Vocabulary cube activity

Collaboration Cubed

In the latest update from the CoOp Corner, we have a story of collaboration that gets right to the heart of The Educators\’ Cooperative.  Lindsey Roe, a Middle School ELL teacher collaborated with Mike Mitchell, Art teacher at Father Ryan High School on a project that included not only their own shared planning and collaboration, but the input and cooperation of their students as well.

By Lindsay Roe and Mike Mitchell

If you think blocks are only for young learners or only used in steam related classes Lindsay Roe and I would like you to reconsider how you might use them in any class or subject you teach and encourage you to collaborate across disciplines and ideally across school boundaries.

Recently Lindsay who teaches ELL middle school students came to Father Ryan High School where I teach Art. It was after school and she came to help me manage a service project that would benefit both her students and mine. Twenty-five freshman and sophomore students from Father Ryan listened as Lindsey talked about the difficulty her middle schoolers face both learning grade level content but also managing learning another language at the same time.

Father Ryan students then sanded and painted 1 and a half inch by 1 and a half inch wooden cubes and painted them white knowing that Ms. Roe’s students would use them to help translate words, concepts and actions from their native language to English as a physical scaffold to help them master content.


Father Ryan students talked with Ms. Roe during the two-hour project and several created videos of encouragement that she would be able to share with her students. During this 2-hour project 60 blocks were created that provided Lindsay with enough for all the students she serves weekly.

In conversations I had with Father Ryan students they were really interested in how what they were creating would give a student learning English a way to better navigate our shared Nashville community. They also really liked sanding, painting the blocks  and chatting with one another and with me and Lindsay.

You can see from the pictures that students worked hard and had fun and the videos they made were very sweet but it’s the follow up email from Lindsey that I believe will sell you on why and how blocks can be an important resource in your classroom. In it she gets into the minutia of how she introduced the cubes and utilized them in teaching her specific content.

Here is a large excerpt from her email;

Hi Mike,

Thank you, a million times, more for your ideas and your students\’ time creating the blocks.

When students come back to school on Monday, we will be starting a narrative unit on character development and character change. In this unit, the students need to be able to identify character actions, speech, and thoughts and then select a character trait to describe the character. This can be very difficult for beginning English language learners because it requires strong vocabulary knowledge to select an adjective word that fits the character\’s action, speech, or thought in the narrative text. For this reason, I decided to use the blocks you so generously provided to help students learn and/or create a resource to support them in learning character traits.


I started the lesson by showing these Powerpoint slides of videos and pictures I captured when I came to your school. We discussed the steps your students took and some vocabulary surrounding block construction. The younger students were particularly excited about Makai and the sanding machine. Then, students were given this checklist for creating their character trait blocks. Finally, students were able to create reflection videos to practice speaking for an extended period of time (2-3 sentences are a big achievement for beginning English language learners) about their creations.


Some Takeaways:

From the beginning, I knew these blocks would be a hit for engagement, however I hemmed and hawed over how to best meet academic needs. I tried to be intentional about selecting a skill that 1) would best be captured by the block form, and 2) could be used over and over again as a tool. I\’m really excited about this skill that I finally decided upon because I think it met both of the criteria. In beginning ESL coursework, a lot of time is spent on vocabulary acquisition, and for older students who have strong first language skills, this requires a great deal of translation. By introducing the block medium, students became more engaged in the act of translating. I saw a greater deal of attention spent on selecting the best translation and showing a drawing of the most accurate representation of the word (students were talking to each other about the most accurate translation and taking the time through Google Translate to select the form of the word that was most appropriate).

2 examples:

– In discussing the character trait \”nosy,\” two students began discussing \”curioso\” and \”fisgon\” as possible translations. They asked me whether nosy was good or bad. When I did not give a response, they then started looking up google images for \”nosy\” and saw a man holding a glass to a door to hear another man\’s conversation. Interestingly, they still chose to pick \”curioso\” over \”fisgon\” because they still did not think it was bad, but here is the block picture the student drew, which I think shows a great representation of thecharacter trait and an action that would demonstrate that trait.

– In discussing the character trait \”patient,\” two students struggled to select a translation because they could not figure out if it should be a \”person who is nice\” or a \”person who goes to the doctor.\” When prompted to look for more information about the word, they were able to select the \”person who is nice and who stay long time\” because character traits are adjectives.


Because of the blocks (and their use in place of a more traditional assignment), students were more engaged with the task, more willing to prolong the task with in-depth conversation, and ultimately, developed greater understanding of the words themselves and the concept of character traits. In the pictures in the folder, I show some particularly interesting representations of character traits. Further, I expect this learning will be maximized as students continue to use their blocks as a tool during the next four weeks when characterization is the focus. The plan is for students to act as experts on the five character traits that are on their blocks (each student has a different 5 character traits) which they can explain to their peers as necessary throughout the narrative we are reading in class. When we identify important character actions and speech and I prompt for a character trait, students will be able to look at their blocks, and then negotiate with one another who has the more representative character trait because they will have such a deep understanding of the five words that they took the time to represent in translation and picture on their blocks.


An additional benefit, that I had not anticipated, was how the introduction of the block medium would actually spur its own block-specific language use that would not have been prompted by a paper-and-pencil or other form of response. In other words, my ESL class rarely calls upon students to use words like smooth, rough, sand, glue, dry, side, corner, size, ink, etc., but for the day of this project, students were able to develop a real understanding for these words and to use them appropriately.  As students were working together on the blocks, students were asking me how to express certain ideas or were playing with the language. Here are a few examples that I can remember:

Student 1: \”This part, how you say?\”

Teacher: \”Side\”

Student 1: \”Yes, this side no dry.\”

Student 2: \”No, no use that paper.\”

Student 3: \”Why no?\”

Student 2: \”It no right. It no go on block. Miss, right, too big?\”

Teacher: \”Yes, the size is too big.\”

Student 2: \”Yes, yes. You need small size.\”

Student 4: \”This side rough.\”

Student 5: \”Yes, he no use sand machine.\”

Student 6: \”Miss, I no see the picture. See big glue, no see pen.\”

Teacher: \”Yes, the glue moved the ink\”

Again Mike, thank you so much for your willingness to work on this with me.Thank you,

Lindsay Roe

I always think the coolest parts of collaborations are the things that happen that we don’t expect or that cannot be planned for. The fact that at least nine more words than she was  expecting were being used appropriately during the lesson is awesome! It also points to how by stepping literally outside of her school and subject matter her students’ knowledge grew so much more than it would have had she and I not followed through with our collaboration. We got to know more about each other’s school and what the students that we both serve are like and learn from each other in a co-teaching situation we were both new to which I believe is exactly what the Educator’s Cooperative is all about. We know it can seem scary with logistics, finding time, finding resources and administrative support but we can only point to the evidence of 85 students growing more than they would have had we not chosen to work together as encouragement for you to try your own collaborations. We also sped our friendship up exponentially and don’t worry we already have plans to collaborate more in the future!

If you have any questions for Lindsey or myself about this project or want help conceptualizing how you might use Concept Cubes in your classroom please email me at mitchellm@fatherryan.org or  lindsay.roe@leadpublicschools.org.


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