Studying Structures: What Would You Do?

It’s the second week of Winter Holidays, and I can’t help but start thinking about heading back to school next week. While I took much of the holidays to relax, meet with friends, celebrate with family members, and read (I’m just starting book 11 ūüôā ), I’m now starting to do some planning for January. One of the subjects that I’m really looking closely at is Science. We’re just beginning to explore structures and materials.

I should mention here that I’m not a fan of themes. While as a grade team, we’ve decided on the Science strands that we’re going to comment on each term, elements of all of the strands/units have made their way into first term and will be present in second term as well. That being said, before we left school for the holidays, I created some building challenges for the students (seen in our Daily Shoot Blog Posts):¬†they connected with measurement (using non-standard units), counting and one-to-one correspondence, and structures. The class loved them, and really seem interested in this type of hands-on learning. It therefore makes sense —¬†based on interest¬†— to start exploring structures more.

With this in mind, I’ve been reading and thinking about the Science expectations very carefully over the past week. I ordered some books online about structures, and even made a trip to Chapters to pick up a couple of books and a building activity for the class.

2014-12-30_09-55-592014-12-30_09-55-37The books that arrived (and the ones that are still coming) made me think about how and why we build. Then I started to think about an activity that I did many years ago in Grade 1 when students were learning about structures: it was The Three Little Pigs Meet The Big Bad Blowdryer. Not only was this activity a lot of fun, but it helped students apply what they learned about structures and materials in the design and creation of their houses. The reflection at the end of the activity really got students thinking about materials and their purpose.

Then I started to wonder though, how does this Three Little Pigs activity connect to the real world?¬†That’s when I thought back to last year in Grade 5, and our introduction to the Science unit on Structures and Natural Phenomena. Building materials matter because they need to protect people from the weather. I wonder if a similar provocation in Grade 1 would get students thinking about structures and materials. This might provide a real world context for what the students are learning. I can also see some interest in writing, as they act like detectives and record what they observe: looking closely at the details and adding more details to their writing.

These activities may get the students really thinking about materials,¬†but¬†that’s just one of the overall expectations. There is also the expectation exploring¬†“the impact on people and the environment.” Looking at the specific expectations gave me an idea here. One specific expectation talks about identifying waste in the classroom and developing a plan of action. Right before the break, many of the students noticed that our garbage cans and recycling bins are always full.¬†But are they full of the right materials? What could we do to produce less waste?¬†Hopefully these student observations can help us develop a class plan and even track how we do —¬†I see a connection to Data Management.¬†Students can maybe even self-assess how they do at producing less waste and heeding to the suggestions in our plan, even setting their own goals for how they can do better. Maybe they can also share what they’ve learned about reducing waste with other classes through their written work and/or production of media texts:¬†making a connection to Language that can also allow the students to explore this topic more during our Writer’s Workshop time.¬†I see this Waste Reduction Plan as possibly being a class project that lasts throughout the year depending on student interest. (Now if we could look at getting a worm¬†composter, this could even have a great overlap with our Science unit on Living Things¬†‚Ķ)

Finally, we need to look at the purpose of structures, and how the design suits that purpose. After exploring the purpose of different structures, this is usually when students build their own. In the past, I had them¬†use recyclable materials to make a playground (or an object in a playground). We then tested out the playground, and the unit was done. Students enjoyed building these playground structures, but now I can’t help but wonder,¬†why build them? What is the real purpose for what the students are doing?¬†This is when I started thinking about Anamaria Ralph: a Kindergarten teacher in Toronto that I love to learn from online. She blogged about a bird inquiry in her classroom, and how her students created nests (after researching about them). I wonder if my students could create their own nests, and what might happen if we put them outside.¬†Would birds actually use them?¬†At one point, I wondered about having students use materials to create “homes” for animals, but I was afraid that if we put them outside, some animals might choke on the materials used. Then I started wondering about the environmental impact of putting foreign materials into the environment.¬†I guess this connects to our expectations, but I worry about testing this out if it means harming animals and/or the environment.¬†I wonder if students would recognize the problems with this plan if faced with the challenge.

I do think that students need opportunities to build for different purposes though, which is why I bought Crazy Forts. This building activity looks similar to the straws and jacks that I have in the classroom. I wonder which one will offer more support. As I tweeted about Crazy Forts this week, Matthew Oldridge, a Mathematics Resource Teacher in Peel, tweeted me back.


I see connections to Geometry and Spatial Sense as well as structures through his questions.¬†But why build these Crazy Forts?¬†I know:¬†to create some quiet, unique places for us to read and write and to make a “home” and/or a storage area for the stuffed animals that are coming our way.¬†Shirley-Anne Stretton, a Grade 2 teacher at Ancaster Meadow, had her class collect stuffed animals to send to ours as part of a pen-pal activity. We’re going to be Skyping with her class in January, and writing to them after that. Students will be bringing home the stuffed animals, but we’ll need to keep them somewhere during the day:¬†why not in a structure created by the students? We can even design and build structures with different materials and choose the best one:¬†looking closely at both design and material.¬†Volume and counting will also play a role in this storage area challenge —¬†again linking Math and Science.


Then there’s also this Document Camera Challenge that I’d like to possibly try out again. The Grade 1/2 class next to ours has a document camera, so students could even see how it functions before looking at alternatives. We could talk about the benefits of having one, and how we could make one to use when we need it. I already have webcams (more than one) so this challenge would be easy to do. I remember that it really got my Grade 1’s thinking about design, and they saw a real purpose for what they designed. I also happen to love Jared Bennett’s post on document cameras, and I’d love to see what these young students could create (and the thinking behind their creations).

As I continue to think through the planning and execution of this Science unit (for lack of a better word), these questions come to mind:

  • What have you tried before?
  • How has it worked?
  • How do you assess and evaluate the student work?
  • How do you communicate this assessment and evaluation with students?
  • What role, if any, do students play in their own assessment and evaluation?

While I can see how to create rubrics for many¬†of these activities, I wonder if they’re the best option. I can definitely see the use of Learning Goals and Success Criteria, and I can see how students could use these during reflection times (either in oral or written form). I still need to eventually put a mark on report cards though, so should I be providing marks during the unit?¬†I’m still considering options, and would¬†love to hear your opinions. Thanks for the help!


4 thoughts on “Studying Structures: What Would You Do?

  1. Hi Aviva,
    Happy New Year!
    I am currently thinking about similar questions. I am writing, thinking and researching the concept of feedback, and what strategies will work best, and for what purposes. I would love to say that I have the answers, but the truth is, that when I look back at my practice as a science educator, and consider the new planning. I am engaging in, I see that I have always grappled with these questions. Ideally, I would be engaging in triangulation of data from at least 3 different sources, followed up with a culminating task. I would even have the time and opportunity to engage in regular teacher and student moderation – even include parents in the evaluation process. This would serve to make the report card contract more valid between teacher/student/parent. However, the reality is that these questions still keep me up at night.
    I am going to think more, and as I get into my planning this week I may have new insights!
    I will follow this thread! Amazing questions!

    • Thanks for the comment, Debbie! I’d be very curious to hear more about your research and will definitely be checking out your blog to find out more. Last year in Grade 5, I found that this balance between feedback and marks seemed easier. Maybe it’s because the students were older and this wasn’t the first time that they were receiving marks and/or evaluating themselves. In Grade 1, I find myself offering lots of feedback to students (usually through questions), and I find that the students are starting to use our Success Criteria to reflect on their own work. I’m really struggling with marks though. I can use my own rubric and/or list of criteria to give marks to students, but I’m reluctant to really “talk marks” with the Grade 1’s. Maybe it’s because I don’t want the marks to discourage them. Maybe it’s because I have students with a wide variety of learning needs, and a large number of students that are ELL, and the marking system is different for them. When some students receive a “B” based on “trying their best and demonstrating continual growth” and other students receive a “B” based on a list of established criteria, how do I even begin to explain marks to Grade 1’s? How do I help them understand a system that I’m still making sense of myself?

      Then there’s the idea of culminating tasks. Last year, as I started to explore inquiry more in the classroom, I really tried to move away from culminating tasks. I looked at “assessing and evaluating the process.” I couldn’t help but think about Kristi Keery-Bishop’s blog post on culminating tasks: Science though is different than Social Studies, so I almost wonder if it needs this culminating task. I want something that won’t drag on forever though, but will allow students to demonstrate and apply what they learned. I think that the activities that I mentioned in this post are quicker, single day ones, but they still seem like culminating tasks. Is this the way to go?

      I’m curious to hear what others have to say and what they’ve tried. I think even writing this blog post gave me more things to think about. ūüôā Thanks for pushing my thinking even more with your comment!


  2. Didn’t have much time to read your post, but wanted to share what my grade 5’s did last year as an cumulating activity. I have posted the activity and pictures in a tweet to you. Not sure if this link will work: The students had a blast and the activity really reinforced what they had learned throughout the unit on structures. They used Explain Everything to record all their steps in the building processes as well as their successes, failures and next steps. Students also used measurement and metric conversions, graphed the results and wrote about their trail and error process. I’ll upload the EE files to Vimeo soon! I think this activity could be used at any grade level. Perhaps we could plan to do at the same time and coordinate a global challenge! Thoughts! Cheers! Pete

    • Thanks for your comment, Pete, and for sharing the activity. I saw the tweet with it, and really liked the sound of it. I especially like the idea of using Explain Everything to talk through more of the thinking. I think that a modified version of this activity could work for my Grade 1’s. I’d love to connect with you. I know a a Grade 3 teacher exploring Structures as well right now, and maybe her class could also get involved. It would be neat to also make connections and compare thinking amongst different grades and classes. This could lead to some good discussions. Let’s keep in touch!


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