I never saw myself coaching a Lego Robotics League, but for 3 years now my husband and I have led the First Lego League (FLL) Robotics team at our school, Mulberry Elementary. My husband started the team quickly when he started working at Mulberry. After he excitedly told me he accepted this huge responsibility he asked if I would join him in coaching. I thought about it and knew I would learn a lot about coding and how to run a club, so I accepted. Selfishly I also knew I would be able to hang out with my husband, Mike so that was also a win.
I learned quickly that Robotics is not just about coding robots. It involves a lot more than that. A big part of it is Core Values which is learning how to be a member of a team and learning how to handle failure in a positive way. This teaches you to grow and learn from your mistakes and embrace your other team members.
This year my husband and I had a lot on our plate going into the club. I went back full time as a kindergarten teacher as the year before I was part time, we moved into a new house 45 minutes away from work, and we were parenting three little girls 7, 5, and 18 months. We knew that the time we did devote to Robotics needed to count every time. Knowing this beforehand Mike and I planned to keep everything in the meetings to the essentials and to look at this time as a learning experience, but we also made sure to plan for relationship building and time for fun to grow together as a team.
From August to the beginning of December we had the kids build the robotics board, code the robots, get to know each other with fun games or reflective questions. We often had the students practice quick 2 minute impossible tasks to practice trying and not giving up, practice encouraging others, and learning to fail and get back up from it.
We encouraged each other and our students throughout each weekly meeting and we taught them how to encourage and help each other shine out, not just think about ourselves. We really stressed the importance of Team.
When it came time to competition we felt we were ready, but we also felt our students could code more or do more to prepare, but we had to let it go and focus on what we had accomplished. We had to go back to our original goals which were to stay focused on the most important things, to grow, and to have fun!
We told each other the night before the competition that we would have fun and enjoy each moment no matter what. We would have our three girls with us and we knew it would be a long day, but we would be together as a family. We wanted to let go of the stress and pressure that FLL Robotics can bring, by reminding each other that what was important was trying our best and having fun while doing it.
The competition was Saturday, December 14, 2019. My husband and I arrived early with our three girls. A few of our ten students already arrived looking excited for the day. We set up our table and instead of practicing right away we chatted and played a few rounds of Uno with the kids. Mike checked our team in and The Mulberry Falcons were ready to soar.
The day was a jam packed one. We started off with the Core Values section. This is the time where the kids have to do a task together and show how they work together as a team. The task is usually near impossible to complete. The judges are looking to see how they work together and what they do if and when they fail. Before the students went in the room, I did my job of encouraging the students with a pep talk. The kids smiled as they heard me tell them as a group and individually what they brought to the table and how we had worked so hard, but we also knew the goal was to work together and have FUN. As the students went through the door, my husband and I got together quietly with our girls and prayed for our team. We prayed they would have strength, their nerves would calm, and they would have fun working together. We actually did this for every section they had and every room they entered. This was important to us.
When the students came out 10 minutes later they were so excited. They couldn't tell us any information about what happened in the room as this is TOP Secret, but they did tell us, "We had fun!" They did tell us, "We worked together." My husband, Mike and I gave them high fives and we went back to our tables to talk about the rest of the day.
Our team then had some snacks, practiced a little coding at the practice tables, and practiced our skit. But what we didn't do is stress out our kids. Many of times Mike and I saw coaches and kids getting frustrated and continuing to practice. When we saw any frustration from our kids we had them play a game together or walk around to look at other tables or go and talk to other teams. We knew it was important to keep their spirits up and for them to walk in each section confident.
The day continued and the students worked together at the robotics tables during the competition. We got to go to the table 4 different times and allow two students each time to compete with the robot. We chose different kids each time to go up to the table with the robot as we knew they each needed a chance to shine. Many of times other teams had the same four kids going up. This can be helpful when you have strong coders, but it also takes the chance from other kids who have worked hard to compete with the robot and go to the table. The students did a great job with the robot at the table. Many of times their robot failed, but they would talk together as a group and discuss why it failed, playing around with the coding to see if they could fix it for the next group up.
The students had their skit to perform and even though we were not allowed to go in the room with them. We were able to peek in and we saw the kids relaxed and happy looking. After the skit the kids came out and said the judges said they should perform the skit for others schools as it was really good. As coaches we were thrilled with this response and the kids felt good about pushing forward. The students finished the last section with Robot Design. This is where they explained how they designed their robot and the code they created for the missions.
It was finally time to see who won the different sections and who won the whole competition. Our team is made up of seven 4th graders and three 5th graders. We knew this would be a tough competition as we were competing against 10 middle schools and 8 elementary schools in Gwinnett County, Georgia. We knew we were the underdogs in this competition, but we knew we had a shot in some of the sections as the students came out of each section with such positive attitudes.
We told the students before they called the winners, that they rocked this competition and that we were so proud of them no matter what award we won or didn't win. We also told them that we had a great chance of taking away something from this meet and we thought Core Values might be the award we could win.
Our Mulberry students were very excited to hear the winners, so our team went right up to the front. When they called the first award it was Core Values. I was so excited as I thought this might be our shot at an award. They called the winners and... it was not us.
One of my 5th grade students, Andrew looked back at me sadly. I gave him a smile and said no worries, it's okay. He quickly gave me a smile and a thumbs up and continued to watch.
Each award came and each time they called it, we did not win. Our kids would clap for each school that won. Our students kept saying it is okay. We had fun. We tried our best.
I know that we taught them those things, but as a coach when you are looking at your students faces as they hear the award calling, you want the win for them and you want it bad. You just want all that hard work to be noticed. You want them to see they are enough. But you also have to know they are enough no matter what is called. You also have to know that as a coach you did your personal best and it is not all about winning, truly.
The judges finally came to the last award, which is the final award of the evening. It is the winner of the whole regional competition. 10 middle schools and 8 elementary schools. The room all became silent as everyone wanted to hear the winning team.
And then we heard it, Team 3...0...5...9...7 Mulberry Falcons is the winner of this years regional robotics competition.
We all started screaming. I was holding my baby Kate and running to give them all hugs. My husband was high fiving the students and helping the kids go together to get the trophy and raise it high.
I cannot express in words the feelings we all had right then. But I can tell you we were joyful, humbled, and in shock. The emotions I felt for the work these kids put in and the kindness they showed to each other is unbelievable. I still sit in shock as I type these words.
How we supposedly the underdogs won the competition just floors me.
(Picture above is right after the win. My little girls are being held by me, in the pink shirt, and in the stripes. The other little ones are my sweet kindergarten students who accompanied their siblings)
We had a blast at that competition and we learned some very important things that I think I will always need to remember.
Be an Encourager At All Times-Encourage others and your teammates to be their best, help them shine out, and remember that everyone needs to share.
Focus on the Essentials-Many of times we had to reflect back to our main goal and think is this fulfill that goal? If the answer was no we had to let that idea go. Working on what was most important at all times helped our students stay focused.
Have Fun-In life and in the classroom you have to make sure that you have fun. If you don't have any fun at all then why would you do it. Having fun takes the stress off you and the students. When we allow ourselves to have fun we can feel good about what we are doing and who we are.
Work as a Team- Many of times it is easier to go it alone, but on a team you have to work together. In robotics you have to work as a group in everything. You have to trust your teammates and enjoy them too. Having our team get to know each other this year and play games throughout the sessions was important. It helped our team bond and it helped all of us love coming to robotics each week.
I will always remember this competition as it taught me so much and it was packed with memories of my whole family and my students. I will always remember those sweet faces waiting for the winning team's name....and then it being US.
But you know what I hope everyone remembers about our team? I hope they remember our joy and our kindness. We were so happy each moment of the day even in the hard times and we were always kind to those around us whether is was our high school mentor, the staff, the parents, or the judges. Those things truly matter. We weren't just a winning team, we were a team that enjoyed working together.
Can the Underdog take the win? Yes, they can and that is what makes me smile the most!
(Holding the winning trophy with Carlos, See you at the Super Regionals in January)
Alana Stanton is a kindergarten teacher at Mulberry Elementary in Gwinnett County, Georgia. She has taught several grades over her 14 year career including K-3 literacy special, first grade, second grade, kindergarten, and technology special. Alana believes that relationships always come first in the classroom and the classroom should be a place where students thrive academically, socially, and emotionally. She currently writes for her blog, More Than A Lesson where she shares the stories of her classroom and her heart.Twitter: @stantonalana