Before You Begin
Introduce your bridges of friendship unit by inviting students to bring in photographs, books, and magazine clippings that represent friendship to them. Ask them to brainstorm about what makes a good friendship: i.e., "A good friendship is strong and reliable." Combine the images your class has gathered with pictures of bridges and bridge-building in collages around your classroom, to inspire the learning and activities to come.
Bridging the Friendship Gap
At the start of a new year, students might not know one another very well or realize what they already have in common. For a fun way to bridge this gap, invite your class to move creatively to lively music. Stop the music periodically and call out a characteristic, such as age, gender, beginning letter of a first or last name, eye or hair color, or family size. Ask children who fit the characteristic to join hands to create a bridge. Have the class count the number of children in the bridge to "measure" its span (distance) and list it on the board. After several rounds, discuss the similarities your students have discovered about each other.
Building Bridge Models
To promote cooperation, respect, and stronger friendships in your classroom, invite pairs of children to build bridge models using a wide array of craft items. Begin by setting up a "construction zone" stocked with materials such as cardboard canisters, paper-towel tubes, assorted boxes, craft sticks, string, and sturdy cardboard. For reference, show your class diagrams and photographs of different kinds of bridges. Then have students design and create a model bridge of their choice. When complete, display all of the bridge models along with the student engineers' names. Have each pair tell the class about their bridge and describe how building it together helped them to get to know each other better. How did they compromise on their bridge-building ideas? What would it have been like to build their bridge alone? Would it have been easier or would it have been more difficult? Are two heads better than one?
Friendship Bulletin Board
In a suspension bridge, the deck (roadway) is supported by cables. Set the stage for this activity by showing your class images of these engineering wonders. Talk about how friendship can be compared to a suspension bridge — just as cables support a bridge, our friends support us. Ask children to share ways in which they give support to, or receive support from, their friends. Then illustrate your discussion using this "hand-y" bridge display. First, have each child trace his or her own hand — keeping the fingers and thumb together — and cut out. Ask students to draw self-portraits or glue their photos onto the cutouts. Older children also can write sentences describing how they support their friends. Next, draw a suspension bridge on bulletin board paper and affix the hand cutouts to form cables. Label each of the towers with the key qualities of friendship, such as helping, caring, sharing, and respect. Each child can sign the bridge deck as well. Title your display "Suspended by Friendship" or "We Support Our Friends," then use it as a daily classroom reminder to all students of what it takes to be a friend.
In an arch bridge, two arch halves lean against a center keystone for support. To understand how an arch bridge balances, have two children of approximately the same height stand near each other back to back. Hold a block or a sturdy box between the two to act as the keystone. Then have the children slowly lean their shoulders back against the block, arching their backs as necessary to keep their balance. When they achieve their balance and have "locked" the keystone in place, let it go. They have just created an arch bridge! Discuss what just happened. Can an arch bridge be constructed with just one half of an arch? What would happen if one child suddenly moved? Use this demonstration to describe how a friendship takes two people who contribute equally. Without balance, the friendship could collapse, just as the bridge would if one of the children shifted. You can also use this activity to illustrate a different point: Sometimes relationships aren't balanced, and friends must support each other. Try pairing students of dramatically different heights to see if they can find a way to keep the keystone in place. How uneven can their bridge become before collapse? Use this to talk about what behaviors might cause friendships to fail, such as bullying.
Graphing Common Interests
Invite your students to create a beam bridge graph to show how their common interests can help them build bridges of friendship. Draw a large, simple beam bridge outline on the board and label it "Bridged by ..." To complete the phrase, tack up a sentence strip labeled with a broad category, such as "Favorite Sports" or "Favorite Things." Then divide the deck of the bridge into several sections. Label each section with an item that falls under the category — such as baseball, basketball, soccer, bicycling, skating, and swimming; or books, dogs, cats, school, television, and ice cream. You might also include a section labeled "other." Have children come forward and place sticky notes labeled with their names under the section that corresponds to their favorite item on the deck, and record the totals. Make more graphs on other categories, then compare and discuss the results.
Beam-Bridge Job Chart
In a beam bridge, the deck and piers (supports) fit and work together to allow traffic to move forward easily without danger or disruption. Similarly, children in a classroom should work together to help the school day flow smoothly. To help accomplish this, set up a beam-bridge job chart on a length of bulletin board paper. You'll manage your classroom helpers and promote friendship at the same time! Begin by constructing the bridge deck from a row of sentence strips, each labeled with a different class job. Then take photographs of your students working and playing together in friendly ways, in various combinations of twos and threes. Make sure every child appears in at least several photos. Then draw piers on your chart below the bridge deck, and attach all of the class photos to them with a removable adhesive, such as FUN-TAK brand. Each day or every week, move a few photos from the piers and place onto jobs on the bridge deck. The two or three kids pictured in each photo will be responsible for working together to complete the designated job for that period of time.
Extending the Theme
A great way to continue the bridge theme throughout the school year is to create "bridges to the community." Assist your students in designing and launching a service project, such as a food or clothing drive or a fundraiser for a charity they've researched and chosen. They might also visit a soup kitchen, nursing home, or hospital.
For a more literal extension for middle graders, you can focus on the math and science of bridges. Simple classroom demonstrations — with craft sticks, a Slinky toy, etc. — can explain tension and compression, while field trips to real bridges can inspire more detailed model building. Encourage students to keep journals to record all that they learn during the process.
This article was originally published in the August 2002 issue of Teacher magazine.