October 11, 2017

Ontario Grade 5/6 Science: Life Systems Culminating Projects

When planning any unit I love to use "backwards design", meaning that I go through the following process:
1.  Determine the big ideas I want students to understand by the end of the unit.
2.  Design a culminating task that allows students to demonstrate their understanding of those big ideas.
3.  Planning lessons that allow students to explore those big ideas, so that they will meet with success upon reaching the culminating task.

Step 1:  Determine the Big Ideas

When dealing with a split grade (which I almost always am!), those big ideas are even more important!  I don't want to be running two completely separate programs.  When I approached the Understanding Life Systems strand for my Grade 5/6 class, I considered the big ideas for both strands:
Grade 5:  Human Organ Systems
Grade 6:  Biodiversity

Basically, I wanted students to understand that parts of a life system work together to keep the whole system healthy, and that human actions can affect these systems, both positively and negatively.  

Step 2:  Create a Culminating Task

After determining that I wanted students to demonstrate their understanding of how life systems worked, I decided that they could show their learning by creating a complete system.  Grade 5s would create human body systems, and Grade 6s would create ecosystems.  With 25 students (9 Grade 5s and 16 Grade 6s), I assigned each student a system. (Due to the particular needs of my small Grade 5 group, I decided to assign only five types of human body stems, knowing that we would be visiting other systems in our health classes.)

Here are the systems I chose:  
Students would need to:

1.  Use a variety of materials to create a three-dimensional complete system.
2.  Identify the different parts of the system.  Grade 5s labeled each part and included a glossary, while Grade 6s identified features such as the different types of producers and consumers in their systems.
3.  Display their finished systems and explain them to the Grade 2/3 and Grade 4/5 classes in our school, and answer any questions that may arise.

Step 3:  Plan Enabling Lessons

Once I knew what I wanted my students to be able to demonstrate at the end of our unit, I set about planning a series of lessons that would help students meet with success.  We explored:

  • Parts of a System (we initially looked at items such as bicycles and pulley systems)
  • Classifications (looking at how parts of a system may be sorted by their function)
  • Food Chains
  • Trophic Pyramids
  • Interdependence
  • Human Actions - both positive and negative (We looked at the issue of microbeads, exploring how these beads could affect both human body systems and ecosytems.)
The science centres from Teaching is a Gift were crucial for my students in exploring the big ideas of this unit, and their `hands-on`nature meant my students were always engaged.

Step 4:  The Projects!!!

I allowed my students plenty of time to work on their final projects in class, but also let them work on them at home as well.  I made it clear that they would be assessed on their learning, not on the actual physical object itself.  As students knew their assignments from the very beginning of the unit, they had ample time to gather any materials they wanted to use, and they were very enthusiastic about putting together projects that would show what they had been exploring in class.  We invited students from other classes to come in to see the projects and to ask students "hard questions" (a task the younger students took very seriously).  I walked about the room during these periods, listening in to my students' explanations, and asking my own probing questions.  I waited for a peaceful period after school to examine both the projects and my anecdotal notes to arrive at a final assessment for this project, and shared my thoughts with students on a one-on-one basis over the next few days.  

Teaching in a split-grade classroom can be challenging, but I find that staying focused on the big ideas always helps keep me and my students on the right track with the curriculum!

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