Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it ignited new learning for our first graders.

A detailed first grade PBL built around curiosity and asking questions. Author: Audrey Lash, First Grade Teacher.

Entry Event: Armed with a clipboard, a question organizer, an iPad, and a pencil. Students went on a “surprise” field trip to our media center. Directions were (in small groups) go to each QR code and uncover the learning video behind it. Then, ask as many questions as you can! What child doesn’t like a little bit of mystery and asking all the questions he or she wants?

It’s the age-old “problem-based” story. Teachers teach a set curriculum. Students are often bored or are way more engaged in subjects of their own interests. After the entry event we posed this story to our students and asked the driving question, “How can we let our curiosity guide our learning?” Coming off the high of the entry event, students said,

  • We KNOW:  We like learning about stuff we WANT to learn. We like doing EXPERIMENTS and getting dirty. We like OPTIONS. We might work TOGETHER on a big project. We might form LEARNING CLUBS. If we’re bored, we’re not learning.
  • We WONDER:What is curiosity?Is curiosity a fancy word for learning? How does curiosity guide our learning? Is curiosity a part of our schema? What does curiosity make us learn? What does being curious have to do with learning?  Do we have to research?

Our first graders latched onto that learning club idea. As teachers, we latched on to the idea that learning and curiosity go hand-in-hand. We must make that learning like a surprise gift. One that they can’t wait to open.

Our next step: BUILD excitement around being curious. 4 items were gift wrapped in little bags for each table group: wooden-capital Q’s with question words, post-its, new fancy pens, and a glow in the dark ring. Each item to help us investigate that fancy word “curiosity” from our needs-to-knows and to prompt more questioning like our entry event. Our first graders quickly and CURIOUSLY tore into their gift bags. Finding they must use the question words to write tons of questions on post-its – allowing their curiosity to “shine” through. We had a whole wonder wall in less than 10 minutes; plus all the questions we asked in our entry event.

Over the next few days, we read mentor texts like Meet Einstein (by Mariela Kleiner) and On a Beam of Light (by Jennifer Berne). We capitalized on Albert Einstein as our guru of asking questions on all subjects. We channeled his spirit and asked more curious questions. Then, the hard work began. We sorted our questions based on (thick) hamburger questions and (thin) grilled cheese questions. Curiosity brings us all kinds of wonder, but we were looking for the juiciest kind. From all the hamburger questions, we found patterns and categorized them by topic. Topics like earth, water, humans, plants, animals, technology, and babies arose.

“AHA! This is where we can form those learning clubs.” We based learning clubs around topics we were most curious about. 6 groups formed and they sifted through “hamburger” questions on their topic and narrowed their curiosity to one key topic question.

  • Curious questions in my class were: Why do babies have to drink milk? How do we have smart phones? Why do plants need leaves? Why does the sky turn different colors? How can we have super powers or be “super”? Why do elephants take mud baths?

We tested our team’s beginning collaboration with another gift wrapped surprise. Learning clubs were surprised with the task of putting a puzzle together. This showed teachers and groups how well we’d work together and what challenges we might face ahead. We signed team contracts and charted what a learning club should look like, sound like, and feel like. Learning clubs were in went through independent and guided research during literacy tasks. Many check-ins had to do with “I found these answers, now what? What do I understand now?” We jigsawed with other learning clubs to learn and ask clarifying questions of their understandings. We diagramed understanding and talked to experts.  Learning clubs also partnered up to venn-diagram how their curious questions and understandings were similar. The next step in the process was for each learning club to design an experiment or observational hunt based on their understandings. (A great mentor text: 11 Experiments that Failed by Jenny Offill).

  • My students designed experiments like: Observe one plant with leaves and one without. / Use mud on our own skin and see what happens. / Shine a flashlight (acting as the sun) through a piece of glass (acting as the atmosphere) to see if the light scatters. / Observe the ingredients on different types of milks. / Tinker and observe old and new phones.

So much learning and excitement because students had a VOICE in what they were learning. And, this is where we are. Next steps? Keep experimenting, keep showing our understandings in a variety of ways. The other day, there was murmur of students saying, “I wish we could ask others our question to see if they know what we know.” The students are leading the way. Listening to this one conversation shows us they’re ready for an authentic audience… perhaps even a “learning showcase” of sorts.

This Curiosity PBL is quite like a Genius Hour or an introduction to what inquiry is for first graders. Our main transfer for students was for them to learn to independently let their curiosity guide them to learning. No more asking a question and just getting an answer from an adult. Now, they have strategies for finding answers on their own.

IMG_8084 IMG_8085 IMG_8086 IMG_8087 IMG_8088


A Fairy Tale Entry Event

Author: Audrey Lash, First Grade Teacher.

Our first grade team has just embarked upon a new inquiry based learning project. We set out to do it right by creating a thoughtful Understanding by Design plan for our fairy tales. We want our students to gain transfer understandings such as:

  • Analyze and evaluate the impact of differing story elements on a character, reader, and story.
  • Empathize and connect with differing (character) points of view.
  • Write fictional narratives that grab the attention of a chosen audience.

As planners, at first we ran into some snags. At our school, we try to make our inquiry more problem based. That means students are posed with real-world problems to fix or solve. We were finding it hard to frame a driving question in such a way that captured our transfers and also posed a problem. With much revision and continued tweaking to meet our students, our driving question ended up being, “How can we, as creators, revive and/or showcase fairy tales?” I will admit that revive was somewhat hard for our first graders as we introduced it on Friday. Many understood after defining and rephrasing “How can we bring fairy tales back to life?

And then, the next big hurdle was discovering what an entry event would look like to help us showcase and gain student excitement over fairy tales. We settled on an entry event with lots of student choice. Choose Your Own Fairy Tale —  Students were able to choose between 3 fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks, and Little Red Riding Hood). We have six first grade classes in our building. Two classes paired together to showcase the two sides or points of view of one fairy tale. For example, Mrs. Powers and I were showcasing Hansel and Gretel. Students that chose our fairy tale were divided equally among our classes. My classroom portrayal was the witch’s point of view. Her classroom was Hansel and Gretel’s point of view.

While in their chosen “fairy tale adventure,” students went to a well-decorated room and heard from one character’s (teacher) point of view. As the “wicked” witch from Hansel and Gretel, it was so entertaining to play up this part because I was able to give another side / another story to what really happened. I gave students a big sob story about how being a witch is lonely. I was only minding my own business when someone began destroying my house. “What would happen if someone broke into your house?” I asked the children. In part of my act, students were shocked by the witch hastily throwing Hansel and Gretel’s version in the trash. “That’s a terrible version. You haven’t even heard my side!” Students then helped me rewrite the story to give me a happy ending as a shared writing. Then, my group was sent to Mrs. Powers’ class to hear Hansel and Gretel’s side. Kid investment is key to being engaged. The coolest part of this entry event was getting students so amped-up on fairy tales that they truly cared and believed in the story that the character (teacher) had just told. I had students leave my classroom on the witch’s side. When they saw Hansel and Gretel (Mrs. Powers), they were ready to defend the witch. And vice versa, I had students that heard her side first and then came to me and saying, “We’re not afraid of you!” All over the classes, students were getting the same experience with Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood, too. Each teacher ended with two new versions of their character’s story that could now be used as exemplars in writer’s workshop.

When students went back to their homeroom classrooms, we had a big discussion about what went on in their story and what new stories they wrote for each characters. My students said they loved: writing the stories, meeting the “characters,” hearing every characters’ story, looking at the decorations, and having their classrooms taken over!

Then, we posed our driving question: How can we revive and/or showcase fairy tales? “The teachers had found that fairy tales needed to be put back on display for kids. We needed to get more people interested in them.” We began to brainstorm what we know about doing this and what we wonder. We knew we could read fairy tales, give people more fairy tales, and write our own. Our class knew that there were classics and new versions of fairy tales. We wondered:

  • Why do we need fairy tales?
  • How do we tackle reviving fairy tales as first graders?
  • Why do some people like/hate the classics?
  • How can we get people to like fairy tales?
  • Is there such a thing as a boy version and a girl version?
  • How do you write fairy tales? How do we fix fairy tales?

On an exit slip, I had my students write down one idea they had about reviving a fairy tale. Students thought of bringing fairy tales into scripts, songs, dances, games, new stories,  and even reading to other kids. I can’t wait to see how students bring these fairy tales back to life!

Some classroom decorations:

IMG_0342 IMG_0343 IMG_0344

IMG_0355 IMG_0358 IMG_0359

IMG_0355 IMG_0356 IMG_0357 IMG_0345 IMG_0346 IMG_0347 IMG_0360 IMG_0361