Apr 11

“What is it that you read…? Words, words, words.” #AprilBlogADay

My Kindle and one of my many favorite books.

My Kindle and one of my many favorite books.

I love to read. Really. It’s almost like an addiction. Actually, I often think it really is an addiction. If I pick up a book, I have a hard time putting it down until I have finished. At least I read fast.

But when I pick up a book, I get absorbed in the world the words create in front of me. I am completely engrossed. Time stands still. The only world becomes the book in front of me.

Maybe I love reading because it takes my complete attention. My mind can’t wander. I can’t attempt to multitask. It’s hard for the thoughts of what I really need to accomplish to be in the forefront of my mind. It’s the perfect escape. (See, just like an addiction.)

I didn’t always love to read. I mean, I kind of liked it, but I didn’t really love it. Until third grade. And then we had a reading contest for the first time. The goal? To read the most pages. You may not know this, but I am really competitive. I wanted to win that contest. Our pages read were tracked on the bulletin board with fun shapes. I’m not sure what it was in third grade. One year it was balloons. During that contest, I became hooked. (And I did read the most pages to win the contest. What did I win? I have no idea – but I read the most pages!) And that’s how I got hooked on reading. (It’s also why I am torn about competition in the classroom; it worked for me. I know it doesn’t for all students, but that’s another blog post.)

My dad used to take my sister and me to the library all the time. I started in the fiction section of the children’s library. Then I discovered magazines and the non-fiction section. I loved Odyssey magazine which was a kid’s magazine about space. (It still exists, but with a broader science focus now.) I checked out astronomy books from the kids section. Then I ventured to the main part of the library. I would check out stacks of books at a time. I checked out every astronomy and space book in the library at least once. When I was in college, I would spend my free time roaming among the stacks of the library there. I loved grabbing a collection of short stories and reading a few between classes.

I just love books. I have to ration myself and how many books I read. My favorite genres are science fiction and astronomy and space non-fiction, but I have rarely met a book I didn’t like. Right now, I enjoy reading free books on my Kindle. I guess it heralds back to my library days of checking out stacks of books at a time. Sometimes, I’ll buy a book. I read an awesome book earlier this year – The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. This was the perfect book to read for a chemistry teacher, and it gave me so many fun stories to share with my students.

So ask me what I am reading, and it may change from day to day. Or not – depending on how busy I am. I might be reading a free sci-fi/fantasy book, or maybe re-reading a classic like Pride or Prejudice or Lord of the Rings, or engulfing myself in the pursuit of new science knowledge. I even read books about teaching sometimes! So ask me what I am reading; you may be surprised (or not) at the answer.

Apr 10

Art Journaling #AprilBlogADay

I wanted to write a post today about one thing I have not yet tried in my classroom this year. Something I want to accomplish before the year is through. That seems like such a simple thing to do


it’s not. It’s not right now. This year.

If you’d asked me this question a year ago, I could have produced a long list of things to try and accomplish. This year, I am at a loss of where to start. What’s the difference? Last year I was in my eighth year of teaching the same content (6th grade Earth science), the same standards, the same information. I reinvented and tried new things every year. More inquiry, mystery lessons, concept attainment, collaboration, making, exploring. The list was endless.

What’s changed? This year I am teaching new to me content areas (high school chemistry and engineering), and although I know and love chemistry, I feel like I am learning this year right along with my students. I know the chemistry, but I am learning the standards, the pacing, and the types of learning experiences I can create for my students. (I also often enhance the standards when I think there is an important concept missing.) I want to provide experiences for my students that are engaging and involve inquiry, but I also don’t want to overwhelm them when they are immersed in one of our large projects like our STEM Maker Fest.

So this year, I am learning. Learning what works; learning what doesn’t work. I am brainstorming ideas for next year. Periodically I get flashes of inspiration that are too late to incorporate this year but are on the list for next year. So ask me this question again in a year, and I am sure I will once again have a long list.

And instead, I’ll share with you a post about something I am trying for the first time this year on a personal learning basis.

Art Journaling

I love to draw, doodle, paint. I really want to be a better at hand lettering. I have done a couple of sketchbooks in the past (2012 and 2013), and created a map of my “perfect” classroom. I took a watercolor painting class one summer at the rec center when I was a teenager, and I’ve enrolled in a few online classes here and there. In November, I heard about an art journaling class from Joanne Sharpe. I’d taken one of her lettering classes before, and I was intrigued. I signed up, and started journaling with the goal of a page a week. Each month we have a theme word and a specific “style” for the journal. January the theme was “spark”, and we learned to use watercolor markers. February’s theme was “passion”, and we learned whimsical calligraphy. March was “hope” and art marks. (I haven’t started April yet.)

I got behind at the end of February, and then March ran away from me. The awesome thing about spring break is it gives you a chance to slow down, to reflect, to create, to make. I have spent a lot of time making and drawing and painting in my art journal this week. I love how the March pages turned out.


FullSizeRender(1)Do you know what I love about this online class? Everyone is sharing and learning. As I look at the artwork from my classmates, I can see that we are all in different places in terms of talent, style, and experiences. But everyone shares with each other and encourages one another. Plus, this class has no grades, no deadlines, and only a suggested timeline. If you get behind, you catch up when you can. There is no stress. It’s all about the joy of learning.

Actually, maybe I do have a couple of ideas I’d like to try before the school year is through. One I hinted towards the other day. Learning for the love of learning. Not because of grades, or tests, or rankings. Learning because we get better at something we love or are interested in.

The other? I had the idea couple years ago to incorporate exploration journals or something like the art journal into the science classroom. I still wonder what that might look like. A sketchbook? A scrapbook? A field journal? A treasured notebook of chemistry (or another science) found in the normality of the everyday? Maybe there is a way to incorporate the non graded joy of learning with an science “art” journal. Hmm. Now I have an idea. Maybe I do have something to try before the year is through!


Apr 09

A note of encouragement to my beginning teacher self #AprilBlogADay

Dear Janelle,

You are about to embark on the most incredible of adventures. I know it has taken time to find this path, but soon you will see the journey has led you exactly where you are supposed to be. Don’t be discouraged when things are difficult. Huge changes lie ahead. You’ll find a job you love, and just a few months later you’ll find yourself moving to another state and back in a job you don’t love. Don’t worry. Everything will be alright in the end. As you leave your first teaching position, you will soon find one you love even more: teaching science.

The first couple of years in education, you will be finding your way. It will be tough. You will work long hours. You will be a novice at forming relationships with students. You may wonder if you made the right choice as you search for learning opportunities and design lessons that don’t always go as planned. As you make mistakes, you will learn along with your students. Each day, it will get easier.

And then, one day, magic will happen. You’ll make deep connections with your students. You will begin to forge your teaching philosophy and start making a difference. Don’t be afraid to share what works. Don’t be afraid to share when you fail. Take advantage of professional development opportunities that come your way. You’ll apply for experiences, and you won’t be accepted. Try again! Because one day, you’ll look back and be amazed at all you have accomplished, all the experiences you have shared, all the students you have had a chance to work with, and you will be so glad you started this path. You’ll have experiences you only used to dream about, and you will know you have truly found your dream “job”. And don’t worry; you’ll never have all the answers. The learning will never end!

Just one of the amazing experiences you'll share with students outside of the classroom

Just one of the amazing experiences you’ll share with students outside of the classroom

Apr 08

But why? #AprilBlogADay


My nephew is an expert questioner.

I normally spend my time with older students since I teach high school, and I used to teach sixth grade. However, sometimes I spend some time with my nephew. He recently turned three. He loves to ask questions. His favorite?


And he really wants to know because he’s trying to figure out the world around him.

Tthat’s what scientists do all the time. We make observations, wonder, and ask questions. Questions are at the heart of science. It can be the first step to a great discovery. Questions guide us to new understandings.

When we were starting our science fair projects this year, one of my students wanted to know how NASA makes images from the data they collect. The main question? Why does NASA false color images? Along the path to discovery, she started working with a partner and began to understand the process. By the end? Not only did these students know why and how NASA false colors images, they had written a computer program of their own to take the raw data and create their own images. (Want to check it out? It’s a pretty cool project: Stella Vitrum.) And it all started with a question.

Asking good questions is so important!

So if children are natural questioners, and asking questions is integral in science, why is it so hard for our students to ask good questions? Is it their prior educational experiences? Is it because they never received “good” answers to their previous questions? Lots of questions. I am not sure of the answers. However, maybe I can help with the solutions.

One of things I try to do with my students is help them to learn how to ask good questions. How do I do this? I model questioning. I respond to their questions with deeper questions. I let them know when they have good questions. I show them how asking deep questions can lead to uncovering an idea. It’s okay to start with a “simple” question like “Why?” and develop it further. I give students experiences that make them ask questions – like when we kicked off our thermochemistry unit with a calorimeter lab before break. We didn’t talk about the how and the why and the equations first. However, through the lab experience, student began to ask the questions they will need to fully understand what is going on. Questions are at the heart of inquiry based learning, which makes sense; to inquire is to ask questions.

how do you foster questioning in your classroom?


Apr 07

Sharing our way towards becoming champions #AprilBlogADay

Whenever I hear the word “champion” I start to hear music. How could you not?

What exactly is a champion? According to Merriam-Webster, here are the top two definitions.


In the realm of education, we (or at least I do) often get caught up in race of test scores and teacher rankings. We want to win, to be the best, to be the champion (of the world!).

But really, that’s not the way to propel or profession forward. Instead of following the first definition of a champion which infers education is a contest to be won, we need to push further beyond ourselves and help one another to fight in support of a person, belief, or cause.

As educators, we are often fighting for a person – persons in our case – as we champion our students toward success. We create environments and experiences to help them uncover their strengths and passions in order to reach their full potential. We are our students champions. And it doesn’t have to just be the students in sitting your classroom everyday. Because of the way the project based learning program I teach in works, I interact with students daily that are not on my roster. I get to know them and work with them. It creates an awesome dynamic. You may not have this same environment at your school, but you can still look for ways forge relationships with the students in your school beyond the walls of your classroom.

Educators also fight for our beliefs. We believe every child can learn and succeed. We believe our profession is important and should be valued. We believe our education system is a beautiful thing even with its flaws. We believe we can make education better, make our classrooms better, make each lesson better than the one before. We believe that to teach is to constantly grow and learn.

And we fight for our causes. Personally, I love STEM. It’s a cause I fight for; one I hold dear. Do I expect that every student will end up in a STEM field? Of course not, but I think the focus on STEM will help some of our students find their passions. There are other causes we fight against, too, like the beast of standardized testing.

As you see, as educators, we are champions. As we champion in support of students, beliefs, and causes, the best way to be successful is to share. Share what works. Share what doesn’t. Share what needs to change. Share lessons. Share ideas. Share programs. That’s why I share on Twitter. That’s why I blog. It’s why I love leading professional development and writing online courses for my colleagues. Together, as we share, we become better. We become one another’s champions. And as we champion, we reach students in our classrooms all over the world. And our students will reach the future, and maybe (hopefully), they will change the world.

Maybe Queen was right after all. We ARE the champions of the world!

Apr 06

Awe inspiring: Watching students take control of learning #AprilBlogADay

planningboardDon’t you just love this planning board? It’s filled with ideas, to-do lists, plans, and other information that will help make our first annual STEM Maker Fest a success. This board is in the room where my team eats lunch, so I get to see the information on the board evolve on a daily basis. Do you know what’s even more impressive about this board of plans? It wasn’t written by teachers or other adults. We placed the responsibility of planning the STEM Maker Fest into the hands of our students, and this is just one of the results. Primarily our juniors are taking care of all of the planning, logistics, sponsorships and other information that is necessary to make a major even like this happen. This board of plans is just part of their handiwork. Seeing this board every day is awe inspiring.

Our other students, especially our freshmen and sophomores are creating the booths and learning experiences for everyone who will attend the Maker Fest. On March 24, we had a Mini Maker Fest during the school day for students to show off their progress and so we could decide what booths would be moving forward. It was amazing! Watching students share and teach each other, excited about STEM concepts was amazing! Seeing all of the hard work students put into their projects begin to pay off as they shared with teachers, visitors, and other students was inspiring. We quickly noticed what ideas drew a crowd, and we expect to see similar results during the actual STEM Maker Fest.

Want to come out and see all of the amazing things happening? If you are in the Atlanta area, please plan to join us on Saturday, May 16 from 10 am – 2 pm at Lanier High School in Sugar Hill, GA. Believe me, you’ll be filled with awe and inspired as well!

One of my favorite exhibits was this booth showing the effects of sound waves on Non-Newtonian fluids. As soon as they started playing music, a huge crowd of students had gathered around to watch what was happening. Another group is showing kids how to make the Non-Newtonian fluid, so we’ll place the booths side by side so kids can see how it works and then make their own!

Mini Maker Fest Booth from Janelle Wilson on Vimeo.

One of the other inspiring things is how our students work together to plan their exhibit. Look at these two amazing examples of planning sites. We ask our students to create a web site for every project in order for them to organize what needs to get done. It’s also a great testament to the hard work they are doing. It’s times like this I am reminded of the amazing potential in all of our students!

Our students are capable of amazing things when we give them the opportunity. This is one of the reasons I love working in a project based learning (PBL) STEM environment. Experiences like this should be available to all students. Slowly, change is coming to education. Our learning experiences are becoming more authentic and inspiring. And one of the craziest things about this entire project? It’s not tied to any specific content standard. Sure, it fits well with our science, language arts, and technology classes, but at the heart of this project is a desire for students to share knowledge with others. This is an experience they will never forget. This is true learning. It’s awe inspiring watching students take control of their learning!

Apr 05

Is it time to retire the almighty “A”? #AprilBlogADay

Just imagine: You pour your heart and soul into creating the perfect assignment or project that infuses inquiry and discovery while leading students to a deep understanding of the content. You excitedly share this new learning experience with your students explaining all of the important details, and as soon as you ask for questions, you get the one you dread.

“Will this be for a grade?”

Or maybe you’ll get its evil cousin. “What kind of grade will this be?” (Assuming your gradebook has categories of different weights like mine does.)

When did chasing down a specific grade become more important than learning? Why is our focus on making the grade instead of learning and improving? What does an “A” even mean?

Does making straight “A”s mean a student is learning? Could it really just mean they already knew the material? Or perhaps they are just really good at regurgitating material. What does a “B” mean? or a “C”? Ask anyone who has been to school (which will probably be almost anyone you ask), and they are sure to have some opinion on grades and the importance of As, Bs, or Cs. They know what it means to get a D or to fail. But do they really know? Is a student who is failing not learning? Could they be learning but struggling with the material? Is an A student automatically learning? Could they already know the material?

We use the traditional A, B, C, D, F (or U) grading system because we are used to it. It makes assessing assignments easy for teachers. When we have classes of 32 or more a relatively easy grading system is required. But if we don’t know what are students know, and our students don’t really know what they know, what good is the system? Does it take time to assess students using other methods? Absolutely. Is there one perfect way to assess students? Maybe, but I haven’t found it yet. Does our grading system need an overhaul? In my opinion, absolutely yes. But perhaps this is just one tiny electron in a universe of education molecules that need changing. For instance, a system that allows for continuous student growth requires a lot of time on behalf of the teacher and the student. With large class sizes, there wouldn’t be enough time in the day to fairly evaluate each student. So is the problem the grading system or the class size? There are many things in education that need fixing, changing, reinventing.

So what do we do? We take baby steps. We make the changes in the classroom that work for us. (For instance, last year I used standards based grading very effectively. With a new school this year, it just wasn’t to be.) Eventually, the world of education will become the wondrous thing of learning we envision for all of our students. And one day, our students will be telling stories to their own children about when they were graded in school with As, Bs, and Cs. Can you even imagine?


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