This year's inaugural Pigeon Project started in the spring and with the help of American Racing Pigeon Union, Jim Jenner, Kenny Moore and Charles Matthews and it has become a wonderful component of our curriculum. Two classes of fourth and fifth grade students are caring for 12 pairs of racing homers and their young as part of their science curriculum. They are currently working on raising and training their Young Bird team so that they have something to fly in the OB season this spring. They realize that their birds will have to compete against hardened professionals, but that is fine with them. To them that is just what they are currently experiencing -- a long academic race and most of it uphill. Many of the students in the program have had challenges academically or socially in previous years and somehow the pigeons are giving them a fresh start. Caring about the birds has given many of them a new outlook and motivation, which makes this year a very pleasant learning and teaching experience.
It all began with the visit to our school by Kenny Moore and Ed Harkey, presidents of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Pigeon Club and the North Carolina Pigeon Racing Combine. They were very kind in answering the questions Sandra and I had and gave us lots of suggestions to start us off on the right track. With the support of our principal and start-up funding by the American Racing Pigeon Union we were ready to get started.
While we had initially planned to use the starter loft design we had found on the Red Rose Loft website we received a very generous offer from Bob Berst, a retiring local flyer, of a suitable used loft for a reasonable price that we could not refuse. It took out that component of the math curriculum, but it also took out a lot of hard work and planning. The loft purchase also included his birds of which we kept most of the OB team as breeders. Additional birds came as donations and loans from Kenny Moore, Richard Clark and Tom Barnhart.
As an introduction we watched parts of "Marathon In The Sky" which had been sent to us by Jim Jenner. This was probably one of the best first days of school the kids have had. The images were so exciting to them that it spurred a whole slew of questions, many of which they are still researching. We had decided early on that this would be a project that would focus on putting the learning into the hands of the students and that they would be the ones finding out the answers rather than us providing them with the answers. It initially was a strange and unfamiliar concept for them, but they are starting to embrace it. Now that we had their attention we were able to use the daily loft visits and the coveted maintenance jobs as carrots, and after a while everybody was able to be with the birds. Thanks to Kenny Moore they also got to hold their first youngsters as he also gave them a pair of late hatches to hand-raise. None of the students had done anything like that before and the awe in their faces made the nightly feedings at my house all worthwhile.
In math they learned to use a scale to weigh the breeders we had to find the typical weight (median or mode) as well as the range of weight among the adult birds in their loft. They did a great job and seemed quite proud of being able to get credit for something they actually enjoyed doing even though it was quite difficult initially.
After this project was completed they designed and created their own research projects to answer questions that they have about pigeons. Questions range from "Do eggs grow?" and "How do pigeons behave throughout the day?" to "What will the babies of all these different colored birds look like?" With the help of a digital camera we received as part of a Donors Choose grant, students are able to film and photograph the birds and write about them as part of this science project. The presentation boards and CDs will also allow them to prepare various presentations, which they will share with their parents during Curriculum Night.
Another way to integrate the Pigeon Project into the curriculum was the reading of the book ONLY A PIGEON by Jane Kurtz, which excited the students even more. Taking place in Ethiopia it shares the experiences of a boy who also owns and races pigeons. The emotional connection this child has with his birds was exactly what we were aiming for and we were very pleased when the students expressed similar feelings towards them as part of our discussions. The prospects of their own young also created even more excitement about the project and was what even more important it focuses on the love for this wonderful creature.
After talking at length to Jim Jenner over the summer I felt it was very important to make this program meaningful educationally, but also emotionally. So the guidelines for the students were not academic prowess as a ticket to the loft, but evidence that they care about themselves and others. Instead of just receiving strikes, which eventually lead to time-out in other classrooms or suspensions, they also receive points for showing that they care. Misbehavior has not been a big issue this year as even hardened students find it hard to resist the warmth of a squeaker. Frustrations about academics become bearable when you get to band one of them or just check them for new feathers or watch their parents feed them.
To enhance the caring aspect of the project as well as the writing instruction we are collaborating with Jane Kurtz on a collection of stories by our students. We are trying to have a good amount of stories that are suitable for kids in Ethiopia so that they can be translated into Amharic, published and then sent there, as there are very few books for children available for the kids in that country. This will be another wonderful community service project that will help them see themselves in a different light as writers and global citizens.
There were some roadblocks though. Since most available literature on pigeons is not written on their level it was difficult to assemble a solid classroom collection that will allow students to learn about their birds as part of the reading instruction. But we found that students will find ways to get information when they are truly interested in something. And they have checked out the donated books (Barron's Guide to Pigeons, Foy's Beginners Guide and Global's Guide to Pigeon Racing) on a daily basis, as they are researching the ins and outs of pigeon husbandry.
Their eagerness was only hampered by the fact that we were supposed to follow a pacing guide in reading and science so we were not able to spend as much time with the birds as the kids needed and wanted. We did find lots of ways to integrate though and students prepared graphs displaying typical pigeon weight data for their math requirements and are working on team research questions following the scientific method. But they still always had more questions and wanted to spend more time with the pigeons and with the topic of pigeons that I decided to abandon the pacing guide and custom-fit something to address the needs and interest of the students. So we are now reading an actual novel, WRINGER by Jerry Spinelli, about a boy their age who also has a pigeon friend, but with quite a dramatic twist. Most of my students have never read a novel on their grade level before which will make this challenging. But just after reading the first few chapters they are completely drawn into the story and we will be able to get lots of learning out of this book. We also just received another grant, which will allow us to purchase some more pigeon-related children's books for our class libraries as well as some other needed supplies.
The other roadblock that we will have to address is the fact that the loft is too small for our purpose. While this 12ft by 8ft loft is large enough for the birds it is impossible to get everybody into it. That allows some students to be left out of daily routines and that is not motivational. So the students came up with the idea that there should be a type of screened porch installed in front of the loft. That way some students can perform the maintenance duties and research parts while others can observe the birds on the inside since this viewing area would also double as an aviary when not in use by the humans. The addition of a small room on the entrance side was also suggested to keep the food and other supplies in and to provide a small research station. We are talking to some local club members to see if they can help us and the kids are going to bring out their parents as soon as we have a plan and the funds for this addition.
The Pigeon Program at our school is unique in a world of standard curricula and it has been a challenging one. It is always evolving with the help of the students, making it exciting for us veteran teachers. Yet it is truly worth it. The experiences it provides to the students are very meaningful and this in turn allows them to make more positive and lasting connections with academics as well as the natural world. Previously disenchanted students are starting to see themselves in a different light and are starting to see school as something worthwhile.
This is definitely a program that will remain here at Reedy Creek and I hope that other schools will also receive the support we have gotten to make this a reality for their students.
A great thank you goes to all of those who helped us to have such a wonderfully engaging and memorable program for our students and for the support you continue to give us. Without you this would not be possible.
Anne Atkins-Bostic and Sandra Hill