20 Year Old Dinosaurs

When I taught kindergarten, I had a unit about dinosaurs. Young children are fascinated by dinosaurs.  I don’t know if it’s the “monster” connection, or the big words, or the idea of an animal being so huge, or living before men were on earth, or what, but the fact is that all children sit quietly for dinosaur books (well-written dinosaur books well read) and all kids LOVE exploring them–all facets, from their size to their names. Once I discovered this, and I tried teaching a unit on dinosaurs, it became one of my favorites–and one of my most powerful–units of study each year.  My units typically lasted anywhere from a week to three or four, depending on the complexity of my goals and the interest shown by my students.  This one usually lasted at LEAST four weeks.

First, while it was  a thematic unit, I did have big ideas I was trying to help young children understand–the idea of a LONG time ago, the idea of extinction, the idea of scientific hypotheses and the idea that science understanding is still evolving. The biggest idea I always  tried to convey, though, was that everything is connected. Whether it was a meteorite that hit the earth and caused a climatic disaster that killed the plants and thus the plant eaters so the meat eaters had no food, or “extensive release of volcanic gases, climatic cooling (with related changes in ocean currents and weather patterns), sea-level change, low reproduction rates, poison gases from a comet, or changes in the Earth’s orbit or magnetic field”, what happened in one place affected them ALL. (reference)

We studied word origins–herbivore, carnivore and omnivore as well as triceratops, tricycle, tripod and triangle.  We studied geography as we learned where dinosaurs typically lived and where dinosaur bones have been found.  We learned about reading as we began to recognize the names of common dinosaurs we read about–Tyrannosaurus Rex, Brontosaurus (which we learned was really Apatosaurus, since two different teams of scientists had discovered the same kind of dinosaur in two places, and the team who named it Apatosaurus found it first), Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Pterydactyl, and Pteranodon. We studied life processes as we learned dinosaurs laid eggs and that mothers nurtured their young. We practiced the scientific process and studied cartesian plotting as we dug-CAREFULLY-using toothbrushes and toothpicks, to uncover bones in our sandbox and plotted their findings on our grid. We learned about language and letters and words and writing as we wrote our own dinosaur stories and shared what we were learning in our journals and “words we find interesting”  lists. We learned about “silent letters” as we found the P silent in Pterydactyl and Pteranodon.  We constantly compared and contrasted and sorted as we discussed characteristics that were the same and different among various dinosaurs. We made lists of carnivores–of herbivores–and discovered most of us were omnivores. We learned about cold and warm-blooded animals as we studied their lifestyles and habitats–and that there is somewhat of a controversy as to whether these huge animals were truly lizard-like, (as the word part “saur” indicated) or whether they were more bird-like and descendants of the birds of today. We learned which dino was which through repeated exposure to them in books and movies, as well as the songs we loved from records like “Our Dinosaur Friends.”

(I have been 16 years away from my Kindergarten class–but I can still recite the words to these songs–how do you think I found this album online?)

Triceratops with three long horns, a beak like a parrot and a frill where his neck is. .. .or

My name is Stegosaurus, I’m a funny looking dinosaur.  For on my back are many boney plates, and on my tail there’s more…

and check out the comment on the link–the guy who put this online says he, too, still remembers these lyrics.

We ate, breathed and lived dinosaurs–reading about them, writing about them, playing with them in the block area and on the rug, comparing their sizes and drawing one on the blacktop to get a feel for just how huge these things really were, pretending to be paleontologists as we used hammers and nails (and our trusty toothbrush tools again) to dig bones out of plaster of paris we had made in milk cartons, pretending to be newspaper reporters as we reported on the “discoveries” made in the digging and in our block area. We counted dinosaur manipulatives in math–we measured and compared as we learned about the different sizes of their teeth.  We argued facts we learned in movies like “Land Before Time” against what we learned in our books.  We learned to defend our statements and justify our hypotheses, just as adult workers do.

My students were self-directed in what they chose to work with each day, but they were accountable to the bigger community of our classroom, expected to contribute in class conversations, to be able to state facts and make hypotheses, to defend their statements and justify their thinking. They worked in groups or alone at various times, mostly of their own choosing. They made books together (or sometimes alone) to share their learning or simply to celebrate their newfound knowledge. They brought books from home to add to our classroom collection of knowledge as we learned together. They suggested activities to do during our “work choice time” as they learned from their own studies both in and out of school. They looked for books about dinosaurs in the library and shared news they found (or learned from their parents) from the newspaper or TV news.

My job during this time (and always, I believe) was to support their learning, providing opportunities to expand their thinking (first we dug up bones in the sand table and plotted them, then we dug them out of plaster of paris to portray fossils in rocks), and scaffolding whatever they were working on–whether it be helping them with the letters they needed for the writing they were doing, or finding an appropriate book they might be able to “read” (from the pictures) or finding a source of information for the questions they had.

I did (and do) very little large group lecturing–I put information out there in a provocative way and watch them take off on it to see how to support them and how to guide them as they learn to read, write, and do math and science to make sense of their world. I subtly direct some activities so that they will need skills I know I have to teach them from the mandated curriculum. I marvel other times at how much they already know and strive to keep ahead of them a bit to provide new opportunities to learn. I have time, because they are mostly self-directed and internally driven, to work with individuals or small groups, DIRECTLY on the skills they need at that moment in time. I indeed spent most of my “time traveling from student to student to help individuals with individual problems” or challenging them to go beyond what they were already doing.

So, while I was doing this over 20 years ago (thus the title of the blog), isn’t this 21st century teaching, if there is such a thing?  Isn’t this just GOOD TEACHING? And, doesn’t it “support peace and democracy? Ecological integrity? Economic justice? Beauty?” (Okay, maybe NOT beauty or economic justice…)

The idea for this post came from the Cooperative Catalyst Blog Comments on a post I did there.

7 thoughts on “20 Year Old Dinosaurs

  1. What a powerful description of the richness of integrating subjects. Is integration a lost art or has it just gone underground? Or am I just unaware that it’s the norm? Your teaching about dinosaurs affirms for me the idea that we should not just ‘cover’ the curriculum and treat curricular outcomes as a checklist of objectives to be achieved. Learning (ideally) is a WOW experience that we should get caught up in. Thanks for sharing this story! It is inspirational!

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  3. And there I was thinking your title might refer to student-teachers teaching like they were taught 🙂

    Inspiring post –

    I’ll go catch up on the Coöp comments, but here I’ll ask how you found your teaching voice, Paula. Did it take trial and error? Research? Mentoring? Sudden intuition? Constant reflection? A kid? A parent? A colleague?


  4. Well, Chad, seeing as how my first year teaching I asked my principal if my 4th graders could work their own way through the math book without me being up front and center for the whole class at the same time, I’d guess that it was based on me deciding to treat kids the way I wished teachers had treated me-with dignity and a belief in my competence, not distrust and assuming ignorance, which is what it felt like many teachers believed about their students as I was growing up.

    I remember a 10th grade English teacher sometimes picking up my brother and me in his car as we waited for the bus. It made me listen to him more when I had him as my teacher–and he was one of those who opened a door to a subject I hadn’t particularly enjoyed before. Teachers who treated kids with respect and as humans made an impression on me–so those are the ones I have aspired to be like.

    I guess I found a voice among colleagues though in the eighties, as described in my Coöp blog, 5 Decades, 6 Schools, …@ http://coopcatalyst.wordpress.com/2010/05/12/epiphanies/. I will forever credit Jamie Endahl, Debbie Collins, Pam Moran, Ann Etchison, Rhonda Roebuck and Donna DeGroat for helping me by asking questions, recognizing the power of my Kindergarten kids being self-starting and self-directed and being willing to talk with me endlessly about why we do things in our classrooms. All of those people are connectors–ones who work to connect others to each other to talk and think and share.

    But most of all, I think I learned how to teach by kidwatching and responding from my heart to what I saw.

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  6. As a fairly new teacher I’m reminded of the justification we have been given for the rise of standardized testing, that teachers were teaching about dinosaurs for weeks and the kids only knew about dinosaurs; no math, no spelling, etc… So in came the standardized test to be sure kids knew what every other kid their age knew. I’ve been teaching Virginia standards and find that I have to pull in other documents that help me help kids connect to a big idea that they can relate to. Isn’t what you were doing what we should have been doing all along? Teaching about dinosaurs the way you do is a wonderful model for swinging the pendulum back to more kid friendly teaching.

  7. I love Dinosaurs too! Its wonderful to see a teacher who truly cares. Thank you for your post.

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