Engagement, rigor, and fun? You bet!!
Maintaining student motivation is important during any time of year, but it’s even more crucial when they return from a break. I save several of my “great” activities for those Mondays after a week off. This particular Monday morning I pulled out the 10 cinderblocks I store in a cabinet under my sink and counter. I’m always thankful I have these treasures each year at about this time when energy is low, we’re gearing up for test prep mode, and summer seems far, far away.
When I pull out the blocks, I know I’ll have instant buy-in.
Here’s why: I’m constantly throwing out teasers to build intrigue for my “Gotcha Activities”. Several times this year, I’ve made it a point to mention that some time soon we’ll attempt to build a pyramid like the ancient Egyptians. And when they stumble in that first Monday after a break, I have a picture of the Great Pyramid up on the screen. I start off by stating some amazing facts about the pyramid.
“It was the tallest building on earth was for more than 3,000 years”
“It took about 25 years to build.”
“No modern technology was used in its construction.”
“People still marvel at its existence, and there’s still debate as to how it was built.”(Need I mention the word…Aliens? Many kids have heard the theories of ET involvement in the pyramids.)
I’m here to tell you—IMMEDIATE ENGAGEMENT! Almost every kid ever to walk through my classroom door has been enthralled by the pyramids of Egypt, so I know I can count on success.
You probably have dozens of topics that will grab immediate attention.
Pick your top 5, and plan on purchasing, collecting, and designing a lesson or two with the topics in mind. Keep the activities hands-on if possible, but this isn’t essential. I also love to start Literature Circles the day we return from a break. See my blog post here, and what I can’t live without here.
For my pyramid activity, I collected cinder blocks over the years, and I bought wooden curtain dowels and had them cut at the local hardware store. I also asked the hardware store if they had end pieces of wood in wedge shapes that they could donate, and I use some of my own kid’s wooden blocks that sat untouched in her closet for 6 years. I found some string in my cabinet, and PRESTO! I had everything I needed for and engaging hour for our first day back from break.
Increase Engagement and Reflection
This year I created two pages to go along with the activity, which increased engagement and reflection. For the “Just the Facts” section, I give students some stats: block weight, number of blocks in the Great Pyramid, number of people working on the pyramid, and its height. After a bit of acting, I pick up a cinder block and ask the student to pretend it’s a block from the Great Pyramid. This means that it weighs at least 5,000 pounds. I also emphasize that the holes in the block cannot be utilized. They must pretend the block is a solid mass.
Plan of action
Their task is revealed: They must move this block from one side of the classroom to the other side without lifting it. From there, they brainstorm in their small group of 3 or 4 (more than 4 is too much…hands need to be on the blocks.) Note: I have not shown them the “tools” yet, so it’s fund to see what they come up with. After they consider some options for moving the block, they record their ideas in the “Plan of Action #1” section of their paper.
I then show them the “tools” they will be able to use: wooden dowels, wedges, and string.
Once they see the tools, they then revise their plan of action for moving the block (Plan of Action #2 on their paper). I show them how to safely lift and lower the cinder block so as to not smash fingers and toes, but I don’t tell them how to use the tools. They then come back to the supply station, get their block and tools, set their block in its starting position, and they’re off. I tell them,”Frustration is all part of the path to success, so prepare to be flustered. But there will be a glimpse of success.” I give it about 20-25 minutes.
Frustration, trial and error, success
Soon, they figure out that if they can get an edge of the wedge under a corner of the block, there’s possible success. They realize that they can use the round wooden dowels as a fulcrum for the wedge. Once there’s just a little space under the “5,000 pound block”, there’s room for a lever. The dowels serve multiple purposes: levers, fulcrums, and rollers. Finally, students figure out that they can get the dowels under their block and use them as rollers. At this point, movement is happening. All butts are on the floor, backs are bent over the block, and the team is working together.
Blocks start rolling across the floor, and smiles spread across faces.
After about 25 minutes, I call “Clean-up”, and we return to our seats to debrief. “What worked? What didn’t? What could you do differently next time?” They record their thoughts on the bottom of their paper. Then I reveal how the Egyptians accomplished the amazing feat of moving 2, 300, 000 blocks, some up 481 feet high (but I don’t tell them how the Egyptians got the blocks that high…this is tomorrow’s activity), with as many as 25,000 men working in a single day, over a period of 25 years!
Now I have them hooked. Tomorrow, we’ll learn more facts about this amazing endeavor, and kids will have an additional challenge: moving one block on top of another. My secret: old textbooks and old bookshelves from the staff room that just sit all year in a stack to create a ramp.
I can assure you that the investing time to think of a few highly engaging topics that tie in with your curriculum will pay off tenfold. Here’s to a great rest of your year!