Animal schoolhouse

Karen Harrison’s fourth–grade class at Valley Intermediate School is full of some real animals this year.

My daughter is in her class so I’ve been especially interested in what’s happening on the fourth grade hall. Our normal family conversations have been replaced by exchanges like this one.

“Mom, can I have an African dwarf frog?” Faith asked hopefully. “Our fiddler crabs are coming next week, and our frogs need to find new homes. We don’t have room for frogs and crabs on our tables.”

“Honey, I think that your goldfish would eat an African dwarf frog in one bite,” I answered. “If you like the frogs, they’d better go home with somebody else.”

For a household that’s only pet is a goldfish, this conversation represents vast new knowledge of the animal kingdom. This school year, science is alive in fourth grade.

Harrison was only one of the Valley Intermediate School teachers who received AMSTI training last summer. I’ve heard of AMSTI, but now that its fugitives are seeking refuge in my home, I’ve done some research. AMSTI is the Alabama Department of Education initiative to improve math and science instruction statewide. The program provides teacher training and resources. In Pelham, we’re discovering that AMSTI resources are not your usual textbooks.

Faith came home when school started this year and announced that her class would be full of creatures. The first to arrive were ladybugs, and we were fascinated by Faith’s stories of the ladybugs and their eventual release. African dwarf frogs arrived days later.

When I visited Mrs. Harrison’s classroom, the students were excited to show me their newest visitors. In the center of each table, a fiddler crab roamed around its plastic habitat.

This teacher is thrilled with her students’ enthusiasm.

“Having the animals is a great hands-on experience. The students are learning about cooperation and science. I teach them how to care for the animals, and then it becomes their job,” Harrison said. “They decide who will change the water, clean the cage and feed the animal. My students definitely learn more, and they retain more information. Our creatures generate a lot more excitement than science textbooks on their best day.”

Student Tory Morrisette guided me to the aquarium.

“If you look closely, you can see that the frog’s feet are webbed,” he said, urging me closer. “This is the best science because we observe and then — we know.”