Banana Slugs and Rubber Boas: First Graders Share Native Animal Research

Banana slugs, opossums, rubber boas, skunks and coyotes are some of the animals that Mount Madonna School (MMS) first graders can tell you a lot about, following several weeks of semi-independent research and presentations to their classmates.  

‘Students love animals,’ commented first grade teacher Cassia Laffin. ‘When teachers take something students already love and ask them to answer questions they may never have thought about, this is where learning occurs. I am excited for us to learn about the animals in our backyard. To learn how to categorize animals by what they eat, to recognize that animals are suited for their environments and have different skin coverings and adaptations that help them survive in the wild. Academically, this project ties into a broader curriculum of understanding ourselves, others and the surrounding environment.’

‘I studied the coyote,’ said first grader Luc Mattern. ‘Its name means ‘trickster’ in Spanish. They live in burrows in the ground. Once they were awake in the daytime, but now are mostly nocturnal because of peoples’ presence. They can have 1 to 19 babies, but usually 6.’

‘Wow!’ said classmate Kinsey Don Carlos. ‘I never knew they could have so many babies!’

Students presented reports on chosen animals — this was the explicit curriculum — and also demonstrated their understanding of the implicit curriculum embedded in the activity: learning how to do academic research, developing time management skills and practicing public speaking, including eye contact, speaking voice and body language.

‘Opossums are marsupials,’ shared student Benny Babcock. ‘They are the only marsupial that lives in the United States. They are omnivores and can have twelve babies. To help them survive, they’ve learned to become strong swimmers and how to ‘play dead’. Their babies are smaller than a jellybean when they are first born!’

‘I love all the learning that goes on, but developing confidence and giving students opportunities to learn from one another is my main objective,’ Laffin explained. ‘Listening to students ask questions at the end, and the presenters give their answers is when I can really see how well they grasp what they have learned. I want to instill a sense of comfort through practice and a supportive classroom environment where children feel listened to and competent in their speaking and communication abilities.’

The project met several life science standards, and required students to gather factual information and photographs. Most used computers and the internet, while some, with Laffin’s encouragement, visited a public library to find other resources. For first graders, the project also began their familiarity with the process of how to research and write reports, a skill they will be building on for many years to come.


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, Markeeting & Communications, [email protected]

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 mountaintop acres, Mount Madonna is a safe and nurturing college-preparatory school that supports students in becoming caring, self-aware and articulate critical thinkers, who are prepared to meet challenges with perseverance, creativity and integrity. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville.