Monday, July 25, 2011

Summer Bird Study: Blue Jays

We are so enjoying this little break from all the heat this summer. If you live in almost anywhere in the United States, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It is amazing to conduct a nature study during extreme weather conditions, because you always learn something new about the adaptability of the natural world.

We are participating in the Outdoor Hour Challenges (although we are a little behind!), so we headed out earlier this month to see what birds came to our summer feeders, and to choose one for further study. My youngest selected the raucous Blue Jay for his study, and we found Outdoor Hour Challenge #2, "Jays and Bluebirds."

We see Blue Jays regularly at our summer feeder, but not as frequently as we do at our winter feeder (which is why we included a winter photo here, of a little feeding study we did while we were in the kitchen baking on winter day). They prefer more woodlot for breeding than we have near our city lot.

We are using Apologia Science's Exploring Creation with Zoology 1: Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day for a science text book this year, so we are learning about scientific nomenclature, and made this the focus of our bird study. When we consulted the Handbook of Nature Study, we found that crows and jays were closely related; our field guide told us they were both in the Family Corvidae (Crows and Jays).

We studied the Blue Jays that came to our feeder, as well as their more numerous cousins, the American Crows. We focused our observations on the features that made them similar, and the ones that were different, by comparing the crow and the jay, using a Venn diagram with categories: beaks & feet, color, food, size, habits and body shape. Adding comparison categories to a Venn diagram makes the comparisons more meaningful than many children will make without these prompts.
We also closely examined the Latin name for Blue Jay, because we learned that the Latin name for an animal describes it so that any zoologist in the world knows some basic information about it, just by its name:

Cyanocitta cristata = blue, city, crested = blue, crested bird that you find in the city ... pretty accurate!
We will be continuing our studies of the blue jay and other feeder birds this month, and will add more detailed observations, making a field journal, doing a feeding experiment, and listening to the calls and songs of our feeder bird friends. We have been using the bird study sheets from the June newsletter (from the Handbook of Nature Study), as well as bird study notebooking pages from the Notebooking Treasury (see their sale coupon, on the sidebar, for Back to School Savings!).

If you want a fun activity to do with your kids, that will reinforce how living things are classified, check out "Taxonomy Fun," a PBS page that invites kids to sort photographs of animals and state their "rule" for classification. You can also do this activity using photographs from nature magazines. 

National Geographic always has a ton of great information for kids to use for online research. Check out their page on the Blue Jay, for photos, videos, calls and songs, and lots of information for further study about Blue Jays. For example, did you know that young blue jays often stay with their parents for more than one year, helping the parents to tend the next year's batch of babies? Also, if you find a blue jay nest, you will discover that the mother blue jay likes to add interesting objects, such as twist-ties, colorful plastic food wrappers, and shiny pieces of foil, to her nest of sticks. And the normally boisterous jay sits perfectly motionless and silent, if you happen upon the nest when mom is sitting on her eggs.


I've updated some of my other articles on observation:

Science Skills: Making Observations and Asking Questions Like a Scientist now includes additional links, updates and class pet ideas. Come and see the new module on easy class pets (all tried and true, based on my classroom experiences!). Check out some unusual critters to keep in the classroom, and my list of not-so-great class pets. Additional links to websites and downloadable resources also included.

The Power of Observation: Life in a Tiny Ecosystem has new activities, and new content, as well as
additional links to blogs and notebooking resources on mosses, lichens and fungi. Check out the discount links to notebooking pages you can use with this activity and other nature study projects, and try my new poll on science process skills.
If you missed my last blog post, check out our study of shark teeth and other beach combing activities, in Beachcombing, Part I: Shark Teeth

What does it take to be a great teacher? See The 12 Qualities That Great Teachers Share, from the Washington Post.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Beachcombing, Part I: Shark Teeth

I love the beach. I love the way the blue sky meets the turquoise water at the horizon. I love the hiss of the waves against the sandy shore. I love the smell as I drive down the highway and get closer to the shoreline. I love walking the beach when the sky is boiling and slate gray, just before a storm. I love walking the beach in the fog in the evening, when everything sounds muffled and close by. I love the crisp blue sky and angry surf after a hurricane passes through. To me, there is nothing like being oceanside, any time of day or year.

My mom came to visit us from her home in Florida, bringing treasures for our youngest son, as always. Among her treasures was a bottle full of hundreds of teeth she found while beachcombing during a recent trip to the ocean. We set about to study them and learn what kind of animal left them behind. We looked for a Outdoor Hour Challenge about beachcombing or sharks, but didn't find one, nor did we find much in the Handbook of Nature Study. So we invented our own activities! We immediately narrowed our choices down to one or more elasmobranchs, the group of bony fishes that includes sharks, rays, skates and sawfish. But which one?

Shark Teeth:

Shark teeth vary in size and shape, depending on the size of the shark and the type of food it eats. They grow a continuous supply of teeth -- every time a shark loses a tooth, a new one grows in. One row of teeth has another row behind it, and the new tooth just rotates into the empty space. A shark can use up to 20,000 teeth in their lifetime.

The teeth we sorted were all pointed and sharp, meaning they were designed to catch and tear meat. All elasmobranchs are carnivores, meaning they eat meat. Some kinds (most sharks, skates, sawfish) eat fish of various sizes. Others (rays, some sharks) have little peg-like teeth, because they sift tiny creatures out of the sea water for their food. So the teeth were not likely from rays.

We consulted the website from the Florida Museum of Natural History to see if we could find pictures showing the difference between shark and skate teeth. To the left is a collection of shark teeth that looks a lot like the ones we have in our bottle.

We also found a drawing of skate teeth. Skates' teeth are triangular, and look pretty much the same no matter where they come from in the skate's mouth. They have multiple rows of teeth, like a shark, on both the top and bottom jaw. Check out the photo, below...
After looking at various illustrations and photographs, we decided that most, or all, of the teeth in our collection were shark teeth.


If you are planning a field trip to the beach with a group of kids, there is a nice guide for planning beachcombing trips from Australia that you can use to organize your trip, based on the different wash zones on the seashore. 

If you are studying environmental science, the Marine Debris Program in Japan outlines the scientific procedures for documenting the kinds of debris that you find on a beach -- a great project for high school age beachcombers. The Australian government also produces a nifty checklist that you can use to categorize the kinds of refuse that wash up on the shore -- this would be fun project for a middle or high school class or a homeschool co-op.

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has compiled a terrific list of field guides, video guides, nature study books and other resources on beachcombing and shorewalking -- grab a copy of Rachel Carson's The Edge of the Sea for a more ecology-oriented field guide, or A Field Guide to the Atlantic Shore, a Peterson guide that includes plants, animals and shells that you may find on your hike.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Dandelions: A Bilingual Lesson on Plant Anatomy and Life Cycles

I have a spot in the back of my yard that I call my "wildflower nursery." I am forever picking up packets of wildflower seeds on sale, or buying packets of ones that I enjoy and want more of, or sowing those free samples that come in the mail when they want you to buy a "Topsy Turvy" or a rototiller. I even spend time transplanting wildflowers from the edge of vacant lots into my garden. Yes, I transplant "weeds."  The baby wildflowers grow up, and I then rearrange them or transplant them in groups to other spots in my flower beds.

Now, I know what I've planted there (sometimes...), what is desirable, what will be gradually culled out (the crop of fleabane needs to be thinned so it doesn't take over) or pulled out immediately (bittersweet and poison ivy). But my husband's untrained eye sometimes sees "weeds" and disorder, and we have a misunderstanding. The weedwhacker is not forgiving.  I have gone out more than once, garden tools in hand, to check on my "babies," to find them leveled. Fortunately, I have sown so much seed, that there are new ones soon. AND I put down mulch in the area, so my husband can see that it is not just weeds. Gotta keep loving him (but I might hide the string trimmer...).

Some people wage war against dandelions the way people wage war against a mouse in the kitchen. I find them cheerful and a welcome addition to the yard (along with the Queen Anne's lace from last month).

We read through Spring Nature Study: Dandelions in the Handbook of Nature Study, and the accompanying pages in the Handbook. We had no problem finding dandelions at various stages, and we made life cycle cards, showing a dandelion in leaf, one with a yellow flower, one with a seed head, and a close up of the seeds. Then we did something different, and followed up our observations with a Spanish lesson on the parts of plants.

Step 1: First, we reviewed the parts of plants in English. We used materials from Enchanted Learning to record our learning. (If you don't have a subscription, do get one -- there is a ton of stuff that you can use to add to your nature study notebook).

Step 2: Next, we reviewed plant life cycles, which we had studied earlier in the year. This time, we applied what we had learned to the dandelion, the subject of our nature study. (The notebooking page, at left, is from The Notebooking Treasury; the mini-book on life cycles is from Enchanted Learning. We stapled an envelope to a notebooking page and slipped the mini-book in, to create a "3D" notebook page).

Step 3: Then we had to learn our Spanish plant parts vocabulary. We did this in a variety of ways.

1. For daily copywork, we used Spanish vocabulary words and simple sentences.

2. We made two-sided (English/Spanish) vocabulary cards that we used in a vocabulary game, called "Firecracker" (directions are below).

3. We also made sure that we practiced saying the words whenever we used them -- even more important than writing them!
Step 4:  We wrote simple sentences about plants using "high-frequency" sentences starters (Yo veo ["I see"], Que ves ["What do you see?"]) and our vocabulary. In the example to the right, we were practicing making plural nouns by adding -s to Spanish words that end in "a". Plant nature study also was a great opportunity to have word study lessons on feminine and masculine nouns, color words, and making plurals by adding -es.


Firecracker: A Word Study Game

When I was a resource room teacher, I learned a game that I have used for spelling, vocabulary and literacy learning centers, ever since. It is called Firecracker, and all you need to make your own game is an empty Pringles container and some small notecards or plastic plant tags.

1. Prepare a container for your game. An old Pringles can works great, is free, and looks like a firecracker. Wipe out the inside of the container with a paper towel to remove crumbs and any residual grease. Cover the outside of the container with a sheet of construction paper and label your game (NOTE: A sheet of 8-1/2 x 11 paper wraps neatly around the container without too much trimming). I label the game "Firecracker," then add whatever the focus is, for easy identification later.

2. Select the material for your word study cards. For vocabulary cards, I use pre-scored business cards (the kind that you run through your printer) -- they're pretty, and just the right size. Of course, you can cut your own -- not a bad option if you have a paper cutter. Cards work best if they are on card stock, and not paper. You could get fancy and laminate them, but I never did -- it was an unnecessary step, I thought. Use marker and bold color to write on the cards.

If you are making a spelling game, I would suggest using plastic garden plant labels. You will want to put a lot of words with the same spelling focus in the can, and plastic tags work perfectly. Plus, they are sturdy, and appeal to the tactile learner. Use a Sharpie to write on the tags.

3. Choose your words, and create the cards/tags for your focus. Write in marker, so it's easy to see quickly. If you'd like to highlight the spelling rule or word study focus, write that part of the word in a contrasting color (e.g., for long vowel patterns with the "a" sound, write the part of the word that makes the "a" sound in a bright color (not red -- we'll need that for the next step!), and the rest of the word in black). You can even have the kids create the game cards as part of their copywork. In the photo above (an animal taxonomy game), you can see that I also included picture cards that came in my son's National Geographic for Kids magazine -- include some pictures when working with younger children or more challenging activities. Try to have at least 30 word cards, to make the game the most fun.

4.  Make 2-3  "firecrackers" to put in the can. Make these the same way you make the word cards, except write "FIRECRACKER!" in red marker.

5. Play the Game! This game works best for 2-4 players. Players take turns drawing one card or tag from the can (no peeking!). After viewing the word, the player must cover the word and spell it out loud (or, in the case of our vocabulary, read the English word, then produce the Spanish word, which is written on the back, or vice versa). If the player is correct, he gets to keep the card. Play continues counterclockwise. The player with the most correct when all the cards are read, wins.

Here's the fun part: if a player draws one of the "firecrackers," everyone shouts "Firecracker!" and the player who drew the "firecracker" must return all his cards to the can (kind of like having to go back to start in Candyland...).

Start saving your Pringles cans -- make a new game for each word study you have!


I know that we are doing some math review this summer -- perhaps you are, too. For ideas on how to use real-life opportunities, such as grocery shopping, gardening, or Bible study, to reinforce important math skills and concepts, see my revised article, Living Math: Beyond Math Facts.

Have a terrific week! Play outside!

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Little Fun With Our Feathered Friends

I am still learning about how to NOT control nature study -- the teacher in me thinks up lesson plans, and then I feel like I've "failed" as a homeschool mom if the lessons don't go as planned. It is only after letting a little time pass, and going back to look over my son's work, that I begin to realize the full reach of nature study, when you learn to just let go...

I am an outdoorsy person. Even when I'm inside, I'm thinking about the outside. I used to ponder the happenings at the opening of an anthill for hours as a child, and my husband teases me that I know the names of every weed and tree and slimy critter. Probably so. I dragged my two oldest sons through every thicket, and we looked under every rock in every creek. They were not always willing. And my third is not always as enthusiastic as I am, either. My consolation (and it's a big one) is that Reluctant Son #1 graduated with a double major in Natural Resources and Business, serves on his town's Parks & Recreation Commission, as well as the Inland Wetlands Commission, and is a Production Manager for one of the largest nurseries in our state. Reluctant Son #2 is a reptile enthusiast, "dad" to geckos, boas, an anole or two (I think...), as well as a cat, and works as a clerk at a local pet shop. Both of them have wall to wall aquaria in their apartments. So all my nature study DID fall on fertile ground, after all!

So I persevere with Reluctant Son #3, who sometimes appears disinterested, but then produces the gems that I'm including here today. Maybe not what the logical sequential teacher in me was expecting, but insightful and delightful, nevertheless!

Our Catbird Companion

We have a few feathery residents who are as interested in my gardening as I am. The robins and our catbird family follow around as I weed and till, searching the freshly turned soil for tasty grubs and worms. My eldest says that you can train a catbird to eat out of your hand -- we'll try that this summer.

The Grosbeak Surprise

You might recall the story about the two birdwatchers (me and Malik) having a thorny seat in the roses when we startled a Rose-breasted Grosbeak at the feeder. Well, we DID end up studying that species for a bit afterward, as part of our June Outdoor Hour Challenge -- we hear them singing every day, and Malik did a nice job capturing their coloring in his nature study notebook. (I love this paragraph -- it is so cute the way it looks like he said the male has "white underpants" -- guess we'll be working on penmanship this summer, so people won't think the bird wears "tighty whities!").

[NOTE: We used Rose-breasted Grosbeak notebooking pages from  The Notebooking Treasury to capture our learning for this Challenge and all of our bird studies.]

We discovered that our bird bath has sprung a leak over the winter, so it will be re-purposed as a table feeder for cardinals and doves. In the meantime, Malik had some other ideas for creating a bird-attracting station. He even had a list of "to-do's" which included a shopping list for Lowe's, as well as step by step directions for constructing the bird station.

Like I said, the teacher might have one idea of the outcomes of an activity, while the student often has quite a different idea! I wonder how long it will take us to put the whole thing together?

SUNY at Stony Brook has a website with bird songs and calls of common New York State birds. You can hear the Rose-breasted Grosbeak there. Also check out the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (we called it the "O Lab" when I was there) for grosbeak songs, calls, maps and field identification tips (useful for the immatures and females, which resemble some other finches).

Are you looking for some summer activities to do this month? Did you have a hard time fitting in "specials" this year? CurrClick is hosting free membership in its Language and Culture Club, an online class where students learn new vocabulary from several world languages, as well as cultures of people around the world who speak each language. If you like the summer course, there are full online webinars available for your child (and you!).

For some music work, check out CurrClick's free banjo unit, which teaches the history of the instrument, the basic structure and how to play it. Units for drums, guitar and piano are also available, for a small fee.

If you're like me, you're reflecting on the school year past and trying to get a jump on planning for next year (or beginning it, already!).  See my article, Literacy 101: Language Arts Instruction, K-3 -- newly revised and revamped to include more book lists and ideas for teaching children from kindergarten through 3rd grade.

I'm trying to organize all my web articles in one convenient location. If you're a follower of my posts on other sites, too, you might be interested in my latest article, "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things," which is a master index of all my work (to date), including RSS feeds for all my blogs. It should update automatically, so bookmark it and check frequently.

Have a peaceful, safe Independence Day! And remember, we live in the Land of the Free, because of the brave -- thank a soldier (and that soldier's parents) today.