Thinking STEM: The Cup Stacking Challenge

Progress Tests are done, Reports need to be written. Children still need to learn but at this point in the year, are thoroughly over being taught. What to do?

When browsing some teaching blogs recently,I came across a school running an ‘integrated science class’: A mix of Grade 3-Grade 8 learners who are split into teams and given a STEM challenge each week to solve. You can check out the website here

Myself and a colleague decided to give it a go for a Science class this week. We combined our Y3,4,5 and 6 classes and split them into teams of 4 that each had a range of older and younger learners. Then we presented The Challenge

Stack the cups… without touching them!


  • To work cooperatively in a group situation in order to achieve a bigger goal
  • To investigate how to solve an engineering challenge using limited materials

The Materials

  • Cups (6 per group – add more later if they’r finding 6 too easy)
  • Elastic bands (several per group)
  • String

What to do

Quite Simpy, we gave the students the materials, told them to stack the cups into a pyramid without touching them (no use of mouths!) and said GO!

After a slightly baffled silence, students immediately raced off into trying different methods to get the job done – there are many options. The awesome thing about challenges like is that students are forced to think creatively , be confident and not give up. It was also wonderful having older and younger students working together as there is so much they have to teach each other.

We gave the students a while to practise and find a good technique and then had a timed race to see how could get their pyramid up first. It was a great lesson that everyone enjoyed and we will definitely do something similar in the future!

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Google Sites to the Rescue!

Recently, I realised just before a lesson that my printing cap had been reached. I thus found myself in a dilemma: The lesson I had planned required students to have access to extracts from Anne Frank’s diary. I could have projected the extracts onto the board but I wanted students to read them at their leisure; to examine and to highlight. One projection onto the board simply wouldn’t work.

In a lucky flash of memory, I remembered Google Sites. Although we run on an Office 365 platform at my school, I have been sneaking Google Tools into the classroom as often as possible as Office doesn’t always get the job done.

Literally in the space of 15 minutes (I only had one break time to solve my problem), I created a basic Google Site to upload all the necessary resources on to. I also embedded the video starter into the site so I wouldn’t have to flick between tabs

I want to stress here that the site I made is very basic and has numerous  errors that even a non tech- savvy eye could pick up. But it fulfilled my need perfectly and even better, I added a few more resources to the site that I could never have printed. For example, I found an online copy of Anne Frank’s Diary that is free to use for educational purposes. Bam, now interested students can read her diary in their own time, if they want to.

Check out the site I created (again, in less than 15 minutes) here


Pros of Using Google Sites

  • It’s User Friendly: Google Sites has a format that is very self explanatory. Naturally, being Google, there are also a number of offers of help that pop up when you are new to using the app.
  • It saves paper! Although I strongly feel there are times when a physical piece of paper and a highlighter are needed, there are many tasks and resources that no longer need to be printed. The parts of this lesson than that I wanted students to have written in their books, I asked them to write down in summary form – thereby giving them a chance to practise some writing skills!
  • You give students access to information they can peruse in their own time. The internet is every where…
  • You can link to video or audio resources to supplement or help EAL or SEN students understand the text.

How to Create a Google Site

  1. Go to
  2. Click on the large red ‘+’ sign in the bottom right hand corner – ‘Create’
  3. This will take you to a ‘blank slate’ page with some basic formatting in place. Give your page a name and title.
  4. Use the ‘Insert’ and ‘Theme’ tabs on the right hand side to add images, text, videos and adjust the look of your Home Page.
  5. Use the ‘Pages’ tab on the right hand side to add additional pages


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Model Paris Peace Conference of 1919

With all the political craziness going on in 2017, barely a Humanities class has gone by without the words Trump, Theresa May or Brexit being uttered! This has been the perfect opportunity to discuss democracy and its many favours and faults.

As we came to the end of our unit on WW1 recently, I decided to have students hold a model ‘Paris Peace Conference’. The idea behind this was  mimic the meeting in Paris in 1919 where the Treaty of Versaille was developed, the goal being  to eventually compare their treaty with the official Treaty of Versaillles.

Before the Lesson

We spent the previous lesson looking at the losses each country had suffered during WW1. This really helped the students ‘get into character’ so to speak and understand the motivations driving what each country wanted. One student in particular got so into character, she was called George for the rest of the term and demanded revenge with zero compassion in every hypothetical discussion .


  • To take part in a democratic, decision making process
  • To imagine the factors that leaders had to consider when formulating the Paris Peace Agreement of 1919

What you need

  • Lesson Power Point: You can download this for free from my TES shop here
  • A room full of tables set up in a conference style format. We used a horseshoe shape
  • Flags or some kind of paraphernalia from each country. Not essential but it helps students get into character.

At the beginning of the lesson, I split the class randomly into groups that represented the USA, Great Britain and France. These  groups then had to work together to write a peace treaty: starting with nominating a chairperson who ran the meeting from then on. The teacher played the role of Germany as she was not allowed to speak or add her ideas to the conference’s proceedings.

The students ran with this idea beautifully, discussing, deliberating and compromising to come up with a list of workable demands. They also really had fun! Although the subject matter was serious, the role play added an element of silliness and some students enjoyed decorating their faces with nation specific mustaches! In all seriousness though, I was so impressed with what they were capable of.  In just two lessons, students successfully negotiated a peace treaty that they felt was fair and took into account everything that each ‘country’ wanted. They laughed and had fun but also took their roles seriously and the chairwoman they nominated was perfect in her role.

After the lesson, we compared the treaty they had come up with with the real Versailles treaty and then discussed whether they felt Germany had been treated fairly. This operated as a perfect lead in to WW2: The topic we were studying next

Why this lesson worked

Students got the chance to take charge of the classroom. It was a silly bit of fun ‘gagging’ the teacher and a running joke over the first few minutes. However, as the lesson went on, I saw the students discuss serious issues in a more mature way. They realised what they were capable of and it boosted their confidence (and my confidence in them)

It also brought home the reality that big decisions can only be made through cooperation and compromise. It was a nice opportunity for students to consider if they are comfortable ‘playing politics’ – it’s never too early for people to consider their role in a democratic society


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McGraw-Hill Virtual Labs

I recently posted about doing dissections in Biology class. While dissections are an excellent way of seeing animal anatomy firsthand, there are a number of digital alternatives.

One of my favourite sites is the Mcgraw-Hill Virtual Lab:

You can complete a number of different simulations on here (Nutrition, Blood Pressure and many more) and even complete a virtual earthwarm or frog dissection.



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Anatomy of a Heart Dissection

Nothing Beats a Good Dissection 😉

I love using digital tools in the classroom. When you don’t have all the resources in the world or want something explained to your students from a different perspective, videos and simulations are a lifesaver.  However, after a few years ‘in the field’ so to speak, I’ve realised that a digital presentation, no matter how brilliant, will never trump a live demonstration.

While studying the Circulatory System with my KS3 students recently, I decided to guide them through doing a heart dissection.


  • To observe the external and internal structure of the heart firsthand
  • To link observations to what students know about the heart
  • To observe how various parts of the heart are suited to their specific functions

What you need

  • Fresh, undamaged sheep or pig’s hearts: 1 for every 2 people. (I managed to source these at my Local Makro)
  • scissors (1 per pair)
  • scalpel or craft knife (1 per pair)
  • Latex gloves

Before you begin

Although I am firmly in the camp that believes the benefits outweigh the risks wrt most scientific experiments, you need to give your students a clear safety briefing. Before the lesson begins, find out if anyone has any contagious blood or immune conditions so that you know what actions need to be taken in an emergency. Reinforce the need for care and safety and provide strict guidelines for what students can and cannot do on their own.

The Dissection

The Heart is a complicated organ and some structures are difficult to see if you don’t know what you are looking for. I showed my students this excellent video in the lesson before we did the dissection:

We began the actual lesson by recapping safety rules, putting on gloves and handing out the various tools. The student instructions for the dissection itself can be downloaded at my TES shop here (for free!). I also included a worksheet that recaps the internal and external structure of the heart.

The students were fascinated with this dissection. It brought the theory to life in a powerful (albeit a tad gross for some of them) way. I think they also enjoyed being given some hands on responsibility.





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Becoming a great teacher

I was doing my annual (okay, I’m lying, perhaps once every 3 years), hard drive cleanup recently when I  came across an old document entitled ‘teaching tips and resources.’ Looking at its contents, I was taken vividly back to when I first became a teacher: Frantically scavenging for every morsel of ‘good teacher’ practise I could find and trying to memorise it!

Honestly? It didn’t help much. Becoming a good teacher is a slow process… there’s a reason teachers with experience are frequently paid more or hired first. I’m still very much at the beginning of my teacher journey. However, there are some crucial lessons I have learned that have helped me immeasurably.


  1. Watch, listen, learn. Don’t copy, hoard and archive. Teaching is about feeling and engagement. Sure, make a quick note if you see another teacher using a tool you think is great. But writing down what they do and trying to emulate it is not going to help.
  2. Join a PLN (Professional Learning Network)
  3. Reflect
  4. Stimulate your own interest by watching videos, documentaries, reading scientific papers etc. It’so important to stay in touch with the wider world of your subject/s.
  5. Be unafraid of trying something different. The traditional educational system is bad and failing in many ways. Think about how YOU like to learn and try to bring this into your classroom. Ask your students how they like to learn. Try something completely new- what’s the worst that could happen?
  6. Start with the the objectives. Tie everything back to the objectives so that students walk away with a clear thumbnail sketch of what they have learned in the lesson .
  7.  Give constant formative assessment. There’s a place for tests, yes. But it is not the only way to find out what your students know. Design units that have integrated formative assessment tasks. Engage with your class. Teach them how to assess themselves. When you set a task, make sure it has a ‘checklist’ of things for students t tick off as they complete them.
  8. Get Google certified.
  9. Give regular, useful feedback. I usually do this in a form of ‘WWW'(What went well) and ‘EBI’ (Even better if)
  10. Give students regular, informal, FUN quizzes. I like to use platforms like Quizizz (  for this or use Google Forms and give students instant feedback.

And most importantly

11. Be kind. Never forget that your students have lives outside the classroom. Be sensitive         to their thoughts and feelings in as many ways as you can.


  1. Give unnecessary homework
  2. Allow yourself to feel bored. If you’re bored, they’re bored.
  3. Base a lesson on a textbook chapter. Start with the objectives: Use the textbook to supplement.
  4. Shout, raise your voice or lose control.
  5. Think of your students as a ‘class’- they are people- individuals- not a monotonous lump
  6. Over test. Testing in any way, shape or form soaks up time and energy like a sponge. A test series once a year is often necessary and can even be useful. Testing all the time does not promote learning.
  7. Spend all your time trying to design the ‘perfect’ resource. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your power points are. Research has shown engagement is the key thing that really helps students learn. The more they are doing, the better.
  8. Feel guilty for not feeling exhausted after a lesson. ^ previous point.
  9. Be afraid of appearing vulnerable. Your students are people. Your willingness to admit your don’t know something may help them feel okay with not knowing things as well- therefore more likely to ask for help
  10. Think you know everything. To be a teacher is first and foremost to be a learner.
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Becoming a Google Certified Educator

In my opinion, no one has done more than Google to help integrate educational technology into the school landscape.

My current school uses the Office 365 Educational Suite which has a similar range of tools  . However, Google has gone to immense effort to make its tools as accessible as possible.

Part of this effort has been to create Google Educator and Innovator Certifications.

I am so glad to have done this certification and I really don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner. The training is free and the exam costs just 10 dollars to register for.

I cannot reveal any details about the exam as I signed a non disclosure agreement. However, I can promise that if you do the training (or indeed, just complete the end of unit questions for each topic), you will be more than prepared. Here is a link to start your training if you are interested:

I did not find the exam particularly challenging but I have played around with most of the tools over the past few years. The training covers Google Sheets, Google Forms, Google Sites, Google Drive, Gmail, Youtube and Groups. It goes into exhaustive detail so even if you have never really used google apps for education before, you will emerge from the training with a pretty good grasp of the content: Especially if you ‘play’ with the tools as you go along. As mentioned, it wasn’t difficult, just exhausting. You have a maximum of 3 hours to complete- I got it done in about 2:40.

What I found useful

Doing this certification really helped me to explore tools that I have touched on in the past but had not fully explored. I also had not fully realised how well they could complement some of my teaching ideas. Notably, Google Sites and Google Forms. It’s nice to have solid proof of my proficiency with online educational tools and I was also reminded of ways that I could streamline my Gmail more effectively.

Finally, it highlighted many of the shortcomings of the Office 365 Education  Suite- something I will do a separate blog post on soon.


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