Curriculum with a hard shell

Schools focus math, history, science lessons on terrapins pupils are raising

October 29, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to The Sun

Kai Jackson, a fourth-grader at Severna Park Elementary School, wants to call one of the new terrapins in his classroom Squirt.

So he has to write a letter to his teacher in hopes of convincing her that that is the best name.

"It's kind of cool," Kai said of the two additions to his classroom. "They're really fun to watch. We're going to take care of them, and we're going to help them have a better environment."

The school is harnessing that enthusiasm for much of its curriculum as it takes part in the Terrapin Connection program. Schools throughout the county are raising young turtles, with plans to release them in the spring.

Having pupils write letters defending their suggested names for the terrapins is just the beginning. Math will be turtle-centric, as kids weigh and measure the quickly growing creatures and chart their progress. Science classes will talk about their habitats. History lessons will include mentions of the terrapins and how they are native to Maryland.

"They're a big part of the classroom," said fourth-grade teacher Jennie Merrill.

The six turtles, which arrived Oct. 20, are getting a lot of attention.

"I have to constantly tell the students to sit down and move away from the tank," Merrill said.

In its second year, the Terrapin Connection is a project of the county school system's Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center, the Maryland Environmental Service at Poplar Island and Ohio University. It is funded by the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

During the school year, pupils study Maryland's state reptile and the challenges it faces as its marshy coastal home is slowly being destroyed.

In the wild, the turtles would normally hibernate for the winter. But in their safe tanks at Severna Park Elementary, protected from predators and given plenty of food, they won't hibernate, will grow much larger and will be more likely to survive when they are released, said Laurie Levitt, the school's media specialist.

Kai, 9, already knows that terrapins eat clams, oysters and periwinkles in the wild, but eat from a tin labeled "terrapin food" in the classroom. He knows that females grow larger than males.

The turtles are even being used as incentives for good behavior. Only 10 children per turtle will get to see the creatures released this spring, and teachers are figuring out ways to decide which children will go.

Levitt, who named her turtle Junior Tourre, after the school's principal, Janice Tourre, plans to reward the pupils who read the most books.

"One kid has already read 15 novels," she said.

Children are also growing bay grasses, which will be planted to serve as a filter for water that runs into the Magothy River, she said. But the terrapins are important, she said, because children connect with them and so gain a stronger understanding of why the Chesapeake Bay must be protected.

The terrapins will be released on Poplar Island, a once-eroded spit of land that is now an environmental restoration site. But before then, the pupils must submit data each week to Willem Roosenburg, associate professor of biology at Ohio University. Roosenburg is a terrapin authority who is tracking survival rates of classroom-raised terrapins.

Each class is incorporating the turtles differently. Kindergartners, for example, are drawing pictures of the creatures, and submitting suggestions for names.

Fourth-grader Sammie Haughton, 10, wants to name her classroom turtle Teddy because it starts with the letter T. She's already learned that terrapins lay eggs on the beach, like brackish water and can stay underwater for as long as five hours.

She likes to watch them, their beautiful mosaic shells now only about the size of silver dollars.

"They're so tiny," she said.

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