As the cold winds begin to howl, I like to bring an assortment of texts about Antarctica into the classroom. Antarctica is a great fit for fourth grade for several reasons:
Shared knowledge building-My students don't have much prior knowledge about Antarctica. As we learn about it, then, we can experience the feeling of adding to our schemas together. It's fascinating to see how kids pick up on new words and share their experiences. For example, the word "skuas" came up in two different texts. A skua is a kind of bird that lives in Antarctica, but most students had never heard of it before. When one student found a picture of a skua in a book, the others were eager to see it--I overhead one say, "Oh! A skua is a bird!"
As we read multiple texts, then, we all can experience adding to what we know. Students filled out an anticipation guide at the beginning of the unit. Then, after each text, we go back to see if our thinking has changed. Sometimes, what we find is surprising, like the fact that visitors to Antarctica need to wear sunglasses and sunscreen!
Interesting texts-In the Toolkit Texts from Heinemann, there is a nice nonfiction first-person piece about doing research at Palmer Station, as well as a map of Antarctica. (By the way, the map is available as a free sample on the website.) These texts started my unit. Since then, I've found additional books. Jennifer Owings Dewey's Four Months at the Bottom of the World is a nice example of personal journal text, while the Magic Treehouse Penguins and Antarctica book gives kids a thorough introduction to the continent.
Online resources-This blog is documenting the LTER Cruise that is about to begin for the new season. LTER means Long-Term Ecological Research, and these scientists return to the same places each year to see how things have changed. At this link, you can find other resources. And there are plenty of videos as well. When I have written to researchers with questions, they have responded...how neat!
Penguins and other cool animals- My students are fascinated by penguins each year. They like to pore over the encyclopedia of penguins that I check out of the local library, look at the names of the different types, and find out where they live. Not all penguins live in Antarctica, which is surprising for many of the students.
Antarctica is also home to some interesting invertebrates, like sea spiders and carnivorous sponges. (My students this year are especially intrigued by the carnivorous sponges. One said, "That's like my worst nightmare come true! A meat-eating sponge!")
My interest-When I started working with this topic, I knew very little about it. This helps to keep me interested! I admit to following the research season to try to learn more each year. I've learned all about the IceCube project at the South Pole and figured out how to tell the different kinds of penguins apart. This year, I want to try more of the resources from PolarTREC.
No matter what the topic, reading a series of interconnected texts helps students to make sense of nonfiction. Next week, kids are eager to read more about Antarctica--and I'm eager to help them!