Learning from the Polar Past: Unit Outlines

Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of content in this issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears? Not sure where to begin? We’ve created unit outlines for Grades K-3 and 4-5 using some of the resources found in the Learning from the Polar Past issue. Rather than a prescriptive unit, the outlines are intended to spark your creativity and help you integrate these resources into your own particular teaching situation.

The unit outlines follow the 5E Learning Cycle model – engage, explore, explain, expand, evaluate. Both the Grades K-2 and 3-5 units repeat several cycles within a single unit to allow for the exploration of multiple topics within an overarching goal: the study of dinosaurs for Grades K-2 and fossils for Grades 3-5.

Have another idea for a Learning from the Polar Past unit? Share it with us – and other teachers – by leaving a comment below.


GRADES K-2 UNIT OUTLINE

Summary of Purpose for the Unit

This unit of study was developed to provide students with multiple opportunities to investigate dinosaurs. It uses text and inquiry to answer the following questions:

  • What are dinosaurs?
  • When did dinosaurs live?
  • How do scientists study dinosaurs?
  • What can scientists learn from dinosaur fossils?

Standards Alignment

National Science Education Standards: Science Content Standards
Science content standards are found in Chapter 6 of the
National Science Education Standards.

Science as Inquiry (Grades K-4)

  • Ask questions about objects, organisms, and events in the environment
  • Employ simple equipment and tools to gather data and extend the senses
  • Use data to construct a reasonable explanation
  • Communicate investigations and explanations

Earth and Space Science (Grades K-4)

  • Properties of earth materials

IRA/NCTE Standards for the English Language Arts
View the standards at http://www.ncte.org/standards.

1 – Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts.

3 – Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.

4 – Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

5 – Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

7 – Students conduct research on issues and interests.

8 – Students use a variety of technological and information resources to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

11 – Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

12 – Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes.


Unit Outline

Engage

Read Dinosaurs in the Dark (this issue’s Feature Story) – in text, book, or electronic book format – and introduce the topic of dinosaurs. Conversation around the text should include questions about the text itself as well as students’ prior knowledge about dinosaurs and when they lived.

Begin a class KLEW chart (or one of its variations) by discussing what students know about dinosaurs and what they are wondering (the first and last columns of the chart). Be sure to leave plenty of room in the “W” column as students will generate additional wonderings throughout the unit.

Explore

While the exact instructional sequence during this phase will vary according to students’ prior knowledge and wonderings recorded on the class KLEW chart, teachers will want to ensure that students have opportunities to learn about individual dinosaurs and their characteristics. For example:

  • Provide students with models of various dinosaurs (stuffed toys, plastic models, pictures) or have students bring dinosaur models from home. Give students time to examine the models, sort them, and compare/contrast them (especially if you have multiple models of the same species). Engage students in conversation around these models. What characteristics do they observe? What might these characteristics tell us about where the dinosaurs lived?
  • Read about dinosaurs (individual species and dinosaurs in general) with class read-alouds, small groups, and individual reading. Your media specialist or children’s librarian at your local library can provide assistance in locating appropriate titles for classroom use. Web sites such as KidsDinos.com can provide additional information and images of various dinosaurs. Encourage students to use the texts to either confirm or refute the observations they made from their work with the dinosaur models. Update the class KLEW chart with what students have learned and the evidence that supports it.

Explain

In this phase, students will create a class project that documents their understanding of dinosaurs. Each student should select a dinosaur to focus on. The student’s portion of the project should include a picture or drawing, a description, and information about where the dinosaur lived and what it ate. Specific requirements for this will vary according to the age and ability level of the students. Students should be allowed to refer to the class KLEW chart as they work on their project, and they should be encouraged (or required) to cite their evidence that supports what they’ve learned.

This project can take a variety of forms, depending on time limits, students’ abilities and interests, and available technology. Here are a few ideas:

  • A class book. Each student would contribute a page or two, including a drawing or photo of the dinosaur studied.
  • A blog. Each student could create a post with a digital image and a description. The articles Teacher Tools That Integrate Technology: Educational Blogging and It’s Elementary! Blogging with Young Learners provide guidance in setting up a blog for use with students.
  • A wiki page. Similar to a blog, each student would contribute a single section. The article Teacher Tools That Integrate Technology: Wikis provides guidance in using wikis with students.
  • A VoiceThread. Each student would record his or her description and an image (either a picture or drawing) of the dinosaur. The article VoiceThread: A Collaborative Tool to Integrate Language Arts and Science! provides guidance in using VoiceThread with students.
  • A PowerPoint presentation. Each student could contribute a slide to the class slide show.
  • Video. Students could display a model and discuss what they’ve learned about their dinosaur. If this option is chosen, teachers should be careful to protect student information and privacy when considering if and how to share the video with parents and families.

Explore

We repeat the Explore phase to provide opportunities to investigate dinosaur fossils and paleontology. Read-alouds during this phase might include Stone Girl, Bone Girl, Dinosaur Hunter, Dinosaur Dig!, and Did Dinosaurs Eat Pizza? from the Virtual Bookshelf, as well as other titles from your school and local libraries. Conversation around these activities and texts should focus on the types of fossils scientists study, how they locate and dig for fossils, and what they learn from them.

The lesson Fossil Footsteps allows students to explore dinosaur tracks and to think creatively about what scientists can learn by studying fossilized tracks. This lesson was originally written for students in fourth grade, but can be modified for use with younger students by working as a class or omitting the written assignment from the end of the lesson. Teachers might also allow students to observe bones (such as chicken bones) and to make imprints in clay with them.

Teachers might also wish to simulate a paleontological dig in their classroom or on the schoolyard. The article Dig This! A Relief Sculpture of Dinosaur Bones for Elementary Students details a collaborative project in which fifth-grade students created a relief sculpture of a Stegosaurus, and then set up a dig for their second-grade buddies. Teachers looking for a less-involved activity might set up a simple dig with bones (or cardboard cutouts) in a kiddie pool or an erosion table. Other resources for setting up digs can be found in our article What’s the Difference? Activities to Teach Paleontology and Archaeology.

Explain

After learning about fossils and paleontology, students once again demonstrate what they have learned. Teachers may again choose from a variety of projects – a class book, a blog, VoiceThread, video, and so on. If students have participated in a simulated dig, they might write an entry in their science notebook, write a newspaper article, or videotape a news report documenting their findings. Students should be allowed to refer to the class KLEW chart as they work on their project, and they should be encouraged (or required) to cite their evidence that supports what they’ve learned.

Expand

This phase will vary depending on the interests of the students as well as questions that arise during the other phases of the unit. Some possibilities for further study include deeper study of paleontology through a guest speaker, digital resources (like the Paleontology web site from the American Museum of Natural History), and children’s literature. The study might also include critical examinations of the similarities and differences of dinosaurs shown in books and cartoons and what scientists believe to be true based on fossil evidence, as well as an investigation of other types of fossils, such as fossils of plants and marine organisms.

Assess

This unit provides opportunities for both formative and summative assessment.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment is conducted throughout the unit. For example:

  • Observation of students’ participation in class activities throughout the unit will provide insight into their current understanding and engagement with the topic.
  • Ongoing completion of the KLEW chart will allow teachers to modify the unit accordingly.

Summative Assessment

Summative assessments occur in the two “Explain” phases of the unit. Students’ work on the class projects about dinosaurs and fossils/paleontology provides evidence of student understanding of the topics. Student pages (or sections of a VoiceThread or video) can be assessed using a rubric.

GRADES 3-5 UNIT OUTLINE

Summary of Purpose for the Unit

This unit of study was developed to provide students with multiple opportunities to investigate fossils. It uses multigenre nonfiction text and inquiry to answer the following questions:

  • How do organisms become fossils? What types of fossils exist?
  • What kinds of organisms become fossils?
  • Are all animals/plants fossilized?
  • What can we learn from studying fossils?

Standards Alignment

National Science Education Standards: Science Content Standards
Science content standards are found in Chapter 6 of the
National Science Education Standards.

Science as Inquiry (Grades K-4 and 5-8)

  • Ask questions about objects, organisms, and events in the environment
  • Employ simple equipment and tools to gather data and extend the senses
  • Use data to construct a reasonable explanation
  • Communicate investigations and explanations

Earth and Space Science

  • Properties of earth materials (Grades K-4)
  • Earth’s history (Grades 5-8)

IRA/NCTE Standards for the English Language Arts
View the standards at http://www.ncte.org/standards.

1 – Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts.

3 – Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.

4 – Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

5 – Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

7 – Students conduct research on issues and interests.

8 – Students use a variety of technological and information resources to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

11 – Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

12 – Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes.


Unit Outline

Engage

Read Stone Girl, Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning (from the Virtual Bookshelf) aloud to introduce the topic of fossils. Conversation around the text should include an appreciation of Mary Anning’s work as well as the idea that fossils can provide information about what the world was like long ago.

Ask students to define the word fossil (one age-appropriate definition is traces or remains of plants and animals that lived long ago). Post student ideas in the classroom, and have students revisit and revise their definitions as the unit progresses.

Begin a class KLEW chart (or one of its variations) by discussing what students know about fossils and what they are wondering (the first and last columns of the chart). Be sure to leave plenty of room in the “W” column as students will generate additional wonderings throughout the unit.

Pose these questions to students (if they haven’t been raised during discussion): How do fossils form? What kinds of fossils exist?

Explore

Fossil Scavenger Hunt and Sort

To prepare for this activity, photocopy or print pictures of various types of fossils from a field guide or a web site like The Paleontology Portal: Fossil Gallery. Include impression and mold fossils, fossilized remains, shark teeth, fossilized wood, footprints and other trace fossils, insects in amber, and so on. (You may want to laminate these pictures if you wish  to use them in subsequent years.) Hide the fossil pictures around the classroom. (You may substitute real fossil specimens if available, and may also include nonexamples of fossils, such as rocks, bones, and plants, if you wish.)

To complete this activity, have students search around the room, collecting fossils. Once all the fossils are collected, have small groups design their own criteria for sorting the fossils into groups.  

Each group should present its criteria and classification scheme. Discuss them as a class, guiding students to observe that the fossils have different appearances or forms. Introduce the idea that the way in which fossils form is one way to classify them.  

Explain

Read Fossils (by Sally M. Walker) to page 27, discussing the text as you go. (If you have multiple copies of the text, you may choose to have small groups read instead of a whole class activity.) Ask groups (or the whole class) to list as many types of fossils as they can from the text. Through discussion, lead students to list preserved organisms, impression fossils (molds, casts, and trace fossils), and mineral replacement fossils.

Next, use the experimental procedures described in Fossil Formation Fun and Simulating Fossil Formations to have students create models of preserved organisms, impression fossils (molds, casts, and trace fossils), and mineral replacement fossils. You can also download directions (pdf documents) for creating impression and mold and cast fossils.

If at all possible, have real examples of these types of fossils for students to examine as they create their models. Ask students to compare their models with real fossils. How are they similar? How are they different?

Ask groups to reclassify their fossil pictures into categories and explain how and why their classification scheme has changed. Revisit the KLEW chart – add what students have learned and evidence to support it; add more wonderings if needed.

Introduce next questions: What kinds of organisms become fossils? Are all animals/plants fossilized?

Explore

Play the Fossilization Game (Activity II) to help students understand that not all animals and plants are fossilized. To prepare for this activity, decide on an environment and prepare fossilization cards. Follow the activity as directed.

Explain

Read Dinosaur Bones to page 13. Discuss the process of mineral replacement and connect the text to what students learned in the Fossilization Game – that not every ancient animal or plant became a fossil.

Next, create a class book telling the story of the Fossilization Game. Each student creates a comic strip-style page showing his or her organism and what happened to it throughout time. Use Dinosaur Bones as a mentor text for the book format. Once students have finished, read the book as a class, discussing how only parts of the environment were preserved as fossils.

Revisit the KLEW chart, and have students add new information they’ve learned, the evidence that supports it, and wonderings. Use this discussion to lead students to the next focus question: What can we learn from studying fossils?

Explore

Read Dinosaur Bones (pages 14 to 25) and discuss how paleontologists discover, excavate, and study fossils. Remind students that all types of fossils, not just dinosaurs, are studied in this way.

Simulate paleontological digs by completing the Paleo Cookie Dig or Layer-Cake Earth to allow students to gain an understanding of how people discover fossils. Remind students that their next task is to answer the question What can we learn from studying fossils?

Explain

Idea Circle

Assign students to small groups, and allow each student to select a book about paleontology. (Within a small group, each student should ideally have a different book.) Students read to answer the focus question (What can we learn from studying fossils?) and discuss their findings with their group.

Sample Idea Circle texts

Find many of these titles in the Virtual Bookshelf.

Fossils by Sally Walker (especially Chapter 4: Finding Fossils)

Dinosaur Dig! by Susan H. Grey

Mysteries of the Fossil Dig by Pamela Rushby

Dinosaurs! Battle of the Bones by Sharon Siamon

What Do You Know About Fossils? by Suzanne Slade

Dinos in the Dark by Stephen Whitt

Groups complete an idea circle graphic organizer. Discuss findings as a class, highlighting the role of evidence and making inferences from that evidence in paleontology.

Conclude by reading Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs aloud. Discuss how new technology allows paleontologists to learn more about dinosaurs (and fossils) and revise past understandings. Revisit the KLEW chart and ask students to add new information they’ve learned, evidence to support that new information, and new wonderings.

Before proceeding to the Expand phase, move to the performance assessment task described in Assess.

Expand

The Expand phase of this unit will be student-directed, based on the wonderings generated in the KLEW chart. Students might investigate particular dinosaurs and fossils or read biographies of paleontologists. The unit might also lead into a study of past geologic periods and eras. Allowing for a student-directed expand phase is a way to differentiate instruction based on student interest and ability levels.

Assess

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment is conducted throughout the unit. For example:

  • Observation of groups’ classification and reclassification of the fossil images will provide insight into whether or not students understand the different types of fossils.
  • Students’ pages in the Fossilization Game class book will provide insight into their understanding of the process of fossilization and whether all organisms become fossils.
  • Student and group participation in the idea circle will allow teachers to monitor progress.
  • Ongoing completion of the KLEW chart will allow teachers to modify the unit accordingly.

Summative Assessment

Performance Task: Paleontology dig and writing prompt

This task may be modified according to time and material constraints. At the simplest level, teachers provide students with a fossil specimen, model, or picture and ask them to identify the fossil and answer a writing prompt. The most involved level involves conducting a simulated dig so that students may discover their own specimens to then identify and describe.

Students should use field guides to identify their specimen. They then answer the following writing prompt:

You are a paleontologist studying fossil life in [your state]. While digging in [your city], you discover the following specimen and use field guides to identify it. Write a journal entry for other scientists, describing and identifying the fossil and its type and explaining what we can learn about [your city] based on the fossil.

Teachers should assess written responses based on scientific content. A sample rubric evaluates students on their use of scientific terminology, use of evidence, and scientific content. Teachers might also assess students on their ability to simulate the work of paleontologists, use a field guide, and correctly identify their fossil.


This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither and Nancy Brannon. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Jessica at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org.

Copyright April 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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