How it all began
At the beginning of 2014 we were challenged by our heads to embrace a new author study unit in second grade. When Beatrix Potter was suggested, we were really delighted because her tales had been so meaningful to us during our childhood. However, we were afraid her stories would be difficult for our young learners to understand. In spite of this, we decided to go ahead with it and started looking for different editions of her books in the school library and at home. From all the ones we could find, we made a selection of the five that we thought more suitable in grammar and vocabulary for our second graders. We decided to work with this unit during the last months of the year, so that the children could be more prepared to dive into this kind of literature.
Throughout the year, we made good use of our planning periods to select appropriate material and design our future author study unit. With the help, guidance and supervision of our heads, coordinator and assistant teachers we formulated the unit’s big idea, set our objectives, selected the contents that it should include according to the curriculum and the skills we expected the students to develop. Apart from this, we discussed and agreed on formative and summative assessment that we would include throughout the unit, especially focusing on the final product.
Once we had the outline for the whole unit, we were ready to make it real in the classroom.
As we already mentioned in our previous post, we begun the unit with the See, Think, Wonder Routine. Children were able to make their thoughts visible and share ideas like “I see an old lady with a rabbit”, “I think that she is a grandmother” “I think she is a magician”, “I think she lived a long time ago” and “I wonder what her name is”. After that we divided the children into groups in order to read the author’s biography and work on it, answering comprehension questions, highlighting important information in the text and identifying verbs in the past. A key moment for us all was when the children realized on their own that the woman in the picture was in fact Beatrix Potter and that the bunny was her pet, Peter. Giving the students the chance of discovering things by themselves, making connections and drawing conclusions was the way we chose to engage our students and to make them active participants of their own learning process, paving the way towards becoming autonomous learners. It was amazing how students started establishing connections with Leo Lionni’s biography, which is part of our Author’s Study in second grade during the first months of the year. Both authors shared love for nature, collected insects, loved animals which were their main characters, and were brilliant artist who illustrated their own stories.
With the help of our IT teacher the students created their own concept webs using an App called Popplet.
The first tale we read to the children was “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”, which was the author’s first tale published in 1902. After reading we started analyzing the different characters, talking about where the tale took place and checking their comprehension focusing on the sequence of events. In this way we begun introducing the literary elements of character, setting and plot.
As it is well reflected in our unit’s title, one of our main objectives was to introduce the children to literary elements through the author’s life and body of work. As regards character, the students were able to describe the characters’ physical appearances and personalities learning and using varied adjectives.
“Peter Rabbit is a disobedient rabbit because he went to Mr McGregor’s garden when Mrs. Rabbit told him not to go.”
Oral example provided by one of our students.
As readers, we can only know and fully understand a character when we are able to collect and analyze all the information presented in the story. Students learned that we not only get to know characters by reading what the narrator says about them, we must dig deeper and pay attention to what the characters say, what they do and how they are feeling. We can infer all kinds of ideas about a character if we just pay attention.
Beatrix Potter became very real in our classroom when working and exploring the settings of her tales. As we all knew after working on her biography, Beatrix was a fervent animal lover and artist. She kept an assortment of different creatures as pets including rabbits, mice, frogs, lizards, snakes, snails and a bat.
“Beatrix’s parents didn’t give her many opportunities to mix with other children but they were tolerant of the animals in the schoolroom. They also encouraged her interest in art, providing her with special art tutors and taking her to see exhibitions at galleries.
However, the most exciting time of the year for Beatrix was the summer. Every year her father rented a large house in Scotland for three months. The whole family travelled north by train with the dog, the servants and the carriage horses. Beatrix’s smaller creatures, such as a rabbit or mice, travelled with her in boxes. Here the children had the freedom to explore the countryside and Beatrix learnt to observe plants and insects with an artist’s eye for detail.
The summer that Beatrix was sixteen the family rented a property in the English Lake District . This was Beatrix’s first visit to the Lakes and she fell completely in love with the beauty of the countryside. It was an attraction that was to last for the rest of her life.
Hill Top Farm
As a young woman Beatrix had spent many holidays in the Lake District and the place she liked best was a village called Sawrey near Windermere. In 1905 she decided to use some of the income from her books and a legacy from her aunt to buy a traditional Lakeland farm in Sawrey called Hill Top. She organized renovations to the farmhouse and created a beautiful English cottage garden. Furthermore she used Hill Top as background material for the illustrations in her books.
In The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907) Tom and his family live in a house like Hill Top and the illustrations show the porch, glimpses of the interior and the wonderful flowery garden.
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908) is set in the farmyard. John Cannon’s wife and children appear in two of the illustrations, and both the simple-minded duck, Jemima, and Kep the kindly collie are based on real inhabitants of Hill Top Farm.
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (1908) again features Tom Kitten and his family and has many scenes showing the rooms of the house looking exactly as they do today. The story was inspired by a real infestation of rats at Hill Top.”
A lot of the work done regarding the setting of Beatrix Potter’s tales was done orally. Most of the author’s stories and tales take place on farms and surrounding woods. Through the deep understanding of Miss Potter’s choice of setting, were the students able to know what kind of animals would appear in her stories. We asked the children questions like: ¨Can a lion appear in one of Beatrix Potter’s tales?¨ ¨ Can one of Beatrix’s characters live in the outer space?¨These helped the students grasp a clear idea of what the setting in a story implies. The children openly exchanged opinions about where the different tales took place under the light of our author’s life. Making these connections made these stories much more meaningful. During these different instances of oral exchange the children were able to link the stories and the author’s own experiences with their real life situations. These interesting links helped the children deeply connect with the author and her body of work.
We really wanted the children to be able to understand the tales’ plots and to be able to identify the different parts of the stories. For this, we started working early in the year on sequences of events. Identifying three different parts in a story, beginning, middle and end, and linking the events with connectors. As we begun the unit, and having worked on this previously, it was easier for them to comprehend and really understand the tales. They were challenged to retell different tales by writing short sequences of events, focusing on spelling, grammar, word order and the proper use of connectors such as first, then, next, after that, finally and in the end.
In order to respect our students needs, most of the written work done was tiered. We took into consideration their interests, readiness and choice. We understood that through flexible grouping our students would be able to produce their very best work, because they would feel empowered to do so. They would be safe, appreciated, challenged and supported.
While working on these three important literary elements, we began giving our final product idea shape. Our main focus had been on character description, so we put our heads together and designed a creative and challenging final task for our students. We wanted to be faithful to our idea of a student centred unit so we thought of preparing a performance task which would include three different activities in which choice would be present. We designed a choice board in which the students had to choose one oral activity from the two options presented and an art activity from three proposed. The final written task was compulsory for all of them. They had to choose their favourite Beatrix Potter character and describe it.
Before starting, we reflected upon the writing process we had worked on during the whole year. We talked about basic sentence requirements like capital letter, finger space and full stop. We discussed what an “Interesting sentence” looked like, focusing on adjectives. As a class we answered together some guiding questions that would lead us to a complete description of Mr. McGregor. The students would be able to use this paragraph as a model for their own pieces of writing. The students were encouraged to work with a draft and a final copy.
After this whole writing process was over, we were really surprised to see our students’ descriptions. They had the opportunity of sharing their pieces of writing with their peers.
We did face some challenges and minor setbacks while designing and planning our unit. As we mentioned before, many of the books available to us were quite difficult for our young learners. We came upon several abridged editions that we were able to use and even a read-along book, used for a listening comprehension activity of The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. We were extremely excited to find “The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends” online. It is a British animated anthology television series based on the works of Beatrix Potter. This was a great find for our visual and auditory students. The children loved them and this was another great way to enter Beatrix Potter’s world. As we watched some of the episodes, very interesting conversations between students took place. A great thing about our author is that many of her tales are connected. Students were delighted to find out that most of her characters knew each other and appeared in several of her tales and stories.
Link: The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends. Episode 1, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fErRjperZiM
As 2014 was coming to an end, and our unit finally completed we were really pleased with the whole process. We certainly knew that our Author Study Unit could and would be polished so we took some time to reflect upon everything our students had achieved. We had evidence that we had provided our children with a good classroom community in which they felt respected and appreciated. We had worked on a strong but flexible unit with clear contents and objectives. We did assess our own teaching practice continuously and we found instances in which we identified things that did not work out very well, and these mistakes were the ones that gave us room for improvement as we went along. We also agreed that our GAP meetings on Differentiation had really made a difference, giving us tools to apply in our classroom, theory to reflect upon and support in our daily adventures. All in all, we were convinced that 2015 would be an opportunity to make our unit of work grow and improve in every single aspect.
We ended 2014 really pleased with our outcome truly aware that we had made the right choice. Beatrix Potter’s work was within reach of our students and the whole process had been an enriching experience to both teachers and students involved.
The Golden Unit
In February 2015, during a staff meeting we were once again challenged by our heads. This time, all teachers were invited to plan The Golden Unit of the year, which meant selecting one exciting unit and improving it, applying everything we had been learning in the past year concerning Cooperative Learning, Differentiation, Mindset, Metacognition and Neurosciences. Teachers are always faced with the difficult task of having to assess and adapt their own teaching practice as the year goes by. Trying to change different aspects of the teaching-learning process can be very overwhelming. For this reason, we were encouraged to focus our attention on a single unit of work so as to achieve a better outcome.
Bearing this in mind, we decided to work on our existing Beatrix Potter Author Study Unit and enrich it, for it to become our Golden Unit 2015.
Project Based Learning (PBL)
In May 2015, during the “Jornada Pedagógica” at school, we were invited to reflect upon Project Based Learning (PBL). During the morning we were divided in groups and were asked to complete a Frayer Diagram with our previous knowledge on the topic. After that we exchanged our ideas with the rest of our group and made a creative poster with our conclusions in order to share them with the staff.
We came to the conclusion that PBL is a dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore problems and challenges. PBL is student centered, it considers every students’ needs and provides them with opportunities to make their own choices according to their interests. Its content is both significant and challenging for all learners, since it connects them to real life situations. This approach encourages students to speak out and express their inner voice through different disciplines. PBL provides different instances of feedback and self assessment in which students take ownership of their own learning process. The final product is an essential part of PBL and it is present throughout the whole process.
We left the meeting eager to put into practice everything we had been reflecting on that morning. Although we were pleased with the learning process and the outcomes of the Beatrix Potter unit in 2014, we felt the need to reshape it so that it could be more faithful to PBL.
Reflecting on our teaching practice
The first thing we did was to read our unit plan and talk about our experience during 2014. We noticed that many things could be improved and that our main focus had to be on our students’ personal and academic growth, and on how we could empower them and guide them in this process.
We knew that this unit needed to be more student centred, so the first item we felt that needed to be revised was the final product. Although we liked the choice board offered to the students the previous year, we had to revise some activities because we had done similar ones in our Leo Lionni Author Study Unit during the months of April, May and June. Having worked on sequencing of events so much throughout the year, we thought that maybe this could be reflected in their final product.
Due to this, we decided to give the students the opportunity of writing a story or short tale. In order to do so, they would have to know our author and her background extremely well, fully understand the literary elements mentioned before and identify the specific characteristics of Beatrix Potter’s writing style.
The moment we chose this as their final product, we realized that it was extremely challenging for our second graders. Not only were they expected to dive into the enormous task of inventing a story, but also to have in mind everything they had learnt for their piece of writing to be faithful to the author’s style.
We knew that the writing process had to be clear and instructed since the beginning of the unit for the children to experience it as a challenge, being able to understand the whole process and be active participants of their growth.
We started by including more tales and stories to our Unit. We worked with more than ten, presented to the children in different formats (books, videos, audios and worksheets)
The Tale of Peter Rabbit
The Tale of Benjamin Bunny
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck
The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies
The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse
The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher
The Tale of Tom Kitten
The Story of Miss Moppet
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or the Roly-Poly Pudding
The Story of the Fierce Bad Rabbit
The Tale of Mr. Tod
Listening Comprehension Activity and Self Assessment
BBC School Radio – The Tales of Beatrix Potter
We continued using our IT lessons to analyze, summarize and build up knowledge about the tales and their characters, as we did during 2014. We were delighted to see how our students independent work habits were growing.
Throughout the year we continued our GAP sessions with our heads. We had the opportunity of participating of two GAP groups in which we learnt and reflected on Differentiation (continuing our work begun in 2014) and on Cooperative Learning.
We tried to bring as many of the different ideas, routines and structures we could to our classrooms. Regarding Cooperative Learning, we worked intensively with structures like Round Robin, Round Table, Numbered Heads Together and Mix-n-match.
As for Differentiation, we continued working hard and trying to apply everything we learnt to our teaching practice. We knew that our daily decisions in our classrooms had to be student oriented, ensuring an environment that supported them during their learning process. For this we continued focusing on flexible grouping, choice, ongoing assessment, self-assessment and flexible classroom routines.
An example of Differentiation in the classroom was the use of Literary Circles in two different opportunities. We selected two stories The Story of Miss Moppet and The Story of the Fierce Bad Rabbit. We explained and modelled the routine to the children for them to fully understand what they were going to do. We also offered the option of listening to the story while reading. Students were able to decide if they really needed the listening aid or not.
What Are Literature Circles?
In literature circles, small groups of students gather together to discuss a piece of literature in depth. The discussion is guided by students’ response to what they have read. You may hear, talk about events and characters in the book, the author’s craft, or personal experiences related to the story. Literature circles provide a way for students to engage in critical thinking and reflection as they read, discuss, and respond to books. Collaboration is at the heart of this approach. Students reshape and add onto their understanding as they construct meaning with other readers. Finally, literature circles guide students to deeper understanding of what they read through structured discussion and extended written and artistic response.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand what literature circles are is to examine what they are not.
Literature Circles are . . .
Reader response centered
Part of a balanced literacy program
Groups formed by book choice
Structured for student independence, responsibility, and ownership
Guided primarily by student insights and questions
Intended as a context in which to apply reading and writing skills
Flexible and fluid; never look the same twice
Literature Circles are not . . .
Teacher and text centered
The entire reading curriculum
Teacher-assigned groups formed solely by ability
Unstructured, uncontrolled “talk time” without accountability
Guided primarily by teacher- or curriculum-based questions
Intended as a place to do skills work
Tied to a prescriptive “recipe”
The kids were divided into groups of five each. They were given different tasks to perform. They read the story, chose one of the tasks and carried it out. Once everyone in the team had completed their activity, they shared what they had done to the rest of their group.
Tasks: Artistic Artist, Super Summarizer, Creative Connector, Discussion Director and Word Wizard.
Literary Circles in second grade were a total success, not only were the children able to enjoy the stories they read, but also take ownership of their own learning.
As the writing of the final product approached, we started to panic, we began to think that we were asking something very difficult from our students, beyond their maturity level. However, students end up surprising us every time!
To guide the students in their writing process, we prepared different previous activities to carry out before tackling their final product. Always bearing the principle of student centredness in mind, we decided to give them room for choice. We told them that they had to invent a character and describe it. As we had been working hard on character description since the beginning of the year, this was not a complicated task. Students were given a character profile worksheet which they had to complete in detail, following the important elements of a character description (Physical appearance and personality). At this point it was amazing to see how the children selected their animals. We realized that they really knew Beatrix Potter, her style of writing and her life, by choosing animals that would feel at ease in her stories.
After this, they had the difficult task of selecting one of their favourite tales or stories. Once they did, we modeled the following steps for them to fully comprehend the task at hand. We gave them a worksheet which they had to complete and use as an outline or guide while writing their story.
We explained to them that this would be a very important task which would be done in several steps. We expressed the importance of the draft and clean copy. We talked about “how to make our sentences grow”, the importance of a “good sentence” (capital letter, finger space and full stop), the requirement of the use of adjectives to make our sentences interesting and the importance of organizing our story with a beginning, a middle and an end using the corresponding connectors to better comprehension. Once everything was very clear and they had no doubts of what they were about to do, we got started!
We teachers were quite anxious to see how our kids would handle such a challenge. But as mentioned previously, we were very proud of the way they carried out their final writing task. Once they had finished writing their draft, we provided some time for guided peer-correction to take place in the classroom. After that, we gave them a “Writing checklist” which helped them assess their own writing, looking for mistakes and making way for improvement in order to write their clean copy.
Once their clean copies were ready, they were extremely excited and ready to share them with their peers.
When we finished with the written part of our final product we gave them a choice board in which they had to chose one activity from 3 presented.
The children carried out these activities on the “Beatrix Potter day” which was celebrated at school by second graders who were invited to come dressed up as their favourite character. That same day, the children shared their stories to first graders. It was a huge success, everyone was really excited about telling their stories to the little ones.
As we were convinced that this whole unit of work was a process we decided to select some of the work the children had done and prepare a booklet for them to take home. They were able to share their work with their families and see what a fantastic job they had done, appreciating their progress throughout the unit of work.
Once the unit had finished, we got together to reflect on our teaching practice during the last two years and became aware of our professional growth throughout the process. We talked about how the PBL approach has determined our daily practice by focusing on our final product, bearing in mind where we are standing and how we want to get there.
We are conscious that nothing of this would have happened if we didn’t have the varied instances of professional development offered at school and the constant opportunities of reflecting and assessing our practice with our teaching community.
Milagros Scosceria, Marina Gueli Saavedra and Clara González
Second Grade – Punta Chica