Free at Last!

I am extremely happy to report that we have officially defeated the Zombie outbreak! There are no longer ANY known Zombie locations on our maps. I am proud of how my students worked together to locate the Zombie home base and to concoct a potent and effective antidote to safely transform the Zombies back to their human selves.

Throughout the last eight weeks, as groups successfully completed various design challenges, they received special clues to help lead them to the Zombie home base. It is here that we would deliver an antidote to induce the quickest change. Clues indicated details about the location’s growing seasons, population, elevation, latitude and longitude coordinates, etc. This week, each group used the clues they had gathered, searched physical maps, digital atlases, and Google Earth, and attempted to pinpoint an exact location that aligned with all clues. Groups then merged together to convince each other. Within every class, the exact Zombie Home Base (different for each class) was correctly determined! The discussions were great! A location couldn’t be agreed upon unless students had actual evidence to prove it was a valid suggestion. I love conversations like these!

With the correct location determined, all we had left to do was to assemble the correct supplies and ingredients for an effective antidote that would revert all Zombies back to their human form. This was not easy. It turns out following step-by-step written instructions, matched with precise liquid measurements, is trickier than it sounds! All groups were incredibly reflective about their successes and their mistakes. Some recognized that working in haste is not very helpful, but rather slowing down and double-checking is critical. In the end, multiple groups concocted a proper antidote and were able to save us all!

With the antidote delivered and distributed to the Zombie home base, we were all safe to get a Ticket to Ride today! A game to get us home is exactly what we needed to bring Quarter 1 to a close!

Power Outage

Boy, oh, boy. We just cannot catch a break. On top of being amidst a worldwide Zombie outbreak, we had a global power outage last week! Groups are already running low on food and water, and some are starting to turn on each other. We are in pure survival mode. With the power out, the priority last week was to find a way to use solar energy for cooking to ensure safe consumption of the food we are hunting and gathering.

Navigating the dark, groups spent days considering how they could use materials around them matched with the power of the sun to create convection, conduction, and thermal radiation to safely heat their food. This time of year does not ensure large amounts of sun exposure, so finding ways to insulate and reflect the rays in unique ways was critical. The week was spent brainstorming, designing, building … and rebuilding. Finally, we felt ready to test.

Unfortunately, the clouds were relentless and allowed for very little sunlight to reach our solar ovens on our testing day, and it just wasn’t enough to combat the cool fall air. We were unsuccessful in our solar cooking attempts. Back to the drawing board it is because sun or no sun, we need food! We will not give in, and we will not give up until an antidote is created and the Zombie homebase is located so we can finally reverse this horrible Zombie plague. We’re close to cracking both! Something tells me this week will be an important one…

Kid Bloggers

Writing. It’s something few students admit to enjoying. Is it the writing itself or the reason for the writing that is so strongly disliked, though? In just our very first Kid Blogging experience from this week, I can say with a great deal of confidence I believe it to be the latter.

Students in the ARCTIC Zone each have an account within a Kid Blogging platform that allows them to publish written posts as often as they want that appear within our own AZ “space” for all students to see and read. We spent time brainstorming topics for their blogs this week that are important or special to each student. Topics about which they know a lot or have a lot to say. Topics that may not necessarily appeal to everyone else in class but will appeal to at least some others.

Each student chose one overarching topic for their blog posts for the remainder of this semester and now have seven different subtopics on which to focus for each of the posts they will publish between now and the end of quarter two. We have topics ranging everywhere from how to create a video game to how to design a garden. One student is writing about the Titanic while another is teaching his readers how to cook various meals. Someone is writing about different wars from the past while another is writing about bullying in schools. One student is writing about psychology while another is writing personal movie reviews. I was so pleased to see the variety of topics and ideas bursting throughout the room this week.

When it came time to write, a time when grunting and complaining can often be expected, I looked around the quiet room while fingers typed hastily away. No one, I repeat – no one – had a problem producing multiple paragraphs of information and detail in their very first post. And this is only the beginning. Soon they will have time to read each other’s posts and dig in to those that appeal to them. They can comment on each other’s posts and offer ideas, questions, and feedback.

We will eventually use our blog posts to practice our writing conventions and organizing writing with a purpose and audience in mind. The benefits of a platform like this, though, reach far wider than that. It is important for students to see and feel their own success when it comes to writing – something many feel they are not good at. In time, as students read each other’s posts, they will find several authors with whom they can relate and new connections and friendships will be formed. Writing with purpose, for a real-life audience, and about a topic for which you already hold a great passion can take an activity that used to feel challenging and frustrating to one that is exciting and fulfilling. I’m really looking forward to seeing their blog posts unfold this year.

Coping with Quarantine

I have seen an image floating around on social media pointing out that students currently in second grade and under have never experienced a “normal” school year. I know what the image is trying to get at, and it almost always evokes the sympathetic comments from disappointed people it is hoping to attract. While remaining sensitive to the obvious disruptions, challenges, and frustrations of the last couple years, I can’t help but ask … what should a “normal” school year look like?

I’ve had my fair share of disappointments and aggravations in the last few years, and I’ve certainly watched my students struggle in new ways, as well. However, though possibly unpopular opinion, at some point, don’t we have to embrace the change that exists and find a way to move on? To manage it? To make the best of it? To move forward?

To reference one of my favorite shows, I try my best to use the sourest of lemons life throws at me to make something that at least resembles lemonade. Furthermore, I try my hardest to model that for my students. For at the end of the day, where will the opposite approach get us?

This school year has undoubtedly gotten off to a unique start. I am happy to be fully back and in-person. More bodies means less space to spread out, though, so we have seen more students impacted by close-contact quarantines in the first five weeks of school.

It’s not ideal, of course, but using resources at our and our students’ fingertips (thanks to the last couple years), we have found ways to cope with these quarantine situations in a fun, effective way. Two years ago, our students would not have had their devices at home with them. Two years ago, none of us would have known what a Microsoft Teams Meeting is.

Today? Students on quarantine can tune in to their student group meetings in real time right from home! Not only does it allow them to stay engaged and connected in less than ideal circumstances, it also holds them accountable for showing up to class on time. It practices responsibility and time management. And it encourages unique collaboration opportunities for students on both sides of the screen.

No, it’s not what school used to look like, but it’s what school looks like now. I believe what school looks like should always be changing. Change is the only constant in life, isn’t it? How we adapt and rise to the occasion is what makes the difference. And it will make the difference for our students.

“Real” Fires!

Unfortunately, the Zombies broke into our camps and contaminated our water supply! Everyone knows you can’t survive long without good, clean water! Our top priority this week was to purify the water supply we have to make it drinkable again! We had to make a plan to build a fire with supplies found in our area in hopes of boiling the contaminated supply.

I presented this challenge to my classes midway through class on Thursday this week, giving them minimal time to make a plan for Friday’s fire-building challenge. After reviewing the challenge that would be carried out on the following day, without fail, multiple students in every single class asked, “Wait, are we ACTUALLY going to build REAL fires??? Like … actually?”

The immediate concentration and excitement that exploded throughout the room is why I love project-based learning so much. Student groups physically leaned in closer to each other. Hands reached for pencils and crayons to represent sticks and logs while they discussed design plans. “I’m a Boy Scout!” was said in at least two classes.

We could have pretended this was a real challenge. We could have just drawn it out and talked through it. That certainly would have contained the volume and energy level in the room. I would not have achieved the same level of engagement, though, and furthermore, I would like to point out the biggest reason I believe authenticity matters.

For the past few weeks, our students have been learning about atoms, molecules, and states of matter. Part of their skill check a week ago was to draw what happens to molecules when they change from a solid to a liquid to a gas and back again. When they were initially presented with the fire-building challenge on Thursday, part of their design-approval included a labeled drawing that depicted and described what would be happening to the liquid molecules as they changed to gas molecules.

Many students were not sure what I expected to see in their drawings at first. When I said, “You’ve been learning about this downstairs,” the lightbulbs suddenly went off.

“Oh! I know what happens!!”

Nearly every student was able to explain the process to me once they made the realization that what they had been learning about in class with Mr. Brown was being applied to a real-life situation they could wrap their minds around in this class. That connection needed to be made, though. How often do students ask, “When will I ever need to know this??” Application of knowledge to authentic scenarios allows students to recognize the value of what they are learning. And when we do our final application checkpoint next week to assess their understanding of the changing states of matter, our fire-building challenge will be an unforgettable experience they can use on which to reflect and explain their understanding.

Plus, it’s important to note – all groups who were successful in boiling their water for at least one minute acquired the first clue in locating the Zombie’s home base, bringing us one step closer to overcoming this impending-apocalypse!!


Imagine this: Your boss approaches you and says from now on, every single day you’re going to be given one to two hours of time during your work day to work on ANYthing you want. You’re told to really think about what excites, intrigues, or inspires you, and to use this allotted time for this new purpose each day. What would you do?

Students in the ARCTIC Zone are presented with this opportunity every year. Depending on their schedules, they get to devote one or two class periods every day to a project of their choice. As 6th graders, students are often caught a bit off-guard, sure there must be some kind of catch. I try my best to pose a variety of options … “You could build something, write something, paint something, read something, film something, learn how to do something new, organize a fundraiser, plan an event, learn more about something, try to make a positive change in school or in our community! What do you want to do?!”

We always have a few different types of students each year. There are some students who are just not yet sure about or comfortable with stretching themselves or their minds to think beyond creating a PowerPoint presentation or a poster. And there are always a few who see no limits and end up concocting a project idea far beyond any realistic measure. Both are allowed and encouraged to, “Go for it!”

In the end, we hope to coach the first group to think bigger and further. To be more intentional about selecting a specific and relevant audience and to find unique ways to launch to that particular audience. With our help, the goal is for the second group to realize the need for careful and reasonable thinking and planning. We want our students to think and dream big. We also want them to be able to comfortably and successfully navigate the flow of a project of any size on their own. Finding harmony between big thinking, reasonable thinking, and authentic purpose, and relevance is the ultimate challenge.

What amazes me is watching our 8th grade students begin the year with a more solid understanding of what their options include. They come in with bigger thinking but with a more realistic understanding of time, resources, etc. that will help or hinder the progress of their ideas. And of course, as always, the variety of projects is incredible to observe. We have students building a mock volcano, some designing a website to teach young women about their changing bodies, some coding video games, some filming a stop-motion video of a car chase, and others designing a pamphlet to teach others tips for training cats and kittens.

Again, I ask – what would you choose?

A Zombie Apocalypse

Two days ago, our principal came to us live with an emergency announcement. Zombies had been sighted in and around Chicago, IL! This is a new breed of zombies that do not respond to weapons. Our only chance of survival is to run and hide until we can concoct an effective antidote to return the zombies to their human form. We needed to evacuate – and quickly! Luckily, each of us was given one free flight to anywhere in the world where we thought we would feel safer from the zombie outbreak.

Some groups chose to go where they knew there would be ample food from crops or local wildlife, some considered fresh water sources, and others chose locations with protective landforms for an extra barrier. Most groups travelled great distances with the hopes that the zombies cannot swim, using our great oceans as a natural obstruction. So far, the zombie spread has remained central to North America. With any luck, they can be contained to the one area.

In the meantime, groups have since relocated to their new sights and are working together on a number of things. The cartographer in the group is keeping a map of where new zombie outbreaks are occurring each day, as well as any natural disasters that could prove dangerous for their groups. The expeditors are tracking group supplies like food, water, firewood, etc. Each group’s accountant is maintaining and attempting to balance their budgets. And the consultant of each group is acting as a communicator with other groups, handling all trade negotiations. We’ve been lucky so far. All are well. We can only hope it stays this way.

Today, we received a encrypted message from the zombies! It was a message sent to us in latitude and longitude coordinates. After creating a giant grid on the floor, we all worked together to chart each coordinate in its correct location. Our efforts paid off because we cracked the code! The message read: “Help us! Make an antidote!” From this message, we were able to infer the human soles still exist within the zombie exterior! We need to save them before we’re all bitten and transformed! We carry the weight of the world on our shoulders!

***NOTE: I cannot believe I forgot to snap more photos – especially of our final zombie message! Too engrossed in the fun of it all!***

Love Wins

I tell you what – I try really hard not to allow myself to fall down certain rabbit holes on social media or to involve myself with particular side conversations in public gatherings – especially recently. There is so much debate, disagreement, uncertainty, frustration, and hatred swirling around regarding decisions being made by those around us and “above” us. I try to migrate toward positive circles and vibes, anyway, but as we embark on a brand-new school year today, one filled with mixed emotions and uncertainties, I feel it necessary to make one thing clear.

Regardless of your views on the pandemic… Regardless of your political opinion… Regardless of your thoughts on school policies… when your student walks through my classroom doors, you can bet that he/she/they will be met with kindness, respect, and acceptance from me. And you can be sure that I will spend the entirety of this year doing my best to cultivate a classroom culture of compassion that will be carried beyond the classroom.

As I look around my classroom today, I see a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, identities, and backgrounds. I know some students are so excited to be here and others were dreading the arrival of today. I know some are vaccinated and others are not. I know some are terrified about being called on while others are blurting before a question has even been asked. I know some are well rested while others were up till 3 am playing video games. I know some despise the fact that we have been asked to wear masks and others are nervous to be around so many other people given current conditions. I know some are carrying weight on their shoulders that I may never know about or understand.

Despite our differences, we will work to accept and appreciate one another. In fact, it is our differences that will make this year exciting, fun, and insightful. We will celebrate our uniqueness.

When your children enter my classroom, they become MY children. Rest assured, I will treat them as such. Love wins.

A Masked Film Festival!

One of my favorite things about the flexibility we have with the ARCTIC Zone is the ability to join together with family and friends to celebrate learning! The one project we carry over year after year is our annual Film Festival. Each year focuses on a different component of film-making (cinematography, storytelling, etc.). This year, as with everything else, we were unsure of how the film projects would unfold. Mask-wearing and distancing would not allow for easy filming opportunities. But the show must go on, and we found a way!

This year’s film focus: animation! For the first time ever, we had an entirely animated Film Festival! Every student began by writing a story of their own. They then joined students of other grade levels to form small working groups. A story was selected and screenplays were written. We spent several days tinkering with different types of animation like hand-drawn animation, claymation, object animation, and cut-out animation. From here, groups selected their animation of choice and created a storyboard to follow during the shooting process.

Animating provided unique challenges. Do you know how many frames are needed to create a fluid stop-motion sequence of 2-4 minutes in length? A lot! With new challenges came new opportunities, as well. It was very fun to see a spotlight shone on the talents of some of our very artistic students. We have many!

This past weekend, a panel of eight community members came to Northstar to view all finished films. Each judge critiqued one or two categories. Films were critiqued on the following components: Compelling Story, Creativity & Originality, Framing/Shot Selection, Animation, Sound Editing, and Video Editing. The top eight films were aired on the big screen at the Micon Budget Cinema in downtown Eau Claire this evening! It was an exclusive event, shown only to the top eight film makers and their guests. The top three films were awarded with movie gift cards!

Congratulations to …

Third Place: The Whisper

(Sam, Lin, Olivia, & Cadence)

Second Place: What’s Our Talent?

(Madison, Maddie, Charleigh, & Anna)

First Place: Metaphysical

(Michelle, Cienna, & Montana)

Our celebrations of learning bring me so much joy. It is a time to reflect on the hard work of the past few weeks and months. It is a time to laugh together, to learn together, to be together. When leaving the theater tonight, my face literally hurt from smiling, as it does after every ARCTIC Zone celebration. This one was different, though. After over a year of distance and isolation, uniting as one community of students, staff, and families to celebrate together was very special. It felt like a new beginning. And as the end of this school year very quickly approaches, I like the sound of that. May this ending be a new beginning for us all…

Back at It!

Regardless of one’s feelings about the current state of the pandemic, it is amazing to see our students back together again! It’s a lot of bodies. It’s louder. It’s messier. But the energy, the smiles, the giggles, and the connections between old friends and new are so hard to ignore. Life in the ARCTIC Zone has shifted pretty seamlessly. Students have continued to tinker with their own passion projects, collaborate on their short animated films for this year’s upcoming Film Festival, and plan and produce their dream vacations for this quarter’s Flex project.

In Humanities, we’ve continued to read the book, Flipped, in which we are learning the importance of understanding a difference in perspective. Using the experiences from the book, groups must now work to design and build a 3D metaphorical representation of the two main characters’ differing perspectives. The conversations have been incredible!

What are we doing with the extra time we have now that we’re all back together again? Friday challenges are back! I have found one very interesting thing worth noting in the last two weeks of challenges. The first challenge I always present is the same each year. It is simple in nature and sure to get them laughing: the marshmallow spaghetti tower challenge. Each year, as I typically present this challenge within the first two weeks of school, there are inevitably strong disagreements that may lead to arguments, some hurt feelings, and many failed attempts at building a successful, free-standing tower.

This year, I noticed an immediate difference in the ways groups were communicating with one another, laughing together, enjoying each other’s company, building on each other’s ideas, and executing their plans of action. And in the end, we had far more standing towers than I have ever seen before!

Fast forward to our second Friday challenge – marble roller coasters. Groups had the choice of shooting for the tallest, the longest, or the curliest coaster. No winners or losers. Just putting brains together to make a fun creation that required SO many trials and SO much testing! You should have heard the laughter, the brainstorming, and the problem-solving going on in room 820 on Friday!

Despite the challenges and setbacks of this schoolyear (and last), our students are growing in ways that may not be immediately visible to the eye. They are learning to communicate with others, to persevere through hardships, to respect each other’s unique differences, and to lean on others during times of strife. I am so glad we get to spend the last few weeks of the schoolyear together again.