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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

20 Year Old Dinosaurs

Adam and Monika, this one’s for you, in response to your comment here and the ensuing conversation about learning.

This is also cross-posted at Reflections of the TZSTeacher.

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 studiedcartesian 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 constantlycompared 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.  Weargued facts we learned in movies like “Land Before Time” against what we learned in our books.  We learned todefend 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 words) 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…)

About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


2 thoughts on “20 Year Old Dinosaurs

  1. lovely Paula.. brilliant.

    and yes – the connections you made for your kids within a topic they were all fascinated about (giving them opportunity for flow) – is most certainly 21st cent skills.

    and that was 16 years ago.
    it’s not that so much has to change.. (from teachers who really know how to make those connections happen)’s that the web allows more of those connections to happen… which – as messy and different as it seems – makes everything simpler and much more meaningful.
    we have to help teachers understand the web – that it’s not tools and apps and bling – it’s those connections to people and content – per passion – that makes it so beautiful – that can make all we do so valuable.

    i only wish more teachers could see and believe this – you wrote:

    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.

    thank you for sharing. what a fun class you had.

    Posted by monika hardy | May 30, 2010, 9:10 am


  1. Pingback: A Challenge to ACT (and be your best!) | Reflections of the TZSTeacher - July 13, 2010

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