Turtle Talks

Showing the turtle

Showing the turtle

… and frogs and toads and snakes. O, my! Showing the Gulf Branch Nature Center reptiles to the birthday party attendees has been an absolute blast for me. As a former teacher, I really appreciate being able to enjoy the instructional part without the daily toil. Each party is different, as are the parents and the children. The children vary in ages from 3-6 and sometimes their older siblings come along as well.

Before the children and parents arrive, I decorate the room with posters and pictures available at the center and put up the “Private—Birthday Party” sign. I gather the materials that I intend to use for the talks on a table in the front of the room and place a cloth over them to keep the children from playing with them. The center provides puppets, skeletons, models, and other audiovisual aids to help the kids learn about the life cycle of the different reptiles and amphibians. The one they seem to like the most is the frog croak identifier. Pushing a button elicits the different calls of the specific frog. I let the kids take turns pushing the buttons. At a frog and toad talk, which was a Princess and the Frog theme with all little girls, I had the girls make “frog eggs’ with water and dish soap. They blew bubbles through a straw to make the eggs.

Some parents bring activities to start the party, such as assembling binoculars made from toilet paper tubes or string toss toys. At one party, the parents even brought in a face painter. The parents bring their own party decorations, delectable snacks, and cake. As the kids arrive, I ask them to make up name tags for themselves so I can call out their names during the talk.

The hardest thing is getting them to understand a skeleton. The children always ask if it’s alive. I have to tell them it died, then explain soft tissue and hard tissue. It’s a little sad. I try to point out the similarities to humans that the animals have. I emphasize their abilities and adaptation to their their habitat. Bringing out the live animals for the kids to touch is the pièce de résistance. Their eyes light up, their necks stretch up, and they sit forward. Some are a bit  squeamish, especially around the snake. The snake inspires giggles and snickers when he tries to crawl to the warmest spot on my body. I’ll give you a moment to think where that is. For the frog and toad talks, I can only bring out the toad. The frog leaps into walls, tables, chairs, people. It can elicit squeals of delight and fear, but it’s not good for the frog. Since the animals are adapted to humans, they are very active. The turtles never go into their shells, so I have to use the puppet to demonstrate that ability. Sometimes the parents get involved, as well, which is great. I have also taken to bringing my iPad to show YouTube videos that show the animals in the wild.

Of course, after the talks there’s the cleanup. Some parents invite me to join the party, which I should probably pass up. But who can resist cake? I have a great time and the parents and center staff are very helpful and appreciative. So if you’re considering a birthday party for your children, check your local nature center for availability. You would be amazed what they have there.

These talks are part of my certification program for the Arlington Regional Master Naturalists. The program requires 40 volunteer hours and 8 continuing education hours to receive certification, but I would still do it without the requirement.


Preventing Another Sandy Hook

I can’t look at the pictures of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newton, Connecticut without my eyes brimming with tears. Now from every corner someone blows in with solutions, theories on why it happened, what could have been done to prevent it, who’s at fault:  ‘We need better gun regulation’;  ‘God and the Bible should return to the classroom’; ‘teachers should carry guns’;’improve the mental health system.’ Reading the few articles that I can bear, I have determined that, among them, only better gun regulation may have prevented this slaughter. As we saw occur on the same day in China, where a madman attacked students and teachers with a knife, everyone lived.

The Second Amendment

I agree completely that assault rifles should be removed from store shelves and not available for general use. Writers of our second amendment could not foresee the decline in gun use throughout the nation, leaving unarmed individuals vulnerable. When the amendment was formulated, the founders perceived that a defenseless population would be doomed to capture by an occupying force. Everyone who owned a gun taught their children how to use and respect them. Banning assault rifles may not have prevented the tragedy, but it certainly would have reduced the casualties.

God and the Bible in the Classroom

Perhaps we do need God and the Bible, but I don’t see that as a winnable dispute. What we do need and a battle that could be won is to promote better cooperation between teachers and parents. When I was teaching and called the parents to talk about their children, I was told time and again that it was my fault. The teaching colleges, school administrators, and fellow faculty members encourage this view. If parents do not demand respect at home, the teacher is faced with an ongoing contest for the children’s attention and deference. I saw the difference between the two. It was huge and directly impacted the children’s behavior in the classroom.

Teachers Should Carry Guns

This proposition is absolutely ludicrous. Guns are not permitted on school campuses anyway and keeping them out of the hands of students would mean that teachers would have difficulty getting access in an emergency, besides anyone who has ever been a teacher can tell you that students would crack that security in no time at all.

Improve the Mental Health System

I worked at the Veterans Administration psychiatric hospital when I witnessed the ‘lunatics’ being released from the ‘asylum.’ Many of these former patients became the mentally ill homeless who accosted people on the streets.

From what I read about the mother, she wasn’t open to outside interference in her home life and she alone would have been responsible for having him committed. It appears that the boy was never in a school long enough to be referred for treatment. If he had been, I’m sure the mother would have prevented it.

Another problem with that argument is: how do we remove the stigma of psychiatric treatment? I sought and received treatment for depression. If I told anyone about it, they looked at me with fear, as though I would become one of those maniacs who would gun people down in a fit of anger. It became a part of my permanent personnel record, because not revealing it could have resulted in my being fired. I believe it played a role in my being able to receive a promotion at the institution where I worked. The general population needs to recognize the wisdom of seeking treatment.

Possible Solutions

I think we should start with regulating automatic rifles and handguns, then begin the longer and much more difficult task of demanding respect from our children. Educating people about mental illness should also be a priority.