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.

Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf, part 3

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

The next part of the project involved designing a house for the three little pigs from the material list.  Before we designed houses, we needed to feel the force of the “Big, Bad Wolf.”  We tested out different materials with the hair dryer.  Most materials struggled with the hair dryer.  The students began discussing they needed a combination of materials to build a strong house.  We also went outside to see how a leaf blower affected the materials. (side note:  We will not be using the leaf blower until the closing event of the unit because the class feels most houses might crush under its force. )

leafblower test

I wanted each student to have time to think individually so they all spread out in the room to design individual plans. I asked them to label the designs with the materials needed for each part of the house.  I knew that coming together for one house design would be difficult as 2nd graders but it is a necessary life skill. COMPROMISE is a social skill that takes practice.  One of the benefits of project-based learning is learning to work as a group.

Here are some pictures of individual house designs:

House design 1

    House design 3house design 2


After finishing individual plans, each student met in their group to share their plans.  They talked about what strength each plan had and worked to create one group plan.

Here are the group plans:

Group 1 plan

Group 2 planGroup 3 plan

Group 4 planGroup 5 plan

The next day, the students had to estimate the cost of building the house. They had to figure out the cost of each item on a calculation sheet and then find the total estimated cost BEFORE they started building.   The sums grew large FAST!  Here is one example:

A group needed 24 craft sticks.  The craft sticks are $12 each. That’s a HUGE problem for 2nd graders.  Here’s how they solved it:  “We know that 1o twelves equal 120. We need to add 24 because we need two more 12’s which is 144.  Now we can double that answer to get 24 twelves.   144 + 144 = 288

How amazing! 🙂 Some groups need a little guidance for the larger sums but they were determined to find the total cost. They didn’t mind that it was hard to solve.

Here is one example of a completed estimated house cost.

calculation sheet


The next post, part 4, will be about building the houses and the Big, Bad Wolf test (hair dryer).

Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf, Part 2

I am writing several posts about my first adventure into project-based learning.  If you missed Part 1, 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?

Before I started the project, I sent an email to my classroom parents to see if anyone was an architect or if they knew an architect.  I was pleased that one student had a relative who was one.  He lived in another state so we sent him a list of questions about architects and designing a building to protect against the wind.  He was AMAZING! He wrote us back and talked about the role of architect and how one would become an architect. Then he describes “wind loading” and how architects use angles and different roofs to help with wind.  He said  flat, hipped, and domed roofs were best.  On a side note, I learned a lot too. I did not know two terms: wind loading and hipped roof. I love learning new things! My students enjoyed that I was learning with them.

I did not want to tell the students what each roof looked like so during centers, one center was a research center. The students wrote down the terms: flat roof, domed roof, hipped roof and angled edges. They looked for images for each term and drew examples on their notes.  Here are pictures of a few students researching these new terms.  As the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”  It helped them so much to see examples. I knew this would help them later in their house designs.





After research, students were introduced to the building material menu and costs.  They were very interested in the materials and started discussing possible building plans right away. Here are a few pictures. Can you tell that they are discussing which materials would be best?




They were beyond excited.  After viewing the material menu, we reread the driving question and then each student worked on designing a house to share with their group the new day.  They were asked to include labels describing which materials they used for each part.  I will share house plans and the group designs along with the math work to show the estimated cost of building the house in the next post.

Click here for Part 3!

Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf? Part 1

I have been reading books and researching sites about project-based learning for over a year but it wasn’t until a month ago that I implemented my first unit.   I participated in a summer book club from my school and  read the book PBL in the Elementary Grades by Buck Institute.  It is a GREAT book and helps break down pbl so you can plan a unit.  I decided to plan a unit around science and math. I saw  a few posts from kindergarten and first grade classrooms where they built houses and then used a hair dryer to act as the Big, Bad Wolf. I liked this idea but wanted to add 2nd grade science standards and also incorporate math in the unit.

By assigning a specific cost to each material, I knew I could naturally meet the CORE standard of adding within 1,000 and also work with understanding multiples.  I knew force and engineering would be integrated as well as how geometric shapes help with wind resistance.

While I had all of this planned, I was sort of lost on how to really start it.  That is why I love Twitter!  I was in a chat called #2ndchat. The topic was creating engaging science units and also collaborative projects.  I was so blessed when @lesahaney became interested in my pbl project.  I shared my overview and plans with her.  Later we skyped and the project EXPLODED into a much deeper unit.  We made our plans and she was so kind to answer all my questions about pbl.  I was excited!

Every year, my team teaches a fairy tale unit.  This tied in well with my pbl project! After reading The Three Little Pigs, we started discussing the houses.  They talked about the different materials the pigs built the houses from and also the wolf’s strong breath.  We talked about who designed houses which lead to a discussion about architects.

From there I posed the question:

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

I never imagined the journey we would take from that moment on…

Click here to read Part 2. 🙂 Until then, please visit my classroom twitter page @missmacsowls and Lesa’s classroom @2ndGrSuperStars page to see pictures and tweets about the project.

Here is one of my favorite pictures so far. Can you tell they are excited about the results of their house test?


Don’t Let that Little Twitter Bird Fool You!

Twitter_logo_blueI know that little blue bird looks cute and all but don’t let its size fool you. That twitter bird is powerful! Let me tell you what happened after I sent out a simple tweet!

I teach in one of the schools that ended up spending the night after the sudden snow/ice storm January 28th. We realized that we were going to be stranded so I sent out this tweet:

“Very exciting day. Some of us are still stranded at school. The kids are being real troopers. 🙂 I think they think it’s an adventure.”

Somehow CNN found our classroom twitter page. They quoted our tweet in their article.


BUT wait! That tweet was not finished yet!  I get called to the office the morning after our “surprise” sleepover and it is an assistant for Greta Van Susteren. She said the FOX news office has been following our tweets and wanted to interview me that night about the event. THIS STARTED FROM ONE TWEET!  

Tweets are powerful. Twitter is the most powerful and classroom-changing tool I know of. I know, I know, I was just like  you. When will I find time to use it? I don’t even understand it. How can it help me? I promise if you give it a chance, you won’t regret it. Here’s my story.

My twitter journey: 

I joined twitter several years ago. The first few months, twitter was mainly a resource to find new ideas and educational resources. That was amazing by itself. I was hooked and knew I found a place where I could grow as an educator. I knew my classroom and teaching practices would change and they have!

Then I slowly started interacting with a few of those I followed. I started sharing my classroom with the world. I watched a few chats. Yes, just watched or “lurked” as it is called.  I will be honest, I had no idea how anyone understood what was being said it was going so fast. HOWEVER, I saw retweets from chats and knew it was changing classrooms and teachers, so I kept trying.  All these years later, I cannot imagine teaching without my  PLN on twitter. I am now a moderator on #2ndchat (bi-weekly, Wed. @7pm central http://2ndchat.wikispaces.com). Imagine that! I was the one shaking my head at the speed of a chat and now I help moderate one!

Through the power of twitter, I see past limits I may have placed on myself and my students. Those walls are gone! I know if I have an idea, I will find someone on twitter that will not only support me but might join me in trying it!

In the past few years, I have collaborated with many amazing educators. Twitter is powerful and life changing for any educator who is willing to keep trying it.  My class joined global projects for all ages and global projects just for 2nd graders. We wrote and shared stories, compared science experiments, created and shared math problems,and we are currently working on a project-based learning unit with another class.

Could I have used these activities with just my individual class? Yes. Would the students have been interested and engaged? Yes. Did they benefit and learn more because it was a collaborative project? ABSOLUTELY!  My students learned more with other classrooms than they would have just within our four walls. We learned that other students can experience the exact same lesson but ask different questions, arrive at other solutions and in turn we learn them all.

How to start with twitter:

1. Just start.

  • It’s as simple as that. Create an account and write a short profile.
  • If you have a friend on twitter, ask them to help you find people to follow.
  • Search for your interests or grade level. @cybraryman1 has tons of resources about twitter. He has a list of educators that you can begin with. You will quickly add more. Here is his twitter PLN (Professional Learning Network) page: http://www.cybraryman.com/gradelevelpln.html

2. READ!

Sign on and read tweets of those you have followed. They will share resources, blog posts, lesson ideas and conversations with others you will want to follow. I just read for the first few weeks. I found many new ideas in one place and you will too!

3. Start a conversation!

If you have a question about a tweet or a shared idea, ASK!  Make sure you have their twitter name in the tweet or they will not know you are talking to them. You will notice the “reply arrow” under the tweet, just like in email.  It will automatically place their names in the tweet.

4. Share!

Did you do something cool in your room? Have you learned something new? Do you have a favorite website or app that helps your students learn? SHARE! We can learn from you!



The Educational Cupcake-It’s not too late!

You know how resolutions go. You make grand proclamations to lose 30 pounds by summer and by week 2, you are eating cupcakes and feeling like that goal is even further away.  Fitness experts would tell you to let go of the past and just start again. If you ate junk at lunch, don’t wait until tomorrow, just make better choices for dinner.  Rarely are goals met without failures but you will never succeed if you let failure stop the process.

The same happens in our classrooms.  I know I have all these amazing dreams for what I want my classroom to be. I think I will come in like “superteacher” and all the kids will be engaged and gaining by leaps and bounds ALL the time.  But that is just not realistic. So, should I give up and eat the educational cupcake since it can’t be like my perfect dream in my head? Of course not, but we all do it.  We have dreams that start at the beginning of school and then by January, we realize all those dreams probably won’t be fulfilled.  I am sure you are so uplifted by this point in the blog but I am wanting to encourage us to start dreaming again.  Maybe they won’t be fulfilled the way you envisioned at first but the dream can still be pursued.

Let past disappointments and failures to be that…in the past.  Try that idea again. Your students are are a few months older.  You are a few months wiser. BE WISER, not more cynical.  As teachers, we are hard on ourselves. We need to show our kids that we learn from mistakes. We use the mistakes to know what NOT to do again.

I am imploring all of us to look through your favorites on twitter, bookmarked sites, pins of pinterest and try again! All those ideas that you hope to use one day. Let this be the year for your ONE DAY. It’s here! Try something new. If you fail, okay learn from it, make it better and try again. Contact that encouraging person on twitter. Collaborate on a project.  New ideas inspire me to be better. Enthusiasm and passion are contagious. Be the spark that not only lights a fire for you but for those around you. Let’s do this! We haven’t lost half the year already. That’s looking at the glass half-empty. We still have half of the year left to do amazing things with ourselves and our students.  Make it count!

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
― Thomas A. Edison

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
― Winston Churchill

Maybe a #nerdlution works better than a resolution…



I seem to always be making resolutions. They last about as long as it takes me to say them.  Last year was a first for me. Last December, I had enough. I knew I needed help with my exercise routine so I hired a personal trainer 2 days a week.  I have only lost 25 pounds since last January but I feel so much better and I am stronger. I will continue my exercise plan,  but this is not the focus of my #nerdlution.  I have always loved writing,  cannot tell you the last time I wrote for fun. As a child, I loved writing stories and journaling.  I need to start that again.  So I pledge to write something every day. Even if it’s just a paragraph or story idea.  It could be a short note about something that happened in my classroom or in my life outside of school.  Another personal goal I have is to carve out more time for my faith.  I am a Christian and I have fallen out of the habit of setting aside time to read God’s Word. It seems to be something I do right before I go to sleep or  as I get ready in the morning. I can tell you, it’s not enough time to read much. 🙂 This is what grounds me and keeps me sane when the rest of the world is falling around me.  So I pledge to spend at least 15 minutes reading my Bible, praying or resting in His presence- knowing He is God. 🙂 I know when I do this, everything else falls into perspective for me.

Here’s my plan to help myself.  I will put my writing notebook on my computer where I spend lots of time on twitter. 🙂 It will remind me to complete my obligations first and then I can play. 🙂 Good luck everyone!