Fourth Grade: A, B, Sea

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Fourth Grade: A, B, Sea

Fourth graders began in earnest their yearlong study of the sea when they walked to West Beach on the third day of school to collect specimens at low tide for their classroom saltwater aquarium. The experience is just one shining example of the hands-on, experiential, place-based learning that has been the hallmark of a Glen Urquhart education since the school’s beginning.

After students brought their specimens back to the classroom, new fourth grade teachers Kelly Zaval and Laura Doyle chose representatives of the living and nonliving collection for the aquarium, being careful not to keep so many that they would crowd each other or demand too much oxygen. The overflow were returned to their natural habitat at the beach.

The saltwater aquarium is “our own ecosystem brought into the classroom,” says Kelly. “When the students bring the animals in themselves, it really does make a big difference in the level of interest, engagement, and investment.” Two children each week now have the job of aquarium helpers. They check the temperature of the water twice a day, add bottles full of frozen water when necessary, and keep a log of scientific observations.

Laura and Kelly have embraced the theme with enthusiasm. “Linda Bowden developed this theme over decades and left a treasure of resources,” explains Kelly. As part of the spiraling and integrated GUS curriculum that was the founding vision for the school, the theme of the sea makes perfect sense since students go to school and live by the sea. “We should study where we live,” say the teachers, almost in unison. “Our study of the world should start with where we are.” The class study of the sea begins with a focus on the ecosystems, moving from the rocky shore to the salt marsh and the barrier beach. West Beach represents a rocky shore, as does Rye Beach, where the fourth graders visited the Seacoast Science Center on their third field trip of the year. In Rye, they learned about tidal zones of the rocky shore and how the water comes up at different levels to different areas of the rocky shore and thereby affects what animals live in different areas of the shore.

Between visiting West Beach and Rye, the class visited the salt marsh at Conomo Point in Essex  where they explored four zones of that ecosystem - the high marsh, the low marsh, the salt pannes, and the mudflats - searching for different living things in each zone. With data sheets in hand, they marked what they found in each ecosystem. Returning to the classroom, they read more about the living things and played a favorite game - Four Corners - adapted to re-enforce what they had learned. Each corner of the room represented one of the of the four zones and each child was an animal. They also brought back mummichogs (tiny fish that hide) for the tank - “a new addition that is exciting,” says Laura.

Before the weather turned cold, the fourth graders visited Crane Beach in Ipswich to learn more about a barrier beach ecosystem from a guide who also talked to them about beach conservation; went on a plankton trawl out of Maritime Gloucester to pull up plankton from the harbor to study and bring some back to the classroom tank; and took another walk to West Beach for more specimens. In winter, activities will move inside, but include a trip to the Gloucester lighthouse and the Coast Guard Station in preparation for the annual lighthouse project.

As in past years, the science of the sea is only part of the focus. “It’s the skills we learn around the content,” explains Laura. She looks forward to bringing more of the theme into the writing and reading for fourth graders this year. In fact, the first writing workshop asked students to write personal narratives about the sea. In another initiative, the teachers plan to introduce a study of climate change and its effect on the ocean coast around Essex County. A representative of Salem Coastwatch will come in spring to talk to the students. Fourth graders will also walk on the school nature trail once a week to gain appreciation of the local watershed and consider the relationship of the land to the surrounding water.

As the two new teachers anticipate integrating the theme ever more thoroughly into all disciplines and plan to introduce current topics of importance, past students and parents need not despair: the extensive study whaling, the overnight trip to Mystic Seaport, and performing songs of the sea will not be forsaken! They are still valued and beloved traditions for GUS fourth graders.

Read more about the fourth grade curriculum.

Whitney Buckley