Squid dissection brings reading unit to life for WCSD third-graders

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One glance at the language arts wall in Jami Patton’s third-grade class at Wilder Elementary and the students knew the next text they’d be covering in their language arts lesson. Under the words “We Are Reading” is a picture of the book “Giant Squid: Searching for a Sea Monster.”

Before Patton could dive into the nonfiction chapter book, several students had a pressing question:

“When do we get to dissect the giant squid?”

Giant Squid is the last book in the unit and several district elementaries included the dissection activity this year to increase student engagement and provide background knowledge. 

For two days, Patton, along with fellow third-grade teachers Justice Crank, Beth O’Reilly, Rachel Shoemaker and Missy Callow, explored the Giant Squid book by Mary M. Cerullo and Clyde F. E. Roper. It features informational text, photos and drawings about the search for the giant squid and recent discoveries. 

On Monday, they capped off the lesson with a hands-on opportunity that brought what they read to life.

“Many of our students have never been to an aquarium to see a squid, so it was important to us to provide the experience for them,” Patton said.

As part of the Wit and Wisdom language arts curriculum, third-grade classrooms across the district kicked off the school year studying why people explore the sea. Students examined literature, informational texts and art to understand how scientists use technology to discover new species and how poets and writers explore the sea through words and images. 

“We wanted students to be able to understand the parts of the squid that we have been reading about — from being able to actually experience cutting the mantle apart, opening up the tentacles to find the beak,” Patton said. 

“It makes it so much more meaningful to them than just reading it in a book.”

The dissection activity also helps students better understand the focus question for the lesson: How and why do scientists explore sea creatures? 

For their dissection, students manned aprons and gloves while they handled the preserved squids. With their teachers’ guidance and a video as reference, students used disposable scalpels to open the body of the squid and plastic forceps to explore its internal anatomy and identify parts such as its gills, branchial hearts, ink sac and beak. 

For many of them, it was their first experience with a squid — from seeing one in person to handling it. Several were squeamish about touching it but most explored the dissection with fascination. 

“As our students began their dissection, they were able to see how each of their investigations could lead to more information about the squid, its relatives, and about its food chain and food web,” O’Reilly said. “Their questioning and responses showed me that they were really becoming scientists.”

Wilder teachers introduced the activity for the first time last year after learning about it on a Wit and Wisdom Facebook group for third-grade educators. The dissection was so popular in the building that this year’s third graders inquired about it earlier in the year.

“This is something that we hope each student, both last year's and this year's, will remember about third grade,” Patton said. “I also hope that students realize that this is a career that they could have as well if they choose to continue to take science classes through high school and college.”