I’ve had the unique opportunity this year and last year to teach a combined class of advanced learners. I refer to them by that title for lack of a better way to describe them. I started with these students last year when they were second and third graders. I was asked to teach them again this year as 3rd and 4th graders. Parents were given the option to keep their children in my class for a second year or move them to a new class. The majority of them chose to stay, so I’ve had most of the same students for a year and a half.
There were several factors that came into play when these students were chosen for my class. First, they were all given an end of year math assessment. Next, they were benchmarked in reading. Finally, their behavior, attendance, and ability to work independently was taken into consideration. The outcome was a class full of students who are avid readers that read well above their grade level. They are also mathematically minded kids, who excel in math, and catch on quickly when introduced to new concepts. They are well behaved, responsible, conscientious, competitive, self-motivated, and often perfectionistic. Precocious is the word I would use to sum up the average student in my class. Sounds like a dream class right? Don’t get me wrong it’s a fabulous class but it comes with its own unique challenges.
My students were used to being at the top of everything in their previous classes. They were used to being the ones who would finish first. They would be recognized often for their academic accomplishments and good behavior. Much of their identity and self-worth was dependent on their academic performance. Now they are in a classroom full of high achievers and there isn’t much that sets them apart. They now have more competition because everyone can read well and everyone is good at math. I decided I wanted to focus on building unity in my classroom. I chose a construction theme for my class. I wanted students to build a great year through helping each other and working together. I wanted to have them understand synergy. I decided to start the first year off with an activity that would require everyone’s participation to make it a success. I wanted to help them learn that individual success wasn’t possible without everyone cooperating. The activity was called “Gum Drop Engineering.”
I divided my class into six groups. Each group was given a toolbox with different building materials. There were mini-marshmallows in two of the toolboxes, toothpicks in another, spaghetti noodles in the next toolbox, and gumdrops in the last two toolboxes. Their first task as a group was to build the highest structure possible with the materials in their toolboxes. It was nearly impossible for them to get any height with most of the materials. The next task I gave them was to choose one other group to combine their materials with. They had a little more success with this task but they were still figuring out what materials worked best with each other. For example, the spaghetti noodles and the gumdrops didn’t work out so well together because the noodles would break. The marshmallows and the toothpicks were a little better combination, but the toothpicks were a little too heavy for the marshmallows. They continued to try different combinations of materials, but they were still limited by the number of their individual materials. I then brought out a bigger toolbox with all the materials inside and asked them what they thought they could build together as a class. This got them very excited. I had them get back into their groups to draw a design for our structure. Then each group got up and explained their structure to the class. We had a class vote on the design of our structure and then went to work on building the one that we all liked the best. Each student was given a job. The results were incredible. I asked the kids to write about their experience after the activity. Here are their responses:
- "In my group's toolbox there was marshmallows. We were asked to build a tall structure. It kept falling down. We could not build it taller than three marshmallows." -Easton
- "In our group's toolbox there was toothpicks. We were asked to build a tall structure. It did not work well. Next we got to join another group, that group had marshmallows. It worked better."-Halle V.
- "I liked the gumdrop building because we were able to make it more steady."-Jon
- " I had fun building the candy tower."-Dawson
- "I got to be a building inspector. If I thought that the square was wobbly I would give it to someone to fix and then they would give it back to me."-McKoy
- "I like how we made it really tall. It was fun to make a gumdrop tower."-Payton
- "I like the building activity. We put flags on top. I like calling it the building of drops."-Rylan
- "The thing I learned is when we all work together we can make a tower."-Anna
- " At last we were able to use all the materials together as a class. We built a square and a huge tower."-Marley
- "In my group's toolbox there was noodles. They were not strong. They were breaking."-Hadley
- " I think it is cool because the marshmallow tower looks like it is destroyed. So it looks funny because they're piled!"-Kyler F.
- "I was a finisher. I finished five cubes. It is fun, I want to do it at home. I love it!"-Gavin
- "I was a contractor and I helped with the gumdrop building."-Connor
- "All we had was marshmallows and we couldn't do like anything. Next we go to join another group. The group we joined had toothpicks. We were able to build a taller building."-Tanner
- "The gumdrop building was amazing. It was like the coolest thing you've ever seen."-Kyler C.
- "In my group's toolbox there were Dots. I tried to build a tall structure but it only got to three dots. Next we got to join another group. The group we joined had Spaghetti sticks. We got the structure taller, but the spaghetti kept breaking because the spaghetti is so easy to break and the dots were too hard."- Stockton
- "You can't really stack marshmallows. I liked sticking the toothpicks in the gumdrops."-Justin
- "I was an inspector and boy that was fun. But there was a lot of good work finishers, I liked that it was made out of one of my favorite candies, Dots!"-Jackson
- " I helped the marshmallow building the most because it was not doing well. The gumdrop building was stable and it was doing fine."-Ashlyn
- "We built a tall tower because we worked hard together. I learned that you should always work together."-Halle A.
- "We did a building activity. What I liked about it was that we did teamwork. It was so much fun! In fact it was the most fun thing I've done so far."-Bryson
- "In my group's toolbox we had marshmallows. We could not build a tall structure. We could only build a clump because we had no toothpicks."-Alyssa
- "In my group's toolbox there were toothpicks. We were able to do nothing. We needed to connect them but we could not. It was too hard. They kept rolling."-Hallie H.
- "We learned that together we can do more. We were able to make a big tower."-Marcy
- "I liked the project because I was an engineer, I got to pick what we wanted to do. Our structure has flags and is made of toothpicks and Dots."-Jake
I often refer back to the Gum Drop Engineering activity when we need to refocus our efforts on the success of everyone in our class rather than just the success of one individual. The outcome of this activity really helped bring out the importance of each individual bringing their best to school each day, then contributing their best with everyone else’s so that all students feel valued and successful.
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