Animal reports. Need I say more? Almost every school I visit has one class, or more, researching animals. And why not? They are naturally interesting to children. From the familiar and adorable inhabitants of our own backyards to the bizarre forms and eccentric habits exhibited in remote biomes, the animal world provides endless specimens for our fascination and wonder. The Kingdom Animalia reveals the extraordinary creativity of our Creator and the interdependence of God’s grand design.
Students choose, or are assigned, an animal to research. They learn about its habitat, life cycle, predators, and prey. Some classes go deeper, exploring the relationship between form and function or classifying by phylum or other criteria. And without fail, every assignment asks students to “include interesting or unusual facts.”
My collection of student work is teeming with beautiful animal-themed products—greeting and trading cards, calendars, field guides, to name a few. Students practice craftsmanship and perseverance in producing works of scientific precision and artistic beauty. They learn interesting facts about their animal.
From A Field Guide to Insects, Grade 2, Beal Elementary School, Springfield, MA
As impressive as these animal studies can be, I am often left with these questions: What did students have to think about? What decisions did they have to make? What problems did they have to solve? Did they have to take a point of view? Defend it with any evidence? Were they able to demonstrate their own unique voice, or does their report sound generic, like it could have been authored by anyone? Students may learn important research skills and develop craftsmanship through multiple drafts, but how can we complement these skills with the challenge to think deeply about the animal world and express those thoughts uniquely?
For help, consider the unlikely source of King Arthur. Arthur had a teacher more effective than you or I could ever hope to be: Merlyn the Magician. Merlyn employed a unique instructional strategy of transforming Arthur (or “Wart,” as he called the young boy) into different animals. As a fish, Arthur learns the dangers of absolute monarchy from an enormous pike. Living among the ants, he experiences the value of community.
In the novel The Once and Future King, T.H. White describes Arthur’s final transformation into a badger. The badger tells Wart a story about how humankind was given dominion over the animals. Here is a Levy paraphrase:
In the beginning, God created all the animals, but they looked like shapeless embryos. They were thrilled to just exist. But as a bonus option, God invited them to exchange any part of themselves they didn’t like in order to become whatever they wanted to be. (I like to invite the students to imagine how some animals might have approached the throne. One might have said, “I am always getting lost, and I can’t find my way back home. It would be amazing to carry my house with me so I can have it wherever I go.” Who do you think that was? The turtle! And another looked longingly at the sky and asked to trade in its heavy arms and bones for wings–voila! The bird! And the fish wanted to live in the water and the giraffe wanted to reach the sweetest leaves at the top of the tree. . . .)
The last embryo to come before God’s throne was the human being. God asked, “And what would you like to trade?” The human replied, “I think that You made me in my existing shape for reasons best known to Yourselves, and that it would be rude to request a change. If I am to have my choice, I will stay as I am.” For the wisdom of this response, God gave human beings dominion over the entire earth.
What I like about the story is that each animal becomes a specialist. They trade their overall utility to become expert in a few things. Animals can do just about anything physically better than humans. They see farther, run faster, jump higher. They are stronger, more acute in their senses, and way more equipped for survival.
Granted, there are challenges to the Biblical narrative here, and for some of you, that point may disqualify the badger’s tale altogether. But it is the badger’s tale, after all. It doesn’t pretend to be the Word of God. There is some biblical truth in the story: it doesn’t go well for us when we seek what we want rather than what God has given us. If told carefully, this tale can be a useful lens to consider the uniqueness of each animal in God’s creation.
What if we set the stage with the badger’s story, then asked our animal-studying students to identify what it was their animal might have traded in and what they asked for in return? What can their animal do that they as humans can’t? Our students could still learn all the research skills and produce the beautiful product, but now they will also be compelled to think about the genius of their animal, about its special features endowed by God. And what might the creature have traded in to receive its superpower? This task would inspire imagination and invite the unique voice of each student. They can’t just look up this answer in a book or on the Internet.
After I shared the badger story with a group of fourth graders, Sonya chose to explore the cow. She learned that the cow has four stomachs and a digestive process more complicated than her own. The cow spends much of her time grazing, chewing her cud, and engaging in complex interior activity. By contrast, the cow doesn’t seem as attentive to the world around her. She barely reacts to sensory impressions, even if you make a loud noise near her.
What happens when we invite student creativity and voice into a fact-based assignment? Here is Sonya’s paragraph from her animal report, in which she applies thoughtful imagination to the knowledge acquired in her research.
Or consider Garret’s report on the Cooper’s Hawk, published in the First Grade Field Guide to Local Birds. The simple comparison of the hawk’s features to Garret’s own makes this work uniquely his. No one else could have written it the way did.
As educators, we strive to honor the unique person God made each of our students to be. Toward that end, we can craft assignments that invite our students to express their distinctive, inimitable voice.