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Published in Print: March 1, 2007, as Curricular Activities

Best Practices

Curricular Activities—Middle Grades

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6th grade math and science teacher
Leawood Middle School
Leawood, Kansas

Every day, teachers walk a tightrope. We balance the need to address discrete bits of information likely to be tested against our certain knowledge that deep learning will benefit students most.

Engaging and exciting 6th grade science students through project-based learning is my best hope of tying the tested “indicators of learning” into something that makes information memorable and meaningful in their lives.

Soil is one of the tested areas in our state curriculum. Does this have “boring” written all over it? As a science teacher, I think soil is very cool, but judging from the groans when I announce this unit of study, I’m usually a minority of one.

Here’s what we do to make dirt worth digging into. Consider how many families travel or have visitors from far away over the holidays. It doesn’t take much effort to gather samples or ask visitors to do so.

This year my students have assembled a huge collection of soils from around the country. They constantly rush into my room with a new baggie full of dirt, shouting, “Look what I’ve got!”

They swap samples and create their own rough classification system. Using microscopes, they find commonalities, then argue over what they’ve found and what to call each sample. They trade e-mails with a soil scientist and a master gardener.

Eventually, up to our elbows in mud and sand, we come to understand that there are all kinds of dirt—and it does a lot more than get you dirty!

For our state test, kids are expected to plod through the steps of soil formation. But they are positively crazy over this hunt-and-gather approach. They’re excited about their new knowledge and much less likely to do a “brain dump” the minute the test is over.

Vol. 18, Issue 05, Pages 44-45

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