Teacher Spotlight: Jessica Wagner

Updated: Sep 17

PBL and STEM in Kindergarten

Jillian Mendoza

Jessica Wagner is a Kindergarten teacher at John McCandless STEM Charter Elementary in Stockton, CA. Read about how her Kindergarten class learns STEM through Project Based Learning.

Jillian Mendoza: Tell me a little bit about how you got into education.

Jessica Wagner: I didn’t expect to go into teaching. I wanted to do law, and help reform the justice system for incarcerated youth. The more I learned about patterns affecting that population, the more it made sense to try to disrupt the cycle and help give kids skills early on that empowered them to be individuals when faced with peer pressure and think critically before engaging in conflict. I studied at San Francisco State University and my last year there I volunteered with a program partnering with underserved preschoolers and it completely changed my path. I moved to Stockton and worked my tail off to be an intern teacher, taking night classes and implementing everything I was learning in real time.

Jillian Mendoza: What grade do you teach? How does your school approach STEM education?

Jessica Wagner: I teach kindergarten and I love that it gives me the opportunity to help set a strong foundation for fundamental skills. My School was built on Project Based Learning. We learn through experiences and creating, and when our students work on a project, it is infused with STEM activities. They engineer their own creations. I was drawn to the STEM school because I love science. We ask questions and learn through our experiments. It turns out kindergarteners have lots of questions.

Students in Mrs. Wagner’s kindergarten class

thrive with hands-on STEM activities

Mendoza: What is the most important math concept or skill you want Kindergarteners to learn in your class?

Wagner: At the basic level, matching numerals to their value is essential. People take for granted how many children come into kindergarten and can not recognize their numbers. It’s like learning another language when you haven’t been exposed to number sense. Once we are able to identify numbers, we can learn the relationship numbers have to each other and how we can put together smaller numbers to create big numbers and decompose numbers and find the smaller number combinations inside each number.

Jessica’s students practicing number decomposition in their groups

Mendoza: What is the biggest challenge in getting students to learn that concept/skill?

I think the biggest challenge is that kids come in at so many different levels of experience and meeting their individual needs can be a challenge when there is just one teacher and so many students.

What number is this student building with their cubes?

Wagner: How does relationship building help with teaching kindergarten? How does it help specifically with teaching math?

For many families, kindergarten is their first experience having their child away from home. Families want to trust who they are handing their child over to for hours a day. I work really hard to have an open line of communication with my families and am very available. I send messages regularly through a secure app that allows me to share pictures of our day and help families feel like they aren’t missing those moments. For my students, I want them to know our relationship is secure and that I have high expectations for them because I believe they are capable but I also emphasize that we will make mistakes, we fix them and move on. I don’t ever want my students to be afraid of getting the wrong answer because mistakes are how we learn. In math, if you are looking to solve an equation, there is one answer, but there are lots of ways to get to that answer and I want my kids to know they can explore what works best for them.

Parents feel at ease when they can see photos of their students having a great time in class… What do you think these students are investigating?

Mendoza: How do you use your class website to help build relationships with your students and families?

Wagner: I have used my class website as a way to share pictures of our projects as well as get out important information. I now like to keep lots of student safe resources that I have been able to build after a year of distance learning that families can engage with when they need support.

Jessica’s students get to learn about her and her family

Mendoza: Your website is so creative- do you emphasize creativity at all when teaching math? How so?

Wagner: Being creative is always the goal! I try to always give as much hands-on opportunities to make numbers come to life. This week is early number sense concepts.

Mrs. Wagner links student safe resources for families

to access from home

We used playdoh to shape our numbers, make 3D tally marks and counters then used them in story problems to squish different combinations of the number. The best projects allow my students to use real life math skills as we engineer. My favorite project is engineering scale models of birds with realistic proportions. It is a very involved process. We sort recycled materials that students bring in, take measurements, estimate and then add or subtract materials to fit the bird length of choice, use equations to figure out the projected wingspan and what the kids create always blows me away.

Ms. Wagner’s website provides resources for students and parents alike.

Mendoza: Any other wisdom for teachers?

Wagner: Some days will be hard and some days will remind you why doing the hard work is worth it. Always save samples of student work to mark progress. Make relevant achievable goals for each student that fit their unique needs and build up family relationships because those goals are more likely to be achieved if kids recognize that their parents and teachers are part of their team cheering them on to succeed.

Click here to learn more about PBL and other initiatives at John Mc Candless STEM Elementary.


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