12/15/2010 04:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Tale of Two Lessons (and a Bigger One for Me...)

On Friday morning I facilitated two lesson during literacy time in my second-grade classroom. The first had been planned for a while, the second arose rather spontaneously. Interestingly enough, a third lesson evolved... extending my own learning. For years I have devoted December to teaching my second graders about Christmas traditions around the world. We explore where our holiday decorations and customs originated, learn more about geography, and enjoy traditional legends and stories. Last Friday was our day to learn about Gingerbread houses from Germany, so, of course, we would be reading the story of The Gingerbread Man. My lesson was tied to skills complete with comprehension questions that required the children to write complete sentence answers using story words, capital letters, and ending punctuation. A typical, rather tedious reading assignment for second grade. (We would be creating gingerbread houses with our kindergarten buddies later in the day, however, so the fun was not entirely missing!)

The second lesson came to me the night before as I was reading the local newspaper. Our town is in the midst of great controversy concerning a growing herd of mule deer that reside within our city limits. Although there are many of our residents that delight in seeing the magnificent antlered creatures roaming our streets and resting beneath trees in neighbor's yards, there are also a number of citizens that would choose to rid the town of the beasts that eat our landscaping, possibly carry diseases, and, at times, attack our pets. As I read the most recent letters to the editor of our local paper, I decided to address this problem with my students.

The lesson took no planning or preparation on my part. Everything I needed to facilitate the investigation by my students was already available on the Internet. As our morning began, the children were expected to complete any unfinished assignments from the week ("finish up Friday"). As student work was completed, I handed out the original Gingerbread Man story and questions, directing them to independently read and complete the questions using the skills we had been learning for answering comprehension questions. Within a short time, I had a group of students who were finished and ready for a challenge.

I asked the kids if they would like to work on solving a problem for our town. They enthusiastically responded that they would be quite interested in doing that. A short discussion revealed that they were all highly aware of the deer issue and ready to learn. We set up chairs in front of a large computer screen and brought up the website. The site is a new partnership between the Smithsonian, Microsoft Partners in Learning, and TakingITGlobal. I knew there was a recording of a recent webcast on the site that would extend the background of my students. The program was called "Deer in the Forest: Can There Be Too Much of a Good Thing?" with Dr. Bill McShea, Wildlife Ecologist, from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. As the program began, I was, to say the least, surprised at the level of engagement the seven- and eight-year-old children displayed. They were looking at charts, maps, and graphs and listening to a speaker that was addressing many adult listeners. We stopped the recording periodically to make sure the kids were understanding. They were...

"There are 50 kinds of deer in the world." "Some are endangered and there are others that there are too many of." "Herds of deer are growing because there is plenty of food and few predators." "When there are too many deer, some kinds of plants disappear." "When the plants disappear, so do the insects that birds eat, so there are less birds." "People got rid of wolves so people are the biggest predator for deer here." My students were making connections to science lessons from the past. They were discussing habitats, food chains, food webs, predator-prey relationships, and openly applying what they knew to the problem in our town. Most importantly, they were interested and engaged.

We moved to the board where we wrote the problem and listed the facts we had just discovered. Next would come the search for a solution. The students partnered up and began to search the Internet for ideas. Their search revealed that this problem is not limited to Craig, Colorado. They found articles about the same exact situation in towns in Oregon, New Jersey, Michigan, and Connecticut. The people in those towns were struggling with the same issues we are facing today. After reading, we came together again to discuss what we learned. The students had many ideas of how to solve the problem. One suggested building a large fence around our town (like the Woodland Indian stockades they had learned about). Another suggested locking up all the livestock, pets, and people, then turning lose wolves in our town to kill the deer. Yet another student suggested hunting the deer and giving the meat to poor people.

We did not solve the problem, but the children learned facts about it that they will take home and share. They thought critically and applied their thinking. They listened, discussed, read, comprehended, applied their thinking in creative ways. They learned.

The lesson for me? That happened at the end of the day. After lunch, we moved on to math, emailing Santa, and making gingerbread houses with our kindergarten buddies. Great fun and a marvelous end to another week of school. As we lined up to go home and the children licked the last bits of frosting from their fingers, guess what they wanted to talk about? "Mrs. Arnett, I have another idea for what to do about the deer..." and the discussion began again. I have no doubt that when their parents asked them what they learned today that the answer was not the typical "nothing..." I have no doubt that the students who took part in the lesson about the deer will have great discussions at home this weekend about the issue. I have no doubt that we will still be talking about it in class next week. My lesson? Don't underestimate the thinking ability of small children. Don't limit their learning to the same old things we have always done. Yes, they love Santa and frosting, but they also love to be challenged and be respected for their thoughts.

If you have read my earlier blogs, you will understand when I say, "The bridge to nowhere is back under construction...."