Tag Archives: elementary

The Case of the Missing Plant


“Our experiment didn’t work” was the first reaction of Max’s group of 1st and 2nd grade students. Every group in the class had been given four bean seeds to plant in four different ways:

  • One planted and placed in a dark cupboard
  • One in a wet paper towel with no soil
  • One in dry dirt with no water
  • “Control” group with light, soil, and water

Everyone else’s control group grew a normal, healthy plant, but Max’s group had no plant sprouting at all. How could the seed with perfect conditions have not grown?

Field Work

The students were completing an investigation of “what do things need to grow?” as part of a larger PBL project in Necedah, Wisconsin. Teachers Melissa Riggs and Tracy Saylor wanted their young learners to understand the science of food production and looked to their community as starting point.

It was important to tie science and social studies standards to relevant background knowledge that students already had.

Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries in the United States growing 62% of the crop in 2017. So they took their students to a local cranberry marsh to launch a project with the Driving Question: How does a plant go from seed to table?

The field work was authentic to students because Tracy had worked there prior to becoming a teacher and ⅓ of the students had parents or other family members that worked in the cranberry industry. Students observed the entire process from growing to harvesting to packaging and shipping. Students eat Craisins all of the time as snacks, and made proud connections that the source was their community. It demystified that food does not come from the store. The students learned the importance of their local economy in the larger food supply for the country.

The day before the field work the students explored the social studies standard of how harvesting crops looked over one hundred years ago compared to today. They made a T-chart to compare the differences. Melissa and Tracy introduced important vocabulary for the project so students would be prepared to discuss what they would see at the cranberry marsh.

Seed Project

After the field work, the students started the seed experiment in groups. Every Monday for the next few weeks they would check for growth, measure, and document in tables. They were working science standards of experimenting and data collection.

One of the biggest surprises to students was what happened in the dark cupboard. Some students guessed that nothing would grow, but in fact plants grew faster and taller than the control group. But the plants were white and didn’t have leaves or look very healthy. Some students did notice that there was a crack in the cupboard that allowed a small amount of light and the plants were leaning towards it.

For the literacy part of the project students had to choose one fruit or vegetable to research and explain how it grows, how it is harvested, and how it is used. Each student then presented a poster of their chosen plant to the class. They were assessed on non-fiction writing, specifically how to diagram and layout information. It was the students’ first time presenting so the teachers did not want them to be too nervous with an outside audience.

Melissa and Tracy, along with the librarian, found websites and books and then taught students how to pull relevant information from the texts. Most students chose a plant they were familiar with from their garden or the farmer’s market. Students were familiar with “harvesting” from their home gardens but were amazed at the machinery of mass harvesting on commercial farms that they watched on Youtube.

Teacher Reflection

Upon reflecting on the project, Melissa and Tracy were impressed with the engagement level of students throughout the project. Even though it was their first time researching, students were engrossed in inquiry throughout. They continuously wanted to know more about their chosen plant and were proud to share their learning with teachers and classmates. All of the students could explain the details about their research and grew in confidence!

Tracy commented that Max, a low level reader, “needed lots of support, but let me tell you he could tell you about a plum.” Students of all reading abilities were successful in research and in communicating their learning verbally.

PBL gives all students access to content regardless of their reading level.

Melissa and Tracy reflected on their planning as teachers. They admitted that at the beginning they did not have the entire project planned out. They knew the main benchmarks and standards, but allowed room for the project to pivot based on student voice and choice as collected by observation and conservations throughout. They were a little nervous at first, but were happy to have taken the leap to student-centered learning and are already planning future projects. Of course, they can wait to connect students to the community again.

Mystery Solved!

But what about the mystery of the missing plant? Well, students decided to take their plants out of their containers to examine the roots. They were fascinated to see the work that was happening underground. Some students noted that the white color of the plants grown in the dark matched the color of the roots.

When Max’s group emptied out the control group cup they found no seed. They had accidentally planted two seeds in the dark cup in the cupboard. Mystery solved in the name of science!

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

No Shark Fin Soup for You!

Algae Bomb

Carmen and Teresa were surprised when they arrived to class. There were green streamers and green plastic material all over the place. It covered the desks, chairs, bookshelves, and was even on some trash items scattered on the floor. “What happened?” they wondered while excitedly discussing with their classmates.

Carmen and Teresa were 5th graders in Heather Creelman’s class at Goshen Post Elementary, a wall-to-wall PBL school in Loudoun County Public Schools, Virginia. It was launch day for a new project focused on food webs, oceans, and photosynthesis. The “green” represented algae that was out of control at Virginia Beach, located three hours away from their school. Students had many questions:

  • Why was there so much algae?
  • What caused it to spread?
  • What are the uses of algae?
  • What are the results of over production of algae?
  • Does it matter if there is so much algae?

Students were already familiar with the PBL process and started generating Need to Know questions. The discussion on the causes and effects of the algae led to how problems in the food chain can lead to an overpopulation of algae due to a lack of oxygen produced by plankton. Students followed up the food chain from plankton to sharks and realized that a shortage of sharks led to a ripple effect down. At this point Creelman showed a video on shark thinning and how the species was moving toward endangerment. She then asked the Driving Question: “How can we as stewards of the ocean advocate for the protection of sharks?”

Authentic Inquiry

Creelman and her colleagues had planned this project to focus on an authentic problem that matched standards in science, technology, and ELA. They knew that sharks would be the focus and that students would create a brochure of their learning and have a verbal presentation, but they didn’t know what direction students would take the project and who the audience would be. They left that up to the students to decide.

Through research students soon discovered that sharks were often hunted specifically for their dorsal fin. Fisherman would cut it off to be sold to restaurants for shark fin soup and throw the rest of the shark back into the ocean. They were not happy about this practice! Carmen looked into the law and discovered that Virginia already had a law prohibiting shark fishing, but it had a loophole: restaurants could still buy shark fins harvested elsewhere. Teresa discovered that there was a restaurant an hour away that actually served shark fin soup.

Students were outraged and decided that they needed to take action. They wanted to educate the public and change the law. Students discussed who the authentic audience should be, and they immediately decided that the president must act! The teachers dialed down their expectations to a local official. Students researched and found their State Representative Jennifer Wexton and sent an email inviting her to their classroom to hear about the sale of shark fins. A few days later, Rep. Wexton responded yes and a date was set.

Carmen and Teresa were so excited! They knew that their work on sharks would be shared with a celebrity. This wasn’t a make believe project. They would have the ear of an actual government official. Carmen and Teresa worked hard on their brochure and elevator pitch. They gave and received feedback to their classmates through the Tuning Protocol. They revised their work so that they could present a factual and motivational presentation on why shark products should not be sold.

The big day came for Rep. Wexton to visit. Carmen and Teresa were nervous, but confident because they believed in the urgency of their pitch and were well prepared. When it was their turn, they shook Rep. Wexton’s hand and delivered their elevator pitch. It was a great day for Goshen Post Elementary to be proud of!

Fast forward a year later when out of the blue, Creelman received a tweet with a video in it from Rep. Wexton revealing that the House in Virginia had passed the Shark Fin Sale Elimination Act, a bill banning the commercial sale of shark fins and products containing shark fins.

When Creelman shared the news with Carmen and Teresa and the rest of the now 6th grade students, they were overjoyed! They beamed with confidence from what they had achieved.

Responsible Decision Making

The Shark Fin Project is an exemplary example of how PBL can be used to develop the Social and Emotional Skills of Responsible Decision Making. Students were identifying problems, analyzing situations, solving problems, and evaluating during the entire project. From the launch students were asking questions and actively investigating the root cause of too much algae at the beach. They were exploring an authentic problem near them and looked to solve it.

Inquiry throughout the project had them discovering and analyzing the sale of shark fins in their state and concluding the action needed was to pass a new law. Through the Tuning Protocol, students evaluated each other’s work. Students reflected on changes they needed to make to their final presentations.

The ultimate result of this project was that students not only learned about, but practiced ethical responsibility. They took on the task of making a change in their state laws. During final reflection Carmen said, “This made me see that people will actually listen to me even though I am only 10.” Teresa agreed adding, “I am going to vote someday because it does make a difference.”

Creelman shared that in her ten years of teaching, students have never been more empowered because they knew they were making a real impact. As teachers we don’t need to focus on preparing students for the future, they can make a difference RIGHT NOW if only given the opportunity!

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.