On February 24, 2016, I visited the Expeditionary Learning Academy at Moylan School (ELAMS) to guest-teach a third grade English Language Arts lesson with a science-based content focus on animal adaptations. At the time, the students at ELAMS had already been studying frog adaptations for several weeks, so they were familiar with the general vocabulary and concepts surrounding this topic.
My lesson focused on two key learning objectives:
- Students will be able to apply previous knowledge of adaptations to imaginary scenarios in order to demonstrate an understanding of why frogs need adaptations to survive.
- Students will be able to use information gained from illustrations to justify the reasoning behind their creative decisions.
These objectives reflect the Connecticut Core Science Curriculum Framework standard 3.2.a, which asks students to “understand that plants and animals have structures and behaviors that help them survive in a different environment.” In addition, our objectives stem from select Common Core State Standards for third grade writing, such as W.3.2, which requires students to write informative or explanatory texts that examine a topic and clearly convey ideas, using illustrations when appropriate.
In order to help students meet these learning objectives, our lesson centered around three main teaching activities:
- A brief overview of frog adaptations and habitat characteristics
- A creative writing exercise which asked students to design their own frog species with three unique adaptations
- Observations of a real frog
To begin the lesson, I grabbed students’ attention by showing them a large drawing of a crazy frog I designed and then asked them if my frog looked like the frogs they had been studying. After hearing that they would each get to design their own imaginary frog, I used a brief PowerPoint presentation to guide the class through an overview of frog adaptations, habitat characteristics, and example imaginary adaptations.
Creative writing exercise
I dedicated the main portion of the lesson to the creative writing and drawing exercise outlined in the form of a worksheet. In the video above, I walk the class through each of the crazy habitats they can choose from and then brainstorm as a group some characteristics of each place. Afterward, students selected their crazy habitat, identified three characteristics of that environment, and then designed their imaginary frog adaptations.
While designing this activity, I chose to emphasize quality over quantity. I knew I would rather have each student write three strong sentences rather than a long paragraph that did not truly justify their creative decisions. So while some students still went above and beyond to come up with more than three adaptations, the expectations set in place at the beginning of the lesson allowed me to truly push each student to produce their best work – even if there was not as much writing on the page.
In the example above, this particular student initially only listed his imaginary adaptations with no justification for his choices. However, after I pushed him to explain why his frog needs those characteristics to survive, he added a brief sentence to justify each adaptation. If this student were to revise his work, I would encourage him to use complete sentences to discuss each adaptation, rather than simply write them in a list format.
Observing a real frog
To close the lesson, I used a live frog to connect the in-class learning activities to students’ lives outside the classroom. Thanks to some very helpful teachers at another nearby elementary school, the Environmental Sciences Magnet School at Mary Hooker, I was able to borrow a frog whose species probably lived in the marshes that once previously covered much of Hartford.
Each student observed the frog up-close and individually brainstormed one word they would use to describe the visiting creature. Most students noted that had never seen a live frog before, and if they had, they had never observed one so closely. The excited look each student’s face as he or she intently looked upon the live frog was the perfect way to end the lesson.
Reflections on the process
I believe my main strengths during this lesson were establishing a high level of engagement in the classroom and using frequent informal checks to assess student learning. By using an engaging “hook” at the beginning of the lesson, which was my drawing of a crazy frog, I caught students’ attention and immediately engaged them in the lesson content.
In addition, I used various techniques for checking student understanding, such as gathering responses from a range of students by using cold calls when a teacher feels not all students are engaged in the lesson. At the start of the lesson when the students and I were brainstorming words to describe each “crazy” habitat for their frogs, I specifically tried to reach out to those students sitting quietly in the back of the room by asking them to share ideas and providing support if they were unsure of what to say.
One area that I hope to improve upon during future lessons is my delivery of instructions. I noticed that my verbal explanations of several key concepts and instructions often felt a bit rushed or unclear, so I want to work on slowing down and being more specific. I felt as though I often had to repeat certain aspects of the directions to students during the writing exercise, and if I had been more specific during the initial delivery, I may have avoided some of this confusion.