“Zoo Atlanta called. They need to design better habitats for their animals that reflect their natural habitats. What should we do?” This was the initial, challenging question that launched the PBL unit for the Kindergarteners.

When I first met with Kindergarten Head of Grade, Eileen Fennelly, to learn about this project, I was struck by her team’s ability to weave together a rich, Gold Standard PBL unit with design thinking tools and visible thinking routines that clearly cut across numerous standards in all core subject areas as well as richly packed with opportunities for students to exhibit growth in the Mount Vernon Mind. To begin the project and set the students up with the tools for success, the teachers engaged the class in a guided activity around zebras. Together, they read a nonfiction text about the habitat, diet and body of a zebra, capturing their learning as a class using the “I used to think…now I think” routine. In order to build empathy for the animals they were about to design for, students engaged in a “See, Think, Wonder” routine around a picture of a bear in a cage. Teachers asked questions like “How do you think he feels?” and the kids began asking questions like “Where are his friends?” Ms. Fennelly commented how emotional this particular activity was for the children because they were starting to question the ethics of capturing and caging animals. This created a clear connection between the students and the project because they truly began to see how critical it is to design the best environment for these animals in order for them to thrive. As design thinkers, this was a critical component to the project – to build empathy for the animals.

Because student voice and choice is a key ingredient to any successful PBL experience, the students then chose an animal they wanted to explore deeper and formed small teams. This animal would be the one they would study and ultimately design the habitat for in their small groups. To sustain inquiry throughout the project, teachers set up a variety of ways for the students to research their animals. They consulted nonfiction texts, perused websites such as National Geographic, and talked with external experts to discover the natural habitat of their animal and learn about the animal’s regular diet in the wild.

The students grew in their literacy skills through this project because every step of the way they were reading the research and summarizing their findings as well as using their writing skills using a variety of methods including an adaptation of the I used to think/Now I think visible thinking routine: What we know now/What we learned. Students also  drafted written plans for what their habitat would eventually look like. Toward the end of the project, students spent time reflecting on their research, recording their prior knowledge, new learning and their misconceptions.

Students were asked to make visible their learning about the physical elements of their animal by using unifix cubes to accurately measure and create a full-scale model that included actual color and distinctions they learned from their research. They had to use proportion and scale to build out their animal on the piece of butcher paper, which authentically had them using math thinking skills to do that work. The elephant group faced a real challenge when they discovered how much paper they would have to use to create the adult model of their animal, so through much deliberation, they decided to build only the head of a baby elephant, so that it would fit on the paper. Then, they created prototypes of the habitats based on their research and what they thought the animals would need.

On the Friday before the final showcase and performance, the children visited Zoo Atlanta.  After a month of studying the natural habitats of their animals they were ready to see the Zoo Atlanta habitats and see how they compared to the habitats they designed. As they explored the zoo, they were no longer passive visitors, but they became true critics and experts of habitats. They met with staff early in their visit, and spent a great deal of time asking questions about the habitat designs and wondered aloud about the habitats they were building on campus. They walked the zoo with a purpose and really observed: “Oh, the orangutan habitat is great here! The Zoo gave them lots of places to play and good shelter. It looks good.” Olivia shared.

Because of their research and the deep empathy they had built for the animals, they noticed things they may have missed on a previous visit:”There is just dirt.  There is dirt but no grass to eat! Where is the clean water for them to drink?  I think our habitat ideas are better for the giraffes!” exclaimed Reese. While many Kindergarten classes visit the incredible Atlanta Zoo throughout the year, I’m not sure the kids felt the distinct purpose these kids felt. Essentially they were not heading out on a field trip; they were doing field work to test their hypotheses and continue their empathy work.

In preparation for their performance on the frontier, our outdoor learning space, the children took their clipboards and pencils to sketch a map of where they would present their habitat to their parents. They chose the frontier for their performance because the children thought this stage was much more “zoo-like” than our indoor commons area. What was magical about this space was that the kids began to see how their designs could become more real. They drew on knowledge they built up about their animal, and got to work identifying the best space for their animals.

“Oh no!” Sam exclaimed.  “We need water for our alligators, and this pump is broken. Can we have permission to go to the other log and pump so there is water in our habitat?”

“Mrs. Fennelly, the giraffe is tall and the treehouse is tall, our habitat is going to be the tree house. Giraffe’s eat trees so this will work best!”  – Reese

“Komodo Dragons like to climb on rocks, so we are going to set up our habitat in the sand with the rocks.”  – Smith

The children brought their map ideas together and created a master map of habitats, so that when parents came for the final showcase, they would know where to find all the animal habitats on the “Zoo of Mount Vernon.”

Finally the day came where the kids could share their work with a public audience that included parents, faculty and some first and second grade friends. The teachers, dressed aptly as zoo keepers, marched their animals to the outdoor stage and Head of Lower School, Shelley Clifford addressed the crowd. She spoke of the year of learning, the friendships that were built, the skills mastered, and the joy in sharing your knowledge with others. Parents, teachers and fellow students gathered around and were welcomed with two songs about animals and their habitats, sung with the zest and confidence that only Kindergarteners could muster. Surrounded by the sounds of the zoo, which played over a loudspeaker, and led by their children-turned-zoo-animals, they walked Zoo Mount Vernon to discover the newly created habitats. Peppered with questions like “how did you know what to include in your habitat” and “what did you learn about the giraffe that surprised you?”, the kids proudly shared their learnings. To add authenticity to the project, the teachers got in touch with the zoo and created this video, which they asked the zoo to respond with feedback directly to the students.

Reflection is such a critical component of learning for both the teachers and the students, and so to wrap up this unit, both the teachers and the students spent a great deal of time reflecting on what they learned as well as what they would do differently. The kids had incredible insight to share with their teachers like “I wish we went to the zoo earlier, so we could have ideas about the habitat” and “what if next time kids would have to choose animals that are less well-known.” Clearly, some of the kids thought there wasn’t enough time for them to revise their work, and while teachers felt they built in enough time for critique and revision, because the kids were so engaged, they wanted even more.

What I love about this project is that it brought together some of the best elements of what makes a rich learning experience by using the PBL model, and also incorporated design thinking by keeping empathy at the core. The tools these teachers used, our DEEPdt playbook, visible thinking routines from Harvard’s Project Zero, the Buck Institute’s PBL Gold Standard, were the right tools for the project – and pulled from some of the most innovative teaching practices. Not only that, but because the teachers were so careful in their planning and pulled together not just the newest tools, but the right tools, these Kindergartners were empowered to leverage skills from across content areas to create something meaningful. These Kindergarteners now have higher expectations for learning. They believe their ideas matter. They understand that life isn’t fair for all beings. They believe they can contribute to solving problems for others even though they’re six. And they feel connected to another being that makes them feel concerned, hopeful and invested in creating a better future for another. These are the expectations they carry forth with them as they enter first grade. Imagine what empathic problem solvers these young learners will become if these are the kinds of learning opportunities they’ll take on in the next ten or twelve years.