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.


Intersection of PBL & SBG

Disclaimer: I’m not completely sure of my thoughts at the moment. This post is an attempt to provide some mental order but I’m searching for a balance. Thoughts are truly appreciated. 

I shifted to a standards-based grading/reporting system two years ago and fully appreciate the way that conversations have opened up. Students may still be focused on the grade but we talk about what they have learned and what steps they need to take in order to improve in an area. My lessons are more focused with the feedback I now collect by reporting on specific strands instead of facing class averages. At the same time, I’ve seen my assessment types narrow to traditional-styled assessments (a la pencil and paper variety). Why? It’s an easy and efficient way to collect data on student learning. Students take an assessment, they self-grade to get immediate feedback, I provide additional comments and a current level of achievement against a standard, and lessons are adjusted as needed.

The problem? Students are taking more assessments in my class than before and I don’t feel as if a variety of assessment types are offered. In the past, the vast majority of my assessment came from student projects. I’m searching for that sweet spot that pushes me back into a project-based/portfolio atmosphere while maintaining the data regarding student learning.

Some of my sticking points:

  • Student-initiated assessments have been a success for many students. They continue working and questioning until they reach a better understanding. But, is the scope of this understanding limited by the types of assessments I provide? I attempt to give questions that provide ample opportunity for thought processing but the context is still within the confines of an assessment question.
  • I’ve chased a project-based unit with an assessment for fairly dismal results. Students created models to build analogies for cell organelles. Projects were quite good but when I asked students about organelle functions, many did not seem to have transferred understanding. Did the project prepare them for discussing the function of a cell organelle?
  • Where does a storyline unit mesh with SBG? I see storyline as a vehicle for an integrated project-based learning unit. A framework is cast around students and they operate within the story. Students create. This could be in the form of a guide to a park, a book about dragons, a museum of Ancient Culture, the grand reopening of Camp Halfblood after mythical monsters destroyed the former camp, quilt squares used for a memorial…During these units, students are expected to be constantly working on some aspect of the project. Conversations take place between groups and with me. At the end a celebration showcases student work and is a culminating event of the story.

Now, I’m getting closer to the crux of my dilemma.

  • What is the student does not fully participate in the project?
  • What if the student does not submit any of the work?
  • What if the work submitted is not up to minimum requirements?

Student example: Imagine that student in your class who prides him/herself on being a walking encyclopedia. They are like a sponge and immediately absorb information through listening, reading, etc. This student thrives on traditional-type tests, though may have difficulty on questions asking for connections. However, when given a project to work on, this student is going to do relatively little. The bare minimum will be submitted. Should this student be given the opportunity to take a “reassessment” that is a series of questions instead of working through the project and interacting with peers? I think not. In six years of work as an engineer, I never saw the possibility of taking a test instead of completing a project. Wow, clients would not have returned to the consulting company if I decided to not meet a submittal on time.

In the past, I’ve given less traditional tests in a school year than I have fingers. Recently, my test rate has increased. I’m fully sold on the principles of standards-based grading/reporting yet want a return to a higher variation of assessment types that mesh more with a project-based classroom. Am I the only one hitting the wall on this?

Enter the Dragon

Students were a bit surprised to arrive at class and see their entrance transformed into the mouth of a dragon. Whoa! The dragon arches up over the doorway and onto the ceiling. The small squares in the photo are tokens that the students recently completed. These tokens were used to announce the return of dragons (yep, that what the end of 2012 really meant – dragons will again fly the sky)


and the selection of dragon riders.

A new unit integrating Geometry, Genetics and Informational Text writing has begun. I’m working on the math/science section and enjoying the start to the unit. At the moment, students are preparing for the arrival of parent dragons. Through research, they determined the habitat requirements of the dragons and are creating the lay-out of the dragon lair. This will be our access point to working with area and volume. At the same time, students have identified key traits of the dragons and just transposed phenotypes into genotypes. We will soon attempt to breed these magical creatures and hope for the arrival of baby dragons.