"In a freshwater habitat, what is animal adaptation?" asked Bush Elementary School first-grade teacher Amanda Sischo.
"It is how the animal adapts or changes to its climate and environment," said first-grader Anne Conroe.
"Very good, can you give me an example of how an animal might adapt to a freshwater environment?"
Bush Elementary School first-graders Robert Moore and Elsa Lumia examine pond water during their Animal Habitat ELA unit.
"They are amphibious," said one student as he brought up a slip of paper to put on the white board.
"What does 'amphibious' mean?" asked Sischo.
"It lives in the water and on the land," said the student.
Students posted information about freshwater habitats to the white board including its temperature and weather, availability of water, types of plants and animals, and how the ground or surface might be different. The board was filled with information for each of the habitats studied during their English Language Arts units. Some of the habitats studied were: Arctic Ocean, Amazon Rainforest, The African Savanna and Saltwater Habitat.
The Bush Elementary School first-grade team of Sischo, Erin Mank and Nichole Mason has collaborated in ELA to shift focus from the traditional standards to the new Common Core Standards. The new standards emphasize a deeper immersion in a topic and more rigorous curriculum. The units build knowledge in the content areas by utilizing nonfiction, writing, art, science and social studies. Students love the subject matter.
"I liked learning about the tropical rainforest," said first-grade student Matthew Freeman. "There were some really cool animals like the Hairy Amazon Spider. I also thought it was cool that in Washington, D.C., they have a law that keeps the bald eagle from extinction. I want to be a zookeeper when I grow up so learning about all these habitats will help me do that."
Before the shift in standards, a new book was introduced each week. Now, teachers are immersing students in a subject, such as animal habitats, using nonfiction but also asking student to dig deeper into a subject matter. Students continue to partner read and work together in small groups and learn cooperative learning strategies, but all work and discussions are based around the subject matter. Student activities included a diorama depicting the different habitats using illustrations, labels and writing to enhance the experience. JHS teacher Jen McMaster also visited the classrooms with microscopes, pond water and various pond plants so that students could have a hands-on experience.
"Students are definitely held more accountable with the new standards. We are asking our students to dig deeper, to recall more information and facts, analyze, compare and contrast, develop vocabulary, listen to understand, and continue to develop skills through word work and decodable readers," said the first-grade teachers. "We are immersing reading and writing into their entire day, not just during ELA time. We are also better able to combine other subjects such as science or social studies with ELA."
The material is age appropriate and engaging.
"With the shift to Common Core Standards, we are explicitly teaching more vocabulary and nonfiction," said the Bush teachers. "We are happy to see students seeking out books in the library about the subjects we are studying in the classroom. We have seen great success with immersing students in a subject over the course of a few weeks instead of the typical one-week reading unit."
The teachers meet regularly as a group to determine where their students are in the unit, how they are progressing, do they understand and comprehend the information that is being presented and what types of activities are working (and not working) in each of their classrooms. Building knowledge in content areas like science and social studies needs to begin with the youngest students.
Fiction is still an important part of the ELA experience for the first graders, as is evident in the teacher's next unit, Fairy Tales. However, the Common Core Standards require a balance between informational text and fiction.