Building the Pyramids STEAM Style

There has been a lot of buzz around STEAM lately, which is STEM plus the Arts. What I'm really digging about it is how hands on everything must be, which is exactly what kids want and need to stay engaged and make content and skills really "stick."

In my social studies class, I try to pull in something STEM or STEAM every week, because let's face it, social studies can be a little boring unengaging... well, it can sometimes not hold students' interests as well , even with passionate teachers teaching it. Not everyone thinks so, and of course there are students who love it, but topics such as agriculture, geography, and branches of government are not always the most appealing to some students.

Students building pyramids using the "bottom-up" method
The best thing about using STEAM in social studies is how simply easy it is to find connections between those topics and the ones your class may be studying. For example, when learning about ancient cultures, art is a must! But think of all the other connections to science and math: the concept of surplus, population growth, ancient number systems and calendars, etc. Technology and engineering are a given based on all the inventions needed over time to support the growth of civilizations like the canals and roads made to bring water and supplies in and out of a city. There is a whole world of connections from social studies, ancient cultures, and STEAM that go much deeper than the examples I've mentioned.

Students examining a secondary source to find out more.
One of the easiest ways to begin implementing a more STEM-friendly approach in your teaching of social studies is the use of inquiry. I personally love Reading Like a Historian from Standford, and also use the methods from as well (I have their poster up year round and use it to remind students that history is a mystery!) Speaking of posters, another poster I keep up all year to probe inquiry in historical thinking can be found on this blog post.

Reading this book took time and teamwork.
Students filled out a graphic organizer on comprehension as they went.
In terms of how all this actually plays out in the classroom, the beginning of the year requires lots of explicit teaching about how to ask questions, what primary and secondary sources are, etc. Once we get into the swing of things (a couple of weeks after school starts), the hands-on stuff really begins!
In this unit on Egyptian architecture, students were asked the question "How did the Egyptians build such monumental structures without the use of our modern technologies?"

First, the students speculated and we wrote their speculations down on the board. Then we looked at some primary sources. Primary sources for ancient cultures usually consist of artifacts (or pictures of artifacts). We also took a look at a secondary source, first, the textbook, and second, a book about how the Egyptians built the pyramids.

In addition to inquiry and arts integration, collaboration
is a very important part of adding STEAM to social studies.
After having a discussion about these sources using various strategies, students were asked to share out how their thinking might have changed and also things they noticed or that stood out to them.

This all gets written down on the board (or students may use a graphic organizer) so we can all see each others' thinking. We went back to the original question, "how did the Egyptians build the pyramids without our modern technologies?" and they attempt to answer how.

Now, the engineering part began. I showed them this infographic on building marshmallow and spaghetti towers, asking them to think about how they could apply the concepts to building a pyramid. Students hypothesized that they could easily use these techniques of the "pyramid" shapes and the "bottomless pyramid" shapes (which they began calling "spiders") to create a pyramid without the use of the "buttresses." (That worked out so well because we had already learned about the mechanics of an arch during a unit on Greece and how they were supported... that post is coming up later.)

Students in the "tryout" phase. "Let's see how to do this..."
As with any hands-on project, it is super important to give the students try-out time with the materials. Plan for this. Artists and makers need to experiment with the materials to see how they work and what they do in order to know what they can do with them. I allow my sixth grade students about five extra minutes to "get their hands on" some materials and "free play" with them. Then I tell them it's time to build.

Students are usually quite eager to begin making something and often won't "mess around" with the materials quite like I picture myself doing before I set to work on something. Sometimes they just head into the objective of building the pyramid. Either way, my students are aware that this is the time they have and we spend LOTS of time talking about appropriately using the materials. They love to have the "what not to do" conversation... and it's a conversation we have every week before I "set them free" in an activity like this. Mostly every single time  we have the "What NOT to do" conversation, at least one suggestion goes something like "do no jump on tables, climb on your friends back, and act like a gorilla, while shouting at the top of your lungs." Why, yes, please don't do that. Ah, sixth grade.

Students on their second layer, using
the "bottom up" technique and techniques from
the "Made by Dad: 67 Blueprints for Making Cool 
Stuff" book
After the try-out phase, I had them freeze and I directed them back to some of the things we noticed about the way the Egyptians built their pyramids. Spaghetti and marshmallows make it quite easy to build all the parts, and then put them together later to form a final product/structure. But, one thing a student pointed out was that the Egyptians built their pyramid from the ground up. They didn't have the ability to build parts of the whole and then put them together. "How will we apply this concept?" I asked. They turned to neighbors to share, then a few answers were thrown out whole class.

The interesting thing about this project was that one class wanted to work in smaller groups and the other class wanted to do it whole group. Luckily I have fairly small class sizes, so this worked. It took a LOT of teamwork to get their pyramid built, and before the latter class began, we calculated using dot grids how many layers and how many "pyramids" and "spiders" we would need. One can see how the whole brain is needed to figure this challenge out.

A Production Line assembling different parts for the layers of the pyramid
The class that ended up doing the large pyramid with the whole class working on it ended up with a kind of rotational factory line, and while that worked most of the time, there were times when someone was either feeling left out or, finding their own thing to do while they didn't have something to work on immediately in front of them (and you know how that can go :) The class that worked in large groups still had to figure out the layers and how many spaghetti sticks, marshmallows, and "spiders" they would need for each layer, but it was obviously not as large numbers since their pyramids would be smaller (less people building meant less man power).

In retrospect, I think next time I will use toothpicks, though, spaghetti was cheap, plentiful (quite a few kids brought in donations) and it took some problem solving to figure out how to make the pieces pretty uniform, which is totally fine, but the toothpicks may make the pyramids more uniform next time.

The next day, I had the kids speak, then write about problems they ran into, summarizing what they remembered from the text, and how they applied the concepts to the project. This was great for speaking/listening objectives and writing objectives.  Having the students try to cite evidence/examples from our discussions and the texts for what they think worked well and what didn't gave them practice in backing up their statements.

In addition, the pyramids "hung out" for a while until my amazing colleague, and their math teacher taught a lesson on scale and ratio on a map. We used the pyramids in conjunction with a map of the Giza Necropolis to map out the pyramids that the kids built (with some of the smaller pyramids serving as the queens pyramids, the whole-class pyramid serving as King Khufu's, and the smaller (but still larger than the tiny ones) as the pyramid of  Khafre).

This student was allergic to marshmallows, so we used Dots candies instead :)
This was an extremely fun project for the kids and for myself, I loved listening to them problem solve and try to work together as a team to build something. It was a very bonding experience and I cannot wait to share more of what this amazing group of kids do each week.


Use Arts Integration to Enhance Common Core | Edutopia

Use Arts Integration to Enhance Common Core | Edutopia
Edutopia is a prime resource for educators who are looking for research-based innovative strategies. Here, they've put together a whole mini-site on arts integration. Susan Riley, one of the geniuses over at, makes her case for teaching the common core through the arts. A great read and links to great resources.


Article of the Week - School Lunch - A comparison of viewpoints

What kid DOESN'T love discussing how much they hate, no, loathe school lunch? No matter what is served, the students find reason to complain, and why not? It's a rite of childhood.
That was the basis for using the Time For Kids article "What's Cookin'?" as our next Article of the Week.
Students received the article on the first day of the week and we immediately covered some of picked out vocabulary like "state health official" and "USDA" which would aid in their comprehension of the article. Students were then given the rest of the week to close-read, which to them means, pick apart, ask questions, and cite evidence for text-based questions.
Amazingly, as the week went on, some more recent news came out; schools across the nation were dropping out of the National School Lunch program because they were losing money. Articles like this one stated that the new healthier choices simply aren't passing the "kid test" and that kids are left hungry.
I used coh-metrix (my go-to for analyzing text complexity) and found that the stories were pretty high in reading level, but luckily some news segments began popping up on Youtube.

In this one, the anchors speak about why schools are opting out of the program and show a snippet of a video some high school students from Kansas did spoofing the video "We Are Young" called "We Are Hungry." The video was done by high school students waaay back in the beginning of the school year in 2012.

I showed students the newscasts and then the video spoof. We watched the song a few times through, once to listen to the gist of it then once to analyze the lyrics. Those high school students make some pretty hefty political statements!  "Set the policy on fire" is only one of them. Around 2:20 or so a  "lunch policy guy" comes in to educate the students on what should be eaten and how much should be eaten during lunch... the scenes later depict the students beating up on the policy guy further demonstrating their dislike for the whole business. I give props to the educators of these students and can only hope to encourage my students to make their own political statements with a chance for such viral popularity.

Our crowning activity, as always with Article of the Week, was the debate. Students were given two choices (The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 is beneficial to schools or The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 should be banned) to sit on either side of the room to debate Philosophical Chairs style. (If you aren't sure what that is, check out this post to learn more.) After a wild debate, students were given a prompt to write (the prompt was "Taking everything into account, how do you feel about the government mandates on school lunch and nutrition?") Students were reminded to cite evidence and examples from the article, the song, and the debate. My understanding of the CCSS for middle school is that lots of chances for argument and writing should take place so that students are getting ample opportunity to hone their ability to make and prove their point. The world is full of opinions and one cannot stand on the shoulders of giants without being able to prove their point using credible evidence.


Using Memes to Get Their Attention

The other day, someone had a song up on their phone and it sounded rather awful to me, and I asked "What IS that?" and then the someone told me "it's the latest song" by some band I haven't even heard of... I began to sweat. My palms felt clammy. I stepped back and took a deep breath. I am getting worse I thought to myself.
My condition has become a larger and more apparent issue as the years go by. I simply can ignore it no longer. My brain is changing. My tastes, they are changing too. Times are changing, and for me, I continuously try to ignore a simple fact. A thousand scenarios like this have happened to thousands of people all over the world since the beginning of time and the concept of pop-culture. The words float through my head each time I realize I don't know something I should've known about the latest fashion trend or the newest song by so-and-so (Did I just say "so-and-so?") I'm getting old! Not only am I getting older, but having a baby this last year has got me feeling less and less connected to pop culture.
Luckily, this scenario didn't happen in my classroom in front of my students, my MIDDLE SCHOOL students. That would simply be the kiss of death in the face of me clinging to the idea that my 6th graders think I have ANY coolness left in me yet. I'm not yet 30, but I'm really feeling quite square.
While I'm losing the battle against time on the pop media, music, and celebrity beat, I have to think to myself that I keep a pretty solid pace with most internet pop culture. Which I'm pathetically proud of. Perhaps I don't know as much as I think I do, but I like to think I'm still hip in that area... did I just use the word "hip?" Please excuse me while I unglue my hand from my sweaty forehead.

The middle school students of today are no different than they were when I was a middle school student, and even when my mother was a middle school student. They see and know and laugh about things I (or the other adults in their lives) no longer know much about.
But I have one thing going for me in the realm of awkward humor. I can laugh as hard at new memes as they can, in fact, I can laugh harder. (Especially at certain genres like the LOTR "One does not simply..." memes or any of the lolcats.)

 When you think about it, memes are a sort of art form. They are the art of pop culture. A play on words, a strategically frozen shot of video footage. They serve as a point of humor for instructing (and nagging) your students. They remind your students, in a non-confrontational way, to do what you ask them to do day after day, but they don't remember to do.
They are also a fun way to show your students that you do care about what they find interesting, and you can still use them in an educational way.

While I'm not ready to completely full-out build a lesson plan around using memes in my classroom, (like this amazing person is) I am willing to try using them to get my kids' attention. In the first week of school, we went right into citing evidence (CCSS Anchor Standard R1). I was emphasizing just how much I like to see evidence and how sad (and angry!) it makes me when a student has amazing things to say but cannot back up their opinions with text-connected evidence. One student murmured to his partner "Why you no have evidence?" in reference to the meme... it created such a ripple in the room, snickers and chuckles, but how could I be mad that he spoke out of turn? I laughed it off and [badly] imitated the guy in the meme. It has since become an inside joke for our classroom. Try making some of your own. Include your classroom's inside jokes and some of the things you say day in and day out. Maybe I'll get brave and center a lesson around making them, for now, I'm happy to just flash them on the screen during debates and draw the Y U No Have guy on the board when my students are completing reading responses.

(Memes generated at


Using Article of the Week for Close Reading Techniques

So I've been doing this thing in my classroom called Article of the Week. The brains behind it belong to Kelly Gallagher and I first read about it through the blog at Teaching the Core called A Non-Freaked Out, Focused Approach to the Common Core - Close Reading by Dave Stuart. It's been an amazing ride. We are in our fifth week of school and on our fourth article.
The basic idea behind it is to give kids an opportunity to close read on a regular basis, stay current with events and issues in our society, and best of all: express our opinions about something. Close reading is at the heart of the Common Core Reading standards and the activities that follow also hit some major CCSS standards, specifically in the Listening and Speaking zone.
We review the vocabulary for the article first, then the kids read the article on their own, annotating and answering text-based questions that will aid their comprehension of the article. In my version, which is meant for the social butterflies of Middle School, they use Question-Answer Relationships to ask four to eight questions about the article that they may discuss in groups during small group times in class. After all this, they write a simple argument paragraph expressing their views on something about the article. The prompts vary from "Did the author argue his point well?" to "Do YOU agree with the author?" to other various questions in which the students can use their analyzed article to cite evidence and back up their passionate response.
The really amazing thing about Article of the Weeks are the debates that happen afterwards. In the first weeks following the end of summer break, we focused on learning how to discuss things with each other. We are artsy, passionate, opinionated sixth graders. We have a LOT to say, about ourselves, things we like, and issues in our world. We also need to be able to paraphrase, ask probing questions, pay attention to each other, and think positive about each others' opinions.
These debates. Wow. Talk about deceptive! These students are learning how to prove their points without realizing what amazing learning they are doing, I have a really hard time, as mediator, keeping the smile off my face when a student pulls a really good piece of evidence out of the text to back up their opinion, and then the rebuttal is equally amazing from a student on the other "side."

We use the 7 Norms of Collaboration which my district adopted a few years back and the questions they write for discussion groups during small groups are written according to Question-Answer Relationships. Our articles are harvested from various sources that aren't too "newsy" for the kids, like Wired and Mental Floss, and the debates are framed around an AVID method called Philosophical Chairs, in which students are allowed to change sides if someone says something that sways their opinion.

I'll be writing more on how we integrate the arts into this later. Enjoy the possibilities!


The Crazy Professor Reading Game

As a Language Arts teacher, I've developed many beliefs about the reading process that I've striven to use in my reading instruction. Students need to have oral reading fluency and an "inner voice" that speaks inside their head while they read in order to become successful readers. They need to have some speed while they read but more importantly they need comprehension. Young readers should be given a sort of "reader's toolbox" of comprehension skills that they use unconsciously while they read when they come across something they do not understand or they have a need to analyze a piece of reading in depth. Out district uses DIBELS for reading fluency and speed seems almost more important than retention (the retell measure), and I've struggled, even failed, as a reading teacher in finding a way to incorporate the development of their "reader's toolbox" in much of my instruction.
I checked out The Crazy Professor Reading Game the other day on and I am already putting it in my lesson plans for the beginning of the year. It supports many ideas I've held about reading as a Language Arts teacher but have struggled to implement or teach effectively such as oral fluency, activating prior knowledge before reading, and retention of content after reading. Over the past few years, I've gathered tons of ideas, and implemented successfully about half of them, but have still not seen progress in our district-used reading fluency program, DIBELS.
In the video, (watch it), you will observe four steps. The first, dramatic reading, helps students practice intonation. Tone can be such a hard thing to teach, especially without technology (I used an Apple program called Garage Band and later Audacity on my Windows machines to help students visualize what the waves of their voice looked like while they read, but what about when I needed to teach a larger group or what about days technology wasn't an option?). Reading dramatically can be so important, especially for the below-level readers, because it helps them understand and actually hear what tone and pitch do in a reader's voice to help someone listen and understand. Even if the intonation is awkward at first, the point is that they are getting the practice in making their voices go up and down while they read, instead of reading at the monotonous, stifled pace of a shy and below-level reader. Dramatic reading also keeps students focused on what they are reading and for average or above average readers, helps them practice and gain confidence in understanding how the voice works when the eyes see a period, comma, question mark, or exclamation point coming up. It gives at-level and above-level readers a chance to really show their stuff!
The second step in the "game" is using gestures and actions while reading. This keeps students engaged and focused on what they are reading because they are constantly having to interpret and analyze what the words actually say in order to form a physical gesture or action that goes along with the word, phrase, or sentence. This not only helps students by pushing them to think on a higher level while they read (and forces the "word-callers" to focus on understanding the words they are speaking), but it also forms that so-very-special connection I have such faith in which is the kinesthetic learning part of how the brain works. This physical movement moves the information gathering and retention to multiple areas of the brain, forming connections that bind the different ways the brain comprehends and processes the information it receives.
The third phase of the game, teach your neighbor, in which partners turn to each other to summarize and paraphrase, students trade off asking each other questions about the story. This can be powerful for both the below-level and above-level reader. Below-level readers are practicing retention simply by running through what they remember in order to ask a question. Above-level readers practice coming up with higher-order questions (which happens naturally because they already have an idea about what is going on in the story). Below- and average- level readers also get a second chance to get more information out of the story by "reviewing" it with their neighbor.
Lastly, the fourth and final step, one student becomes the Crazy Professor and the other the Eager Student. The Crazy Professor may use props and gestures to form an overall summary of the story in which they teach to the Eager Student. The Eager Student encourages the Crazy Professor with phrases like "Really?" "Yea?" "Tell me more!" "OMG!" The students (esp. in older grades) may simply role play the actual craziness and eagerness at first, but as they become less apprehensive about what others think, they are ultimately having a lot of fun. Kids and adults alike will tell you that they learn better when they are having fun. The last step really focuses on forming details and sequence as part of an overall summary.
Thinking about how to implement this game in my own classroom has really triggered a lot of ideas! Here is a list that I will hopefully revisit and blog about in the future.
  • Examine the pictures or skim the words for characters and names. Make predictions about which character will be the protagonist or antagonist (use already-taught gestures to remind each other what each type of character is)
  • Find the picture that looks like the climax. Use gestures to remind ourselves of what the climax is, then write predictions to check with our neighbors later.
  • After reading, check back with our predictions. Use compare/contrast gestures to see what was similar and what was different about your predictions and the actual story.
  • Post-reading compare and contrast of summaries: Use alternate neighbors to compare and contrast each others summaries. (Use compare and contrast gestures)
  • Post-reading review (done at end of day or even another day) With the Crazy Professor using gestures only, have the Eager student answer questions using gestures based on what gesture the Professor hinted at. (eg: Crazy Professor can do the gesture for setting then the Eager Student answers by describing the details of the setting using gestures.)
I hope you watch the video, it will seriously blow your mind and give you a little "umph" in your motivation for teaching reading (especially out of those district-required Basal Readers!)
Your kids will thank you!