The Self Watering Plant: Part 3 of 3 featuring Micro: Bits!

After exploring plants in our environment, I wanted my students to understand how technology, robotics, and automation impacts our world and more narrowly, can be leveraged by farmers, engineers, and scientists and even hobbyists to take care of nature. We began our Micro: bits unit.

First off, I’d like to thank Tim Dixon, Dianne, and Elissa from SEC, Prince George County Public Schools, Maryland Dept of Ed, and the University of Maryland for introducing me to Micro: bits and sponsoring a class set! We are aligned in our passion for bringing computer science to English language learners and I look forward to more collaboration! Getting to know them and other amazing Maryland educators & CS researchers regularly has been an absolute highlight of this past year.

Micro: bits are small, programmable devices that can be used to teach students coding hands on. To introduce my students to them, we explored some easier projects before extending to the Self Watering Plant project. All projects and tutorials can be found in We began with programming the light sensor–LEDs. Students programmed a flashing heart– then the letters in their name.

We watched the accompanying video in Edpuzzle and learned about the three functions of the LED: indication, communication, and illumination. Next, the students programmed the step counter project. In pairs they tested the Micro: bit by going to a designated location in the school–one student walked with the Micro:bit in their shoe and the other counted. They returned and learned how the accelerometer (motion sensor) is not very accurate and could be more sensitive. We then learned from the video in Edpuzzle that our phones also use accelerometers to rotate the screen! The third project was to program the temperature sensor. We had one student download the Room Temperature Thermometer app to compare the temperature data from our Micro: bits against the app. (Note: It’s only available for Androids–not the iPhone. I learned the hard way!) We began in our room, which anecdotally had the coldest room in the school. The first greeting upon entering into our room has devolved from “Good morning Ms. Sawyer!” To ‘It’s cold!!!” We went on a walk around the school– recorded the temperature in 5 different places, and returned to discuss our findings. Yep–room 207 is the coldest room in the school! The accompanying video taught us that the heat sensor is located in the processor which can skew the data–same with a phone’s heat sensor. Further-we know the technology behind why our phone’s black out at the beach!

Finally, Project 4 which grew from one project into a more complex version of the project. First we measured the soil moisture using electricity–there is no water sensor! We learned that when water and nutrients mix–they can carry electricity—and we can measure that electricity to determine if the soil is moist or dry. The students recorded their data. Then we expanded upon that project to create the complex Self Watering Plant project. As a class, we coded the project together, discussing precision and accuracy. Students checked their code line by line making sure their inputs were correct, practicing editing/ debugging skills. Then the students independently watched the tutorial on how to build the machine–pausing where needed. We came upon some frustration with the motor (the servo). We learned the hard way that if the lever isn’t positioned in the exact way the screen shows us, it will stall out. This caused a lot of frustration, but we did it–and I myself was surprised at how accomplished the students felt. I thought for sure this would be their least favorite project because of its length and intensity, but for many it was their favorite. This was my lesson. Kids like to do hard things!

To reflect, the created a one-pager in a Google Slide (inspired by ELL 2.0) on the Micro bits: They listed the 4 projects, discussed their favorite project & why, discussed their least favorite project and why, and one they’d like to try in the future. They were to list 3 new words, include an image that represented the unit, and emojis.

This integrated unit was a hit! We learned the language of ELA, the language of science, and the language of technology and coding. We learned to express preference, reflect, follow directions, check for accuracy, make conclusions based on data, and explore our environment. We learned how to persist when there’s an error and more. The engagement was unparalleled–my students even forgot that we were learning and using English to learn about, execute, and analyze these functions! Like our plants, we grew.

The Nature Around Me- Part 2 of 3 of Create a Unit With Me!

Now on to language for science!

On a warm sunny fall day, I took my students outside to take pictures of 10 or more plants around the school. They worked in pairs. One snapped photos with their Chromebook and the other wrote attibutes and details they both noticed about the plant. The appreciation was deep–first to get outside and soak in the autumn sun, second to learn more about the plants that we see daily around our school environment.

The next day I taught the students how to created a folder in their Google Drive, upload pictures, and share the folder with their partner. After completion, they worked collaboratively to complete a table with their plant data, exposing them to another type of graphic organizer and its function. They reverse searched their plant pictures in Google lens to identify the plants. With that information they could research the other questions in the table.

Multiple Meaning Words: Language Learning Support

I used this word “table” as a catalyst to discuss multiple meaning words, which can often be tricky for second language learners. I asked, “What does ‘table’ mean?” They immediately responded, “Mesa!” “You’re not wrong, but in English ‘table’ can mean something different depending on the context. In this context, a ‘table’ is a graphic organizer, which organizes information in rows and columns. In Spanish, it is called a ‘tabla.’ So how do you know the difference? Well, would you eat at a graphic organizer? Not really. It’s the context which tells us which ‘table’ is being used. But let’s table multiple meaning words for now.

Writing: Research

The students then worked together to research the plants.

Upon its completion, I gave them the short think, pair, share reflection assignment below. Referring to their data, students had to write their individual opinions. Then, they orally discussed their individual opinions with their group. Last, they had to decide on a group response for the same questions then present out. One student remarked–I love this project! My favorite question was which of these plants could you identify without Google lens? And aside from pine trees and tomatos, most all were new. They deepened their vocabulary, learned technology, grew an appreciation for local Virginian flora, and collaborated in their written and oral responses.

Analysis and Reflection

Create a Unit with Me! Plants & Identity: Part 1 of 3.

As integrating computer science has taken root in my ELD classes, I constantly look for the next WIDA standards/ CS opportunity. My goal is to integrate a minimum of one computer science project a semester. My inspiration for this unit began with a seed–CodeVA’s bilingual snail mail issue #21 on plants & simulation* (Language for Science & CS).

* CodeVA issues free bilingual, accessible booklets that students can have mailed to their homes. Who doesn’t love getting mail? Teachers can also use them, of course! Sign yourself up & encourage your students to sign up too!

The conditions for this unit’s germination were soon met! Edpuzzle’s featured video on Julio Noboa Polanco’s poem Identity/ Identidad for Hispanic heritage month (Language for ELA) was a perfect collab, and with Microsoft’s Make Code‘s project to create a self – watering plant with a small, programmable device Micro: Bits, we were ready to grow in our knowledge of plants/ germination conditions, poems/ identity, “I’d rather___ than___” preference sentence structures, and how computer science can aid in agriculture.

The unit was over three weeks. I’ve divided it into 3 parts.

Part 1: Prior Knowledge & Language for ELA: Julio Polanco’s poem Identity/ Identidad:

  • The students will brainstorm and translate the names of known plants and create a class botany word bank.
  • The students will diagram a named plant and generate 5 reasons why they would be them completing the frame “If I were a plant, I would be a _____.”
  • The students will demonstrate an understanding of negation and diagram a named plant and generate 5 reasons why they would not be like the named plant by completing the frame “If I were a pant, I would not be a ______.”
  • The students will demonstrate an understanding of a Venn Diagram and its use by completing a graphic organizer comparing and contrasting flowers and weeds.
  • The students will read and demonstrate an understanding of text structure.
  • The student will understand juxtaposition by comparing and contrasting plants they would or would not be like by using a Venn diagram.
  • The students will rewrite a poem inspired by Polanco’s identidad to reflect their own identity.
  • The students will verbally share their project by presenting to classmates.

Prior Knowledge/ Vocabulary Builder

  1. First, we brainstormed plants in both languages–looked up images and translations. I put them in a Quizlet set for us later to review. Daisy is margarita, in Spanish, you guys! A fun fact to impress your friends at Mexican.
Co-constructing word banks are a great way to tap into prior knowledge and expand vocabulary in the L1 as well as English!
  1. Second, I introduced the subjunctive: If I were a plant, I would be a _________. Students researched & drew the plant and wrote 5 descriptors why.
  2. Next, the negative: If I were a plant, I would not be a _________. Students researched and drew the plant and wrote 5 descriptors why they would NOT be that plant.
  3. Then I introduced Venn Diagrams. Note that it is important to describe what a graphic organizer is, how a Venn Diagram is a type of graphic organizer, and its purpose. For many of my students, this was their first encounter with a Venn diagram. We shaded each circle with a different colored pencil and the middle, overlapping part holding both colors. We wrote the word “differences” under the outside parts of the circle and similarities under the middle part. We co-constructed their first Venn Diagram. We brainstormed how a flower and a weed were similar and different. The topic was flowers and weeds, to preview Polanco’s Identity/ Identidad poem.
  4. Next, they independently created a second Venn diagram based on the two plant diagrams they created in prior lessons to demonstrate that they understood how to compare & contrast utilizing one.


  1. I generated interest–Polanco was 14 years old when he wrote this poem and it’s his most well known. Why did he write it? His girlfriend broke up with him!! How do you think he felt?
  2. Students read and reread his poem in Spanish and English. Advanced students only entered into the Edpuzzle video–I found it to be a little extensive for beginner/ intermediate ELs.
  3. Then with two different colored highlighters, they highlighted phrases/ words in one color that referred to the flower, in the other color that referred to the weed referencing the versions in two languages.
  4. We noticed his poem’s stanzas had organized themes: Stanza one, the flower. Stanza 2 & 3, the weed. Stanzas 4 & 5 comparisons between the flower and weed.
  5. We underlined the repeated line “I’d rather be______.” How many times did he use this?
  6. Then we circled “than” which follows “I’d rather be” in the second and third uses. We conducted a comparative linguistic study and considered the Spanish equivalent “Yo prefiero ….. que…”
  7. The students had created their own writing assignment with sentence stems!

Writing: Poems

  1. Beginning students completed the poem frame with the information from their original two diagrams. Upper intermediate/ advanced students completed the more extended poem frame.
  2. Kahoot reviewing then vs. than! I taught a trick– Than has an ‘a’ and comparison has an ‘a.’ Then has an ‘e’ and sequence has no ‘a’s, but ‘e’s.

Listening & Speaking: Round Robin Presentations

  1. Students presented their poems and diagrams to each other as a capstone to this part of the unit in a round robin- style presentation. They posted their two plant diagrams, the Venn diagram comparing the two, and their original poem based on Polanco’s Identity/ Identidad. They had four minutes to make their way through the language guide linked below and they’d present to the next classmate in another four minutes, and so own guided by the timer.

Feel free to use my materials below! Let me know if you implement this unit– I welcome feedback! Look for part 2 and 3 coming soon.

TESOL Connections article published! Try, Fail, Succeed, Repeat: Taking Risks in STEM

Hot off presses in the September 2023 issue of TESOL Connections!

At the end of the school year, my friend and colleague Katie Miller and I were approached by TESOL Connections to write a piece based on our TESOL Int’l Portland presentation Try, Fail, Succeed, Repeat: Taking Risks in STEM.

It’s my first publication since grad school and first ever co-authored. It was a dream to write with Katie. Here’s to firsts! It’s amazing how words and ideas pull together cohesive when you have first hand knowledge, experience, and excitement!

Hey Holly! What’s new this year? Joining CodeVA! And a new goal for CS Integration in my classroom!

I am THRILLED to have the honor of joining the amazing CodeVA nonprofit as a faculty facilitator!

Here we go!

Their mission is to bring CS education opportunities, resources and training to make CS equitable to all Virginian children. What a perfect match. A special thank you to Kristin Hott and Megan Graybill for connecting me with this opportunity! I am excited to learn from like-minded educators and share my passion for integrating computer science in English language instruction. I haven’t left the classroom! I’m still an ESL teacher! In fact, here’s my personal goal to expand my #CS teaching toolbox for project based learning this year in my classroom:

This year’s goal is to explore…. Micro:bits! A Micro:bit is like a mini physical computer board which combines coding, craft and creativity to teach physical computing, engineering, computer science, and electronics. I have the Invent to Learn Guide to the Micro:bit book but am closely following Micro:bits on Twitter/X for integration ideas.

Limiting the Limitless Opportunities

As a computer science learner myself, how do I select what to platform to use and for what?

I select one primary platform to explore and integrate in a unit project a minimum of once a semester. I do this 1) to keep me focused and 2) also to provide continuity for my students. Unlike most high school teachers who have their students for one semester only, I have the privilege of teaching & keeping mine throughout their tenure. This means that I do try to avoid duplicate learning experiences and units for the same set of students.

I don’t limit myself, however! If a compelling CS integration opportunity arises like it did with our World Cup unit, then we’ll go for it. For example, after an introductory project or two first semester with micro:bits, second semester I want us to use both the Edison bots and micro:bits in a project where the students put on a parade on a yet to be determined subject. I’m fascinated by this re-tweet.

From where I began, to where I am today.

My Personal Growth of CS Integration with ELD


Course/ Projects

2020-2021 Year 1!

CS Fundamentals Course

2021-2022 Year 2!

Edison bots

Barcode Programming


2022-2023 Year 3!

CS First for Google



Animate Your Name

<World Cup>

<Problem Solving Unit>

Game Design

2023-2024 Year 4!


TBD- Let’s do this!! 🙂

Game Design – The Amazing Maze Game

In this lesson series where we create a maze game in CS First for Google, what more appropriate warm up than to give students a traditional maze to work through. I began too easy, then the next day, a more difficult one, the last day, what I considered a difficult 3-D maze. Timed the students and watched them fly! This gave them an opportunity to explore the challenges and emotions of mazes before we explored their place in literature.

Then, in an ESLified version of unplugged to plugged, ELs are intentionally given opportunities to grow in the four language domains, listening, speaking, reading, and writing, to advance their English. I find poems to be extremely accessible for English learners. They’re succinct and gripping. Because much of academic, elevated language has cognates in Spanish, poems are more accessible than one might think. We began with “Joy” by the celebrated Harlem Renaissance author Clarissa Scott Delaney.

Reading Poem 1 – “Joy

Student sketchnotes the poem. We underline adjectives and point them to the nouns they describe. We define the literary device. And illustrate “bewildered” with symbol ??.

“Joy” is accessible on We began with a sticky note warmup and attached it to the image below. Using the sentence frame _______ bring me joy because ________. students thought and shared with the class their answer to the prompt: What brings you joy?

We read the poem in a choral read a few times over the course of the lesson series. We sketchnoted the phrases. We explored the literary devices. Then we separated the poem into two parts–the first 8 then then last 3 lines. We explored the flexibility of the last 3 lines and moved that emotion of being scared and lost to the front of the poem-a more chronological approach.

My students rewrote sections of the poem adding what brings them joy. Made their own comparisons. Explored synonyms for “bewildered” like “confused,” “unsure,” and “uncertain.”

Reading Poem 2 – “El Laberinto/ The Laberinth”

One of my deep desires for my students is that one day they will have access to a heritage Spanish class so they enjoy the beautiful authors of Latin America. And they all have the ability to interact with grade level (above grade level!) content with the appropriate supports. Watch this in action.

Jorge Luis Borges is a Argentinian author who had a degenerative eye disease which progressively left him blind giving his poem El laberinto (Spanish for maze) a different significance. I placed the translation side by side and we made bilingual connections about all the ways he refered to the maze. I told my students to hunt for and underline 6 phrases. They’d bring the poem back to me until they found them all. Then they wrote them in a list below.

Student notes on El Laberinto by Borges

Write to the End

Using elements from both poems, I created sentence stems for my students to complete. Students used the maze phrases from El laberinto to complete the sentences then selected their synonym of choice to replace “bewildered.” They wrote their final drafts on a maze they completed earlier and the joy of having written something so complete and inspired by such greats.

Student draft of their poem inspired by “Joy” and “El Laberinto.”

Now code your own maze!

With a firm exploration of mazes’ place in literature and culture, we opened up our last Game Design set of modules, “The Maze Game.”

At this point, we had completed both the character story and the racing game, so students had some base familiarity with coding. That is the beautiful thing about coding- when integrated with even some regularity, students build on the same skill and further their competency. Nearing the end of our school year, they were ready.

We made connections to ELA story elements and learned about equivalency across disciplines. In English language arts, a setting is where the story takes place and in computer science backdrop is where the story takes place. With this, we reviewed and discussed the utility of phrases like “in other words” and “that is” which can cue us in to an alternative explanation. This is a key comprehension strategy for ELs as they may understand one explanation over another because of cognates and vocabulary knowledge.

Students, with the support of the guide sheets when needed and video tutorials, created their own maze games. They customized them by selecting different add-ons. Then, to cap it off, with our final part of the project, we had a speed dating structured presentation where the students got to show off their games to their peers and try to pitch them to the game company. Knowing that they would present to their peers helped motivate some. After this speaking activity, I had a couple students tell me it was the best project we have done all year. Amazed.

Student proudly presenting her maze game to a classmate in our speed dating style presentations.

Game Design – The Racing Game

On Your Marks!

Whether on the recess playground or behind a controller playing Mario Cart, racing is as old as time and every human has experience in this game, making it a natural extension for a first foray into competitive Game Design with CS First for Google, Racing Game!

Get Set!

Support students with a physical copy of lesson 2 in CS First for Google’s Game Design Solution Sheets. It breaks down the steps visually and incrementally, providing a reference for the process.


Students learn how to code characters to move in 3 directions: left, right, and forward using 3 keys. Character 1 is an elephant, and the student codes the elephant to move with pressing the up, right, and left arrow keys in game play. Character 2 is an lion, and the student codes the W, A, and D keys to control the character in game play.

L3 EL student codes player 1 & 2 but with a twist! The roaming bear which will send you back to start if he touches you!

They learn to rotate by experimenting with degrees (the language of math), and have the opportunity to input different values to adjust their character’s movement. The CS First tutorial video leads them into the very basics, where they encounter a pit stop–inefficiency. The lion moves clunky. Then in the next value, they fix the inefficiency and code the character to move more smoothly. This experience that CS First provides–first a basic code then a refinement to the code to improve it–is an planted learning experience. How often does an app on your phone work, but then there’s an update? The update results in a minor adjustment that makes for an overall better experience for the user. They experience the work of a computer programmer, with guidance, here in this sequence. How does this benefit students as English learners? Language can be rudimentary–communicative–and then refined. Help students make this connection between the disciplines computer science and language learning give them an awareness of how learning works and practice in another discipline’s context.

After coding the first sequence for the up arrow (forward movement), the CS First video shows them how they can more efficiently do this for the next two left and right arrows: duplicate/copy. This is key in computer science, learning how to copy and paste code minimizes effort–and also reduces the likelihood of making errors. Some tasks are similar enough that they can be duplicated and changed only slightly. Students who laboriously go back and forth and code the sequence with the direction blocks one at a time see a higher margin for error than those who duplicate and paste. The SEL lesson here is keeping an eye for well functioning code and applying the code to a similar function. It brings efficiency, reduce the margin for error, and overall lower the workload. Computational thinking in action.

After coding the first player, comes player number two! This extends the practice and empowers our future programmers. They are now experienced coders and coding player two goes much faster.

For students who are more experienced in coding or ambitious, CS First for Google allows for extensive customization with its fun add on tutorials. Add crashes! Sabotage! Sounds! Celebrations! Racing fans! New racetracks!

Wave the checkered flag! Yay!

The project is capped off with a speaking activity. Students present their racing game to each other in a “speed dating” fashion. They are given the conversation guide below, and their classmates rotate to them. They have approximately 3 minutes with each classmate. We review the language of the script and notetake on it. Then I model the conversation with a student in front of the class. I set a 3 minute timer, and they present their project to a classmate. Then a new classmate. Then another. Students get extensive practice with the language of explaining their project, evaluate their work, and give advice to someone about to attempt the project. It’s a winner!

The Racing Game is a great first game design project showing precision needed without overwhelming a beginning coder. In the process, students realized that their characters needed to be coded to stay within the boundaries of the race track or be penalized for leaving the track. Some students begged to customize and upped the challenge in their game by having an enemy character hunt them during the race. Students more proficient in computer science went further–they added sound, customized characters, and more.

Next up? The last in our series, Part 3: A Maze Game. My favorite lesson series yet.

Game Design – The Gaming Story

Game Design presents opportunity to explore story elements. To lead into this unit, we built up our vocabulary, background knowledge, and made social/emotional connections with two Scholastic Action Magazine* articles: The History of Video Games and The Problem with Fortnite.

Afterwards… questions. Interest. –What are the basics of game design? How is it done? Do I have the ability to enter this world of programming and game design? YES, you do!

The unit begins with logging students in and exploring the platform. I introduced categories in the menu on the left hand side, discussed common computer science terminology, and we labeled the parts of the screen: menu, blocks, workspace, tabs, etc.

In Nearpod, students then label the parts of the screen.

Also prior to coding our character to talk, we wrote in our problem solving journals. I modeled how we were entering into the problem solving process (define, prepare, try, reflect) that we learned in our prior unit inspired by here. Together we wrote down the first two items, define and prepare. Then later returned to try and reflect.

Define: Create a gaming story.

Prepare: 1) Pause & rewatch tutorial videos or 2) refer to the CS First’s Game Design Guide (printed for each student to reference).

Try: Design my character. Move the “say” blocks and change the word.

Reflect: I felt _________ because ___________.

Gaming Story

CS First in Google begins with the concept of the story behind the game. Every good game has a compelling story. I asked the class, what are your favorite games to play? What are their stories?

The CS First introductory video begins with a thought provoker–should students play more or fewer video games. To prepare to answer, we read Scholastic Action Magazine’s “Are Video Games Good for You?” I polled the students’ opinions. Beginner/ intermediate students stated an opinion. Advanced students explained their rationales. They all answered comprehension questions after the end of the article.

Scholastic Action Magazine’s Are Video Games Good for You? was a perfect intro to Game Design

In this coding task, students customize a character’s clothing and features, and then code it to do one simple task–say something. Students replace “hello” by typing into a “say” block, which codes their character to speak.

What would the character say for this assignment? We utilized the answers from the comprehension questions that we wrote that followed the article. A character would say them.

See a student’s work in progress below. At this point, he attached four “say” blocks and rewrote what his character would say in the first two “say blocks.”

The student is replacing Hello! so his character shares the information he wrote in response to the article.

With only one primary block to identify, drag over, and modify, creating a gaming story was a nice, accessible introduction into the world of coding. Students with prior background in computer science who finished quickly further customized their characters with add-on tutorials.

This assignment extended a writing assignment into a different format. Code a character to summarize an article.

What else could a student code a character say? Some ideas…Code a character to give a tutorial. Code a character to relay greetings. Code a character to give a report. Code a character to teach a concept. Add a second character and turn in into a dialogue. The possibilities!

*As an aside, I absolutely love the language rich, highly engaging materials of Scholastic Action. I build many of our units of study based on their nonfiction feature articles. Units have included Comic Books in the Great Depression, Real Stories of WWII, Frankenstein & Fear, and Extreme Weather. I highly recommend subscriptions to them to add content related materials for reading, writing, listening, and vocabulary integration. Their digital subscription gives you access to all back issues and accompanying plans/ materials. Articles come with 3 different lexile versions usually 500-600, 600-700, and 800-900. For my beginners/ newcomers we work hard. We frontload and scaffold the articles identifying text features, analyzing images, and building background knowledge. Check them out!

No Problem! A Problem Solving Unit

Intro to Video Game Design. Sound fun? Dooot dooot dooot doot doot DOOOT! Look for upcoming posts on a unit that’s been brewing in my head for a year.

I was exploring’s CS Discoveries course and they recommend to begin a video game design unit with the first three lessons on problem solving in computing. In this unit, students collaborate and communicate. Through experience, students learn the 4 steps of the problem solving process: define, prepare, try, reflect. Students learn to modify and adjust based on research and experience. They write and record their answers and then extend the process to a variety of problems and puzzles. Check them out here.

Their first lesson is a challenge. Several possibilities are presented:

  1. Students work together to create the aluminum boat that can hold the most pennies.
  2. Students work together to create the tallest paper tower using only 20 sheets.
  3. Students work together to create a bridge out of spaghetti that can hold the most books.
  4. Students work together to build a newspaper table that can hold the most books.

We made paper towers. My students worked in groups of 3. Who could create the tallest paper tower using only 20 sheets in 15 minutes? Before I set the timer, they had 5 minutes to record on chart paper– Step 1: define, & Step 2: prepare. Step 1 was crucial to the project and I fielded lots of clarifying questions. Can we use pegamiento (glue)? Nope. Just paper. What about grapas (staples)? No, only paper. Then the laughing. How in the world! With step 2, there was more of a need for help. With them excited to begin, I held my rooms of 18 teenagers the best of my ability and encouraged them to draw a diagram or write some key words and phrases of what they would attempt.

Ready, set, GO! They should have trusted themselves. Within minutes they were folding paper, experimenting with 3D shapes, considering reinforcement, balance, and surface area. They were laughing, sneaking looks at what their friends were doing in other groups. “It’s okay to do that guys, you are researching designs and outcomes!”

To finish, students wrote their reflection on how it went. This provided a great opportunity for those who were a little more reserved in the process to contribute. This activity elevated creativity, technique, and design, highlighting often hidden assets of some more quiet or beginning students.

Day 2-3: Idiom Challenge & Puzzles

I introduced Problem Solving Idioms in a Quizlet set. Even though idioms are an advanced skill, my beginners and intermediate students are capable. Additionally, they need exposure and I have some who are leaping up into advanced proficiency and I wanted to challenge them. Then I challenged my 2 beginner/ intermediate classes to a competition. I also challenged my other 2 classes of advanced students to their own competion. The rules were simple. Any attempts to verbally use the idioms in their speech the most before spring break wins donuts. Let’s get back on track!

Back to problem solving! We reviewed the problem solving process with a listening activity in Edpuzzle, which embeds comprehension questions on’s video of this process in the business world. Then we attacked their puzzles. Thank you, for your engaging materials!

First, a Word Search. We made cross-linguistic connections. In Spanish, it’s called “Sopa de Letras” or “Soup of Letters.” The Spanish paints a visual for me! Familiar to all, I found that they hadn’t stopped to think about the prepare/ plan step. What strategy do they follow anyhow? There were a variety of responses. I set a stopwatch. And once again, we timed ourselves to see who finished fastest. It was exciting to see students shine.

Then we filled out the problem solving table for the Word Search.

Next, a Birthday Party Seating Chart. Ah my teenagers could identify here. All the friends are invited but some pairs are fighting and some want to be seated with their BFF or novio(a). I modeled. I “sat” the first pair and “separated” the second pair of exes, then released the students with a stopwatch to see who finished fastest. Then they filled out the problem solving chart in the back.

Day 4: Prep for Problem Solving Journal

I had the students create their own problem solving journal with a colored sheet for a cover, 3 sheets of white paper, stapled, with their first page, re-written as a guide. We will use this for our video game unit to record the application of the problem solving process, Step 4, “Reflect” to be guided by an insert Mood/ Emotions Table printed for their journal. Each page will name the challenge and the four steps will be completed, with support, by the student.

Extra!: The problem solving process has already crossed over into our other learning activities! Several occasions when reading, students have asked, how do I say this word? I refer back to the process. Step 3! Try! Then they smile and jump in with their attempt.

Try, Fail, Succeed, Repeat: Building Confidence in STEM at TESOL Int’l 2023

“Holly. Next year, we are co-presenting,” Katie Miller informed me at Pittsburgh TESOL 2022. Katie, or as I knew her, “Duda” is my friend and colleague from graduate school. We graduated together in 2007, 2 of a cohort of dedicated students of linguistics, self-named “the trenchers.” We were in the trenches of phonology, syntax, and sociolinguistics, the beast of the Applied Linguistics program second semester. We attacked it together- study marathons, pizza and $2 pint nights at Cogans, and nerdy language jokes binded us all.

I hadn’t seen her in person for about 15 years, but serendipity and purpose re-united us in Pittsburgh. I knew she had presented virtually at TESOL on an ESL pre-engineering class she taught the year and was also teaching a fundamentals math class. She is the E and M in #STEM and I’m the T.

So here we are, year 3 of her, me, then us at TESOL presenting on STEM education with English learners.

Duda loves these slides, and I have to agree. Look at these slides! They’re lit! Thank you @slidesmaniaSM!

Our presentation highlights one of the best outcomes of why we would teach coding and STEM to ELs: it promotes resilience, persistence, and a tolerance for problems–all of which are needed in learning a language. Learning a language is a long haul, not a semester class. It necessitates a learner’s mindset. How can we as EL teachers cultivate this mindset? STEM.

We organized our talk around 3 points: the problem of fear, opportunities to “fail” in STEM, and strategies to help our students “fail forward.” One of my favorite outcomes of preparing for this presentation was our discussion on how do we support our #EL students in our content? What kind of framework do we follow?

Scaffolding student learning experiences is key.

One, teach the language. For EL teachers, this is our strength! Tap into what you know. Teach the imperatives, the complex sentence structure, vocabulary development from general to specific to technical, multiple meaning words, problem solving language. Choose the language demand required of the lesson and go! Ways can include creating language guides with sentence stems, visuals/ gifs which explicitly explain and demonstrate vocabulary, conduct surveys, & pre-teach and play games with the vocabulary. Often to play games I’ll create sets in Quizlet and later export the Quizlet sets to Blooket. 7 minutes of a lesson used to practice, play, and apply. Check out an example set here, words like strength, weakness, puzzle, improve, develop, overcome, suggestion are cross-curricular and need-to-know in all disciplines.

Two, embed more opportunities to fail in the lesson sequence. In computer science, we introduce concepts with a real world activity first which later extends into a coding activity. Unplugged 🔌 to plugged💻. These are fun and build excitement, which carries over into project.

Three, leverage interactive support. In the WIDA world, interactive support is one of the 3 primary ways we can support ELs. In computer science, it’s known as peer programming. This can look different. One student can program and the other can offer guidance, input, and problem solve sitting by their side. Another way is one student can write code, another can read the code and predict what will happen, and then they test it together. Students work better together figuring out a puzzle. They help each other, learn to ask for help, and build relationships in the process. Both my loud and quiet students are all in when I assure them as I’m giving directions/model expectations, “You’ll get to talk soon, I promise, guys.”

Last, teach and embed social and emotional reflection. Teach them to move beyond, “I felt good” to “I felt accomplished.” Include sequence and extension, “At first, I felt _______. After its completion, I felt _____. Students can journal, participate in a poll, turn and talk, identify a feeling on a gradiency and then expand their choice with the why behind they feel. They try, fail, succeed, repeat–and know what they’re experiencing. Check out Duda’s emotions/ moods table below!