Between a Rock and Hard Place — Getting Concrete Thinkers into the Abstract with Kindergarten And PBL
By: Sarah Diaz Kindergarten Teacher, Colegio Internacional Puerto la Cruz
After teaching kindergarten for eleven years, I frequently am asked “Have you ever wanted to teach a different grade level?” I have toyed with the notion; however, there is something delightfully challenging about educating the youngest among us— the fact that they are inherently incapable of understanding the abstract concepts we are meant to teach them. Sounds crazy, no?
The brain of a five-year-old is very close to the size and volume as that of an adult. Neural pruning, which began at around the age of three, has the child remembering and making connections among concepts that are frequently repeated (rules, routines, language, etc.). These young children are great at imitating and mimicking, but are, as any early childhood teacher can tell you, shockingly terrible at impulse control and judgment. They have developed gross motor skills so that they can move within their space with ease, as well as fine motor skills so that they can more carefully manipulate and build with objects within that space. This is the age when students know what they know and have confidence in this knowledge.
Many adults fondly remember their kindergarten year as having copious amounts of play time, play doh, and playmates. Times have changed and the expectations in kindergarten have changed with them. This grade level now more closely resembles that of first grade with expectations of independent reading, writing sentences, completing mathematic equations, and taking standardized assessments. The brain of the five-year-old, however, has not gotten the memo of these changes. It is the task of the early childhood teacher to work within each student’s zone of proximal development in order to make the new expectations an achievable goal.
In the winter, my students learned about dinosaurs. At that point in the school year, they were able to write words, listen and respond to questions during read alouds, and had mastered the foundational math skills of numbers through 15. Enter the joy of project-based learning (PBL). The task was for students to create the best type of dinosaur that they believed could have lived.
Throughout my six week unit, students kept dinosaur journals. I chose journals because it was easy to see student progression when all the written work was in one place as a formative assessment and for student self-assessment. Students could reference what they had questions about, what information they thought was important to remember, and would eventually organize their thoughts into a storyboard for their final presentations. When the questions and research were student-driven, my kindergarteners would repeatedly reread their own work, add details to previous pieces, and maintained their curiosity and enthusiasm throughout the unit. It would also help continue building their fine motor abilities and literacy skills.
In order to assist students in making connections with what we learned in class, I contacted different museums in Montana via facebook and twitter. Mid-way through our dinosaur unit, my kindergartners skyped with a paleontologist. They saw how fossils are transported, how they compared to each other in size, the tools used, and could ask her any question they wanted about dinosaurs at the museum. The weekend after this Skype session, my students had to chose a dinosaur that they liked and wanted to use in their inspiration of creating a new dinosaur. With their families, they researched dinosaurs and returned to school with a clear vision of which dinosaur was their favorite and why. In class they drew sketches and models of what they believed to be the best type of dinosaur. They frequently met in various groupings to discuss their research and the dinosaurs that they envisioned to be the best.
For their final presentations, students picked the “best” dinosaur, created a model of this dinosaur using play doh, and create a dinosaur movie using the Lego Movie app on the class ipads. They had to create storyboards in small groups a “hook” at the beginning, dinosaur facts, and an outro. See an example of the final product:
Aside from the obvious connection building and information learned about dinosaurs during this unit, my students were also exposed to more subtle and abstract concepts. While learning about dinosaurs, my students completed a unit on measurement in mathematics, comparing and contrasting fiction and nonfiction in reading, and learned how to listen and ask relevant questions in language arts. In math, they used dinosaur feet (painted tissue boxes) to measure dimensions of the classroom and school campus. They had to compare their results to a partner and determine why different measurements were recorded. They had to compare dinosaur weights, heights, and speeds in determining which dinosaur was the “best”.
In reading, they read and listened to books about dinosaurs. They had to analyze and critique fiction and nonfiction books using the knowledge they had learned in science. Students also had to verbally exchange in conversations and debates concerning these facts and author/illustrator intentions. These are not easy feats, especially for five-year-olds. To be able to process that amount of information, internalize it, and use it in a new format hit the new kindergarten expectations and kept true to the internal nature of my students.
Each day in kindergarten brings new opportunities, curiosities, and challenges. It can be a struggle to develop a program that promotes student growth to the level that is now expected of this age. With PBL, my students build as they learn, not only with their hands but in their minds. Providing them with new experiences, opportunities to make connections, and challenges that question what they know, my kindergarteners are internalizing more and deeper concepts. As their teacher, PBL keeps me on my toes. Each activity had to be well planned and thought out, but with enough room for student-directed differentiation. I love how excited my students are about coming to school and how they continue making connections to dinosaurs, despite the fact that this unit ended in March. Does this sound crazy? Quite possibly, but — it is kindergarten!