Insects in the Classroom

insectsintheclassroomcoverI’m pleased to announce the release of Insects in the Classroom!

This collection of insect information and activities is the only one of its kind written specifically for the New Zealand classroom. Special features include:

  • Background information about insects and their relatives
  • Instructions on how to care for live insects in the classroom
  • A dozen buggy classroom activities
  • Student-friendly identification guides designed for the New Zealand school yard
  • Insect-themed colouring sheets and worksheets

The book is released in conjunction with a new outreach programme for schools–Bugs and Books–that uses science as the inspiration for writing.


Throwback Thursday: At the Centre of the Universe

d1scans001 copy“This bit needs to be yellow. It’s part of the United States.”

“No it’s not. It can’t be! There is the United States. This bit, way over here can’t be part of it.”

I was working with a group of students in Membrillo, Panama. We were painting a map of the world on the wall of the school, and we were arguing about Alaska.

We argued about more than one country placement, including Panama.

It wasn’t really a surprise that these children, most of whom had never gone further from home than they could walk in a few hours, didn’t know where on the planet they lived.

But talking to them, I realised they didn’t even know where in Panama they lived. Many of them had parents working in Panama City, and most of them would one day work there themselves, but they had no idea where the city was in relation to their own village.

So when we finished the world map, I spent a week enlarging a map of Panama to transfer to the other blank wall at the school. Before these kids were going to make sense of Panama’s place in the world, they needed to be able to see their place in Panama. We outlined the provinces, and labelled the cities and towns. When we finished, Membrillo was the largest name on the map—the centre of the universe, with their nation and their world arrayed around them.

Step on a Hedgehog

2016-01-26 18.07.41 smMy daughter came to me frustrated yesterday evening.

“What is fear?”

Knowing she had just been out in the dark, I asked her if she was frustrated because she was afraid of the dark.

“No, I’ve gotten over my fear of the dark. Now I’m afraid of hedgehogs.”

“Ah. You’re afraid of stepping on them in the dark.”

She nodded.

“Well, you learned that from your father, who worries about stepping on hedgehogs in the dark. But I’ve actually stepped on hedgehogs in the dark.” I shrugged. “It’s not so bad—for me or for the hedgie. You tend to feel it before you put all your weight on it, and you pull back before you hurt it.”

She looked relieved.

It got me thinking about the nature of fear, how easily it is taught, and how difficult it can be to overcome.

Teaching children about insects, I see fear all the time. The fear that another living thing might harm us (and sometimes the fear that we might harm another living thing). Much of my teaching is aimed at overcoming those fears.

And in saying ‘overcoming,’ I don’t mean eliminating those fears—that’s the work of decades, not of an hour.

I know that, because I experience those fears, myself—they are deeply rooted in our culture, and I was taught them just like everyone else was. But I have confidence in spite of the fear. Part of that comes from knowing that the worst that can happen is really not all that bad (for most things). I have been bitten, clawed, and stung by songbirds, parrots, raptors, rabbits, rodents, snakes and all manner of insects and spiders, and have survived it all. More importantly, I’ve learned that if I understand the animal and move with confidence and care, I am unlikely to be hurt (or to hurt the animal).

So I don’t try to make children unafraid of insects; instead, I teach them how to move with confidence and care, even if they don’t feel the confidence yet. I teach them how to hold an insect safely. If I think they’re ready for it, I give them an insect that is likely to bite them—a tiny nip they might actually feel, if they’re paying attention. They might cry out, “Oh! It bit me!” They might fling the insect off their hand. But chances are good, they’ll pick it up again, because the worst has happened, and it wasn’t so bad. The act of taking the risk once makes it easier to do it again. Confidence grows. The fear may still be there, but it is diminished by understanding and experience.

I hope my daughter does step on a hedgehog in the dark. She will stumble in her effort to not squash it. She’ll cry out in surprise, and then laugh as the offended hedgehog lumbers away. When she goes out in the dark next, she’ll walk with more confidence. And because the fear will probably still be there, she’ll feel incredibly brave in doing so.


2016-03-30 08.37.09 smWhen I picked it up on the beach, it was lichen-green. A fist-sized chunk of serpentine that looked all but translucent. It was almost alive.

I brought it back to the campground. As it dried, it lost some of its lustre. It lost its translucence, but remained green.

When we packed up to come home, I took the rock with me, nestled in a cup holder in the car. Leaving the humid, green West Coast, we drove up over the mountains, and back into dry, brown Canterbury.

When I picked the rock out of the car, it was frosty white, with a few sparkles of pyrite in the crevices. Dry and dead.

I think people are like that rock.

When we see them in their own “habitat”—in the place where they feel they belong—they are alive and vibrant. They show their depth and their colours. We see their full beauty.

But when we see a person in a place where they don’t feel like they belong—a place where they’re uncomfortable—they frost over. We see only their surface and little of their beauty. There may be hints—small sparkles in the crevices, if we look closely—but most of their beauty will be hidden.

I used to see this a lot, working at nature centres in the U.S. Teachers would regularly warn me about “problem” children. Kids who were nothing but troublemakers, according to the teachers.

I took special note of these children, because I learned quickly that they were likely to be my best students. Take them out of the classroom where they felt they didn’t belong, and put them in a place where they could shine, and they invariably did. They were often smart, funny, helpful, eager to engage with the subject, and bursting with questions—completely different from the sullen, disengaged, miscreants the teachers viewed them as.

I don’t think their transformation had anything to do with my teaching skills—it was simply that they were more comfortable outdoors, moving around, picking up sticks, throwing rocks. They were in their habitat, and could show their beauty. I wished the teachers could have seen their students’ transformations—most of the time, the teachers sat around drinking coffee while their students were out on the trails. I don’t think they believed me when I told them how marvellous their “problem” students were.

Take my word for it. This rock is beautiful.2016-03-30 08.40.54 sm

Science education at its best

Physarum cinereum

Physarum cinereum

About eight months ago, my daughter did a school project on slime moulds. Along with internet research on slime moulds, she searched for live slime moulds in various habitats, and even tried keeping one as a pet. Unfortunately, the weather was particularly dry and warm, so slime moulds were scarce, and her pet died. We considered the project somewhat of a failure.

Except that she has been tuned in to slime moulds ever since, so when she noticed a funny grey substance covering blades of grass in the yard a few days ago, she was primed for it. She brought it inside to look at under the microscope, and correctly identified it as Physarum cinereum, a type of slime mould.

She posted a photo and her identification on Nature Watch NZ, and had her identification verified by several scientists.

Today, she found a similar slime mould, but this one was a mustard yellow colour. In form it was very like Physarum cinereum, but altogether the wrong colour.

She pulled out her iPad to search for it online. No luck…


While she was searching, the sample under the microscope changed colour, from yellow to grey. Based on her knowledge of slime mould biology, she reckoned the grey colour must be spores. She has posted her new photo and identification to Nature Watch NZ, and is waiting to see what the experts think.

Could I ever have devised a better science lesson? Not in a million years. She made an observation, used her research skills and prior knowledge to make sense of what she saw, and got corroboration from an expert.

The resources available to kids (and bigger kids, too) these days are amazing—the opportunities to engage directly with the scientific community, find current information about things (no more 20 year-old World Book Encyclopaedias), and record their observations are so far beyond what I had as a child, it still feels a bit like magic to me.

But of course none of that is possible if we don’t nurture our children’s curiosity and teach them how to use the tools available to them. None of it is possible if we don’t give our kids time to watch the world go by, time to get bored and lie down in the grass. Tom Eisner (famous entomologist, for those who don’t know him) wrote in his book For Love of Insects, “How is it, I am often asked, that I make discoveries? I always feel a bit awkward about answering the question, because I do not have a particular method. The truth is that I spend a fair amount of time looking around.”

So go on. Get out there. Look around. Who knows what you might discover.