Tag Archives: manipulatives

Makerspace Communities

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Thank you, Jack!

Jack Berckemeyer taught us this at a NELMS conference.    Kate quickly made up a bunch of sets for both of our classrooms. 

Each group of students gets a set of letter cards. B, D, F, O, P, R, A, S, T, L, H, N; ambiguous M/E/W ; an ambiguous U/C  (If the students figure out that they can flip an ‘ambiguous letter card’ to create a new letter, they may.)  Then you give the students a task, and they get started.

What a great way to review terms for a test, generate word banks, practice with morphemes, etc.!

Check out Jack’s site for free handouts, videos and other resources.  http://jackberckemeyer.com/

photo 1 (12) photo 2 (12) photo 3 (1)

The Play-dough Experiment


Oftentimes we don’t expect to see art projects, or crafts being done in a core content middle school classroom.  In my classroom, the markers and colored pencils would come out for projects, or small group work.  Art was usually incorporated into summative assessments, not used to facilitate thinking during the learning process.   Then I read We Are All Artists by Joshua Block.  In the article he wrote, “The arts allow students to delve more deeply and viscerally into big ideas and discover new ways of thinking and being, as well as helping them undermine the false compartmentalization of different subjects that exists within schools.”  His words got me wondering how I could incorporate art in my classroom.

I got up an extra hour early one morning the week before Spring Break and made a huge batch of no-cook play-dough.   I figured if we were going to use play-dough, we might as well do it during a week when the kids find it difficult to pay attention.  I’d written a lesson plan incorporating Rick Wormeli’s ideas about using metaphors in the classroom.

The students were getting ready to do some writing about their eighth grade experience. They were supposed to reflect on who they were as they first entered the eighth grade, and who they had become. To get their creative juices flowing,  I had students work in small groups to create a play-dough sculpture of something that represented what  eighth graders are like at the beginning of the year. My only caveat was that they could not use any kind of human figure; this helped reinforce creating a metaphor.  I had them do the same thing with an ‘end of year eighth grader’, and told him they would be explaining and defending their choices with the other groups.

I cannot begin to describe how excited, and completely astonished my students were when I pulled out my homemade play-dough.  Their eyes lit up, and they couldn’t wait to get their hands on the dough.  The conversations that followed were amazing.  While they were kneading the dough, they were having quality conversations about how they had grown as students, friends, family members, and athletes.

The group metaphors were creative and thoughtful.  Some of the groups wanted their metaphors to completely relate to each other so they came up with things like a caterpillar and butterfly. Other group’s metaphors were unrelated, yet precisely embodied an eighth-grader at both stages of the year.

Once I had given the groups time to sculpt, the entire class was invited to a gallery walk.  We started in the ‘east wing’ of our museum and moved on through various ‘rooms’ of the museum.   At each cluster of desks, the group the sculptors had to share what they had sculpted and why they felt their metaphor best embodied an eighth-grader.   At each table, feedback was given about the sculptures – not the quality of the artwork, but the quality of the metaphor.

Getting the kids up and moving was exactly what they needed the week before vacation.  They were energized and full of great ideas.  After the gallery walk, I sent them back to their original seats and asked them to individually sculpt the most important thing that they had learned about themselves in eighth grade.   I allowed them to talk to one another while they were working on their sculptures.  As they worked and shared with their group-mates,  I went around the room taking pictures and asking questions.  We concluded with a whole class share.

By that point the students had an entire collection of ideas about the metamorphosis of an eighth grader.  As soon as  I’d explained their writing assignment, I asked them to spend some time brainstorming and make a list of ideas on the back of their papers. Rather than having a bunch of blank stares, I found that even the students who generally take a lot of time to process immediately had ideas to get on their paper.


Whenever I try something new with my students, I always try to take some time to process the experience with them.  I think they appreciate that I value their input, and that I am modeling that I am still a learner who does not do everything perfectly the first time.  I find that eighth-graders always have plenty to say about everything! Some tips they gave me about our play-dough experiment were:

  • Make sure there’s enough flour in the dough so it’s not too sticky.
  • Make sure that you make enough that everyone can have a good-sized piece of play-dough when it’s time to do individual sculptures.
  • Make sure we have enough time to play with the play-dough and get ideas.
  • Don’t freak out so much when you’re giving us directions about what we are/are not allowed to do with the play-dough. 🙂

Even though I had visions of something resembling a food-fight happening in my classroom, I found that the students were excited to be allowed to use play-dough and made sure that they maintained the privilege. Thank you Mr.  Block for inspiring me to use art to facilitate the writing process.  I am excited to find new ways to incorporate art in my lessons!

How do you use art to facilitate thinking in your classroom?

Barrel of Monkeys – Supporting Struggling Writers


Photo by Will Cowan
Photo by Will Cowan

Narrative writing can be a wonderful experience for many students.  However, for some it is a demoralizing reminder of the writing skills they lack.  Sequencing was one skill that I’d incorrectly assumed would be easy to teach.   For years I was baffled by the students who struggled to put a events in order,  and/or who could not seem to generate details to help the reader follow the connection from event to event.

After reading A Framework for Understanding Poverty: A Cognitive Approach by Ruby Payne I went to hear her speak.   One of the things that Ms. Payne spoke about was that students who come from poverty remember events in the order of emotional importance. This means that the events in their minds may not be in chronological order.  It also means that events of perceived lesser importance may be forgotten. When I thought back to my struggling writers, I realized that often times it was sequencing, and/ or developing the cause and effect details that was hindering their progress as writers. This lead me to the idea of using a Barrel of Monkeys to help my struggling students.

I reasoned students needed a manipulative that would visually suggest a sequential order of events.  The plastic monkeys were perfect.

I remember working with one student in particular.  He was writing a personal narrative about time he learned a valuable lesson.  His narrative consisted of one run-on sentence.   “I got suspended because a kid talked about my mother and I punched him in the face.”

The first thing I did was have him break the sentence into three separate events.  For each event, I gave him one monkey and asked him to put the monkeys in chronological order.  Then I handed him six more monkeys and told him that he needed to add those six monkeys someplace in the story to help me understand how the situation got from ‘monkey to monkey.

I held up his first monkey and asked him how it came to be that the kid started talking about his mother. I wanted to know who did it, when it happened, where it happened, etc..  After thinking, he said that it happened during third grade on the bus.  So I held up one of his ‘extra’ monkeys and told him, “Maybe you should start with you getting on the bus.” That became the first monkey of his story.

We continued  with me asking him questions to help him get to each of his three original events.  Throughout the entire conversation,  I held the chain of monkeys in the air so that he could see how each event resulted in the events that followed.  He quickly surpassed his goal of adding six monkeys and proudly kept track of how many he added.

When he finished, I had him hold the chain and retell the story, touching each monkey as went.   While he spoke, I prompted him as needed and took bulleted-notes.  We were both excited by the extra details that emerged during his retelling.  It was if knowing that he already had a story that made sense helped him to relax enough to flesh it out.  This retelling gave me plenty of opportunities to provide feedback and ask questions.

He was much more prepared to write his personal narrative after this experience.  Not only was he more confident about the story itself, he’d had time to reflect on what he’d learned from the experience.  He was very proud that his original one-sentence story had expanded into a short narrative of roughly twenty sentences that included sensory details, dialogue, and a reflection.

I am sure that Post-it notes, magnets,  jellybeans, or  matchbox cars could also be used for this activity. I use the Barrel of Monkeys because they are a simple, visual reminder that events in a story must connect to the preceding and following events.