What’s New at the Zoo? part 1

Last year, my team and our enrichment teacher created this unit that would combine our science standards on animals with our new standards in writing. BUT I had only read about project-based learning and was a little nervous to try it.  After completing my first pbl unit , I was ready to try another one with my class.  I loved what it did for my students!

Project Overview: We will collaborate with the local zoo.  The zoo will write a letter to the class asking for their help in choosing the next animal for the zoo.  The students need to find an animal not currently at the zoo and research this animal focusing on the animal group, behavior, size and body covering along with diet and range.  The students will write a nonfiction article about their animal. The students will then be put in groups. The groups will choose one of their researched animals as the group’s animal. The group will create a presentation stating their opinions why that is the best animal for the zoo.  They will also provide reasons for their opinions.  The zoo will choose one animal from the five groups. Then the groups will design an zoo exhibit/enclosure for that one animal. The exhibit will need to meet the needs of the zoo and the animal.

Driving Question:  In your opinion, which animal should the Birmingham Zoo choose as its next animal? 

Here are the content standards that will be covered in this unit:

Identify characteristics of animals, including behavior, size, and body covering
Writing 2.1
Write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply reasons that support the opinion, use linking words (e.g.,because, and, also) to connect opinion and reasons, and provide a concluding statement or section.
Writing 2.2
Write informative/explanatory texts in which they introduce a topic, use facts and definitions to develop points, and provide a concluding statement or section.
I know students love studying animals so this will be a high interest unit for them.   A field trip to the zoo was planned in the middle of this unit. This will allow students to look at exhibits while learning about animals.
Part 2 will focus on the beginning of the project and an extra learning event that just happened.  This is why I love pbl. The students take it in directions you never planned but it helped  me cover even more standards. It happened naturally and was student led.

What I learned while my students learned…

I finished my first project-based learning unit, “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?” two weeks ago.  Here are some of the skills my students learned during this project:

  • Wind is  a force and you can make build in a way to make something wind-resistant.
  • Architects use different roof designs to help with wind resistance.
  • We are better working together. It may be a challenge but it is very beneficial.
  • An estimation is not always accurate.
  • You need to re-evaluate a plan and make it better if you are not getting the results you want.
  • The cost of building a house, even a pretend one, adds up quickly.
  • There are many ways to solve difficult math problems.
  • How to add numbers within a thousand
  • Adding multiples
  • How to add 3 or more two-digit numbers
  • You can manipulate the numbers to get friendly numbers. This makes problems easier to solve.
  • You don’t always have to know how to do something before you try it.
  • How to write a persuasively
  • To be persuasive, you need to show passion behind what you are saying.
  • How to speak clearly and share information
  • A real-estate agent works hard to persuade buyers. They use very descriptive words to help sell a house.
  • Projects are more fun when you are creative and open to new ideas.
  • You may have to rewrite many times before you are happy to call it the final draft.
  • Everyone needs to feel valued in the group or they will live up to that expectation.
  • If the learning is exciting, no one has to convince you to keep working.
  • My idea is not always the best idea. Even if it is, it may not be chosen by my team.
  • We can’t all win. The 3 pigs liked all the houses but only one was the best fit for them.  I can handle that even if I worked hard. I can still be proud of my work.
  • How to write a summary

Ironically, what I learned from my first attempt of pbl is very similar.

I learned:

  • My estimation of how much time the project would take was a little off but I could make it work in the end because I saw value in what they were learning.
  • They can do things I have not taught them. Because I gave an open problem, it allowed them to learn things in a meaningful way and it belongs to them and not to me. Isn’t this what I want?
  • Excitement and passion are contagious. Sometimes, I was the one who was super passionate about the parts of the project and it spread to them. Most of the time, it started with them.
  • They didn’t mind rewriting or rebuilding because they had a goal in mind. The driving question gave them a goal that they wanted to reach.  I didn’t have to tell them  that they needed to go back to rewrite their presentation or rebuild their house. They knew it on their own.
  • Just because I haven’t taught a pbl unit before, it did not stop me from trying it.  And I LOVED it.  I didn’t have official training on how to develop a pbl unit nor did I attend a workshop.  I read blog posts, read the book PBL in the Elementary Grades from Buick Institute, talked to others on twitter, attended chats, and finally just stepped out there! I did ask for help from those who have taught them before but you just have to try it!
  • We are better together.  It was nice to have another teacher do the project with me. @LesaHaney’s class joined ours. It was great to have someone walk on the journey together, especially since it was untraveled territory for me.

While this was my first project-based learning unit, it will not be my last. In fact, we are already in another one.  🙂

Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf? part 5-final post in series

I wrote several posts about my first adventure into project-based learning.  In case you missed them- Part 1, click here;  Part 2, click here, Part 3, click here, Part 4, click here.

Our driving question changed at this point.  Since the houses were built, it was time for the Three Pigs to check them out. So here was our new question:

How can we market our house to persuade the Three Little Pigs to buy our house?

I invited a real estate friend to come to our classroom. She talked about how she markets a house. She shared that location and certain features can help sell a house. She also shared flyers she made for different houses. Then each group met with the real estate agent to discuss the best selling features of their house. The groups realized that choosing interesting adjectives could help in their presentations. They learned vocabulary such as A-frame, open floor plan, airy, and modern. The groups took notes as the real estate agent shared high points of each house.



After meeting with the real estate agent, the groups divided the house information into 4 sections: address, materials, wind test and contact information.  Each member of the group had to write the needed information with the Three Pigs in mind.  They also had to turn this information into a commercial. We used the app Educreations to make commercials for each house.


Here is an example of their writing drafts:

Persuasive Writing


Click here to see one of their commercials. Each group also made a real estate flyer that had to have the same information as the presentation.

Here is one of the house flyers:

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 8.18.33 PM

We also practiced our presentations with another real estate agent via Facetime. He gave us tips to make the presentations better.

We also skyped with our friends in Texas. They did the project with us. Each group shared the house they created.











THE BIG DAY finally arrived! The Three Little Pigs came to our classroom to see the homes and hear the presentations. (A big thank you goes out to my assistant principal, Mrs. Stacey Stocks, and our enrichment teachers, Mrs. Mandy Fox and Mrs. Judy Simpson. You are good sports!)



Each group gave a presentation and shared the commerical. The Three Little Pigs took a long time because it was such a hard decision. They decided that House 5 was the perfect fit for them! The finale was using a leaf-blower on the houses. Believe it or not every house stayed intact! However, only one house stayed upright. It was a fun way to end the unit.



I am HOOKED on project-based learning.  I know my students learned a lot and to see what they thought of the project, check out their blog post reflections on our kidblog.

Thanks for reading my first adventure into pbl! 🙂



Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf ? part 4

I wrote several posts about my first adventure into project-based learning.  In case you missed them- Part 1, click here;  Part 2, click here, Part 3, click here.

Just a reminder of the project’s driving question:

As architects, what is the cheapest house we can build to protect the three little pigs from the Big, Bad Wolf?

Now came the part the kids were really excited about…BUILDING!  The material managers came with a list of supplies.  Some were shocked when they looked at the supplies realizing they were missing much needed materials.  One student looked at me and said, “I think our group is going to have to rethink this house plan.” After a few changes in design and recalculating the cost, the groups were ready to begin.

IMG_0382   IMG_0420



Once the houses were built, it was time for the “Big, Bad, Wolf test,” which was actually a hair dryer on high.  I had drawn a starting line to place the house.  The door had to face the hair dryer. I turned it on low  and then on high. The students had measuring tape (which is another CCS for math) to measure how far the house moved.  All the houses moved!  So the groups went back and planned a way to make the house stronger for test 2.  This also changed the house cost so they had to recalculate again.

Once the house was ready for “wind test” two, we repeated the test and if the house moved, they measured the distance from the starting line.  4 out of 5 houses  moved 0 cm on the second test!  The one house that moved went from moving 100 cm to only moving 8, which was still a great improvement.

This picture captures it all! They were so excited to see the results of the second wind test!


Here are the 5 houses.  I love that they were very different from each other.



Part 5, the final post, will be focused on sharing the houses with real estate agents, preparing for presentations for the Three Little Pigs, and also creating flyers and commercials.