It’s getting mighty close to the end of the school year. We are in the home stretch and the energy of both students and teachers is waning fast. This coming week is the last week for my students to check out books, but I will still see all of my classes for our regular sessions for the 2.5 weeks that follow. I want to fill the time with meaningful instruction, which means that it’s project time! My second graders are working on animal research, the third graders are finishing up with famous Americans and will move on to an encyclopedia project and my fifth graders are deep into poetry. My last unit with fourth graders is usually a review of information sources, but I decided to move that unit up this year as it is really good preparation for state testing. This move left me with a hole in my planning for fourth grade. I typically focus on weather and storms with these students for their big research project, but now it has been months since they learned about weather so the topic seemed irrelevant. I asked the fourth grade teachers for suggestions/requests for research topics and they mentioned biographies of famous Virginians. Virginia studies is a main focus of the fourth grade curriculum, so this topic seemed like the perfect solution.
With a topic in hand, I was off and running to plan the perfect project. I tried really hard to be realistic about this project. I am often guilty of planning units that are simply too extensive for students to complete in the time that we have together. This time, I was determined to create something that would be meaningful, yet manageable in the short amount of time that we have left in the school year. Some of my strategies were:
- Have the students work in groups: this cuts down on the number of resources needed (I quickly realized that we only owned biographies about some of the Virginians on the list the teachers gave me). I am using 6 groups with 4 students per group for this project. This will make things much easier when it comes time to use computers as well.
- Provide a detailed project guide that gives students a way to organize their information: I knew that students wouldn’t have a lot of time to figure out what information to include and what not to include in their projects, so I created a form that would help guide them through the information gathering portion of the project. I also wanted students to cite their sources, but didn’t have a ton of time to spend on teaching proper MLA formatting, so I added a fill-in-the-blanks bibliography to the form. Feel free to use this form as it is or to modify it for your own purposes.
- Require a final product that is interesting, yet simple to complete: This was the tricky part. I wanted the final product to include some element of technology, but I just didn’t have the time for anything complicated. I reached out to some of my technology resource teacher friends for suggestions, and struck gold! One of them suggested having the students create posters about their Virginians using the SmartArt feature in Microsoft Word. I had never really used this feature, which is located under the “Insert” tab, before so I started to play around with it. I quickly realized that it was just what I had been looking for. With SmartArt, it is easy to create a template that you can save and make accessible to your students. No fancy programs or hard-to-come-by technology is needed, just a few computers with Microsoft Word. Here is the template I created using the SmartArt graphic called “Radial List” located in the “Relationship” category:
Groups will open the template and insert the information from their note sheet into the text boxes (a box pops up when you click on the word text, allowing for easy information input). They can add text boxes as needed in order to include more information. The biggest blue bubble on the far left allows students to insert a picture of their famous Virginian. I plan to show students how to search our databases for images of their assigned Virginians and save them. Once students have saved their images, they can simply click on the link in the blue bubble which will open a browser that will allow them navigate to their saved picture.
When I introduced the project, I showed students this example that I created so that they would have an idea of what a finished product would look like:
Seeing a real example got them excited to get started. We began last week by researching using text biographies about each Virginian. Next, students will continue to add to their notes by reading an encyclopedia article and by searching our online databases for interesting articles. Once they have gathered all of their information and saved a picture of their Virginian, they will complete the poster using SmartArt. They will get to add a little bit of their own creative touches with color choices for the bubbles and font choices for the text.
You could use this same format for any number of biography projects. It would be great for black history month, explorers, or even an author study. I hope that you can use this as a jumping off point for your next great project, Tibrarians!