From Nature Stories to Natural Science
by Lesley Finlayson, Fourth Grade Teacher
The Fourth Grade spent the month of February immersed in its second “Human Being and Animal World” block. These two blocks are truly marvelous, for many reasons. The classroom is abuzz with enthusiasm, because the children are enormously interested in animals, and throw themselves into the subject with great curiosity and interest. But this interest has a new quality now, because the children are becoming more and more aware of the distance that separates them from the world of nature. As they lose their sense of oneness with nature, they become more interested in looking at the world in a new way. A division between their rational thought and their imaginative thought begins to occur, and the children want animals that are not part of fairy tales or fables but part of the world in which they find themselves. So the teacher brings descriptions and stories of real animals, which serves as an introduction to the world of science.
The Animal Project was the culmination of the “Human Being and Animal World” blocks. Each child chose an animal that makes its home here in the landscape in which we live—an animal of Maine. I was fascinated to see how each child chose an animal that seemed, in some way, like a reflection of that child. The children got books and magazines from the library, and learned how to write a research paper, taking notes, organizing ideas and facts, then writing an essay based on the material they had collected. This was a huge step in their academic learning, and they seemed to relish it. At the same time, they were modeling their animal in clay and beeswax and— for the first time in school—making numerous, very accurate drawings from photographs.
After the reports were written and the children had an understanding of the world of their animal, they each wrote a story, told from their animal’s point of view. Several children in the class told of brushes with death: the bear cub witnesses the death of a male bear, the fisher kills his first porcupine, the turtle is almost crushed by a wagon, the fox is killed by a farmer. Several told of an important moment on the journey from childhood to the independence of adulthood: the owlet learns to fly, the otter gets lost and then finds his way home, the beaver builds her own lodge, the moose grows his first antlers. And one story details a quest for a magical healing flower, which may well be a part of a baby hummingbird’s day!
The final step for the children was the construction of dioramas, showing their animal in its habitat, going about some aspect of its day. These were beautifully done, with careful attention to detail and novel solutions to showing the landscape of Maine (including eight different ways of showing water.) They were presented to the whole school, with the children standing by their dioramas and answering questions about their animal.
During this project, I saw the children make great strides in their ability to do academic work independently, and also form a deeper conscious connection to the natural world and its inhabitants. I was also delighted by the generosity of the adults and of all the other children in our school, who were so supportive of the class during their visits to see the children’s animal presentations.
See pictures of all of the Animal Dioramas at: Fourth Grade Animal Dioramas. When you get there, click on one of the photos for a very colorful slide show!