Navigating a STEM School as a Non-STEM Teacher

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >



Having worked at a school with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), I often notice a tension. In a STEM-focused school, there seems to be value placed on the topics in the acronym itself, but perhaps less value on subjects not explicitly mentioned. This seems to me to be a problem.

Just because a school is focused on STEM—and the ideas presented here apply also to STEAM schools, which add a focus on the arts—doesn’t mean that history doesn’t matter. The same can be said for every other subject. As an English and social studies teacher at a STEM school, I struggled with this, and had many conversations with fellow teachers, administrators, and coaches to navigate the focus on STEM while meeting other priorities I had for learning in my classroom. Meeting the demands of the STEM curriculum and of the other courses in the full curriculum can be done—here are a few ideas about how to achieve that.

Respect Balance
We all have priorities, we all have beliefs, we all have values. As an English language arts teacher, I value the study of literature, and in fact, my standards call me to focus on literary texts. I needed to have conversations with other teachers to share this priority and to find ways to support the larger STEM mission. We had to balance curricula and find the appropriate times to work on specific standards. For example, I knew I could easily support a STEM unit with a unit on informational writing, but I also had to have time for my unit on poetry. An elementary teacher may choose to focus some of their day on STEM and other parts of the day on other important topics. Teachers should have conversations and map their curricula to find appropriate fits and to strike the balance we all need in supporting the larger STEM vision.

Implement PBL Units Together
As we know, project-based learning (PBL) and STEM are a great fit. A project can focus on an authentic issue in science or maybe an arts design challenge. There are numerous possibilities, and teachers across disciplines and priorities can find ways to work together to accomplish a common goal. Not every subject must integrate, but there should be some level of integration. If you teach many subjects (as many elementary teachers do), consider developing a PBL unit side by side with another teacher who shares your grade level. When we implement a curriculum through authentic projects, we can learn from each other and find meaningful ways to support a STEM vision.

Swap Lead and Support Positions
When you integrate, the focus shouldn’t necessarily be on the quantity of time required. We as teachers may feel that we should each be getting the same amount of time on a unit or project, but I think that shouldn’t be the highest priority. For example, I spent two to three weeks on the informational writing unit mentioned above, but the science teacher I was partnering with spent approximately five weeks on the project. I was an integral part of the project, but it wasn’t about the amount of time. I was the support teacher, but in a future unit, I served as a lead and asked for support from my math colleague. As you support STEM education and STEM units or projects, decide on who will lead and who will provide support, and switch it up to ensure all teachers and subjects are valued.

Focus on Success Skills
Everyone can support students in building success skills such as collaboration and communication. Teachers should collaborate to identify these skills and how students can demonstrate them. There should be alignment about expectations regarding these skills so that students demonstrate them at a point in time and also demonstrate progress in them as they move up in grades. These success skills can help students in any STEM field and are an easy entry point to collaboration for any teacher.

STEM education is a wonderful focus for learning, but it isn’t the only focus. Even in a STEM school, there are other priorities in terms of teaching and learning. However, we can learn from aspects of STEM education to push our thinking in terms of our own teaching. For example, as we started to collaborate to develop integrated projects, I was inspired by what other disciplines were doing. The science teacher wanted to do a design challenge, and our math colleague wanted to connect statistics to relevant concepts. Those are ideas any teacher might find appealing. Non-STEM teachers can find entry points into STEM education from a practical standpoint, and they can learn from principles of STEM to reimagine learning in their own classrooms.

Tips for Combining Project-Based and Service Learning

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >



Service learning is a great way to not only take meaningful action but also teach important content and curriculum objectives. It is also a chance to build empathy and compassion and have students learn from others outside of school. Project-based learning (PBL) matches well with service learning as both focus on authenticity and meaningful work. When we use service learning as a focus for PBL, we can ensure that the experience is highly effective and impacts learners and also the larger community.

Here are some tips for how to create a PBL project with a focus on service learning:

Assess Community Needs
Teachers and students can find local partnerships to help focus the service learning and project work. It’s useful to provide students with a question to answer, as a way of providing focus for the work. With a partnership, students can find ways to assess community needs. Students can decide what they want to learn and how they will use that information. This is similar to a “Need to Know” list often found in a PBL experience. They should also investigate what data or information already exists to help them and figure out how they will go about collecting more information. The are many opportunities here to address real needs, but students and local partnerships need to work together to find a focus.

Align Content and Skills
Of course, it is always important to align the project to overall outcomes. Teachers can look for appropriate learning targets and standards to address, or solicit these from students. What do they want to learn? As a teacher, you can help them navigate how their project outcomes will meet course outcomes. PBL and service learning also provide an opportunity to teach and assess success skills related to civic responsibility, collaboration, problem solving, empathy, and critical thinking.

Learn From Each Other
Service learning should be a reciprocal relationship where students are learning from their audience and the audience is learning from the students. PBL often does focus on a public audience and product, but here you might consider how students will learn from that audience as well. How will students listen? How will you scaffold listening strategies for students to build empathy and respect? How will students share learning that is reflective of deeply listening to the audience they are serving?

Reflect Often
Reflection is a key component of PBL, and can also help students create more effective service learning products. Have students reflect often—before, during, and after the project—on what they are learning in terms of content and also in terms of empathy, respect, service, civic duty, and more. Reflecting on these topics and skills can help students internalize their learning and allow students and teachers to slow down to ensure meaningful action and learning.

Create an Action Plan
In terms of management, PBL leverages student-centered tools so that students learn to manage themselves. Team working agreements, task lists, and more all help students own the process. Once needs, and ideas for addressing those needs, have been determined for the project, students and local partners can create an action plan, in which they determine small, manageable steps to take to ensure great learning and great service. This is also an opportunity to co-create benchmarks and formative assessments that matter.

Evaluate the Impact
Once action is taken, make sure you take time with students to evaluate the impact. While PBL often has a public product and audience, we don’t always take the time to see or measure the impact. With all the great work students are doing, they and their audience deserve to know the extent of the impact of that work. How much of a difference did they make? Even realizing that there wasn’t much of an impact will still be good learning for students and teachers. This step also provides another opportunity to listen and reflect.

Celebrate Success
Don’t forget to celebrate. Students will have had some impact on their community and on themselves. Carve out time to celebrate where they were before the project and how far they have come. Celebrations can be traditional, like a gathering or party, but they can also involve discussions, letter writing, and even screening photos and videos of work from the project.

Service learning and PBL are nothing new. Teachers and students have long done amazing projects that serve others. We should continue to push ourselves to make our projects more authentic and more impactful. How are you implementing projects that serve?

Tools for Student Self-Management

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >



As educators, we have so many tasks to handle each and every school day. Student absences, assessments, phone calls, meetings — these can pile up on our plates. Classroom management is often considered one of the tasks we need to take on. While this is true to some extent, perhaps we can take some of the classroom management load off the teacher and put it on the students themselves. Management doesn’t have to be, nor should it be, something teachers decide or handle on their own. Students should be invited into the process of managing learning in the classroom. Here are some tools many teachers have used to empower students to self-manage.

Team Operating Agreements
Agreements or contracts created or co-created with students can be a great tool to help them own their challenges when it comes to self-management. While you might have class or school norms, students may not find a true attachment to them. When students create norms, they are more likely to follow them. In addition, students can create norms and agreements that are personalized. While one team might need an agreement about keeping their hands and feet to themselves, another might need one about the free expression of ideas. Norms and agreements should meet the needs of students, not simply be imposed upon them. When students help create the norms, it’s more likely that they will meet the students’ needs.

Task Lists
In addition, students may need scaffolds to organize their thinking, planning, and overall work. They can use task lists to assign tasks to specific team members. Sometimes these sheets have places for teachers, team leaders, and others to sign off when tasks are completed. Scrumy is an online tool I have used with students to organize their work — it functions as an interactive planning tool. Task lists are also great tools for assessment and conversations on equitable collaboration.

Checklists and Rubrics
Of course, rubrics and checklists are tried-and-true tools for self-management. There is nothing new here, but it’s a good reminder that assessment tools are also great management tools. They promote reflection and goal setting, as well as ownership of the work. Checklists and rubrics are more powerful when they are co-created with students, as students tend to understand and take ownership of expectations. Keep checklists and rubrics available to students and plan intentional time for students to use them to assess themselves and their peers, to help manage projects, and to keep constant momentum in the learning process.

Time Management Logs
Using time management logs, students document how long they spend on specific tasks, assignments, or collaborative work. They can do this over the course of a week or longer. The intent is to document and then reflect upon the time they spend learning and working. The log may surprise students and inspire them to use their time more efficiently.

Flexible Seating and Spaces
I’m a big fan of classrooms that have a variety of places for students to work. Some students need quiet zones while others need collaborative tables. Some students work well with exercise balls as seats while others prefer standing desks. There are many possibilities for meeting students’ needs in classroom seating and arrangement. Meeting those needs can promote student ownership of how and where they work and learn. As the teacher, you can coach them through the process of selecting appropriate spaces to work and learn, and students will learn to self-manage this choice as well.

Reflection and Goal Setting
All of the tools above are completely ineffective unless they are paired with reflection time. Just as we take time to reflect on content learning, we also need to take time to reflect on the learning process. All of the tools above provide great opportunities for students to reflect on how they have learned in targeted ways and to set goals. Learning logs are a great tool for this as well, as they promote the process of learning, not just the product. Don’t forget reflection on self-management — it’s critical.

Remember, the greatest tool for management is engagement. Even when our students are engaged, they still need tools to manage themselves. Different tools work for different students, so try experimenting with a mix of the tools above to have students take more ownership of managing their learning process.

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