The BIG Zoo Lesson: Hands-On, Minds-On Learning At The Zoo
Dennis Laidler, Margaret Holtschlag
Potter Park Zoo, Lansing, MI
Talking with wildlife experts, observing animal behaviors, and researching animals from all over the
world are all parts of The BIG Zoo Lesson. Modeled after the award-winning Campus Calgary/Open Minds program in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, students, teachers, and parents use Potter Park Zoo as their classroom for week-long, in-depth learning. The BIG Zoo Lesson brings the classroom into the community–using the most available authentic setting for the children’s learning.
Initiated by Michigan Teacher of the Year 2000 Margaret Holtschlag, The BIG Zoo Lesson is an interdisciplinary, problem-based approach to teaching and learning and an innovative tool for learning conservation and developing sensitivity to the natural world. Teachers bring their students to the zoo for a full week for lessons with docents and zookeepers, daily animal observations, and cooperative research. Following the model of Jane Goodall, children are up close as the primary researchers with a first hand experience of the animal world.
The BIG Zoo Lesson program was initiated in the 2000-01 school year, but the inspiration for the concept began two years earlier. In 1998, fourth grade teacher Margaret Holtschlag, realizing the limitations of a brief one-time field trip, began experimenting with bringing her classroom to the Michigan Historical Museum for longer and repeated visits. She was selected as Michigan’s Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for National Teacher of the Year in 2000. She had the opportunity to spend that year out of the classroom and spent much of that time developing, testing and revising a model of learning that brings classrooms into informal learning centers not for one hour field trips, but for week long “study trips that are part of a year long classroom thematic study utilizing community resources…the “Big History Lesson.”
The program had a second year of experimentation when the Michigan Historical Museum provided support for a one year “Teacher in Residency Program” that allowed Margaret to continue training teachers and coordinating week-long experiences in the museum. During that year a partnership was developed with the Potter Park Zoological Society and the model was adapted to create the BIG Zoo Lesson. Recognizing the value of the model, the Potter Park Zoo worked quickly to pilot the BIG Zoo Lesson in the 2000-01 school year with eight classes from five school districts. By the end of the 2001-02 school year, the zoo had piloted another twelve classes representing six school districts. The classes involved with the pilots included first through fifth grades and were comprised of a diverse mix of urban, suburban and rural schools.
For the 2002-03 and 2003-04 school years, the Potter Park Zoological Society has been awarded a U.S. Department of Education “Fund for the Improvement of Education” grant that has allowed for full implementation of the BIG Zoo Lesson. During the 2002-03 school year, twenty classes in first through fifth grade and representing eight school districts participated in the program. The goal for 2004-05 is to increase participation to 30 classes.
Essential Components of the BIG Zoo Lesson
Ongoing, sustained professional development for teachers: From her book Educating Teachers: The Academy’s Greatest Failure or Its Most Important Future– Linda Darling-Hammond writes that the ability of teachers is one of the most powerful determinants of student achievement–more influential, in fact, than poverty, race, or the educational attainment of parents. But if teachers are to do the job right, they must have help in the form of “more intensive teacher training, more meaningful licensing systems, and more thoughtful professional development.” In other words, the systems that support teacher development need to be much better than they are.
Recognizing the intensity and demands of the BIG Zoo Lesson experience for t eachers, the development of forums for communication and sharing have become essential parts of the success of this program. Teachers participate in two to three days of intensive training onsite at the zoo and have additional individual sessions with the program coordinator to design and implement thematic study for their students. During the year, teachers participate in a listserv, which allows them to share their experiences. Discussing their successes and problems, they learn from each other, building a knowledge base that continues to grow. Teachers also receive ongoing communication and support from the program coordinator, project director and zoo staff.
Teacher is the designer: Teachers are the architects planning lessons that are teacher-led and student-centered. The teacher decides what the week of learning will be, including the theme, activities, assessment, and extensions. They are in the unique position of knowing where their students are and where they need to go.
They are able to design activities which best meet their school district’s curriculum priorities and goals. This approach also minimizes the strain on the host institution by allowing them to be in the role of a resource, thus increasing the odds for continued institutional support.
Correlation with the Michigan Standards for Effective Teaching and
Learning: Higher-Order Thinking, Deep Knowledge, Substantive Conversations, and Connections to the World Beyond the Classroom are integral to the teacher training and the student lessons. Children work with new information and ideas by synthesizing, generalizing, and making conclusions that produce new meaning and understanding for them. Teachers and parents have commented on how the learning they have seen is the “miledeep” kind of learning, rather than the “mile-wide, inchdeep” kind of knowledge. Through conversations with zookeepers, animal curators, exhibit designers, artists, and each other, students are continually engaged in substantive conversations that build a more complex and shared understanding of topics and ideas.
Extended Times: The importance of students having extended periods of time on-site cannot be overly stressed. Returning to the zoo every day for a full week allows for extended periods of time at the exhibits for reading, writing, sketching, and personal interactions. The allowance of extended study time is key for remembering and applying their new knowledge and is often referred to by students as their favorite activity.
Samples of student work show that they are learning complex topics in in-depth ways because of the adherence to the value of study at the zoo. As one teacher said, “kids are sponges and I think we could have stayed for a month with no complaints.”
The BIG Zoo Lesson is a catalyst for year long thematic study: Long before the week in the zoo, teachers work with the project director, program coordinator and zoo staff to select a theme that they feel will be relevant to their students and matches curriculum goals of their school district and the Michigan Curriculum Standards and Assessment. The theme is woven into classroom activities before, during and after the week and ideally throughout the school year. Prior to and during the week at the zoo and subsequent to their visit, classroom lessons revolve around topics and concepts relevant to their week’s theme. This not only provides content but also teaches skills of observation, description, comparison, analysis, reflection and response.
Use of Community Resources: Teachers and students use the zoo as their classroom and engage in learning experiences with a variety of people. The zoo is a natural setting for zoo personnel, scientists, parents and other community members to join in the teaching and learning process. Students do real research working with real objects. They see the operating room of an animal hospital, handle animal bones, skulls, skins and study zoo exhibits. For example, when a student “puzzled out” how a skull could provide details on how old a deer was, he used the same skills and processes a wildlife biologist might. When a group of students worked with a zookeeper to experiment with different snacks for spider monkeys, they were thinking creatively and scientifically as they conducted their experimental research. The BIG Zoo Lesson provides teachers, students and parents with a unique, real experience at a community resource the zoo. They develop a much greater and deeper appreciation for the value of the zoo to the community. Stewardship of community resources is an integral part of the BIG Zoo Lesson. Most classes participate in activities designed to “give back” to the zoo.
Success of the BIG Zoo Lesson
The success of students participating in the BIG Zoo Lesson has been significant and extremely gratifying. The students’ deep learning has been demonstrated many months after their zoo week, with students showing their excitement and knowledge about animals. Samples of student work include: research papers, board games about endangered species, poetry, paintings, sculptures, website design, and peer teaching about the zoo to an entire elementary school.
Another benefit of the BIG Zoo Lesson has been the success of students with special learning needs. Learning at the zoo is not limited by reading and writing because students learn essential communication skills. Students who interview zookeepers and share drawings with professional exhibit designers are entering into a new arena of self-discovery and depth of learning. “Success breeds success” is true in the BIG Zoo Lesson.
Through training, sharing ideas with other teachers and the interactive, hands-on experience of their week-long study trips, teachers have improved their skills in several ways. The BIG Zoo Lesson experience has given participating teachers the knowledge, ability, and confidence to utilize community resources as living classrooms. They are able to more effectively incorporate real world, hands-on experiences into their curriculum. Teachers learn about immersion learning and integrated curriculum to transform their teaching at the zoo. As a professional development tool, The Big Zoo Lesson gives each teacher the same learning framework as the students: the experiences, the opportunity to teach at a different site, the assistance of “experts”, and consulting with site staff throughout the process. This program is professional development in its most powerful form and impacts all future teaching and learning in these teachers’ classrooms. Teachers are able to gain a new perspective from their experience.
- Develop a better understanding of how students learn through interesting and rich experience;
- Experience learning outside of the traditional classroom environment;
- Gain personal/professional knowledge about the specific content at the site;
- Expand their skills in assisting students in making cognitive connections;
- Often improve their social relationships with students and parents.
- Results for teachers involved with the BIG ZOO Lesson Model have been so successful that there is a waiting list for those wishing to participate. Teachers are limited to two consecutive years of participation in order to provide more opportunities for other educators.
Parents are an integral part of the BIG Zoo Lesson model and their participation adds greatly to the effectiveness of the program. Most teachers require participating parents to attend an orientation session regarding the BIG Zoo Lesson prior to the zoo visit. Parents are no longer chaperones they become co-learners with the children and co-instructors with the teachers. This parental involvement enhances the relationship between teachers and parents and has parents serve as role models to their children for lifelong learning. Many parents express regret that there was not a learning opportunity such as this for them when they were in school.
Success for the Zoo
In addition to the obvious benefit of fulfilling our role as an effective educational resource to the community, the Potter Park Zoo also receives many other direct and indirect benefits from participating in the BIG Zoo Lesson:
· This program attracts motivated teachers who are seeking to improve their skills.
- Student behavior is exceptional. They are focused, knowledgeable and well behaved at the zoo. The “novelty effect” is minimized by their extended visit.
- Teachers, students and parents reach a new level of respect for the skill and dedication of the zoo docents with whom they interact.
- The success of this program has led to the development of smaller, very focused, one-day, “extended learning trips” for other interested teachers.
- Participating parents have learned that the Potter Park Zoo actually offers “real education” and not just recreation –like when they were young.
- Frequent press coverage showcased the zoo and its education programs.
- The positive experiences of students and parents have led many to participate in other zoo programs such as summer zoo school, guest lecture series, adopt-an-animal, and family memberships.
- The stewardship component of the BIG Zoo Lesson has provided many dividends. Examples of stewardship are: class fundraising projects, planting at the zoo, and letters to the mayor supporting capital improvements to the zoo. Most importantly, students participating in the BIG Zoo Lesson have great potential to be lifelong supporters of the zoo.
As shown here in mid-Michigan, the BIG Lesson model is replicable at almost any community resource. There are currently programs in place at the Michigan Historical Museum, the Potter Park Zoo, Michigan State University Children’s Garden, four area nature centers and the Michigan State University Museum.
This approach is especially well suited to zoos and the authors would be glad to assist other zoos in exploring the possibility of initiating a “BIG Zoo Lesson” at their zoo.
Potter Park Zoological Society
1301 S Pennsylvania Ave
Lansing, MI 48912-1646