Monday, December 30, 2013

Mark Your Calendars! The STEM Expo is Almost Here!

                      The 3rd Annual Maury Elementary Think Tank 
                          and STEM Expo is almost here!

    You are invited to one of the most exciting nights of the year!  Come engage with our youngest
     scientists, engineers and problem solvers, learn from the experts and be inspired.

WHEN:  January 23rd, 2014 from 6:00 - 7:30pm

WHERE:  Maury Elementary
                 1250 Constitution Ave NE
                 Washington, DC 20002

WHY: Learn from leading STEM-based organizations with your child! Engage in activities from each exhibitor, be inspired ( or become  involved!) in their work.

WHO IS INVITED? All community members, students and STEM-lovers in Washington, DC and surrounding area.

WHO IS EXHIBITING? Take a look at the impressive list of new and returning exhibitors who have confirmed so far. To learn more about the organization, just click on their name. Bookmark this page to see the list grow as new organizations are added.

Anacostia Watershed Society
American Institute of Architecrts-DC (Architects in the Schools)
DC Beekeepers
Engineering is Elementary
Labyrinth Puzzles and Games
Living Classrooms Capital Region
National Capitol Astronomers
National Institutes of Health ( 5 sectors and exhibitors)
·         National Institutes of Health, Office of Human Resources : careers at the NIH
·         National Eye Institute (NEI)
·         National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)                
·         National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) –brains and muscles with my TMS setup
·         National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) –Know Your 
                                  Brain and Life and Death of a Neuron
QUESTIONS, COMMENTS, VOLUNTEERS?  Please contact Vanessa Ford ( with any questions, comments, to volunteer or to exhibit.

Thank you and I look forward to celebrating thinking and learning with you soon!

-Vanessa Ford

Thursday, November 21, 2013


A (real) new blog post is coming SOON!

I have been so busy throwing every moment into our ( VERY ) in-depth owl pellet unit. Some have noted that I may need a "pellet intervention", but when students show this much engagement in content, it is my duty as their teacher to rise to the occasion! For those who've missed it, I encourage you to take a look at the Qwiki movie I made during my adventures in baking fresh pellets...

In the meantime, enjoy some NON- pellet related Think Tank joy. Feel free to subscribe to my YouTube channel to stay current on all videos posted there of our work as well.

For instance, you can check out this time-lapse of the work during an open period recently. That's some ramp!

Or this Stop Motion Time Lapse of a 3 year old building her "unique" building:

Or this one:

Or this one!

( I'm not only obsessed with pellets, I'm obsessed with the Stop Motion app and how it allows me to look at student progress overtime... with the TIME! Plus their voice overs are just plain cute!)

For those of you who are tired of owl pellets, rest assured change is coming!

4th graders at Green Engineers? Yup.

3rd graders at Environmental Engineers ? That too.

Architecture in the School? Sure thing.

1st Graders at Civil Engineers?? That too!

That's right... we are being our engineering units in the coming weeks!

In the meantime, please enjoy my 4th grade group of animators in their first "full-length" ( 1m30sec) Lego movie entitled : Capture the Flag Car Style


Stay tuned!
-Vanessa Ford

Thursday, November 7, 2013


Of course I was an owl pellet for Halloween! (I'm being dissected here!)

Before I begin I must give a MASSIVE shout-out to the incredible parent volunteered weekly in nearly all my classes to ensure I can stay at work while my still healing back.... heals! I'm constantly amazed by the incredible community I work in, and thankful to have such wonderful support. I now have parents acting out my read alouds, engaging in content, and adding a new level of knowledge and excitement to the classroom. My back thanks you... as do I!

(We were acting out "How Tall was Milton" a fairy tale about why people may want to use standardized units of measure. Subrat Biswal, parent volunteer extraordinaire, acts as Milton here!)

Now onto everything else....
The Owl Pellet Obsession has not ceased! In fact, the interest students have shown has forced me to delve much deeper into the content than I originally planned! We began our study with a Donor's Choose funded project through Carolina Biological Supply Company then supplemented with wonderful, small business pellet retailer Owl Brand Discovery Kit . (Thanks OBDK for your quick turn around time and unique inventory at the last minute!)  I even lead the Maury Staff in their own exploration so they could see what it was all about!

As a teacher, when I plan school-wide studies, my challenge is to take one "thing" and make it accessible, engaging, enriching and challenging to ALL students. Since I teach Preschool through 5th, that isn't always the easiest task, but so far, as our study continues, it is proving to be a valuable one! Of course, in addition to content, all of our lessons are based in using Multiple Intelligences and strengthening our Habits of Mind! Specifically, we " Wonder, Explore and Ask Questions", "Look Carefully", "Use What we Know, Transfer Learning" and are"Adventurous and Open-Minded".

 K and 1 students get their first try at using scientific tools to carefully dissect their fragile pellets. Fine motor, sorting, inquiry.... this group took right to the task!


2nd grade not only dissected pellets but then used new, unique pellets collected from a variety of sources to see if they could find evidence of where the pellet was found.
Left and Right hand collaboration in 2nd grade on their lab!

3rd Grade has been lucky enough to have the DC Department of Environment's Wildlife Biologist and Ornithologist Dan Rauch come to present about raptors. I've never seen students have soooo many GREAT questions about a topic! He's such a great sport because for each of their questions, he has written back a response! All questions and responses are, or will soon be, posted in the first floor hallway.

 4th and 5th grades took their dissections farther and have begun using dichotomous keys and other organizers to more accurately identify the prey in their pellets. While younger grades are sorting bones into "rodent, mole or bird", this group of students is using clues found in the bones to find out what KIND of rodent, KIND of mole etc.... Did you know that voles have angled teeth and mice and rats have lobed teeth? ( Yeah, me neither, but now we all know!)

After using a bone chart, students began sorting bones. They will be able to determine the number of prey in their pellet, as well as other details from this data.
Lots of drying work... apparently vertebrae "run" when the glue isn't dry:)
Drying completed Dichotomous Keys! Each mandible used in the key is glued to the bottom
Love this key! It was fascinating to learn so much more about the prey, and narrow down more about the owl's diet through this investigation.
Moles have COOL jaws!

PS3 and PK4  are in the middle of various studies, including "Buildings", "Insects" and "Trees". During Think Tank, students still have center choice with a variety of materials but our read-aloud and songs are content specific. I've been particularly impressed with how excited the students have become about measurement and creating structures that stable or unstable. Whatever the center, students continue to explore science concepts at their own pace.... perfect for their age!


FINALLY.... What do you do when you have indoor recess during construction? You make short animated videos using a great Stop Motion app! Thanks to Animation Chefs for the inspiration! I know that there will be many more of these types of videos to come. Here are our very first student made animated shorts from today!

PHEW..... I'm off to the National Science Teacher's Association Regional Conference in North Carolina bright and early in the morning so I better pack! I will be taking part in the Next Generation Science Standards NSTA training on Saturday and can't wait to bring what I learn back to DC! I'm so lucky to have such a great job, in a school and District that values #STEM!

Until next time...
-Mrs. Ford
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Monday, October 28, 2013

Owl Pellets Take Over- PART ONE!

Look below to see more about what the students found in their pellets!

When I originally wrote the Donor's Choose project for a unit using Owl Pellets for a few of the grade levels, little did I know the fervor with which students would take to this project. Word traveled fast amongst the elementary ranks about the "dissection" that would be taking place in Think Tank. It soon became very clear that the Maury Community needed a new school-wide unit, especially given the sad state of our Maury Monarch Madness this year. ( Poor survival rate reasons still are unknown...)

These are some of our finds! Stay tuned to this blog as students reconstruct their prey!

Before I share too many other pictures, many of you reading this may wonder, "WHAT IS AN OWL PELLET? WHY ARE THEY IMPORTANT?"  Click on those questions and you can complete a virtual dissection. If you are so inspired, please feel free to join us sometime in the next two weeks as we complete our study! Bottom line... owls swollow their prey whole. See? (PS: The following photographs were taken by my dad!)

Prey caught!

Prey partially in mouth

Almost all the way down!

Last but not least, the tail.


 Their digestive tracks cannot process fur, feathers or bones so as part of their process, they cast, or "throw-up" those items in a pellet form 6-10 hours after eating. The process is also thought to clean their system!

4th graders working together to tackle their pellets with bone charts at hand.
The more I thought about it, the more sense it made to use these pellets in all grades, just with varying amounts of in-depth study and use of scientific questioning. ( At least we don't need to keep these guys alive!)

PreSchool Students jumped right in for a look at the "Hands-On Science" Center during choice time.
As it turns out little fingers are excellent replacements for little tweezers! While many PS-K students have used the tweezers, others have pushed them aside to get the small bones with their own hands.  (Don't worry! All pellets are sterilized!)
Turns out little hands are perfect for little bones!


Older students were just as engaged, many choosing to come and dissect more pellets even during recess!

 In addition to the dissection itself, we had Ornithologist Dan Rauch from DC Department of Environment visit our 3rd grades with REAL specimens from the National Zoo! Through his presentation and exploration of the Bald Eagle and Coopers Hawk, students became even more excited about what their owl pellets could tell us about the owls that cast them.
Student does a GREAT Coopers Hawk imitation!
Example of one of SIXTY-SEVEN questions 3rd graders had after Dan Rauch's presentation. I think we may have MANY budding Ornithologists.

This is just the beginning! Stay tuned to the blog for how our Owl Pellet study unfolds. In the coming two weeks students will reconstruct the prey in each of their pellets to learn more about the owl that created it! This is just the beginning!

Until next time,
Picture courtesy of my dad!

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Thursday, October 17, 2013


For 5 weeks our awesome 4th graders have used Lego products to explore the properties of levers, specifically the relationships between fulcrum, load and effort.

Then, this week came the big testing day. We had to determine which catapult would send "Lego Mrs. Ford" the farthest. We discussed and created a fair test for these and set it up. Which do you think would throw me the farthest??


          (PS: Look closely at the placement of the FULCRUM in relation to the LOAD!)

Testing was particularly fun and we were lucky to have an awesome parent volunteer, Jessica Robin, who happens to be a National Science Foundation scientist!  How perfect for our first "fair test" of the year!

Our visiting scientist, Jessica Robin.

Visiting scientist Jessica Robin noted the importance of having multiple people take measurements.

Setting up the launch pad.

Take a look at a few of our trials. We will be analyzing these as a class next week to see if we can find ways that we could have made our methods better, and possibly get more consistent results. But mainly, it's always fun as a teacher to see kids so engaged in fun learning:).
                                                                       (Duckett's Class)

                          (George's Class--- and I need to learn to whisper while holding a phone!)

So.... Let's just say we will be taking some time to look at this data next week. Some data-loves may cringe when looking at the numbers below. However, I see this as the PERFECT opportunity to truly evaluate our design and see what could have caused us to have such varying results. I videoed each trial so we will watch our videos for clues. (I have a few ideas but it will be fun to watch our budding scientists figure it out!) Stay tuned for their thoughts!

Ms. Duckett's class data shows something in our methods caused these results. It will give us more to talk about!  

Until next time!
Mrs. Ford

Sunday, October 6, 2013


If I could jump post back-surgery.... I would be!!!!
I always update on what is happening IN the classroom. However, I wanted to take a moment to share a few exciting opportunities I'm part of, and add a little context to a few of the days I may be out of the classroom in the coming months. ( Don't worry, it's only one or two days... but the chances are priceless!)

I'm now a Next Generation Science Standard (NGSS) Curator for the NSTA!
Two years ago, I worked with the American Federation of Teachers to help review the Next Generation Science Standards-- standards that I believe will change the face of science education nationwide. In addition to working with OSSE on potential plans for implementation of these, I found out Friday that I was chosen as one of 50 educators nationwide to serve as a Curator for the NGSS for the National Science Teacher Association! There were over 650 applicants too! In November I'm being flown to North Carolina to attend the NSTA National Conference and work with my cohort. My role will be compiling resources for educators across the country. Specifically, I've been chosen for the K-2nd grade cohort and will be working on the "Waves: Light and Sound" units. Because I get to take part in all of this, I will truly be able to bring the very best back to Maury and to DCPS. I am BEYOND honored and thrilled.

I'm chairing a Teacher Advisory Group for the National Center on Teacher Quality!
Last month,  I was selected to Chair  10-educator panel of teachers for the National Center on Teacher Quality (! From their website: Teacher Advisors contribute crucial perspectives to the work that NCTQ does, helping to bridge the gap between policy and practice.  I recently had a conference call with these educators and was blown away by the breadth of experience they each have. I cannot wait to learn from and work with this group. Again, I hope to bring as much learning as I can back to Maury students and DCPS as a whole. Can you find me on the page?? :)

Engineering is Elementary is HERE!
I've attended ( and will attend two more) Boston Museum of Science "Engineering is Elementary" trainings!  This year's 4th graders will be completing an INCREDIBLE unit where they will truly become Green Engineers, creating solar ovens that can cook S'Mores AND have low environmental impact. 3rd Graders will become Environmental Engineers learning about what it takes to clean up an oil spill. ( Yup, that's right. THIRD GRADERS! ) Later in the year, 1st graders will become Civil Engineers, building strong, stable bridges. These engineering units, in addition to our already wonderful Society for Automobile Engineering "A World in Motion Units" are truly putting Maury at the cutting edge of engineering education in elementary schools. GO US!


I bet some of you are thinking, "How can she plan and teach our kids effectively if she is involved in all of these extracurricular things?". My answer is not to worry:). I promise that not only will you see the same, energetic Mrs. Ford you always do, but I'll be gaining more content knowledge, have even bigger networks of resources for your children, and will be freshly inspired to bring the best there is to the students in DC.


PS: Are YOU inspired now? Do you have time during the day? Come on in and volunteer! Just email me at

Until next time!
-Mrs. Ford

Maury Monarch Madness Updates!

                                     The 4th grade caught Ms. Sweeney's "Hermoine" pupating!
From larva to chrysalis!

Hello all Maury Monarch lovers! Now in our 3rd year, Maury Monarch Madness has taken over our wonderful school. So far, Ms. Vick and Ms. Duckett's classes have "caught" their larvae pupating, forming amazingly beautiful chrysalides!  ( No, I didn't know the plural of chrysalis either but check this out on Merriam-Webster!)

We have even sent of our first Monarch, "Tango" from Mrs. Mitchell's class!
                                                          HAVE A SAFE TRIP, TANGO!

Would you believe that by instinct, "Tango" will fly thousands of miles to join MILLIONS of others to winter in Mexico?
Tango, an millions of others will make this trip in ONE generation!

This year, however, we have had a few complications. For reasons we have yet to determine, many of our small friends never made it through all stages of metamorphosis. Many stopped growing prior to pupating. We have started to buddy up classes so that all students, regardless of the outcome of their classroom "pets", get to experience the Monarch walking on their hand, determine if it is a male or female ( by markings on the inside of it's wings) and test for a specific parasite that can infect adults before sending off.

In the meantime, if you want to be awed, here are two WONDERFUL videos. One is the entire life cycle of the Monarch from egg to adult that is truly inspiring. The others are clips from the mountains in Mexico where the Monarchs winter. It is truly amazing what these little creatures can do. When occurring in nature ( not reared in labs), the adult Monarch can migrate from Canada to Mexico in ONE generation! Once spring arrives, it takes multiple generations for them to return to Canada, instinct guiding them.  AMAZING! ( Have I said AMAZING??)


Let's hope the rest of our little friends continue growing and changing!

PS: Vanessa is my first name and it means butterfly!

Thursday, September 26, 2013


Better than my birthday! All my Donor's Choose packages arrive this week!

 Since I joined Maury Elementary, I've written and received over $25,000 worth of grant funding to purchase educational materials for my students. I've also been lucky enough to have incredibly supportive PTA and 12 years of  connections to great people and organizations under my belt. It wasn't until recently though that I turned to Donors Choose to fulfill the project needs I'd created for some exciting new units. Over the years, I've supported many teachers for their projects but never had written my own! Now that I have gone back to the same organizations, people and grant funders again and again and I wanted to tap into the amazing network of everyday philanthropists for these new projects. It has been so rewarding! THANK YOU to all those who gave to my two most recent projects, "Build our Science Lab" and "Shhh... We are Tracking Animals". Both have been funded and materials arrived this week. While it will be about a month until we delve more deeply into the units you funded, our youngest students had a great time exploring our new Magnification Stations already! Thank you for caring so deeply about education... and science!

Until next time!
Mrs. Ford

Saturday, September 14, 2013


     Ms. Fox's students explore with Lego materials on Day 1 of our next Engineering Unit!
So this post is worth millions! (For a super fun montage of our 3rd week of school, click HERE!)

Our SMARTS focus this fall:

Ensuring that students get the opportunity to use many of their Multiple Intelligences is central to my program. So far this year, all challenges have been about using our Picture and People Smarts. 

Picture Smarts are officially known as Visual/Spatial Intelligences. This intelligence is about learning visually and organizing ideas spatially. Students see concepts in action in order to understand them. Working with these "smarts" allows students the ability to "see" things in one's mind in planning to create a product or solve a problem. 

People Smarts are officially known as Interpersonal Intelligences. Using these smarts, students learn through interaction with others and promote collaboration and working cooperatively with others.

Let two PK students show you how these smarts work together!

So, while the Monarch Larvae prepare to enter their adoptive homes ( aka the classrooms) for in depth study, other projects are happening in Think Tank.
Monarch Adoption Center! All larvae are now safely in loving classroom homes!

So... What's happening in each of the grade levels already? Let these pictures and videos be your guide. Enjoy!

PS and PK: PreSchool and PreK students are working in Think Tank through a series of center-based activities. Over the next two months, they will work with each of their 8 Intelligences ( Smarts) in these centers. So far they are LOVING it and doing such a great job working together and exploring STEM 
(Science, Engineering, Math and Technology) concepts.

                             Felt shapes to create with in one of the "Picture Smart" centers
GeoBlocks to create patterns
Working together to build with gears.

Felt patterns and creative design fun!

Explaining patterns at the drawing center!

Exploring reflections!


"Wow! I see four now!"
Exploring Science Picture Books
Massive collaborative effort with a big group! That's hard work!
K-4: All of these students have just begun various Lego units about Simple Machines! In addition to the STEM content covered in this unit, students are strengthening a number of Habits of Mind including "Listen Actively", "Collaborate and Inspire Teamwork" and " Use What You Know, Transfer Learning". Students are taking on a variety of challenges based on their grade level. The pictures below exemplify what a GREAT job they are doing at inspiring teamwork. It's not an easy task compiling ONE model with a group of people! Students are using their PEOPLE and PICTURE smarts in these challenges!

As students worked, I listened for words and phrases that inspired teamwork and recorded them. They are now posted around my room so students can reference them when thinking of ways to be supportive in their groups. This is one example!

Thank you to volunteer extraordinaire Elizabeth Nelson for these pictures she sent today! 4th Graders are working on engineering catapults!

HABITS OF MIND: Just a reminder that we always have a Habits of Mind focus with all of our challenges. The 4th Grade classes had 20 minutes to collaboratively make skits to explain the meaning of a few of them, and this one was particularly great! I'll let them explain " Wonder, Explore and Ask Questions"!

GARDEN CLUB: Under the guidance of Joe Ludes, one of our Special Education teachers, we have started a garden club for interested 3rd-5th grade students. Mr. Ludes happens to be a Master Gardener and runs the Hyattsville Urban Growers. He is leading the planting and education surrounding our new edible garden space in the front. Watch it as it transforms!

What about 5th Grade?
Not to worry! Pictures and videos are coming for this grade. They are taking part in the Anacostia Watershed Society's "Saving our Native Grasslands" project this month. This will include an in-class visit and two big field trips. It should be an amazing experience for them!

That's all I can fit for now. More will be coming soon, but you can always get daily updates by following me on Twitter ( @maurythinktank ). I also share lots of cool science articles and events there too!

Until next time... HAPPY THINKING!
-Mrs. Ford