Tag Archives: Nicole Bell

Transitioning a Club

By Nicole Bell June 16th, 2014 12:00 PM

During their years in DCPS, many students pour their hearts and soul into school clubs and teams. When they graduate, it can be hard for them to walk away from a team they helped build – raising the question of what we can do as teachers can do to help our students’ legacies live on.

The robotics team captain this year has been incredibly dedicated to the team, to the point where he considered making his college choice based on geography – just so he could stay on as a team mentor next year. Strong students like him are instrumental in making clubs thrive. When they graduate, however, they can sometimes leave a lack of student leadership in their wake (especially when the team is mostly made up of seniors). As the year comes to a close and I think about the year ahead, I’ve been thinking a lot about what type of information has to be passed on from one generation of team leadership to the next. Without a strong transition plan, once vibrant clubs can start to wither and fade away. Below are the key areas I believe should be documented, to give a club its best chance at continuing to flourish.

Club/Team History

Why this matters: 

  • Almost every grant application, marketing flier, or business plan requires a team history, and those histories are hard to recreate once enough detail has been lost. If your team doesn’t have one yet, documenting one creates a great base for the future.

What should be documented: 

  • Genesis story – when was the team founded, by who, why, and with what resources.
  • Major milestones – how many students, number or type of competitions attended, performance at competitions, and other outcomes.
  • Student information – names, years participated, year graduated, where they went after school, and email address (so you can stay in touch! Being able to cite statistics on college attendance and graduation rates for student members can be helpful for telling your team’s story).
  • Student testimonials – these can be used to help improve marketing and recruiting materials, and it’s great to already have a supply of quotes at the beginning of the year.

Finances and Funding

Why this matters:

  • Knowing about your past funding sources is often a key aspect of applying for grants and pitching potential donors, since you need to be able to make the case for how they can uniquely add value.
  • Knowing how much money the team spends and on what is helpful both for planning and for soliciting financial support (so they know how much money you need and what you would spend it on).

What should be documented:

  • If your team has already been tracking finances well, look through all information to make sure it would make sense to a third party.
  • If you haven’t been tracking finances well, you should write down expenditures and purpose of those expenditures (ideally time of year spent as well, to get a sense of money needs throughout the flow of the school year), sources of funding and process for acquiring those funds, and details on any team-driven fundraising efforts.


Why this matters:

  • It’s always sad to see a wealth of knowledge fade away. Helping the next set of leaders not have to build from scratch will help them continue strengthening the team instead of rebuilding it.

What should be documented:

  • Key people who are helpful to talk to, and what they’re helpful for. This could include other coaches and students across the city, people at your school (students, teachers, school leadership, and administrative and janitorial staff), parents, etc.
  • Important websites, books, etc. that your team often references.
  • Make sure any supplies for the team are well organized. If there’s time, make a list of the key supplies, what they’re used for (if it’s not obvious), and where they’re located.
  • Documents – gather together all of the documents the team has created (student surveys, grant applications, advertising fliers, etc.) and put them in an online folder that can be shared easily.


Why this matters:

  • As with the last section, saving your successors time next year will help them do more with the team. It’ll also help the team start up smoothly the next year, reducing the risk of losing new recruits due to a rocky start.

What should be documented:

  • Team structures – student leadership positions and a description of each position, how often and how long meetings are, when the season starts and ends and is most intense.
  • Things you wish you had known when you joined the team. Little things like needing to bring extra pens, paper, and highlighters to competitions (so you can scout the other teams and highlight your matches) can make things smoother and simpler.

Invest advocates for next year

Why this matters:

  • When the most active students in a club are seniors, the club can sometimes die after they graduate. In these situations, it’s incredibly important to make sure there is a group of people who are prepared and poised to advocate for the continued existence of the club and also to advocate for resources for that club at the start of the year (when they’re often given out).

What should be done:

  • To make sure the team stays strong, you need to figure out who has both the will power and the capacity to advocate for the team next year and make sure it continues. Depending on the team, this could be students, parents, administrators, or teachers. Depending on who they are and what they team needs, they might need to recruit new students, recruit a new team coach, convince certain students to take on leadership positions, or more.
  • Once advocates are identified, work with them to make sure they’re prepared with an understanding of what the team will need next year to keep it running.
  • Stay in touch! If student leaders are willing to be contacted after they graduate, the team should have a list of their contact information. It’ll be a great way to maintain continuity for the team, and for the graduating students to build their mentoring and leadership skills.

Teaching to Life: Building Leadership through Clubs

By Nicole Bell May 14th, 2014 3:00 PM

People say that leaders are made, not born, and that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot as my school’s robotics season comes to a close. Back in August when I set goals as the team’s coach, I was mostly focused on supporting my students’ growth in critical thought and engineering, and on exposing them to the excitement of robotics and STEM careers. As I think back on this robotics season, however, I realized that I played a third, equally critical role – that of building leadership skills amongst my students.

Teachers are often called upon to teach topics outside of their content area. Chemistry teachers may need to re-teach decimals, while math teachers review reading comprehension strategies. Beyond these academic skills, teachers of all subjects end up teaching social skills: anger management, time management, interpersonal skills, and leadership, to name a few. These skills can be hard to teach, since many teachers were never trained in how to teach them.

Coaching a school team brings with it an even greater expectation to teach leadership, and at times I’ve found myself intimidated by this tall order. As I think back on this past year, I’m glad I was able to enrich my students’ experiences with resources like donated mechanics kits and the opportunity to attend three competitions instead of our usual one competition. Where my mind lingers, however, is on the ways I pushed my students as leaders and on the ways I could have pushed them even further. Reflecting on what worked, I realized that many of those leadership-building strategies weren’t elusive new methods – they were the same strategies I was using in my classroom each day to teach chemistry. Below is the advice I wish I could have had last August, and that I would offer to any teacher/coach planning for next year:

Step 1: Planning What and How to Teach

  • Break it down: When I plan for my chemistry class, I start by figuring out what I want my students to be able to do at the end of the year, unit, or lesson, and then I break down the specific skills and knowledge students would need to accomplish those goals. With robotics, however, I started with the broad goal of “teaching leadership” and it led me to build leadership skills in a more ad hoc manner. I think it’s more powerful to instead start by thinking about what leadership looks like in the context of your club, and then cohesively build the skills needed for that leadership. In the case of robotics, that would have been a large focus on how to train and direct peers clearly and respectfully, and how to identify what’s needed in a situation and be proactive about making it happen. Different teams might require a different focus, but having a comprehensive vision of leadership will make it easier to address the most important skills and pick the most appropriate methods to teach those skills.
  • Figure out where your students are: Differentiation is just as important for teaching soft skills as it is for teaching hard skills. Getting a sense of the team’s existing skill sets helps you figure out where to go next, so coaches should try to gauge students’ comfort and ability with taking charge, suggesting courses of action, and mediating conflicts. In robotics this year, I mostly gleaned this information through informal observations and interactions. However, I think it would have been valuable to also use self-assessment surveys like the learning style surveys I’ve used in class. I would recommend asking students to rank their own strength and comfort level on key skills, along with how they think others view them and where they’d most like to grow (which can sometimes produce a more honest self-assessment).
  • Address misconceptions: Part of the typical planning process involves addressing up front the misconceptions that students typically have for a topic. With leadership, a lot of people assume that leadership means ordering people around. This can lead some students to avoid leadership positions at all costs, while others order teammates around in an unproductive way. When I assigned students to leadership roles like safety captain this year, I had to be explicit about the types of interactions that were – and were not – expected of them, and I would recommend that any coach directly address key misconceptions up front as well.

Step 2: Teaching Leadership Day-to-Day within the Club

  • Teach the language: Academic vocabulary can often be a stumbling block to understanding concepts. If you don’t understand bonds or valence electrons, it’s very hard to think about what it means when atoms transfer valence electrons to form ionic bonds. Being able to own words and use those words to explain themselves gives students power, while a lack of certitude about how to say things often keeps students from saying them at all. My school’s instructional coach once gave me great advice on building leadership in labs – give students a specific role (like making sure all steps are followed), and then give them the exact language they should use to keep their teammates on track. I’ve been applying this advice with the robotics team, and I’ve given some students specific things they can say to advocate for themselves when they don’t understand something. I’d recommend that club leaders be even more proactive about this – instead of doing it ad hoc when moments arise, it’d be great to give students written language they can consult to prepare for hard conversations like correcting a peer when they’re doing something wrong.
  • Model behaviors for your students: A key part of learning a new skill is watching other people do it. Teachers often lead by example in social skills, but we don’t always speak aloud the thoughts that are guiding our actions. When modeling a math problem, we say things like, “I’m not sure what the formula is, so I check my notes to find the formula. Then I plug these numbers into the formula…” When acting as a leader, however, we rarely say things like, “I’m going to ask Cydney how she feels, because I value her opinions as part of this team. Now that she has spoken, I’ll nod so she knows she was heard…” To be honest, most of my explicit leadership instruction has been talking students through situations and role playing; I haven’t done much direct modeling of my own thought processes. I think there could be added value, however, in figuring out an appropriate way to show students that teachers aren’t born leaders — they actively think about how to best lead. 

Step 3: Building a Lasting Impact Beyond the Club

  • For students to succeed in a class, they need a sense of “I can” (they feel they’re capable of the work) and “I want” (they care about doing well in the class). I believe the same is true for leadership, making it critical to build the “I can” and “I want.” Without students feeling like they can and want to be a leader, any leadership habits that you build during the club season might not continue beyond it.
  • I can: With any type of skill, it’s helpful to build students’ confidence with small successes. For students who aren’t sure they’re capable of leading, having them complete small leadership activities and then noting their success can be useful. In particular, I’ve found it’s helpful to specifically point out what students did well. As with academics, general praise is nice but specific praise on things like using academic vocabulary can be much better for reinforcing what’s important. On the robotics team, for example, I like to keep an eye out for when a student explains something clearly to a teammate, sees a need and makes sure it was taken care of, delegates a task well, or doesn’t give up on a frustrating problem.
  • I want: At the end of the day, it’s not enough for students to believe that leadership is important and to be told that they can be leaders. They need to believe that they are leaders. A lot of people I’ve known didn’t think of themselves as leaders, but rather as people who got stuff done. When they were told often enough that they were a leader, however, they eventually started to believe it. At times, it can be important to make your confidence in your students’ leadership a matter of fact statement, not just encouragement for what they could become. I want each of my students to not just believe they are a leader, but to know it.

Why High School Robotics Matters – Even for English Majors

By Nicole Bell April 2, 2014 8:00 PM

I consider myself privileged to have the sort of friends and colleagues who consider robots cool. It’s a given that when I mention coaching my school’s robotics team, I’m met with an enthusiastic “Awesome!” or “Ooh, can I see your robot?!” I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment, although I have to admit that when I work until 7pm coaching the team (and then go home to lesson plan, contact parents and grade) that robot can seem just a little less cool. What keeps me invested in the team is that robots aren’t just awesome – they can play a critical role in preparing students for their future.

Most students think they should join robotics if they’re interested in engineering or programming, and there’s a certain truth to that. Participating in a high school robotics team helps students learn the basic principles of mechanics, design, and coding that can help them get a head start on college coursework. In addition, being a participant in enrichment programs like FIRST Robotics opens up a wealth of college scholarship opportunities. What students don’t realize, however, is that those FIRST Robotics scholarships are often available to students who don’t plan to major in engineering, and that those same principles they learn through robotics can prepare them for any career.

Developing students’ college preparedness is a goal that looms large in the minds and conversations of high school teachers. Although definitions and theories can shift, there’s generally a consensus that we want our students prepared with a mixture of specific skills (like algebra and grammar) and more general skills (like critical problem solving and flexible thinking). The brilliance of a program like FIRST Robotics, which my high school participates in, is that it seamlessly incorporates both types of skills and disguises them as fun.

Unsurprisingly, math is one of the major skill sets that is developed through robotics. Students endlessly work on fractions through measurement calculations, engaging problems like: “This metal bar is 5 ¾ inches right now. You need to cut a second bar that would be an inch shorter than half that length.” Students also use algebra, trigonometry, and geometry to figure out things like how tall their robot needs to be or how to build a ball shooter that actually works. While performing endless calculations gets tiresome on a worksheet, doing them in the context of robotics provides an immediate and tangible payout for every problem. I’ve seen students who’d give up on a normal math class problem persevere through the same type of problem in robotics – because in the robotics room, math leads to creation.

The connection between math and robotics is well known, but many people don’t realize that robotics also helps students read and interpret complex texts. Each year, FIRST releases a new competition with its own set of rules. In this year’s game, robots work on teams of three to get a large ball across the field and into different goals. Last year, robots shot Frisbees into goals and tried to climb a tower. The rules that govern the match can be complicated to decipher, giving students practice with engaging technical manuals in order to understand them. For example, rule G23 for this year states: If a ROBOT is in contact with carpet in its GOALIE ZONE, and for only one ROBOT per ALLIANCE at a time, there is no height restriction; however, any extension or combination of extensions above 5 ft. may not extend beyond a vertical cylinder with a 6 in. diameter (see examples in Figure 3-5).” Students need to read the rule, break down the meaning, visualize what it’s saying, and then apply it to their design and strategy. Just as with math, students are more dedicated to engaging these texts than a similarly complicated text in their class. In robotics, unpacking the rules’ meaning rewards them with being one step closer to a competitive robot.

Beyond these hard skills, robotics helps students gain the so-called soft skills they’ll need in any career. Teamwork is critical on a robotics team, and throughout the build season students must balance their different ideas and skill sets to collaborate on a challenging task. At the competition itself, for each of our matches our school plays on an alliance with two other schools (in some cases, from as far away as Istanbul). The partners on your alliance change ten times over the course of the tournament, giving students plenty of practice with the delicate art of developing a joint strategy that balances the needs, strengths and weaknesses of all three alliance members. Throughout the tournament students also practice their communication skills, as they try to powerfully and succinctly describe their robot’s strengths and strategy to their fellow competitors and judges. Team members receive a background in budget management, fundraising and public relations as well, since a robotics team is expensive to run and requires pitching yourselves to sponsors and other fundraising throughout the year. On top of those skills, students learn time management and how to work under high-pressure deadlines – there are only six weeks between the announcement of the new FIRST game and when teams have to have their robot completed.

During those six weeks of building students experience great successes, but they also learn and grow from failures. They might measure something incorrectly or try an approach that doesn’t pan out – and that’s okay. Students repeatedly have to put themselves out there, see that something doesn’t work, and then adjust course to move forward. That is an incredibly important skill, and one that doesn’t always get practiced in a normal high school classroom. Doing robotics, students need to think creatively and flexibly to solve the types of problems that are presented to them, and they enter a world where there are no pre-determined right answers that the teacher is waiting to receive. This is the real world, and having those experiences helps students to thrive in whatever they eventually choose to do.

Our future engineers and computer programmers have much to learn from robotics. Any future thinker and shaper of our world has just as much to learn from a robotics team, however – and that’s who we want all of our students to grow up to be.

If you’re interested in learning more about FIRST Robotics, please visit www.usfirst.org

Teacher Collaboration: Planning for the Unplanned Relationships

by Nicole Bell March 6th, 2014 5:00 PM

In every school there are official lines of collaboration, put in place by administrators, districts, and sometimes teachers themselves. Beneath those official teams, however, lies a complex web of unofficial ties that often hold the greatest potential for professional growth.

The job of a teacher is one that can naturally lend itself to isolation. You spend most of your working hours separated from your colleagues with the doors closed, and when you’re not teaching you’re usually incredibly busy. Even “free” time like lunch is often occupied with clubs, tutoring, and making copies. To combat this, schools create structures to establish collaborative communities. We come together in smaller groups drawn along predictable lines to meet as grade level teams, departments, issue-based committees, and student support teams. As whole communities, we meet for school-based professional development and district-wide development.  All of these networks are valuable, and I can’t begin to list the things I’ve learned from my official teammates in DCPS.

When I think of the moments that have most shaped my teaching career, however, they usually aren’t related to these official meetings. Instead, they’re drawn from random conversations I’ve had while microwaving food, making copies, or running into a colleague on the stairs. I’ve even learned a lot just through the graphic organizers and assignments I’ve stumbled upon when they were forgotten in the copier. Communication and advice often flow along personality and chance-driven lines, and the ties they form can end up being stronger than official ties. These small moments of collaboration sometimes take place between people on the same “teams” at school, but they’re more often driven by other factors – who lives in the same neighborhood and needs a ride, who makes copies at the same time of day, or even who has a dog.

These informal flows of advice and support can be some of the strongest drivers of improvement in a system, and I believe it’s important to foster them. One way to build relationships outside of the current structures is to offer professional development that cuts across teams. Over the past few years, DCPS and my school have broadened professional networks through events that focus on specific topics like close reading or sentence structure and that pull together teachers from multiple grades and subjects. I believe these types of focused professional development events should be expanded, and teachers should be able to opt into the sessions they would like to participate in. All teachers are at different stages when it comes to the improvements or innovations they’re currently incorporating into their teaching, and professional development that is immediately relevant is most likely to have a strong impact. By letting teachers opt into sessions they could best be a resource in, or opt into sessions on areas they’re actively trying to improve, we’d ensure that teachers get the most out of their collaboration. We’d also connect teachers to other colleagues who are actively focusing on similar things at the same time. I might not know that a 9th grade English teacher is currently working on paragraph structures just like I am, and knowing that could support both of us in our practice. My school and DCPS are full of talented individuals, and fostering these connections can expand our ability to draw from this wealth of talent.

At the same time, it’s hard to predict every line of collaboration that teachers can benefit from, making it useful to create shared spaces that naturally facilitate the unexpected. My school consolidated some copiers into one room and spruced up its teachers’ lounge this year, and already I’ve noticed an increase in random, but incredibly valuable, conversations. Continuing to expand these communal areas and social events – both within schools and just as importantly across schools – would help us increase the density of informal connections. While each individual relationship couldn’t have possibly been planned, we need to continue creating plans to facilitate their powerful existence.

Nicole Bell teaches chemistry at Coolidge High School in Washington, DC.

When Google Doesn’t Know the Answer

By Nicole Bell January 7th, 2014 at 2:00 PM

Any smartphone user who’s ever had a random question can sympathize with a familiar routine: curiosity, phone search, instant gratification, and boom – the mental effort is over. It’s quick, it’s simple, and it’s incredibly satisfying. But what do we do when Google doesn’t know the answer?

More and more, I see my students falling into the instant answer trap. They want to know the answer, and when they get it, they want to move on. When a student is told they got the answer right, you can almost audibly hear their brain click off and move on to the next thing, just like my own brain often does once I get an answer from my iPhone. Knowledge acquired, case closed, on to the next thought. We live in a speedy age, in which information is instantly available and instant processing can be valued. It can seem counterintuitive to students when teachers make them laboriously show their work and explain their reasoning – or even worse, tell them “there is no right answer” and then make them argue for what they think. This kind of thinking feels slow and awkward, and out of step with the way many students live their daily life.

It’s through this slow thinking that we answer our most important questions, though, even if at times it seems outdated. Google is great at telling me differentiation strategies, but can’t tell me what each of my unique students need. Neither can it tell students how to make the hard tradeoffs and decisions that are part of growing up. I believe one of the most important things I can do in my job as a teacher is push my students’ critical thinking skills – but that doesn’t make it any easier.

I’ve appreciated the professional development I’ve received on critical thinking, since I feel like it’s one of the hardest skills to teach. As a science teacher in a district that’s adopting the Next Generation Science Standards, this professional development has focused largely on inquiry thought processes. For example, at a recent DCPS event I had the opportunity to be trained in and receive a trial of an online inquiry program. Using the program, students form a hypothesis for an interesting question and then try to prove it using multimedia evidence. To see how it worked, I started to poke around the physics module (since it’s a subject I don’t teach). When I got one of the assessment questions wrong, I flipped back to the evidence pages to figure it out. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that my first reaction to the article that popped up was “I have to read all this?? Can’t it just tell me the answer?” However, as I worked through it, I pieced together why I’d gotten that question wrong. I think that programs like this – that catch our kids with fascinating questions and then force them into difficult thinking – are a great way to slow down their thoughts in the ways that matter. Other professional development has focused on the same idea. Recently, a fellow DCPS teacher led an entire sample lesson about why candles burn. “Because they do” was rapidly replaced with a series of hands-on trials and slow, but productive, reasoning as we reconsidered things that we thought we “knew.”

I’ve noticed a similar trend even outside of the sciences. The math teacher next door to me has come up with a new way to lead students to value more than just the answers. He sometimes gives them quizzes that already have the answers on them – their job is to show the work needed to get there. While his students feel cheated that the most gratifying and straightforward part was taken away from them, it forces them to embrace the process instead of just hurrying past it to reach the end result. This teacher hangs the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice on his walls, and his favorite is the first: “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.”

Teaching perseverance is hard, but it’s a prerequisite for lifelong learning. It’s an area of professional development that I think could use even more growth moving forward, especially as we become ever more reliant on instant answers elsewhere. In an era with so much speed and change, sometimes it’s the slow thinkers that we really need.

Nicole Bell teaches chemistry at Coolidge High School in Washington, DC.