Label Your Build

Labeling is part of every build in our classroom. Sometimes my request for labeling is met with a bit of grumbling. “Labels? Do we have to label? Why do we have to label things, Miss James?”

I always respond the same way. “Yes, you have to label things. Everyone find at least three things to label.” and “Why label?!?!!! You have to label things because when you label them, everyone else gets to know and understand your great ideas and creations!” Once they get over the need to stop building in order to label, and any hesitancy they have in their ability to write things that others can read, the labels begin popping up all over the build site.

Here are a few from this year’s Thanksgiving build.


(bed, home)


(bed, pillow, home)


(food place)


(person, Lilly)








(trap door)

There’s tons of value in each of their labels. I can assess their phonemic awareness, and their ability to encode the sounds they hear. I get a deeper understanding of their thinking and building. And, perhaps best of all, they get to share their thinking and work with everyone who visits the build.

My favorite thinking shared this year (and mind you, they are ALL fantabulous and bring me great joy) was this one.


(For you, Mayflower. This corn is for you.)

We learn that the passengers of the Mayflower stole corn from the Native Americans. At first, the girls respond with outrage. “That wasn’t very nice! Why did they do that? That’s mean!” I acknowledge their observations and feelings, agreeing that it does sound mean, and not very nice. But then, I encourage them to think a bit about what the passengers of the Mayflower might have felt — and what we sometimes experience in our own lives.

“How do you think the Mayflower passengers felt when they arrived?” I ask. “They were on the boat for 66 days. The Mayflower wasn’t very big and there were a lot of passengers.” My students are silent, clearly trying to figure things out. They begin to share their recollections and thoughts — “There were storms. People died. A baby was born. Maybe they didn’t have enough food. They were probably cold. Maybe they were hungry.”

One asks “Why didn’t they just ask the Native Americans for some food?”

“Good question.” I respond. “Why didn’t they?”

At first they are silent again. Then I ask them. “Did the Native Americans and the passengers of the Mayflower looked alike? Did they dress the same? Do you think they spoke the same language?” They quietly and thoughtfully respond “No.”

Now I am silent. For a moment or two I let them sit with that information. Then I ask them “How do you think they felt?” With a greater of empathy they respond, “Maybe they were scared.” I shake my head, “Yeah, maybe they were scared.” Wanting to bring the two ideas together, I continue “It wasn’t nice what they did. They shouldn’t have stolen the corn, but it’s good for us to remember they might have been afraid, and hungry, and didn’t know what else to do.”

When the girl made those bags of corn, she showed them to me. “I decided to make these for the Mayflower. I’m going to leave them by the boat so they see them. Then they can just have this corn, and not steal ours.” I responded, “That’s a great idea. I bet they’ll be happy to find it.”

There is so much I love about her thoughts and work. Kindness. Empathy. Problem-solving. Offering without being asked. Leaving it with a note — therefore forgoing a thank you. Believing this will help them, and keep them from taking your things — without telling them not to take yours. Lastly, I love that the build, and the labeling, allowed this student to show the depth her understanding, empathy, kindness, and problem solving. May she keep it, grow it, and use it all her days!




Yup, that about covers it. “WOW!”

Well, perhaps, “WOW!” and “Boy, oh boy, do I need a nap!”



It’s the beginning of our Thanksgiving Build 2017. All of this block thinking and work happened in less than 20 minutes!

It was amazing to experience and help facilitate it.

Prior to beginning the actual build, we prepped the room and ourselves.

  • We decided on a good spot for the tables.
  • We checked to be sure we could still move about the room as we need to for other activities.
  • We counted tiles on the floor.
  • We did some research — watching videos, reading/looking at books, and discussing our finds and understanding.
  • We chose our groups (citizens of England and Holland, passengers on the Mayflower, Native Americans).

Finally we met for our first day of building. Before working with the blocks, we held a quick planning meeting. I acted as the scribe, and recorded their ideas. Each group excitedly generated an extensive list of things they would need in their area of the build. Often their ideas played off of each other. I worked to keep the group focused and positive, accepting all ideas, confident that we would discover and modify anything that might need to be changed as we did the build.

It was interesting to make the lists together. They were invested in the process and shared their ideas with enthusiasm, but at the same moment, they were straining against the confines of the table, chairs, and list making. Their desire to begin the build was visible, and when I set them free, the room erupted into a spirited burst of conversation and movement.

They talked to one another as they moved to gather blocks and tools. Sometimes one of them would think of something else they needed, and give me a shout — “Bears! Add bears to the list Miss James!” For now the lists are posted on our whiteboard. We’ll revisit them at various points of the build — to see what has been done, what needs to be done, and what needs to be added.

Many things have to remain in balance as the build progresses. Of course, the blocks themselves must remain balanced. Given the inherent instability of certain block formations, and the sometimes whirlwind like movement of kindergartners, this is often more difficult than it sounds. But, many other things are also always in a delicate, sometimes beautiful, sometimes precarious, state of balance.

As the build facilitator I want to encourage and enable student agency, freedom, discovery, and creativity. At the same time I want to infuse their creativity with the all important ingredient of usefulness. I work hard to encourage thinking, comparing, noticing, and rethinking, without discouraging their ideas and budding understanding. Sometimes this means I have to refocus my gaze and perception. I need to look at the build not as a product alone, but as a process. And, I need to consider what my students knew before beginning, what they are expressing with their work, and what is most important.

Keeping the social emotional energy balanced is imperative. The collaboration — both physical and mental — that occurs while creating in groups is huge! Sometimes we aren’t used to this type of work, and disagreements or power struggles ensue. These moments are often fraught with emotion, but once breaths are taken, the disagreements and struggles become awesome opportunities for conversation, learning and growth.

Another area of social emotional balance involves my comments and suggestions. I have to be aware of the times when my interjections are causing too much disequilibrium in my builders. I want them to think, to struggle and to reach new levels of understanding. I don’t want them to doubt themselves or their work.

So, back to their work. We will build until winter break. Things will be added, taken away, and modified. This is just the beginning. And a great beginning it is!

Remind yourself of their age, their task, and their timeframe. And be awed!

England and Holland


The Mayflower


Native American homesite


Great conversations

Our Thanksgiving Social Studies unit included a huge block build.We divided ourselves into three groups – those who remained in England and Holland, the Pilgrims/Saints who chose to leave on the Mayflower, and the Native Americans who were here when the Pilgrims/Saints arrived.

There were definitely times I wondered what I was thinking when I decided to work on this project. Many days I wondered how I would ever survive the energy, non-stop conversation, inquiry, work, and overall “mess” of the build. But survive it I did! And, wow, what a spectacular experience it was! My only regret is that I didn’t have a tape recorder running at all times. The conversations, questions, problem finding, problem solving, collaboration, joy, struggle, teamwork, negotiation, and creativity were remarkable.

We read books, watched youtube videos, and talked – a lot! The girls made sketches, as well as lists of things they wanted to include in each area. Then, unable to contain them any longer, the build began!

They were relentless in their work. The energy they brought to it was amazing. We usually worked in 30-60 minute increments, but often they wanted to spend more time, and continued to work during choice-time.

Here are some photos of the final product. They do not do justice to the incredible thought, work, and attention to detail the girls engaged in each day, but they will give you a sense of what was accomplished.

An overhead shot. England and Holland are to your right and include a castle, two homes and three windmills. The Mayflower sits in the ocean at center. The Native Americas are to your left and include a river (with a waterfall), a garden, round house and two long houses. 
_MG_4815Looking towards the Native American build from with the castle.


 Looking at the Native American build from within the Mayflower.


Looking toward the Mayflower from within the Native American build.


The build was filled with problem finding and problem solving. How do we create a rounded structure from rectangular blocks? How do we make windmills? How do we create waterfalls? How do we represent fish in the ocean or rivers? What do squash look like? How can we create them for the garden? What do we do when our people don’t fit into our house? How do we negotiate when our neighbors want to add more ocean, or more land, or a larger river, and it crosses the line into our area? What do we do when our ideas are different than others in our group? And perhaps most thought-provoking – Where do we put the dead people?

The discussion regarding the dead people arose days after learning some perished on the ocean journey. Their discussion was practical: “Nope we do not want to store the dead people where we will be sleeping.” and “Maybe we can just throw them in the ocean.” But it was also filled with kindness and empathy: “Throwing them into the ocean wouldn’t be very nice.” They arrived at their solution after several extended discussions with each other and me. I didn’t offer solutions. I simply encouraged them to keep thinking, talking and problem solving. Eventually they decided the cereal box from our re-usable supplies would work perfectly.


They didn’t only think about death. They also imagined people living – and giving birth! Directly in front of the “going to heaven box” they placed this woman – with her three babies!


They treated the living with the same thoughtfulness they afforded the dead. “Did they have toys, Miss James?” “Did they have dolls?” After discussions about themselves and their parents, we decided they must have had some things to keep the children happy and entertained. They painstakingly created these cardboard dolls.


They worked for nearly a month. When it was time to end the build, they resisted the notion of finishing and dismantling their work. “We aren’t done!” they insisted. I assured them their work had been thorough and fabulous. I explained we would do future builds – both exploratory and representational. Then I invited others in to see the build. The girls shared their work and their thinking as they gave the visitors tours of the build.

Finally it was time to clean up. It was a massive undertaking. But, it was a great part of the process. We had worked together to create the build, and now we worked together to “destroy” it.


Eventually each block was sorted and stored, every piece of tape removed from the floor, each scrap of paper swept and recycled, and each handmade treasure safely stored in a girl’s bag. The canvas is clean, ready for our next creative learning experience! My fingers are crossed we will all be able to lean into the unknown, and experience another incredible build together.