Teach a kid about birds, and his or her imagination can take flight. But teach a kid to share that knowledge with others, and the opportunities for learning and connecting expand exponentially. This spring, the students in Laurie Solchenberger’s class at Lincoln Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin, became teachers in their own right after completing a climate curriculum designed by Madison Audubon Society.
Carolyn Byers, education and operations specialist for MAS, created the curriculum last winter after conversations with Solchenberger. “Kids are no strangers to climate change,” says Solchenberger. “[They] come to school with questions…‘What happens when the ponds dry up and the ducks don't have anywhere to land during migration?’”
Byers then visited the classroom—which included a mix of fourth- and fifth-graders, some with learning disabilities and some learning English as a second language—from February through May to lead a series of ten lessons. The interactive classes covered topics like migration, winter adaptations of animals, and the carbon cycle.
Solchenberger says that one of her favorite memories from the experience was “watching kids playing in a field, swooping around as if they were a bunch of swallows.” The amount of growth she saw in her students was a great source of pride. “I am constantly amazed and inspired at the connections kids can make and the questions they put together between subjects,” she says.
Outside of the lessons, Solchenberger incorporated birds and climate into the rest of the school day, too. Students observed and recorded ecological events such as what birds they saw at recess, daily high and low temperatures, and when leaves began to open on the trees. One student even created a homemade drone—constructed from a cell phone and a toy helicopter—to look at a bird nest in his yard without disturbing the residents.
The curriculum culminated at the school-wide Birdathon, an event that Lincoln Elementary holds at the end of each school year. Solchenberger’s students spent this year’s Birdathon leading four games for their fellow students.
The games assigned each student a flashcard listing a species of bird, its diet, its habitat, and its migration patterns. Then the students took on the identities of these birds to navigate a migration obstacle course, a scramble for different types of habitat, a carbon cycle game that had students hold hands to form carbon dioxide molecules, and a race for food called “The Hunger Cranes.”
Byers says that it’s “an extremely empowering experience for students to be the teachers, whether they are educating their peers, younger children, or adults…These students were so very proud to be able to teach others about a topic that they were the ‘experts’ on.”
The Birdathon activities were a big hit with the rest of the school. And Byers adds that the young teachers were very enthusiastic about their roles. If she stepped in to try to help, sometimes they would say, “No, Miss Carolyn, we’re teachers today!”
Editor's Note: In August, MAS expanded the program to surrounding schools by training 20 more teachers and sharing the curriculum materials with them. MAS will be presenting the curriculum at the Midwest Environmental Education Conference on October 22, and the lessons are being posted online here.