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First-graders Flip for Penguins

Becky DeVito knew she was onto something when she began to hear stories from former Bushnell Elementary School students. Kinda hard to forget those memorable penguin stories, students told DeVito, a first-grade teacher at the school.

So instead of focusing on a different animal, DeVito said she’s stuck with teaching her classes about the waddling, flightless birds that feed their young by regurgitating food into their mouths, who can stay underwater for 15 minutes without batting a stubby little wing and who love sliding down icy slopes of the Southern Hemisphere (mostly).

Teachers Becky DeVito, left, and Susan Pomper

DeVito teaches about penguins as part of the school’s habitat curriculum. Students do research, create maps, view photos and build boxed habitat scenes that include cotton balls as snow, homemade sharks, rocks and a handful of other items related to the birds that live mostly in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Antarctica.

DeVito said there’s something about the ways of penguins that is memorable to students. In fact, she said she’s run into students from 20 years ago who still remember what they learned about penguins in her class.

“It’s a fascinating animal to them,” DeVito said. “It’s an odd bird and kids just seem to have an interest.”

Students, Parents on Board with Penguins

The idea of learning about an animal that sometimes lives on blocks of ice in colonies of thousands is a hit with both students and parents. Megan Hill, whose daughter Kirsten is in the first grade, said Kirsten comes home from school daily with different penguin stories.

“She’s excited about them, she wants to learn about them,” Hill said. “We pulled out our encyclopedia at home and looked them up. I think a lot (of the interest) has to do with the funny things they do. I think the kids can relate to some of that.”

Nico VanderJagt shows off her penguin habitat scene

First-grader Nico VanderJagt, who has three geckos, a dog and a cat at home, said she’s learned “a lot of stuff” about penguins: for example, that they love to eat small crustaceans called krill, are too fat to fly — not to mention that their flippers make them better swimmers — and that some species have markings that resemble chin straps.

First-grader Natalie VanderWilp said she was surprised to learn there are 17 different penguin species, including the Emperor bird, which is the largest penguin, and the most recognizable with white triangular patches above the eyes.

Susan Pomper also teaches the penguin curriculum at Bushnell. She said it’s no secret why students seem to gravitate toward learning about them.

“Once you get to know them, they’re fascinating,” she said. “They’re tough but cute.”


Facts about Penguins


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