Saturday, January 30, 2010

RATS (Stuff and Nonsense)

Please forgive me if this blog seems disjointed at times. I wrote it this morning--it was quite good and I was pleased and when I hit PUBLISH POST I lost it all. I looked at DRAFT and it wasn't there as well. I don't know what happened to it. RATS! To say that I am a bit peeved is to put it mildly. But as I taught my student in Instructional Technology some years back, the best thing one can do is to restart at once. Let's see what happens.

My original title was Stuff and Nonsense. One of the characteristics of good teachers is that they normally have a lot of stuff in their rooms. You can call it audiovisual or media but I prefer STUFF. Stuff includes posters, maps, charts, interesting pictures, models, magnifying glass, rocks, books, perhaps a copy of the constitution as it was written with all its curlycues and squiggles that was the style of writing in that day. You walk into some teachers room and it takes your breath away.....all that interesting stuff.

Do you remember Susan Donnelly who taught first grade and I put those small footprints on her blackboard? It was in my second blog. Mrs. Donnelly taught first grade but had an old kindergarten room which had two bays. In one bay was the old typewriter and guinea pigs in a cage. There was an old rocking chair, books, stuffed animals, a whole bunch of stuff. So when a student was done with some assignment they could wander in this part of the room and continue their education. I do remember Miss Tillia, the best teacher I ever knew who would throw out her "stuff" every three years as she was afraid of having one years experience thirty times. Interesting philosophy. You need to know that I have a map of the State of Washington printed for the Coca Cola company about 1961 framed and in my bed room at present. It's faded but my university map library wants it when I'm done with it. Just some of my stuff.

Stuff teaches. One year when I was teaching fifth grade I wanted to improve on teaching science and health. I went over the requirements for the district on fifth grade science and it didn't look very exciting. Somewhere in my notes from classes and conferences I remember that the Washington State Diary Council was prepared to send me learning material on how proper nutrition. Perhaps I could join health and science in someways by studying better eating and better health. I surveyed their catalog and noted that I could get four rats, some learning materials and teacher aids that would go along with the nutrition unit I wanted to cover. I called them and although they thought that fifth grade was a little under the proper level they agreed and the deal was made. The idea was that I would get four laboratory rats, feed two on a good diet that included dry milk and two on a poor diet without milk. I could live with this. After four weeks, the rats would be reversed so that the poor diet rats would now be on the good and vice versa. After eight weeks, I was to "dispose" of the rats. So I started the unit and we read the textbook. To say the kids were overly interested was pushing it. This was boring stuff. Yawnsville. We struggled on.

I made some cages out of large cookie sheets with edges and hardware cloth. Hardware cloth is lightweight cage material for chicken coops. You can cut it with a heavy duty scissors which I did, folding the cloth and putting a cookie sheet on the bottom and top. Put a brick on the top and you have a serviceable cage for a small animal. A couple of water bottles to hang on the outside feeding in and you're done. I continued to push the textbook info on nutrition.

One day the school secretary called on the intercom and said there was a wooden box just delivered to the office. It was labeled Laboratory Rats. Would I please come down immediately and pick it up. She was not a happy secretary. I did and brought the box back to the class. I remember putting the box on a desk in the front of the room and with a screw driver managed pry one of the boards off revealing a lot of sawdust. I had kids standing on desks, kneeling in front of me--the entire class was intensely involved. There was the sawdust but no rats. I didn't know anything about rats--did they bite, would they run if I touched them. Talk about a dumb teacher. As I ponder what to do one of my young girls reached in and located a rat. It was so small and pink and the class went "aaaaaaawwww" a soft sigh. Darlene handed it one of the other girls and reached once again and found another little rat. She found all four and as a class we decided which two were going in one cage and which other two were going in the other cage.

Since it was after lunch, I can attest that there was no further learning in other subjects that day. We talked about what food we were going to feed the rats and how it was to be measure, how we would weigh the rats and how often, what sort of notes we needed to keep. It was heavy duty science. I had borrowed a scale from the high school, one of those that you put weights on one side until it balanced. The kids spent much of the day measuring stuff. Others mixed the food and labeled it. We put the cages, food and notebooks on a table out of sight of the windows so that drafts and heat would not bother the rats. In fact, several children wanted to spend the night to keep the rats company--they would get lonely. I sort of thought the rats could use some peace and quiet and most of the room agreed.

From that moment on, the class measure grams and teaspoons and tablespoons and all sorts of weights. The "R" volume of our old encyclopedia hardly made back to the rack. Those kids learned more about rats, the plague and everything else in between. And "we" learn to take notes. Each day four children were to take out each rat, weigh it and make sure the others agreed to the weight. Then it was written down and the next rat was weighed. I was proud of the kids, they did a good job. And at the end of four weeks a big celebration as the diets were reversed. In spite of what the Washington State Dairy Council had advised, the kids named the rats. It probably took only a day before everyone in the room could identify who was who in the rat world. Darlene was the unofficial head of the whole project.

I had them write what their thoughts were when we opened the box and I got several of the students writing more then one page. Writing was improving when they had something to say. And note taking seemed to be getting more popular. Even in social studies I'd say, maybe we ought to take a note on this or that and they would agree. The scientific method was definitely being understood. After eight weeks, I felt like the kids had a much better understanding of nutrition then when I only used the textbook .

At this point the rats went to heaven! No, I didn't "dispose of them" the way the Washington State Dairy Council recommended. The rats now became close friends with everyone in the classroom. They were hardly ever in their cages. I remember teaching something one day and looking up I saw a girl busily taking notes and on the top of her head sat a white rat. Another time one of my boys asked me for some help and as I was giving it, a white head appeared from under his shirt. But I don't think that the rats ever took anything away from the learning. It seem to add to the ambiance of the learning of the moment. Holding a rat and reading to the class became second nature to some of the kids. Perhaps I should have been more forceful but I'm not sure.

At the end of the year I knew I had to get rid of the rats. I wrote a letter home to all parent saying that I was going to have a raffle for those letters that come back signed by the parents. Most of them came back signed but I'm sure there was some heavy duty pressure applied by some of my children. Perhaps some parents thought that four out of thirty eight were good odds--I don't know. I do know that the day before the end of school the high school called me and said would I like to give out twelve more rats? I sent home sixteen rats at the end of school.

There is a post script to all of this, actually two. The first one happened one evening several years later. A mother of one of my kids in the rat class called and with tears in her voice said that their rat had died of old age and the family was heart broken. They had called all the pet stores but none carried Laboratory rats. I gave her all the phone numbers and addresses and I heard later that she got two more rats from a lab at Washington State University.

The other post script story was about Darlene. A couple of years after this first story, a young teenage girl walked into my class after school one day. It was Darlene. She wanted to know where I had gotten the rats. She was going to duplicate the experiment with nutrition and demonstrate some science principals at the same time. She also told me she was very afraid of the rats the day she took them out of the box. I wouldn't have believe it. She was thinking of going into biology and science at college. I hope she did. It would give me a warm fuzzy if she did so.....and I don't have a rat running up my back.

That was a good year. I did the unit one more time. Same results. And I think those children had a much better understanding of what science was all about.. I hope so. And thanks to the Washington State Dairy Council for their advice and help. It was invaluable.

So if a teacher got you interested in some subject because there was stuff in the classroom, be sure to thank that teacher. One never knows what catches someones attention do we? Thank a teacher today. It is scientifically proven that they will appreciate it.

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