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Lower Elementary Biology Curriculum - Journey to Understand LIFE

Did you know that some early fish had lungs and could move around on land? Veronica, a second grade student in LE2 can tell you all about it.

Lower Elementary students are captivated by animals, from their own pets to those found in the far reaches of our world. They can tell you all sorts of interesting and minute facts about animals you didn’t even know existed. This is the starting point for the Lower Elementary biology study, which makes for an exciting three years! Lower Elementary students seek to understand the world around them, composed of a seemingly infinite array of life.

One of the very first lessons students encounter when they enter Lower Elementary explores questions like: What is life? What is the difference between living and nonliving things? Why is a rock not living, but a coral is living? They learn that living things require food or energy and that they move, grow, and reproduce.

Every year the whole class kicks off their biology studies with a lesson about the Kingdoms of Life. They use their hand, a symbol of vitality, to name the kingdoms, making a “hand of life” which includes one kingdom per finger: Prokaryotes, Protista, Fungi, Plants, and Animals. They broadly learn about each kingdom in evolutionary order. This yearly lesson sets the stage for the myriad of biology experiences to come. Each academic year brings a more sophisticated level of biology study, with one year building on the knowledge and understanding from the previous.

In their first and second years, students focus on the plant and animal kingdoms, as they are the most accessible to them. They start with animals and divide the kingdom into vertebrates and invertebrates. They discover they are a part of a special club, Club Vertebrata, or those with backbones. The students feel their own spine and those of their friends to ensure they are all part of this club, then they sort animal images into groups of vertebrates and invertebrates, and discover interesting facts about animals for each of these groups.

After that, they look more closely at the vertebrate phyla. They learn about the five classes of vertebrates one at a time and in evolutionary order: fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and finally mammals. Lessons often include live animals such as Cosmo, LE1’s Leopard Gecko and Milo, LE3’s Red-Eared Slider Turtle.

In their first year, students learn about the parts of each class of animal, such as for fish: the gills and the different fins and their purposes. In their second year, they will look at the same animal classes but this time they study the animals’ body functions, or the way in which their bodies help them survive and thrive. Some examples include reproduction, respiration and movement.

In addition to studying animals, the students also look at the common plants in evolutionary order, studying their parts and then their body functions. As with animals, live specimens are brought into class to study up close. For example, students investigate mosses’ tiny hairlike roots called rhizoids with magnifying glasses.

The goal of this work is not that they remember each and every plant or animal part or body function, but that through the work they gain an understanding of how plants and animals function, as well as how they evolved and adapted over time. Third year students move beyond the study of plants and animals to the classification of the kingdoms of life, one at a time. They gain an appreciation for the biodiversity that exists on our planet. Of course, the complex taxonomy of living things must be simplified for third graders to grasp.

The particular life forms they study are chosen because many of them are also studied within other contexts in our cultural curriculum and help the students to better understand the evolutionary sequence. From kingdom, to phyla, to class, to order, to particular species, students delve deeply into all forms of life. They research them, build models, replicate their classification structure on charts, make up plays about them, and more. Their work with classification helps them understand how scientists make sense of the wide range of life out there and how knowledge is not static but ever-changing as discoveries continue to be made and our world changes over time.

All of the students’ biological understanding gets integrated each year into their understanding of the evolution of life on Earth, through a yearly study of the Timeline of Life. Each year when students study the Timeline of Life, they see it in a new way. They recognize more of the forms of life because of their accumulated knowledge.

This cycle of learning and seeing within the context of evolution reinforces their deep understanding of our world, it's history, and their place within it. All of this accumulated knowledge and understanding of life on earth is just a starting point for the children’s "cosmic task,” as Maria Montessori called it, of answering the big question, “Who am I?”

In Montessori’s book To Educate the Human Potential, she wrote “The laws governing the universe can be made interesting and wonderful to the child, more interesting than things in themselves, and he begins to ask: What am I? What is the task of man in this wonderful universe? Do we merely live here for ourselves or is there something more for us to do? . . .”

There is indeed more to do — orient themselves within our universe, historically and taxonomical. Who am I and where do I fit in? How can I make the world a better place for future generations?


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