Curiosity and Confidence: First Graders Lead Native Animal Presentations

First grade students at Mount Madonna School (MMS) are engaging in an integrated native animal study involving hands-on learning and student-led research. 

They first spent several weeks learning the scientific terminology that they would need in order to conduct their own research, such as differentiating between carnivores, herbivores and omnivores, predators and prey. 

“They learned to classify animals and the attributes that make mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles,” said first grade teacher Cassia Laffin. “They learned vocabulary such as ‘diurnal,’ ‘nocturnal,’ ‘crepuscular,’ ‘food chain’ and ‘habitat’.”

Then students each picked a California native animal to research. Some of the chosen animals were banana slugs, deer, western rattlesnakes, kingsnakes and hawks. 

Their learning came to life when a MMS alum Tyler Sullens (‘16) visited the classroom to teach the students about native snakes and introduced them to his snake friends “Zed” and “Stanley.” 

“We had a handful of students who felt nervous about snakes and yet all students worked up the courage to touch them,” Laffin said.

Students also enjoyed a field trip to the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum, where they observed a collection of animal skulls and learned to identify the attributes of their teeth to classify them. 

All of this learning went into the student’s presentations. The students were encouraged to research the animal’s habitat, diet, mating patterns, lifespan, and other facts that piqued their interest. They composed their findings for an oral presentation that they gave to their classmates, as well as to the second grade and kindergarten classes.

“Every animal has its own adaptation. In other words, every animal has a power. For example, a beaver’s tail helps it to ‘drive’ in the water,” said Ben Piccardo, first grade student. 

“I liked when we did the food chains and animal reports, because we learned all about predators and prey,” said classmate Leanna Malhotra. 

“It did my heart so good to see them sharing their knowledge with others, and to continue growing in confidence, while strengthening their relationships with students from other grades close to their own,” said Laffin. “Thank you, Mount Madonna School for this wonderful opportunity to create bonds between grade levels.”

The students are also working on making their own native animal books with all of this learning documented for them to take home, share with their families and keep.

“Allowing students to share something they work hard on helps them to learn from each other and connect with and to others and their ways of thinking and areas of expertise. We are all teachers in first grade,” Laffin said.


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,  

Nestled among the redwoods on 375 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a diverse learning community dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believes a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.