My favorite project every year is the animal unit I do with my first grade students. We begin by learning about different classifications of animals: mammals, birds, fish, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. Then students each pick an animal they want to learn more about. To prevent 25 students from all picking the exact same animal, I usually create a list of animals from all classifications and then let students pick an animal out of a hat.
As a class we generate a list of 4-6 questions to ask about our animals. I then put those questions together in Microsoft PowerPoint with one question per slide. I also add a picture to help my second language students and beginning readers remember what they need to find for each page. The PowerPoint file then gets printed out as a Handout with 3 slides per page. The benefit of the handout page is that students who are capable may write their answers on the line. Struggling readers and second language learners can draw the answers as they find them.
Then we learn about research. I make sure I have read over every question with my students several times first to make sure they know exactly what they are looking for. Then we get a lesson on the research tool of the day. I try to tailor the research tool to the ability level of my students. Classes with high populations of low ability readers will usually get to watch videos of their animals from Discovery Education (http://www.discoveryeducation.com) or PBS Teachers Domain (http://www.teachersdomain.org/). I download the videos ahead of time and place them in a folder on the desktop of every student computer. Then students can put on their headphones and watch the video as many times as they need to find the answers for their project.
Other classes have used a terrific search engine called Nettrekker (http:// http://school.nettrekker.com). Nettrekker is a paid service, but it is terrific for elementary schools. First, it provides students with a safer search area then the standard search engines do since all sites are evaluated for their appropriateness. Second, it provides a read-aloud feature that will read any highlighted text for students. Third, I can create bookmarked lists ahead of time for students to access that are based on animal.
I help out students who are having trouble finding answers. I also designate students who finish quickly as “Teacher Helpers” who get to help other students. Generally we do get all of our answers found in one 50-minute period, although I do designate two days for this just in case.
The next step is to find pictures of their animals. Sometimes I also have students draw a picture of their animal on the computer using the available drawing program. Our picture search always comes from one place www.Pics4Learning.com. Pics4Learning is a free image library for education that provides teachers and students with thousands of copyright-friendly photos and images for classroom projects. I teach students how to download the images by clicking the Download button. For simplicity, students just save to the Desktop of their computers. I can quickly move them later to the school server for faster access.
Afterward, I photograph each student standing in front of a green backdrop. The green will be replaced by the images students downloaded earlier. This is actually called Chroma Key. It can be done very easily with a simple green background (or any other solid color that students are NOT wearing). I do enough green screen projects that I have actually spray painted an old projection screen green. I also keep a cardigan or lab coat on hand for those students who are wearing green so their clothes don’t disappear.
To do the actual Chroma Key magic, I use a program called Frames by Tech4Learning. I start by importing a picture of the student’s animal and a picture of the student. These get imported onto the same page or frame. Then I remove the green background from the student photo using the Chroma Key feature from the tool bar. This reveals the animal photo behind it and makes it look like the student is part of the animal photo. The same can be done with video as well as still images.
Don’t worry if you can’t afford to buy new software. You can do the same Chroma Key magic with Windows Movie Maker and iMovie. There are dozens of video tutorials on YouTube that will walk you through the entire process.
The final step is to prepare a script for the students. I help them rewrite the answers from their PowerPoint created planning sheets to the scripts. Finally I connect a microphone to the computer and record students reading what they learned about their animals. This can take some time, so I prepare an independent activity for students to complete while they wait their turn. When I can, I’ll recruit a few 5th grade students to come do the recording just to make it go faster. Fifth graders can be a teacher’s best resource sometimes.
The best part of the entire project is Premier Day. After all the projects are complete, I roll out a red carpet and we watch everyone’s finished movies. Every time, without fail, students get embarrassed when their movie is playing and then they giggle with excitement during everyone else’s movies. They applaud for each other and help build each others’ self-esteem and confidence. They become so proud of these movies. I love that. I love that I can give them a project they become excited about and that they want to share. Those are the days that I love being a teacher.