Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Animal Adaptations Synthesis

    What kid doesn't love learning about animal adaptations? In this age of Wild Kratts and Nat Geo Wild, it seems as if students know more about animals than ever before. An animal adaptations unit is the perfect way build on this background knowledge and encourage students to consider topics more deeply. It is also the perfect springboard for overlapping cycles of inquiry.

Animals in the Classroom

    I've never had hamsters, gerbils, or other typical classroom pets. But the classroom is always filled with animals! We've had mealworms, crickets, visiting toads and salamanders, tadpoles, and of course the birds who visit our feeders.
    The different animals have appealed to different groups of students. One boy (who happened to sit near the window) took an especial interest in recording the numbers of birds that we saw. He learned to identify the common species and started giving lessons to other students. Over the course of the last few months, students have noticed that different birds prefer to feed in different places. "The chickadee and the tufted titmouse both come to the feeder, but the robins never do." 
    Just a few weeks ago a student brought in some wood frog eggs, which have hatched into tadpoles. Students noticed that the tadpoles stay still most of the time. "Are they dead? They're not moving," was a common comment of the first few days. 
    These experiences with watching and noticing were vital for our later talk about animal adaptations. Students began the formal lessons with their own firsthand experiences instead of just having secondhand experiences. These firsthand opportunities to observe and talk about animals in an informal way built a firm foundation for our later lessons.

Adaptations Lessons

    Several weeks ago I started more formal science lessons about animal adaptations. I started with a text that I wrote  few years ago, a text designed to get kids saying the word "adaptations" over and over again! 
    Then, students participated in a bird beaks demonstration activity. Using simple household materials, students tried out different model bird beaks. (Directions for this activity are easy to find; my set of full instructions with student pages is available here.) 
    During and after the activity, students mentioned birds that they knew: "This is like a cardinal," they said confidently at the sunflower seeds station. "Do any of our birds eat bugs in bark?" a student asked at the other station. (I loved the use of our birds!)
    Students also used an embedded presentation on my student blog to take notes about camouflage. I've gone back and forth about categorizing examples of camouflage. On the one hand, it seems like going into too much detail. On the other hand, giving students lots of examples and strong vocabulary really enhances their conversations later.
    Right away, students were applying the ideas from the formal lessons into their daily observations. "The tadpoles don't move, probably because they blend in with the bottom of the pond," one student said.
    Looking out the window, another student reflected, "The robin's beak is like a set of chopsticks! I just saw it get a worm!" 


    With all of these experiences, it became time to synthesize and put it all together! Students were asked to choose an animal and find information about its adaptations. 
    This wasn't a normal animal report--students were specifically looking for information about the animal's adaptations. Some students chose to look back to animals they have previously studied. "I did a report on the red panda in third grade, can I work on it again?" one student asked. Other students took the opportunity to research new and unusual creatures. I offered a coupon bounty to students who would agree to study invertebrates--hey, invertebrates need some love! 
    By this point in the year, students should be capable of conducting a simple Internet search and using the application of their choice to create a product. For the most part, things went smoothly. Questions came from students who needed some more help with crafting search terms or wondered how a feature helps an animal to survive. My hardest challenge? Keeping up as kids called my name from around the room--not for help, but because they wanted me to see the cool information they were finding. 
    It was nice to see the synthesis of content and process in this stage. We have come so far as a community that whenever there was a question of "How do I...?" multiple hands went up to help.  The conversations also centered firmly on the learning, as students were engaging with Internet resources to find adaptations that helped their creatures to survive. Yes, they loved it, but even more importantly, it was an activity that highlighted key learning for our grade level.

    Informal experiences can have a huge impact on more formal units. When working with animal adaptations, I saw that our work all year led to serious thinking about animal adaptations.
   And this is not bad for Day 5 of PSSA testing!

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