Making a Dumbwaiter


This challenge connected our field trip to Monticello and our learning about Thomas Jefferson with simple machines. We had seen the dumbwaiter that Thomas Jefferson made in his dining room to bring wine bottles up from the cellar. When we were at Monticello, I told the kids to pay careful attention to the dumbwaiter because they were going to have to make one the next day for Challenge Friday. Their immediate reaction: “Are you kidding??? How are we supposed to do that???” and “Um, you’re going to give us more pieces, right?”

On Friday, we began the discussion by remembering the dumbwaiter that we had seen the previous day. We talked about what purpose it served and how it worked. I showed the kids a quick video on youtube about how pulleys work. I showed the video in English and in Spanish, because I have a student who just moved here from Honduras and speaks only Spanish. Then I drew a diagram of a pulley on the board and had the kids help me label the parts in English and Spanish – wheel, axle, rope, load, and effort.

Then I showed the kids a little Lego minifigure I have of Thomas Jefferson. (I think it’s really some random revolutionary war soldier, but it serves the purpose fairly well!) I also showed them the additional pieces I had added to each of the challenge bags: a chain to act as the rope, a golden goblet to be the bottle of wine, a wheel without a tire (so there will be a groove for the chain to fit in), and an axle for the wheel. All the other pieces from previous challenges remained the same.

The kids set to work immediately building a pulley system and platform that would lift the golden goblet up to the table where Thomas Jefferson sat. When questioned on the parts of the pulley, they could accurately identify the axle, wheel, cable, load, and effort. I had them work with partners again, explaining that I really wanted them to continue having the experience of working through shared ideas, disagreements, and compromise.

In the end, all partners were able to build a simplified version of a dumbwaiter successfully. They had fun with little Thomas Jefferson receiving his wine to take with his dinner!



Thomas Jefferson Week

Our third grade classes went on a field trip to visit Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, this week. To prepare for this trip we had Thomas Jefferson Week in my language arts classroom! All week long, we read about Jefferson, wrote about him, discussed him at Morning Meeting, played games that he actually played when he was a child, and debated his most important accomplishments.

List of the things the kids knew about Thomas Jefferson

List of the things the kids knew about Thomas Jefferson

We began on Monday with our Morning Meeting share: “What do you know about Thomas Jefferson?” Then we started reading about his childhood and the major events in his younger years that influenced him later in life. I went to every public library in Charlottesville and checked out every book about Thomas Jefferson that I could find. There were more than enough for one for each child. I ranked the books from easiest reading level to hardest and passed then out accordingly. We discussed use of the index (if there was one) and how it could be used to locate information quickly. I then gave the kids a checklist which they glued into their notebooks. The checklist included the four pieces of information that they needed to locate in the book. They had to write one sentence for each: when was he born, what did he like to do as a child, what major event happened in 1757 when he was 14, and what happened in 1760 when he was 16. I had previously checked in each book to be sure that this information was included. Finally we talked about what a biography is and where information about childhood would most likely be located in a biography (how biographies are organized). Then the kids set off to work. They could choose to either work by themselves or with partners.

Searching for information about Thomas Jefferson

Searching for information about Thomas Jefferson

Notebook with checklist for things the kids needed to find in the book

Notebook with checklist for things the kids needed to find in the book

When they were finished reading and writing their four sentences, I introduced them to a board game that Thomas Jefferson had played with his family. It was called “The Royal Game of the Goose.” I recreated five versions of it on poster board and taught then how to play. The kids loved it and continued to play it every day first thing in the morning (before Morning Meeting) and after completing their reading and writing assignments each day.

"The Royal Game of the Goose" - a game played by Jefferson and his family

“The Royal Game of the Goose” – a game played by Jefferson and his family

Morning Meeting share from Tuesday

Morning Meeting share from Tuesday

On Tuesday, our Morning Meeting share connected yesterday’s learning to each child’s life: “How is your childhood like Thomas Jefferson’s childhood?” The kids remembered great facts that they had learned. One student said, “I love reading and he did too!” Another said, “Both of our dads taught us to hunt and fish.” Still another shared how his father had died and so did Thomas Jefferson’s when he was a kid. In reading, the focus turned to his accomplishments as an adult. They had to find and write one sentence about the following six things: the connection between Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, why the Declaration of Independence was important, the Louisiana Purchase, why the Louisiana Purchase was important, when he became president, and the connection between Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia.

Using the index to locate information quickly

Using the Table of Contents to locate information quickly

Morning Meeting share on Wednesday

Morning Meeting share on Wednesday

On Wednesday, the Morning Meeting share was “Why do you think the Declaration of Independence was so important?” The kids, once again, showed that they had retained their knowledge acquired from the reading activity the day before. They shared ideas such as “It gave us freedom,” “We became our own country,” and “We weren’t controlled by England anymore.” The reading activity later in the day was focused on Monticello. The kids were again given a checklist with the expectation that they would write one complete sentence for each item on the list: “who built Monticello, what does the word ‘Monticello’ mean, name three things that Thomas Jefferson invented, when did Thomas Jefferson die, and what was important about the day that he died.” I also read to them what the inscription says on his tomb and why that’s significant (because they are the three things that Thomas Jefferson wanted to be remembered by, and none of them are things he did when he was president).

Searching for information in the book

Searching for information in the book

Using a timeline to locate information

Using a timeline to locate information

On Thursday, we went on our field trip to Monticello. We intentionally planned it for a Thursday to give us three days to prepare the kids for the trip, one day for the trip, and one day after to reflect on the trip. Our Morning Meeting share was “What are you looking forward to seeing on the field trip today?” I was surprised at the wide variety of answers that they gave. I was expecting them to say simply, his house or his grave. Some did say those two things but many kids said that they wanted to see the artifacts that Lewis and Clark had given him that are displayed in his house, the polygraph machine that he invented that allowed him to make a copy of everything he wrote, the gardens around his house, the piano and violin that he and his family loved playing, the slaves’ rooms, and his library of books. I was very pleased because their answers demonstrated all the things they had learned over the week.

While we were at Monticello, the kids had such good behavior. I was very proud of them and how they represented our school. They were truly interested in everything they saw and heard from the guide. They had their hands up to answer every question the guides threw at them and later the guide told me that out of all the groups that she had ever given a tour, they were the most knowledgeable, respectful, and attentive group of kids she had ever seen. She couldn’t believe that when we went in the parlor, the kids immediately recognized the game that was set up on the floor. They cried out in excitement, “It’s The Royal Game of the Goose!” Another noticed the piano and said, “It’s the pianoforte!” At the end of the tour, she asked if they knew what was written on his tomb, and the kids all raised their hand excitedly. She called on three different kids and they cried out in order, “The Declaration of American Independence, Religious Freedom for Virginia, and Father of the University of Virginia!” The tour guide just stared at then in amazement and I was so proud that they had remembered all the things we read, wrote, and talked about.

While in the house, the tour guide showed them the dumbwaiter that Thomas Jefferson had build in the dining room to bring bottles of wine up from the cellar below. I told the kids to pay careful attention to the dumbwaiter and how it worked because they were going to have to make one for Challenge Friday the next day.

The day after the field trip, the kids drew one thing they saw at Monticello and wrote about at least one thing they saw, learned, or liked about Monticello. We will send these to Monticello. Then we built dumbwaiters for Challenge Friday, but I’ll give more details on that in the next post!

Drawing Monticello from a big nickel

Drawing Monticello from a big nickel

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Drawing the gardens that she saw on the field trip

Engineers Use Catapults to Defeat Lego Trolls!

This week’s Challenge Friday was related to the lever challenge from two weeks ago. We began by reviewing the parts of the lever and how levers are used. Part of our third grade curriculum covers Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, so next we read about one of the ways that levers were used in Ancient Greece. We read about an Ancient Greek invention – the catapult! We had a conversation about what catapults were used for, how they were made, and what their advantages and disadvantages were. That led to the challenge of the day.


CHALLENGE: Lego knights are being tormented by two trolls! Due to their strength and size, the knights’ swords and spears are powerless against them. They are seeking help from some local engineers to design a stronger weapon to defeat the trolls. Design and build a catapult that will launch a cotton ball “boulder” at the trolls exactly one foot away.


The kids immediately set off to build their catapult. They were given a ruler and recording sheet to measure the distance the cotton ball traveled after each test launch. Many of the children remade their lever from two weeks ago and then modified it to work as a catapult. Some completely changed their lever designs to make their catapults more effective. When they were confident that their catapult would hit a target exactly one foot away, they brought their catapults to me and tried it out against the Lego trolls. The tension was high as they would set up their catapult with the cotton ball “boulder.” Would they defeat the trolls? Some kids got it on the first try! Others missed and went back to make further modifications. Each time they returned, I asked them what changes they had made and why.


The kids were completely engaged and desperately wanted to make their cotton ball hit the trolls! There were several problems when kids were picking partners, however, where one child would whine about another student picking them to be a partner. This coming week, we’ll talk about how to be fair partners and how to be careful with reactions to being picked so that it doesn’t hurt others’ feelings.





Sundial Machines Under the Sidewalk

In the front of our school, we have a big sundial painted on the front walkway outside. It was painted on the sidewalk and it’s really neat! There’s a box that says each month and if you stand in the box of the month that we’re currently in, your shadow will point to what time it is! After lunch, we walked outside to check what time it was according to the big sundial. The kids each stood in the “September” box and saw that their shadows pointed almost at the 12. They asked me what time it really was and I showed them my phone – 11:55. There was a chorus of “Wow!” and “Awesome!” and “How does it do that????”


When we got back to our classroom, we sat down and I asked the kids how they thought it works. “How does the sun cast a shadow to exactly the right number?” Their answers were very funny and showed definite understandings and misunderstandings of the way the sun and Earth are related. Here are some of their guesses:

“I think it’s because the sun knows what time it is so it puts the shadow at the right spot.”

“Maybe there’s a giant machine under the sidewalk that controls the shadow to make it go the right way.”

“The sun makes a shadow on the ground and as the sun moves across the sky your shadow changes.”

We talked about it a little more and then I asked them another question: “Why do you think there are different boxes depending on what month you’re in? Why can’t there just be one box and we always stand in that box?” Again, many responses, many ideas…

“Well, you know how it’s a different time everywhere in the world? Like in Japan right now it’s night. So maybe it matters what box you’re in because it matters where you are in the world.”

“I think it’s because the sun rises and sets at a different time in the year. Like some days are shorter and some days are longer. Like right now it might be a short day but in October it’ll be a long day and then a short day.”

“Yeah, I think she’s right because I go to afterschool and when my mom picks me up right now it’s still light outside but in the winter, it’s almost dark when she picks me up. I think it matters how much daylight we have.”

I loved listening to their ideas of how the world works and why they think things happen the way they do. It’s clear that some of them have heard/read/discussed some information about the sun and Earth, light and time. It’s interesting how they take everything they learn and try to make sense of it! We did finally google it because they were begging me for the real answer of how that simple, yet complex sundial works. They were very proud that they at least got a few parts right!

Tangrams, Vocabulary, and Making Friends

This week in literacy, we are continuing our beginning-of-the-year theme of friendship. We are reading a book that I downloaded from The book is called Li’s Tangram Animals and it is about a little boy who just moved to the United States from China. He is nervous at school because he doesn’t know anyone and he is just learning English. He shares his tangram puzzle with his class and shows them how to make different pictures by arranging the pieces in a certain way.

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In my school, we have a large population of ESOL students, as well as many other students who need vocabulary support. I decided to try to be more direct in teaching vocabulary that the students will need to be able to understand the book. I began introducing the book today by making a copy of the glossary page from the book for each child. We talked about what the glossary is, how it’s organized, and where to find it in a book. The kids highlighted the words that they didn’t know and then we talked about the meaning of each word. We read half of the book, up to the part where Li makes an eagle out of his tangram puzzle. We glued the list of vocabulary in our reading notebooks and titled the page with the name of the book. We will come back to this vocabulary list tomorrow as we review the newly acquired words.

After reading, I showed the kids some bags of tangram puzzles and some color puzzle cards that I had made to go with them. I told the kids that they could work alone or with a partner and that they would have about 15 minutes to play with the tangram puzzles just like Li did. The kids loved arranging the pieces to make different pictures and begged for more and more puzzles to complete! I was very surprised at which kids figured out the puzzles quickly and easily, and which kids had a much harder time, even when working with a partner. The three kids that finished puzzles the fastest were three ESOL girls who easily saw how the pieces fit together!

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Tomorrow we will continue reading the book and then talk about what the book has to do with friendship and making new friends. We have been working on summaries (using the “Somebody…wanted…but…so…” pattern), so we will add a book summary for Li’s Tangram Animals in our reading notebooks. On Wednesday, the kids will be divided into four groups based on reading level. They will be reading another book from that also has to do with making friends. The four books are Carlos Joins the Team – level G, The Sometimes Friend – level M, The New Soccer Ball – level Q, and Takehito’s Tango – level X. All four books are about a kid who moves here from another place. The kids all are trying to make friends. After each group has read their book, we will compare the book to Li’s Tangram Animals to look for similar themes and characteristics. Hopefully in our whole-class discussion of this comparison, the kids will realize that all five books are similar in this way!


The kids will each get a vocabulary list for their leveled book and be expected to write a book summary. At the end of the week, they will have two sets of vocabulary words, read two books, write two summaries, do a comparison between the books, and figured out some tangram puzzles that can later be used as a center or free-choice activity!

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Making Stop Motion Movies

This week I wanted my third graders to try their hand at making stop motion movies. I had several goals with this assignment:

1. Introduce the kids to stop motion for future projects related to science/social studies/math curriculum.
2. Give kids a chance to work together (collaboration), be creative, plan, problem solve, and reflect (use critical thinking), and have fun!
3. Connect stop motion movies to reading and writing (since I’m the language arts teacher).
4. Complete in 3 days.

With these goals in mind, I collaborated with two other third grade teachers, Carrie Oertel and Sue Harris, and the GRT at Cale, Susie Golden. We created a three-day stop motion introduction project so that all 120 third graders could participate! In the end, we accomplished all the goals that we set out to achieve! Here was our three-day plan and the results!

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Day 1: Introduce the idea of stop motion and show some examples. We watched some examples where people did a really good job of keeping the camera in the same position throughout the movie and then some examples where the camera clearly jumped around a lot. I asked the kids how they knew whether the camera stayed in the same position or not. They had to verbalize clues that they could see (observations) that told them that the camera was moving or not moving. This was important because I wanted them to be able to recognize in their own movie whether the camera had moved a lot from picture to picture.  Here are some of the observations that the kids were able to make about how they knew the camera was changing position:

“The video looks like it’s shaking.”  “The house was tilting.”  “It was changing the angle.”

Here are the clues the kids used to determine if the camera had remained stable throughout the video:

“The base, wall, and trees are not moving.”  “You could see the background the whole time.”  “Only the Lego guy was moving.”

We then watched a video tutorial that showed the kids tips for how to make a lego stop motion movie. We talked about key vocabulary, such as lighting, stability, frame, and position. We connected the movie to reading and writing by talking about beginning, middle, and end, and how their movie should show a story sequence.

Finally, the kids began working on their “sets”, creating a base and background where their story would take place. They also made a stand to hold the iPod touch in an upright position for filming the next day. Some kids used Legos to make the iPod stand and some used play dough.

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A stand the kids made out of legos to hold the ipod touch

Day 2: Finish scene set-up and begin filming. We began the second day session by watching another example and non-example of a stop motion movie that kept the camera in one position throughout the movie. Again the kids explained how they knew the camera was still. I added an extra focus question also. Why is it important to keep the camera in the same position? What is different about the movement of the characters when the camera is still from when the camera changes position? The kids were able to figure out that when the camera moved a lot, it was hard to figure out the motions of the characters. But when the camera was still, you could clearly see how the characters were moving.

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setting up their scene

The kids who needed to add a bit more to their scene were given an opportunity to do so. As soon as kids were ready, I gave them an iPod touch to begin filming. We used a free app called Lego Movie Maker. Kids very quickly figured out to use the app and only needed me to get them started and got minimal assistance as they took pictures. The most common question was, “My hand was in the way. How do I delete a frame?”

The excitement was building as they started replaying their sequence of pictures! As they came to show me, with pride, their first movies, I would ask them what they liked about their movie. Then I asked them how they thought the movie could be better. They were quick to realize that if they could keep the camera more still, it would improve the film. Some wanted to try taking smaller steps with each picture to make the movement more realistic. Some realized that the pictures were framed too high or too low and wanted to edit their films.

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Day 3: The final day for editing and finishing the movies. When we started the third day’s session, we watched two movies that kids had made the previous day. From the Lego Movie Maker app, you can easily upload a movie to YouTube, so I projected the movies to the big screen for the class to see. We talked about how the camera was stable and discussed ideas for editing and improvement today. I also told the kids that we would only have about 45 minutes today to finish filming. After 45 minutes we would have a reflection circle where I would ask them two questions: What are you the most proud of with your movie? and What did you learn by making stop motion movies? I wanted them to know ahead of time so they could be thinking about those two questions.

two girls filming their scene

two girls filming their scene

Once we got the sets and iPods out, the kids didn’t need me for anything. They had learned how to use the app and were very focused on finishing their movies in time. It was as if I wasn’t even in the room. After 45 minutes, we cleaned up and met on the floor for our reflection circle.  I started by asking them the first of the two reflection questions:  What are you the most proud of about your movie?  They answered with very thoughtful responses:

“Accomplishing the small movements of the guy moving.”  “We were creative and we made it realistic, like it could really happen.”  “Making the whole video and finishing it!”  “Putting the support for Superman (so he could look like he was flying) behind the wall so that you can’t see the pole.”  “We hardly got any hands in the way and it turned out really well!”  “Usually we always get new things, but today we had to make do with what we had.”

And the second question:  What did you learn when you made the stop motion movies?

“Teamwork – like we had to take turns and share ideas.”  “I learned how to take baby steps to make the whole video.”  “How to communicate with my partner.”  “How to take one step at a time.”  “How to practice to make something better and how to make something from scratch.”  “I learned how to cooperate with my partner, like we had to agree.  If I wanted one idea and he wanted another, we did rock, paper, scissors, shoot!  Or I told him let’s do this one this time and the other one in the next scene.”  “I learned that my partner and I had lots of differences that I didn’t know we had.”  

Finally, I threw one additional question at them.  I asked them what connection they could find between the stop motion movies and reading/writing.  Their answers:

“You need to work hard in both.”  “They both have a beginning, middle, and end.”  “It doesn’t matter if the story is long or short, but it has to make sense.”  “In a movie, it’s like writing but with pictures instead of words.”  “You have characters.”  “In a real movie, you have to write lines in a script.”  “You have to try to make it better by changing it.”

I handed out their reading notebooks and had them write down two things in their notebooks.  One was a sequence of beginning, middle, and end for the movie they created.  The other was the answer to the question “What did you learn?” with at least three sentences.  The kids went right to work on both!

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I am very pleased that we accomplished all four of the goals in this three-day project!  The students were engaged and demonstrated learning!  Over half of them have told me that they downloaded the app at home and have been making stop motion movies at home ever since!  This paves the way for further options later in the year where I’d like to offer Academic Choice and have stop motion movies be one of the choices!

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Talking About Friendship

We’ve been spending a great deal of time in the first two weeks of school talking about friendship.  It’s been the focus of our Morning Meetings.  We’ve been talking about it throughout the day, showcasing examples that we see in each other and examples that we read about in books.  We’ve been talking explicitly about how to make friends and how to be a good friend.  We have reflection circles at the end of every day where we talk about how our adventure in friendship went that day.  


Every day I post the share question outside my classroom door for the children to read on their way in.  This gives them a “heads up” about what we will be sharing so that when we get to Morning Meeting, they already have ideas in mind.  The shares this past week have all been related to friendship.  “Why is friendship important to us?”  “What is something you look for in a good friend?”  “What does this statement mean? ‘To have a good friend, you have to be a good friend.'”  “Have you ever felt left out?  What happened?”

So far it seems to be working.  This year, I have kids that seem happier and closer with each other than ever before.  Four of the kids didn’t go to our school last year (one is new to the state and one is new to the country and doesn’t even speak English).  All four of those kids already have a “best friend” in our class, according to them.


Two best buddies walking down the hall together on the fifth day of school! One of them just moved here from another country!

I plan to continue talking about friendship each day for the next several weeks.  Our read aloud books and guided reading books are all connected to friendship, hopes, and goals.  This week, we are going to write about friendship, make lists about things we want in a friend and things we do for our friends, and make signs with specific strategies for how to make and keep friends.  As the year progresses, we will revisit the topic of friendship with strategic discussions such as “What happens when we disagree with our friends?”, “What do I do when my friend and I are fighting?”, “How can I be friends with more than one person?”, “What if my friend is a bad influence on me?”, etc.

I’m interested to see if having these open discussions about friendship and problem-solving friendship conflicts will help reduce the amount of drama that has been steadily increasing each year in the third grade!