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School Stories

First Graders Become Bird Enthusiasts

With binoculars held tightly to their faces, first graders scanned the clear blue sky, searching intently. Immersed in discovery at Barr Lake Bird Sanctuary, they might spot a turkey vulture, common nighthawk or belted kingfisher.
They could set their sights on nests lodged high in the cottonwood trees. They might find owl pellets and crack them open to see what a predatory bird had for dinner. They could watch a researcher weigh, measure and band a migratory bird making its way south to a Spanish speaking country. So many possibilities, so many opportunities.

To understand the scope and purpose of their field trip, we have to take a look back at summer 2018, when four teachers were awarded a summer grant and spent a total of more than 30 hours designing a comprehensive lesson on birds, including previewing the Barr Lake experience. Led by first grade classroom teacher, Lisa Ross, students are seeing the concept take flight this year.
Bird Anatomy and Habitats 
You could argue that the whole idea was hatched in the science classroom, where Michelle Benge has been teaching first graders about bird anatomy and habitats for years. 

“The summer grant allowed us the time to get together and plan out how we could teach lessons about birds across different disciplines,” Ms. Benge says. “My part focuses on the characteristics of birds—they have feathers, wings, they’re warm blooded, they have beaks instead of teeth. We learn that birds’ feet tell us where they live and their beaks tell us what they eat.” 

To demonstrate this lesson, Ms. Benge takes students into the Gates Innovation Lab where they design and build bird beaks that can pick up small objects like dry beans or pasta using materials like plastic utensils, toothpicks, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners and rubber bands. Per the engineering design method, they tested the beaks and then followed up with changes to improve their designs.

The lessons don’t stop there. Students apply empathy to a discussion about injured birds after hearing Bob Graham’s book, How to Heal a Broken Wing. They go back to the Gates Lab and use the engineering design process to design and build bird nests. They dissect chicken eggs to identify the parts of an egg, like the yolk, chalazae and albumen. They study habitat, adaptations, migration and camouflage. The science unit culminates in a January visit to the Denver Zoo’s Bird House to see these creatures live. From peacocks to penguins, the zoo trip allows students to observe a wide variety of birds in different environments as they take note of birds’ feet, beaks and the sounds of their voices. 

The result of this in-depth knowledge, combined with their learning in other disciplines and from other teachers, is a deeper understanding of birds. For Ms. Benge, the experience collaborating with her peers was invaluable. 

“Having the support of my colleagues and being able to bounce ideas around was so helpful,” she shares. “There was a sense that we were all invested in working toward the same goal and I loved how thoughtful and intentional the planning process was. I’m excited to see how the bird unit turns out and to reflect together on how we can make it better next year.”
Kelly Viseur says she jumped at the chance to write brand new Spanish curriculum that complements the bird unit. “I love birds and have kept parakeets as pets,” she says. “It’s also fortuitous that our school mascot is an eagle, because I can tie that into my teaching in a lot of ways.”

During her bird unit, one of Señora Viseur’s main objectives was for students to identify countries that speak Spanish, especially in Central and South America where birds often migrate. “I love the geography piece, because first graders don’t have much experience reading maps,” she says. “They really get the concept that birds want to go where it is warm and there is good food.”

A portion of the summer grant work was also focused on developing an index of common terms and skills that teachers can use in Spanish that will reinforce language arts skills in English. Employing this strategy across disciplines has improved overall teaching quality. Señora Viseur believes “layering” the unit on birds by teaching it from different angles is the best approach for long-term retention of key concepts. 

“First graders often come in and teach me things they have learned about birds from another teacher,” she shares. “It’s like poetry when it all comes together for them, and it’s invigorating for me to create new, cohesive lesson plans that support their other learning in meaningful ways.” 
Birds and Art
Given her last name, it’s no surprise that art teacher Andrea Crane wanted in on the bird unit action. She normally teaches birds as an art subject to Graland second graders, but has shifted her curriculum to complement the first grade focus. After reading a book about birds to her first graders, Mrs. Crane guided them in sculpting three-dimensional birds out of papier-mâché and paper clay. Then, students learned to mix paint before creating a habitat for their birds on canvas and gluing their sculptures onto the multimedia piece. “It’s fun for me to participate in this project with other teachers and to hear kids using their bird vocabulary in a different context,” she shares. “I’m constantly surprised by the things they say!”
Empathy and Service
Christi James, coordinator of Graland’s service learning program, is the one who gave wings to the project. Over the summer, she met with each of the teachers involved to brainstorm and finalize ways to strategically connect the individual lessons and to integrate service opportunities throughout the year. 

“What I like best about this unit is the complete buy-in from staff, teachers, kids and families,” she says. “Personally, this program resonates with me because caring for birds is a metaphor for caring for one another. It’s a very rich, multi-dimensional learning opportunity.” 

Mrs. James is the point of contact for the Bird Conservatory of the Rockies, a nonprofit organization based at Barr Lake State Park that has a Graland connection: Former Graland finance director Mary Ann Murphy now works for the conservatory, and helped facilitate the initial contact. As teachers toured the grounds and facilities during the summer, they discovered a well-developed education program perfectly suited to complement Graland’s first grade bird unit. A visit with students in October will be followed in the spring by an excursion when children will volunteer to plant noninvasive species, paint bird feeders and nesting boxes, and complete other helpful tasks. Educators from the conservatory are also planning a visit to Graland for a bird festival still in the planning stages.
Bird Paradise
Sitting on 1,900 acres, Barr Lake State Park is a short drive north of Denver where 346 species of birds make their homes and numerous other migratory birds rest and refuel. Its cottonwood trees, grasslands and marshes make it an ideal bird habitat and research hub for ornithologists. On a visit to the sanctuary earlier this year, students spent more than an hour in the fresh air gaining knowledge about concepts of bird biology and conservation. Have you ever seen a ruby-crowned kinglet get its “bracelet” so researchers can track its migratory patterns? First graders have.

Now, they are taking their learning and applying it close to home by working to make Graland a more bird-friendly campus. Guided by Sarah Shutts, groundskeeper, students are learning about some of the dangers on campus, such as clear windows that reflect open skies, and the opportunities to provide food and water sources for local birds. Together, they will determine some solutions and work with administrators to get those approved and implemented.

One of the benefits of the unit, says Mrs. James, is that it requires students—and teachers—to slow down, to be still and quiet, and to go outside where they can observe wildlife. “Our busy lives are programmed from morning to night,” she says. “This unit has inspired me to look at other ways I can help students connect with nature.” 
Eagle Eyes
The mother hen of the whole project, Mrs. Ross, says first graders were hooked from the moment the school mascot, the Graland Eagle, entered their classrooms to help kick off the unit. “When kids get excited about something, they gravitate to it,” she explains. “Their curiosity and intrinsic motivation to learn more and more about this subject is driving our instruction.” Besides the specials classes, students get exposure to bird themes in literacy, math and other classroom lessons. In small groups, they will use the library to research a specific bird species to gain more in-depth knowledge before writing a group report.

Mrs. Ross and other teachers have noticed that students are more observant of their surroundings. “We’ll catch them having organic conversations about birds and using their vocabulary to talk about the different species they’ve seen at home or around Graland and how they work together as a community,” she shares. “It’s so fun to watch them dive deep and really see the connections between the different lessons.” 

Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.