Beacon Lesson Plan Library

Decidedly Different

Carolyn Garner
Bay District Schools


In this first lesson of the Unit Plan, What Makes Me Who I Am, students study why scientists need to use observable characteristics, how they sort the characteristics, and why they do so. Journal entries allow students to reflect and make inferences.


The student focuses on a central idea or topic (for example, excluding loosely related, extraneous, or repetitious information).

The student uses supporting ideas, details, and facts from a variety of sources to develop and elaborate the topic.

The student understands that scientists use different kinds of investigations (for example, observations of events in nature, controlled experiments) depending on the questions they are trying to answer.

The student selects appropriate graphical representations (for example, graphs, charts, diagrams) to collect, record, and report data.


-Small baggies of similar items to use in small group work which include:
-Overhead manipulatives
-Consumable items, such as Pastas, Beans, Candies, Buttons. Enough for small groups of students to do the group Dichotomous Lesson
-Consumable items (same as before) but for individual students
-Plain manilla paper for groups

-Transparencies: (All available in the Associated File)
Sample 1 and Sample 2 handout
Venn Diagram
Group Dichotomous Key
The Class Dichotomous Key
Large Shapes (will need to cut the shapes)
Student Dichotomous Activity Shapes (will need to cut the shapes)
Sample Dichotomous Key
My Dichotomous Key (Optional)

-Student handouts: (Most available in the Associated File)
Copies of Pre-Test for each student (See Extensions)
Binder cover (optional)
Sample 1 and Sample 2 handout
Student Dichotomous Activity Shapes

Group handouts: (Available in the Associated File)
Group Dichotomous Key

-Teacher handouts:
Instruction Section A and B
Sample Dichotomous grouping
The Class Dichotomous Key
Large Shapes

-Rubric for Assessing Student Journals (transparency and student copies-See Extensions)
-Cooperative Worker Rubric (transparency and student copies-See Extensions)
-Folders (prong or three-ring binder), one for each student
-Chart paper for table of contents


1. Collect overhead manipulatives. Six or seven small items are needed. You may want to consider using some of the small Ellison die cuts that are available.
2. Collect objects for the group sorting activity. There should be one set of similar small consumable items for each group as students will be gluing or pasting them to construction paper.
3. Collect objects for the individual sorting activity. There should be sets of ten similar items for each student. Make sure they are small items, such as beans, buttons, or clip art.
4. If desired for center work, bookmark Beacon Learning Center Student Web Lesson: What's Buggin' You?
5. Create transparencies. See Materials list.
6. Make student copies of student and group handouts. See Materials list.
7. Put a copy of the Cooperative Worker Rubric on a piece of chart paper and refer to it periodically. (Optional)
8. Make copies of the Rubric for Assessing Student Journals for each student. Two have been included on each page so that the teacher can use less paper. Simply cut the page in half.
9. Create binders/notebooks for the first day. It is suggested that (if possible) the teacher purchase a classroom set of notebooks with the slip cover in front. As students do different units or projects, their work can be stored in these binders, and the cover can change as each new unit begins.
10. If binders have been purchased that have the slip cover in front, use the cover sheet available in the attached files.
11. Decide on a table of contents for students to organize their work into the notebook. Due to teacher's different ways of organizing and knowledge of what works best for their students, this has been left up to the teacher. Make sure that no matter how you decide to organize, you create a chart paper Table of Contents and post in the room, plus have a Student Table of Contents for students to put in the front of the notebook. This will aid in organization and be helpful for absent students.
12. Read the Instruction Section A and B on dichotomous keys. Decide which methods will be used with students. Methods will vary based on students' ability levels.


1. Tell students that they will be beginning a new unit. In this new unit they will be discovering who they are. In order to get an idea of what they know and for them to get a preview of what they will be learning, students will take a pre-test.

2. Pass out the pre-test, making sure to stress that this is a no-stakes assessment. Its purpose is to find out what students know and to give them a preview of what they will be learning. It also provides them a peek at the type of information asked for on the first summative. If they don't know an answer, they should leave it blank. Allow students time to take the assessment.

Note: If you, the teacher, feel that students will have a problem reading some of the questions, it is acceptable to read them aloud.

3. Once students have finished, collect the assessments for further study.

4. Give each student a folder and discuss that this will be used to hold their journals for the entire unit. Discuss with students that scientists often keep journals in order to track their learning and discoveries. Students will be doing the same. Establish a wall chart where you will place a group table of contents. Have students place a sheet of paper in the front of their notebooks where they will write their table of contents. Sample table of content items are as follows: handouts-listed by day, journal entries, different assessments, tools for assessments (rubrics, etc.) Decide a place where the journals will be kept and a system for turning them in.

1. Set the stage for the lesson. Write on the board: Do You know This Person? Underneath the caption, list one of the physical characteristics of a student in the class. (Donít give them clues or tell them that it is a class member unless they canít figure it out). Add one physical characteristic at a time, making the student more obvious. Let students take turns guessing until someone figures it out. (The students will want to repeat this activity, so tell them that you will repeat it later, for instance, during the last few minutes of each day, or in a center.)

2. Discuss with the students how they figured out who the person was. Write on the board the words, Observable Characteristics. Guide the students to a definition which should include that observation is one way scientists collect data that indicates how something can be similar, different, or unique when comparing it to something else. In addition, let students know that observation is the most basic skill used in science. Scientists gather information using their five senses, so observing characteristics, although extremely important, is only part of the process.

3. (OPTIONAL ACTIVITY) Allow students an opportunity to practice this by having them write descriptions of classmates that can be used to repeat the activity above. Collect and use in a center or as a three minute filler.

4. Select a group of four students that share an observable characteristic to come to the front of the class. (Example: They all have on white shorts.) Students will now need to figure out which observable characteristic you used in selecting the group. Repeat the activity making the characteristic a little harder each time. Stop when you think they understand observable characteristics.

5. Ask students: What is one way scientists collect data? Answer: By observing something's characteristics. Now tell students that scientists must organize this information. Show them the Venn diagram transparency which is available in the associated file. Ask them where they have seen this before. Remind students that they have seen this on the pre-test. Point out that scientists would use this when comparing and contrasting two different items.

6. Select two students to analyze using a Venn diagram. Label one circle with one student's name, and label the other circle with the other student's name. (As you are doing this, question students why it is important to label graphs and charts.) Underneath each name, list his or her observable characteristics. Label the overlapping circle with SHARED CHARACTERISTICS. Use the listed characteristics to fill in the Venn diagram.

7. Share the rubric, Assessing Student Journals. Make sure that students understand that this rubric assesses their WRITING! Further explain that their journals will help you figure out if they need more help with the content. Have students place the writing rubric in the journal section of their notebooks.

8. Allow for review by having students respond in their science journals. First, they will repeat the Venn diagram activity choosing two different classmates. Next, they will answer this question: Why do scientists observe and record detailed characteristics about the things they study? (NOTE: Point out to students that this question actually has TWO parts.) Formatively assess using the Student Journal Rubric. (See Assessment for further information.)

9. If any students seem to be struggling with the content or with the science journals, allow them additional time to do the Student Web Lesson: What's Buggin' You for review.

NOTE: Prior to beginning this day's lesson, make sure to have an understanding of dichotomous keys and plan which activities should be done with students. All students will differ in their ability to do this activity. Decide what is right for your class. It may be helpful to use the Instruction Section A and B and the other handouts available in the Associated File. The Weblinks may also offer some valuable information.

1. Review observable characteristics.

2. Discuss student journals. Allow students time to comment on each question. Guide students toward correct answers and allow them to elaborate on an answer or add additional information that they learned during this discussion to their journals. Remember the question: Why do scientists observe and record detailed characteristics about the things they study? (One answer would be so they can observe how things are alike and different and record those answers for future study.)

3. Question students: What is one way scientists can organize their data? (Answer: Venn diagram.) Show students the dichotomous key transparency and explain that this is another way scientists can organize their data. Explain to the students that a dichotomous key allows the user to make decisions between choices until the organism is identified.

4. A set of small overhead manipulatives, such as triangles, squares, or other shapes, can be used to demonstrate how to sort a group of objects. (You may wish to use the Large Shapes in the associated file.) Walk the students through a dichotomous lesson and how to construct a key. Use only six or seven shapes for demo.

(Here is where the decision needs to be made whether or not to continue giving more instruction for students to continue on with the next activity.)

5. Point out that the dichotomous key can be used for more than just objects. It can also be used for people. On the overhead, use The Class dichotomous key. Physically divide the class into Boys and Girls. Next, divide the two groups by eye color, and have the students move to the correct group. (It may be helpful to have a student do the recording while you physically help sort students.) Continue dividing each group until each student is in a group by him/herself. Discuss with the students why they are in a group by themselves. Stress that each person is unique and different from everyone else. Write on the dichotomous key and unpack your thinking as you're writing your answers.

6. Have students return to their seats and explain that they will now be working in cooperative groups to manipulate a set of objects and build their own dichotomous keys. Before they do their group work, use the sample key provided which breaks down SHAPES. Be sure and make students aware of the NOTE on the bottom of this key.

7. Before beginning the activity, discuss with the students the Cooperative Worker Expectations which will be used throughout this unit. Next, share with students the Group Dichotomous Key handout. Make sure students understand the expectations and then divide them into small groups. While the students work, observe the students' understanding of the process and appropriate behavior.

8. If students struggle with the content, reteach individuals as necessary. If groups struggle, redirect them with the Cooperative Worker Rubric. Once students have finished, allow them time to share with the class.

(The Beacon Learning Center Student Web Lesson: What's Buggin' You? can be used to reinforce the lesson. It is suggested this be used with pairs of students in a center activity. It may also be helpful when a review is needed for absent students.)

9. Finally, students will individually use a dichotomous key to group a set of items. Give students a set of ten items and the instruction sheet labeled My Dichotomous Key. Following the directions, they will sort the items into two groups and label why they placed the item in that group. They will split those two groups into four groups and label those groups. They continue to split the groups until each item is in a group by itself. Assess this as a formative assessment, using the information in the assessment section.

10. Science Journal:
The students write a short self-description paragraph entitled I Am Unique. In this paragraph, they should explain how they are unique from other people. Next, students should answer this question: What can scientists learn by studying observable characteristics? (Content Note: Students should say something such as it can help them realize how one thing is UNIQUE from the other but remember to only assess the writing using the rubric. The content note is to help drive the instruction.)
NOTE: It may be beneficial to do the journal activities during the language arts section of the day in order to integrate the unit and provide more learning time in journal writing for the students.


1. Misconceptions in the journal should be used to drive the instruction. Remember as you assess that CONTENT is not important at this stage. This is merely a place for students to review what they think they know and to infer other information. If during the reading of their journals, you notice obvious content problems, reteach accordingly. Journal answers may be very simple or complex, but they will depend on your studentsí exposure to observation skills.

Some possible journal responses to the questions:
Why do scientists observe and record detailed characteristics about the things they study?
Scientists observe characteristics closely because they need to be able to recognize (tree, animal, object) again. More specific answers could say they need to identify characteristics to group things together (plant, animal, rocks), and give each group a name. Students could use examples such as identifying dinosaur bones or types of rocks. They record the information so that someone else can identify or recognize that same plant, animal, rock, object, or whatever they are studying. Scientists may include pictures or drawings in their recorded information.
If your students struggle, guide them through a discussion using a hypothetical situation, such as theyíve lost a pet or a favorite toy. How would they identify it? Could they describe it to someone else so they could help find it?

What can scientists learn by studying observable characteristics?
Again, the complexity of the answers will depend on how knowledgable your students are about the ways scientist work. The main focus in this lesson is how unique a person, place or thing is, which helps scientists identify or classify the objects of their studies. If your students struggle, guide them by asking what happens when the fossil of a very large creature is discovered? What process do scientists use to find out more about the fossils?

2. For the group dichotomous groupings, observe misconceptions and correct as necessary.

3. For cooperative workers, use the formative assessment tool, Cooperative Worker Expectations.

4. Students individually use a dichotomous key to group a set of items. Use this as a formative assessment. Check to see if the items are grouped appropriately using a dichotomous key. Each item should be labeled with the reason that it was placed in that group.


1. For a literature link this novel can be used to help students understand uniqueness. [The Caterpillar Who Thought He Was a Moustache.] Richards, Susan, and Wendy Stang. Illustrated by Anderson, Robert L. Hubert. 1967. It's easy to see why imaginative Hubert thinks he's a moustache -- he looks just like one, until one day he realizes he is something else. I like to teach this novel as a language arts lesson to parallel this science unit. It is an excellent novel to teach kids to understand:
-other people's feelings
-the error in judging people by how they look
-the need to look beyond the obvious reason for a person's behavior, and
-the importance in finding out about the true person before deciding you can not like them.

2. This is a great one to use also. [Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade]. DeClemente,Barthe. Puffin Books, 1990. (For children age 8.)
From The Publisher: Jenny knows one thing for sure - Elsie Edwards is a fat thief who steals people's lunch money to buy candy. So when the book club money disappears, why is the whole class punished? Nothing's fair! But soon Jenny realizes some things aren't fair for Elsie, either. Elsie is on a strict diet, but when she starts losing weight, her mother won't buy her new clothes. Instead, she plans to send Elsie to boarding school. Suddenly everyone wants to help Elsie. Nothing's fair in fifth grade - but sometimes things get better!

3. As some of the vocabulary in here can be problematic for students, a word wall is suggested. Merely place the word and a simple definition on contruction paper (two sheets taped together may be necessary) and post on a wall or window in the room. As students need assistance with vocabulary, they can use the word wall for constant reminders and review.

4. As the content in this area is a little tricky for some students, utilize the Student Web Lesson, What's Buggin' You, to review the content, or the Web lesson can be used to catch absent students up with the rest of the group.

5. It may be beneficial to integrate this lesson with language arts by having students learn more about journal writing. Further, it may also be beneficial to do the journal writing section of the unit DURING the language arts class. This will help the students see how the two work together and save time as well.

6. The Beacon Unit Plan associated with this lesson can be viewed by clicking on the link listed in Weblinks.

Web Links

Web supplement for Decidedly Different
Constructing a dichotomous key

Web supplement for Decidedly Different
Dichotomous Key

This is a fun activity that helps children learn to sort using characteristics.
Dichotomous Key Activity

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