Friday, December 2, 2016

Beyond Cute: Why Animals Look and Act the Way They Do

Our study of animal structures (body parts) and functions (what they allow the animal to do) has been wide-ranging. 
Here are the big questions that guided our study.  We displayed this poster throughout the unit: 

You can go to this link to find a full list of books that we read aloud during this unit.  These books taught us how different animals catch flies, dig holes, and hide from predators and prey alike. 

In the project below, students showed how specific animals use their feet/paws/claws/talons in specialized ways: 

"Alligators use their feet to swim."

"A gecko uses their feet to stick on the rock."

"Peregrine falcons use talons to catch prey in the lake."

Next, we explored the various ways that animals' eyes help them to survive:

"A cat uses their eyes to see in the dark."

"A frog uses their eyes to push their food down."

"Squirrels use its eyes to hunt for nuts."

"A fish uses eyes to see under water."

"Owls use their eyes to see in the night so it can find its prey."

We borrowed animal skulls from our sixth-grade teacher, and found even more skulls in a long-forgotten box in the art storage room:

By examining these skulls closely, students had the opportunity to synthesize everything they'd learned about animal structures, especially teeth, to deduce the animals' diet, jaw strength, brain size, position on the food chain (predator vs. prey), and position of the spinal cord.

 Since some of the spelling is a little confusing, here's a translation: "I notice that the bobcat has sharp canines.  I wonder if the bobcat skull has a sagittal crest?  I wonder if the bobcat has a spinal cord hole from the spinal cord?"

We learned how animal parents take care of their offspring in order to keep a species going, and compared our own parents' behaviors to animal parents' behaviors:

The right side reads, "My mom goes to the store for food that is soft so I don't choke."

We compared animal structures to human inventions. Through biomimicry, we imitate animals and plants in order to solve human problems. For instance, turtle shells and mushroom caps keep off the rain; so do umbrellas.

We examined many pictures of bird beaks and compared the size and shape of beaks with common tools found around the house: tea strainers, pliers, hammers, needle-nose pliers.  We found that, once again, human inventions imitated animal structures.  Then we used these human tools to grab small objects off of the grass and out of the water, just as birds would do in building their nests or catching food.

This was such an exciting unit!  Students loved exploring one set of questions over and over, in myriad ways!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

What Did You Learn in Engineering Lab?

Today we learned that the air pockets in bubble wrap are good insulators. We then designed our own warmers out of my very large bubble-wrap collection. Kids chose which body part they wanted to warm up: legs, arms, feet, hands, chest, or back.  Here's what they learned during the activity, in their own words: 

I learned that...

Bubble wrap can make people warmer.

Bubble wrap feels weird in your shoes.

It wasn't easy to make a bubble-wrap warmer.

It's hard to put tape on bubble wrap.

I learned to build something with bubble wrap.

It feels super weird when you put bubble wrap on your feet.

It feels weird to slide bubble wrap on your arm.

Working together makes the project easier.

It was easy to do this project.

Having a partner helping you speeds everything up.

It was hard getting my leg out of the bubble wrap because my leg needs to bend.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Building a House for the Three Little Pigs

On Friday we had our first Engineering Lab.  You've probably heard of STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  Engineering is also one of the strands of the Next Generation Science Standards.

In our Engineering Lab, students learned that engineers are people who ask questions and create solutions.  We also learned the steps of the engineering process: 


We read the story of The Three Little Pigs, then asked our guiding question: 

"Can I build a house for the three little pigs, that will be strong enough to prevent the Big Bad Wolf from blowing it down?"

We looked at all of the building materials available in our classroom: linker cubes, wooden blocks, foam blocks, paper and tape, and so on.  We met the Big Bad Wolf, which was actually my hairdryer decorated with googly eyes and paper ears.  Our pigs were adorably tiny and stuffed, from Mrs. Staten's pig collection.

We closed our eyes to think about houses we'd seen.  Would our house be large or small?  Would it include doors and windows?  Would it be short or tall?  

Next came the planning step.  Students looked at the available materials and drew two different ideas for a pig house.  

We divided into groups of three.  I modeled how to discuss students' house drawings, in order to choose the best design.  This was the trickiest step, because first graders are just starting to practice sustained conversations about academics.  Many students needed a little coaxing to join the conversation.  Some teams had to compromise on the choice of building materials, and we used rock-paper-scissors to solve disputes.

Each group starred their favorite design.  Some groups chose aspects of each drawing that they wanted to incorporate in their house.

Finally it was time to begin building!  This was a really interesting activity to watch.  Some groups moved into leader and follower roles right away; others worked in partnership with each other.  A couple of groups divided up the labor by assigning the floor to one student and the walls to another. 

Groups took ten to twenty minutes to complete their houses.  Our focus was on the process, not the product, and kids seemed to really enjoy figuring out how to make their houses strong and stable.  Some structures were easily identified as houses, others resembled a pile of rubble, and others were hastily rebuilt after collapsing due to instability. 

As groups announced their houses' completion, the Big Bad Wolf came out to demand, "Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in..."  You know the rest!

Most of the houses stood up to the Big Bad Wolf.  A few houses lost little parts, and their builders set about improving the structures, then retesting with the wolf.  All of the students agreed that Engineering Lab was incredibly fun!

You've probably figured out that Engineering Lab is not just about teaching students how structures rise and fall.  This activity gave students an opportunity to draw a model, use spatial skills, work in a small group to express and listen to ideas, translate a two-dimensional drawing into a three-dimensional structure, and, sometimes, fail.  

Failing is a big part of engineering and a big part of first grade.  In fact, failing is a big part of growing up.  We fail and then we improve.  Or we fail, we cry, we give up, and then we try again.  Or we fail and we quit... for a while, until we feel brave enough to try again.  

My motto for our class this year is "Smarty Cats are Brave."  It takes bravery to fail and try again.  It takes courage to write, to read, and to work in a small group.  It takes grit to work toward a goal that seems impossible.  

I am preparing first graders for a world in which many of them will hold jobs I can't even imagine.  My goal is to help students be brave, to persevere, and to solve problems.  And for that, I can't imagine a better strategy, and a better way to spend our Friday afternoons, than engineering.  

Saturday, August 13, 2016


Here are some books that I'll be reading to my students as we delve into the world of money: counting coins, what we can use money for, adding and subtracting money...


These are some of the books I'll use to teach my first graders about measuring time and length.



Sunday, August 7, 2016

Light and Sound Waves

These are some of the books and videos I'll be using to teach first graders about light and sound waves, as part of the Next Generation Science Standards.

Light Waves

Optical illusions allow readers to see something which isn't really there! 

Abbie Burgess was the daughter of a lighthouse keeper along the rocky Maine coast.  In the 1850s, she heroically kept the lights burning during a month-long storm while her father was away.  


Sound Waves

An amazing woman who figured out the mathematical equations to predict the patterns of vibrations that create sound.

This excellent biography of oceanographer Sylvia Earle includes information about sound and light waves in water.