The Back is Where it’s At!

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Students will be able to use observations to describe the major difference between a vertebrate and an invertebrate.

Big Idea

Comparing ourselves to a worm helps students understand what it means to be a vertebrate.


10 minutes

Gather students on the rug using a preferred classroom management technique. I like to use my “Stop, look, listen.” The students stop what they are doing, look at me and listen for the direction. I usually preface the direction with, “When I say go…” This reminds the students to listen to the whole direction before moving to follow the directive.

In this case I would say, “When I say go I would like you to clear your space, push in your chair and go take a spot on your dot. Walking feet go.”

By saying “walking feet” I am reminding the students to use walking feet in the classroom to ensure safe movement between areas.

When all of the students are seated on their dot in the rug area I tell them they are going to listen and follow the directions from a song I will play on the CD player.

 I tell the students, “When I say “Go” you will get up and find a spot on the rug area where you have room to move but can keep control of your body. Anyone who I see does not have control of their body will be asked to move to the side and sit down until they have their body back under control.”

By telling the students to wait until they hear me say, “Go” I am less likely to run into the issue of students moving before I have finished giving the direction.

“Does everyone understand? Okay good. Go.”

Once the students are in position I turn on the music.

We follow the directions given in the song Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, sung by The Learning Station on their Here We Go Loopty Loo CD. The reason I chose this version of the song is because it mentions the old familiar body parts (prior knowledge), but it also introduces some new less familiar body parts (new vocabulary).

After the song is done I have the students sit back down on their spots by singing the “Spot on Your Dot” song.


I use this song to engage my students in a fun way to begin thinking about body parts. This song is used to capture the students attention, connect their thinking to the situation and help them access currant knowledge; in this case vocabulary relating to familiar body parts. 


45 minutes

Once the students are seated I tell them, “Today we are going to read the book What is a Vertebrate? by Bobbie Kalman. Looking at the cover what do you think this book is going to be about?”

I select a student who is following the correct classroom protocol of raising their hand to respond to the question.

“That’s a good prediction Sebastian; this book could be about koala bears and I like the way you explained your thinking by telling me how there is a koala bear on the cover of the book.”

“Raise your hand if you think you know what a vertebrate is?"

Most of the time I do not get anyone who raises their hand. That was the case today. 

"That's okay because we are going to read this book which will give us the information we need to answer that question." 


As we read through the book I point out the features of a non-fiction book and we discuss any new vocabulary words we come across. Words such as; backbone, mammal, amphibian, reptile, muscle, cartilage, etc.


When the book is over I ask the students to take a seat around the edge of the rug by singing the “Edge of the Rug” song.

Once everyone is seated around the edge I ask, "Now that we have finished reading our book, does anyone think they can tell me what a vertebrate is?"

I select a student who has raised their hand. 

"Thanks Bruce; a vertebrate is an animal with a backbone. Lots of people including scientists read books to find out information so they can answer questions."

Now I bring out the container of worms I have and pull out two or three and lay them on a damp paper towel where everyone can see.

“Today at one of your integrated work stations I am going to ask you to observe the worms using a magnifying glass. I am not going to have you touch the worms today, what did Mrs. Clapp just say?”

I have the students repeat back to me what I just said because this clarifies the direction I just gave in the students mind.

“That’s right you are just going to observe, look at the worms using a magnifying glass.”

I make sure to repeat the direction again without using the word “touch” because the words “observe” and “look” are the words that I want the student’ to recall me saying.

“While you are observing the worms I want you to think about the question, “How are worms and people alike and different?””

“There will be a grown-up at this station to record your results on a piece of chart paper. Once you have a good collection of responses you will choose one way we are alike and one way we are different to record in your science journal.”


“Does everyone understand what you are going to do at this station?”

Most students nod their head yes.

“Who can repeat back to me what you are going to do at this station?”

I select a student who I know is going to give an accurate response because I do not want other students to become confused by incorrect information.

“Well done Ashley; you told me you are going to observe worms and find out how worms and people are alike or different. When you have some answers to that question you are going to choose your favorite alike and different response and record it in your science journal.”

“Does anyone have any questions?”


Once I feel the group has a good grasp of the instructions I send the students over one table group at a time to maintain a safe and orderly classroom. It usually sounds like this;

“Table number one go have some observation fun.

Table number two, you know what to do.

Table number three, hope you were listening to me, and

Table number four, you shouldn’t be here anymore.”


Allow the students 20 minutes to work on this activity.

Set a visual timer and remind the students to look at the timer so they will use their time wisely.

Observing worms.                                                                      Student observing worms.

Using a magnifying glass to see worm segments.                     Recording in our science journals.

Student reading about worms.                                                 Student sharing what he read.

Student discussing worm observations


In this activity the students are exploring through observation to answer a given question; “How are worms and people alike and different?” The students will observe the worms and begin to make connections to the information they have just heard from the book we read. Through exploration the students begin to see the different structural make-up of vertebrates and invertebrates.  


The reason that I select worms for the students to observe is because at our school we have a vernal composting program. Each grade level has a worm bin to take care of and in order for the students to take responsibility for the worm bin they need to become familiar with its occupants. Observing the worms and seeing they are living beings is a good way for the students to establish a connection with them. Once the students have become familiar with the worms, what they eat and how to care for the worm bin, they will take on ownership of collecting the compostable waste at lunch and putting it in the worm bin in the correct fashion.  




At another work station the students are directed to sort animals into two categories – vertebrate or invertebrate (ELA and math).

Vertebrate and Invertebrate Sort

Sorting invertebrates and vertebrates.                       Student sharing his sorting results.


At another station the students are directed to use pipe cleaners and white beads to create a vertebrate. The pipe cleaners represent the main parts of the animal’s body and the white beads represent the vertebrae which make up the backbone (engineering).

Pipe cleaner vertebrate sample.

Building our own vertebrate.                                     Student building a vertebrate


At another station the students are directed to count and graph the vertebrates. The vertebrates come from the five different families so the students are introduced to another way to classify animals (math).

Graph the Vertebrates 

Graphing vertebrates.                                                Student recording his vertebrates.


These three activities provide the students with the opportunity to apply and expand their understanding of the concepts within new contexts and situations thus elaborating on the information they have been presented with. 


Later on in the day we watch the Animal Classification movie by BrainPop Jr. This is a free movie for students to watch. This is a good way to use technology to reinforce the lesson. Students could even watch this movie at the computer station themselves once you load it up. 


A lesson extension can also be made by allowing the students to begin exploring the five main families of vertebrates. SMART Exchange has several lessons; I like Animal Classification: Sort Mammals, Reptiles, Birds, Fish and Amphibians.  


10 minutes

When the time is up I blow two short blasts on my whistle and use the “Stop, look, listen” technique mentioned above.

“When I say go, I would like you to clean up your space remembering to take care of our things, push in your chair, collect your science journal, whether it is finished or not, and use walking feet to go and take a spot on your dot.”

Student recording of what is different - many of the students spent longer observing the worms than I anticipated so the majority of students only had one recording. 


Once the students are seated I tell them that their exit slip for today is to share with me the observations they recorded in their science journal.

 “For today’s exit ticket you need to share with me one observation you made on how worms and people are alike and one way we are different.”

I use the fair sticks to determine the order of the students.

Once a student has shared his/her observations with me they are able to use the hand sanitizer and go to get their snack. If a student is unable to give me an answer, they know they can do one of two things.

  1. They can ask a friend to help, or
  2. They can wait until everyone else has gone and then we will work on what their observations were together.


I use this exit ticket process as a way for the students to analyze their exploration by explaining to me the two main things they observed during work station time. Through this explanation process I can see who made a connection from the observation to the text and those who may need more clarification through more informational reading. Later in the day I would read the book Wiggly Earthworms (No Backbone! the World of Invertebrates) to help students understand the main difference between vertebrates and invertebrates. 



Teaching Challenge - How can I have students better model/record their scientific ideas both visually and textually? 

In order to assess if my students have successfully understood and retained the information presented in the lesson I set out an evaluation task for morning work the next day.

As the students arrive I have the task written on the chart at the head of the classroom. It reads, “In your science journal draw a vertebrate on one page and invertebrate on another.” For my higher performing students I would also request that they label their work. Other students I would have them dictate what their animal is to me and label it for them.

Based on the animals the student chose to draw under each category I could assess if the student truly understood the previous days lesson.  

Student sample 1                                                    Student sample 2

Student sharing her morning work

Student sharing his morning work