Measuring in the Block Center

Nothing ever becomes real ’til it is experienced.

― John Keats

I recently had the pleasant experience of observing inquiry centers in Marta Quinones and Maureen Duffy’s inclusion first grade class at P.S. 142 in Manhattan.
This spring, they decided to begin an inquiry project focused on “My Fit and Healthy Body.” This investigation came out of Maureen’s particular interest in physical fitness and sports. The children were picking up on her enthusiasm for running and exercising. The teachers also hoped that this study might address some of the children’s poor eating habits.

The three of us began by  brainstorming ideas for where this study might go.We created an anticipatory web, listing possible activities, trips, experts, reading and writing projects and math experiences.

The next step was to launch the study and to discover what the children already knew on the topic. Marta and Maureen began collecting the children’s  initial questions or, as they called it, “wonderings”.

The questions flowed from the class! When they organized the post- its  (small sticky-notes that the teachers used to record the students’ questions), the children and the teachers noticed was that there were many questions about bones. How do they break? Can they bend? How do they get fixed? How many do we have? How do we take care of them? Can they bend backwards? Do animals have the same bones as us? The questions were filling up the page of wonderings.

The direction of the study was now clear – finding out more about our bones!

On the morning of one of my school visits, I met with the two teachers for a planning meeting. I wanted to know what had happened since I was last there and what the teachers thought should be the “next steps” in the study. Marta noticed that a  group of children were attempting to construct a model of a human skeleton in the block center. Their project, however, was becoming unfocused and chaotic. We discussed some possible strategies for supporting  this project. We thought that they might take some time to look at and discuss  anatomical illustrations with the children. Perhaps, after looking at the drawings, they might want to create a ‘blueprint’ on mural paper for their block skelton. Marta thought that she would give this suggestion a try. Maureen planned on looking at xrays with a group of children.

Later in the day, I visited the classroom during Inquiry Center time. The children in the block center were working on their blueprint. They were using a foam rubber life-sized skeleton puzzle as a model for their construction. They also used a ruler to assist them in measuring unit blocks. The wanted to determine which block would match the size of the puzzle piece. They wanted it to be just the right size for their block skeleton.

As I sat on the side, observing, I was struck by the children’s collaboration and also by Marta’s calm, non-intrusive support of their work.

To my delight, I witnessed an unexpected example of children making an important discovery – Piaget’s theory about the conservation of matter! We often assume that children understand numerical consistency. Young children, however, don’t always understand that  five blocks arranged side by side will be just the same size as five blocks stacked vertically. In this little video clip from Marta and Maureen’s classroom, though, we can see how important a discovery it is that 11 inches stays the same, horizontally AND vertically!


2 thoughts on “Measuring in the Block Center

  1. Connie Norgren

    I was very affected by the photo of the boy and the teacher poring over the x-rays laid out on the table.Both of their bodies show complete absorption in these fascinating images. Both were clearly “being amazed” together. I can imagine the “wonderings” going on in each mind and the conversations that would soon come. This is an image of two learners truly collaborating.

    AND I am always inspired by Renee’s sensitivity to every small leap of discovery in a classroom. The boys in the video were comparing and comparing (block to ruler, block to ruler again!, block to linked-together markers), noticing small differences (11 inches vs. 12 inches) and then coming up with the miracles of having and testing a hypothesis: how long is that block when it is standing up? Let’s use the ruler to check – an unspoken plan. Each step is important…each step came from them – and each step led to learning that will be in their bones.

  2. Renee Post author

    Thank you Connie!
    I’d love to share something that another first grade teacher at P.S. 142 told me yesterday. Her class is doing an investigation of playgrounds. At Choice Time two girls decided to make a hopscotch game on mural paper. These are two girls, Alexis told me, who have very little concentration during math lessons. They look for excuses to leave the room (“I need to use the bathroom”) and generally don’t pay attention to the lessons. When they were making their hopscotch game, however, they became totally absorbed and obsessive about getting the measurements correct! They checked to be sure that the lines were parallel. They got rulers and measured carefully. When she listened in our their conversation, she heard them talking about inches and centimeters. At one point they came to her for a yardstick. When she told that that she didn’t have one, they asked permission to go to the other classrooms to see if they could get one. They went from room to room until they found one in a second grade classroom. Alexis was amazed by their concentration, collaboration, and conversation. They worked on this project over a few days and now they want to figure out a way to put it on the floor, cover it so that the paper won’t tear, and play hopscotch in class!


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