Publication Date: 2004-10-17
Mary Bencini needs no introduction. She tells it all in this account: Mary Bencini is a teacher, not a cog in an information delivery system shipped out from the Business Roundtable.
"Ms. Bencini, Hairy Guy is upside down and not moving!" Jake and Hunter yelled out to me last Thursday morning.
Hairy Guy is our classroom's beloved pet tarantula, which I inherited four years ago. I rushed over and sure enough Hairy Guy was completely upside down and motionless. There was also a white web spun around his body.
I announced to the class that unfortunately Hairy Guy had died. The kids were all very sad and crowded around Hairy Guy's aquarium home to pay their last respects. I told the kids that at lunchtime, we would take Hairy Guy back to the woods behind the school to buy him under the newly fallen fall leaves.
I too felt sad because I had grown used to having this creature in our classroom.
When I turned 40, I promised myself not to have any more gerbils, fish, bunnies, lizards, hamsters, or any other living creatures (other than kids) in my second grade
classroom. However, I decided to break my promise and invite Hairy Guy to be part of our class. I found out that this tarantula was very low-maintenance, and an interesting creature for kids to watch. Kids loved the opportunity to
sit at the back table where Hairy Guy's aquarium home is. They talked to him in whispers, greeted him in the morning, loved watching Hairy crawl about in the aquarium. They were fascinated when Hairy climbed the glass walls and hung upside down from the screen top, ate live crickets, and they missed Hairy Guy when he took mini vacations to visit the kindergarten and second
grade classrooms in our school. They even included Hairy Guy in the stories they wrote in their journals. Even though no one ever touched Hairy Guy, they loved this quiet, interesting, and creepy looking creature.
At noontime everyone crowded around Hairy's cage as I bravely and cautiously attempted to scoop our tarantula into the small red basket, which would carry Hairy's body to his final resting place. I had never touched Hairy when he was alive, and I didn't want to touch him when he was dead! All of a sudden, one of Hairy Guy's legs moved. "He's alive!" someone shouted. I
jumped back in alarm and assured the kids that someone must have shaken the table.
I attempted to scoop Hairy into the basket a second time, and then to my surprise all of Hairy's legs started waving back and forth! "HAIRY'S ALIVE! HAIRY'S ALIVE!" the second graders started chanting. "It's a good thing we didn't bury Hairy alive in the woods," someone added.
I was amazed because indeed Hairy Guy was still alive. However, I told the kids that chances were slim that our tarantula would fully recover because he looked very weak and sick. All afternoon, kids kept watching for any more signs of life from Hairy, but he just lay motionless and upside down in his aquarium. Even though Hairy looked bad,the kids all knew that Hairy's
would fully recover because second graders are always full of hope. I just knew that we would be burying Hairy Guy the first thing Friday morning.
After I dismissed the kids for the day and walked the kids to their buses, I looked over at Hairy Guy. I did a double take because there were TWO Hairy Guys side by side in the aquarium. I remembered reading somewhere that
tarantulas molted, so I rushed off to the library to find a book so I could read more about the habits of tarantulas. I learned that indeed, Hairy was alive, and because his exoskeleton had become too small for his body, he had shed it. It was amazing to see how perfectly this creature had done this task. It was difficult to determine what was the exoskeleton and what was Hairy Guy.
Nowhere in the book could I find out what I should do with the discarded exoskeleton. I didn't know whether to leave it in the cage for Hairy guy to eat or take it out. So, I went on the internet to find out. I typed in
"tarantulas and molting" and twenty-one pages came up on google.com for me to check out. There is even a professionally done web page
( http://www.tarantulas.com ) for tarantula enthusiasts. One can become a member, join a forum, post a question, buy a tarantula, do research, and even win prizes at this web site.
I e-mailed one of the members to find out
what to do with the exoskeleton, and he immediately e-mailed me back the answer. The internet is so amazing!
The kids were so excited Friday when they discovered Hairy Guy's feat. We spent most of the morning reading books about tarantulas and examining Hairy Guy's discarded exoskeleton. I wish that we could have had school Thursday
afternoon and Friday too so that this powerful learning could have continued without interruption. Some of the interesting tarantula information we found out was:
1)Tarantulas are part of the Hairy Mygalomorph family of spiders, which have existed for millions of years.
2) In the millions of years tarantulas have been on earth, they have changed very little.
3) There are over 700 species of tarantulas in the world. 30 species live in the United States.
4) In the 1300's there was a law in Taranto, Italy forbidding dancing. This law angered the local peasants, so they claimed that they had been bitten by a big, hairy spider and had to do a wild dance to sweat out the spider's venom.
Thus, tarantulas are named after this small town in Italy.
5) Tarantulas hunt at night. They eat insects, especially beetles, grasshoppers, and crickets. Giant jungle tarantulas eat frogs, lizards, snakes, and baby birds. Tarantulas cannot see very well, so they feel the ground vibrate, run towards the vibrations and grab the prey with their pedipalps.
6) Male tarantulas molt until they are fully
grown, around 10 to 12 years. Female
tarantulas continue to molt after they are grown, and can live up to 25 years.
7) Big, hairy tarantulas look frightening, but they are really shy, peaceful creatures. Tarantulas will only bite people if they are treated roughly. Their bites hurt about as much as a bee sting.
If you want to find out even more about tarantulas, check out books at the
public library or go to
The story of Hairy Guy shows how children learn about what interests them and what is important in their lives. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that we would be learning about tarantulas last week, but I believe that the most powerful learning is about authentic experiences and also about subjects we care about. The kids will always remember what they learned about tarantulas because of Hairy Guy.
Our learning about tarantulas reminded me of a poem I read a couple of years ago written by a teacher. I keep a copy of this poem in the back of my planning book to remind me to always keep the interests and "wonderings" of children as an integral part of our classroom curriculum. It also reminds me how important it is to give kids lots of time. Time is one of the most important gifts I can give them. When I give children time to learn about what interests them, it is the most powerful kind of learning. Thank you, Hairy Guy!
By Clydia Forehand
"Hurry up, children; don't lag behind."
"Please face the front; please stay in line."
"We've all got to hurry. We must take a test"
"And hope we are better than even the best."
'Way at the back, a young girl on her knees
Was not facing front; she was looking at leaves.
There on the ground, she held one to see
She looked at it closely; looked up at the trees.
"Miss Giffrey, Miss Giffrey, could you tell me how"
"This leaf is so different from that one. Right now?"
"Miss Giffrey, Miss Giffrey, I just want to know"
"Why do leaves fall?" And "How do trees grow?"
Miss Giffrey was saddened; she wanted to teach.
She wanted to show them the veins in the leaf
The wonders of chlorophyll; osmosis, too.
Instead she said, "Please do as I asked you to."
The child put the leaf down and stood in the line.
They all had to hurry; it was almost time.
The schedules were set; the test was at nine.
"Hurry up, children; don't lag behind."
They all took the test; they did pretty well.
Their scores became data; not stories to tell.
Somebody, someplace, entered those scores
And somebody, someplace, compiled a report.
Miss Giffrey's and all other classes that year
Were ranked in an order that made it quite clear
Who were the winners and who was in trouble
And who'd better make better scores in the future.
Miss Giffrey did well; the report in the paper
Made her and her class and her school look quite able
To teach things that mattered; to make sure kids learned
And like every story, this one's pages turned.
The child in the back, who had looked at the leaf;
Been told not to dawdle; been taught not to see.
Grew to adulthood, a product of schools
That taught how to test and to follow the rules.
Miss Giffrey kept teaching; but teaching had changed
There were scripts now to follow. 'Please don't deviate.'
Said the words in bold print at the top of each page
'Take the lessons in order, teach the lessons the same.'
Test scores were rising, and, each year, believe me
Everyone said how much kids were achieving
"They're learning so much" People said to each other.
It's so good to know now that schools aren't in trouble.
And Sarah, that young girl who'd once found the leaf,
Soon learned not to look; soon learned not to see.
Like everyone else, she walked in a line.
'Cause she had been taught she could not lag behind.
There are so many children, from so many places
To test for conformity really erases.
All that they are; all that they dream
All that they look for and all that they see.
Taught not to question; taught not to ask.
Stay in your seat; stick to the task.
Each one so different; each boy and each girl.
They are lag behind children in a hurry up world.
Clydia Forehand teaches music at Grissom Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and
is studying for her Ph.D. in Educational Studies at the University of Oklahoma at Norman.