Students at Piney Branch Elementary School use innovative performance-based learning to study the solar system

At Piney Branch Elementary School, students in Elizabeth McKeown’s fourth-grade class raved about “toilet paper or TP” on the school lawn in the name of science. The students gave a performance-based lesson on the solar system, which is part of the fourth-grade science curriculum. Students demonstrated the distance between the planets and the sun using squares of toilet paper as a unit of measurement and the school fence as a metaphor for the sun. Students placed squares of toilet paper from the fence on the models they built for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Students were divided into groups and used calculations they obtained in their class to see how many squares to use. Students assigned to Mercury used approximately four squares of the fence, while students assigned to Neptune unrolled nearly a full roll of toilet paper to represent its great distance from the sun.

Fourth grader Jackson Anders shared, “I thought it was really fun. It helped me learn to tell the distance between the planets and the sun. It was also a fun way to learn. Another student, Juliet Curcio, added: “I found this project fun. Because, come on, it’s SPACE! This however involved a lot of toilet paper.

Performance-based learning allows students to guide their learning journey by participating in intentional and engaging activities aimed at deepening their understanding of a topic. This outdoor task was the culmination of the language arts, math and science lessons the students had learned in class. Students also wrote a report on their planet following the writing process: research, write a draft, edit and peer review, and final draft. To reinforce their understanding, each group of students presented facts about their planet to the rest of the class.

This lesson was co-taught with Kristine Klink, Special Educator, and Adrienne Nguyen, English Learner (ELL) teacher, so that students with different learning needs can learn and grow from each other in a supportive environment. .

Nguyen shared that this co-taught lesson follows the school’s mission to “transcend the status quo with innovation that engages students.”

“This planned activity is a creative approach to learning more about the solar system. This allows students to demonstrate what they are learning other than standard pencil and paper,” McKeown said.