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Extinction & the First Grade

Wednesday morning, Peter and I give a presentation on extinct species to his first grade class. Peter's been looking forward to this for months, and did some fine drawings that we could use. Topics of our previous presentations for his class include:

  • frogs (I brought our Australian White's tree frogs to school);
  • fossils (David bought someone's collection of fossils at a yard sale, which I have augmented);
  • the human brain (we have a model brain and I even made up a version of "Head, shoulders, knees, & toes" that begins cerebellum, frontal lobes, frontal lobes . . .);
  • and last time my dad, John Cramer, taught the kids about electricity and magnetism and told them about why he decided to become a scientist, resulting in several of the kids afterwards saying they wanted to be scientists when they grow up).
The schools around here benefit from a lot of this sort of thing, since there are a lot of high-powered parents out here. Looking through photos in the lobby of the kids' preschool, I saw pictures of one of the other parents, children's book author and illustrator Matthew Van Fleet, in a preschool classroom showing the art from one of his books and telling a story.

At Readercon last year, I moderated a panel (that I had also suggested) about the joys and challenges of intellectual life with small children:

[#45]Sat 10:00aF
Does Your Baby Make You Smarter? Kathryn Cramer (M), Samuel R. Delany, Alexander C. Irvine, James Morrow, Kit Reed, Katya Reimann. Kathryn Cramer says: "The conventional wisdom is that having a baby wrecks your career and halves your I.Q., but I think the reality is much more interesting." The pitfalls are often discussed, but what are the benefits to the creative process of having a small child in your life? Can simply talking and reading with a child on a regular basis change the way you approach your art? Do such activities actually change your brain as well as your child's?

It went very well and several people told me that it had really affected them. A male author who had been reluctant to have children despite his wife's desires had decided to agree that they should start trying.

When he was about two, and already very interested in animals, Peter got hooked on the subject of extinct species by the book Gone Forever!: An Alphabet of Extinct Animals. My mother was visiting and we went to Borders with Peter. We were shopping for books for him when he brought us, one by one, every copy of Gone Forever in the store. We took the hint and bought him the book. He loved the book but wanted more information on the animals in it, some of which -- the quagga, for example -- I'd never heard of.

The experience with Peter and what I learned about recent extinctions and attempts to clone extinct species inspired me to write the story "Disextinction, Inc.," published in the Futures column in Nature in 2000 as part of their millennial series of science fiction short-shorts, and available on the web from Fantastic Metropolis.

It seems to me that there are two main approaches to maintaining an intellectual life while caring for small children: compartmentalization and a more go-with-the-flow & learn-from-the-experience way of doing things. For better or worse, I've taken the latter approach. And while it can be tremendously inefficient, I've found pursuing topics that emerge from the interests of my children energizing and illuminating.

So there we were, Peter and I, in his classroom with a box we brought full of stuff to teach them about. I didn't know exactly what we needed to cover, since I was so used to my own very knowledgeable child that I was no longer in touch with what ordinary bright first graders knew about extinct species. In addition to an assemblage of Peter's toys, I brought a pile of beautiful books, including:

  • Rosamond Purcell's Swift as a Shadow. Purcell is a museum photographer with a loving and compassionate eye for her subject matter. The book is a compilation of museum specimens of extinct and endangered animals.
  • A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World's Extinct Animals by Tim F. Flannery, Peter Schouten: A beautiful pictorial book with recent extinctions in chronological order.
  • Errol Fuller's marvelously obsessive The Great Auk, in which he compiles most of what it known about the great auk. He has, for example, photos of all the known stuffed specimens and all the extant great auk eggs. In an interview about the book that I can't lay hands on just now, Fuller remarks estimates he spent about $200,000 of his own money on work on the book, a sum he's astonished he was able to come by honestly.

Our presentation ended up being quite concise. From a first grade perspective, extinction was something that happened only to dinosaurs. Together, Peter and I changed that point of view, acquainting them with fascinating animals recently gone extinct: the thylacine, the great auk, the quagga, the moa. At the end, I asked what people could do about the problem of extinctions. One eager boy, raising his hand urgently until I called on him, answered "Form an angry mob!" Then I read them my story "Disextinction, Inc." and discussed with them that they could become scientists and work on the problem of extinctions. Earlier in the presentation, I had explained the difference between and extinct species (the thylacine) and an extinct subspecies (the quagga), and told them about the quagga breeding project, and how they were rebreeding an extinct subspecies. (Look at this picture to see what they've been able to do.) I told them about extinct species cloning projects, but also explained that the very best way to deal with extinctions was not to let animals become extinct in the first place. (And indeed, forming an angry mob might work better than some more scientific approaches.)

Overall, I found it the most satisfying of the presentations I've given. The message was clear and was not one they will forget. I left the books there for the class to look at over the course of the day.