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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
December 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 4

Voices: The Teacher / Studying an Insect's World

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What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.—Henry David Thoreau
As educators, we have an obligation to support our students' individual paths to knowledge. We must not dull their natural curiosity or restrict their meandering approaches to learning. Students must be active participants in their learning; it is our job to guide them.
When I decided to leave private enterprise and become a 3rd grade teacher, I knew I wanted to teach a curriculum that followed a conceptual approach to learning rather than one that fed students dull, isolated facts that they would quickly forget. My goal was to foster an open, supportive environment for learning, not to provide a series of discrete, unrelated experiences. Far too often, curriculums impart information in a static and sterile format. In contrast, a conceptual curriculum is relevant, significant, and tangible. Students absorb information best when they uncover it themselves and make it their own. I had to let my students “determine what . . . they wanted to understand” (Duckworth, 1996, p. 130).
Developmentally, 8- and 9-year-olds are becoming increasingly able to comprehend the conceptual world extending beyond their lives. At the same time, they are becoming more aware of their growing independence. This awareness can cause both exhilaration and anxiety as they realize that they are individuals, distinct from family and friends. I decided that my overarching teaching philosophy had to stimulate this growing intellectual independence and simultaneously support the students in their journey through a potentially difficult transition.

Why Insects?

When I first began reflecting on curriculum ideas that would ignite the interests of my prospective students, I wondered whether the students would relate to insects, as I once did. Insects, and the miniature world they live in, have always been fascinating to me. As a child, I used to sit and watch bugs crawl across my hand or along the ground. I especially liked harvestman spiders, otherwise known as daddy longlegs (actually neither insects nor spiders, but let's not get overly technical). I wondered how these miraculous beings' minuscule bodies could stay perched atop their eight needle-like legs. I also wondered what male ladybugs were called and how lightning bugs lit up. I had hundreds of questions and very few answers about these creatures that share our planet yet live within their own separate universe.
  • Identity. Studying the life of an insect and how it relates to other insects, both individually and as a member of a community, enables students to gain a sense of who they are in relation to others.
  • Independence. The curriculum unit fosters a sense of independence by providing opportunities for students to develop individual portfolios of information that they compile in their study. Their portfolios reflect their own interests and findings and may include poems, log entries, dioramas, drawings, scale models of their chosen insects, comic books, and research projects.
  • Causes of social change. Societies are affected by both external and internal influences. By studying insects, students gather information and participate in hands-on experiments that reveal how humans, predators, and the environment have had positive and negative impacts on insects' existence. Through this study, students gain insight about how humans affect their own society.
  • Reason. Students learn to make sound judgments and decisions through individual growth and a respect for other people's ideas. As students explore the world of insects, they have ample opportunities to reflect on and discuss their own ideas and the ideas of their classmates, broadening their understanding of how other people reason and learn.

The Insect Study

Guided by this conceptual framework, we started our exploration of insects, a world that the students viewed as simple and controllable—you can always squish a bug!—but that actually had much in common with their own complex world.
At the beginning of the school year, we listed what we already knew and what we wanted to learn about insects. In the classroom, we studied several insect specimens that I had bought from science suppliers, including ants, crickets, butterflies, and Madagascar hissing cockroaches. After a few days of “Oh, gross!” or “They're disgusting!”, the students became more comfortable with the insects and connected deeply to the study.
Outside the classroom, we met with an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and learned about collecting, identifying, and classifying insects. We traveled to the New Jersey Science Center and the Central Park Zoo. We made trips to the park to collect insects and study them in their natural habitat. These trips offered the students an opportunity to trap an insect, make scientific observations, and sketch the insect in as much detail as possible. Armed with magnifying glasses, they could see for themselves the different types of mouths and eyes and the varying numbers of legs and other body parts. These personal, hands-on experiences made the learning process tangible and exciting for the students.
Our long-term, in-depth study gave the students a window into the biological processes and complex social systems of the creatures. We were able to observe the cockroaches as they mated and laid their eggs. And at the Central Park Zoo, we noted the variety and the intricacy of the jobs that the leaf-cutter ants perform to support their existence: Some ants search for leaves, others carry them back to the mouth of the colony, and still others process the leaves in their mouths to create a supply of food. Through observation and discussion, the students made connections between their own world and that of these ants.
As the months passed, the students came to care deeply for their classroom “pets.” Nearly all of the students would hold the cockroaches, petting their backs and cooing to them, and they became quite protective when an un-initiated passerby echoed the same disgusted sentiments that the students themselves had uttered only a few months earlier.
We also explored insect life in other subjects. In math, we connected our study of measurement, distance, and speed with the way an insect moves. As an extension of that study, each student had to observe an insect and then demonstrate the movements of that insect.
In language arts, the students created and published their own insect-inspired stories and poems. The insect-oriented curriculum also influenced the books and poetry that we studied, such as Van Allsburg's Two Bad Ants (1988) and Florian's Insectlopedia (1998).
As the semester progressed, the budding entomologists worked individually on investigative research projects. Each student identified an insect that he or she found particularly interesting and then studied that chosen insect in depth. Students chose from a variety of options for their projects' final products. They wrote research papers, created puppet shows or board games, wrote comic books, and gave PowerPoint presentations. To conclude the project, students built and painted large-scale papier-mâché models of their chosen insects, which we then hung from the classroom ceiling. The unit culminated with students' presentations of their projects. Parents were invited to attend the presentations and look at the students' insect models up close.
In the end, the curriculum came as close to a free, meandering brook as I could have hoped for. Now, my students from last year often return to their old classroom to check on their pets and to see how this year's entomologists are getting along. They just smile when they hear, “Ooh, that's gross!”

Duckworth, E. (1996). “The having of wonderful ideas” and other essays on teaching and learning (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Florian, D. (1998). Insectlopedia. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.

Van Allsburg, C. (1988). Two bad ants. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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