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4’s Learn About Sharks in Interdisciplinary Study

All school year, students in the 4's classroom have been fascinated by ocean animals, and sharks in particular. From the shark-adorned t-shirts and masks they wear, to the shark toys they play with, teachers Danita Harrison and Isabel Oyola and associate teacher Wesley Craft quickly picked up on the class’ interest in the subject. They used this natural enthusiasm as the inspiration for a new, interdisciplinary unit of study – combining the best of science, math and art. The shark study exemplifies the Lower School–Early Childhood concept of emerging curriculum, where teachers leave space for freeform lessons that align with what students are collectively interested in.

The shark study began with a brainstorming session. Guided by initial questions like “What do you know about sharks?” and “What do you want to learn?," students shared facts they had already mastered, such as sharks have sharp teeth, and what they were still curious about, including where sharks live and why they have gills. Together they strategized how they could find the information they were seeking and came up with a variety of resources – aquariums, books and scientists, to name a few. Students’ ideas about what questions to ask and how to answer them formed the basis of the unit of study.  

Over the next several weeks, the class delved deeper into the world of sharks. With a livestream of the shark tank at the Georgia Aquarium and later the Osaka Aquarium on the classroom television monitor, students were able to identify hammerhead, tiger and whale sharks as they swam across the screen. The class learned more about the complexities of sharks through books; Nugget and Fang: Friends Forever – or Snack Time? helped to “dispel some myths [students] held about sharks being mean,” explain the three co-teachers, and Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist reminded students “that sharks are beautiful, smart, social creatures that deserve to be protected.” The class was also visited by two special guests; Simi’s L.’s Ima spoke about her experience scuba diving with sharks, and Simi’s brother Oliver, a Calhoun third grader, shared his shark tooth collection and expansive knowledge of sharks with the class.

For the 4’s class, one of the most compelling facts about sharks is their size. As part of their investigation, students used a measuring tape to see how the size of their arms compared to the smallest living shark, the eight-inch dwarf lantern shark; they also measured the length of the classroom to visualize how long the 48-foot whale shark is (one foot longer than the classroom, or approximately the length of twelve 4’s students). Students discovered that dorsal fins, which help sharks to maneuver, can be surprisingly big too. After creating their own dorsal fins the size of their hands, students guessed how many of their own "fins" would fit into a hammerhead shark’s dorsal fin. They placed them into a full-sized rendering, and saw their guesses of 10-20 fins were spot on.

Beyond the scientific facts and numbers, the shark study has allowed students to express their passion for the subject through creative activities. Each member of the class completed a multi-step art project depicting an underwater scene, taking inspiration from Rainbow Fish and The Big Blue Whale. Students traced and cut out their own sharks, before making a backdrop complete with coral reefs, seaweed, jellyfish, octopus and ocean water. In addition to helping students practice their fine motor skills and understand multi-step directions, the project has “expand[ed] their imagination,” the co-teachers write. From singing a song while pretending to be sharks, to playing with sharks in the water table, the class’ joy for the subject has expanded as the weeks have passed. As one student put it best, “Sharks are so amazing and a little scary!” In the remaining weeks of the school year, students will continue their inquiry, finding new ways to explore and engage with the material.