Agents of Change: An ELA STEM Project


Flashback to high school: I’m sitting with one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Saey, working on a project and thinking to myself, “This is so cool!” I was working on a community service project I had researched and designed for my Advanced Marketing class. It was just about time to implement the project and see all my plans fall into place. I was nervous, but so unbelievably excited to not only see my ideas come to fruition, but to be making a difference in the lives of others.

Now fast forward a few years. I’m the teacher, trying to create that same feeling of empowerment for my own students. I wanted to do something with my sixth-graders, but wasn’t sure what that would look like. I experimented for awhile, combining the ingredients of STEM, problem-based learning (PBL), and inquiry learning (5 E’s) with cooperative learning and my passion for authentic learning experiences. Eventually, I found the right recipe and the Agents of Change project was born. 

After tweaking last year’s trial-run (done with the help of my fantastic friend and colleague, Sarah Polanc), I entered the newly-improved project into Samsung’s Solve for Tomorrow STEM contest. Just this past Thanksgiving break, I found out the project qualified as a Missouri state finalist! 

So… want to know more?

  • Read my contest entry form below.
  • Click here for pictures and resources from last year’s #AgentsOfChange project. 
  • Stay tuned for more resources.
  • Comment below with questions!


Applicant’s Name: Hannah Johnson

Grade Level of Students Participating in Project: 6th Grade

School Name: Oakville Middle School

School Address (include city, state, ZIP):

Email Address:

Cell Phone Number:


Concept Overview:

What is the main idea of the activity that addresses the challenge: “Show how STEM can be applied to help improve your local community?”

The main idea of the Agents of Change project is to integrate STEM and 21st century skills into our English Language Arts classrooms. This authentic learning experience follows the engineering design process where students implement their own community service projects. First, they brainstorm current problems, ask questions, and do initial research. Next, they imagine and propose creative solutions. Then, each team researches and plans a service project by collaborating with community partners. After that, students create and implement their projects in small teams. They test their project ideas by requesting supplies, permissions, partners, etc., often having to problem-solve and think of creative alternatives when faced with roadblocks. Students prove they can follow through with their project by making adjustments and necessary changes. Finally, they reflect, analyze and share the resulting impact of their project, presenting their entire inquiry process at our Celebration Convention in late April or May. The entire project focuses around the driving question of: How can we can use our communication skills such as reading, writing, speaking, and listening to collaborate, to think critically about world problems, and to come up with creative solutions?


Please describe in detail the activities your students will participate in to achieve your anticipated goals.

Students brainstorm, research, and explore real-world problems. Then, they choose a specific problem and persuade the teacher to assign them to that team. With their small team, students research the problem, possible solutions, and find contact information for an “expert” in that field. They write invitations, create questions, and interview their expert in order to write a project action plan for their team. After that, students continue to collaborate with experts as well as adult volunteers to implement their project and document their successes and failures along the way. Students use their communication skills to call, email, or interact with adults to request permissions, gather supplies, and carry out each step of their project. They are required to use powerful language in advertising, collect data and document their journey.  Towards the end, students will write a speech and create a final presentation that shows their journey throughout the Agents of Change project. They will include evidence (sample writings, audio clips, video recordings, photos, etc.) for each of the following: the plan and how it changed, background research, long and short term group goals, daily reflections, problems the team faced and how they were solved, how students used collaboration (their team, other students, other schools, adults, community partners, parent volunteers, etc.), analysis of their impact, quantitative and qualitative data collected (represented with charts, tables, graphs), and more. Students will invite community partners, local news stations, parents, administration, and others as they share these presentations at the end of the year during our Celebration Convention. They will challenge their audience members to make a difference too.


What is the anticipated improvement to your local community?

Each of our 30 student teams is working with a community partner to spread awareness, raise funds, or collect supplies in order to benefit a variety organizations and/or causes. Six student groups are spreading awareness for topics such as natural disasters, pollution, mental illness, and bullying with a goal of reaching an audience of at least 2,000 people (in person and online). 19 student groups are raising funds for organizations such as Paraquad, Epworth, APA Adoptable Pets, Green Peace, Red Cross, CHADS Coalition, Kingdom House, St. Louis Zoo, Marine Mammal Center, and the Missouri Humane Society with a goal of $25,000 total dollars. A total of 10 students have a goal to volunteer at least four times throughout the year at Gateway 180 Homeless Shelter. One student group is trying to collect at least 300 pieces of used sports equipment for local teams in need. Another group is creating a display for the Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum and possibly St. Louis Lambert International Airport with a goal of teaching at least 400 visitors about the problem of trash in space. Finally, we have a group working closely with Missouri Department of Conservation, Bass Pro, and Build-A-Bear to create a school sponsorship program with a goal of raising $100,000. They plan to do this by involving all 25+ local Saint Louis area school districts and then taking the project to a national level.


What are the assessments you will put in place to measure pre, during and post project? What tangible result can be produced within the contest timeframe?

Assessments will include various written components during each step of the project, along with observations and a final presentation. Each writing piece will be assessed on whichever writing standard we are working on at that time such as organization, style, word choice, conventions, etc. Pre-project writing pieces include: prior knowledge of STEM, initial research of real-world problems, topic proposal paragraph, in-depth research of problem and possible solutions, email invitation to community experts and parents, description of initial project idea, sequenced project action plan, and thank-you emails to community experts and parent volunteers. During the project, students will be assessed on written pieces such as: email or oral requests for permissions and supplies, advertisements and other persuasive writing, correspondence with community experts, invitations, and more. Towards the end, students will write a speech and create a final presentation that documents their journey throughout the Agents of Change project. Additionally, students will be assessed on their speaking skills during the presentation (volume, eye contact, professionalism, table layout and design, use of visuals and gestures, etc.) During our Celebration Convention, we will have experts and audience members help evaluate student presentations and use their feedback as part of each student’s final assessment score.

Additional Questions:

How did you originally hear about the Solve for Tomorrow contest?

I heard about this contest from a forwarded email that my principal sent out.

What was the most difficult part of applying to the Solve for Tomorrow contest?

Honestly, the whole application process was fairly simple and easy to complete.

Did you tell your principal before applying to the contest?

Yes, I wanted to let my principal know that I would be submitting our Agents of Change project.

Did you inform your students before submitting your application to Solve for Tomorrow?

No, telling them we were finalists was a surprise to the students.

What was the reaction from your school when you qualified as a state finalist?

The reaction from my school and community was very positive both in person, and on social media. Many teachers, parents, and other staff members were excited to have two teachers from our school qualify as state finalists.

Do you have any personal passion points or community groups you are committed to?

It is important students understand that no matter their age or ability, they have the power to make a difference and become Agents of Change. This project empowers students to move beyond our school into their community. When partnering with community groups, I believe it’s important for students to research choices and choose a group that they feel passionately about.


Learning Lab: A Scope & Sequence


I’ve tried for years to find a scope and sequence that works well for reading and writing. Unlike math, which can be taught in a linear fashion, reading and writing skills don’t necessarily have to be taught in any order. That is a benefit, but it can also be tricky for setting up a scope and sequence for the year. After five years of teaching an ELA block, I think I might have found something that will work well with my teaching style.

This will be the first year using this scope and sequence, but I have high hopes. It is designed in a way that makes it “flexible”. (That seems to be my buzz word this year, since I’ve also started flexible seating.) There are so many changes from year to year, student to student, that I was constantly revamping my system. This design allows for adaptability to the ever-changing initiatives, standards, students, curriculum, and more.

So let me explain what I like to call my “Learning Lab”. Essentially it is an online database of my lessons for the whole year. It is generic enough to be used with any texts and topics (since those seem to change frequently). Here’s how it works.

Home Pages

This is the home page. Think of it kind of like a dashboard. Every lesson and practice activity can be accessed from here. Let me give a brief overview of each button.

  • Introduction: Beginning of the year lessons such as expectations, routines, and getting-to-know-you activities.
  • Prepare: Pre-reading STEM activities organized by theme.
  • Read 1: Procedures for reading any given text the first time through.
  • Read 2: Procedures for reading the text a second time, editable close-read questions, and a schedule for small-group, differentiated instruction.
  • Discuss: Lead a Socratic Seminar, Town Hall Debate, or Literature Circle for the given text. Mini-lessons included for a variety of speaking and listening skills.
  • Practice Literature: A compilation of instant feedback / self-checking practice activities for every literature skill (on and off-line). Practice can be personalized and assigned based on individual student needs. Each skill also has a quick assessment students can take when they are ready to prove they can do the skill.
  • Create: Lessons for a year-long STEM passion project that is trans-disciplinary. Students follow the design process to brainstorm and research real-world problems, create and implement a plan for a community-service project, collect and analyze data, and finally present their impact and reflections during a big end-of-the-year celebration. Each step of the project includes a writing component students do individually first, and then come to a team consensus. I like to call this project #AgentsOfChange.
  • Practice Language: A compilation of instant feedback / self-checking practice activities for every language skill (on and off-line). Practice can be personalized and assigned based on individual student needs. To prove they have mastered the skill, students apply it to a current piece of writing (from their passion project).
  • Collaborate: During what I like to call our “Collaboratory”,  students get together with their team to share their independently written ideas. The team discusses and then comes to a consensus. Time is given for students to actually send, create, and do the next step of their passion project. For example, sending the final email, making a phone call, or recording an advertisement.
  • Write: Since all the writing so far up to this point has been for authentic, real-world audiences, this writing time is just for fun. Students engage in creative writing prompts. Currently for this part, we are using the Gateway Writing and Lucy Calkins programs.
  • Choose: In order for students to understand the importance of reading and writing, I think it is imperative we give them ample time to actually read and write. During this pseudo “workshop” students can choose to read, write, catch up, or select another appropriate option.
  • Listen: Every year I try to weave in time for a read-aloud. If there are ever days where we finish early, I select this button and choose a listening activity for students to do while I read to them.
  • Take a Break: Our brains need a break every ten or fifteen minutes. These activities include a variety of Kagan cooperative learning structures, brain breaks, team builders, class builders, and more. These structures can be used in conjunction with any content or can be used just for fun.

As you can see, the Learning Lab is flexible. My goal is to work through the cycle in a two-week time period. Any advice, thoughts, or suggestions? Soon, I’ll be writing more detailed posts about each button. Stay tuned!


Flexible Seating: My Middle School Classroom


Last school year, I began the journey of switching to flexible seating. If you aren’t sure what flexible seating is, or where to begin the prcess, I’d recommend reading this blog post. 

Now that it’s August, the back-to-school season has begun. I’ve been busy this summer, collecting all the furniture needed for my flexible-seating classroom. I’m excited to share the (almost) finished product. Check it out!

Badge Boards: Allowing More Time for what Matters Most


As a teacher, my biggest wish is more time.

More time to meet with students one on one. More time to fine tune lessons to specific students’ needs. More time to look at data and really use it to drive decisions. More time to build relationships with my students.

I might have found a solution. Thanks to a random Twitter Chat I participated in (still learning how to do those), I was introduced to something called “Gamification”, or similarly “Game-Based Learning”.

Essentially, it’s using games to engage students in activities online and off. The ideas is to pose questions as challenges or quests. Students practice skills and are rewarded with different levels, badges, special items, a class currency, etc. If you’d like to learn more about gamification or game-based learning here are some great sites to check out:

Game-Based Learning: What it is, Why it Works, and Where it’s Going

The Difference between Gamification and Game-Based Learning

After reading and researching, I’ve come up with the idea of what I like to call “Badge Boards”. While the majority of my students are working independently (or collaboratively) within this Badge Board site, I am free to pull small groups, conference with students, but most importantly… HAVE MORE TIME!

The beauty of using Badge Boards is that my students are engaged in fun, game-like activities that are personalized (and differentiated) to meet their own learning needs.

So what are Badge Boards? Let me show you. But, please keep in mind these resources are still in their early stages. They’re a work in progress. They’re subject to changes. They still require work.

Here is the home screen with a brief overview of Badge Boards.

Badge Boards

On the left, students can navigate to the table of contents for all the literature skill badges, language skill badges, discussion skill badges, and behavior badges. Here are the different badges available for each subject area. (Badges are based on Missouri standards and skills for sixth graders.)

Badge Boards (1).jpg

Badge Boards (2)

Badge Boards (5)

Badge Boards (4).jpg

When students click on a button, it will take them to a list of available challenges. Students have a choice of which challenges they’d like to do. They can choose to work independently or with a small team. The challenges are differentiated to include a variety of learning styles as well as different levels of difficulty.

Challenges - Unknown Words.jpg

Here are some examples of various challenges. Some challenges are online games or tutorials that give immediate feedback. Not all challenges will require a computer, though. My goal for blended learning this year is to use technology as much as possible, but that isn’t always realistic. Some challenges will be comprised of completing task cards, or other classwork that has an immediate feedback component. My plan is to keep adding activities as the year progresses. Hopefully, I can recruit my ELA colleagues to contribute some of their activities.

Challenges - Unknown Words (1).jpg

Challenges - Unknown Words (3).jpg

Challenges - Unknown Words (4)

Once students have submitted proof of three completed challenges, they can request a master-level badge. For my higher learners, they can complete five challenges and request an expert-level badge. I don’t have the request form created yet, but it will be a Google Form since our district uses G Suite products. Here are some examples of what the badges will look like:

Badge Design Gallery.jpg

Master Level Badge (three successful challenges)

Badge Design Gallery (1)

Expert Level Badge (five successful challenges)

Student badges will be on display in our Google Classroom. That way, students can view each other’s badges, but their privacy will still be protected. Each student will have his or her own Google Slideshow with the front page you see below, and then a new slide for each new badge he or she earns throughout the year.

My Badges

Notice the XP. For each master badge the student earns, he or she will receive 5 XP (experience) points. Expert badges will result in 10 XP. For positive behavior in class, students can be awarded random XP at the teacher’s discretion. This will be part of my behavior management plan this year. Whenever students are working with the Badge Boards, they have an opportunity to trade in XP for classroom rewards such as leave class early, work with a partner, bring snacks to class, etc.

Another goal is to have a class leaderboard in place for the top ten students with the highest amount of XP. Since students can earn XP for both academic and behavioral acheivements, my hope is that the top ten isn’t all just high achievers. I want to reward students who improve and put forth effort as well.

Hopefully my journey into blended learning this year will be a success. I think that utilizing this Badge Board system will provide me the time it takes to work with students in a small group setting. I think the students will be more engaged since they have the opportunity to choose their own activities. It will take a lot of work to build the Badge Board challenges, but I am more than ready to begin.

Badge Boards

Gallery of Badge Designs

Do you use something similar to Badge Boards? I’d love suggestions from others! If there are any other middle school ELA teachers wanting to collaborate with me on the challenges, I would love help adding activities. Please comment below with your thoughts.


STEM: What is it? Why do it?


Last summer, I learned about STEM through a few Discovery Education workshops. It was a lot of information, a lot of ideas, and all a bit overwhelming. But when the request went out for STEM Innovators in our district, I jumped at the chance. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to put my learning into practice. And it was! With each additional workshop and one-on-one training session with my STEM coach, I became more comfortable with STEM. I was energized enough to take everything to the next level.

So what is STEM?

To me, STEM education involves learning activities that are rooted in real world problems. The learning activities still address state standards, but also develop students’ 21st century skills, or the 4 C’s: communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration. Students follow the engineering process to ask questions, imagine possibilities, plan solutions, create prototypes, test their ideas, make improvements based on feedback, and finally share their learning. The activities stretch across the curriculum, covering big ideas that go beyond the classroom.

What STEM is to me

Sketchnotes on what STEM is to me.

What about the arts? What about ELA?

Well, an critical component of STEM education are the 4 C’s, two of those being creativity and communication. Creating new things is an integral part of the STEM process. Students design, build, make, and turn their ideas into reality. Communication is also a key part of STEM. That’s why I have no problem integrating STEM into my own ELA classroom. I also like to think of the engineering design process similar to the writing process. Students plan (prewrite), they create (draft), they test and improve (revise and edit), and finally share their work (publish).

Why try it?

For starters, the rewards of STEM were definitely worth any risks! Being a STEM innovator this year has had many positive benefits, but I think the most important impact is that I’ve shifted the learning to my students. They are the ones communicating more, solving problems, working collaboratively, and creating things beyond my expectations. STEM has taught me to take a step back and become a facilitator of student learning. STEM is a perfect umbrella for inquiry learning, problem based learning, constructivist teaching, and cooperative learning. It ties everything together into something meaningful. I think students are more engaged when they see real world connections, more willing to try when they see it’s okay to fail sometimes, and more active participants when they can make their own decisions about their learning within different projects.


How being a STEM Innovator has benefited me as an educator.

What are your thoughts on STEM?

Poetry Project Part 2: Choosing a Topic


If you don’t already know a little bit about my poetry project, I’d suggest reading a general overview here. Before students choose a topic, I introduce the project first.

Choosing a Topic

Since poetry is so near and dear to the soul, I wanted to make sure students were allowed a choice of topics. In order to do that, students needed a list of topics to choose from, therefore… another paper chat! This time, I had students brainstorm possible poem topics. I gave them these prompts on different posters:

  1. What makes you angry or upset?
  2. What worries you? What are you scared or afraid of?
  3. What makes you sad?
  4. What do you love?
  5. What do you find beautiful?

Once we finished “chatting”, I handed out the Topic Proposal Paragraph handout. I told them we already came up with ideas on the posters, so they did not have to fill out the column on the right. (I included it as an alternate activity for brainstorming other than the paper chat.) Poetry Project Part 2- Topic Proposal Paragraph.jpg

I told the students to think carefully when narrowing down their topic choices! It is a lot easier to write about a topic that you are passionate and know a lot about.

Topic Proposal Paragraph

In sixth grade, we are still focusing a lot on improving our paragraphs, so I provided an example for students to use as a guide. I had them write two paragraphs using the template on the back, one about their first choice and one about their second choice. 

Poetry Project Part 2: Topic Proposal Paragraph Example

Afterwards, I collected the paragraphs and sorted students into teams of 3 to 5. I quickly realized that some students chose topics that no one else was interested in, or I had a lot of students choosing the same topics. Here are some suggestions for those issues:

  • If there are no matches for a student’s first or second choice, I offered the student a choice: work independently or choose a different topic. Although…
  • I tried to avoid groups of one or two in case of absences. (Collaboration is a huge part of the project.)
  • Groups of 5 worked fine enough, however, it was hard for them to share resources at times.
  • For popular topics such as bullying, I broke up students into several smaller groups which seemed to work pretty well. (I had three groups of three).

Next up in my Poetry Project series, I’ll explain how teams met and began the next step of the design process… imagining! In the meantime, stay tuned!

Here are the resources for my Poetry Project Part 2:

Poetry Project Part 2 – Lesson Plan (Google Slides)

Poetry Project Part 2- Topic Proposal Paragraph (PDF handout)

Poetry Project Part 2

Poetry Project Part 1: Introducing the Project


If you don’t already know a little bit about my poetry project, I’d suggest reading a general overview here.

Where to begin?

Part of STEM is understanding the design process. Most of my projects follow the same sequence of steps, the first being to ask8f2522dbc4ec7c57fcd4ca80a2b7fe9f_picture-engineering-design-process-clipart_831-642

Ask. Define the problem.

With this project, the problem is figuring out how students can use powerful language to inspire others. I introduce this problem through an Introduction Letter I copy and send home with students. First, we read it together in class. It outlines the task, the process, and the standards that will be covered. Poetry Project Part 1- Introduction Letter

The next step is to acknowledge the common misconception with students that powerful language is not just in poetry. However, poetry is the easiest and most common place to find powerful language. Poetry Project Part 1

After discussing that for a few minutes, I have students do a paper chat. If you’ve never done one before, I highly recommend it. I learned about this strategy from my Discovery Ed STEM coach.Poetry Project Part 1 (1)


For this activity, I had students walk around the room for about ten minutes, reading and writing their answers to questions such as:

  1. How can language be powerful?
  2. Why does language need to be powerful?
  3. Who uses powerful language?
  4. Where is powerful language found?
  5. What specific things (devices and techniques) make language powerful?

After returning to their seats, we discussed their ideas for each question. A lot of students made the connection to advertising, commercials, political speeches, etc. Being in middle school, most of my students were able to name at least a few of the devices uses (imagery, symbolism, similes, metaphors, etc.) On a side note, one of my classes is co-taught with several students below grade-level. I did provide that class with some scaffolding in the form of giving a few examples and writing them down on each poster before we began the paper chat. That seemed to help immensely.

Poetry Project Part 1: ExamplesOnce students watched one or two, I had them record some observations on a piece of paper as an exit ticket. They told me what the poet did to make the poem “powerful”. To challenge the students (eventually I did this for all my classes), I had them divide the paper into four and categorize their observations into the following sections:

Sound Devices:

What do you hear? (rhyme, music, alliteration, volume, rhythm, etc.)

Word Choice:

What is being said? (similes, metaphors, imagery, hyperbole, etc.)


What do you see? (visuals, camera angle, words, font, colors, gestures, etc.)


How does it begin and end? (introduce with a title, pausing between stanzas, ends with a challenge as music fades, etc.)

Because of time, we usually end up watching only a few poems the first day. Later on, the other examples are used as part of our warm up on work days (I’ll explain those in my next few posts.) In the meantime, stay tuned!

Here are the resources for my Poetry Project Part 1:

Poetry Project Part 1 – Lesson Plan (Google Slides)

Poetry Project Part 1- Introduction Letter (PPT handout)

Next up, Poetry Project Part 2: Choosing a Topic

Poetry Project Part 1

This includes an introduction letter, a paper chat activity, and example videos to kick start the project.