Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Power Of Penguins

As a district administrator, I often don't get to visit classrooms as often as I'd like. Recently, however I've been getting several requests from principals and primary teachers to come visit classrooms. The secret behind my new found popularity - penguins! For the past three years my wife and I have journeyed deep into the southern hemisphere to find penguins in their native habitat; first to the Antarctic south of Argentina then to the sub-antarctic islands of New Zealand and this year to the windswept Falkland Islands.  The eco-tourist companies running each tour made certain participants took only pictures and left very few footprints. As a result, I now have well over 2000 pictures of nine different species of penguins.

What I hadn't counted on is the popularity of penguins. The penguin unit is already a favourite with Kindergarten and primary classes. There's just something about the stubby little flightless bipedal birds that makes kids smile. Whether its their sharp black and white attire, their awkward gait on land, their apparent fearlessness and curious natures, or their fluid grace in the water, nearly everyone holds penguins in some regard. Penguin resources abound on the net. Teachers Corner and Penguin Science are just two of many amazing and rich web resources available.

Popular culture embraces penguins too. Movies like "Happy Feet", its sequel "Happy Feet 2", documentaries like "March of the Penguins" or the BBC's Lonely Planet,  are all good box office. As far back as Disney's "Mary Poppins" or as recently as the "Penguins of Madagascar" animated penguins continue to amuse. The venerable "Mr. Popper's Penguins" (now a live action motion picture), first published in 1938, is still being read by and to students.

So when teachers heard there might be a live "penguin person" in district, the requests started coming. My teaching experience is mostly in  secondary English, so facing groups of up to 40 kindergarten students was a bit unnerving. What if I bored them? What if my pictures didn't interest them? Its a bit of a risk as Assistant Superintendent if you put yourself out there and then flop! 

The good news - I think my presentations are going OK. I'm still getting requests. And the kindergarten kids are great. I've refined my lessons based on the feedback the students (and their teachers) give me. Rather than just show pictures and talk, now we learn to walk like penguins, we've made and enjoyed penguin cookies and we've explored "action research" on such probing questions as "do penguins have knees?" and "could polar bears and penguins ever meet?" Students do penguin art and consider penguin adaptations to snow ice and water. Most of all, we've had fun while learning. When I go back to schools after speaking on penguins students may not remember my name, but they do remember I'm "the penguin man" and they are excited to tell me what else they've learned. Their teachers do a great job before, and after my visit.

So I say, "more power to the penguins!". Any animal that can get me out of the office and sharing with students must have special powers. I'm already looking forward to going south again so I'll have new information to share in the future. Normally, I used to find business attire a bit restrictive but now, I look forward donning my black and white "penguin suit". (I just wish I wasn't quite so well shaped to play the part!).

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