When Students Care

By: Mary Kienstra on: May 19, 2016  in: #tlap, non fiction

When students care, everything changes.  Fourth graders have a tremendous amount of compassion for animals.  What better way to hook them than to tap into that passion with the essential question, “Why should we care?”

After studying the importance of sharks in the ocean, we continued the theme with more large mammals.  Timing is everything.  That very weekend was the last performance of the show elephants in the Ringling Brothers Circus.  My students read an article and watched a video from USA Today about the treatments of elephants in the circus and why they had decided to discontinue their performances.  This truly hooked them!

Next, my students read the novel, The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate.  This book is a relatively easy read with a much deeper theme, told from the perspective of the gorilla, Ivan.  While this is a fantasy novel, complete with talking animals, it was inspired a true story.  Ivan tells the story of being kept in a small enclosure at a mall until he is finally transferred to the Atlanta Zoo.  It is a sad, yet hopeful story, that stirs the compassion of fourth graders.



Katherine Applegate’s Newbery Award winning novel

ivan pix

The real story of Ivan


After Applegate’s novel won the Newbery Award, she wrote a companion picture book about the real Ivan, explaining his real life.  My students were mesmerized by this!  This all fit the essential question so well:  “Why should we care?”

A friend of mine had actually visited Ivan at the Atlanta Zoo and she agreed to Skype with my class to share her experience.  She described how she and her friends had contacted Katherine Applegate before their visit and had received the VIP tour because of that connection.  The passion in her voice was infectious.

When students care, the quality of their work is fabulous!  They created public service announcements to convince their audience why they should care about animals.  Each chose a topic within this area that ignited their own passion.

Before writing their own PSA, they analyzed several examples and realized that an effective PSA included persuasion and a call to action.  They chose their topic and created their commercials using iMovie book trailer.  Their public service announcements are very polished and professional looking, reflecting their engagement in the topic.  The student-created commercials are playing on the screen in the office.

Tapping into students’ passions is essential in creating an environment where kids are motivated to learn.  When students care, they can accomplish great things!   In this unit, several things came together to show them connections between the plight of sharks, elephants, and gorillas.  Every kid can now answer the essential question “Why should we care?” and when they do, you can hear the passion in their voices.


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