magazines, books, journals – all in a hunt for our elusive gold.  We usually end up with some gold dust – that’s what makes us keep hunting.  Finding a gold nugget happens will less frequency.

The first ISTE conference I went to allowed me to be a new teacher again.  Gold was everywhere!  The second ISTE was a bit less gold, but I brought back some big nuggets.  This was my third ISTE conference.  No gold.  No gold dust.  Or so I thought.

The last day of the conference, on the day I was taking a 6 hour flight home, I woke up with a terrible headache and a sinus infection.  No conference for me.  As I say in the hotel restaurant with my husband, there were 2 women at a nearby table.  They were obviously teachers (I’ve been told we have a look).  So I started a conversation with them (I talk to everyone).

“What’s your best take-away from the conference?” I asked.

“Plickers,” one told me. “Definitely Plickers,” the second added.

When I asked what Plickers were, they had trouble describing them.  To me they are what you get when you cross clickers with pickers – but with no expense.  They are like clickers in the each students has their own and their answers are tracked (by student).

When I went to the website (https://plickers.com/) and looked at their explanation, I was hooked.  My gold!  I found my gold!

When school began (we begin early here in the desert) I couldn’t wait to get them in the hands of my students.  My administrator told the teachers that she expected daily tickets out the door – and that we had to keep track of student responses.  With an average student load inching over 150, teacher looked panicked.  Not me. I had Plickers.

A couple of months later – and dozen of teachers trained – I still think that Plickers is gold.  My most valuable resource is my time and using Plickers is like giving me an additional hour or so each day.  I use it for attendance, formative assessments, tickets out the door, to poll the students.  Daily I find additional uses for Plickers.

Because it is both an app and a website it can be a bit confusing.  I made a video on how to set up Plicker and use them.  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrHgvVTr5QM&feature=youtu.be)  Take a few minutes (OK, a couple of hours) today and get it set up.  By Friday you’ll have your time investment back – and more.

Leave your comments about what you think of Plickers and how you use them.

Conference workshop time – AATM 2014

It was great to meet new friends and see old friends at AATM on Saturday.  As promised, here’s a copy of my presentation.  Also, I referred to the following websites:

www.plickers.com – Terrific, FREE formative assessment tool

www.naeir.org – Overstock materials available to teachers for a nominal fee

www.dryerase.com – The Markerboard People

www.YouTube.com/nancyfootehigley – My YouTube channel

https://vimeo.com/nancyfootehigley/videos – Vimeo is the safer place I host my videos.

What I wouldn’t do for math presentation:

 Hi Tech, Low Tech, No Tech presentation:

Questions? Comments?  Email me at nancyfootehigley@gmail.com.

Listen Edition – Listen While You Work


I’ve always been a huge fan of NPR (National Public Radio).  Each time I listened, I heard something new, interesting and informative.  I shared what I learned with my students and family.  The fit of NPR and my physics classroom was generally not a comfortable fit.  All that changed when I went to Boston for the NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) conference. I learned about Listen Edition.  Immediately I was hooked.

For most of my career I have read aloud to my students.  I’ve taught grades 4 – 14, and read to them all.  Jim Trelease (author of The Read Aloud Handbook, and listening guru) has inspired me to do so.  Listen Edition had some of the same benefits of reading a book aloud like increasing vocabulary.

Listen Edition is easy to use with my students.  They offer robust lesson plans, Common Core aligned.  Student background is provided, quizzes on www.socrative.com (a site I am not very familiar with) and homework assignments.  You can search by subject, grade level, look for current events and more.


How It Worked for Me

The first time I used Listen Edition with my 8th grade science students, I told my students to listen and take notes on those things they thought were important. Since I haven’t taken the time to figure out Socratic (www.socratic.com) I put the quiz questions on Edmodo (www.edmodo.com). They didn’t do very well on the quiz.  I took a few minutes to debrief with the kids and realized my instructions were vague.

Next time I talked about listening skills and how they are different when you are having a face-to-face conservation, an on-line or texting conversation or when you are listening for information or entertainment.  We talked about living in a noisy world and finding some quiet each day.  They actually came up with that, which was a very good point.  They generated a list of actions they could take to be better listeners in each scenario.

I knew that if I gave them the questions before the listening they would be more focused and they were.  I put the questions on my interactive white board for them to see while they were listening.   But since in life we aren’t usually given the questions in advance I didn’t want the students to rely on seeing the questions.

After a couple of days I gave them all of the questions before listening, but only for a few minutes.  Once we began listening I gave them some questions so that they could see those while they were listening.  My goal is to not have question available either as a preview or concurrently with the listening.  But, truth be told, they (we) tend to be lousy listeners. It’s a skill that needs to be taught and practiced.

We also had discussion about why it’s OK to not get 100% on the post-listening quizzes.  What’s truly interesting to me is that once they finish the quiz, they now tell me things like, “that question was asking about trivia.”  All year long I try to teach them how to weed out the trivia and focus on the important stuff when it comes to reading the text or other articles.  It was gratifying to see them transfer that concept to the listening quizzes.  The students also tell me what they thought was important and why.  This week I am going to ask them to generate their own questions about the listening, in addition to answering mine.

I thought this was going to be an interesting warm up, something to keep the kids busy while I did attendance and other teach stuff.  Instead it has turned into a life skill building activity. As I told the kids, people love it when they are actively listened to.  I told them to try it with their parents and with other people who aren’t in my class.  They’ve already gotten a great response.

Thanks for Listen Edition.  I never considered doing listening training for my students, but now I see how important it is.  I’ve noticed that I repeat directions less (thank goodness) and that they seem to be getting more information from my videos (I have a flipped classroom).  I’m eager to see if this is reflected in test scores.

In the fall, Listen Edition will be used in my class on the first day of school.