Frog Fights and Teachable Moments


Oh, the best laid plans!

bull-frogs-sing-to-the-skies-the-dark-rift-draws-nigh-all-reptiles-vibrate-the-oceans-and-seas-to-protect-earths-magnetic-field

Yesterday was the first really warm day of the year; we haven’t seen 70 degrees in Massachusetts since October.  We really, really NEEDED this great weather!

And its the day before the stupid, accursed, pointless, boring, way-too-long standardized math tests.  We will be trapped in our classroom for HOURS over the next two days.

So I did what any self-respecting classroom teacher would do: I took the kids outside for some “Ecosystem Review”.

They all knew, of course, that “Ecosystem Review” meant “Let’s get outta here!”, but they pretended to play along when I told them to record their observations and to write a piece of poetry inspired by the experience with the water ecosystem.

They tried to act semi-studious as I herded them out the door after lunch, toward our outdoor classroom.  “Remember”, I told them, “You need to record your observations of the environment today.  Record what it is that you see, hear, feel, smell.”

“So is this extra recess?”, one eager little boy inquired with a joyful grin.

“No!”, I assured him, giving my best serious teacher frownie face.  “This is SCIENCE.”

We headed out into the gorgeous mid day sunshine, feeling the heat on our faces and the warm breeze in our hair. We semi-walked and semi-raced down the grassy hill toward the pond and the pretty spring gardens.  I sat on the wooden benches in the shade as the kids ran out onto the boardwalk that circles the little pond.  I heard them chattering and calling as they ran around, pointing to various bugs, plants and piles of litter.

I wasn’t really paying that much attention to the kids voices at this point: I had instituted “teacher ear”, a sort of “organic app” that allows us to filter out everything other than words pertaining to poop, sex, vomit or guns.   Its a kind of survival technique that we use in the classroom.  Don’t tell anyone about it, OK?

Anyway, there I was, sitting in the warm sun, face raised to catch the full benefit. I was hearing the humming of the bees and the wind in the flowering trees.  All was well.

My “teacher ear” was gently filtering the language of the kids.  This is what it heard:

“What’s that lump?”

“Do you think its a frog?”

Yep! Its a frog!”

“OH, MY GOD! A FROG!!! IN THE WATER!!!”

“Oh, my God!”

“What’s he doing?”

“They’re playing LeapFrog!”

“For real????”

“Yeah, one frog is jumping on the other frog’s back!!!”

Just as my brain began to register this newest bit of information, one of my most savvy, most sophisticated boys let out a gasp of amazement, and I heard him shout, even as I was coming to my feet to head them off,
Oh, my God!!! They’re MATING!!!!!”

common frogs mating

There was a cry of general disbelief and confusion, then the pounding sound of 46 feet racing around the boardwalk.   I stood up and hurried onto the walkway, trying to catch up to the kids.   As I reached the spot where all of them were huddled, looking into the water, I wondered what to say.

“Boys and girls”, I began.  “I think that we………” I didn’t get very far before the excited voices of the kids cut into my “explanation”.

“I think they’re DOING IT.”

“Doing what?”

“Playing leapfrog.”

“No! Mating!  They’re making baby frogs!”

“Gross!” “Awesome!” “Cool!” “Disgusting” “What???”

“Boys and girls,” I tried again, sounding at my most serious and most seriously intimidating. “We are scientists, and this is nature at work.” I thought desperately about how to get the kids to see the serious biological issues of the day. How should I explain this?  What should I say?  I looked into the pond, where I saw one large green frog solidly planted on the back of another, slightly smaller frog.  The top frog’s front legs were firmly wrapped around the other frog’s midsection, and I swear to God, both of them were smiling.

I gulped and turned toward the class.

 “All of nature has the goal of reproduction….” I began, somewhat lamely.

“I know!!”, one boy interrupted.  “And all the boys try to get the girls!”  There was a general outburst of snickers.  “Yeah. Why does that happen?”, asked one serious and intelligent little girl.

“Well, see….” I began.

“Really”, answered one of her male classmates. “Why do all the boys try to get all the girls anyway?”

“OK”, I began again, “We are using scientific words here, like “male and female” instead of ‘boys and girls’. You are wondering why in so many species, the males try to fight for the female’s attention, right?”

“Yeah,” said one little lady, with a little frown. “I mean, on all those animal shows, the male lions fight for the females, and the male deer do it, too.  What’s that about?”

I stood sweating in the hot spring sunshine with 23 pairs of innocent eyes fixed on my face, looking for some answers to one of life’s most pressing questions.  What was I supposed to say?   I started to panic as various answers flew through my flustered brain. “Ask your Dad!” was one possibility, but that didn’t seem like the wisest response.  I figured I’d have to fake the serious scientist bit, and tell them about the male of every species wanting to pass on his genetic heritage.  I took a breath and wiped the sweat off my neck.

“Ah, so, see, the male animals are hoping to pass on the, um, the genes, and the, um, their, ya know, they want to be the ones who have their…..characteristics, and, like…..”  I stammered along, with literally no idea of where to go next.

I was saved from total fake-outery, though, when a shrill voice began to scream, “Another frog!!!  Another frog!!! Its a fight!!!!”

Everyone raced to the edge of the boardwalk, me included, peering into the murky greenish brown bubbles of the little pond.  Sure enough, another bug eyed green frog had appeared on the scene, and seemed to be determined to beat the living crap out of the frog in the “topside” position. As we all looked on in amazement, Mr. Newcomer opened his mouth as wide as he could and attempted to tear the head of Mr. Happy-on-top. There was a collective gasp from the mesmerized kids, and someone said reverently, “Whoah!  That dude means business!”

For the next thirty minutes, the entire class watched the drama unfolding before us.  No one seemed to give a hoot about genetics or natural selection.  But they were completely captivated by the mating ritual in the water. I’m not at all sure of what they learned, but I’ve never seen fifth graders demonstrate better focus and attention. I can still hear those excited voices, echoing over the water.

“I think the males are the ones who sing out of that big bubble on their throats.”

“But they’re all singing.”

“So which one is the female?”

“I still think they’re playing leapfrog.”

“Dude. That’s just dumb!”

“Well, why do you think they gave it that name then? It’s definitely leapfrog.”

“Naw, he’s trying to kill the other guy!”

“Frog kissing frog on hims head.” (This from a student who speaks little English).

“This is the coolest thing ever!”

“What, frog sex?”

“Duuuuude!”

“It isn’t sex. It’s mating.”

“I think that might be the same thing.”

That was the part where I rang the bell.  Really loud.  “OK!” I said in happy teacher voice. “Time to go inside!”

Next year, I think I’ll check out the pond to make sure its all G rated before I take the kids outside to observe nature.

11 thoughts on “Frog Fights and Teachable Moments

  1. What a well-told, inspiring, and hilarious story. Your students will retell the events and laugh about this day for many years to come. You have given them an amazing memory AND a great science lesson to boot!

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    • Well, honestly, Jamie, I’m not sure that they grasped either the hilarity or the sanctity of the moment! But I sure do hope you’re right, because it was an afternoon to remember, for sure!

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  2. Thanks for taking off some of the burden of explaining the birds and the bees AND THE FROGS to one of the boys in your class. Reminds me of what happened when my girls were young and the cat, in heat, got out. We observed the proceedings from the window as she was “courted” by a passionate male feline. “What that cat doing to Honey?” asked my young daughter. “Hmmm, ahhhhh, just playing,” was my answer. LOL

    Like

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