If I’ve learned anything from teaching, it’s that when kids are invested in a project and see it as purposeful, they can do anything! Even the most difficult classes — where doing the normal work is a struggle — will amaze you with what they can do. During projects, students learn reading, writing, math, social studies, science, and so much more that they wouldn’t get with traditional teaching and learning.
This year my students are taking part in an endangered animal project-based learning unit. In project-based learning, students take an important outside problem or question and research to try to solve the problem or answer the essential question. Students collaborate, research, and create as they learn about and work on the problem. In project-based learning, you begin by thinking about the end that you want to get to.
In our endangered animals project, the big problem was that there are so many animals on the endangered list and we do not want them to become extinct. So our essential questions were: What animals are on the endangered animal list? Why are they there? What can we do to help them? Not only do I love the project piece of this type of learning, but I love that with this unit my young kindergartners begin to feel empowered. In the course of this project, which I have done for four years now, my students come to feel that they are important and that they can and must make a difference in their world. And from experience, when you can get students to feel responsible and empowered, you have really taught them how to learn.
Here is a brief description of the sequence of our project to give you a better picture of how it works. I will describe many sections in further detail in this and in future posts. Don’t forget to check back in two weeks for part 2.
Many teachers are fascinated when I talk about researching in kindergarten. My response is that these young students are so curious. They're sponges when it comes to finding out facts and information. Being so young, they do have a few major barriers that you have to work through. The first is that many of them can’t read at all, so books and Web sites are not accessible to them. The other is that when they write something down, they can’t always read it back or remember what it was they wrote. So how do you get around these barriers? With technology!
How do you research if you can’t read?
This is a big issue, but it was not going to stop us from learning about a concept we were interested in. I searched the Internet for videos on the six animals students were learning about. There are so many wonderful videos on animals on National Geographic, Endangered TV, and YouTube. I found that the San Diego Zoo had Webcams of some animals like the polar bear and the panda, allowing students to observe the animal without ever leaving the classroom. Getting books and printing out information from the Web and then having parent volunteers help read and discuss the information was also very valuable.
When researching with young students, I always find myself teaching students lessons on how to read material above their reading level. We have mini lessons on some vocabulary and on using the context clues to figure out the meaning of words.
Another tool that I used this year with my students is a Web site called Read the Words. I typed in the information about the animals and selected an avatar to read the information to my students. This way they could listen to the information.
How do you remember important information if you can’t write or your writing is hard to read?
Again, this is a very valid issue that primary teachers run into. Technology will greatly assist your young students with organizing and remembering information. I gave my students some guidelines on their research. I wanted them to find out the following:
I took the answers to our four questions for each group and created a VoiceThread for each group. If you have not used VoiceThread before, it is an online collaboration tool where students record their responses using their Webcam or microphone, or by typing in text. Having young students share the information they learned by recording their voices was a great way to keep the information organized and accessible.
Once the students had enough information, we moved on with our project. Check back in two weeks to read about how we created posters to spark other students’ interest and how we worked in collaborative groups to write and create a persuasive movie to help save our animals.