Prospecting For Treasure

Always prospecting for the next treasure of an idea.

Our Castle Project

Emma's Castle

We  began our castle project last week.  It is completed as a homework project, and it is one of the highlights of fourth grade, or so some people tell me.  I have done this project for thirteen years.  I did quit for a few years because the castles had become so elaborate and huge, and they had become “Dad Castles” instead of “Kid Castles”.  I knew things had gone too far when I overheard  a conversation between two of my students who were complaining that their parents had taken over their projects.  Stacy was commenting  that she had her castle all planned, but her mom wouldn’t let her do it the way she wanted.  Stacey’s parents were in the heating and cooling business, and her final castle was made of sheet metal, welded and assembled with rivets.  Joey’s response was, “Yeah, my dad keeps calling it his castle.”

I make it a point to tell families that they may assist, but it should be mostly the child’s work.  When students bring their castles, we always interview them about how they planned and built their castle.  When asked what they liked best about the project, many respond with something they did with their parents, so I do allow family help.    I have restrictions about the size of the final castle.  It had gotten to the point that some castles were the size of two or three student desks.  I now request that they are no larger than the top of a student desk.

Brandon's Castle

I do not wish to cause a hardship for any family, so I  allow the option of creating a castle model or a detailed poster.  Almost all the kids create a model, and in all the years I have done this project, I have never had a student fail to complete it.

Anna's Castle

We begin in class by learning why castles were built, and how they were built.  Castles weren’t just houses, they were war machines.  We learn about the planning that went into the defense of these castles, and children are encouraged to include these details in their models.

Tyler's Castle

I am a big consumer of manilla folders, and I use them for this project.  I staple step by step directions for the project on the left side of the folder.  You’ll find a copy of these directions in the File Cabinet.  On the right side I include diagrams labeling  the parts of the castle.  This is actually one of our in-class lessons.   I also include ideas about possible ways to construct a model. Most of my ideas come from the books, Knights And Castles, By Teacher Created Materials and The Middle Ages Independent Learning Unit, By Lorraine Conway.  You can read more about the resources I use in my previous post, Medieval History for Kids.

Roger's Castle

The kids and families never cease to amaze me with their creativity.  I have seen castles made of wood, cardboard, styrofoam, sugar cubes, marshmallows, sand (that was not such a good idea), clay, craft sticks, and rocks.  Every year, there is some new idea that I would never have thought of and have never seen before.

Marissa's Castle

We do a lot of writing.  We write about why castles were built.  We write about the kids’  thinking and planning for their castle.  Kids write a description of their work to be displayed at Core Knowledge Night.  At the end we write fairy tales about what happens when an evil wizard shrinks us and our castles become real.

The third graders come in to check out our castles.

On the day the castles are due, we invite students from other grades to come see them, which is why kids come into 4th grade asking when we’re going to build castles.  All the castles pictured in this post were created by my students from last year. 

This year our castles are due on Wednesday, May 5th, the day before we have our big school celebration, “Core Knowledge Night”.  Afterwards we will display them on top of our lockers and in the library.

April 24, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Medieval History for Kids

My school is a Core Knowledge school, and one of the highlights of the year is our study of the middle ages. 
We begin by building a timeline, so that the kids understand how this period of history fits in.  This is easier at a Core Knowledge school, because the children have already learned about ancient Egypt in first grade, ancient Greece in second grade, and the Roman Empire in third grade.  You can learn more about Core Knowledge curriculum by visiting The Core Knowledge Foundation website.   I also include some map skills, because I want to be sure that the children understand what part of the world we are talking about.  It is important to compare and contrast maps from the middle ages with Europe of today.
I like to teach Core Knowledge across the curriculum.  While some of our medieval history is taught during social studies time, much is done during our literacy block and even during math.  I usually start with small group reading groups exploring non-fiction. 
For read alouds I like to read:
  •   The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleishman
  •    Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman (I edit this one as I read.)
  •    The Door In the Wall by Marguerite De Angeli
I have reading groups reading:
  • Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray
  •  King Arthur (Scholastic Junior Classics) by Jan B. Mason and Sarah Hines Stephens.
  • Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest by Ann McGovern
As we build this background, we stop to explore some things in more depth.  As we learn about feudalism, I impress on students and help them to imagine what it would be like to have their dad pick who they would marry.  I want them to think about what it would be like to be sent away from home at the age of 7 to become a page.  I want them to appreciate the freedoms we have today to make choices about the work we do, and the opportunities we can take advantage of.
I try to fill the room with non-fiction to read during free reading time.  There are some great books out there to use to learn about the middle ages in Europe. Here are some of my favorites.
  • EyeWitness Books, Castle by Christopher Gravett
  • Eyewitness Books, Knights by Christopher Gravett
  •  See Through History, The Middle Ages by Sarah Howarth
  • Knights by Philip Steele
  • Stephen Biesty’s Cross-Sections Castle
  • Usborne World History, Medieval World by Jane Bingham
  • Castle by David Macaulay

There are also some excellent teacher resources to help you plan your unit.  I like:
  • Knights And Castles, By Teacher Created Materials
  • Medieval Times, By Teacher Created Materials
  • The Middle Ages Independent Learning Unit, By Lorraine Conway
  • Knights & Castles, 50 Hands-on Activities to Experience the Middle Ages, by Avery Hart & Paul Mantell
  • Exploring Ancient Civilizations, Medieval Times by Robynne Eagan

We are beginning our Castle Project this week.  My next few posts will talk about some of the special projects we do to further our understanding of life in the Middle Ages.  If you have additional ideas, I would love to hear them.

April 12, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

Our New Student Blogs

We just finished a very stressful week filled with daily test-taking.  It was our week for Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. This is how Iowa schools are judged as successful or failing, so much rides on these tests.  The actual testing was the culmination of several weeks of “test preparation.”  We actually took less of the test this year, but I felt more stressed than ever, and went home exhausted each night.  Our school has been one of the few in our part of town that has managed to stay off of the “watched schools” list, and hopefully we will be able to accomplish that again this year.
It was a regular school day the the rest of the time, and my students spent time reading each other’s new blogs.  Everyone now has their very own blog at  I introduced the new blogs when we came back from spring break on March 22nd.  We spent that week writing, editing, and posting, so it wasn’t until last week that the kids could really see their published work.  Now that the kids are seeing their own blogs, and reading and commenting on other student’s blogs, they are getting excited about this project. 
The Kidblog website is really easy to use.  I introduced the project using the list of Ten Blogging Ideas from A Geeky Momma’s  Blog.  I set up our blogs so they are public, but all posts and comments must be approved by me.  Mine is not a paperless classroom.  We started with our initial draft written on paper, and we did our first edit on paper. Then students began to post on the computer.  I like the fact that there is a button to “Submit for Review”.  At this point I printed a copy of the blog, so that students could edit once again before posting on line.  
I was feeling pretty frustrated.  The content of the posts was good, but my students are not using correct capitalization, punctuation, and spelling.  I don’t know where you stand on this, but I do believe that if I continue to edit their work, it is no longer their work, so mistakes or not, at this point we posted.   
I sent out a link to their blogs, so that others in our building could see what they are doing.  The website is very well organized so that you can access all our class blogs from one page.  It is also easy for the kids to sign in.  All they have to do is find their name in the drop down menu, and sign in with their password.  Our blogs are grouped as Ms. Day’s Class
The other teachers in my building have been great about writing comments on the kids’ blogs.  I like the fact that the comments show up on the right side of the screen, next to the students post.  This way the kids can easily see that people are responding to their writing. 
The third grade teachers are impressed with how much their writing has improved.  I felt reassured by this, but even more important, one of my students got on line from home at seven in the morning, and wrote a second blog post.  She also wrote very nice comments on other students blogs.  This student has been a reluctant writer in the past.  Now I’m excited!  I hope some of the other kids feel as motivated by the response to their work, and will continue writing on their own. 
In the meantime, we are using a Daily Oral Language approach, to work on our editing skills.  It can’t hurt, and it just might help!

April 4, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 2 Comments