Contributed by Mr. Scott Jacobs
The Rainforest Connection (RFC) afforded me the opportunity to put my money where my mouth was, educationally. Any time we can show students how a skill, idea, concept, or topic relates to their lives it takes on deeper significance. Using actual experiences has been shown repeatedly to be the greatest means to achieving understanding when learning anything. The Rainforest Connection provides teachers and students multiple opportunities to put into actual practice what might otherwise be a dry or disconnected lesson.
I began my work with the RFC two years ago by accessing messages from home since we did not have E-mail capabilities in our school at that time. I printed the messages on overheads--easy enough to do on your own computer's printer with overheads bought at Staples, or print them at home on paper and have overheads made at school on the copier. E-mails could then be projected on the screen and seen easily by the whole class. The first thing I did with students is to show them the parts of an E-mail--the addresses, the subject, the date and time of receipt, and any other information pertinent to our discussion. The format of an E-mail was compared to conventional letters, and the importance of clear communication was reinforced as we read aloud the letters, pausing to discuss the ideas in each letter. We had already written some letters for social studies and reading, so viewing the e-mails and writing our own provided important contexts to review what we had learned earlier about letter formats and conventions, as well as conventions of spelling, grammar and word choice. When we wrote our first questions to the researchers we used the lesson as a way to discuss things like what makes a good, clear, and appropriate question. My fourth grade students did a good job of coming up with such things as sticking to the topic of the rainforest; not asking personal questions; using appropriate question words, like who, what, where and why; starting the questions with a capital letter and ending with a question mark. In this way, lessons from a grammar book were avoided, students saw the genuine purpose of clear communication and good spelling, and students communicated about an idea that was of personal interest to them which increased their motivation to apply the conventions of language and refine ideas until they were clear to the reader. This last point was accomplished when needed in revision groups where students shared their questions with a group of peers, and the group provided feedback on the clarity of the ideas expressed. Revision groups have been a regular part of the class since September for my students, but any time is a good time to start them.
The information in the RFC letters sparked discussions about issues that my students had to study in science that year. We study animals, adaptations, migration, food chains, plants, and habitats, among other topics. All of these topics were covered in the letters in some form and provided me with the chance to work in the content that students had to cover in a genuine context. The material that was written by RFC was from real scientists, not a book publisher, so it was more real to students. The issue of migration was driven home when we asked if any of the animals seen on BCI were among the same ones we see in NJ. Not only did the answer provide some examples of migration that a general science book would not, the fact that students saw a direct connection between the animals in the rainforest at BCI and those in NJ made the rain forest all the more real and their interest in it all the more immediate.
Another way RFC materials helped in science was when Jackie wrote about a jaguar that had been seen on BCI. I constantly try to impress on my students the difference between inference and direct evidence. Jackie mentioned that scientists know that jaguars swim from the mainland to BCI, and I asked if someone had seen this happening or if they were guessing. Students have to understand that science is not about being handed the right answer. They must understand that it is often about inferring, using indirect evidence. Jackie's explanation was clear and easily understood by students and offered them another perspective, a scientific one, to show science is about making logical guesses when the answers aren't always provided directly.
Students were able to use their geographic skills as well, with material from RFC. The very first thing we did in my class was to find BCI--no small task, given the level of detail on most of the available maps. But that gave a perfect opportunity to discuss scale on maps. WE figured out approximately how far from NJ BCI was using scale, and based on the location we made some guesses about the climate and weather found there. These guesses were later confirmed either by RFC letters or by our own research into Panama. Last year we were fortunate enough to have a guest come in to speak to the students about Panama. As a native of the country she was a welcome source of information. WE also learned something about the building of the canal and its impact on the land. This was done through student research in books and on the internet. Although we did not have the internet accessibility then students willingly researched it at home.
Finally, math concepts were enriched by descriptions of how data in the mammalian census was collected. One of the most important skills that I try to have my students understand well is that of estimation. When they read that researchers must record many distances when an animal is sighted that prompted a discussion about the need to estimate and the importance of accurate estimation. At the fourth grade we talk briefly about statistics, and the RFC descriptions of the recording of data was a perfect context to use when we began to study statistical data. Too often students are left wondering, "Why is this important to me?" I have had plenty of students ask this. Because I said so is not a motivating answer. Seeing how the scientists were using statistics and counting and addition and comparing of numbers in a context that was already of interest to the students helped them to understand that math is an important area of knowledge.
RFC materials did not represent a panacea of solutions to educational problems, but they did offer the genuine contexts needed for students to better understand what might otherwise remain disconnected from their reality and experience. I have found that RFC letters and the chance to E-mail scientists performing genuine research is a valuable opportunity to bring nicely together what too often are separate subjects for Ã…students. Hopefully you will find it the same for you and your students.