Project based learning (PBL) continues to flourish in the Lower School with teachers integrating topics across subject areas, promoting student choice, and teaching essential skills. Kindergarten’s Animal Research, one PBL effort begun in early April, has ignited the imaginations of Brookwood’s young students and inspired both learning and creativity.
“The goal was to create an integrated, multi-disciplinary, project-based unit to help students develop research skills. As with any true PBL experience, we wanted students to practice critical thinking, problem solving, innovation, collaboration, and communication as they engaged in meaningful inquiry,” says Katie Alexander, who developed the unit with fellow Kindergarten teacher Enrique Polletta.
“The idea was that during research time, every group would study their animals, but each group's work would look different and be guided by students' interests. Activities included writing, reading, researching, exploring, interviewing, and documenting using different information sources like books, websites, observations, interviews with "experts" (faculty, students in various grades, parents), a "game" camera, and more,” adds Katie.
“Throughout the project students asked, ‘How can we learn more?’” says Enrique. “They also asked, ‘How can we show others what we've learned?’ So far we have used iPads, cameras, art materials, and writing to document and share their learning with others.”
The project began with students brainstorming a list of animals they wanted to study and what those animals need to survive. The classes talked about which of the listed animals might be local (meaning there would be a chance of sighting and observing them) and then each child wrote down the top three choices for animals he or she wanted to study.
“The animals studied were completely student generated. They came up with the animals first, and then we grouped the kids based on their selections,” explains Enrique. Students in his class studied rabbits and snakes, while Katie’s students learned about rabbits, deer, and owls.
Students also chose what they wanted to learn about their animals. Choice is an important part of any PBL unit because “it gives them a sense of ownership and engagement. Each group sets its own agenda each day and reflects on the work at the end of each session,” says Katie.
As they considered their guiding question -- "What does your animal need to survive?" – students received letters "from their animals" announcing the animal’s family was moving to the area and needed the Kindergartners’ help figuring out what was needed to live around here.
“This real-world problem sparked students' interest in learning more about their animals' needs. From there each group took off in different directions. Students' questions and ideas guided the research. Most groups covered a general overview of their animals, including topics such as food, water, habitat, predators, prey, body parts/appearance, size, how they move, locations, and species,” explains Katie.
Other subjects, such as Reading, Writing, Math, Social Studies and Art, were all incorporated into this project. For example:
Math: Many groups used math skills to learn about the size of their animals and the creatures’ capabilities. For instance, the rabbit group in Katie's class learned that a rabbit can hop up to five feet. The students measured five feet in the hallway, marked it with tape, and practiced jumping that distance themselves. They compared how far a Kindergartner could jump compared with a rabbit.
“Math was a big part of the snake group's work,” says Enrique. “Several students found the length of an anaconda and wanted to see how long 35 feet looks. So, they put tape lines on the floor across the room and converted the 35 feet into popsicle sticks, then steps, and then children lying head-to-toe.”
Reading: In Reading Workshop, Kindergartners read nonfiction books at their individual levels. “They learned about the genre of nonfiction during Read Alouds and during Reading Workshop. We discussed the features of nonfiction books, such as tables of contents, headings, index, diagrams, labels, and teaching pictures,” Katie explains.
Using their reading skills, students looked at books for information and examined photographs closely, and teachers in each group read books aloud to students as a way of discovering facts. Kindergartners additionally began to learn how to conduct a web search to find images and written information.
Writing: “We wrote ‘All About’ animal books during Writing Workshop, and students used what they had learned about the features of nonfiction books to write their own. While they might copy facts during research group sessions, Writing Workshop is a time for them to record what they have learned from memory,” explains Katie.
Also, during some research group sessions, Kindergartners wrote down observations (from nature or from watching the classroom rabbit) and many groups wrote letters to "experts" around campus (including other students, faculty, and parents) requesting interviews.
Social Studies: Many groups explored mapping concepts as students researched where various species of their animals live around the world. Students looked at globes and maps, and marked where their animals could be found.
“Additionally the kids interviewed Elius Muhimbise, a recent visitor to Brookwood from Uganda, regarding what kinds of snakes he has in in his country – pythons and cobras. Students asked for the help of experts in the field and interviewed the science teachers,” says Enrique.
In Katie’s class, “The deer group enlisted Brookwood Physical Plant Director Rick Chute's help to install a ‘game' camera in the woods. We checked the camera's memory card often to see if any deer are wandering around Brookwood's campus.” Katie adds that over time, the camera did capture photos of deer in Brookwood's wooded areas.
Science: Ben Wildrick, who teachers science to Grades 1 through 4, worked with the children on a variety of topics including studying animals’ natural habitats.
“In honor of the animal study groups, students and teachers tried to engage with those animals in their natural habitats. For example, we searched areas on campus for snakes,” Ben wrote. “Both Kindergarten classes sighted snakes! We found a juvenile water snake basking and closely observed its measured, slow movement. The other class spotted an adult garter snake near a stream. As we got close, it slithered into the stream and swam away expertly.”
Art: The students’ enthusiasm with the project presented Visual Arts Coordinator Kathy Stewart an opportunity to work with the children to create wonderful representations of their animals. Students did both drawings and clay sculptures of their animals.
Outdoor Classroom: This weekly part of the Kindergarten schedule offered prime research time for all the groups. “Some examples of student research during Outdoor Classroom include hunting for tracks of their animal (footprints and droppings), looking for burrows, setting up the game camera, putting out deer bait near the game camera, and dissecting owl pellets,” says Katie. In Enrique's class, students went searching for snake and bunny homes, worked directly with Elliot (Kindergarten’s classroom bunny) and found and held a garden snake.
The unit came to fruition with an Animal Research Exhibition for students’ families. Groups displayed drawings and sculptures, “All About” books, copies of notes and observations, iPad videos, posters, an iBook, and much more.
Both teachers are enthusiastic about the project and all the children learned. Enrique recalls a moment when he knew the deep value of the experience for the students. “The amazing part of Project Based Learning is that the students truly do drive the project,” Enrique says. “The day I knew we had captivated the students with this process was when I looked up at the clock, noticed we were five minutes late to recess, and asked the Kindergartners if they would like to go out to recess or keep on working. ‘Keep Working’ was the unanimous response. It was such a cool learning experience to be a part of.”