What are the animals for?

During a recent Back-to-School night, parents gathered in the science building to hear how their children would be spending their time in science classes this year. After my introduction, a parent raised her hand. “What will you be using the animals for?” I scanned the room, taking in the dozen or so habitats housing snakes, guinea pigs, a poison dart frog, fish, zebra finches…IMG_2621A simple question with a multifaceted answer. Very few classrooms feature so much biodiversity, at least of the vertebrate kind. Yet each of these animals, rescued or donated by families who could no longer keep their pet, plays an important role as an ambassador for its species. Each displays characteristics that help children understand it not just as an individual, but as representing a lineage distinct from humans and each other. Animals are also attention magnets, capable of capturing and holding a child’s focus while delivering immediate multisensory reinforcement of concepts that are being taught. This space is a “companionable zoo” where animals are partners in the learning process.

In last week’s JE classes, our older Russian tortoise, Borise, took center stage. As the students sketched her, she wandered around the table, occasionally meandering onto one of the kids’ dry-erase boards. “Hey! She likes me! She likes the drawing I did of her!” they would shout. Eventually, the focus became whose work Borise liked best, as evidenced by her movement toward a particular sketch.

Was the tortoise really paying attention to the drawings? What other variable could entice her to choose one direction over another?  Food? Light? Shelter? These are things that we can and will test, with respectful, humane, and scientific methods, setting in motion an increasingly sophisticated inquiry process over students’ years at Jemicy and beyond. Employing our easily observable (and yes, endearing) classroom animals as demonstrators of specialized adaptations enlarges our perspective on the experience of non-human others. How are they like us? How are they different? Why do they display these differences?

M Group’s first science research project identifies some of these key characteristics of our classroom animals. Each student chooses an animal to observe, while also researching the natural history of its species in the wild. Every year there are eye-opening discoveries that lead to critical discussions about research methods, physiology, cultural differences, the pet trade, reproduction, climate, etc.

  • “It says that ball pythons only live about 10 years in the wild, but 30 years in captivity. Does that mean Blotch set a new record? And how do they know how long they live in the wild?”
  • “Oh NO! They EAT guinea pigs in South America?!”
  • “All the Chilean tarantulas I see online are very hairy. Why is Sponge Bob bald?”M animals-9
  • “If it’s called a poison dart frog, why isn’t Blue poisonous? And if he’s not poisonous, why can’t I hold him?”IMG_2624 (1)
  • “Why can’t I find any pictures of molly fish eggs?”IMG_2625
  • “The chinchilla is so soft, it’s like you can’t even feel her fur! But why won’t she let us hold her?”M animals-3

Every day, the younger JE groups spend part of their class time with a particular animal, learning about its adaptations and accompanying vocabulary. Did you know that some snakes have vestigial legs? That a tortoise cannot crawl out of its carapace and plastron? That a gecko’s tail can regenerate? That snakes have no eyelids, and they shed the “brille” that covers their eyes? That guinea pigs are coprophagic?

Sometimes we are able to hold or touch an animal, and sometimes not. An often-repeated phrase: “It’s not about what you want. It’s about what they need.”  A snake that is hungry, a chinchilla that needs her space, a bird that will always view us as predators, a bearded dragon in defensive “blue beard” or “pancake” mode: these are all animals whose behavioral response to humans we learn to identify and respect.

How to convey the significance of animals to parents in such a brief moment? I may have said, “The animals support what we teach and the importance of respecting others.” What I hope this really means is that their continued presence in our classroom will engender not only a scientific but also a humane approach to interacting with diverse creatures that are wholly dependent upon us for survival.gp2


Late bloomers

In spring and summer as I’m tending my gardens at home and at school, I click into keep/discard mode. It’s usually pretty straightforward: keep what I planted, discard the rest. But inevitably I pause at the same spot every year, stymied: What is this rangy, tough-stemmed plant that’s pushing upward with such determination? I’m sure I didn’t plant it. A friend wanders by, sees me studying it, and offers an opinion. “A weed, for sure.” I’m not so sure. There are no visible flower buds, nothing that promises to enhance summer’s blossoming and entice insects and hummingbirds. Just some thin, jagged leaves, a reddish stem, and a branching pattern that suggests…something. Something that convinces me to let it be, to wait and see.Eupatorium serotinum

I’m glad I did. The plant that I decided to ignore all summer just waited as the sunflowers, coneflowers, and black-eyed Susans burst into bloom, flashed their gaudy petals (or were eaten by the deer), and then became food for the finches. Finally, as I was contemplating spreading compost and putting the beds to bed for the winter, I noticed it. Actually, what caught my eye first were its visitors: sulphurs, monarchs, skippers, buckeyes, wasps, bees, ants.

A stunning array of insects worked over the inconspicuous, delicate white flower heads. I hardly knew where to look first, much less how to focus my camera lens to capture the abundance. Only then did the identity of the plant finally enter my consciousness: late boneset, also known as late thoroughwort. Eupatorium serotinum. Pollinator magnet.

This is not the only “weed” that waits until late summer to attract pollinators. Goldenrod, aster, ironweed, blazing star, and a host of other plants welcome visitors through September and into October in this region. Why so late? Many late-season pollinator species overwinter as larvae or use the nectar derived from fall flowers to fuel migration southward.

E. serotinum won’t be forgotten next year. I’ve submitted photos to the Maryland Plant Atlas, which has no formal record of it for either the Cockeysville (Jemicy LMS) or Reisterstown (my house) quad, in spite of its ubiquity. Better late than never!