Six-legged garden creatures sparked such curiosity for Karen Armistead's first graders in Apopka, FL, that they were a natural science focus. But a requirement that students create writing portfolios prompted Karen and the school media specialist to think even more broadly.
"We decided to use the garden as the context for their writing and reading by developing a six-week unit on plant/insect interactions," explains Karen.
The teaching partners selected five insects and related literature, then had each of five groups of students choose one insect to examine. Ladybugs were a must. After all, students the previous year had the opportunity to watch a generation of ladybugs protect their garden sweet peas by feasting on aphids. Crickets, butterflies, fireflies, honeybees, and spiders were the other selections. "Since they weren't technically all insects (which must have three pairs of legs), we sometimes used the term mini-beasts," says Karen.
To fuel their creature research, students had access to selected Web sites, books, and, of course, the garden. "The kids kept notes on research and garden discoveries in their planners, and then had to complete a series of assignments," says Karen. First, they created "bubble maps" with the mini-beast's name in the center and its characteristics in orbiting circles. Next, they created a similar flower-shaped map and wrote something they'd discovered about plant/animal interactions in each petal: fireflies live in bushes during the day, bees pollinate flowers, and so on. Their next task was to draw a three- or four-stage flow chart showing each life cycle stage for their insects. "Each student in a group had to write three full sentences based on one of the maps; writing a good sentence is one of our benchmarks," says Karen. "One of the books we most enjoyed was Paul Fleischman's Joyful Noise, which featured delightful art and insect poetry designed for two readers." The book inspired her class to compile their sentences, divide them into two "voices," and write their own plant/insect poetry to present to parents. These were complemented by homemade paper collages of insects they studied, motivated by Eric Carle's artwork.
Every week, Karen's students wrote journal entries about their garden activities and observations; they compiled their writings at year end. "Their observations and writing became much more detailed over time," says Karen. "Kids who in September may have written 'The flower is big and pretty' now might write, 'The Dahlberg daisy is 26 inches tall and has leaves with yellow edges'. More than just science and writing skills blossomed in Karen's classroom. For instance, students counted spots on ladybugs, learned to add doubles, and sorted creatures by number of legs to see which were true insects. The Very Grouchy Ladybug, by Eric Carle, inspired flap books and other art projects.
More Literature Favorites
Karen and the school media specialist compiled a list of children's literature to enrich their plant/insect unit. Cucumber Soup, by Vicky Leigh Krudwig, is a fantastic number book that features different insects coming in to help move a cucumber, then eating cucumber soup. Each time a new insect enters, students learn a bit about its helpful and harmful relationships with plants," says Karen. Here are some of the class' other favorites:
Crickets; Fireflies; Ladybugs; all by Cheryl Coughlan
Fireflies; Grasshoppers; both by Janet Halfmann
The Butterfly; The Ladybug; both by Sabrina Crewe
Play with Your Food; by Joose Eiffers
The Very Clumsy Click Beetle; The Very Busy Spider; The Very Lonely Firefly; The Grouchy Ladybug; all by Eric Carle