Note to Teachers: This unit follows a Project Based Learning (PBL) format. Students are first introduced to their big goal that will be the summative project assessment for this unit. The lessons that follow provide students with the information/experiences they will need to achieve this goal.
It is the nature of middle school students (and many adults) to be egocentric and so wrapped up in their daily grind that they fail to see the interconnections of the world around them. A major goal of this unit is to get students to recognize that changes to a system, even small changes, have a ripple effect throughout the system, which is the cross-cutting concept focused on throughout this unit. What better way to make that clear to students than by focusing on a seemingly irrelevant creature that most students do not like - spiders.
As students enter the class and take their seats, I have the PowerPoint How Do You Define Biodiversity? playing on a loop. To get the most out of this activity, I use a developing consensus strategy. When students are settled, I ask them to answer the question from their own perspective and record it in their science journal. I provide students with 3-5 minutes to write and then have students share their answers with their lab table where, after hearing all answers, they develop a group answer that includes all of the main components of the individual responses. Having students develop consensus not only allows for students to practice argumentation based on evidence (SP 7) but also gives students necessary practice with listening to others' ideas, having respectful discourse, and blending multiple ideas into one clear statement.
The following video is an example of students working together to take each individuals answer and use them to create one single definition of biodiversity. (Warning: this might be the most respectful group of 8th graders ever - it is amazing what a camera can do!)
Over the next couple of weeks, we will be learning more than you ever wanted to know about spiders. These awesome, disgusting little creatures play an important role in our own survival.
I show students this short video that quickly points out how spiders can and do benefit humans and demonstrates the interconnections of organisms in nature. Following the video, I ask students to share their reactions (what surprised them the most, what stood out to them, that sort of thing).
During this unit you will be gathering information that will enable you to create a picture book, webpage, or multimedia presentation that explains spiders and their role in the ecosystem. Projects must include the following information:
You may work alone, with a partner, or in a group of three. Be aware that you will have some time during the unit to complete portions of the project in order to meet each of the 4 checkpoints.
In an attempt to keep the scope of project from becoming overwhelming, I break the project into the following chunks/checkpoints that take place following the relevant lessons (see Spider Biodiversity Checklist). For example, checkpoint 1 will occur after students learn about the characteristics of spiders and how they are classified. The checklist is as follows:
Kick-Off: (Mystery Creatures Discovered)
At this point, using a strategy I call Establishing Group Work Protocols, I allow students time to determine their group members and to establish the ground rules for group work using the Group Work Plan. This is something that I began doing in an attempt to lessen the common complaints that come with group work and I have found that it helps students be more accountable for their work and actions.
Now I want you to sit with your group members and discuss how you will work together effectively. You are NOT to be discussing your ideas yet as you do not have the information you need to begin at this point! Work together to complete every section of the group work plan. Remember you need to be as specific as possible for this to work the way it is intended.
I proceed from this point in different ways for different classes. When working with my gifted students, I allow them to proceed without any further input from me. I monitor discussions and and read through their answers and ask clarifying questions when necessary, reminding them to be specific in their answers.
When working with grade level students, I discuss the portion of the plan that has them determine what do when group members are not on task. This is not something that most students have ever had the power to decide but it is, in my opinion, the most important part of the document. Making these decisions and following through with them helps build student independence, problem-solving skills, and collaboration skills which are so important in the world today and will benefit students no matter what they decide to do in their future.
As a class we discuss possible courses of action. I have students make suggestions and we discuss what that might look like. First I have students determine what off-task behavior means.
What does off-task behavior look like? Is it walking away from your work area for a minute? Is it having side conversations with other teams? Is it daydreaming while conducting research? Remember that you will be bound by the definition you develop right now so consider behaviors that are and are not acceptable when working in a group. Take a few minutes to talk to your team and define what you consider to be off-task behavior and write it down on your planning sheet.
This video shows two students defining off-task behavior and determining what the consequences of being off-task will be in their group.
When groups are done, I have a few share their definitions so others can modify their own work if they choose. I try not give students the answer while trying to keep them from being too severe as they will all fall off-task from time to time. The goal is to get them to start recognizing this and getting back on track, monitoring their own work rather than relying on the teacher to do that for them.
Next I have students determine what they will do when group members are off-task as determined by their definition. As a class we discuss several options from just deal with it and move on to "three strikes and you're out of the group". It is important that the group decides on the consequences since it leads to greater buy-in.
Once this is done, I have students work together to complete the rest of the document. Students are not allowed to begin until they show me the finished document to approve. If I approve their plan, I have all students sign the agreement and make a copy for my files. I give the students the original to take home and have their parents sign so they are aware of what their child is working on and what is expected of them. When students bring back their parent signatures, I swap out copies so I have documentation that parents are aware of the consequences of not following through with their work.