Dyan Branstetter | December 2016

Classifying Quadrilaterals with Nutcrackers

With one last week of school before a holiday break, it can be quite a challenge to hold students’ attention for more than an instant. This Nutcrackers activity is a surefire way beat the holiday crazies while helping your students creatively master the challenging skills of identifying and classifying quadrilaterals.

A Brief History of Nutcrackers

Nowadays, nutcrackers most likely come to mind around the holidays due to the popularity of The Nutcracker Ballet. However, they have a rich history of their own that does not directly relate to the holiday season. Visit most gift shops during December you’re sure to find decorative nutcrackers in various designs and forms. But originally, they were used for a purpose: to actually crack nuts. Since nuts were common fare at holiday parties around the 17th-century, nutcrackers were a necessity so that guests could enjoy this savory treat. It is possible that this is why we began connecting them to the holiday season even prior to E.T.A. Hoffman’s story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

Using Nutcrackers Activity to Classify Quadrilaterals

How does this relate to math class and quadrilateral classification? Through this arts integrated lesson, students observe decorative nutcrackers activity, draw an original Nutcracker, and include one of each quadrilateral in their drawing. It merges the following math and visual arts standards:

  • CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.3.G.A.1: Reason with shapes and their attributes.
    Understand that shapes in different categories (e.g., rhombuses, rectangles, and others) may share attributes (e.g., having four sides), and that the shared attributes can define a larger category (e.g., quadrilaterals). Recognize rhombuses, rectangles, and squares as examples of quadrilaterals, and draw examples of quadrilaterals that do not belong to any of these subcategories.
  • VA:Cr1.1.3 Elaborate on an imaginative idea and VA:Cr2.1.3 Create personally satisfying artwork using a variety of artistic processes and materials.

The Procedure

Prior to this, most of my students can’t even pronounce the word quadrilateral. It is a mouthful for 8 and 9-year-olds! I start by reviewing the word parallel. If students don’t fully understand this word, it is very difficult for them to classify these new quadrilaterals based on parallel sides. Next, I share an anchor chart, similar to a flowchart, to help students visualize the quadrilateral family tree. I use this chart from http://mrsnashclass.weebly.com/math and we discuss the special characteristics that make each quadrilateral special. (A great follow up for this is to have students use the anchor chart to create a family tree. I use this template.)

Following a lesson on quadrilaterals, have students share what they know about nutcrackers to generate background knowledge. Provide students with a brief history of their origin. This website has a nice progression of pictures. End the discussion by sharing a few decorative nutcrackers activity. I bring one or two to school, and you can find a great collection of decorative nutcracker pictures here: http://www.germanclocksandgifts.com/german-christmas/nutcrackers which you could project or share with students.

Guiding Students to “Notice”

Depending on your students, you can scaffold this observation if necessary to make sure they are noticing what you want them to see. (The See Think Wonder strategy is a great way to guide students through this process! It also works well for guiding students to think about the quadrilateral anchor chart mentioned above.) To do this, have students help to generate a T-chart that lists what they notice on every nutcracker, versus unique items that appear on only some nutcrackers activity and give them personality.

Drawing the Nutcracker

Provide a large piece of construction paper for each student, and instruct them to hold it vertically. Demonstrate how to draw the basic outline of a nutcracker with students following step by step. I use this as my guide, having students point out the quadrilaterals as we sketch them: http://en.paperblog.com/how-to-draw-a-nutcracker-pdf-722375/amp

Nutcrackers Activity, Education Closet

Including Quadrilaterals

Pass out quadrilateral pattern blocks, or provide students with a paper of quadrilaterals that they can cut out and manipulate to use as tracers for their Nutcracker. The idea is for students to use at least one of each type of quadrilateral in their nutcracker design. Once students have a basic sketch, they will find rectangles and squares without much effort. Then, they can revise slightly as they find that a long, flat trapezoid might work well for a base or even two small trapezoids for feet. The Nutcracker could have a sword in the shape of long, slender rhombus. Students can even work the quadrilaterals into the embellishments they add to their nutcracker’s clothing and accessories.

Adding Personality

At this point, I allow the students to design and decorate in any way they choose. To hold students accountable for including the quadrilaterals, students create a key and color-code the quadrilaterals they included. To have students dig deeper into the classification of quadrilaterals, have them write a short paragraph to explain where one should look to find these polygons including the mathematical proof. Here’s a sample:

“Notice the parallelogram I used for my nutcracker’s belt buckle. It is a parallelogram because it has two sets of parallel lines. Do you see my nutcracker’s feet? They are trapezoids because they have one pair of opposite parallel sides….”

Of course, it makes it extra festive to have music from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite playing while students are working. Find a sampling of the music here: https://padlet.com/branstdy/NutcrackerMusic

Classifying Quadrilaterals with Nutcrackers Activity, Education Closet

Looking for more ways to bring nutcrackers into your classroom?

Have students do a small research project using any of the following links:

Incorporate The Nutcracker Ballet into your ELA Curriculum

Find ideas for an Arts Integrated Project at these links:

Note: This lesson is a variation on one that is available for download here: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Christmas-Math-Quadrilateral-Nutcracker-997380. I modified it to integrate more art and student-led creativity. With the original lesson, my students spent so much time cutting and gluing that the emphasis on creativity and quadrilaterals was lost. 

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.