BIG Zoo Lesson and it’s BIG Impact

By Jill Garnett, Enrichment Coordinator and BIG Zoo Lesson Site Coordinator

As the school year winds down I find myself reflecting on our BIG Zoo Lesson program’s record-setting 67 classes (and 1,650 students) that came to the zoo this year for week-long learning experiences.  This was the 16th year of the BIG Zoo Lesson, a program developed by Margaret Holtschlag, Michigan Teacher of the Year 1999-2000.

Key components of the program include teachers designing and leading their class’s week; students having extended periods for writing, sketching, conversation, and cooperative research; and teachers, parents, and zoo personnel teaming as partners in the teaching and learning process.  The week is a catalyst for a year-long thematic study.  The learning begins in their school before they arrive and continues when they leave the zoo.

As the site coordinator for the BIG Zoo Lesson here at Potter Park Zoo, I have the honor and delight of seeing each class’s program unfold and the minds engage as they experience the zoo firsthand in ways that typical visitors do not:

  • Students observing a particular animal for an hour a day, every day, recording observations in their journals.  This might include describing in detail their animal’s appearance, discerning the adaptations that facilitate the aquatic life of a river otter or a penguin, or comparing the family dynamics of a mandrill family to our own.
  • Students and parents in deep conversation over animal skulls and pelts about how their characteristics help these animals survive in the wild
  • Students becoming the docents as they don our adult-sized docent vests and teach their classmates and parents what they have learned about their observation animals

I see the program in action as the classes spend their week at the zoo.  Sometimes I get to see the impact of the program when I am invited to the celebrations of their learning back at their school.  Projects displayed might include animal diaries, poems, research reports, PowerPoints, exhibit dioramas, and songs performed.  It is impressive to see their work, their continued excitement, and the clear impact of their week at the zoo.

The most recent learning celebration I attended was at Science Night at Reo Elementary in south Lansing.  The whole school was involved, with a variety of science activities set up in different classrooms around the school.  I was drawn to the school library, where Ms. Hurst ‘s and Ms. Mike’s third grade classes had set up their “Mini-Zoo Lesson,” as they called it, for families as a way to share their BIG Zoo Lesson experience.

They had an array of live animals on display in enclosures around the room, consisting of a variety of classroom pets and pets brought from home by the teachers, including a rabbit, gecko, toad, snake, and guinea pigs.  Pairs of students led each table’s learning experience.  Special orange “Welcome to the Wild Side” shirts and safari hats identified the students as “docents.”  Families filed in with their “Mini-Zoo Lesson” journals, provided so that they could experience the observation, writing, and sketching aspects of the program.

Ms. Mike shared with me how gung-ho the students were when they returned from the zoo.  How interested and excited they were about their animal poster projects, and how they could not wait to get their special shirts and hats for Science Night.

As the classes made their final preparations for the evening, I was privy to Ms. Hurst prepping the students who would welcome families as they entered the library.  “What will you do if someone is afraid of snakes?”  They were ready.  They demonstrated how they would reassure visitors: “There is nothing to worry about, ma’am.  The animals cannot get out.  And they are not venomous.”

I was amazed by their program, especially the poise and presence that the kids displayed, and the fact that the students had become the teachers.  Way to go, Reo Elementary!