My Feathery Friends

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SWBAT locate key details from the text and illustrations about how feathers meet the needs of birds.

Big Idea

What is the purpose of feathers? (Okay, *besides* flying!) Feathers are actually incredible external parts. They help birds meet all kinds of needs, and they are the key to our biomimicry engineering designs.

Field Guide (Instructional Notes)

Over the first 7 lessons in this unit, students have worked towards mastering standard 1-LS1-1 Use materials to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants and/or animals use their external parts to help them survive, grow, and meet their needs.  The next 3 lessons introduce a final external part-- feathers-- and give students the opportunity to mimic feathers as they design a solution to a school-based problem of their choice.

In this lesson and the subsequent lesson, we will read a text about the many uses of feathers.  Since this text is long, we will only read half today.  Be prepared to be amazed by the natural world and some incredible author’s craft in today's read-aloud!  This lesson is structured according to the Common Core Language Arts standards RI.2 ad RI.6, finding key details in the text and illustrations, and retelling the main topic and key details.

This science lesson can be followed up by rereading the text, Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen, during your Word Work or phonics block.  The author chose vivid verbs like “glide” and “sprint,” juicy adjectives like “damp” and “delicate,” and my personal favorite element—similes!  It’s such a gem of a text, and it will fit nicely into your day’s or week’s instruction.

Take-off (Warm-up)

5 minutes

I always like to start off with a song.  Songs are a great way to sneak in content knowledge and a little movement!  I start this lesson singing a song about External Features.  I have our song displayed digitally, and I have key sections of the lesson on a flipchart, or whiteboard display.

Next, I activate students' schema, or background knowledge, about how feathers help birds.  Students visualize their brains filled with folders, like my file cabinet, and pull the “feathers” folder out!

What do you know about feathers?  How do feathers help birds? Are all feathers the same?    

Students talk with a partner and then share.  I record this on a schema file digitally displayed, although chart paper works just as well too.  A schema file, explained in the second edition of Debbie Millers's book Reading with Meaning, is essentially a file folder.  The folder is divided into sections, much like a KWL, with space for schema (K), Questions (W), and New Learning (L).  There is also a section for misconceptions, and at my school, we added in a WOW! fact section for the new ideas that really blow our mind.  In this lesson, we are only using the schema portion.

Next, I set the purpose for learning by sharing the objective.  I like to display the objective and break it down.  I circle or use a highlighter for the words text and illustrations.  Also, “meet the needs” is the NGSS standard’s language, but I want students to think of this as “helping” the birds. 

Today we will use the text and illustrations to locate key details about how feathers meet the needs of birds.  Meet the needs means “helps.”  We’re actually looking for details about how feathers help birds.

Soaring to New Heights (Exploration)

20 minutes

Before reading

First, I introduce the Main Topic and Key Details graphic organizer.  The graphic organizer is divided into facts learned from the text and facts learned from the photographs, which hits Common Core ELA standard RI 1.6.  I am teaching this lesson early in the year (October), so we will complete the organizer as a shared writing.  However, if you are teaching this lesson later in the year, and your students are more familiar with these organizers, students can all record individually as well.  At this point in the year, with such early-stage writers, I don't want students to be so busy that they aren't actively thinking and participating.  

We will be taking notes about key details together.  We have learned that good writers organize their thinking-- sometimes with charts.  See how this organizer, or chart, has us list the main topic.  Then below, we will write facts from the text here (point to the left column) and facts from the illustrations here (point to the right column).

Now we are ready to read!  I will show the cover of the book and have students turn and talk to compare the feathers on the cover. 

Do you recognize any of these feathers?  How are they similar or different?

Next, we will read the introductory page together.  I like to read the text once or twice and let it sink in. 

You know what’s cool about this book?  Remember how our friend Steve Jenkins (another great nonfiction author!) starts each book with an introduction that tells us the main topic?  Well, Melissa Stewart does too!  Listen and see if you can figure out what the main topic will be.

If students don’t pick up on the topic right away from the introduction, I reread it and emphasize key words.  Together, we will restate and record the main topic (Jobs of feathers) on the enlarged or digitally displayed graphic organizer. 

During reading

I first read the simile at the top of the page, and then the detailed text specific to the bird.  I model listening for the type of bird and the job of its feathers.  Then, I model getting even more information about the bird from the illustrations. 

Okay, so the bird on this page is a blue jay.  The text says the blue jay fluffs up its feathers to hold in warm air, like a blanket.  Visualize that warm blanket surrounding you, just like the blue jay’s feathers.  Under “From the Text” I will write the words blue jay and warm.  Now I’m going to look closely at the photograph.  Wow!  I see lots of snow and it looks cold.  Oh, now it makes sense to me why a blue jay’s feathers have to keep him warm… because he lives in a cold place.  Under “From the Illustrations” I will write the key words snow and cold.

After modeling with the first two pages or so, I’ll gradually release this to students so that they are talking with partner and then sharing their thinking.  Gradual release is so important-- you know, encouraging the baby birds to leave the nest!  A sample note-taking sheet might look like this after the first few pages:

From the Text

From the Illustrations

Blue jay feathers, warm


Wood duck, pillow for eggs



Heron, shade to see fish

Live in snowy places


Nest in trees!!!

The feather looks soft.


Walks in water, super long legs, neck, and beak

Here are just a few suggestions for differentiation:

  • You can pre-record the bird names and/or selected birds if students are all recording.
  • Only selected sections can be read.
  • You can record student questions about each bird in a third column. (Like, does it hurt the wood duck to pluck out its own feathers?)
  • You can draw horizontal lines between birds or color-code to help students organize their writing.

At this point in the year, my ELA curriculum has focused almost completely on fiction texts.  The skill of pulling details from the text versus the illustrations was actually quite difficult for my students this year!  I was not anticipating such difficulty, so we really worked together and I modeled my thinking on more pages than I had planned.  Because they were struggling, I'm especially glad that I did not have students record independently! 

Landing (Closing)

5 minutes

Once again, I am only reading half, or maybe just slightly more than half, of the text during this lesson.

For today's closing, I completely release the skill of naming facts from the text and facts from the illustrations.  I display a page from the text on my Whiteboard and pass out the Reading Response.  I read the text a number of times, and give students time to record a fact from the text.  Then, they have time to record a fact from the illustrations.  During writing, I circulate and help my beginning writers with sounding out words or drawing pictures to represent their thinking.  I also photocopy the page for targeted early-stage writing students to highlight key words.  This helps them respond in writing as the text will be close for copying and spelling.  I also work with my ELL students, helping them verbalize their thinking and making sure they comprehend the simile.

I review student responses after the lesson is complete, and I select students to share the following morning as we share our morning message.  This is such a valuable piece of writing, as it reinforces science and ELA standards.  So, it's really important that we review it together.  By seeing exemplars, students have a better sense of the quality of work that they can do.  So, I don't mind stealing a little time the following day from my Language Arts block!

Here is how I evaluated student work and decided what to show.

Links for Early Birds (the Overachievers!)

Here are some great links to use with the students who finish early:

  • An article by Melissa Stewart with other great paired fiction and nonfiction texts
  • Melissa Stewart’s lesson using Feathers as a similes lesson
  • A list of bird poems
  • A poem and facts by a brilliant teacher/scientist (check out other topics while you are there!)