Hatching ideas through bluebirds

Ecology: Science, math and writing lessons are tucked into a project to protect dwindling species.

March 06, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

In an effort to protect Maryland's bluebirds, Montgomery County seventh-graders took on the role of teacher yesterday at Perry Hall Elementary School, helping second-graders build nesting boxes and learn more about the dwindling species.

With help from adult teachers, parent volunteers and a few eighth-grade experts, the older pupils from Forest Oak Middle School in Gaithersburg also discussed a video they made, and showed the children how to spread pine cones with peanut butter, Crisco and seeds to make feeders.

Perry Hall Elementary, in Baltimore County, and Forest Oak Middle are among nine Bay Schools that work with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to make the environment a theme for all types of teaching. The three-year pilot program, now in its second year, aims to improve academic achievement through hands-on learning and protect the local environment in the bargain.

"We're trying to boost academic achievement ... as well as have a real impact on the bay and watershed," said Joe Davis, the Bay Schools project coordinator.

Last year's Forest Oak seventh-graders built bluebird houses for the nature trail at their school. This year's class decided to teach children about the birds and give away 100 nesting boxes. They researched the habits, activities and needs of bluebirds. They used math skills to determine how much material they would need and to create a budget. They applied their writing skills to draft a successful request to the Chesapeake Bay Trust seeking $3,500.

Writing the request and obtaining the money "was a powerful thing for them to see," says Shelly Nicoll, Forest Oak's seventh-grade English teacher. "I'm enthusiastic about the Bay School project overall, because I've really seen that it engages students."

"It fits into almost every area," says Kate English, one of Perry Hall's second-grade teachers. In addition to studying birds in science class, second-graders read and write about birds, use the library for bird research, make bird models in art, talk about what birds need in their economics unit and look at the geography of migration in social studies.

The $1.5 million program requires a lot of work from teachers and staff who, with help from several foundation staff members, brainstorm with pupils, develop activities and seek appropriate materials. "It is asking teachers to look at the curriculum in a whole new way," says Davis.

For the children, "it's more hands-on and they can relate it to their lives," says English. "Most text doesn't relate to a second-grader's life." This year, her class

surveyed the school grounds to determine whether they were "critter friendly" and found they were lacking.

"We don't have any birds in our schoolyard," says Adam Jenkins, 7. Now that they are building nesting boxes, he says, "I hope the birds will come, especially the bluebirds. They're the ones we want to bring back."

Adam and his classmates called on the right people for help. The Forest Oak seventh-graders designed lessons, games and activities for the day. They prepared the birdhouse pieces, discussed the process with the younger children and held the boxes steady while 7- and 8-year-olds whacked nails with hammers.

And they know their bluebird facts.

"They can't make their own homes," explains Daniel Lopez, 12. Bluebirds nest in existing holes in dead trees or wooden fences, and development has made that more difficult.

In addition, says Daniel, "Other birds take their homes," particularly starlings and sparrows, but making a deeper entry hole can help keep them out. PVC pipe around the pole can help deter snakes, foxes and raccoons.

In another room, Ari Miller, 12, discusses the proper way to check a bluebird house (quietly), how to identify a bluebird nest (bluebirds use grass, not twigs) and where to place the boxes (facing an open field).

"Sometimes it's hard," says Ari of the Bay School-related lessons, "but it's much more fun because you get to do stuff like this."

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