Fall Festivals: Cultural displays of celebrations of harvests

Perhaps the gardens are the best and most reliable indicators of the impending change of season.  About a week ago, the plants in the school gardens began to wither and die.  This really surprised me because two weeks before, I had just collected a large harvest (24 pounds, to be exact).  But, as a more experienced gardener told me, “It’s fall.  The gardens know.”  Sure enough, in the days that followed, I noticed that the leaves on the plants that were once vibrant green began to change to hues of yellow and orange.  The rate of collection of vegetables decreased dramatically.  What was once a thriving, green, lush thicket of vines and leaves, now more closely resembles a field of yellow and brown stems scattered with pumpkins and late season squash.  While production in the garden is ceasing, the work of enjoying the vegetables from a busy summer is just beginning.  Throughout, the summer, I’ve harvested vegetables from the school gardens, as did many farmers throughout North Carolina and all around the rest of the northern hemisphere.

In early June, I remember harvesting the first 3 vegetables of the season. Then, another harvest of 14 pounds came a little later during the summer. After that, another harvest of 19 pounds was collected. Finally, the largest harvest of nearly 25 pounds came at the end of July.  Just like Zora, in, “Zora’s Garden”, I could not keep up.  I was giving away vegetables, eating vegetables, and just surrounded by vegetables.  Now that the harvests are ending, I, like other agriculture professionals whose growing seasons are also coming to an end, can breathe a sigh of relief, gather ourselves and pat ourselves on the back for all the wonderful work put in this summer. 

This season-ending harvest and impending period of rest has been occurring for millennia.  This is the genesis of the fall festivals that we know and enjoy today.  The various state fairs, Oktoberfest, La Tomatina, and Thanksgiving have all spawn from the tradition of celebrating, relaxing, and enjoying the “fruits of the summer labor.”  While, every culture celebrates a little differently and combines it with their own traditional foods and music, the idea is the same:  Gather with family and friends, relax, and enjoy the bounty collected during the summer.

Various State Fairs

These usually occur during late August through the month of October.  At state fairs, you can find a bounty of freshly picked edibles from the farm, along with carnival style rides and games. In addition, there are traditions, such as hog-calling and hay rides that are associated with each local culture.

La Tomatina

In only what can be described as a huge public “tomato food fight”, La tomatina occurs during the last week of August in Valencia, Spain.  I can only imagine that this originated from an over-abundance of tomatoes grown during the summer months and as way to relax and relieve the stress of working in the fields.  Today, La Tomatina is combined with the music and games of the Valencian regional culture of Spain.


Diwali is an Indian harvest festival celebrated over five days every year in early autumn after the conclusion of the summer harvest and coincides with the new moon, known as the amāsvasya – the darkest night of the Hindu calendar.

Diwali originated as a festival that marked the last harvest before winter when India was largely an agricultural society where people would seek the divine blessing of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, as they closed their accounting books and prayed for success in the new financial year. Today, this practice extends to businesses all over the Indian subcontinent, which mark the fourth day of Diwali as the first day of the new financial year.

Today, Indians celebrate Diwali with family gatherings, glittering clay lamps, festive fireworks, strings of electric lights, bonfires, flowers, sharing of sweets, and worship to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, fortune, and prosperity.


This is a German festival that occurs in late-September through October to celebrate and enjoy the bountiful harvests of wheat, barley, and hops that are produced in the Bavarian region of Germany.  Oktoberfest is synonymous with Bavarian German culture.  German dancing and yodeling are traditionally done.  Additionally, many of the female festival-goers wear the “dirndal”, a light, circular, cut dress that is traditionally worn by rural peasant women and girls. Also, men wear the traditional “lederhosen”, the traditional German country dwelling peasant trouser outfit.


This is a uniquely North American celebration that occurs in late-November.  Thanksgiving celebrates the first successful harvest that the European pilgrims had in the new colonies. It is also a time to reflect on the newly formed alliance between the European and the Native American peoples. Traditionally, the meal is one that features foods that would have been harvested from the new land at this time.  Apples, turkey, ham, pumpkins, squash, corn, and various other grains make up the majority of ingredients of the recipes of foods eaten on the Thanksgiving Day celebration.  Additionally, meals are traditionally eaten with family and friends, as the Pilgrims and Native Americans did to celebrate their first harvest.

While these five festivals are unique in their own way, they all are harvest celebrations and festivals that feature feasting, both with family and public, with foods that are crops collected around the time of the festival. Two things that are central features of harvest festivals is that there is ample food and freedom from the necessity to work in the fields.  Additionally, harvest celebrations also feature eating, fun, contests, and music in the local tradition of the place where they occur.

My first teaching unit this upcoming school year will be focused on harvest festivals.  One goal is to give students the knowledge base of the entire plant growth cycle. So far, students have experienced cultivating seeds, witnessed sprouts germinating, plant growth and flower pollination.  Each of those happened during a different season of the year (spring and summer).  This unit will focus on gaining more knowledge about what happens with the harvest of fruits and vegetables during the fall season and will give students more hands-on experience about the processes and science of gardening during the fall season.

An additional goal of this unit will be to have students think critically about the changes observed in the garden as the seasons change.  Students will develop academic vocabulary, and practice communicating content by comparing and contrasting the processes and patterns they observe in the garden.  By adding reading selections to lessons, the unit will incorporate elements of plot development, story characteristics, and promote cultural responsiveness.

Agriculture: The Original STEM challenge

I am of the opinion that if you can solve problems that arise in agriculture, you can pretty much solve any problem that life throws at you.  For example, let’s say your tomato plant leaves are withered, brown and discolored.  Well, that is something that you have to problem-solve in order to have tomatoes.  First, you’d probably begin by making a guess as to what might be wrong.  Then, you probably would talk to someone or ask a more experienced gardener.  Perhaps, you might change things. You might even try watering less or adding fertilizer.  This is the process that scientists and engineers use to solve problems and ultimately to design new products.  However, farmers have been doing this for ages.  The processes that scientists and engineers use may be more standardized and structured ,but it goes back to the farmer’s work and thinking about how to fix his/her crops in times of droughts, floods, pests, or soil problems.

I believe that if we ask our students to grow plants from seed to fruit and allow them to solve the problems that arise, we give them the critical thinking skills to overcome many problems that they will encounter in the real world.  Furthermore, challenging students to grow food, teaches them to persevere, collaborate, research, and experiment.

Some of the English learners that are in our classes may have grown up farming themselves, been around parents who have farmed, or may have lived in communities where farming is essential and ever-present.  These students come to our classes having already mastered many of the problems that agriculture has dealt them.  By comparison, a problem such as finding the author’s point of view and explaining how it differs in two of his/her works will be easy for them.

If teachers capitalize on students’ funds of knowledge about agriculture, teachers may see how much “grit” and predisposition to collaboration that English learners and all students bring to school.  Further, schools and teachers honor the non-traditional learning methods that ELs and others bring if we give them an outdoor space and the means to grow their own food from seeds.

Recently, I read about an irrigation system called, “olla”.  Olla, a Spanish word for “pot or urn”, is an irrigation system that dates back to pre-Colombian times.  It works by burying clay pots in the soil between or beside sprouts.  Water is slowly released over time providing water to the plants.  I think this is a very creative invention.  An inexpensive, practical way to deliver water slowly to plants and eliminating daily watering.  I can only imagine the agricultural “STEM challenge” that fueled the farmer to create this invention.  Further, that it was done by people that look like the English learners that we teach can give them inspiration that they too can do this.

Life after my Kenan Fellowship Year or Being a Kenan Alumni

About a month after my Kenan Fellowship has ended, it is fair to say that I am still enjoying all of the things that my Kenan Fellowship opened up for me.  In fact, my Kenan project is still going on!  The tomatosphere seeds from the experiment have now been planted outside and are part of three school gardens.  Needless to say, there are many more lessons and inquiry-based learning that will take place in the months to come.  Thinking about how to make these STEM lessons and garden ideas a reality, I have been spending time in the garden.  I would like to integrate more literature, social studies content, and language discourse into my STEM activities in the future.  So in preparing for this, I have been reading “Ag” related stories.

I recently completed “Seedfolks” by Paul Fleicshman.  I chose to read it because it’s about a community garden that brings people in the community together.  I hope that is what our school garden will do.  Sharing food, advice about growing, and cohabitation of space is the perfect formula to bring people together.  Sharing and collaboration can overcome a variety of cultural and language differences. 

I also read “Our School Garden” by Rick Swann.  This book takes readers along with the main character, Michael, on his journey around his school garden while he learns activities that the garden provides all year round.  Some of these include scavenger hunts, digging for bugs, and harvest day festivals.  This book has inspired me to think about activities that go beyond planting and harvesting food.  I will try to use the garden as a space where students can use for mindfulness activities, as a safe place to relax, feel calm, have positive social interactions with their peers, and to do moderate exercise (weeding, picking, and sowing).  As the fall and winter seasons approach, I plan to have a “Harvest Day” unit of study and also do a unit on “The Great Pumpkin Project”, a citizen science project.

In addition to the others, I read “Zora’s Zucchini”. This was a great book about Zora, a little girl, who is bored during summer vacation and decides to plant zucchini sprouts in her garden.  As the summer goes on, Zora finds that she has more zucchini than she knows what to do with.  Zora finds that she has to be creative and begins sharing vegetables with her neighbors.  Zora sees how this brings people in her neighborhood together.

Each of these three books really opened my eyes to the importance of incorporating literacy, social studies, and culture into STEM activities and the lessons that can be learned from them.

STEM, to quote a colleague, “is blending disciplines so that students engage in solving real-world problems.” I believe that it is simply more than just science, math, engineering, and technology.  It is teaching students critical problem-solving skills while having a growth mindset to be able to solve problems of the world and addressing conflicts.

I am hopeful that I can use the garden to solve challenges across all disciplines and that activities about plant cultivation and life cycles of plants can be translated into lessons that compare and contrast various cultural practices and habits.  Most of all, I am hopeful that because of science, students can understand which foods are eaten in various regions of the world and that the activities taught about plant growth and harvest can be translated into meaningful lessons about sharing, bartering, and supply and demand.

So it all comes down to this… The end is the beginning

Today, students will be communicating the data generated from the cultivation and growth of seeds to support their hypotheses about which seeds went to space and whether zero-gravity has an effect on tomato seeds.

It seems like just yesterday that I nervously snapped a selfie with several other enthusiastic Kenan Fellows from around the state to add to my first blog post.  Now, it is hard to believe that I am writing one of my last posts of this 2018-19 school year.  My students have done the work of scientists, engineers, technical writers, and various other STEM professionals.  Today, we Skype again with NC State Horticulturist, Melodi Charles.  This time, she will provide the audience for my students as they communicate their findings about the tomato seeds that they cultivated. 

As I reflect on the entire Kenan project, I realize how much the English language learners that I work with learned and how much I have grown as an educator to help them access the STEM curriculum.

Looking back, I began with students communicating their personal goals.  This allowed me to get to know the students and their strengths and weaknesses.  This also helped to set the stage for students’ own understanding about why they need to attend ESL class.  Additionally, setting personal goals allowed students to develop a growth mindset about improvement.

From there, students used technology (Flipgrid) to communicate their goals to others and listen to other students’ goals.  They collected data about their peers’ goals.  Then they interpreted the data and reported about it.  For many, this was the first time that they had ever done an activity like this.  I provided support in the form of vocabulary, sentence frames, and modeling responses.

A little later during the year, I sent a survey to the students through Google forms.  Students read the question and responded.  As a class, students, interpreted the data and communicated it to each other and to the teacher. I collected the data using Google forms as a data collection instrument.  Doing this activity, students got a little more time to practice interpreting and communicating data.  This is a skill that I wanted them to be able to do with ease, so when they began their tomatosphere seed experiment, they would be able to collect data and 

communicate it by themselves with relatively little support from the teacher.

Students used the engineering design process to design and watch the creation of the planters that they would use to house the seeds and soil. I introduced the process to students when they asked about things that could hold the tomato seeds.  The engineering design process is a cycle which guides students to deeper thinking and makes them ask questions about what they have chosen. Finally, students designed what they believed to be the best device to hold the seeds.  I shared my story about

how I came up with the idea for the device and I showed them my design with the engineer from FRC-EAST using the CAD software.  Later, the mobile FABLAB arrived and created the planter from the design.  Students witnessed the CNC cutter and the 3D printers fabricating the device from the design software.  They
assembled the planter parts and created a set of instructions as technical writing.

As they cultivated the seeds, students researched plants, plant life cycles, and tomatoes. They had a variety of means to do this:  books (at various reading levels and genres), videos and recorded books, and interviews. To present the information that they had gathered, students added facts on the virtual padlet, the physical anchor chart, and additionally “gamify”ed their facts by creating their very own Kahoot! games and challenging their classmates.  This was a fun way for students to present their research and to provide feedback using a very innovative and fun formative assessment tool.

In creating their Kahoot! Games, students collaborated.

They also read for information, often re-reading and summarizing text to get facts to create their questions. Many of the newcomer students, who don’t yet have the skills to read independently, listened to text to get facts.  Scaffolding was provided in the form of sentence frames, vocabulary instruction, and for some, L1 support.

As the plants grew, students commented about the stages of the plants’ growth.  Students used the information that they had learned from texts, along with information from the Kahoot! games and conversations with their peers to describe the sprouts, seedlings, and growing plants.

I have been very impressed at how well the students described the growing tomato plants using academic language, scientific vocabulary and discourse. My theory about why this occurs is that they are experiencing this phenomenon for the first time and are using the only vocabulary that they know to describe it. As a result, there is no L2 delay with the process of explaining how the tomato plant grows.  Also, many of the activities used to identify the processes of tomato plant growth are hands-on, thus the students are able to associate them with memorable experiences.

In addition to describing the plant growth cycle, students gathered data daily about the size, shape, and color of the sprouts as well as the rates of germination and growth.  Students  compared these qualities to support their hypotheses about which of the seeds they believe went to the international space station.  The scaffolds in place to help students explain this task are content vocabulary words and the sentence frames to structure their discourse.  Students participated in scientific inquiry and investigation to gather and sort data to support their hypotheses about which seeds are the “space seeds”.

During this unit, students have presented their data about the plants, their explanations about assembling planters, their explanations about how to cultivate seeds and about how plants grow.  They have also given their hypotheses about which seeds are the space seeds.  They’ve done this through technology, e.g. recorded statements via video and written essays about each.  However, in seeking an audience for students to communicate everything that they’ve learned, that’s when we reconnected with Melodi Charles, the Horticulture Scientist from NC State who initially gave us information about the tomatoes when the students were beginning their research. Students eloquently explained to her the entire process of designing a planter, growing tomatoes, and collecting data to hypothesize about which seeds were the “space seeds”.  Then, ultimately transferring those plants to an outdoor garden space at school.

So, as my Kenan Fellows project comes to an end, it is really just the beginning a new chapter of learning for my students and me.  I am hopeful that the community/school gardens that have begun as a result of this project will be a source for further learning, not only in the STEM fields, but also in other fields such as economics (supply and demand), cultural celebrations centered around festival harvest days, as well as writing recipes and cooking healthy meals.

This entire project and all that has developed through it would not have been possible without The Kenan Fellows Program.  The Kenan Fellows Program, to date, has delivered the best STEM professional development that I have ever received.  Additionally, I was paired with engineers from FRC East and given a chance to job shadow them.  Also, through the Kenan Fellows Program, I was able to create a vast network of STEM professionals and educators with whom I could collaborate both face to face and online.  It was through The Kenan Fellows Program, also that I was able to learn about citizen science and participate in the Tomatosphere citizen science project.  From there, through my Kenan Fellows network, I was able to learn about the NC Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom program and secure a grant for the establishment of a school garden.

I also want to extend thanks to my school district’s leadership for allowing me to pursue all of these endeavors.  Thanks to each of you, you have made this one of the best school year’s ever.  You have helped to allow my students to develop an inquiry mindset while learning about STEM curriculum and opening their eyes to STEM careers all in a language-rich, supported environment.

My Citizen Science Journey: From Ant Picnic to Community-based, Collaborative Project

When I did the “ant picnic” activity with my students in August of this past school year, I saw how citizen science can give students the opportunity to participate in authentic learning.  I also saw how it helps scientists generate data that would normally take months or years to gather.

I was so excited to find out that I was a recipient of a Citizen Science Conference Scholarship. As I wrote in my application, “I am excited about learning more about citizen science projects.  These activities have increased the level of engagement of my students tremendously.”  This is very true, as a teacher of English learners, I have seen how the citizen science activities that I have used in my classroom promote increased academic language use with my students. 

Now after attending the conference, not only am I even more interested in doing additional projects and activities, but I am interested in securing funding to develop a program/set of citizen science curriculum that will give my students more buy-in.  I now envision citizen science projects that draw on students’ own funds of knowledge, and projects that have roots in the community: Projects that drawn on students’ own inquiries and lead to improving the community in which they live and are a part of.  I want to give students a platform to solve the problems that they are passionate about and the workshops at the Citizen Science Conference have given me the tools to do this.

Thanks to the CSA Conference, I am going from “Ant Picnic to a co-created, community-driven, empowering citizen-science based project. 

As I look back on the conference, I can categorize my experience into five major themes.  I have listed each one below and I will provide my perspective on each one.

My Main Themes of the Conference:

I. Anyone can be a scientist!

II. Science is all around us, we have get outside and experience it!

III.Environmental justice is THE original citizen science!

IV. Scientists need the community just as much as the community needs them!

V. Partnerships and Collaboration make Citizen Science possible!


I. Anyone can be a Scientist!

This was a common, recurring theme that was present in just about every workshop that I attended.  Everyone from the keynote speaker, Dr. Max Liboiron, to many of the participants I chatted with, said this.  In fact, many in attendance did not have a science-background at all.  When I first began to do some of the citizen science activities and projects, I felt as if I was occupying a space that I did not belong.  I did not feel “worthy” of doing science.  On the contrary, I discovered at this conference.  Science is evolving and is striving to be more inclusive of others.  Science needs more diverse viewpoints and is moving towards creating more equitable structures for gaining information.

This movement toward diversity is powerful, as many previously underrepresented and marginalized communities will now be able to gather and contribute data about their concerns and use that data to advocate for change.

As one of the speakers said,”We don’t know where the next solution will come from, maybe someone from the public and not necessarily from the scientific community, will look at the data and figure out the solution.”

II.  Science is all around us, we just have to get outside and experience it!

According to one of the workshop’s presenters, kids today can name more Pokemon! Characters than species of plants and animals.  What does that say about our children today?

Maybe, it’s that our children are not invested in nature anyone.  With our society’s reliability and heavy emphasis on technology, our children have lost the wonder of going outside and connecting with nature as we once did.  As a result, as species become endangered, future generations of children and young adults will not care because they won’t have the connections with them as we once did.

One of my favorite presentations at the Citizen Science Conference was the screening of the film, “Backyard Wilderness”.  This is a brilliant film about the creatures and animals that inhabit our spaces shown from their point of view right in the backyard of a typical American home.  This film looks at a girl doing a report about a salamander that goes about its life as she researches it on the internet and skypes with her friends about it online.  All the while, the salamander’s ecosystem, habitat, and life is happening right outside of her window.  It’s only at the end of the film, when she discovers the wonderful natural habitat and awesome creatures that exist right outside of her home and that she makes a connection with the animals and their habitat right in her own yard.  After the film, there was a great discussion about how we as educators and parents can use technology such as the iNaturalist software, and Seek software to encourage our youth to explore the wilderness around us.  There are existing initiatives such as “Bioblitzes”and Observations that encourage people to go out and explore.  These apps use technology in a similar way that “Waze” and “Gas Buddy” use social media to provide a more interactive approach to exploring nature.  This, not only encourages people to explore their own environment, but provides scientists with with a more precise idea of the number of taxa that exist in a habitat.

III. Environmental justice is the original citizen science

One speaker defined environmental justice as making sure that vulnerable populations are being treated fairly when it comes to issues of water and air quality.  As a person of color, before going to this conference, I was very aware of issues of racial discrimination and prejudices in almost every area of society, but I never thought about inequities that exist in environmental practices.  As Dr. Robert Bullard stated, “America is segregated and so is its pollution. Race and class still map closely with pollution, protection, and vulnerability.”  After hearing more speakers and talking with several of the participants at this conference, I now understand these issues and I understand how data from citizen science can empower communities to have a more powerful voice with environmental practices.  As one participant stated during a conversation, “Environmental justice is THE original citizen science.”  He recalled how his community rallied together to get the playground mulch that was made from tires discarded.  It was made of old tires which when decomposed produces a toxic and hideous-smelling substance.  This condition of the playground went on for months, until the citizens began to do their own air quality tests and reported these results to the EPA.  That’s when scientists discovered that the tires that were being used break down to produce a smelly, potentially hazardous by-product.  Although, this had been tested in the labs previously, it wasn’t until this real-time, on-site data was collected in the community, did scientists realize that this was a problem in the community.  This is the original citizen science.

Today, this work continues and is possible largely because of citizen scientists in the communities being able to question and report their findings and own data to support what is unfair and unjust environmental practices against a particular community who before was marginalized because the inability to report data.

IV. Scientists need the community just as much as the community needs them.

When I came to this conference, I came hoping to gain more opportunities for my students and I to participate in citizen science activities and projects.  I realized after doing “Ant Picnic” how participating in authentic science experiments can help improve my students’ engagement.  I saw how much more effective they communicated data, when they knew that their audience was a group of scientists.

However, after attending the conference and talking with scientists, I realized that we, the participants of citizen science activities, who collect and interpret the data are really doing a major service for the science community.  One scientist told me that without “citizen scientists” there is no way that she would be able to collect and interpret the data to explain and support the work that she does.  Just then, I realized that scientists need us: the citizen scientists, just as much as we need them.  It is truly a symbiotic relationship. 

Dr. Rob Dunn, of NC State University, credits much of his research to the number of citizen scientists who have helped him discover thousands of new species of microbes and insects that were not previously known about in North America.

While, Dr. Libioron even insists on paying anyone who assists with her research.  She says that citizen scientists are THAT important to her work.

As Dr. Dunn states,”Scientists can focus on explaining what the data means and finding patterns while others (citizen scientists) gather the data.”

After leaving this conference, I realize how important the work we “cit-scientists” do for the scientists and I also recognize how doing authentic science increases engagement in students.

In fact, I am leaving the conference with information about how this partnership between citizen scientists and researchers can lead to something really extraordinary.  My students and I will be participating in the Eyes on ALZ project.  While this will be very engaging and fun for my students, it will also be vital to providing data about how certain drugs respond to Alzheimer’s disease.  This will be something that my students will be engaged in that will hopefully lead to a cure for a devastating disease.  While I was at the Citizen’s Science Conference, I learned that Citizen science really is a win-win.  It is one of the few things I know, where everyone involved benefits.

V. Partnerships and Collaboration make Citizen Science possible

I knew that citizen science is naturally a partnership between scientists and classrooms.  However, I learned that the partnerships and collaborations can extend much deeper and further much richer results.  There are a number of government and community-based organizations that partner to advance science.  Each has its role.  Whether it is a group funding the research, a group partnering with scientists to collect the data, or the scientists themselves analyzing and interpreting data, everyone has a mutual interest and investment in making citizen science possible.

At the conference, I met several ICBOs (Independent Community Based Organizations) who want to partner equally with funders and university researchers to advance environmental justice causes.  Similarily, there are university researchers, like Dr. Robb Dunn who are seeking classrooms and participants to help collect data about their investigations into research about topics dealing with The Ant Picnic Project, The Sourdough project, or The Great Pollinator Project.

I discovered that there is a web of sorts whereby many are interdependent on one another to collaborate to make citizen science happen.

STEM Career Pathways: Technical Writers

STEM Career Pathways:  Technical Writers

Shortly after the students returned from the FAB LAB with planter kits in hand, I immediately began to think about a writing activity where the students could explain how to assemble their planters.  After all, explaining a process is an important communication skill that English learners need to know.  They need to be able to communicate to an audience in an organized manner using specific academic vocabulary words.  The lesson was all set.  I really had not thought about linking this activity to a career until a student asked, “How will we put this together, if we don’t have instructions?”  So true, I thought.  We needed instructions indeed.  I asked the students if they knew where instructions came from.  Many probably assumed that they just magically appeared or as another student pointed out: “We could just go to Youtube and watch how to assemble it.”  It was at that moment that I realized that students could write/record the planter assembly explanation while simultaneously learning about a STEM career.

At about the same that I was planning this lesson, I read a tweet from Morgan Irons that really spoke to me.  I began following Morgan after I tweeted about doing an experiment with my students comparing and contrasting seeds grown in Earth soil and Martian regolith simulant.  Morgan has incredible expertise in Martian soil and deep space agriculture, but the tweet that really spoke to me was one where she said, “A constant in my life: Writing. As a researcher, writing is an everyday occurrence – whether it is for experimental design, funding proposals, or prepping & writing papers for publication.” She continued, “Understanding how to write creatively & technically is fundamental for success.”  She goes on to say that, “I am thankful for all of the English & writing classes I took throughout my educational career & the professors who pushed me to improve my writing technique. You need to know how to write well & clearly if you want to enter a STEM/STEAM field & become a leading expert.”

Just then, I realized that this lesson about explaining a process could be turned into an opportunity to learn about and practice the skills of a very important STEM career:  A technical writer.

Technical writers, one of the highest paid STEM careers, are those who creatively write guides and how to instruction manuals. They take complex ideas and put them into a more understandable format.

So, I posed the following scenario to my class:  You are the technical writer tasked with creating an instruction manual or a youtube how-to video for a “planter kit” that a customer just purchased.

Doing this added context to the lesson about explaining a process.  One student even used this as his focusing question and hook for the audience.  He went on to explain to his audience of customers how they would assemble the their planters.

After the lesson and the submissions, I shared an authentic set of Ikea instructions and how this multi-billion-dollar company employs technical writers (many of whom are bilingual) to write instructions for their products.

I think the students came away from this activity with good perspective about the importance of writing and also what career opportunities are available for writers.

Coincidence or Cooperation: Collaboration is the Key to successful STEM Integration

What a great week of instruction last week!  For the first time this school year, I was able to focus on the design and planting portion of the “Tomatosphere” unit.  At last, students have sufficient background about data collection and communicating data and they have begun their research about plants, seeds, and tomatoes…so this week, they used the engineering design process to think about, plan, and create the planters that will house their tomato plants.

To help with the creation/fabrication of the planters, students visited the MCAS FRC East Fab Lab and watched Mr. Lewis, the engineer in charge of the lab, create and talk about the creation portion of the engineering design process. 

I had asked students during the days leading up to the visit to think about things that could hold the seeds that we are going to plant.  It was really fun to see and hear about all the interesting ideas that students came up with.  There were students who suggested vases.  Others who thought plastic bags worked best.  Then, a few students even had the idea to house the seedlings in shoes.  I explained to them that this is the imagine phase of the engineering design process.  We discussed the ideas that they came up with and decided on one idea that they wanted to create.  As I told them, engineers do the same thing as they are thinking about ways to solve problems.  The next phase of the process is coming up with a plan for their idea.  I informed the students that during this phase, engineers create what are called “blueprints”.  I let the students know that blueprints are generated using computer programs and we even got to see the plans that the engineer and I designed to build the planters that we would see created.

The next step in the engineering design process is the create phase.  It’s here where make or fabricate the idea.  I let the students know that we would see this part of the engineering design process in the “Fab Lab”.  We would see the idea and plan that I came up with for housing the tomato plants being created today.  I let them know that they would be seeing machines called CNC machines and 3D printers.  These machines use the designs uploaded from design software (called Computer Aided Design or CAD) to make whatever engineers have imagined.

I explained to the students that this process is continuous because after something is created it can be improved by asking again what ideas do I have to make it better, then designing it or creating a plan, and creating the product that you’ve designed.

I wanted to introduce the engineering design process to the students in a scaffolded way.  There just wasn’t enough time to go through the entire process with them, so I explained it to them and let them know that they would be seeing only the “fabrication or making” part of it. I felt that the students had a good understanding of the engineering design process and one day would be able to take something from idea to product using the engineering design process.

Then, a few days after students went to the Fab Lab and saw how a plan or design was created, one of my schools was visited by the Innovation lab from the NC A&T School of Engineering.  This lab is a model design studio.  Students come up with an idea for something that they want to create (as many students recognized as the ask and idea phase of the engineering design process) and design it on their TinkerCAD software..

I could not believe that this was happening during the same week that I had planned a visit from the FAB LAB.  Coincidence or cooperation? Through collaboration with the MCAS FRC East FAB LAB and the NC A&T Engineering Department, students got a chance to see almost the entire engineering design process in action.

They saw how you can ask a question about how to solve a problem, then think about ideas to solve it, later design that idea, and finally create it.

Is the Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable?:  Food for Thought

Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable?  This is an age old question.  It ranks right there with the best of them:  If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? And now…Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?

Yesterday and today, my class had the wonderful opportunity to Skype live with two plant scientists from NC State University to gain research about the tomato plants that they are about to grow.  Among the many great questions they asked pertaining to tomato resources, types of cultivars, and rate of germination, one of them was:  Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable?  I was both glad and worried that my young scientists had asked this.  Glad, because I wanted to know, but also worried that it would not be a vegetable and I would feel terrible having gulped down tomatoes in my youth and feeling like I had, in my mother’s voice, “not eaten my vegetables.”

So, when the question was posed, Ms. Swift chuckled a bit and gave one of the best answers that I have ever heard.  “A tomato is technically a fruit,” she said.  “It has seeds.  Any plant that reproduces using seeds is a fruit.  So in the science world, we call it a fruit,” she explained.  “However, culturally it is considered a vegetable.”  Then I heard a student whisper, “It’s both.” Then he did an “air fist clutch”.

Later, after the presentation had ended, I thought about how crucial language is.  It’s just not fair to include tomatoes in the “fruit” category.  After all, apples, oranges, pineapples, and bananas occupy that space, right?  Further, the language mavens have neatly grouped potatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, and tomatoes into the vegetable category.  We have always referred to tomatoes as vegetables and that is that.

I sort of chuckled and thought that maybe this could be the source of a great etymology lesson.  After all, it is not very often that I get opportunities to teach linguistics and the sort.

I quickly said, “Class, are butterflies flies?” “Do they have anything to do with butter?”  A couple of students looked puzzled, then responded hesitantly, “No.”  “What about pineapples?” I continued.  “Are they apples?” “Of course not, but we call them such because that is the name we associate with them.”  “Maybe the first person that ever saw these things gave them these curious sounding names, but now that we know more because of science, we realize that the names for pineapples and butterflies don’t have anything to do with their species”. I went on to explain to them that just like tomatoes are scientifically a fruit, we have named them vegetables.  Perhaps it goes back to how they were prepared.  Maybe because many recipes called for them in soups, stews, sauces, and salads, like other vegetables such as greens, mushrooms, and beans, people began to call them vegetables and the name stuck.  Fruits, on the other hand are enjoyed alone as a snack.  Can you imagine biting into a tomato as an after lunch snack? This is much more closely associated with an apple, an orange, or even a pear.

By now, most of the students were nodding in agreement.  I wanted to bring the conversation back around to something more practical.  I asked them to think about some words and expressions that we use everyday such as:  web, net, and hang-up the phone.  These words all began meaning something else, but the way they are used today has changed.  This is similar to what has happened with tomatoes being actually being a fruit, but referred to as a vegetable because of how we use it and how it has been used.

I think both the students and I were a little more satisfied with the classification of tomatoes.  Hopefully, as students read and encounter words, they will think a little more critically about its name and the usage of that word.

Thank you Ms. Melodi Charles, Ms. Jennifer Swift, and the North Carolina State University Horticulture Lab for sharing your knowledge about plants with us; and above all, thank you for some food for thought.  I’ll have mine with a little tomato ketchup.

PBL, Inquiry, and Research: What a way to begin 2019!

As 2019 begins, I am hoping to do more to make STEM more equitable for the English learners that I work with.  As I continue using the PBL Process to get students to think like scientists with the Tomatosphere seed project, I have noticed that my students can collect data, interpret data, and communicate it well.  They are really beginning to think like scientists. I believe that my students are now ready to begin to implement project based learning, in earnest. I have asked that they come up with several questions about what they wonder or want to know about tomato plants and plants in general.  Some of the responses include: “Can tomato plants grow without water?”, “How long does it take for the seeds to turn into plants?”, and “What makes tomatoes change colors?”          

I was really amazed by their genuine curiousity about the subject, the personal connections that they made, and the amount of background they already had about tomatoes and plants.  I think that this will become a great launchpad for their research going forward.  Students will be using Epic! non-fiction books, a symbaloo of web sites, and a Skype conversation with a botanist from NC State to research and answer their questions.

I feel that by allowing the students to research the questions that they have generated, this will motivate them to read more and thus will improve the quantity of their writing about a subject.

The emphasis of the lessons in this unit however, is not entirely on content-acquisition, although students are acquiring information about tomatoes and plants, their focus is on evidence-based writing and supporting their speaking with fact-based details.  The students will practice communicating information that is supported with evidence from a source.  To assess themselves and other students and to simultaneously create notes on information about content, students will be creating their own Kahoot! questions to use for game style review. 

Although most of my students still need some support to be able to communicate using science discourse and vocabulary independently, a major advantage to this project is the fact that students are collecting and interpreting real data about an experiment that they are invested in.  I have already seen a difference in the manner that they communicate.  I hope that this continues as they begin to collect and visually differentiate the data from the different kinds of tomato seeds.

Building background: The first step to communicating like scientists

“Your students sound like little scientists!” 

That’s what a colleague of mine said after observing one of the lessons inspired by my Kenan Fellowship product.  I have never been prouder. Proud of my students, proud of my mentor, proud of the Kenan Fellowship support partners, and proud of  myself as a teacher.

I am finally teaching the unit originally conceived during my summer internship and at the Kenan Fellowship summer and fall institutes.

To begin with, my Kenan Fellowship has completely changed the way I approach everything that I teach.  And I do mean everything.  For example, my first lesson this year was having students communicate their personal ESL goals.  This entails them looking at their past year’s language proficiency scores and deciding on an area to improve.  I typically would ask them to  support how they will do this with several details.  While this activity is a personal goal setting activity, designed to boost self-confidence and provide motivation, it also gives the English learners that I teach valuable practice in organizing and supporting their thoughts orally and in writing.  This year, because of my Kenan Fellowship product, it also served as a listening activity which students used to collect, interpret, and communicate data about each other’s goals.  Due to the influence of my fellowship product, this lesson led me to focus on the background that the students would need to begin collecting, interpreting, and communicating the data for the tomato seed project later in the unit.  Even as they communicated the data about their peers’ goals, they are beginning to use science/STEM discourse and developing inquiry skills.

As additional practice gathering data, I planned another lesson where students created Google Forms to ask more questions to a larger pool number of people.  This gave students still more opportunities to practice data collection and data interpretation.  Of course, they also practiced language skills by communicating the data that they collected and interpreted.  Needless to say, without my Kenan Fellowship product guiding my planning, it would not have occurred to incorporate this so early into the unit and begin to focus on the science skills this soon.  Additionally,  focusing on inquiry skills during the early lessons gave me a chance to scaffold these science skills without incorporating the science experiment content, which can be overwhelming for the students.

After lessons that incorporated opportunities to practice collecting, interpreting, and communicating data:  First, with their peers’ goals, then with a survey they received from me, and finally with a survey that they created and sent themselves, the students have sufficient background to collect, interpret, and communicate the data from the tomato seed experiment in the lessons that will follow.

The next several lessons will involve students researching how a tomato seed grows into a full plant with its fruit.  The process for learning about the tomato plant life cycle will involve the Project based learning model.  When I explained to one student that he would be growing live tomatoes in the classroom and collecting and communicating data about their growth to actual scientists, he simply said, “whoa!”.  My students and I are really excited about how this unit is going so far and can’t wait to proceed.