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An English Teacher's Advice on STEM

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Episode Show Notes


English teacher and author Roxanna Elden talks about her tips for new teachers, how to form your personal Board of Advisors as a teacher, how to teach writing in any classroom, and more in this discussion. She draws on her research talking to many other new teachers, as well as her own experience, to share advice.

Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Check out the book and ebook Engineer’s Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong, on Amazon, Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, and other retailers.

Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon, by purchasing digital teaching materials at the Pios Labs curriculum store, or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. You'll also be supporting educational tools and projects like Chordinates! or The Calculator Gator. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.


Pius Wong  0:00 

Thanks to my donors on Patreon who are making it possible for this education podcast to exist. If you like it too, please consider contributing at www.patreon.com/piolabs. That's P-I-O-S-L-A-B-S.

It's May 15th, 2017. And this is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast.

In the push for more education in science, technology, engineering and math, don't forget to learn from the humanities, too. I'm your host, Pius Wong, and for this episode, I spoke with English teacher and author, Roxanna Elden, who's written about many aspects of K-12 education. We spoke about tips for new teachers, how to get students to write better reports in engineering and science classes, and more topics. Listen in next.


You are an English teacher, a speaker, author, and you were a past guest on this podcast. So that's how I first discovered you. Is there anything else?


Roxanna Elden  1:06 

And a fan of the podcast.


Pius Wong  1:08 

A fan of my podcast? All right, thank you so much. Is there anything else that people should know about you?


Roxanna Elden  1:13 

I do everything that I can to support new teachers, especially the first year on the job. So everything that I do, it revolves around helping out new teachers, guiding them through that bumpy road that leads from the last day of your training through the end of your first year.


Pius Wong  1:35 

Yeah, speaking of that, I picked up your book on that subject. It's called See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers, by Teachers. And I read it, and, not being a teacher, myself, and just having been around a lot of teachers, when I finally read this, it was very eye-opening. And it just confirms that, yep, all those horror stories that you hear can be true. So it could be pretty frightening, some of these things that you say. Why did you write that book?


Roxanna Elden  2:04 

Well, what I found as a new teacher -- and I was somebody who, my entire life, I wanted to be a teacher. I was a person who sat in my high school classes, and looked at my teachers and thought I could do this better than you. And one day I will. And even with all of that, and even with what I would consider pretty good training, I, you know, I got into my first year of teaching, and I realized that I really needed somebody else to acknowledge having the type of bad days that I was having. So what I was really missing my first year was honesty, humor, and practical advice. So I got a lot of advice along the lines of, you know, hey, remember what you did in training. Be consistent. Be positive. But I didn't have a lot of advice that would take it from there. So if I tried to be positive, and it backfired, I would just find another person that would tell me again, to be positive, or somebody would say something that would be what I consider the most obnoxious line in teaching, which is, "That would never happen in my class." Because you know what, insert your reason that makes you a better teacher: My students respect me, or I'm better organized or something. But nobody acknowledged that somebody who could be a good teacher in the future is going to have days that make them feel really bad.


Pius Wong  3:42 

The reason why I wanted to speak to you on this podcast is because I know that lots of engineering teachers, especially in high school, and elementary and middle school, they're new. They might have come from industry. There are a lot of teachers listening to this podcast who are who may not be super experienced in the school environment. And I thought that your book and your experience could be really insightful for them. Even though you are not necessarily an engineering teacher, a lot of the stuff that I read about seems like it would apply to any teacher.


Roxanna Elden  4:16 

I think a lot of it applies to any teacher, because I think that honesty, something that a lot of teachers need at different points -- I think it's a very good place to start coaching any teacher really, that's going through a tough point for any reason. And career switchers, they're gonna hit some of those same bumps in the road.


Pius Wong  4:39 

So some of those things that you wrote about, I already recognized other teachers complaining about when I would talk to them in our engineering trainings. For example, the reports that students would always have to turn in. Because in engineering classes, they're always doing group projects. And every single time I met with them, teachers, the group of them would say, they're turning in horrible papers to explain their projects. And even the so-called bright kids who did great creative projects, building robots and stuff, when it came time to write it out, their grammar would be bad, or it would be disorganized. And it just wasn't the quality that they would expect. Do you have any tips for these teachers for helping these kids get better at writing their reports?


Roxanna Elden  5:27 

That's a complicated answer, because on the one hand, they're not English teachers. So they they mostly want to focus on their subject that area. But at the same time, subjects overlap very much, and especially when it comes to communications.


Pius Wong  5:45 

Coincidentally, as if this issue were really problematic, our connection over Skype cut out a bit over here. So we reconnected over cell phone and Roxanna continued.


Roxanna Elden  5:57 

Okay, so on the one hand, engineering is a hard enough subject to teach that it's reasonable for an engineering teacher not to feel like they need to step in and be an English teacher also. I will also add that poorly written papers are also a big problem for English teachers, because we get lots and lots of, you know, hundreds of poorly written papers. And there's also sometimes a limit to how much you can correct in any one paper. So on the one hand,  feel free to mostly focus on your subject matter. On the other hand, there are certain writing skills that all teachers can reinforce. And students will become better communicators, if all teachers reinforce those. And I actually have a link to my list of 10 writing skills, I think, that all teachers can reasonably reinforce, and I'm happy to send you the link to that. You might put it in the show notes. But among the writing skills that all teachers can reinforce are writing skills that will especially help communicate in something like engineering. So for one thing, you know, follow directions exactly, and answer the questions completely. You know, just just letting students know that it's not okay to skip the harder part of the question is something that will bump up their skills, and also keep them from slacking in your class. And then just reinforcing the idea that you need to put ideas in an order that makes sense. And think about the details that your specific reader will need. And then last, the last thing, which I think every teacher should be reinforcing is, always read your paper after you wrote it, and see if it says what you want to say. Because there's lack of writing skills, and then there's just all around carelessness. And so I think any teacher can feel confident in just telling the students, I expect you not to be careless, don't make me be the very first person to read your paper, after you wrote it, when you could have been the very first person to read it after you wrote it.


Pius Wong  8:20 

Right. Now, that totally makes sense, especially because a lot of these engineering projects are group projects. So ideally, more than one person has looked at it. That's interesting that you don't mention things like, I don't know, grammar or style, stuff like that.


Roxanna Elden  8:36 

I think that is much more in the zone of the English teacher. Because grammar is hard to teach and style is definitely something to be taught by the hands of a professional.


Pius Wong  8:50 

Well that's good to know. I know that a lot of teachers, engineering teachers, might be uncomfortable teaching the English anyway. So those are good tips.


Roxanna Elden  8:58 

As we would be teaching engineering, right?


Pius Wong  9:00 

And I'll definitely put up that link. Sure.


Roxanna Elden  9:02 

But I will say this. What engineering teachers do have that English teachers don't have is some idea of how an industry-specific paper would look. So if there is a type of document that engineers need to turn in, that's the kind of thing where you can say, listen, I worked in engineering. And this would not fly. You'd need it to look like like this. And then you also have some authority if you're coming from that field.


Pius Wong  9:31 

That makes a lot of sense. So for other new teachers who are just starting to teach engineering, what other tips do you think you could give them that all teachers should should know, when they're coming in for the first time?


Roxanna Elden  9:47 

I think number one, I would tell the main thing that I tell every teacher -- whenever I'm kind of cornered, to give the one best tip for new teachers is very simple. Make sure you're getting enough sleep. Really, guys, a good night's sleep is the difference between the best teacher you could possibly be in that situation on that day, versus a greatly diminished version of yourself. And the one thing I will say with a classroom full of kids, you really need to be the best version of yourself as a starting point.


Pius Wong  10:29 

I like how that ties back to that episode that you spoke on for me before about teacher nightmares, because we want to avoid those.


Roxanna Elden  10:37 

Another thing I would say, choose your mentors carefully. And also know that you need more than one mentor. I always tell new teachers, you don't need a mentor, you need a board of advisors. And different people on that board will serve different purposes. So there can be someone on there that can help you with lesson plans. There can be someone on there that you complain with. And those two people don't have to be the same person. And there can also be somebody on there who is such a good teacher that they intimidate you. And maybe you don't want to open up about your mistakes to that person. But that person should be on there so that you can watch them teach. So yeah, I mean, I gather about five people serve different purposes. And then you'll have a sense of who to go to for what


Pius Wong  11:29 

do you think they have to be in the same department?


Roxanna Elden  11:33 

One of them should.


Pius Wong  11:34 

They should? Okay, a lot of engineering teachers seem like they're working as a department of one. I'm not sure that engineering or computer science is so prevalent in some schools. So what happens if they don't have a direct colleague to help them out like that?


Roxanna Elden  11:50 

I would say one of the people on your board of advisors should be somebody who teaches a similar subject. So if there are no other engineering teachers, maybe go to a science or math teacher, but then another one of those teachers on your board of advisors -- and it could be the same person, but it could be a different person -- should be somebody who teaches similar students. Or even the same students. So if you have a teacher who teaches your students English, that person can be tremendously helpful just to start working through the personalities, and what the kids are able to do and not able to, as you plan your lessons, but at the same time, you also want to be able to coordinate with somebody who has a similar subject matter.


Pius Wong  12:46 

Even though you're teaching English, you definitely have experience with things like technology, because it seems like all schools, all teachers are using different types of technology today. What's been your experience with edtech? Not even to teachers listening, but even to educational technology providers who might be listening, because I know there are a few, what's been some of the the best technology you've used and why?


Roxanna Elden  13:12 

Okay, so I should mention, and I can send you the link to this. I wrote an article about this that was directed toward ed tech people.


Pius Wong  13:22 

I think you did say that, yeah.


Roxanna Elden  13:23 

It was a kind of love letter. So the relationship between teachers and education technology is complicated, because it really comes down to how much you promise versus how much you deliver. And also how much work the teacher has to put in on the front end. So I mean, there's some great education technology out there. One of the technological advances that really helped during the course of my career was when the computerized gradebook started. When I first started as a teacher, we just had these, you know, green checkered pieces of graph paper basically that we recorded grades on and then added them up at the end of each quarter. So you know, just inputting those grades into a computer and having all, you know, the grades automatically there -- the kids can login, the parents can login -- that was a great jump for us. On the flipside of that you have education technology that over promises what it's going to do for your students and what it's going to make easier for the teacher. And often they don't overpromise directly to the teacher. They have a contract with the district. And then the teacher has to deal with that at the classroom level. And what sometimes happens when that has not been done, I would say considerately, is a teacher ends up troubleshooting in a class full of students. And the teachers really resent that. So for example, there was a program that I don't necessarily think was a badly designed program. But I had to take 150 students over the course of two days to the media center and help them all login and set up their account. And they were all supposed to have passwords. And they were all supposed to have login information in the system. Well, about a third of the students were not in the system. So that kept taking me away from my class. I wasn't able to get to all of the students. Half of my students were sitting there bored. The other half couldn't log in, half of them had finished, and then by the end of the year, we never heard about this program again. Well, so I don't know that the students got any benefit from it. So that's something that I think of when I think about programs that are just really not designed with the teachers experience in mind.


Pius Wong  16:20 

What you said sounds similar to what other people have been saying, like teachers have been burned in the past, basically. And so that's maybe why a lot of teachers are wary of these businesses that might be promising too much. Is there a better way that educational technology can engage with districts and teachers?


Roxanna Elden  16:43 

I would say that you want to make it very easy to test out the technology without doing a whole lot of front-end preparation on the teachers part. Because what often happens with teachers is that we will get excited about technology. And then we'll take that three-hour period to input all our students information or upload all our lesson plans, or something very time-consuming, because we think we're going to save time down the line. And then when we realize that the program doesn't meet our needs, we've already sunk that time into it, and we're very hesitant to keep doing that.


Pius Wong  17:23 

Yeah, there was a part in your book where that sounded familiar. You wrote about another teachers story or something, like, that it happened where they sunk all this effort into using some technology or curriculum. And then in the end, it didn't really pan out and they wasted all this time.


Roxanna Elden  17:38 

Yeah, I mean, teachers learn so much through trial and error. I think the thing that you need to know if you're on the other end of it -- and I mean, I'm not on the other end of it, so I could be making the same mistake that I sometimes feel that tech creators are -- But you have to just imagine that any glitch in your system is going to be multiplied by 30 students in a class who are getting bored while the teacher's trying to figure this out. And who are getting progressively more rowdy while a lot of screen is loading. And so you just have to understand that that's where the technology is going. If you are, you know, making things for teachers.


Pius Wong  18:31 

Yeah, it sounds like a challenge.


Roxanna Elden  18:33 

It is, but you know what? There is definitely technology that makes our job easier. So we're still looking for love.


Pius Wong  18:41 

All right, yeah, that's part of what I hope a lot of the people listening do. They create cooler tools that help you out. So I did want to ask kind of a final question. I think there's a trend that people are putting a lot more emphasis on STEM education, science, technology, engineering, and math. Part of the reason why I'm making this podcast, for example. But I wonder, does that cause any conflicts with non-STEM teachers. So you teach English, and I'm wondering if you personally have experienced anything, where you feel like STEM is over-prioritized over the arts or the humanities or something else.


Roxanna Elden  19:23 

I will say that I can only speak for myself on this. I don't -- it's not something that I hear a lot of English teachers complain about. But the heart of being educated is being able to think a lot of different ways. So engineering is one of those, science is one of those, math is one of those, and English is one of those. So I don't think that an English teacher is going to have a problem hearing that STEM fields are important. Unless -- the exception to that would be is, you get a lot of those type of comments, like, what are students ever going to do with poetry? You know, you get a lot of obnoxious comments, then you could -- you there's probably an English teacher version of that for the robotics class or whatever. But I mean, really, I think most teachers want students to get a well-rounded education,


Pius Wong  20:25 

Right. Like it's not a zero-sum game.


Roxanna Elden  20:28 

I don't think so.


Pius Wong  20:29 



Roxanna Elden  20:29 

And also all of the subjects feed into each other in your mind in different ways, so don't be afraid to try to collaborate with with English teachers. They probably would be happy to do so if you thought of a cross-disciplinary project.


Pius Wong  20:45 

Yeah, if you could help them create better reports and write better in their lab notebooks.


Roxanna Elden  20:49 

Yeah. You need to be able to communicate to do anything.


Pius Wong  20:58 

Thank you to Roxanna Elden in Miami, Florida. For links to Roxanna's articles that we mentioned about educational technology or how to teach writing in any classroom, or for a link to her book, check out this episode's show notes. Thank you for listening. Remember to follow the show on Twitter @K12engineering, and you can follow me @PiusWong. Follow the show on Twitter, iTunes, SoundCloud, and everywhere else on the internet. All the details are at www.k12engineering.net. Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor under a Creative Commons Attribution license. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs. That's Pius with an O, and you can support Pios Labs at www.patreon.com/pioslabs.


Hey, quick post-show note. If you recognize Roxanna's voice in this episode, it's probably because you heard her before in last year's episode called "Teacher Dreams and Nightmares." And if you haven't heard Roxanna before, or if you haven't heard that episode, I highly, highly recommend you go back into Season One and look for that episode, "Teacher Dreams and Nightmares," because it's easily one of the more popular, most popular and most shared episodes that I've done. It also took probably some of the most work on my part to make a podcast. Like, I went around asking a whole bunch of people why teachers, especially new teachers, seem to get nightmares more than other people. And Roxanna had done her own research about this, because she had written a book about new teachers' experiences. So Roxanna's contribution was really awesome in that episode, along with all the other contributions of everyone else who helped me with it. And I again just highly recommend listening to that episode because I'm proud of it, and a lot of other people liked it. Thanks