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For the past week, students in a second-grade class have been studying oil spills. Evidence of their study fills the classroom. A mural-sized drawing of a pipeline completed by the children decorates one wall, and a chart documenting the size and shape of an oil tanker brightens another. Photographs and books with bright, colorful covers from intriguing displays about oil spills. The teacher worked closely with the school librarian to ensure that the books on display included a variety of genres and types. Fiction, history, photography, and adventure narrative books are represented. Included in the collection are books by biologists, by novelists, and by ecologists.
As well as visual preparation, the teacher provided the students with experiential preparation. The day before, students and teacher journeyed to the playground where they paced off the length of an oil tanker. All expressed amazement that one ship could be twice the length of the playground. Some students began to speculate aloud about the amount of oil a ship that big would carry. The teacher is confident that when her students see pictures of ships, the fact that they measured the length with the soles of their feet will enable them to meaningfully compare the size of the ships with familiar objects.
Duplicating a oil spill in class forms the culmination of the students' week-long study. The teacher explains to the class that they will create an oil spill in order to devise different methods of cleaning up the spill. She asks the students to form groups of four at their tables. As she distributes materials to the excited children, she gives directions, and everyone gets to work. The teacher strolls from group to group, observing, answering questions, encouraging but not interfering with the children's idiosyncratic uses of the clean-up materials.
The students work together observing how oil interacts with water. They suggest ways to re-absorb the spilled oil. Each group makes a clean-up plan and tests materials available to see how well each material cleans the oil out of the water. Though their attempts sometimes seem comical, they primarily understand and indicate remarkably astute understanding of the concepts studied.
After half an hour, the teacher asks the students to turn to their individual journals. In them, the students write what clean-up materials they investigated, what they observed about these materials, and which materials seemed most effective. She also encourages the students to write questions about their investigation. Some use illustrations to clearly communicate their observations, other write in simple, but highly evocative language, frequently using metaphor, to describe what they observed. Again, the teacher strolls the room, an unobtrusive but inspiring presence.
Moving easily from class conversation and questions about the best way to clean up an oil spill, the teacher opens a large, colorful book. It tells the account of the Valdez oil spill, the concomitant clean-up efforts, as well as the rescue of plant and animal life. For the next half hour, the teacher reads aloud, always careful to show her students the accompanying photographs. Occasionally, she interrupts her reading to tie in some of the children's own comments and experiences with their fabricated oil spill. The students are particularly compelled by the photographs of the oil-slicked animals, and they show great concern about the rescue and cleaning of these creatures. They form a connection between their own investigation about oil spill clean-up and the vital work of saving the wildlife and the land. The teacher solicits comments from her students, pleased that they are integrating what they have done themselves with what they are reading about.
Finally, the teacher closes the book and suggests that the students wander the room to look at the books on display. She invites them to choose ones they would like to read, either by themselves or in small groups. For the next half hour, until lunch, students read individually or form groups. One boy asks a visitor if he would like to join him as he reads through a book.
As a result of the hands-on investigation and the exploration of the literature about oil spills, children raise new questions for further study. Some students want to explore what happens to trash from an oil spill clean-up. Others are interested in how much cleaning up and oil spill costs. Several children want to learn more about how animals are injured in an oil spill and what can be done to treat them. Sill others are interested in exploring what can be done to prevent future oil spills.