More than 60 animals in various habitats were on display at Gossler Park Elementary School this week. The Gator Zoo – named for Gossler Park’s mascot – included exhibits, a kids’ activity area, a snack shack and a gift shop, just like any other zoo. The biggest difference, besides the fact that no live animals were involved, is that the Gator Zoo was entirely created, designed, researched and managed by eight- and nine-years-olds as part of an innovative learning project.
The third grade teachers at Gossler Park collaborated on the zoo idea with the goal of engaging their students and making research more fun.
“Most children learn informational writing in the traditional ways – they read a book about a topic, identify the relevant text, and paraphrase the ideas in a report,” said teacher Linda Whitmore. “Our students took ownership of this project from the beginning and got excited about showing off what they learned.”
To get started, each of the students in the three classes chose an animal to study. They researched those animals and together planned the ways they would present the information as a virtual zoo. Students created individual exhibits, made up of handmade habitats and models of their animals, fact sheets and posters, maps of where the animals live, vocabulary booklets, and Chromebooks set up for online viewing of animal photos and videos.
The third graders formed committees for the zoo. Assignments included tasks such as creating signs and admission tickets, deciding which items to sell, setting prices, scheduling zoo hours, filming a tour video, and writing invitations to special guests.
“Creating the Gator Zoo took teamwork, time management and some problem solving,” said teacher Margaret O’Leary. “Those are skills the children would not have gained doing a traditional research report.”
Indeed, when the students described the process and their roles in designing the Gator Zoo, they talked about the things they learned about the animals, as well as themselves.
“I didn’t think I could fill a whole tri-fold poster with words,” said Joey. “But the committee helped me.”
Parental involvement in the take-home portions of the assignment was another positive outcome of the project.
“I didn’t know how to make a 3D giraffe,” said Mariah. “Then my mom helped me, and we did it!”
After weeks of zoo committee meetings, planning and putting finishing touches on every detail, the Gator Zoo opened to visitors for one day. Gossler Park students, along with parents and other invited guests toured the exhibits. The third grade “zoo keepers” manned their animal habitats and offered information about the animals as only expert guides could.
Among the zoo visitors were Mayor Ted Gatsas, board of school committee members John Avard, Katie Desrochers and Connie Van Houten, and superintendent Debra Livingston.
“Many of our schools are focusing on project-based learning, which puts students in the driver’s seat,” said Dr. Avard. “The Gator Zoo is a wonderful example of how it works and the pride students have in achieving their learning goals. The students even taught me some things about animals I didn’t know before!”
Money from the sale of Gator Zoo snacks and souvenirs will go to Squam Lakes Natural Science Center’s Sponsor a Species program, chosen by majority vote of the three classes. Donations to the program help to provide food, health care, and housing for animals at the center. It’s an especially appropriate charity recipient because the Gossler Park School third grade classes will take a field trip there this spring.