Challenge Friday: Winter Vacation

The last day of school before winter vacation is always an exciting one! The children are bouncing up and down, energy just seeping out of them. We teamed up with the class next door to create a winter holiday-themed day. While the teacher next to me had the children make gingerbread man glyphs and marshmallow towers (who could make the tallest tower out of marshmallows and toothpicks), the children in my room did Challenge Friday. The kids participated in each class’s activities and then we switched classes so that everyone could do both sets of activities.

The challenge for Challenge Friday was simple, yet meaningful, and provided the kids an opportunity to share and express their excitement for the upcoming holidays in a creative way. The challenge was to make something out of Legos that showed what they were going to do over winter break.

They had 15 minutes to build and then we made a Share Circle to show what they had made. First they shared in detail with a partner next to them, where they could show off the specific details that they included in their creation. Then we went around the circle and each child had the option to share one sentence about what they were going to do over winter break. They could also pass if they didn’t want to share.

The total amount of time for this activity was about 45 minutes – 10 min for directions and idea examples, 15 min build, 15 min Share Circle, 5 min transition time from building to coming to Share Circle.

This challenge could easily be done AFTER winter break by having kids make something they DID over the holiday vacation.)


Integrating Writing and Art: Authenticity in Descriptive Writing

We are always looking for ways to make writing more authentic for kids, and another teacher and I found just the way to do that while combining the fun and excitement of the October and November holidays. My third grade class teamed up with a second grade class down the hall. It started with the second graders creating a monster out of colored construction paper. They used a method that their teacher had taught them called “drawing with scissors.” Their teacher had taught them about a French artist named Henri Matisse who used this technique in his old age after he became ill.

The second graders had a list of criteria that they had to follow to design their monsters. For example the monsters had to have a height between eight and 12 inches and a width between four and 8 inches. They also had to include an odd number of facial features and an even number of appendages. After designing their monsters, they wrote about them, describing them in as much detail as possible. Their teacher made sure to focus on beginning each sentence with a different word so that the students would learn sentence variety.

Next, we gave the descriptions to my third graders who had to re-create the monsters using the “drawing with scissors” technique. We read about Henri Matisse together before reading the descriptions that the kids had written. They glued information sheets about Henri Matisse into their notebooks and we discussed the text features that were on those pages including captions, titles, and subtitles. I explained to the children that the second graders had had a list of criteria that they had to follow. They were to try to make the creatures based only on the descriptions that the second graders had written.

I passed the descriptions to each child and I gave them a choice whether they wanted to work alone or with a partner. It was very interesting to listen to the conversation that the children had as they were trying to build the monsters based on the descriptions. There was much commentary on which kinds of details were helpful and which kind of details left you more confused. One student said, “This kid wrote that the monster has three eyes, but he didn’t say what color. So what color am I supposed to use?”

After making their versions of the second graders’ monsters, we discussed the details that are most helpful in descriptions. We wrote a list of ideas on chart paper. Then with partners, kids had to go back to their seats and write an idea for a topic sentence that would include the main idea of a paragraph about the most helpful details in descriptions. I gave each set of partners a small pad of paper on which to write their idea for a topic sentence. After several minutes, we met back together to share ideas for topic sentences. We picked one topic sentence and I wrote it on the board in red. Then I told the students that they were going to finish the paragraph by adding four detail sentences to it. They could use the ideas that we had already written on chart paper or they could use their own. They could also choose to work with a partner on their paragraph or they could work by themselves. They had to write the topic sentence in red and then the detail sentences in pencil. As we are just starting to learn about how to write paragraphs we are doing a lot of shared writing and paired writing before I expect the students to do it completely independently. Students who feel ready, however, can work independently if they would like to.

The next day I hung the third graders’ versions of the monsters in the hallway next to the second graders’ versions of the monsters. I also hung up the chart paper with ideas for the most helpful kinds of details that are in descriptions. The second grade class came out and compared their versions with the third grade students’ versions and also talked about the most helpful details that are in descriptions. The teacher later told me that the students were so excited to see what versions of the monsters were created based on their descriptions. One student said, “Oh I see where I could’ve explained that better.” Another student made a comment about how he realized that he didn’t describe something well enough and another one said how she had completely left a body part out altogether.

The next week, I told my students that we were going to do the exact same thing but in reverse. This time we were going to be the ones to create something, write a description about it, and then give it to the second graders to try to make. The kids were very excited! They kept asking me, “What are we going to make? What are we going to make?” Finally, I revealed to them that we were going to make turkeys using the same “drawing with scissors” technique and using criteria just like the second graders had done with their monsters. The height and width requirements were the same as the ones for the second graders. I added that the feathers had to be in a pattern and that the turkey had to have several specific body parts. As before, the students could choose to work separately or with a partner. They excitedly got to work creating their turkeys.

The next day I handed them back their turkeys and gave them paper to write their descriptions for the second graders. We re-read the paragraphs that we had written a week before about the most helpful kinds of details to add into descriptions. I also reminded them of the ease or difficulty that they had had with re-creating the monsters based on a description. I told them to keep this in mind when they were writing their descriptions for the turkeys.

When the descriptions were ready, we traded them with the second graders. The second graders went to work the next day on making turkeys based only on the third graders’ descriptions. The second grade teacher and I were both very happy with the results of this project. We loved that it involved building cross-grade relationships, capturing the enthusiasm of the holidays through art, fostering the four C’s (connectivity, communication, creativity, and critical thinking), adding elements of measurement into art, and making connections between art and literacy through paragraph and descriptive writing. This activity could easily be replicated with nearly any unit or time of year with any grade.




Integrating Math and Literacy in Two Languages


After attending a conference in New Mexico about dual-language teaching, I returned to the classroom with a new understanding of what should be happening in elementary classrooms across the United States.  We should not be TEACHING SPANISH AND ENGLISH to kids.  We should be teaching IN Spanish and English, helping ALL students acquire two languages in elementary school.  There is a big difference between “teaching a second language” and “teaching in two languages.”  Some of the most important statements I have ever heard stuck with me from this conference:

  • “Monolingualism is the exception in the rest of the world, but it’s the norm in the United States.”
  • “If you can speak English and Spanish, you can communicate with 80% of people in the world.”
  • “Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century.”
  • “If standards are designed to make Americans more competitive in the 21st century, why is there no standard for biliteracy and bilingualism?”

This is exactly what our school is trying to do to help prepare our students for the ever-changing global community that they are growing up in.  It is amazing how fast children acquire understanding and vocabulary in a second language if they are given the opportunity.  We shouldn’t be teaching children a second language.  We should be allowing them to acquire the second language in the same way that they are acquiring the vocabulary and structure of their first language.

With all of this in mind, here’s an example of how that would look in a third grade classroom where about half of the students are first-language Spanish speakers.  When my students entered the room at the beginning of the day, they saw this graph hanging up on the board with directions to add a sticky dot to their favorite type of book before Morning Meeting.


(I allowed them to pick their top two favorites, if they couldn’t decide on just one favorite.)  During Morning Meeting, I explained that later today we would be finishing the graph, making observations about it, and then writing a paragraph to explain the graph to someone else.

During writing time later that morning, we made a list of observations about the graph.  I spoke in English and in Spanish during this time, but did not translate directly what I was saying in either language.  I fluidly moved between both and the students readily gave ideas for observations in both languages.  Whichever language they used for their ideas, I wrote on the board exactly what they said.


Students were then told to work together in pairs to write a topic sentence that tells what the whole graph is about and then add four detail sentences to complete the paragraph.  They had to write the topic sentence in red and the detail sentences in pencil.  This helps them show the separation between the main idea sentence and the sentences that support the main idea.  They were given a note pad to record the sentences for their paragraph.



When students had written a topic sentence and at least two detail sentences, we came together in a Share Circle to share ideas for the topic sentence.  I made a list of all topic sentences that students shared.  We then went through the list and talked about what makes a good main idea sentence.  The kids suggested that it should be a complete sentence.  We eliminated which ideas on the chart were NOT complete sentences.  One child suggested that those might be good as a title for the graph, but not as a topic sentence.  Another kid observed that one of the ideas wasn’t even about the graph, so we eliminated that one.  Finally, a student said that the topic sentence has to be about the WHOLE graph, not just one little part of it, so we eliminated that idea.  This left four possibilities.  I called on a student to pick one of the four options as our topic sentence for our class paragraph about the graph.

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I wrote the topic sentence in red, just as the students had done.  Next, I called on different partners to read one of their detail sentences.  I wrote those sentences in green.  When I had written four detail sentences on the board, I called on three different students to read the whole paragraph.  We discussed again how the main idea is in the first sentence in red and the detail sentences tell more about the main idea.

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The next step was for the kids to write a paragraph in their writing notebooks about the graph.  They could choose to use the paragraph that they had written with their partner, make up a completely new paragraph, or use a combination of some copied sentences and some new sentences.  As before, they had to write the topic sentence in red and the detail sentences in pencil.  We shared the paragraphs that the kids had written in a Share Circle after students were finished writing.

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The next day before Morning Meeting, the graph was hanging up on the board again with a new question: “What is missing from this graph?”  The students wrote ideas about what could be missing on sticky notes and stuck them to the graph.  During Morning Meeting, they shared the ideas they had about the missing parts on the graph.  We talked about which parts of a graph are essential and we added those to our graph.

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Cartober: Challenge 3: How many 50g blocks do you have, Ms. Tice????

Our final challenge for Cartober took the remaining Fridays in the month of October.  The first step was making a car that would have a place to carry up to ten 50 gram Lego blocks.  We raced the cars down our ramp in a hallway where the cars could roll as far as possible.  We used rulers to measure the distance each car rolled.


Kids worked in groups of 3 to build their cars.  Once we were ready to start racing them down the ramp and measuring the distance, the kids picked “jobs”.  One kid needed to be the Measurer, one needed to be the Recorder, and one needed to be the Racer.  They would switch jobs with each trial, so that each kid had a chance to measure, record, and race.

The first trial was just the car by itself with no 50 gram blocks.  Each group raced, measured, and recorded.  If a car broke on the way down, the group was allowed to go fix the car.  On the second trial, we added one 50g block.  On the third trial, we added five 50g blocks, and on the fourth trial we added ten 50g blocks.


The building of the car and doing the four trials were not done on the same day.  We split it up so that the kids built a car and raced it with no 50g blocks to get their initial measurement on the first day.  Then we placed the cars in gallon-size ziploc bags and I wrote each group’s names on the bag.  The next Friday, we finished the trials.


After all the trials, we reflected on the effect of the added weight to the cars’ distance.  We talked about what this could mean.  Many kids said they were surprised that the weight would make the cars go so much faster.  They had predicted that the weight would slow the cars down.  Several kids remembered a field trip they took to a local ski resort in second grade to go snowtubing.  They made the connection that it made sense that more weight would make something go faster because when you snowtube, you go farther if you connect more tubes together.

The kids loved Cartober and were sad to see the car racing come to an end.  Little do they realize, but this will not be their last car race…. MUAH HA HA HA HA!

Cartober: Challenge 2: The Gingerbread Man’s Great Escape


Since we are calling October “Cartober”, all of our Challenge Friday challenges are related to cars and the simple machine wheel-and-axle. Each challenge during the month of October builds on the challenges from previous weeks. We are also in the middle of a Fairy Tale unit in our language arts classroom, so I wanted to find a way to combine Challenge Friday, Cartober, and fairy tales! The challenge this week: find out what makes cars go faster and build the fastest car possible!

We started by reading the classic story of The Gingerbread Man. We talked about the elements of a fairy tale that the story included, just as we had done for all the other fairy tales that we had read during the unit. The kids noticed something important about the ending of The Gingerbread Man – that it didn’t end with a “happily ever after” for the gingerbread man. They noted that this was unusual for a fairy tale because most of them have happy endings. This led us to the challenge.

I told the kids that we were going to rewrite the ending so that the gingerbread man does end up happy instead of eaten. We called it The Gingerbread Man’s Great Escape. I told them that they would have to make a car like last week for the gingerbread man to make his getaway, but they would have to make the car go as fast as possible, and they would have to think like a scientist to do it.

First we brainstormed ideas for things that could possibly make a car go faster. The kids suggested things like more weight, less weight, bigger wheels, smaller wheels, using Lego pieces with holes so that air could pass through easier, and using wheels that spin easily.


Next I told them that they should try any of those modifications to their car to find out if it really does make the car go faster. I asked them how they would know scientifically that the car was actually going faster. I asked, “Will you just watch and guess whether or not it’s actually faster? Is that what scientists do?” One student suggested that we record something. I asked what exactly we would be recording. Several students shouted out, “Speed!” I asked them how we would do that. “What device do we have that records speed?” They couldn’t think of anything. Another student suggested that we could time the cars as they go down the ramp. Again, I asked what device we would use for that. We ended up using the stopwatch feature on the iPod touches.


The last conversation topic that we had before we started building and racing was about the idea of changing only one variable at a time. I asked them what would happen if they added weight, put on bigger tires, AND used a piece with holes, and the car went faster. How would they know which thing made the car go faster? They realized they wouldn’t be able to tell. So I reminded them to change only one thing at a time and then record the time before trying out another idea. I gave them each a little Lego gingerbread man figure to put on their car to help him escape from the fox!


The kids set to work right away and tested out ideas, recording the times as they went. It was interesting that many of them still had misconceptions about what exactly they were recording. Some would come to me and show me the time on their stopwatch and say, “Look at the speed now!! It’s way faster!” They were equating time with speed. Others needed help understanding what “1.6” means as a number.


Finally we met in a share circle to explain our results and conclusions to the rest of the class. Most kids came to the conclusion that adding more weight made their car go faster. A few came to other conclusions. We talked about the adding more weight and what effect it has on a car. This was an important idea because it has to do with their final challenge of the month. Then they recorded their conclusions on a reflection sheet that they glued into their notebooks.


Cartober: Challenge 1: Make a Fast Car


We are renaming the month of October “Cartober” because all of the challenges this month will be related to cars, speed, force, and gravity. The first challenge was very simple: build a fast car.

I went to Lowe’s expecting to buy materials to build a ramp with three or four lanes for the cars to race down. I went down the aisles, pricing the plywood and other materials I was going to need to build this ramp. I also became aware of the amount of time I was going to need to build it. I vaguely played with the idea of having the kids build it instead of just me. As I passed the aisle with siding for houses, I noticed a particular piece of siding that was super long and was molded in the shape of three lanes on the underside. How perfect! $12 and I had the perfect bendable three-lane ramp with no other prep work necessary! I was super proud of myself!
On Friday, I explained the rather simple challenge to the kids. They simply had to build a car that would travel down the ramp successfully. This particular challenge was not meant to be difficult because the challenges coming up for the rest of this month are meant to build on the basic idea of making a car. We talked about another simple machine, the wheel-and-axle, and I drew another diagram to label the parts. We also reviewed the previous two simple machines that we had used in earlier challenges – the lever and the pulley.

Due to the simplicity of this challenge, I decided to put my third graders in more of a leadership role by partnering with a second- and first-grade class. We invited two classes to join us and each second or first grade student had a third grade student as a buddy. The kids were very excited to get to work with younger students and some got to be partners with brothers, sisters, or friends. Before the younger kids arrived, we talked about how to be a good leader – how to play the role of a guide or model while including the ideas of someone who has less experience than you. The kids suggested great ideas. One kid said, “If you know something isn’t going to work, you could ask the younger kid if they want to try it a different way, but if they say no, you should just let them have the experience so they can find out for themselves.” Another kid said, “You could include some of your ideas and some of theirs.” Still another suggested, “You could assign jobs like one of you make the base and wheels and one of you make the top design.”

When the younger students came, I explained the task and read a story to everyone out loud. It was a picture book called Roy Makes a Car. All the children loved the book! They thought it was funny and it was a perfect interest level for first to third graders.

The kids partnered up and began making their cars. They had 20 minutes to build, test, and modify their cars. We discussed new vocabulary like modifications. Finally after 20 minutes, I rang the chime to announce that the races would begin. We allowed the first and second grade partners to race the cars first so that they could head back to class after racing. Three kids could race at a time. The third grade partners collected their cars at the bottom and waited patiently for their turn to race.

After everyone had a chance to race their cars, we met in a circle for reflection time. I asked the kids what part of their car they liked the best and what they would change if they had more time. It was interesting to hear some of the ideas of things they would change. Several kids said that they would remove blocks to make it lighter because, “heavy cars go slower.” This was a common misconclusion and it leads perfectly into next week’s challenge. We will be using the scientific method to determine what actually makes a car go slower or faster. The final part of this week’s challenge was using an app called Tellagami on the iPod touches. The kids took a picture of their car and made a short video describing the things they liked about their car and/or what they would do differently next time.

Everyone had a great time and they seemed to really enjoy working with kids from different grades. When I checked in with the second and first grade teachers later in the day, they reported that their kids had come back from the experience saying it was the best day ever!!


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!