Little Schoolhouse on the Prairie

The Pedagogy of a Rural Educator


Think Like a Kindergartner: The Marshmallow Challenge

This year I was looking for something a little different to start the year. I had heard about The Marshmallow Challenge, and thought it was worth a look. I know there are many other blogs out there about teachers using this engineering & problem solving activity as a way to start their year. I decided I should try it out!!

To begin with, I had to learn exactly what this whole thing was! I googled “Marshmallow Challenge” and found about 3.1 million results. (This is obviously not a new idea!) I decided to look at the first result, which looked pretty official. Visit it by clicking here! After learning what I needed to do, a fellow teacher and I went to the local grocery store. Thankfully, the materials necessary for the marshmallow challenge are pretty simple (spaghetti, marshmallows, string, and tape), and I could find all of them without leaving  my little town. I knew that each group needed 20 sticks of spaghetti, but a box of spaghetti doesn’t exactly tell you how many sticks there are! So, I bought 5 boxes of spaghetti (and used 1.5 – I guess we’re going to be eating pasta for a while at my house), 2 bags of marshmallows, and used tape and string I already had at school.

I knew that this would be a fun activity, and that the students would enjoy getting up and doing something after having sat and listened to rules and expectations all day, but I didn’t know how I was going to frame this up as a good “beginning the school year” activity. After watching the Ted talk on the website, I realized that I wanted to tell my students to think like kindergartners! Here is why:


1. Kindergartners have no fear of failure. They work hard to do their best, no matter what the expected result. I want my students to push themselves, and not worry about failure, because they know that, in the end, they tried their hardest and put in full effort.

2. Kindergartners constantly test their ideas, check their work, and don’t wait until the last moment! I have tried for years to convince my students that studying the night before a test is not the best way to do it. I thought this illustration was a good way to talk about procrastination on the first day! I challenged students to be more like kindergartners, and check their progress repeatedly, not just at the last minute.

In addition to being able to discuss these two points, the challenge also introduced ideas of working in a group, participating in experiments and activities, and using problem solving and critical thinking skills. I love that there isn’t one right answer, and that all the students seemed to enjoy themselves! Check out the gallery for some pictures of my student’s work!


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Classroom Rules with Memes

This year, I decided to switch things up a bit for explaining classroom norms of behavior, rules, and expectations. It is so important to teach procedures and expectations in the first few days, even if you have the same students as last year. I usually make the “rules” speech on the 2nd or 3rd day of class. For classes of students I’ve had before, I shorten it to changes from last year and an over-view of other things they should already know. For the new freshmen, its a little more intense and detailed. Since most of my students have heard  the talk multiple times, I thought it was about time to make it a little more fun and interesting! This is not my own creative, special idea, but one that I saw on Pinterest (which I love!). I created a powerpoint of memes that can be used to describe rules and expectations for my classroom. I did not create any of them, just searched for them online! There were many more that I didn’t use as well. There are just one example below, but I encourage you to make your own powerpoint! I hope you enjoy it and use this idea in your classroom as well!



Image result for classroom memes


Yo ho ho, a Pirate’s Life for Me!

               I think its really important to make your room interesting and inviting for students, even if they are 14-18 years old! Every year I do a different theme in my classroom. I can’t keep it the same for 2 reasons: 

1. About 75% of my students return each year, so I don’t want them to get bored of seeing the same things over and over!

2. I’ll get sick of it!! If I had the time and energy, I would probably change themes each semester, just because I like new things!

This year, I was inspired by Dave Burgess’s book Teach Like a Pirate. So, what would I do but a pirate theme! I hope you enjoy my classroom!


This sign greets my students as they walk in the door.


My front door! Not the greatest picture, but its a treasure map! I free-handed the drawing. I figured it didn’t have to be perfect, since its supposed to be old!


The front of my room. Check out the pirate flag and sail across the white board!


Front of the room from the other side. This is my “student area”. Where they turn in papers, pick up corrected items, and have resources like calendars, the school memo, and supplies.


The bulletin board when you first walk in the room uses Dave Burgess’s PIRATE acronym. The table will have a calendar with homework assignments for the students to use when they miss a day.


I use this hanging file to hold extra copies of worksheets, handouts, etc. for the students to easily access. It is right next to the table for make-up work, so students can find what papers they need.


This board is an information center – it will be full of calendars, menus, and the school memo for the week.


The back of the room. The flags are made from scrapbook paper and ribbon, and the tissue paper balls were really easy to make instead of buy!


Here’s a close-up of the center of the back wall.


The walls are lined with quotes. The quotes either come from Teach Like a Pirate, or were ones that I found online. All of them make me smile!


A few years ago I started making full-page passes. I put magnets on the back so they can go on my white board. The magnets also make it easy for students to stick the pass to the bathroom stall and keep it a little cleaner!!


I made labels for my cupboards using Publisher in order to make it easier to find laboratory supplies.


Each lab group gets their own cupboard to hold their supplies. I made this on Publisher as well.


Even high school students forget their name sometimes! This is a place for me to hang those papers up so they can find it!


I have three doors in my room, so I thought I should try to use them a little more efficiently! This was a Pinterest find! I bought a shoe rack and then filled it with materials the students might need. It is filled with markers, pens, pencils, tape, and even a stapler!


Each pocket of the shoe holder is labeled – hopefully this will keep it organized!


Finally, I wanted to connect this whole pirate thing with my content area. So, I found some information on “The Science of Pirates”. The four sheets talk about trade winds, sharks, scurvy, and parrots.

 I really hope you enjoyed taking a look around my classroom! I am really excited for the students to get here and check it out! If you are interested in any of the files for things like labels, quotes, bulletin boards, or passes, I would be happy to send them to you! Just find me on twitter @sdsu_emko, or send me an email at! Thanks for reading!

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Summer of Learning

As summer winds down and the school year begins, I thought it would be nice to reflect on the learning that happened over the summer for myself. As a teacher in a rural district, there aren’t many opportunities to connect with other teachers in your field within your building. Noone else teaches chemistry! However, I have found that there are many ways to connect with teachers in other districts over the summer and throughout the school year. This summer I attended 3 professional development events that were each unique and amazing!

In my most recent post (which was a while ago!), I talked about how excited I was to meet Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate. I was super excited to hear him speak at the Rural Enhancement of Math and Science Teachers conference at South Dakota State University in June. And, I was NOT disappointed! His presentation was engaging, interesting, passionate, and amazing! Everything he talks about in the book was put into action during his presentation. All teachers know how annoying it is to listen to a speaker tell you how to teach, and not teach in that way! Dave Burgess did not do that, his presentation was everything you could have asked for. I know I learned some American History (even though I always thought I hated it!). I am really excited to try some of his ideas in my classroom next year! Also during the conference, I was able to meet with faculty of SDSU, recent graduates of the math and science education programs, and some veteran teachers. Each group of people I spoke with was able to give new insights, interesting points of view, and advice.

I also attended our state’s Student Learning Objectives training. South Dakota is just implementing SLOs, so they were nice enough to hold a 2 day workshop for us to learn about them and begin work on ours for the next school year. I was very happy to get more information about what SLOs are, and be able to talk to many other science teachers about what they would be measuring in their SLO. Speaking to other science teachers was, by far, the most valuable part of this workshop. By bouncing ideas off each other, we were able to come up with some very good standards to measure and ways of measuring them!

My last professional development workshop was a week-long class at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF). This research facility is located in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota in Lead. (Pronounced like “lead the way”, not lead in a pencil.) The facility is located in the old Homesteak Gold Mine. At the facility, they are doing a lot of research on high-energy physics. They are located almost a mile underground in order to minimize or eliminate cosmic rays from affecting their research. At the workshop, we learned about the research happening at the SURF, as well as ways to connect what was happening there with life, earth and physical sciences. The week was full of hands-on activities, tours, and discussion with scientists. It was amazing to see what kinds of cool science are happening right here in my home state! I know that I will use the things I learned this summer to tell my students more about what kinds of science they can do right here in South Dakota!

I didn’t spend the whole summer doing professional development, but I really enjoyed it when I did! But, its also important to use summer to refresh and rejuvenate for next year! I read some books just for fun, and spent plenty of time on Pinterest! I also got a little bit of a tan golfing and kayaking. Overall, it was a great summer of learning! I hope everyone had a great summer themselves!

Let me know if you’ve done any special PD over the summer. Where do you find sources of professional development as a rural teacher?