The Minecraft Revolution

Last year around this time, I worked with Ms. Kass on a project in which students used Google SketchUp to create a zoo enclosure for an endangered species. The enclosure had to incorporate elements involving basic needs, comfort, health, and visitor safety, all of it researched by the students. At the time, I blogged about how easy it was to help students to use SketchUp compared to several years earlier and attributed the change to the rising popularity of Minecraft.

Lots of people are writing about Minecraft and how much kids can learn from it. Here is a small sample from the New York Times.

Earlier this year, for example, a school in Stockholm made Minecraft compulsory for 13-year-old students. “They learn about city planning, environmental issues, getting things done, and even how to plan for the future,” said Monica Ekman, a teacher at the Viktor Rydberg school.

Although there are no official Minecraft manuals, kids know where to go to learn and get the latest news. From a dedicated wiki to hundreds of YouTube channels with clever how-to videos, the Minecraft community is all about collaboration and keeping up with news about mods, skins, and all sorts of things that sound rather foreign to many teachers and parents.

Earlier this year, Minecraft was in the grown-up news when the entire country of Denmark was recreated in Minecraft accurately to scale and including all roads and buildings. The Danish government funded the project as an educational experience. Then it made news again when the server housing the project was hacked and the virtual replica was “invaded” by the United States. While hackers are no laughing matter, this incident calls attention to something else kids can learn from Minecraft: digital citizenship. Learning to communicate in an online environment like a Minecraft server helps young kids navigate later experiences.

Spatial and critical thinking, collaboration, perseverance, curiosity, creativity, self-directed learning, digital citizenship. Do any of these skills sound like they have appeared together on any other list recently?

The new item for my wish list is a school account on MinecraftEdu.

iPad Stands and Document Cameras – Student Made!

In Lisa Brown’s 5th grade math class students have been busy measuring, drilling, hammering, and building!

We gave her students a challenge to build a stand for the iPads that could act as a document camera stand for teachers. Teachers can purchase document cameras online for around $100, and we knew we could find a way to build a cheaper model that teachers could use in conjunction with their iPads.

First, students were given a design challenge packet that detailed the project requirements. Then students had to draw four different models with their group, and pick their favorite model. Students had to give us an exact list of materials (with dimensions included). Students used materials from our children’s engineering lab to build prototypes from recycled materials. One group even created a digital prototype using Minecraft! Students were then provided with the materials on their list, and began to build! Mrs. Brown taught the students how to safely hammer nails, drill holes in wood and PVC, and how to use liquid nails (the teachers took care of any sawing).

The class came up with three very different models. We evaluated the models for cost effectiveness and replication feasibility. We found we could build all models for under $12, and we selected the model that would be the easiest to replicate for other teachers.

Our next step will be to ask teachers if they would like our class to build a document camera stand for their classroom!

This project combined children’s engineering, STEM minded activities, 21st century skills, and real world products!

Mini Challenges… in the MAKING!


You are now a Civil Engineer.  You are being charged with the task of making a model of a building that can withstand the forces of an earthquake.  Your building will be tested by placing it on a pan of Jell-O.



Thinking About Citizen Science

I’m currently working on a children’s book about ladybugs, and after collecting video of a larva eating an aphid this weekend, I was trying to find out if ladybug larvae have teeth. In my searching, I ran across something I had heard about before, but forgotten: The Lost Ladybug Project. This, combined with an article sent to me by a friend earlier in the month, made me think this and other citizen science projects could be resources for a really interesting G21 Project next year.

What if kids with iPads went outside a few minutes once or twice a week, or even volunteered time during recess, to document the biodiveristy of the playground? Teachers could create a classroom account on Project Noah and other similar websites. Using LeafSnap, students could learn to tell the difference between oak trees, or even more relevant, between poison oak and ivy. Instead of ordering a butterfly kit from a school supply catalog, students could find their own caterpillars, watch them grow, and document the process.

I have not searched my blog, but I think I’ve written almost exactly the same paragraph above at least once before. This is something I value. It is something important to me. I believe in using the technology kids enjoy to help us better understand and save the ecosystems that keep us alive. I also believe it is important that kids see things outside of books, in real life, to connect school to the outside world.

Note: The ladybug larva is not the cutest bug out there, and watching it eat is not everyone’s cup of tea. I have it here if you would like to see it.

Sign up for STEM Camp!

Time is running out to register for STEM Camp.  This exciting program for students in kindergarten through 8th grade will be held June 16-20.  Monday through Thursday we will be at Goochland Middle School.  Friday we will be taking a field trip to The Science Museum of Virginia!

Students in kindergarten, first or second grade have their choice of Mother Goose Club, Amazing Animals, or Sweet and Sassy.  Each of these programs offer students the opportunity to do, hands-on, children’s engineering.

Students in grades 3-5 take part in the Emerging Engineers program.  They will learn to apply science, technology, and math by making a solar car that they will run on the big track at the Science Museum of Virginia.  They will also launch rockets and eat s’mores made in a solar oven.

Finally, students in grades 6-8, our apprentice engineers, will build a propulsion and electrical system, develop a controller, investigate density and buoyancy while assembling and launching an underwater remotely controlled vehicle, or ROV.

If you have any questions or would like a form, contact Mrs. Spessard at



March 31- April 4

Mark Your Calendars~

  • Tuesday, 4/1: Class photos taken
  • Wednesday, 4/2: Report cards go home
  • Monday 4/7: Reading Olympics tournament at RES
  • Thursday 4/10: Fine Arts Night at RES
  • April 14-18: Spring Break :)

Language Arts~ We will have our final round of MAPs testing this week in Reading. Students will be working in groups using the app 30 Hands to create commercials for our Book Drive held during our Fine Arts night Film Festival.  We will collect gently used or new books for the Goochland Family Services,  entrance to the Film Festival will be 1 book per person.  Please help support our cause!

Science~  We start Electricity this week. Students will benefit from a nightly review of notes covered in class.  We will be working on a STEM project throughout this unit. Stay tuned for pictures of what the students create!

Math ~  Measurement: Standard and metric.   Please make sure they are studying their basic measurements so they can do conversions. We are going to be working on the Measurement Fair, a group project, this week. Students will create their own stations based on different forms of measurement.



  • 1 foot = 12 inches
  • 1yard=3 feet
  • 1 yard = 36 inches
  • 1 mile = 5,280 feet
  • 1 mile = 1,760 yards
  • 1centimeter=10 milimeters
  • 1 meter=100 centimeters
  • 1,000 meters = 1 kilometer


  • 1 pound = 16 ounces
  • 1 ton =2,000 pounds
  • 1,000 grams=1 kilogram
  • 1kilogram is about 2 pounds


  • 1 gallon = 8 pints
  • 1 gallon = 4 quarts
  • 1 gallon = 16 cups
  • 1 quart=4cups
  • 1 quart = 2 pints
  • 1 pint=2cups
  • 1 cup = 8 fluid ounces

VSRA Conference

Last week I had a wonderful opportunity to attend the VSRA Conference (Virginia State Reading Association) in Roanoke, VA.  As an ITRT I wouldn’t have initially thought to attend this conference, although I’ve never been let down attending as a classroom teacher.  I am thankful I did go, because I had the chance to spend two full days learning about methods other teachers are using to integrate technology into their Language Arts curriculum.  It will take me some time to sort through all of the ideas I jotted down as I listened to passionate educators share experiences from their classrooms.


I am especially excited to share ideas from the STEM Crazy Teachers, Alisa Downey and Tina Coffey, from Roanoke County Schools.  Their energetic presentation clearly demonstrated their passion for engaging learners.  I loved the way they integrate Language Arts curriculum with STEM.  They use technology in their lessons that we also have access to in Goochland County, so their ideas would be easy to replicate in a similar fashion in our buildings.


I attended this conference because our Reading Specialist at Byrd, Margaret Dickerson, convinced me to present with her.  The title of our session was, “Learning Mash-Up: Integrating Reading, Technology, and Service Learning.”   We shared some of the projects we have worked on at Byrd Elementary School over the last four years, which have used service-learning projects as a way to leverage curriculum and technology integration along with 21st century skills.  We also shared our methods for establishing and carrying out these projects (using the G21 framework).  Although we presented early Saturday morning, it was the most fun I have had presenting in a long time!   Margret and I both care deeply about the projects we’ve carried out at Byrd and the success we’ve had accomplishing goals with students.  It was great to get to know the teachers that attended our session.  They were receptive to our presentation, and as passionate about developing great citizens as we are!


Here is a link to the website we put together to share resources from our session (although it might not make as much sense without the presentation).

Energizing Events!

Our next unit in Science is Electricity!

The student will investigate and understand the characteristics of electricity. Key concepts include
a) conductors and insulators;
b) basic circuits;
c) static electricity;
d) the ability of electrical energy to be transformed into light and motion, and to produce heat;
e) simple electromagnets and magnetism; and
f) historical contributions in understanding electricity.
To get ready for this unit we have had some special guests! Last week we had visitors from Dominion Power to talk about SAFETY! The students learned a lot about what to do and what NOT to do around electrical wires, outlets, transformers, etc. Our visitors shared great information about closed and open circuits!
This week we were lucky enough to have an educator from the Math Science Innovation Center. 4th grade had lessons on electricity and circuits. Students were able to use netbooks and switch kits to put together circuits that operated real lights and fans!

Look at these LEGOS!!

We had a special visit this week from Mr. Watson and his friend from Lego. Students were put into small groups and asked who they have been studying in history. The kids replied with answers like “George Washington”, “Thomas Jefferson” and “Abraham Lincoln”. Students were then given bags of legos and asked to create two scenes from one of these famous people’s lives. Look at what they created all on their own!!


George chopping the cherry tree.          George acting as the first president.


Betsy Ross sewing the flag. Can you see the “needle” in her hand in the right picture?


Thomas Jefferson. Can you guess what he is “signing”? :)


Abe freeing the slaves.                                       George being a surveyor!!

The students got right to work and were totally engaged! Quick STEM activity where they got to build, be creative, and share their knowledge! AWESOME!! :)



Week 2 of 2014

Language Arts – This week reading groups are getting into their novel studies.  We will be working on these for the next few weeks. Students will focus on vocabulary, reading strategies, and comprehension. Students continue to have word study each week with a test on Friday. This week’s writing prompt needs to be completed in 100 words or less. This may be more than one paragraph. Prompt- “If you were given $100 how would you use that money to give back to your community?”

VA Studies–(VS.5a-c) Revolutionary War test will be on Thursday 1/16. Please be reviewing the material each night. Friday we will have an Abe Lincoln speaker here to talk about the life and times of  the famous president.  This will be a great introduction to our future unit on the Civil War.

Math –  Fractions are still the focus!  Adding/ subtracting with like and unlike denominators, representing the division statement of a fraction, using fractions in word problems, and fractional parts of a group. Daily class grades will be taken and there will be a quiz Friday on all these concepts. Unit test on fractions will be Friday, 1/24.

Mark Your Calendars~

  • Friday 1/17~Abe Lincoln speaker
  • January 20th~ No School for MLK Holiday
  • January 31st~Book Reports & Projects are due.
  • January 31st~ 2nd-5th grade Honor Roll Assembly at 9:00 AM
  • Second annual GCPS Conundrum Day will be held at GMS, February 8 from 9-11:30. If you would like to attend please get those forms in ASAP. We want all who want to participate to be able to attend.

So much technology in our schools!

As a teacher, do you ever look back at your week and think, “Did all of that really happen?”  Last week was one of those weeks.  It was wonderfully crazy and filled with exciting events and learning opportunities in our schools.   I did not have time to post!  I hope to make up for it this week by squeezing in a couple posts each night to showcase the wonderful things happening in our elementary schools.  In addition to the Byrd Farmers’ Market and the iPad Exhibition at GES, check out some of the instructional activities that took place!


I had the opportunity to spend more time in Ms. Thompson’s classroom with her fabulous 3rd graders!  Students began a unit of study on graphing.  We taught the students to create Google Forms with questions to collect data from classmates.  Forms allow students to create a survey with an online form.  Students posted their online surveys to Edmodo so their students could answer a variety of questions.  Forms collects survey responses in a neatly organized in a spreadsheet.  Furthermore, students can use a feature in the spreadsheet to create a beautiful graph.  Finally, students analyzed their graphs and wrote questions for their classmates that began with question stems such as How many more, Why do you think, What is the difference, and What might explain.


At Byrd Elementary School we used Khan Academy for the first time with students.  4th graders in Ms. Singh’s class used their Google accounts to sign into the program.  We plan to use it as a weekly math remediation tool.  A group of teachers will work together to assign skills to students.  These skills will be differentiated based on students’ individual needs.  Students will work through the tutorials and practice questions to “master” math skills.  Khan Academy is set up to award points and badges to students for completing modules.  The students loved this aspect of the program, and loved working at their own pace!


2nd graders continued to post information in Edmodo to the classroom in South Africa they are going to communicate with throughout the year.  They shared information about the school’s farmers market, Thanksgiving, and Native Americans.


5th graders at Byrd continued to work on their websites (using Google Sites) to share information about protecting the environment.  I will dedicate a post especially to their work as they complete the finishing touches!  Students in Ms. Sprouse’s class at Randolph Elementary School are also using Google Sites to respond to writing prompts.  Each student has their own page on a collaborative class site, built by Ms. Sprouse.


4th graders in Mrs. Demas’s class at Goochland Elementary School began the next leg of their weather and animal adaptations project.  They have tracked weather data for a specific climate zone.  They also researched real animals that live in that particular area.  This week the students created fictional animals that had special adaptations to help them survive in the climate zone they have studied.  Students work on this activity using Google Spreadsheets and Google Docs.


5th graders in Ms. Cosby’s class began a special lesson to investigate sound waves.  This activity integrated inquiry based learning with children’s engineering.  Later this week I will post a follow-up on this activity that will describe how the students used GarageBand to create music.


Students in our App Builders club continue to amaze me!  I look forward to writing about this special group of students.  They are building an app for Goochland Elementary School (using TheAppBuilder) while using the learning modules in Khan Academy to learn Java Script!  Exciting things will come from this group!


The GCPS STEM Advisory Committee met last week.  Planning is taking place for the 2nd Conundrum Day and also 2014 STEM Camp.  We are looking for parents and community members to help advance STEM education opportunities throughout the county.  If you are interested in joining this driven group, then please contact me for more information at



I am THANKFUL for..

each and every student in my room! What are YOU thankful for? I hope you all enjoy time with family and friends this Thanksgiving! 

Today we started sharing our Ecosystem Animal Projects! What creativity these students have!! They did a great job with their persuasive letters to the Richmond Metro Zoo to put their creature into the empty habitat spot. Students put effort into their research and it showed! Check out some of the awesome 3-d projects they created!



Can you guess what animals they combined into a newly invented creature??

Favorite Memories and Finishing Touches!

This week students are working on their first essay about their favorite memory. We have been working through the writing process of P.O.W.E.R. (Plan, Organize, Write, Edit, Re-write) Students planned and organized their thoughts. Today we began writing rough drafts. Some of us had lots to say!

We have been working hard on our Jamestown models! Today we are putting on the finishing touches! Presentations tomorrow! Don’t forget to study for the test!




This afternoon, Lisa Schaffner, Director, Public Relations and Marketing for UNOS, and Chad Southward, a double lung recipient and former school teacher, visited GHS as part of the ongoing school wide donation project headed by Mrs. Bachetti and the science department.

It was wonderful to listen not only to the business side of the donation process and how organ donation touches many more people than you might think, but it was inspiring to here from Mr. Southward about his battle with Cystic Fibrosis that led to not one, but two lung transplants.  Not only were the students respectful and interested, they were curious and inquisitive as well.

As Mrs. Schaffner stated, “Organ donation is not about death, it is about giving life.”

This visit is only a segment of the project that will continue throughout the school year.

Week 12

Thank you, parents, for coming to meet with me about your student! It is always good to check in and talk about their progress!

Language Arts: This week we are continuing work on the writing process. Students will work through writing a rough draft, peer editing, and a final copy. Students should be reading for 20 minutes each night. There is NO word study this week.

Virginia Studies: Students will finish building their Jamestown models this week. We will have group presentations and a test on friday! Students will have review work each night in order to prepare for the test. Stay tuned for pictures of their latest STEM creations!

Math: We will begin the process of double digit multiplication this week! Students should be practicing their basic facts each night. This will greatly benefit them as we work with more difficult multiplication problems and eventually get into long division.

Important Dates: 4th grade will be traveling to Jamestown on Tuesday, November 12th!

Fourth Grade Fun!

Today we met with our buddy class in 2nd grade! We shared our book characters. We will be getting together with them throughout the school year. It is a great opportunity for the 4th graders to act as role models for the younger students. They did a great job today!


The 4th grade put on a “wax museum” today! Other grades came to visit and push the button on each character to learn more about them. The 4th graders were GREAT!!




Dr. Geyer stopped by to learn about the famous people our students read about. Very informative! We have FUN while learning in FOURTH GRADE!

Week 11

We had a GREAT time at the History Mobile last week!


This week we will be putting on a “wax museum” of our biography book characters. Don’t forget to dress up like the person you read about on Thursday, Oct. 31st! Your book report is due that day as well!

Language Arts: This week students have Halloween related word study. There will be a test on friday. We will be working on writing this week and next. Students will look at all the aspects of a well written paragraph. We will focus on the writing process. Students will begin to put well written paragraphs into a well written essay! Remember to read aloud each night to improve fluency.

Virginia Studies: We are kicking off our next STEM project! Students will work in small groups to create a model of the Jamestown settlement. They will spend time researching factual details about the settlement. Students will be working to create the model to scale. There will be nightly homework so that students are reviewing the material.

Math: We are getting serious about multiplication! Students learned different properties of mathematics last week. This week we are putting those properties to use! We will begin looking at double-digit multiplication. It is VERY important that students practice and become proficient in their basic facts! Remember to use your First In Math login to help practice those facts. Flash cards are always great as well!!

Grandparents Night is Tuesday, Oct. 29th!! Hope to see you all there!

STEM Conference a Success

Thanks to a grant received by GHS, two students and a teacher were able to attend the VMI STEM Conference earlier this month.

The conference was filled with opportunities for those that attended to hear from specialists in Neurobiology, Oyster Restoration, Genetics, and Electromagnetics, just to name a few.

It was a great opportunity for our teacher to meet and learn from others as well.  All those that attended came back brimming with new ideas and knowledge of areas that are not very commonplace within the classroom.

“Wait! My Bacteria Mutated!”

This weekend I asked my daughter to set the table and her response was, “Wait! My bacteria mutated! It is resistant to cold! Now it is going to wipe out the rest of the northern hemisphere.”

It seems my children have been playing Plague Inc. from Ndemic Creations on their iPads and learning some interesting stuff.

The game simulates the spread of a disease from Patient Zero to either total annihilation of the human race or the cure. If humans find the cure before everyone is dead, the player loses the game. It might sound unsavory, but there is so much learning going on along with the total gross-out kind of things so many middle schoolers just love.

Here is how one of these scenarios might play out: I choose a bacteria (virus, fungus, prion disease, and others must be unlocked). I choose a disease vector and initial symptoms. I select a location on the planet where Patient Zero acquires the disease, and I start the game. As time goes by, I earn points as more and more people are infected and die. With the points, I can purchase mutations for my bacteria to make it more deadly and more resistant to a cure. As I mutate my disease, I must pay attention to newspaper headlines. If the Olympic Games are about to happen, I want to purchase a mutation that makes it easy for the disease to jump from one person to another very easily. When all athletes and spectators go home after the games, they will take my plague everywhere.

At each step of the game and for each choice, there are definitions and explanations. Players can choose to click past these explanations, but knowing what everything means will help refine your strategy. For example, purchasing hemorrhaging as a symptom is good if the disease is a blood borne pathogen. I don’t know that hemorrhaging has been a word in my children’s vocabulary until now. Neither was prion, retrovirus, disease vector, hemophilia, anemia, or much more. It is now possible for my children to discuss the importance of fleas in the spread of the bubonic plague in the middle ages, something that is usually covered in high school history.

If the pattern holds true, my children will tire of Plague Inc. in a few weeks. They will lament having spent a dollar of their allowance on a game they no longer play, but the vocabulary, science, and geography knowledge they have acquired will remain, and that is well worth the money, in my opinion.

This is a game I’d be willing to have on school iPads for students to play when they have down time.

Week 10!

Starting off this week with our Monday First In Math Player of the Day!

We have lots planned for this week! Two field trips and two new units!

Language Arts- We are continuing our read aloud of Blood on the River which is giving us great background knowledge about Jamestown. Students have Word Study as usual this week. Their reading comprehension packet also relates to Virginia Studies. It is due on Friday. We will be working on our summarizing and fluency skills this week. Please remember to have students read each night, it greatly helps their fluency if they read aloud for those 20 minutes.

Virginia Studies- We are starting our next unit this week, Jamestown! Students will be working on a webquest about Captain John Smith. We will research and build, of course! Next week will be a STEM project about Jamestown. And we get to visit Jamestown in a few weeks!

Click here to go on an adventure with Captain John Smith

Math- We are beginning our next unit in Math as well. We will begin focusing on MULTIPLICATION! Students will learn about the different properties of multiplication this week. We will be learning some neat ways to remember associative, commutative, and distributive properties. Ask you student to show you!

Dates to Remember:

Thursday, Oct. 24th 4th grade visits the Richmond Symphony. Remember to dress nicely!

Friday, Oct. 25th Theatre IV production of Stone Soup in the morning. Visit to the History Mobile at Hidden Rock Park in the afternoon!

Plant Projects and Purple!!

Today was an exciting day!! 4th graders began presenting their courtyard designs for increased vegetation to Mrs. Gates, representative of the RES Courtyard Committee.



The students did a great job!! Their research and effort really shows!!

A little reminder to wear your team colors on Friday!! :)

Week 9- A short one!

We have a 4 day week this week! I hope everyone enjoyed their 3 day weekend!

Language Arts- We are continuing our work with making inferences. This can be a tricky skill when it comes to larger pieces of text and we are working our way up! Students have been taught to use two pieces to put the “puzzle” together.

Part 1 – Information from the Text  PLUS Part 2- Your personal knowledge EQUALS

                                                           The inference

Science- We are putting the finishing touches on our courtyard design projects. The students have worked hard! Stay tuned for pictures! We will be learning about watersheds later in the week with a visit from the Young Scientists Program!

Test on plants will be WEDNESDAY of this week.

Math- We are continuing our study of probability. There will be a test on Friday! Remember to be studying your math facts each night!

Probability Study Jams

Tree Diagrams Study Jams