One of the best things about librarians is that we are always willing to share, beg, borrow and steal lessons and projects. Two years ago, I heard about an awesome mystery animal project from an amazing librarian (and friend), Laura Beals D'Elia, and then I saw it replicated when I went to shadow the ever-wonderful Judi Paradis this fall, which made me immediately want to do it this spring. I did it a little differently than both of them because I was working on my own (instead of in collaboration with a classroom teacher), and had minimal support, but I'm still pretty pleased with the results.
Our first graders study animal classification and then take a trip to the Stone Zoo, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity. The basic premise of the project is that students get clues about a mystery animal and have to use what they know about animal classification to create an argument for why they believed the animal belonged to a particular group.
The first step was writing the clues - I used the clues Judi graciously shared with me as inspiration, but wrote my own. I wanted to make sure each clue worked for multiple types of animals, which was tricky!
The next step was recruiting some very eager 5th graders to film a video for me introducing the project and sharing the clues. In retrospect, I shouldn't have had the videos reveal all the clues (rookie mistake!) because it altered the inquiry and discussion process, but the project was still a huge success.
We began by discussing what students already knew about animal classification using Popplet, one of my favorite mind-mapping tools. The following week, we watched the entire video and then began breaking down the clues. Using the ActivBoard, I read out each clue to students and then we spent time discussing what type of animal each clue might belong to, and I color-coded their responses for a visual reminder.
As we worked our way through the clues, I checked in with kids periodically to see what they were thinking. Not only was this a great use of turn-and-talk, but it made the kids stop and really process what they were talking about and work to build their conclusions with supporting evidence. I continued to track what students were saying to show the evolution of their thoughts using Padlet (the most recent posts represent the end of the project, and the further you scroll, the earlier in the process we were). They weren't always correct in their rationale, but I loved hearing their thinking change. Bigger picture!
I was also delighted to find out that the kids kept talking about the project outside of the library, and that they used their time at the zoo trying to desperately figure out what the animal could be. Two kiddos even admitted to taking a map from the zoo and studying it on the bus, determined to find the answer! This is the sort of thing you live for as a teacher, and I was delighted to hear this.
To finish up, kids had to draw a picture of what they believed the mystery animal looked like and write a short explanation of why they felt that way. I gave them alist of the clues related to the animal's appearance, and also a chart breaking down the clues and which categories we'd put them in.
Last but not least, I recorded the students sharing their thoughts using Explain Everything (my go-to app this year). One of the things I noticed as we did this project was how uncomfortable the kids were - they kept demanding certainty and answers, and I would just grin and tell them I wasn't going to tell them anything. I had to repeat multiple times that the clues were supposed to match different categories on purpose, and when we got to the final stage, I told the kids they had to judge for themselves which pieces of evidence were the most important. As you will hear, some kids took a straightforward approach (x had the most checks, so it must be this) and others were willing to explore and wonder a bit more.
On the last days of school, I revealed to the kids that the animal did not, in fact, exist. The reactions were mixed: some felt triumphant in having predicted it, others were very cross that I'd told them that it was a real animal (to be fair, I told them it could only be a real animal category, so imaginary creatures like dragons could not count!), and some thought it was very cool. I am definitely going to repeat this project next year, so hopefully the kiddos won't spoil the surprise!
My name is Ms. Bery. I am a PK-8 library media specialist in the Boston area. In addition to being a certified school librarian, I am also certified in instructional technology, and have a strong interest in exploring and integrating technology in new and exciting ways in the classroom.
I am also a 2016 PBS LearningMedia Local Digital Innovator, and a 2015 recipient of the Massachusetts School Library Association's President's Award.
Check out the Sandbox for apps and websites I've found useful in supporting student learning and creativity. I also (very occasionally) review children's and young adult literature on my book reviews page.
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