Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Tutoring: Teaching Natural Selection

After reading the extremely enjoyable 11 Experiments That Failed,

my ten-year-old English Language tutoring student told me he likes books about science.  Since much of what I do with my tutees is based on reading books together, I was eager to increase the science-themed books in my library bag.  Also eager to increase the difficulty of the books that I bring, I opted for a science-themed chapter book that looked promising, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.  I started reading the book in my freetime, intrigued in part by this beautiful cover:

I am a fan of young adult literature in general, and I am enjoying this book in particular.  As the title suggests, the book deals with evolution, natural selection, and Darwin.  I chose it for my tutoring because, as a budding naturalist, Calpunia has a fervent interest in science.  Here is the synopsis from Good Reads:  

"Calpurnia Virginia Tate is eleven years old in 1899 when she wonders why the yellow grasshoppers in her Texas backyard are so much bigger than the green ones. With a little help from her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist, she figures out that the green grasshoppers are easier to see against the yellow grass, so they are eaten before they can get any larger. As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers, and comes up against just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century."

It occurred to me of course that evolution can be a controversial subject, so I checked with the parents before introducing the book.  Though the book may not mesh with their personal beliefs, these parents agreed to evolution being discussed, a philosophy of education I heartily admire.  

I introduced the book last week, and found that my student had a few misconceptions about how the theories of natural selection and adaptation work, so I started a search for an illustration that would help demystify the theories.  I found this website with a good lesson that I intend to modify to my objectives.

Source: wired.com via Frances on Pinterest
In the lesson, the students play the predator and eat the happy-looking Teddy Grahams with their arms up, allowing the sneakier sad-looking bears to survive for more generations.  

I thought it might make more sense to get two colors of bears and two pieces of felt for habitat color, such as chocolate bears and brown felt and vanilla bears and tan felt.  The bears who blend in with either habitat will survive for more generations than the bears who stand out, as we pretend we are both near-sighted bear-eaters.  I will let my student chose which flavor he would rather eat (I anticipate chocolate), and hand him the felt of the contrasting color (tan).  We will spread a handful of both colors of bears on each piece of felt and eat the bears that stand out more.  After repeating for several generations (or several handfuls), we will find we have more bears left who blend in with the environment than bears who stand out.  

I like this variation on the original lesson because it illustrates how the environment has an effect on who survives, a point I tried to make by drawing tall trees, short trees, giraffes, and horses last week but without great success.  I also like this method because it meshes well with Calpurnia Tate: she begins her journey as a naturalist by noticing the yellow and green grasshoppers and their ability (or lack thereof) to blend in with their environment.  

I am a little concerned that my ten-year-old student will think a Teddy Graham illustration beneath him, but I am hoping that the thrill of getting to eat his homework will counteract any "I'm too old for this" feelings.  I am also aware that he may not ever get interested in a book about a girl coming of age in 1899 Texas, but I like the book so much I want to give it a chance.

Here is an original Kid Quote from a recent session:

Six-year-old: "Knock-knock."

Who's there?

Six-year-old: "T-Rex!"

T-Rex who?

Six-year-old: "There's a T-Rex behind your door! . . . You want to know his name?"


Six-year-old: . . . 

What is it?

Six-year-old: "FRANCES!"


Jen said...

It also can be done with the three year old. Do a tasting experiment and make a chart with them to see which kind of food is liked by most people. I have a science textbook, which I probably will never use again. If you are interested, I can give it to you. It has tons of good activities.

Ms. Frances said...

That's a great idea, Jen! And if you really don't want your science book, the classroom would love to have it! Thank you!!