Dragon Unit: a recap

Posts are long overdue. I’ve been in an odd mental-educator state that I am sorting out and will soon get around to writing about. At the same time, classroom activities continued along at a good rate. In January, I posted Enter the Dragon as my teaching partner and I

began a unit integrating Language Arts, Math and Science.  The project ended on a high note just before Spring Break with a culminating event.

Students presented the unit to their parents. The class is small and all but one student had a family representative at the event – in many instances several came to support friends/family. So, what went well and what needs to be thought of for future integrated projects?

During this project, students completed two major items:  a Dragonology book and a 3D dragon.

In the book, students presented their dragon research and genetics work. Students began by researching differences in eastern and western dragons and associated stories. 

Why would they do this?

We wrapped the unit up inside the framework of the students being recently selected dragon riders who needed to learn about the history and life of dragons. As they researched, information slowly trickled in that dragons would be arriving and the hope would be to breed different dragons. Students chose parent dragons. As the future dragon riders

identified key traits, they began talking about their hopes as the “mother” and “father” dragons were crossed. Chromosomes were modeled on student-created Popsicle sticks that allowed them to physically cross various genes. In this example, the student had some challenges with concepts of chromosome pairs as he selected only one from this dragon.

At the same time, students created 2-dimensional floor plans for a dragon habitat building based upon research of each dragon’s preferred setting. Given a space allotment, they created an area using a variety of geometric shapes.

Eventually, the big day came and the genotype of each student’s baby dragon was determined. As the code was developed, students began sketching out their baby dragon. It was great to hear them voice excitement as a trait they wanted – i.e. fire breathing – became a reality or give a little groan as a trait they hoped to obtain – i.e. wings – did not materialize. The baby dragons led students into the final component of the project : creating the dragons.

The celebration was rapidly approaching as students began working with glue guns and cardboard to turn their phenotype sketches into a reality. Students began by drawing nets to design the various features of their dragons. Then, students constructed a 3-D dragon. Using the Tin Men post by Julie Reulbach as inspiration, the major challenge was to calculate total surface area to cover the dragon in its skin (some students then decorated

over top the skin). The “skin” was cut from a length of tissue paper. Students provided me with the length of paper given a fixed width and used this amount to cover their dragons. Some hit it almost perfectly and those that did not were given the opportunity to go back through their calculations and determine where they made a mistake. The mistake needed to match up with the surface area not covered.

That’s the project in an over-simplified nutshell. My intent had been to regularly post to capture the great writing, problem solving and discussions throughout but I was in a writing funk. Overall, the students were engaged and I believe a lot of learning took place.

At the same time…

  • I’m still searching for that sweet spot in project-based learning. A voice whispers in my mind that too much time was spent on a product. The books and model took a considerable amount of time outside of strong processing. Students problem solved but then had to go through the motions of gluing and the students who wanted a great looking product spent lots of outside time. Yet, is this “down” time an important part of the process as well? Do students need the apparent mindless work that allows their minds to work on upcoming details? Are there many intangibles in the act of creating a dragon that I don’t realize?
  • I lost the story. A successful storyline is chockfull of incidents that keep students in character. I know that I was not as present as I could have been and that my partner and I did not meet enough to create a strong story. In the end many students still considered themselves as students working on a project instead of dragon riders finishing an important task.
  • Feedback needs to at a higher level. Students got bogged down in the creation of pages for their book and I made the mistake of waiting until all were done with a certain type of page before responding. This resulted in that students did not get timely feedback throughout the project.

Parent events and celebrations are crucial to extended projects. At home, parents watch their students struggle on extended projects. Though a lot of time was given in class, many students went beyond requirements and worked on their dragons and books during spare time. Not only do culminating events give a real need to have projects finished by a certain point, they also give true closure. Parents rejoice in their student’s achievements while giving internal (or in a few cases out loud) sighs of relief as a project closes. It’s great to see the students flip through their work and explain to their parents and the parents of their peers.

Celebrations

How often do we set aside time to honor students as they travel along their academic pathway? Not being an elementary teacher, I may be wrong, but I would like to think that each year there is some process of honoring the students of the class as they finish out the year. Do other event happen during the course of the year? As students move into middle school, the fragmentation of their education often begins. Focus moves towards mastery of content and students see different teachers for different subjects. Events that bring students together to celebrate what they have done take more planning and may disappear. School doesn’t have to be this way, but it often is.

Celebrations are important. Culminating events after a unit of learning are important because students are provided the opportunity to look back and see what they have done. Parent involvement in these events take the letters off of a report card and give parents a view into the work of their students. Units with a culminating event in mind often require   quality work by students. Their work is polished and individualized to showcase abilities in addition to academic goals. Artwork, dramatic presentations, explanations of concepts are various avenues for students.

What about academic milestones? Emphasis has been placed on completing elementary, middle and high school. These finishing points need to be a time for students to showcase both their time in the respective academic setting and who they currently are. Many students take on hobbies and interests during middle school that define who they are but may not show up in the classroom. It took an evening around a campfire during a class trip to realize that a reticent student was actually an amazing human drum machine. So, how can a culminating ceremony at the end of middle school be designed to honor the talents of students while moving them forward to the next level of their academic journey?

A few ideas…

  • Center the event around students – it’s about them, right?
    • Does the ceremony capture the heritages of students involved?
    • Are student passions represented? This may vary year to year but there always seems to be students who play music, act or have artwork.
    • Who is speaking? Do students address their peers and the audience? Do students from the “next level” provide nuggets of wisdom?
    • Are photographs taken from the “journey” shown? I’m always amazed as to how much a student changes from 6th to 8th grade. What are key steps along the way that capture this process?
  • Is there a symbolic movement to the next “level”? This may be more challenging in some schools but schools that cover a range of academic levels should be able to do something meaningful.
  • Parents and meaningful adults – how are these people involved? They are the support system of students and also need to sit back and smile, laugh and cherish the memories of the past years.
  • Academic achievements – each student has achieved in some way or another. How can portfolios (or other items) be collected and displayed to recognize be