Category Archives: Critical Thinking

Gifts for the Gifted – Rush Hour Shift

Around this time of year I post a gift recommendation each Friday as part of a “Gifts for the Gifted” series.  The title is a bit misleading, as it might imply that the gifts are only for children who have been endowed with the label, and that is certainly not true. Just as with any gift, you should select a product that suits the interests of the receiver.  These lists of potential gifts that I provide are ones that I feel will be engaging for children who enjoy problem solving and/or creativity.

Earlier this year, in March, I posted about a new game from ThinkFun called, “Rush Hour Shift.”  Longevity is always part of the criteria for the toys and games that I recommend, and Rush Hour Shift definitely fulfills that requirement.

Since I started teaching GT 14 years ago, Rush Hour has been one of the games immediately pulled out during indoor recess times.   Designed to be a single-player game the player sets cars up on a grid based on the challenge card he or she is playing.  Then, the player uses logic to slide the cars around so that the red car can exit the grid.

The only drawback to Rush Hour was that many of my students wanted to play with a partner, which sometimes resulted in squabbles as one person would get increasingly frustrated when the other could not see the “obvious” solution and try to take control.

Rush Hour Shift nicely resolves this issue.  In this two-player game, what can seem to be a relatively simple challenge can quickly become difficult when the players use the cards they’ve been dealt to change the traffic grid in the blink of an eye.

Rush Hour Shift by ThinkFun
Rush Hour Shift by ThinkFun

As you may observe in the picture above, the grid is made of three plates that can be “shifted” in order to block your opponent’s car or free your own. When it’s your turn, you must carefully choose a card in your hand to indicate what kind of strategy you intend to use to get your car closer to the end of the board on your opponent’s side. With 10 different game setups, 32 cards, and the unpredictable decisions that can be made at every juncture, the potential for months of game play is obvious.

Rush Hour Shift is recommended for ages 8 and up.  Children are quick to figure out the rules, and enjoy playing over and over again to try to outwit their opponents as they learn new strategies.

Some other ThinkFun games I’ve reviewed in the past are: Gravity Maze, Shell Game, Last Letter, and Robot Turtles.

For other recommended gifts for the holiday season, check out this page or my Pinterest Board.


Let’s Talk Turkey

I’ve gathered a few more ideas this year to add to my Cornucopia of Creative and Critical Thinking Activities for Thanksgiving, which I published a couple of years ago.

  • First, I want to go back to a suggestion in my Cornucopia post, which was, “What are you Thankful For? Ask it Better.” I’ve been using different prompts from this article with each grade level.  For example, my 5th graders brainstormed what they are thankful for that they cannot see.  My 2nd graders brainstormed what teachers might be thankful for, as you can see below.  I really like this twist on giving thanks.

Thankful Teachers

What are teachers thankful for? You might not see it in the picture above, but one of the students wrote, “Other teachers.”  And that is very true.  Thank goodness for all of the awesome educators who are kind enough to share their resources on the web for those of us who aren’t quite as creative!


I think that my brain naturally looks for trends.  Whether it’s on social media, in Flipboard magazine articles, or at education conferences, if I’ve heard about something more than a few times, my brain starts alerting me that I should try something new, already!

Newsela is one of those tools that kept turning up in educational discussions, and I finally decided to take the time to learn more about it.

One of the skills that needs some extra work at our school is summarizing non-fiction texts.  Finding relevant non-fiction at an appropriate reading level for students can be difficult.  This is where Newsela can be a huge help.

As a teacher, you can get a free account on Newsela, and set up an account with classes to which you can assign news articles for them to read.  If you are an elementary teacher, you can choose the option for the elementary version of Newsela which filters out articles that might contain “mature content.”

Once you have a class, you can have your students sign up for Newsela using your class code.  If your students have Google accounts, they can sign in using their Google credentials. (There is also a Chrome app for Newsela that you can add so students can access it more quickly.)

A teacher can find an article on Newsela, and then assign it to the class.  You can search for it by grade level and/or reading standard, or just type in a topic and see what you get.  Newsela also offers articles in Spanish.

After you select an article, you will see an option to assign it to a class at the top of the page.  When the students of that class sign in, they will find that article has been assigned, and be able to access it.

Newsela allows students to read the articles at comfortable lexile levels.  It also offers a writing activity for each article, as well as a quiz.

Another great feature of Newsela is its Text Sets.  These are collections of several articles that support many well-known pieces of literature.  For example, I found text sets for two books I read with my classes, Tuck Everlasting and The Giver.  You can also create your own text sets by using a button at the top of each article.

Newsela Text Sets

The free version of Newsela is limited, as you can’t track your students’ progress on the quizzes, whether they’ve viewed the articles, or annotations they’ve made.  Newsela Pro offers all of these options.  You can view the comparisons of the free and pro versions here. It does not list the price of the Pro version, as you must request a quote from them.  You can get a free trial for 30 days to try it out for yourself.

Newsela Pro


Kids Philosophy Slam 2016

The annual Kids Philosophy Slam has announced its new topic for 2016 – Imagination or Knowledge: Which has a Greater Impact on Society?

I’m determined to have my students enter this year, as I think that they will have a lot to say about this topic!  For more information about the rules for the Philosophy Slam, check out this page.

If you think your students are too young to think philosophically, read about how Joelle Trayers handles philosophy with her Kinder class!

Philosophy Slam

The Serious Business of Play

At the intersection of art and science, you will find 3M’s recent Rube Goldberg Machine video.

It is a masterpiece that proves that logic and creativity are not mutually exclusive.



Parable of the Polygons

My students adore Vi Hart videos.  I think the kids understand maybe 1/2 of what she is saying, but she makes math fun and stimulates their curiosity.

Parable of the Polygons” is an interactive website that was created by Vi Hart and Nicky Case.  Having watched several Vi Hart videos, I expected the site to do one of the things Vi does best – teach me math.  But I was mistaken.  “Parable of the Polygonsuses math to teach about racism, sexism, (and all of the other negative”isms”) and what we can do to help eradicate them.

from Parable of the Polygons by Vi Hart and Nicky Case
from Parable of the Polygons by Vi Hart and Nicky Case

I innocently played each activity trying to make happy polygons until I realized that I, a self-proclaimed non-racist, have had probably zero effect in persuading others to be less biased.  Using math, I learned that, unless more of us make an effort to seek out more diverse colleagues and friends, there is little chance things will change.

This is definitely an activity that I will be doing with my students and I hope to make some changes in my life based on what I learned. From now on, this little square is going to be on the lookout for opportunities to meet more triangles :)

What Should We Be Teaching?

The other day I ran across an article authored by Mark Manson for the Business Insider called, “5 things we should teach in school but don’t.” (You’re probably thinking someone should have taught me to capitalize important words in a title, but that is actually way the title appears, not my lack of capitalization education.)

Before I read the article, I jotted down a few of my own ideas so I could compare them to Manson’s.  This is what I came up with:

  • Career Counseling
  • Innovation and the Design Process (including reflection and revision)
  • How to Handle Money
  • Metacognition
  • How to Protect our Brains in the Case of a Zombie Apocalypse

Okay, so maybe the last one is somewhat extreme – but a little survival training could do us all a bit of good.

Manson’s ideas don’t quite match mine – but first on the list is Finance.  I completely agree with his assessment that our nation’s lack of education in this area is behind a lot of the economic difficulties we are experiencing today.

Logic and reasoning are also recommended requirements according to Manson – something I do not dispute.  I think these skills are implicitly taught in many subjects (including computer programming), but an actual class or two on this topic would benefit many students.

I urge you to make your own list (feel free to add suggestions to the comments below) and to read Manson’s article to find out what else he finds critically lacking in today’s high school curriculum.  He has a good point that we shouldn’t rely on our grandparents’  course of study to prepare today’s generation for the future.

Public domain image by Russell Lee on Wikipedia.
Public domain image by Russell Lee on Wikipedia.