Spy Kids

Welcome to the third quarter in EXCEL!  What a crazy first month of school we have had.  We’ve had snow, we’ve had missed days of school, and we’ve had, unfortunately, many sick kids.  We have finally found our groove, though, and we have been having fun!

Our theme for the quarter is that we are learning how to be spies!  I chose this unit because not only is it fun, but the students are able to work on some of the soft skills that are often weaker in much of the gifted population:  cooperation, collaboration, observation, perseverance, and other important social/teamwork skills.

Different classes have participated in different activities at different times, but we all started out the same….working on our observation skills.  It is the tendency of many students, but especially gifted students, to try to rush into judgment/answers/action, so this was a bit eye opening and difficult for the students.  We started out with identifying the differences between two pictures.


We also played some games in the classroom where they spent one minute really looking at the room, and then closed their eyes.  I would remove or move one item, and the students would have to identify what had changed.  This was SO hard for them and many were frustrated, but it did press the point that it is important to really attend to the details.  We also checked out the CIA website and played some games in their Kid Zone.  Check it out by clicking on the link above!

We also had to develop our spy covers.  This included taking our pictures for our special spy badges.  If you don’t see your spy below, it means that they were not in the classroom when we took their pictures….I’ll get everyone this week!  Look at those serious faces!

It also involved putting our fingerprints on file and developing a cover.  Each spy’s cover included their code name, their special spy skills, their surveillance photo, last known residence, known affiliates, and career.

Then it was on to learning all about what it takes to be a spy.  The students used their devices to research and present the difference between terms that are typically used interchangeably but actually have much different meanings:  codes/ciphers, encode/encipher, decode/decipher, cryptology/cryptography.  They also looked up brush passes and dead drops, NSA and CCS, steganography and cryptoanalysis.


Then it was time to get started deciphering and enciphering codes! We started with lego codes. Each student created a cipher where each letter had a lego color/configuration that would stand for it. Then, they created a secret message and a friend had the chance to decipher it!


After we did an easy cipher, we made it a little bit more difficult by making and using cipher wheels to encode and decode messages.

Finally, because engineering challenges are our favorite, each student had the opportunity to solve a mystery challenge, where they used their creativity and the engineering design process to solve an individual problem outlined in a challenge card.

What a great few weeks we have had.  More fun is yet to come!


Little Red Riding Hood

What a week it was in EXCEL!  This week, we explored the classic fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood, through STEM activities.

Before we started working, though, we warmed up our brains with a special kind of brain teaser ~ it had two parts!  First we unscrambled all of the words related to fairy tales, and then we found them in the puzzle.

First we reviewed what we knew about the story that most of us had heard as smaller children.  Then we watched a version of the fairy tale in the tradition of Eastern Europe.  We found this to be quite different in many different ways. After discussing the differences and similarities, we watched the Chinese version of the story, Lon Po Po.

After watching this, we split up into teams and made a Venn diagram that compared the two versions of the story.  The fifth graders used a three way Venn diagram to compare all three versions!

We used our technology ~ our devices for those who brought them, and my computers for those who didn’t ~ to learn more about wolves.  Many of the students thought they knew much about wolves already, but found that they really didn’t!  Many students also found out that research was harder than it looked.  They found out that they had to read carefully and enter their search terms carefully.

The last activity was our engineering challenge.  For the youngest, the task was to design a basket with a handle that would hold 50 unifix cubes for 120 steps.  The only supplies they could use included two pieces of brown construction paper, scissors, tape, and a stapler.

The older students constructed a basket as well, but their basket had to travel on a zipline over the forest to get to grandmother’s house safely.  First we tested them for distance, and when two of the baskets both traveled the same distance, we timed them.

Next week, we’ll wrap up our second semester  with some special Christmas STEM activities!

Jack and the Beanstalk

This week’s fairy tale was Jack and the Beanstalk, and even though our week was short and mixed up because of the State Championship Playoff game on Friday, we had lots of fun doing our STEM activities.  But first….we did our brain teasers!  First and second graders did word searches, while 3rd-5th graders rocked the Sudokus!

We watched a video of the story, Jack and the Beanstalk, as some of our friends were not familiar with the story, and others had a foggy memory of the story.

Then, we played a game where we answered critical thinking questions about the story.


We had fun doing an art project in place of the science portion of STEM, where we drew the giant from Jack’s perspective.  We learned all about perspective and discussed how it is important to be able to look at things from the perspective of another.  I was so involved in modeling and helping the students that I didn’t get any pictures, but you can stop by the classroom any time to take a look!

Our engineering project was a fun one, and the kids got so excited!  Our challenge was to design and build an egg delivery system to deliver a raw egg safely to the ground from three different heights.  The students had a variety of materials with which to work, but they could not tape anything directly on the egg.  First we planned and built our contraptions.

Then we tested our egg delivery systems from three different heights:  the top of the back of a chair, the top of the filing cabinet, and the top of the door frame.

Some of succeeded.

Some of us didn’t (but they were very good sports!)


But we all had lots of fun!  Stay tuned next week as we explore Little Red Riding Hood!

Hansel and Gretel

This week in EXCEL, we continued our STEM learning through fairy tales with one of my favorites, Hansel and Gretel.  First, though, we had to get our brains ready to think and work together with some brain teasers.


We watched this version of Hansel and Gretel on the Smartboard to familiarize, or in some cases introduce, ourselves to the classic fairy tale.  We talked about what made fairy tales unique stories and what in the story could actually have happened.  Then we were ready to explore the story elements through STEM!

SCIENCE  For our science activity, we became scientists and learned all about experiments, variables, and fair tests.  We then conducted our own experiment to answer the question, “Does one color m&m dissolve faster in water, if all of the other variables are controlled?”

First, we prepared our testing materials by measuring and drawing concentric circles on a clear plastic plate and filling it with the same amount of water.

Then we all placed our different colored m&m’s in the water in the center at the very same time and started our timer.  After two minutes, we checked to see which color seemed to have dissolved the most.

When all was said and done, over all the classes, there wasn’t any one color that dissolved faster, but the colors with yellow in them seemed to dissolve at a faster rate than those without.  We did conclude that perhaps our measuring might have produced circles of different proportions, and therefore it wasn’t really a fair test.  While this frustrated some of us, we came to the realization that scientists are always learning, sometimes even at the expense of their investigation!

TECHNOLOGY  With our electronics (when the internet permitted) or the Smartboard, we explored Hansel and Gretel while learning about the opera!  This was by far a more popular activity than I had ever imagined.  As a child, I remember thinking opera was incredibly boring and difficult to understand.  The kids absolutely loved it and were enthralled!


Click here to explore the website!

Engineering  For our engineering challenge, we read an account of Hansel and Gretel in which Hansel and Gretel planned to build a cage around themselves and the witch that had a space between the bars large enough for them to get out but too small for the witch to escape.  The kids came up with some interesting and tasty designs!  Some chose to work by themselves, some chose to work alone, and still others planned to work alone and as the time limit approached, collaborated.

Math  In math, we explored the world of geometry through the creation of 3D shapes with toothpicks and gumdrops.  The younger classes made simple shapes, such as cubes, while the older students made more complex shapes, and even combined shapes!

Next week, we’ll explore Jack and The Beanstalk!  It’s sure to be some giant fun!

Fairy Tale Fun

Exciting things are happening in the EXCEL classroom. We have started a new unit and this unit is a STEM unit on fairy tales!  Each week until Christmas, we will be reading one fairy tale and explore it through STEM ~ Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  This week’s fairy tale was The Three Little Pigs.

First, we did a brain teaser.  First and second grade did a hidden picture activity, while the older kids did a mad lib.

After that, we watched Disney’s Silly Symphony about the Three Little Pigs to see if the students could guess what our next unit would be about.  Click here to watch the story!
Now it was time to do our STEM activities!  Different classes worked a different speeds and with different levels of complexity.  Consequently, some groups got through all 4 activities, and some didn’t.

SCIENCE:  For our science activity, first we learned about wolves and the many misconceptions that fairy tales portray.  We did learn that wolves have very advanced senses of smell and that was our topic of discovery.  First we watched a TED Talk about our olfactory nerves, and then we tried to guess some smells while our eyes were closed 

TECHNOLOGY – For technology, we checked out some iPads and did a little research on pigs.  First, the students were given a list of websites and a list of questions.  Students had to find the answers to the questions, but instead of finding the direct answer to the questions, they had to use the information they read and make inferences, draw conclusions, or apply the knowledge in order to answer them correctly and completely.  Fifth grade had an extra task.  Use the information learned to create a persuasive “Wanted” posters for the three little pigs.


ENGINEERING ~ Our engineering task was a fun one.  The task was to build a house for the three little pigs that would protect the pig from the Big Bad Wolf (aka my hairdryer on the highest setting).  With the third and fourth graders, I did not give them specific materials, but instead, I let them choose their own from our tinker boxes.  This proved to be a daunting task, as the students had many materials, many ideas, but most didn’t have enough time or tape to complete their projects successfully.  With the other students, I gave them a specific set of materials and that seemed to work much better!

MATH ~ For our math portion of our day, we used the Smartboard to work on some Three Little Pig themed word problems.  We had to use our addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fraction skills to solve them all.  We even learned how to write a check!

The week after Thanksgiving Break, we’ll explore Hansel and Gretel through STEM.  We’ll look at and design an operatic version of the fairy tale, do experiments on different kinds of candy, design a trap for the witch, and explore the attributes of 3D shapes!

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!  I am thankful for your sweet kiddos!

The Last of the Rovers

It seems as if this Rover project has taken forever!  Like the kids, I was often frustrated these last few weeks as we tried out our Little Bits, tweaked our circuits, and built and rebuilt (and rebuilt!) the insides of our Rovers so that they would work!  It took lots of hard work, lots of thinking outside the box, lots of trial and error.  At the end, the kids were aghast that three weeks worth of work went into one minute and thirty seconds of moving Rover.  We talked about how with the real Mars Rovers, there are years and years of work involved and sometimes, the Rovers get all the way to Mars and don’t work right!

Despite all the work and all the tweaking that was involved, I think that this was a great learning experience for all.  We learned about the Mars Rover, we learned about electrical circuits, and we learned about how hard scientists and engineers work!  As it has been the last few weeks, our classes were very labor intensive, for me too, so there haven’t been as many pictures as usual.


So finally, everyone got to test their Rovers, but there were other neat things that went on in EXCEL as well.  Everyone started their day with a brain teaser.  Some of them were harder than others, depending on the grade level and how well I thought the students could incorporate figures of speech into their abstract thinking patterns.  This was the first and second grade rebus puzzle.lastrover18

Then in all but the fifth grade, we did a little terrafirming to get our landscapes ready to build our Mars colony.  We did this by first filling our pans with sand.

Then we cut up pieces of copper sponge.

Lastly, we added water to the top of our sand and copper.  With a week’s time and a little oxidation, our Mars landscape will be nice a red by next week!

Third and fourth grade, who raced their rovers last week, worked on soda straw rockets.  We used our fine motor skills to build our tiny little rockets, blew into a straw to launch our rockets, and then measured the distance our rockets flew.  We converted the feet into inches and did two distance trials.  Then we learned about how to find the average of the two distances to declare our winner!

Next week, we’ll finish our Mars colony and be done with our unit on Mars.  We’ll start our new unit, a STEAM unit, week after next!


This week in EXCEL, we got to work on our long-awaited project, our Mars Rovers!  But first, we needed to warm up our brains so that we were ready to tackle some tricky, new problems!

In first and second grades, we started with a version of Mars Bingo.  Each board was filled with different terms related to our study of Mars.  Instead of calling out the word, however, I called out a definition, a clue, or a critical thinking question.  For example, instead of calling out “carbon dioxide,” I gave them the clue, “the reason that human life can not survive on Mars is because the atmosphere is made up of 95% of this element.”


The third, fourth, and fifth graders experienced a new kind of puzzle this week, the matchstick challenge.  Some of us were very good at this kind of puzzle (Adelle was the master!), and others of us struggled and wanted immediate answers.  This is something that we are working on in EXCEL daily–persevering when we don’t know the answer right away and being ok with failure.  These are two important life skills!


After our brains were warmed up and ready to go, we reviewed electricity by watching a fun video, Finding Stuff Out:  Electricity.  If you haven’t checked out this series of videos, you should!  The host is a student, and he answers questions that every child has in ways that every child can understand!

After we were warmed up (and tired of waiting!) we got started on our Little Bits and making our Rovers work.  First I let them fidget with no direction.  I knew their natural curiosity would get the best of them and they would do it while I tried to teach, so I let them have a go at it independently first to try to prevent that from happening.


After we had some time to “play,” we worked on building specific circuits to see how the light sensor, microphone, DC motor, and counter worked.  Even though not all of these modules would be in our rovers, it was an important step in making sure we built our circuits correctly.


Now it was time to put build our rover circuits, put them into our rovers, test them out, and make adjustments to our design.  What followed was organized chaos as we tested, adjusted, tested again, adjusted again, and in general realized that engineers must be very patient!  Because my presence was needed to help guide the students, I got very few pictures.  Only third and fourth grades got around to actually having the rover races.  The other grade levels will compete this week!


Next week, we will be finishing up our unit on Mars by planning and building a building for an imaginary Mars colony!