Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Best ArtEd Medieval Castle STEAM Project in the World*

A pretty castle that was difficult to defend (little to no walls!)
Look, let’s not mince words; I heart me some assemblage. Can we glue stuff? Can we tear stuff up? Can we paint it? Can we collaboratively brainstorm? Can we see if it works? Can we just try it? Can we make a mess? Oh, I am SO there for that.

And, most middle school kids are too.

Now, y’all, assemblage does make those ole administrative observations a little daunting. . .I know my administrator was a little unnerved by the whole 17 glue guns, 100 lbs of cardboard, 27 pairs of scissors, and 37 students thing. But, it was SO, SO,  SO worth it. I can’t tell you the last time my students both learned so much and had such a good time.
Glue guns forever.

Here’s how we threw this thing down!

*1. We studied linear perspective (hey, you wanna have fun; you gots to learn). I used this wonderful aerial perspective lesson. I don’t usuallyendorse paid lesson plans, but this one is worth Every. Little. Penny. 5-6 class periods.
One of my student's aerial perspective works

*2. We studied the traditional architectural elements (and function of) medieval castles. Also, for fun, we looked at these videos to learn more about castles, warfare, and armor.  1-2 class periods.

*3. We used the worksheet below as reference and we drew an aerial view of a self-designed castle. We had 5 required architectural elements, and had to choose 5 more elements from a list of 14. I emphasized using architectural short-hand. 1-2 class periods.

*4. We assembled into student-selected groups of 2-4 students, and chose our favorite castle blueprint to build
a particularly epic blueprint

*5. We utilized recycled cardboard, glue guns, scissors, yarn, paint, and paper to build our castles. 6 class periods.
On my projector throughout the project. Safety first, y'all. 

Not.One.Child. is off-task. Really. No, really.

*6. We were given 9 popsicle sticks, 6 rubber bands, and 1 plastic cap to build a working catapult.We viewed a Bill Nye video about fulcrums for inspiration.  1 class period.
There was a variety of design
The winning catapult. It was undefeated. . .And, designed by a group of ladies. 

*7. We went outside and conducted a siege tournament against one another’s castles using our catapults. 1 class period.
SIEGE! OMGosh y'all, I wish you could see their faces. They were so serious. Like, this was life and death! My parapro and I were holding back giggles the whole time! Also, yes, you must wear a crown if you are sieging another castle! Duh, you're the sovereign!

This group went undefeated. . .until the final round. . .

. . .When they were trumped by these two very charming budding engineers. 

This is one of my favorite projects I’ve taught, ever. Here’s the thing, it’s not really about the product at all. Sure, castles are hecka awesome, and who doesn’t love assemblage and tearing stuff up? But, what the kids really learn is how to brainstorm, how to creatively solve problems, how to try something without fear, how to learn from mistakes, how to be a leader, how to be a follower, and how to try.

Lesson I learned #1:
Collaborative problem-solving brings out the best in many students. It was amazing and awe-inspiring to see some of the identified-as-lowest-performers in my school step up to this challenge and just knock it outta the park. I got to see an entirely different side of some students, and these students got to stand out as leaders (for some, this was the first time!); in so many ways, this unit worth it for that alone.

Lesson I learned # 2:
Kids really need opportunities to deeply creatively problem solve. Y’all. Oh, y’all. I just about died of laughter on the first day of castle building and the day of catapult building. ALL the kids wanted to Google “how-to’s.” They were beyond shocked when I told them they would only be allowed to use their mobile devices in limited manners. One kiddo famously shouted, “What?! We can’t use directions!?” Kids today are so used to finding answers on a worksheet, on a device, or from an adult. I don’t know if we started spoon-feeding kiddos because of the pressure of standardized tests or if it has always been a prevalent problem. . . But yowza, I was stunned to see how challenged they were to use a cardboard box. Later, I was super-proud to see how deftly they dealt with the learning curve. Additionally, it was awesome to witness the sense of accomplishment they had when they solved their identified problem (building a turret, a portcullis, an arrow slit, crenellation, etc. etc.).

Lesson I learned #3:
Competition really motivates kids. Okay, I knew this one. . .But, wow, my kiddos got super-competitive and it really motivated them. They knew from day-one that we would eventually conduct a siege tournament and that there would be an identified “winning” group. This knowledge informed the building of their castle defenses and their catapults. The kids quickly figured out that they wanted to build castles with HIGH walls, and catapults that projected items out instead of up. I’m not sure if they would have made these connections on their own without the element of competition.

Lesson I learned #4: It’s okay to have fun. SAY IT WITH ME: “It is okay to have fun.” In this climate of high-stakes testing, 1200 observations-a-year, and proving that you aren’t bad (eep, you know you feel that way sometimes), we often forget that the most profound learning is FUN. Think back to your favorite middle school education-lessons. I’m betting that there was an element of fun to whatever it was you did. I know that my kids may not remember what the heck ashlar is (and does it really matter?), but they will remember how it feels to be confident about problem-solving, how to listen to others, and how to take-charge when you have a good idea. . . And, a lot of that is because we went outside and projected spitballs at one another’s art in order to win a donut.

Mmmm donuts. J

The Best ArtEd Medieval Castle STEAM Project in the World*
*according to me


  1. LOL I absolutely love your "Commandments!" What a cool and meaningful project! It's projects like these that make people appreciate the art classroom. This is something your students will never forget. Awesome!

  2. 3D projects are always winners with kids! It's a great way for kids to learn about other subjects as well like in this case architecture, history, customs in medieval times, etc.

  3. Hi there,
    I LOVE this project! What did it take for team to "siege" another team's castle?
    Thank you for your wonderful ideas!