Posted by: jwhiff | January 28, 2017

Potlatch Gift Research

I have created a set of potlatch gift cards with some very spectacular items.  Students must collect gifts to give away at potlatches that equal or exceed gifts they have been given by other groups.  This creates an interesting problem.  What is the relative worth of each gift?

We are going to do some research as a class before deciding for ourselves.  Each gift comes with a decent link so that students might understand them better and make informed decisions.  Hopefully this is helpful to you, too.

Gift 1: Copper Shield  (when you get to the page, make sure you scroll down until you get to the “Copper” subheading)


Gift 2: Bentwood Box


Gift 3: Chilkat Blanket


Gift 4: Salish Nobility Blanket


Gift 5: Eulachon (ooligan) oil


Gift 6: Nuu-chah-nulth Ocean Canoe or Haida Canoe


Gift 7: Woven Cedar Blankets


Gift 8: Tlingit Copper Knife


Gift 9: Carved Mask


Gift 10: Woven Hat


Gift 11: Carved Feast Dishes


Gift 12: Smoked Salmon


Posted by: jwhiff | January 28, 2017

Quick, Good Measuring Projects

Lots of measuring, lots of numbers. I think good quality measuring projects give kids lots of practice using not only interesting units and types of measurement, but also decimal numbers. Here are a couple of good little projects that get to the heart of the matter (namely the math) pretty quickly, but also allow for some hands-on fun and creativity.

Lego Catapults:

I get my kids to bring in an old paint stir stick (which we reinforce with duct tape and popsicle sticks) and a big ziplock bag full of random lego (and at least one green platform piece).

Kids build a lego fulcrum, a stir stick arm and a bit of eraser as the projectile and get ready to let it fly. I give them an assortment of measuring tools to share (meter wheels, meter sticks, measuring tapes…) and give them some time in the gym to record their measurements. They record their measurements as accurately as possible (no rounding) with meters as the main unit.

They finish off by recording their measurements on small pieces of paper and arranging them in order like so:

Then we discuss the results in terms of consistency, averages and outliers. In all, this project takes very little time…maybe a week or two at most.

Shoe measuring:

I know you’ve probably done something like this before, but have you measured the capacity of each shoe using popcorn kernels?

Or weighed them on balance scales?

Or calculated the area of the footprint using cm grid transparencies?

I also get the kids to measure how far the shoe travels from point to point in the school (using meter wheels). Finally, I get students to draw their shoes (side profiles and footprints), assign points around each, and measure and record the length of all possible line segments. This is actually a good little puzzle in and of itself.

How long did it take? 3 math periods. Great little project. I envision a similar project using mittens or baseball caps or crafty, kid-made boxes (I mean rectangular prisms).

Right now, we are drawing maps of their imagined territories in Social Studies. Lots of opportunity to measure areas and perimeters, and calculate distances between points based on map scales.

Up next: Puffball Olympics. Worthy of a post all by itself 🙂

Posted by: jwhiff | January 24, 2017

Potlatch Masks

screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-7-36-53-pmThis is the mask project my students are working on for the potlatch portion of the game.  They are beautiful, fun and easy to personalize.  They are also cheap and involve a lot of recycling.

Every student will need a medium-sized cereal box (or two, just in case), a roll of masking tape (1 for every 3 students works for me) and newspaper.

I’ve make a powerpoint with step by step instructions and photos.  Check it out and have fun!


By the way, you can make your own paper mâché paste.  I like the following recipe:

Mix 1 part flour with 5 parts water.  Boil (whisking steadily) until nice and thick.  Allow to cool before use 🙂

Why cook it?  It dries clear.

Posted by: jwhiff | January 22, 2017

Northwest Coast Game Part 2: The Potlatch

I’ve been doing a bunch of research for this one.  Potlatching is complicated business!!  I really wanted it to be a critical portion of my game somehow, though.  Before I get started, I’m going to give you two excellent links, so you can verify what I am proposing yourself:

Living Tradition: The Kwakwaka’wakw Potlatch of the Northwest Coast

SFU: The Potlatch Ban

The first link is a virtual museum, full of fantastic videos and photos.  It is an absolute gem.  The second provides a clear, detailed explanation of the potlatch in a couple of paragraphs.  I found it very handy.  I looked through a bunch of other websites as well, but they weren’t as appealing.

If you haven’t read my first post on this game yet, you should.  It will give you the necessary background and provide you with essential game pieces.  Basically, my class is split up into three teams and each team is working to accumulate:

  1. population
  2. claims to land, ocean and river resources

When they claim a resource area, they post a team crest logo up on a map.

However (here is where the potlatch piece comes in), in order for you to have official rights to these claimed areas, you must host a potlatch. The other two teams are invited to your potlatch as witnesses.  You must provide the other teams with gifts in order to assure their support of your claim.

Now, from the research I’ve done (see Purposes of the Potlatch), I’ve determined that potlatches were largely for:

  1. publicly recognizing class structure and status
  2. passing on a family’s rights, privileges and inheritances (this includes the rights to land, property, fishing holes, etc. AND rights to songs and stories, etc.)
  3. celebrating, honouring and supporting individuals (and the community as a whole) at important times

The focus of the potlatch in my game is the recognition of rights to resource-rich areas, not passing rights along.  I figured that the combination of 1. and 2. make my take on the potlatch defendable.   Plus, each team will need to make their potlatch a time of celebration.  We are in the process of creating masks for this purpose.  I am envisioning dancing, drumming, acting out stories and eating snacks.

Teams are ready for a potlatch when they have built up a store of potlatch gifts.  These gifts are acquired by trading 5 health points for a chance to draw out a gift (printed on paper) from the Potlatch bag in each game bin.  There are bunch of different gifts.  I am going to consult with the kids on the relative worth of each gift this week.


**Note that I have included 4 “trespass” cards in with the potlatch cards.  I wanted to intensify the game a bit, so I added these.  If you draw out a trespass card, your team has just trespassed on the territory of another team (crest on the card determines whose territory).  If this team has official rights to a territory, they can demand a gift to settle the score.  This includes potlatch gifts, or even people (to take as slaves).  If you don’t like the confrontational nature of these cards, just don’t include them.

Finally, after one team hosts a potlatch and gives away gifts to each witness, other teams must follow suit.  The second host team must honour the first by making sure that their gifts equal or surpass the gifts of the first (which, in fact, was expected).  In this way, our teams have the chance to show off their status.

I haven’t actually tried this out yet, so bear with me.  As the game progresses and (inevitably) changes, I’ll post updates.

Posted by: jwhiff | January 14, 2017

People of the Northwest Coast: The Game!

I don’t quite have everything pulled together, but I’m willing to share what I have anyway.

Right now, the kids and I are working on pulling together information to make trivia cards and characters for each child.  We are using three sources:

A Journey into Time Immemorial…You’ll need flash to view this one.  It is completely worth it!  The kids will be immersed in a virtual reality Sto:lo village.

American Museum of Natural History: Hall of the Northwest Coast…another fantastic website with the museum’s huge collection documented and displayed for viewers.

Our social studies textbook: Our Beginnings (Grade 4)

The students are working in teams of 4 to build trivia decks.  Each students is responsible for reading a certain amount of content per day and writing interesting, fair questions (and answers) on his/her own.  Next, they bring their questions to the larger group to check for any overlap and to assess them for fairness and challenge level.  After the group gives the ok, questions are written out on tag.
img_0286They are also creating characters.  Each child researched clothing, adornment and tools.  I took photos of each child (head shots) and printed them out (black and white).  The students cut out the heads and created a new body, applying their research.  They love this!

I have broken the class into three large groups.  The students played “rock, paper, scissors” within each group to select a team member who chooses a name/crest for their team (I put names of Northwest Coast mythological characters into a basket and took the kids out to our classroom in the forest for the choosing ceremony).  Now the kids have characters and a team crest (which are posted together on a bulletin board assigned to them).  We need to get playing the game!

How is it played?  Everyday, students are partnered with someone from their team (this rotates to give everyone a chance/break).  Partners face off with partners from other teams.  As I have 28 students in my class, I end up needing games supplies for 7 groups.

Game supplies!  For each team, you will need:

  • a bin
  • a deck of trivia cards (student created) with roll-the-dice-cards mixed in (printed onto tag matching the trivia cards)
  • a set of game instructions (to be printed and placed in each bin) northwest-coast-game-pdf or northwest-coast-game-with-trespass-cards
  • a pair of dice (for “Roll the Dice, Learn your Fate” cards)
  • a bunch of beads for “health points” (health points are essentially the currency of the game…you get them for correctly answering questions)
  • a small bag (for drawing out Potlatch gifts)
  • a set of resource-cards-pdf (photocopied onto regular paper and cut out)
  • a set of Potlatch gift cards (coming soon)

This looks like a lot, but the supplies are not hard to gather.  Make sure the bins nest and are large enough to accommodate the instructions without folding.

Each team also needs a bin to collect the earnings of each partnership.

The object of the game?  At this stage, groups need to manage and control the wealth of the rivers, ocean and land.  I have posted a map of the Northwest Coast on one bulletin board to keep track of resources that each team manages.  They must also share their wealth at potlatches in order to publicly demonstrate their worthiness to control the resource areas they claim for their house team.

Once each team establishes itself, I will be changing the game by adding encounters with European (and American and, eventually Canadian) fur traders, explorers and fortune-seekers.  Each team will also have to eventually face disease, the Indian Act, and residential schools.  These parts of the game will involve a lot of critical thinking and emotion, too.  It will not be easy for the kids to face these negative historical realities.

I will post soon to give you more supplies and ideas.  I always tweak games as I go.


Posted by: jwhiff | December 9, 2016

Inuit Class Game Part 3

I attempted to bring some critical thinking into the last part of the game.  I wanted the kids to understand that:

  1. Elements of culture are often present for a good reason (in other words, often adaptive).
  2. The Inuit faced rapid changes to their culture in the twentieth century.
  3. All of these changes came with both costs and benefits.

I was relatively successful in achieving these goals.  I tried to be really thoughtful in the creation of game tasks.  I wanted them to be challenging and urgent.

Probably the most interesting idea I came up with was a metaphor for problems facing humanity that I called monsters.  I wanted the kids to feel that all humans throughout time have worked to escape these monsters.  The Inuit, like all people to a varying extent, faced the ancient monsters of exposure, starvation, animal attack, accidents, and to a lesser extent, war.  They faced these monsters and were regularly successful at defeating them through their cultural practices, although these monsters stalked them constantly.  They could never be off their guard.

Skip to modern times.  There are many modern cultural practices that help to protect from those ancient monsters.  Exposure, starvation and animal attacks are now lesser monsters.  However, other monsters have now grown in strength.  They may have always been present in the world, but had less power in Inuit society.  These monsters are the dominant monsters of modern society–crime, addiction, self destruction, and environmental destruction. You can make arguments for other monsters, but I put some thought into these and decided to give them a go.

The point of the last part of the game is to avoid the ancient monsters while keeping the modern monsters at bay.

How were they able to do this?   They were first given a set of Inuit cultural practices.  They needed to decide which ancient cultural practices they were going to set aside in favour of modern practices.  Not an easy thing to do.  They knew that ancient practices were part of their culture for a reason.  Question is, which ones might help them against modern monsters?  Which ones, now that they have the protection of modern society, might they want to set aside?  If they choose to keep an ancient practice, they may have to face ancient monsters.  If they choose to set aside this ancient practice, this may attract modern monsters.  All decisions come with costs and benefits.

In the end, there was a ton of interesting discussion and debate.  The game was a bit complicated (as the kids had to colour code all of the cultural elements so they would know which ones they could use to protect themselves if they drew a particular monster card), but fun.

I realize now that I need to think of a way for each cultural element to have a game cost.  The way I played it, once the tough decisions were made, each cultural element was simply protective when they drew a monster card.

I’ll keep tinkering with this one until I have it right.  All in all, it was a good and thoughtful game.




Posted by: jwhiff | October 21, 2016

Digging a Hole: The Story of a 2-Month Inquiry on Clay

Sometimes, you just can’t plan the awesome stuff. I didn’t have a burning desire for an inquiry project to kick off the year. Nor did I have any idea (even a vague one) that I would start the year teaching (and learning) about Earth Science, but sometimes these things just fall into your lap. 

On the second day of school, an assorted grouping of children from grade 1 to grade 5 were working with me in our fairy garden.  They were attempting to dig a lake for the fairies and fill it with water. The problem: the water wouldn’t stay in the hole. I remembered having this very issue when I was a child. It was a problem I tinkered away on in my back yard for a significant amount of time. I figured if I enjoyed this problem, then so would my students.

So, once I was assigned my class, I started science outside digging holes and filling them with water. The holes weren’t very large (the volume of a large yogurt container…approx. 1.5 litres). We dug them on the edge of the playground (where twisted ankles were less likely) and timed how long they took to empty.

Boring? Weirdly, no. The holes all took any where from 2 mins to 30 minutes to drain. The kids were puzzled! Why did some holes drain much more slowly than others? 

After predictions, discussions and hypotheses, we tried again. This time, they spread out more, looking for ground they thought would drain even more slowly. One group’s hole took over an hour to drain! It drew a huge crowd of kids loudly counting off the seconds. They continued to monitor it after school. 

Of course, we needed to investigate this spot more. After a bit more digging, what did they find?? Clay!

Every student ended up with a small chunk to mold and dry. Would this clay be strong? How does it compare with natural clay sold in the store? 

I bought some so we could explore the similarities and differences. Every student was given a small ball to play around with. Would this clay be stronger than the playground clay? 

After letting both sets of clay dry, we compared the strength of each sample, by tapping, pinching and dropping it (and recording observations all the while, of course). 

Store clay seemed stronger, but wasn’t as strong as they thought. One student thought we should test how they compared after being submerged in water. Which type would be stronger then?

The result of this experiment and the conclusion of our inquiry will be revealed in my next post!

Posted by: jwhiff | October 12, 2016

Number Practice Activities

With all of the project work my class, it is important that I have thoughtfully designed number practice activities.  Here are a few that you are welcome to use and modify as you like:









I used Comic Life to create the place value activities, by the way.  It’s pretty handy for creating all kinds of handouts.

Posted by: jwhiff | October 11, 2016

Inuit Class Game

My class has been working away, researching about the Inuit and creating trivia cards.  It is the first phase of a great Social Studies game format that I have tinkered with over the years.

Here is how you start:

  1. Organize your class into 2-4 large teams
  2. Find reading, film and web-based materials your class can use to research about the Inuit.
  3. Cut tag into trivia card-sized rectangles (or squares)
  4. Have the kids work at creating a series of trivia decks that they will use with a partner to challenge partners from other teams.

Once the kids have done enough research and created decent trivia decks, time to get playing.  Every time they play, they should have a different partner from their team.  That way, kids are constantly working and stretching their social muscles.

Here are some materials that I have created that explain the game.  I print off one copy of the instructions for every group of 4 kids and place these–along with trivia decks, dice, health points (coloured beads), animal, family and technology cards–into bins for each game group.  You are welcome to use any or all of my materials.




By the way, this game becomes more complex as the term progresses.  I will post the materials I create for the phase in which Arctic explorers start to enter the story.

Posted by: jwhiff | October 8, 2016

Learning Large Numbers Part 2: Human Cities

screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-8-26-08-amWe began this phase of the project by sorting population numbers from the various members of Metro Vancouver.  These are less interesting than animal numbers, but they are a handy point of comparison that the kids felt they could visualize because they live here.  12,000 cheetahs in the whole world doesn’t seem like so many when there are 34,000 people living in the city of Port Moody.  Port Moody doesn’t even seem all that big!

screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-8-26-28-amNext comes searching for the most populated cities in the world.  The kids brainstormed ideas for the largest cities they thought exist.  Then I took them into the lab and they looked them up.  By the way, it is difficult to get a straight answer for a population of a city.  This ended up becoming another critical thinking task.  Why do different websites have different populations for the same city (in the same year)?  Why are some website’s top ten most populated city lists quite different from others?

The kids are blown away (as am I) by the size of some of these cities, by the way.  Some students become a little demoralized by the whole thing, especially when you start exploring car, pollution and sewage numbers.  We listened to podcasts (, watched a depressing Youtube video ( and found data on the number of cars out there.  My job is not to demoralize children, however.  They need hope, right?

So this is where we started looking at density as a solution for preserving habitat.  This is actually quite fun.

First, I taught them how to estimate the population of a high-rise.  Well, I actually didn’t teach them at the start.  I threw them into a small problem task first.  Here it is: apartment-problem

This was quite tough, actually.  I realized they needed some more practice with this, so I had them take a hundred square and, using washable marker, map out a series of apartments that could comfortably fit rice “people” (pieces of rice).  This hundred square becomes a standard floor in a high-rise.

d531eea0c68b11e38ee85161e8abc65b-rotated-57ec5b48c408fb1f42aaf927-pxgg4_28-09-2016-05-07-35Then they worked together to create apartment buildings by stacking hundreds and thousands blocks together to create high-rises.  They placed their standard floor design on the top and put the rice people into the apartments.  The assumption here is that every floor of the high-rise is a duplicate of their standard floor plan.  That way, they simply need to figure out the number of floors and multiply it by the number of rice people living on each floor.  They moved around the classroom and figured out the population of each model high-rise.  They then figured out the population of the whole city.

Next comes designing a green city.  In our neck of the woods, developers have purchased an old town site known as Ioco and plan on creating a high density community there.  The property includes much local forest.  The problem I posed to the kids is, how would you develop this land for as many people possible with the least amount of damage to the forest?

Over 3 blocks (of 1 hour each), the kids worked together in groups to create model cities:

d531eea0c68b11e38ee85161e8abc65b-rotated-57f4546ff39af46eafda1a75-rdtw8_04-10-2016-06-16-30d531eea0c68b11e38ee85161e8abc65b-rotated-57f454b4b3090246eca2c947-pdqls_04-10-2016-06-17-39d531eea0c68b11e38ee85161e8abc65b-rotated-57f453f9f39af46eafda1a44-cer81_04-10-2016-06-14-33d531eea0c68b11e38ee85161e8abc65b-rotated-57f4541cc0e14a46f56f99a3-spkp4_04-10-2016-06-15-07Note the animal over passes, green roofs and bean cars on the roads, by the way 🙂  My advice: don’t go for pretty.  They need to get back to the math ASAP.  Plus, the quicker the project, the more fun it is.

Right now, we are on the population estimating phase.  I printed photos of their cities and they are labelling and calculating building population estimates.

Next comes this nice little problem: city-of-lougheed-pdf.  It is based on another development planned on the border of Burnaby and Coquitlam.

Followed by a map-making exercise:  ioco-photo

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