Saturday, December 14, 2013

Part 2: Project-Based Reseach in a Fourth Grade Classroom

Budding Biologists Raise Trout

Meet Ashton Barnett  
4th Grade Science/Writing Teacher
Amanda Gist Elementary School
Cotter, Arkansas

Continuing with the research theme from last week, this week's blog features a friend, colleague, and former student. Ashton is half way through her trout project and shares how her 4th graders began raising trout. It sounds like a memorable project. It is Project-Based Learning (PBL) in nature and will create lasting memories for all involved. In her own words here is her story. I know you will enjoy.


               During the first week of school while on recess duty, I spotted a student of mine crouched down on his hands and knees completely absorbed and intently peering through his tiny magnifying glass. I asked what he had discovered. At this point, he led me around the entire playground, showing me microscopic objects that normally go by unnoticed. The science teacher in me was cheering and I couldn't have asked for a better segue into our Trout in the Classroom Project.

               Last year I happened on the Trout in the Classroom website and immediately knew it was something I had to do. It was perfect since fishing is what our local region is all about.  Cotter proudly claims to be the Trout Capital of the U.S.A. Trout in the Classroom is sponsored by the organization of Trout Unlimited and is considered "place-based education." The learning is focused within the local community of students, providing students with opportunities to become active citizens and stewards of their environment. This approach emphasizes hands-on, real world learning that challenges students to learn and solve problems. The Trout in the Classroom website offers huge support to teachers with lesson plans, resources, etc. They sent a representative to my classroom to set up a 55 gallon fish tank and chiller and provided us with 100 trout eggs. It was the students' job to observe changes and release the fry into our local fishing streams.

                I knew from the beginning it would be easy to grab my kids’ enthusiasm for the project. When school started in August, I teased them a little by leaving a corner of my room void of anything except the word “Trout.”  They were hooked--riddled with curiosity. 

                I had begun the year by teaching the students what REAL scientists do: They observe, predict, question, investigate, collaborate, communicate, and they interpret information.  Finally, the students were ready to take on the roles of biologists. I explained Trout in the Classroom and their faces were glowing with excitement. All at once I had two problems on my hands. First, it was all of their questions. So many questions, I couldn't write fast enough. Second of all, I had one student who voiced an indifference to learning more about “dumb trout.” Fortunately, he quickly changed his mind.

               The enthusiasm for the project was infectious. Even the parents were getting involved. My students were showing up to class with treasures: long-forgotten trout species posters, pictures of fry and fingerlings torn from fishing magazines, and one student brought in a shell for the tank. Another student decorated a spiral notebook for notes reserved just for trout. As a class, we quickly put together binders to hold all the information we were finding, and boy were they finding it fast!

                Remember my first problem- all the questions. Well I recorded all of them, which led to pages and pages of notes. More notes than I thought we could manage. I modeled good research skills while we found informative articles to answer the questions, which then led to more questions. Their personal trout binders allowed them all to become responsible for managing the accumulated information.

                When we began the research phase, I assigned them a partner so they were in groups of 2-3. I have three student computers and seven iPads, so everyone was able to begin researching using the skills I had modeled. Each group chose a question to answer. I gave them a note taking page where they recorded their question, the website URL, and their notes. At the end of the week, partners took turns sharing their information in which ever way they had selected-- a poster, a report, etc. 

               It is hard to find a speaker who has the knowledge, is able to communicate that knowledge in a way that excites kids, and also who cares about the students’ questions in a way that makes them feel valued. Gary Flippin, a local fishing guide, was just that person. He taught the students so much.



               We also took a field trip to the White River where two biologists from the Norfolk Fish Hatchery came to share some information with my budding biologists. They brought real fish models to explain the differences in types of trout and the parts of the fish.  We also went to the river and took samples to test the Ph and dissolved oxygen levels. Our notebooks burst with information.

There have been times I have had to step away from our trout curriculum.  There are other standards to teach that are just as important. The great thing about this project is that at the end of each unit we would find our way back to the trout project and tie it to our new learning. As a result the students have begun making big and broad connections to the different areas of science. 

We are nearing the end of the first phase of our project.  Soon we will release the trout. One of my final goals is for my students to take all the bits and pieces of information they have recorded and learned and to have them create something that authentically captures their learning. Without this critical last step, I feel like I can’t technically call this Project Based Learning.

               I’m considering what real biologists do when they learn new information. Most of them write about their discoveries in articles and reports. Since I also teach writing, we will dive into informational writing beginning in January.  It is during this informational writing unit the students will synthesize their learning from the Trout in the Classroom Project. In addition, they will create formal presentations using a biologist's perspective.It promises to be an exciting January and February.

                As I reflect about what I’ve learned so far on my first attempt at PBL, I would say I’m very pleased with how easily this project progressed since it is so relevant to our community. Speakers, field trip locations, and resources have been abundant and easily obtained. Because of so much information coming in so quickly, I struggled keeping track of it all.  Through this project I was able to hit so many of the standards that I formally teach without even trying! I hope that by the end of the writing and presentations phase, I can look back on all that the students have learned and see their learning went much deeper than I expected. 

               Thank you so much Ashton for your fascinating and inspiring story of your students' experience with Trout in the Classroom. Maybe I can coax you into sharing the final phase later this spring once your students have finished their biologist's reports and have given their presentations.

               As I was working with 2nd graders last spring teaching beginning research skills I did a great deal of reading about PBL. I think it has a prominent place in our 21st Century classrooms. Some of the best resources I found were from the Buck Institute For Education.  You might want to check them out. Also, I have a Project Based Learning board on Pinterest. It's loaded with great ideas and links.

              Although, I am closing the blog down until January 4th, I will post when the Animal Experts Research Unit is completed and for sale on TPT. Hopefully, very soon! :)

Happy Holidays to all of you. There is a wealth of great info beginning in January. Please stay with us. In the meantime, may all your days be Best Days and especially those precious
Saturdays.  Merry Christmas and God Bless!

 p.s. If you have questions for Ashton, you can contact her through Saturday Morning Coffee.

More information on PBL:
Larry Ferlazzo is a wealth of information. His best information sites information is THE BEST.
PBL Do's and Dont's  Part I and Part 2

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Are You Ready for Some Research?

The Expert Files
  Moving from Plagiarized to Synthesized

Planning and staging the research campaign.

               From studying the CCSS, it’s more than obvious to see why teachers need to be teaching and engaging students in research as early as Kindergarten. My reasoning for today’s blog is two-fold: 1) I am in the process of creating my Animal Experts’ unit to be sold on Teachers Pay Teachers so student research is on my mind, and 2) I know that at some point during winter break—after presents have been purchased, wrapped, unwrapped, and put away—teachers will earnestly begin thinking about the months ahead. 

               For many, you will carve out sacred pockets of time during winter break--finding long awaited and much deserved moments to devote yourself to some quality planning. There is something mysteriously powerful about stepping away (even if just for a few days) to then return and plunge yourself back into a teacher life.  From even the most brief mental and physical getaways, we rebound quickly.  Refreshed. With revitalized energy we have the ability to create dazzling lessons to brighten those dreary lack luster winter months ahead.

               As you begin to nurture and rekindle your teaching spirit later this month, I am betting and hoping you contemplate having your students engage in some classroom research. Perhaps, today's blog will help focus your thoughts in that direction. First, let's take a peek at those Reading and Writing Common Core standards (and portions of standards) which both support student research and make it a curricular non-negotiable at all grade levels.

Reading Anchor Standards
Key Ideas and Details
Common Core Standard 1:  Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
Common Core Standard 2:  Determine central ideas of a text and summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
Craft and Structure
Common Core Standard 4:  Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical meaning. 
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
Common Core 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity
Common Core Standard 10:  Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Writing Anchor Standards
Texts Types and Purposes
Common Core Standard 2:  Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
Production and Distribution of Writing
Common Core Standard 4:  Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
Common Core Standard 5:  Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.
Common Core Standard 6:  Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.
Research to Build and Present Knowledge
Common Core Standard 7:  Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
Common Core Standard 8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
Common Core Standard 9:  Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
Range of Writing
Common Core Standard 10:  Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Our Animal Experts’ Project  

            Knowing there was a strong, recurrent research thread within the Common Core my teaching buddy, Dinah, and I embarked on a research project with her second graders during spring, 2013.  We sketched out a 3-4 week research unit, planning backwards from a culminating event of collaborative oral presentations. With no prior experience, we were excited and nervous to step outside our comfort zone. Step 1--fasten seat belts!

               Much more important than a final written product, an oral presentation, or a grand moment was our goal to create an engaging, authentic setting for students to think analytically about a topic of their own choosing. In order for them to write an informational report and begin to grow their expertise, students needed direct instruction on the how-to. They needed to know how to capture, sort through, categorize, and organize their information. Our bigger, much more idealistic goal was for the students to sprout and begin to grow their self efficacy, a legitimate empowerment earned from being labeled an “Expert.
      This was an excellent and wonderfully successful project. Was it perfect? Heck no! Through reflection and additional reading I now see shades of gray areas that could easily be finessed to improve and maximize the students’ learning experience. Some components were completely revamped. Student research projects are tricky. It's another one of those prickly basics such as analytic reading or writing a summary that many of us were regularly assigned to do but not necessarily instructed.  Armed with CCSS and all of our current collective wisdom we now know the buck stops with us. Right here. Right now. If we teach it they will learn. 

               Here is just a small taste, a sampling, of our research project to ignite your thinking and inspire you to consider a research project/report with your students. 
OUR DAY #1 - Defining Terms

Used Under Creative Commons
Students need to have a basic understanding of research. What it is and how important those questions really are? How you do it? Why you do it?

Used under Creative Commons

Students need to know what plagiarism is. How important it is NOT to do. How to avoid it AND what the consequences are if you do it.

Students need to have a conceptual understanding of being an expert. How does one become an expert-- in any field? It helps if you are very, very interested in the topic, but to be called an expert is no easy feat. It takes perseverance and lots of hard work.

Students Make Tough Decisions
Not Fair! I Only Get to Choose One?  
               With so many resources available I was lucky to find the Defenders.Org  website (thank you for the link, Kelly Villalobos). On this website viewers are able to scroll through an entire catalog of 80 animals. We went through the entire catalog in less than15 minutes. During this time, the students were able to see a picture of each animal, perhaps, learn a quick fact or two, and were also able to create an on-going list of those animals they might want to know more about. This was the beginning of 20 lessons that brought the students closer to becoming experts.  

               I thought I would share some pictures of our project along with some helpful tips to  jumpstart your thinking. The Animal Experts' Unit will be available through Teachers Pay Teachers within the next couple weeks--barring illness, power outages, or technology hiccups. In addition, my research projects and inquiry boards on Pinterest hold many treasures.

Researchers do lots and lots of reading.

SUCCESS TIP: The students need many books and other sources of information at their independent reading level. This is going to take some planning and time on your part. Don't forget to use your librarian's expertise. Give the librarian as much advance notice as possible.

Researchers search for details to answer their questions and take notes.

SUCCESS TIP: There are so many steps involved in research. As teachers, we must stay the course and remain vigilant of our students' progress. Note-taking needs to be modeled more than once. No drive-by instruction. Identify and stay focused on your ultimate goal which is insuring their success and students seeing themselves as experts.
Researchers use their notes to summarize the information learned.

SUCCESS TIP: The writing of the research can be laborious for some students. Don't let them continue too far without having read their work and providing feedback. Make it a personal goal to read every student's writing each day during this phase. After reading, pre-plan your teaching points. This is vital to expanding their writing skills and deepening students' understanding of how to transform notes into well written summaries.
Researchers organize their information in a way that makes sense.
SUCCESS TIP: Each student organizes in different ways. For this project the students created their Table of Contents after their writing. This seemed to help all of the students. A 2-pocket folder for each student saved the day. The students' work was kept safe and wrinkle free.

Researchers need to share their research and teach others.

SUCCESS TIP:  Having the students create collaborative murals within their research group was a perfect learning activity after they had completed their individual written reports. It served as the dessert after eating all of your vegetables. Not enough attention was paid to art. If the students had begun their investigation/research with a labeled drawing of their topic it might front-load and better support their learning and note-taking with them paying closer attention to details. Perhaps, it would have helped them when it came time to formulate genuine and meaty research questions.
Researchers make sure they can articulate their knowledge so others will understand.

SUCCESS TIP:  The students had limited experience with oral presentations. However, it was by far their favorite phase of the research project. When they learned they would be presenting to someone other than their classmates the bar was raised. Make sure you have a working video camera. The research presentations were absolutely precious.

               I hope to have whetted your appetite for tackling an extended research project with your students. If I were still in the classroom I would strive for at least one if not two extended research projects combined with many mini research-based inquiries during the school year. Beginning on the very first day of school I would launch a campaign for students to persevere, hang tough and to focus. These are the bricks and mortar for becoming an expert. 

               Once again, I express my thanks to Ed Ewing for his interview in my last blog. I knew you would find his story inspirational. Over 800 people visited Saturday Morning Coffee! Thank you so very much for paying us a visit. Please stay with us since there is so much more coming in the new year. I will post on Facebook when the research unit is for sale on TPT. Hopefully, very soon. For those of you facing severe weather I literally feel your pain here in Northern Arkansas. I am posting early this week thinking we might not have electricity much longer. 
What ever weather comes our way, I wish you a very Happy Saturday.