A trade book inspires two teachers to connect their curricula in a creative way. By Ingrid Hekman Fournier and Leslie Dryer Edison
developing the writing process. We share our experience connecting our curricula here.
Description and Prediction Our study began in language arts class, with lessons modified from some online lessons based on Two Bad Ants (see Internet Resources). The writing teacher reviewed a few Chris Van Allsburg books that students were familiar with (Polar Express, Jumanji) and shared that Chris Van Allsburg had grown up in our hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. She told the students that they were going to begin studying ants in science and learning about “point of view” writing in language arts. As she read Two Bad Ants aloud, she asked students to listen to the description on each page and to predict what the ants were seeing or experiencing (e.g., sugar crystals, cup of coffee, the view of a teaspoon coming down into their “hot brown lake” of coffee, being spun around in a garbage disposal, the inside of an electric socket, etc.). Students enjoyed discovering these places from the ants’ perspective. Afterward, students made charts comparing human and ant points of view from various situations not described in the book. Later that day, in science class, students began researching ants in preparation for a guided hands-on investigation planned for the next day. Students worked in small groups using nonfiction texts about ants from our Summer 2009 41
few years ago, a fellow teacher and I began working together to develop connections between our third-grade English language arts program and science curricula. My colleague, a writing teacher, was researching how to include local authors into our reading and writing curriculum. I, a science teacher, wanted to help students develop their science investigation skills while making connections to the writing process. When my colleague discovered Chris Van Allsburg’s work, things started to gel. Chris Van Allsburg’s books are entertaining to students because of their adventures and fantasies, but they also have real-world connections. He includes just enough scientific information in his fiction to make it easy to springboard into researching the scientific facts. The following lessons were inspired by the book, Two Bad Ants (Van Allsburg 1988), a fictional story detailing the journey of “two bad ants” that stray from their colony and choose to stay in a container full of large, white, sweet-tasting crystals (sugar). Through artwork and text, students observe human life from the perspective of two small insects. The book was the catalyst for an engaging five-day study with third-grade students—in science, the story was a springboard for a hands-on investigation with live ants that introduced students to the processes of investigation; in language arts, the story ushered in lessons about point of view, using sensory details, and
school and local library. I also presented an ant farm that we would be keeping in the classroom so that students could make observations of live ants. (Ant farms can be purchased from science suppliers.) Students observed the ants and recorded their observations in their science journals. Before beginning observations, I prompted them with questions, “What are the ants doing?” “Does it seem like they are communicating? If so, how?” “Do they appear to be working or resting?” The students were amazed at how the ants were digging tunnels. They observed that some of the ants were physically moving the sand, while others were carrying it away. They were definitely working as a team! The students also noted that when we turned on the light over the ant colony, the ants seemed to slow down in their work. This prompted some students to wonder whether ants work better in daylight or at night.
10 Hungry Ants The next day, we built upon the previous day’s experiences. In language arts class, students chose one of the numerous situations from the prior day and wrote a more extensive description of the two points of view (human and ant). This took the students’ writing from one-line observations, such as a person viewing a swimming pool from a high diving board as a “cool blue pool” and the ant viewing it as a “large ocean,” to multiline descriptions such as, “My legs begin to quiver. I am scared. I do not want to dive. The blue water below looks so far away. Can I jump?” (the person’s perspective) and “Where am I? I’m really tired. That was a long hike straight up. What’s that blue rug down there? Why is it so shiny? Is that water? Yikes! How do I get down from here?” (the ant’s perspective). Later that day, in science class, students observed the ants in the ant farm again, recording their observations in their science journals, and we started talking about the kinds of food ants might prefer. The students mentioned that the ants in Two Bad Ants really seemed to like the sugar crystals. They also made connections to seeing ants swarm around watermelon and spilled soda on their porches during the summer. We discussed what was in these foods that may have attracted the ants. Sugar, salt? Then, I introduced our class investigation. Since my students hadn’t yet had a lot of experience with inquiry-oriented science investigations, I planned this guided investigation so that students could gain practice in investigation skills (e.g., making predictions, following procedures, recording data, graphing results, and writing conclusions). To simplify matters, I created a worksheet listing four possible food preferences and a procedure for testing 42 Science and Children
the ants’ preferences (see NSTA Connection). We’re a Spanish immersion school, so the worksheet is available in Spanish, too. After reviewing the worksheet together, students recorded their predictions based on their own personal experiences with ants. Since students had seen ants outside in their yards around their own foods, their predictions included such ideas as, “I think that the ants will eat the potato chips because the chips have a lot of grease” and “I think that the ants will eat the strawberry jelly because it has a lot of sugar.” Next, we placed one teaspoon of each type of food (chips, bread, an orange, and strawberry jam) into the corners of a large shoebox and placed the shoebox in the center of the room. Students formed a circle around the shoebox, holding their investigation sheets in hand to make tally marks in the results section. One student was designated the official timer, timing the experiment for five minutes. I then placed the 10 ants in the center of the box, and we observed what happened. We quickly realized that we needed to determine what constituted “ants preferring a food.” Did they prefer it if they wandered into the square? Or did the ants have to be touching the food directly? Together we concluded that the ants had to be touching the food directly in order to mark it on our data table. After five minutes, students returned to their seats to graph the results. I gave each student a section of graph paper titled, “What Food Do Ants Prefer?” and together we created a graph. I drew a sample graph on an overhead projector and students added the appropriate information to their graphs on paper. I asked the students how to determine what goes on the “x axis” (the horizontal line) and what should go on the “y axis” (the vertical line). Students decided that the types of food should go along the bottom based on their past experiences of working with bar graphs in math and science; they felt it was important to have the numbers on the y axis show the patterns of numbers. We titled the x axis, “Foods,” and wrote the four types of food on that line. Next, we looked at the data table to the highest number of ants that preferred a food—it was seven. I asked the students what could be done with that information. Students commented that we needed to determine what numbers would go on the y axis. Some students suggested writing the scale in increments of 5, others suggested 10. A few students argued the case to write the scale as numbers 1 through 10. When I asked why, one student explained that it would be easier to see the results, and the graph had more than 10 blocks so we could do it by ones. The class agreed that this would be best. Then, I asked students what the title of the y axis should be, and students said, “Number of Ants.” Next, I asked
Linking Science and Writing With Two Bad Ants two student volunteers to come to the overhead to complete the bar graph, with students following along on the graphs at their desks. When all the graphs were complete, I asked the students to determine which food the ants most preferred. Students noted that the ants preferred the strawberry jam. Students commented that the graph helped them see the main idea better, which I pointed out was one of the reasons that graphs are helpful.
Mystery Places and Results On the third day in language arts, students were asked to describe a mystery place using the five senses, from both the point of view of a person and an ant. This helped the students further develop their ideas as well as to include sensory details (we had previously studied the senses earlier in the year in science class). Meanwhile, that day in science class, we discussed our “Error Analysis,” or how we could have made the project better. Most students commented that they would have changed the container in which we conducted the experiment because some of the ants escaped by climbing over the wall of the shoebox and abandoning the project! Students then created science boards using the data from their worksheets. I gave each student a large piece of construction paper, which they folded into three sections, two equal-size pieces on the sides with a larger area in the middle to display the title of our project, a drawing of an ant, and the graphs. Students pasted their predictions and procedures on the left side of the board, the title and graphs in the center, and results (data tables) and conclusions on the right side. For their conclusions, students restated whether their prediction was supported and what they learned from the project. For example, one student wrote, “I predicted that the ants would prefer the chips, but I learned that the ants preferred the strawberry jelly.”
Writings and Assessments In writing class, for the final two days, the students finished their points-of-view writings from a mystery location by revising and peer editing their papers. Students worked in pairs to determine whether or not the writing presented an original point of view (not one used by Chris Van Allsburg or the teacher). Students also helped one another to make sure at least four of the senses were represented in the writings. At the end of class, students shared their final draft pieces with the class. In science class, students spent the final days making additional observations of the ant farm and writing a summary paragraph of the experience. Some comments included “This experiment was cool because we got to see what some ants’ favorite foods are. This was probably my favorite project in third grade so far. If you ever do this project, beware the ant will climb out.” In addition to the ongoing teacher observation assessment that occurred during class, we evaluated students’ work samples. In science, the summary
Connecting to the Standards This article relates to the following National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996):
Content Standards Grades K–4 Standard A: Science as Inquiry • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
Standard C: Life Science • The characteristics of organisms • Organisms and environments National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Download the investigation worksheet in English and Spanish at www.nsta.org/sc0907.
paragraphs were to cover the main points of the experience, and the science boards needed to be complete with a clear written prediction, collected data from the experiment, a clearly labeled graph, and a written conclusion.
Success! All of us—students and their two teachers—had a great time with these lessons. Upon reflection, the next time we conduct these lessons, we plan to let students drive the content more. What do students want to discover about ants? What is a driving question we could work together to answer? How can students design their own experiments to study ant behavior? With this successful experience under our belts, we are ready to take on bigger challenges and continue to get students excited while participating in our science and writing classes! n Ingrid Hekman Fournier (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a fifthgrade Spanish Immersion teacher at Northern Trails Fifthand Sixth-Grade School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Leslie Dryer Edison is a third-grade Spanish Immersion teacher at Ada Vista Elementary School in Ada, Michigan.
References Van Allsburg, C. 1981. Jumanji. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. _____. 1984. The polar express. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. _____. 1998. Two bad ants. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Internet Resources A Teacher’s Guide: Two Bad Ants by Chris Van Allsburg www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/features/thepolarexpress/tg/twobadants.shtml Teaching Point of View With Two Bad Ants www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view.asp?id=789 Summer 2009 43