I Feel Smart! Vanessa’s Story

We were weeks into our new journey of bringing the science fair into the 21st century: Science In The Sky.

Everything is digital so why haven’t science fairs caught up? Well, my students were doing it! A feverish pitch exploded early amongst my scientific teams once scientists from around the world started responding to different blog postings. Elshaddai and his team were working hard collecting data on their hypothesis about whether the moon does or doesn’t affect mood. “I don’t even know where Luxemburg, Munich, Hong Kong… I don’t know where any of these places are!” I overheard him saying to his team. Using social media, I was able to distribute their survey around the world and excitement ensued when data started to pour in because they had no idea that I’d done this.

Niamh and Vanessa came tearing through the shared space I’ve converted into a makeshift computer lab — they were headed right for me.

Mr. Ewing! Mr. Ewing! The military is interested in our science project!” yelled Vanessa.

Yeah, they wrote comments on our blog asking us all sorts of questions!” Niamh joined in.

Wait. Wait… what?” I questioned them with a little smirk, because I’d found a Master Sergeant who gladly invested some time with my students’ work about parachutes.

Someone from the Air Force wants to know all about our experiments. It’s so cool!” Vanessa said, as they were running back toward their computers.

Ryo and Nancy were having blog conversations with a horticulturalist over their idea of using recycled materials, shredded, to help soil retain moisture. Their challenge was to discover if the materials would damage the soil or not. The idea came about from their observation of a large amount of trash littering the community around our school and their question on what we could do about cleaning it up.

By bringing in experts from, literally, around the globe, the learning became real for these students. It wasn’t just their teacher saying, “great job!” but real, live experts that were getting in on their work. The beauty of it is that they never had to leave work or home to be involved because everything was virtual. It was really easy to gather people using social media channels to find experts, or find friends that had expert friends, or friends of friends of friends.

Giving Students a Voice

As our projects were winding down and all the finishing work was added to their animated video presentations, I took one of my favorite opportunities to sit with some students and just talk. It’s amazing what you learn when you just sit and listen.

I asked Vanessa, Elshaddai, Ryo, Nancy, and Naiamh, “Why is it important that we get to learn like this?

Vanessa knocked me out of my seat!

Vanessa looked me right in the eyes and said, “I feel smart.

I feel smart! This is a moment that an educator lives for and one that rarely happens unless we take the time to just listen. Not only did Vanessa feel smart, but she gained so much confidence over the course of the year.

When Vanessa — an ELL and SPED student — was in sixth grade, she hit grade level in reading and was nearly grade level in math. She soon exited out of the ELL program and no longer required SPED services. Vanessa was a rock star!

Update: After finishing this story I ran into Vanessa’s father. He’s a man of big smiles. When I saw him, his smile was bigger after I told him I wrote a story about Vanessa. He smiled even bigger still when he told me Vanessa was in 11th grade now and thinking about medical school or Oxford or Cambridge. Why? Because she was given the opportunity to feel smart.

Jamie Ewing is a National Board Certified Teacher of fifth and sixth grade STEM classes in the Prince George’s County Public School system. Jamie has been sold on the benefits of PBL and the integration of technology into learning since he started teaching nine years ago. Jamie is currently serving on the Advisory Board for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Teacher2Teacher Think Tank. Recognized as one of the top ten Innovative Educators by The Henry Ford in 2015, Jamie has also been named Innovative Teacher of the Year by The Jeff Bezos Innovation Center at the Museum of History and Industry, and the 2013 Innovative Teacher of the Year by the Academy of Arts and Science in Education. He has represented the U.S. at the 2013 Microsoft Partners In Learning Global Forum that was held in Prague, Czech Republic, and also in 2014 at the Global Forum in Barcelona, Spain. Jamie is featured in the Code.org video alongside Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Will.i.am, and other STEM/Programming industry leaders. Jamie has been working with Technology Access Foundation for the past eight years and is also a member of ISTE. Stem + Common Core + 21st Century Skills = 21st Century Education! Oh, and Jamie is a little crazy… just ask his students!

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