Monday, November 22, 2010

Owl Pellet Dissection

Preparing experiments for science class can often be a time-consuming and stressful experience for me.

Time-consuming because I have to gather the materials (which sometimes requires going out and buying them), prepare the lab and report sheets, and sometimes do a practice run of the experiment to make sure it works. Stressful because I have 21 sixth graders, many of whom have short attention spans and issues with listening and following directions, and only one of me to watch over everything. I essentially have to design the lab so that only I handle the expensive/harmful materials, which means when I am working with one group of three students, 18 others are more or less unsupervised...

The upside to all of this, however, is that the students absolutely love working with their hands and doing actual experiments. Today, for instance, we dissected owl pellets and identified the bones that we discovered. Except for one or two students, everyone was engrossed in the oddity of the owl pellets and the meticulousness required to separate the tiny bones.

The nice thing about doing experiments like this one in class is that it fulfills two of the most difficult requirements of a successful lesson plan:

1. It engages a students curiosity and keeps them interested in the lesson.
2. It meets each individual student at their particular intellectual level.

In every class you will have students that are at different intellectual levels - particularly in the sixth grade at Chinquapin where students come from a wide range of educational backgrounds. One of the marks of a successful lesson is that each individual student can engage with the material at the appropriate level for him or her so that it is challenging enough to help them learn, but not so challenging that they are discouraged. Labs and experiments are so nuanced that they have many layers of intellectual rigor. For example, some of the students were simply intrigued by the sight of rodent bones, tried their best to identify them, and made basic connections between their findings and the food webs we have been discussing in class. Other students, however, were able to study the differences between the teeth patterns of mice and moles, consider the population dynamics of the meadow ecosystem, and even try to reconstruct complete skeletons.

I think these labs are really the embodiment of a question that all teachers ask themselves on a daily basis: Would I spend a few extra hours working on a lesson if I knew it could make a class even marginally better for the students? Those that can honestly answer in the affirmative are meant to be teachers, and I think too often we as educators lose sight of the direct correlation between our effort and our students' learning. It is days like this that remind me how much of my own time I would actually sacrifice so my students have an interesting, educational, successful class.

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