Dr. Anne Keller, a sixth-grade teacher at Orchard View Elementary School, recently wrote an article for the Michigan Science Teachers Association fall newsletter. In her article, she details how Orchard View Elementary School students are learning about the Great Lakes in a hands-on, creative way. The following is her article, “Shedding Light on Invasive Species: Using Shadow Puppets to Educate Children about Challenges to Our Great Lakes” in its entirety as it appears on page 13 of the “MSTA Newsletter.”
We live in a water-rich region in the Great Lakes, but many of our students have difficulty naming the source of their drinking water, identifying their watershed, and understanding how the widespread problem of invasive species impacts the health of one of our most important resources. Sixth-graders study the topic of invasive species in both social studies and science curricula. The students at Orchard View Elementary School in Grand Rapids wanted to share their knowledge of invasive species with the school’s younger grades to increase awareness about how we can prevent invasive species from spreading.
I attended a professional development workshop for West Michigan teachers last fall on invasive species that was conducted by Wayne State University, Michigan Technological University, and Belle Isle Conservancy. The Michigan Departments of Environmental Quality, Natural Resources, and Agriculture & Rural Development provided funding for the workshop. During this day of learning, classroom teachers and informal educators engaged with scientists and conservationists to explore the topic of invasive species through each of their areas of professional expertise. We looked at data, learned the names of strange creatures, and participated in activities we could take back to our own classrooms.
One of the sessions that really resonated with me introduced a variety of ways to integrate art, science, and English language arts. I’d been looking for a project to show my students that artistic creativity can be an effective means of communicating about environmental issues, but I wanted an art form that didn’t default to the usual formats of poster presentations, slideshows, or skits. Instead, my students designed shadow puppet shows to educate their audience about our main thoroughfare to Lake Michigan–the Grand River. We took our own hot topic in the news–restoring the rapids–and looked at some of the controversial components of the issue, including the problem of invasive species. The students considered the following questions: (1) If the rapids were restored and the dam removed, would it be possible for Asian carp to enter Lake Michigan? And (2) What would that mean for the future of our lakes?
Shadow puppets provided the perfect blend of captivating visuals and engaging storytelling techniques that allowed the information to be shared with young children in a memorable way. After completing their research and writing a script, sixth-graders worked in teams to construct their puppets. Using clear plastic, they designed and colored their puppets with permanent markers, and other puppets were shadowed figures cast in black. The students created sea lampreys, Asian carp, and zebra mussels–all with moving parts (and some with speaking parts!). Several of these “actors” even secured roles in a very low-budget movie project that ended up being shown at our local Celebration Cinema!
The classroom became an assembly line of plastic and wires, and markers flew in a frenzy across the room. When the lights in our school library dimmed, the puppet theater glowed with amazing student creations. Best of all, the younger students laughed and learned; they were mesmerized. It’s not every day that you get to witness the good guys defeating a sea lamprey or fending off an Asian carp. Taking an important environmental issue, connecting it to a real-life problem in our own community, and transforming the research and potential solutions into art and story helped an even younger audience become more committed to protecting our rivers and our Great Lakes.