Save the Endangered Animals: Assessing Project-Based Learning

As the weather finally — finally! — starts to cool down a bit here in Seoul, I’m going to be revisiting a project I introduced a few months ago. Not ringing a bell? That’s okay! Here’s a refresher:

Every autumn, my class’s dynamic theme is Ecology and Conservation. All season long, we learn about our Earth, its fantastic biomes, the problems it faces, and what we can do to keep it safe. We read stories and poems, watch all sorts of multimedia, and — my students’ favorite of all — undertake an awesome PBL! Last year, my second-year Korean Kindergarten students had a blast strengthening their English language and science skills by choosing a biome, learning, and modeling how energy transferred through the ecosystem there, and displaying their written work and their tri-oramas for the whole school to see.

This year, I’m tweaking this project a bit to focus on a topic my current class expressed interest in learning about: endangered animals. Read on to learn about how I plan to use this fun learning opportunity to assess some key skills I went my students to develop this year.

0. Get ready… Get set…

Before we get started with anything, I think it’s important to introduce the scope and expectations of the project to my students. To help me with this, I’m careful to save records of past student work, in case my current students don’t remember the awesome display my students made last year.

Once they’re pumped up to start saving the animals, I’ll introduce this checklist I made to help the kids achieve the project’s goals. I haven’t used a checklist like this before, but I’ve read a lot about how much self-reflection and self-assessment can do to help young learners stay on track. Each student will have a copy of their checklist in their writing book as a reminder of what they want to achieve, then we’ll all color them in during the Endangered Animal Fair, when the project’s complete!

1. Brainstorm!

At this point in the year, my students know exactly what to expect when I draw the giant “Brainstorm Cloud” on the whiteboard — we use brainstorming to help us collaborate as we discuss topics and share ideas in many different classes. For the purpose of this PBL, we’ll start with the BIG question we’re answering as a class — “Why are animals endangered?”

I’ll take notes on the board and moderate while the students discuss the topic, asking some guiding questions to encourage participation from everyone, but my really important task here is to conduct a quick formative assessment:

What do my students already know about this topic? What are they interested in learning? Is there anyone in class who seems more or less engaged than usual?

Because we have plenty of time built into the project for knowledge gathering, it’s just as important for me to check on students’ active listening skills, as being a good listener and an active class participant is something we’ve worked on all year. My students are so young that modeling active class participation is a key component of our everyday work.

During this phase, it’s important for me to float around throughout the classroom, encouraging participation from students who are shyer and observing how everyone interacts with one another so that I can check that everyone is engaged in the project and ready to learn!

2. Fact Finding!

In Kindergarten, I like to call the research component of this project Fact Finding. Throughout the dynamic theme, we’ll be learning about many different endangered animals that students may want to do their project on. During key transition times — especially after lunchtime and morning and afternoon snack — we’ll spotlight an endangered animal on the WWF website. Students will take turns reading about the animals and discussing them. When appropriate, we’ll watch a video or take a quiz about the animal or a habitat on Brainpop, Jr.

It’s easy to assess older students’ fact-finding abilities by their bibliographies, but for younger learners, this process should be guided by the teacher. Do you know what that means? More observation!

When I conduct classes like this, I’m constantly assessing performance by leading class discussions and making more observations of student behavior. This helps students synthesize what they’re learning by hearing from one another and putting things into their own words.

3. Tri-orama Time

Now that my students have gotten excited about the new project, it’s time for everyone to choose an animal and get to work! The next few steps of my PBL are a more interactive performative assessment where students actually get their hands dirty showing what they’ve learned.

While, a year later, my students from last year can still tell you everything about the biome they constructed, wrote about, and shared with the class, this project is also awesome from a teacher standpoint, because of everything it taught my about their writing and oral presentation skills, as well as their abilities to follow directions and use class materials respectfully.

Since this project was such an effective assessment of my students’ abilities, I’m excited to be starting it again soon, but this module helped me identify a few places for tweaks in my instruction plan. There’s always room for improvement, right?

My students will spend approximately one hour per week on Friday afternoons constructing their tri-oramas out of different kinds of paper and clay during the month of October. We’ll keep learning and fact-finding during the week, but I’ll also make time to meet with each student individually to check on progress with their tri-orama and their writing. This will be an informal meeting where I ask a few questions about what they’re working on and provide some simple feedback. This will help keep them on-track regarding the objectives of the project, while also continuing to provide me with information about how they’re comprehending both the material and my instructions.

4. Endangered Animal Fair

An essential component of PBL is public presentation. My students will use their writing classes to write a short paragraph explaining their tri-orama. Although these kids are little, we already use the four-step writing process for everything we do, which has teacher-provided feedback and revision built right in.

While we complete the written component of this project and look ahead toward the Endangered Animal Fair, I’ll make sure to revisit the checklist with my students one last time. Did they meet the goals that we discussed? How would they assess their own progress on this project? Do they feel like they’ve learned a lot and tried their best?

Our final performative assessment for this dynamic theme will be Endangered Animal Day. I’ll come to school in an embarrassing costume and encourage them to dress up, too, while everyone shares what they’ve written. We did it! Yay!

Assessment Rubric

Because this PBL covers so much content and so many different skill sets, I made my own rubric to allow me to check each student’s progress every step of the way. The goals are the exact same as the children received on their checklist, setting everybody up for success, as well as fun!

I’ll use this rubric to check for competency in the areas that this PBL targets. It’s refreshing to know that, along with the more comfortable temperatures and vastly superior seasonal foods that herald fall’s arrival, I also have a well-integrated plan to set my students up for success all season long.

References

Brainpop, Jr. (n.d.). [Screenshot of Brainpop, Jr. interface]. Retrieved August 26, 2018, from https://jr.brainpop.com/science/habitats/rainforests/

Meisels, S. J., Ed.D. (n.d.). Performance Assessment. Retrieved August 25, 2018, from http://teacher.scholastic.com/professional/assessment/perfassess.htm

World Wildlife Fund. (n.d.). [Screenshot of World Wildlife Fund Species Page]. Retrieved August 26, 2018, from https://www.worldwildlife.org/species