The Super Mario Challenge in the Classroom

Are you ready to jump into the world of Super Mario....I mean the classroom of Super Mario? Come along for a super engaging lesson that will be sure to captivate your students' complete attention as they work to save Princess Peach!

Just a little note before we get started. I am posting a full video below - It's a long one...I am a talker! If you know know THAT! The essentials are in this post, but if you'd rather see it live, scroll down to the bottom. But first...grab a cup of coffee or an entire bag of Oreos. Heck, maybe even grab a gallon of ice cream and a pizza as well. Now let's get rolling...

I always get two main questions when I post any type of room transformation that I do in the classroom. I am going to devote an entire post to that next week, but for now I will address the top two questions that I always receive in response to this type of instruction: 

1) How do you come up with the ideas? 

Truthfully, I don't. These are not my ideas. What's a teachers motto? Beg, borrow, steal? Yep! That's my philosophy, too! Toy companies, game designers, musicians, and popular food brands make this happen for me. How? They are the brilliant minds creating all of the many things that kids are interested in these days. They are the ones spending hours upon hours upon hours designing things that kids enjoy. They are spending the hours that I don't, and won't ever have. I figure if the kids already love it in the real world - I will piggy back, steal their concept, and morph it into the academic world. It's as simple as it sounds. I spend a lot of time with my kids at lunch, in the hallways, and during carpool finding out what they enjoy. Then I make a note of those things in my mind. Whenever I have boring or difficult content that I know is essential to my academic goals, or I want to spice up my instruction a bit, I will use one of those concepts to drive my transformation. Because let's be honest - we can tie content to just about anything. ANY.THING! So I decide the concept first, and then I add whatever content we are working on. 

2) The million dollar question - Where do you get the money?

I will link some of the materials down below if you would like to purchase the Mario products that I found and loved. Now, let's get to the nitty gritty. It's all about planning ahead. People often use money as a road block to not being able to do these types of lessons. Now call me crazy, but I refuse to let something like money determine how I am going to teach. Here are a few ways to take a little detour and not stop the journey of a room transformation altogether.

Don't take the toll road - find a cheaper route! 

We all like a good toll road. Generally it's faster. But this isn't always the cheapest way to reach our final destination. I will find beautiful decorations for birthday parties (here I searched Mario Birthday Parties on Pinterest). They were gorgeous but would cost a fortune. Rather than purchasing everything on the spot, I will think of places that I can find or recreate the decor super cheap. Enter the Dollar Tree, thrift stores, IKEA, etc. I call this concept...making it happen. I will ask around, find a way to raise the funds, borrow materials, etc. until I get the job done. 

Only make essential stops to reach your final destination...  

Of course there are things that I purchase, but if I am going to purchase something expensive, I ensure that I will be able to use it for other transformations. Example: The turf for the floor is expensive. However, I use it for 4-5 other transformations throughout the year, so the investment is worth it. 

Let's bring my honesty out to play for a second: Half of the stuff that you see in pictures (mine included) is not even needed. Turf - not needed. Mario hats - have them make paper hats instead. Wall decals - use a projector and trace/color your own wall decals. Or better yet, find an artist friend and ask them to do that for you! You'll be surprised that many will be all in for helping you create magic for kids. 

 I assure you the kids do not notice the imperfections nor do they deem anything as lacking. You will never hear a kid say, "This room would be so much better if...." My beginning room transformations sure didn't start out like this at all. You'll hear about that in the next concept.  The decor only enhances the instruction. It makes the lesson unpredictable. It doesn't have to be perfect. Perfection is the thief of joy. Don't let the idea of the perfect decor steal your excitement. Do what you can. Do something different. THAT'S what kids will notice. 

Don't try to conquer the journey over night! It's a marathon not a sprint! 

Another point to note is that I have been doing these transformations for 10 years. I have built up resources over the years. Start small. I run. The hardest part of each run is getting started. So just rip the bandaid off. Get started. Start somewhere. Do something! It will get easier and even better with time. 

Here's a peek at a few of my beginning transformations. Not nearly as detailed, but the excitement of my students was equally matched. 

Folks, it's green table cloths and a hand painted sign. I am super proud of it! The kids could not have been more excited for this lesson. Why? It was different. Be different!


How about when I recreated the Land of Chewandswallow for our weather unit? My mom and I used butcher paper to create gigantic foods. Nowadays, people use those great giant blow up foods. Are they awesome? 100%  Are they essential to get the same excitement out of your students? Not hardly! 

I get this whole money question often, and honestly this is the only way that I know to answer it! No, my school does not fund my materials for room transformations. Actually, I don't even ask them to do so. Don't limit yourself. Accept the challenge. Keep an open mind. Find a way to make the impossible...possible! I promise you will be so happy you did!  

Decor tips and ideas:

The decor looks complicated, but it was actually pretty simple. I hung blue painter's drop cloths around my room (it was $15 to cover my entire room) and added some decals to give the "being stuck inside the game" feel. Then for coins I used gold plates from the Dollar Tree that I glued to fishing wire. Then I suspended them from the ceiling. Finally, I wrapped large boxes with yellow poster board and painted white question marks on them. Below is a broader look into the room. 

Once I decide the concept and the decor, finally I figure out how I am going to break down the content that I want the kids to learn or practice during the lesson. During the Super Mario Challenge, the kids were reviewing all of our reading skills that were taught during a nonfiction unit of study. I thought Mario would be perfect for this because I had taught close reading, and it's just like the levels of the game - each level gets a little harder...each read goes a little deeper. I used this lesson for reading. It could easily be adjusted to math skills, science concepts, social studies themes, etc. Just choose a different skill that you want them to practice for each level. 

Here's a look at some of the different levels: 

Level one: The students were given a passage. They had to complete the first read and interpret each sentence to identify the key idea. 

Level two: The students were practicing identifying the key idea in shorter passages. Here's a fun little twist: the students selected their tunnel (1, 2, or 3). Each tunnel had a different number of passages. If they were lucky, they chose the tunnel that only had three passages. However, they could have selected the tunnel with 8 causing the level to take a little longer to complete. 

Level three: Mario Kart

Here the students were practicing identifying text structures in a passage to help them organize the most important details. The students would roll their partner down to the end of the path, collect a short passage (there were 6), roll them back, decide the text structure, and repeat until the level was complete. 

Level four: All the prize boxes

The first team to the level busted the large box. There were mini question boxes inside. They would collect one mini box that contained 10 different short passages that had them identifying the meaning of unknown words. Once they identified the meaning of each word, they would move on to the next level. 

Level 5: The students had to summarize passages. They would race down to a tunnel which they had to crawl through to collect a short passage. Then they would race back, summarize, and repeat. 

The students worked through each level at their own pace. Once the challenge of a level was complete, they moved on. They had to complete all six levels to rescue the princess and capture the flag. I created the flag with poster board and PVC pipe.

Thankfully, Princess Peach was successfully rescued by her teams of Mario and Luigi! 

This was so much fun and the kids absolutely loved every second. But you better believe when I say each level was a challenge - it was just that! I made sure that the content was super challenging because we all know rescuing the Princess isn't a walk in the park! (Don't act like you didn't play the game...and throw the controller as a kid! lol!)

Well, I guess that's that! I hope that you will challenge yourself to do something different in your classroom. It may not be a room transformation. That may not be your style. But do the unexpected. Give your kids a reason to anticipate school the same way that they anticipate the newest release of their favorite toy or game. Standards won't make that happen. Worksheets won't make that happen. WE make that happen! 

Here is the promised (LONG) video of the details: 

FYI: The video is upside down for the first minute. Then it corrects. Sorry about that! 

Check out these resources online: 

I will be back with a Room Transformations 101 post to answer your questions about room transformations. Post your questions below, and I will be happy to break them down in my next post! 

Research for Kids: Around the World and Back

Are you ready to get your research on? This has always been one of my absolute favorite writing skills to teach. Why? Because it gives our students every essential that they need to become an independent life-long learner - the goal of every teacher. Teaching kids that they have access to anything they want to know about is probably one of the most important things that we can do for them. Plus, kids absolutely dive right on into the challenge, and engagement is made super easy. They love researching. Period! (All resources pictured are available HERE!) 

Here is a look at how I break down research skills for kiddos: 

1. Essential Questions: 

I begin by having the kids think of essential questions - things that they think their audience would want to know about their subject. This really drives their research process and keeps their thoughts organized. Organization and focus is key! Otherwise research becomes quite overwhelming. Essential questions help narrow down the topic and really allow the students to zone in on specific areas to research. 

Next, I have the students select their essential questions that they want to focus on. Then they begin locating facts that will answer one of those questions. In the past when I just sent kids off to research a topic, the facts were ALL. OVER. THE. PLACE! It was a disaster. Essential questions keep them focused and on track. They aren't just researching Africa. That is way too broad of a topic to cover anyways. Instead, they are looking for specific facts about this continent driven by their questions.  

2. Research

The key to research is teaching students to locate facts - yes even at a young age. We never want to teach them the habit of copying text. The secret to this is developmentally appropriate websites and books. (I will link some of my favorite books to use for research below.)  If the students can comprehend the level text that they are working with, they will have greater success at locating information to use for their writing. 

The second key is modeling the expectation and then being consistent with your reinforcement. Yes, it's exhausting. Yes, it will make you want to pull your hair out. All the wrinkles, people! All the wrinkles! But by breaking down and simply allowing writers, especially struggling writers, to simply copy (because that is easier for us) is a horrible habit that they will then fight to break for years to come. Let's just get it right the first time - for them! 

I spend a great deal of time modeling and allowing the students to practice fact finding. I then make sure that they are not writing these facts in complete sentences. This also helps with the copy cat syndrome. Above the students are using their fact finder to identify facts in travel postcards. As they are finding facts, they are also reading a solid paragraph structure. Exposure is key to creating solid readers. 

Once they have mastered this concept, we hit the books, and I allow them to find facts for their topic. Here the students are researching a specific continent for an Around the World and Back writing prompt. 

Once that instruction is done and your students know how to effectively find facts, they simply organize those facts into a paragraph - including details and examples to add depth. Easy as pie once they know how to create a strong paragraph! So let's talk about that writing. 

3. Write! 

To save the kiddos' sanity (and your sanity for that matter), the writing instruction should be done PRIOR to teaching students how to research. I always teach students how to write a strong informational paragraph before I transition them into little researchers. This way the focus can be on the research, and the writing and structure is something they have previously nailed. You will be so thankful to structure your instruction this way.

When teaching students are learning how to write a strong informational paragraph, I use a lot of strategies including paragraph puzzles, the hamburger strategy, and interactive editing. You can find the resources pictured HERE

Relating the structure of a paragraph to a hamburger is an excellent way to really make it stick with your students. Pushing them to expand details with explanations is what will make them skilled writers. Again, a skill that should be taught - even to young authors.  

Paragraph puzzles are a great way to expose students to a great structure. I will say it a thousand times - exposure is key. Paragraph puzzles are super easy to create and extremely beneficial for young writers. simply cut apart a strong examples of a paragraph and allow students to organize and piece it together. Make sure that each paragraph has a strong topic and conclusion sentence. The more they see, the better they will grasp the concept. This is the best way to use a mentor text. You want the students to understand the text enough to use it as a template for their writing - taking note of the craft and structure. Paragraph puzzles are a great mentor text, especially for young authors. 

We then focus on strong sentence structure. This is really the second component that will make research writing a breeze for your kiddos. They will then be able to take all of those details that they extracted during research and turn them into strong sentences that flow and create that paragraph. You can find the resources pictured HERE!

Allowing the students to see how a simple sentence can easily be transitioned into a compound, or even complex, is a great way to build sentence variety. 

4. Reflect
Reflection is such a critical part of the writing process. Students should always take time to see what went well with their writing and find areas for improvements. Too many times, teachers are telling students what they should do to improve. In the real world, the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one! When we teach students how to monitor their own writing, the value of them finding their own mistakes is so much greater than if we point them out for them. This part of the writing process is essential, so make the time for it. You won't be sorry. This is where the lightbulb moments occur, and we all know those are our favorites. 

5. Share! 

What good is all of the work of research if you can't share it with anyone? Allowing students to learn and grow from what one another has learned is powerful. It also provides students with an audience and a purpose. These are both keys to building strong writers. 

I always think of a way to engage my students in this part of the writing process. Allowing students to come up and read their papers out loud is straight up boring. I mean let's just be honest. So during Around the World and Back, the students take their passports and rotate around the room to learn about the seven continents. We put those fact finding skills to use once more as the students identify 2-3 facts about each continent.

Where do I find resources?

Finding books and resources for research is the most difficult battle for teachers. I try to always integrate our research with science and social studies concepts that are tied to our standards. Below are some of my favorite books for 2nd-4th grade researchers centered around those two content areas. 

Click on any of the titles to take a closer look online. 

Around the World and Back (Our 7 Continents) 


Other Topics for Research


Great for Read Alouds, Modeling, and Student Research...

Amy Lemons and I have put our heads together to make writing as easy as possible for teachers and as engaging as possible for students. You can check out our writing curriculum HERE! 

Happy researching!