Madison Early Childhood Center
The Bat Project took place at the Madison Early Childhood Center, which serves students ages 3 through 5 in morning and afternoon sessions. Funding is provided by the local school district, the statewide Preschool for All program, and tuition.
Twenty-six students from both the morning and afternoon sessions participated in the project. Ten of those students have IEPs, four are English language learners, and four are funded through the statewide Preschool for All grant. The Bat Project lasted nine weeks.
Phase 1: Beginning the Project
Prior to starting the project, I (Susan Salem, an early childhood special education teacher) invited our instructional coach, Sarah Pappas, to co-teach with me. I needed help narrowing down a topic related to animals and with starting our initial web. She joined me during circle time when the class talked about what types of animals they were interested in learning more about. We made a chart to record their ideas and to help us make connections between students who shared the same idea as a peer. When a student had an idea that had already been recorded, I added a tally mark to signify that another person had the same idea.
As we were discussing animals, a student noticed that a teacher was wearing a Batman Band-Aid on her finger. The student said, “Batman!” and the teacher asked, “Is Batman an animal?” Several students started talking among themselves and commented that a bat is an animal. Students also noted times they had seen bats. One student said, “I saw one on my roof one time!” and another student added, “They are in my neighborhood.” Since it was apparent throughout the conversation that many students were interested in bats, the teacher asked, “Should we add bats to our list?”
Next, we created a topic web about bats. Students shared what they knew: Bats fly at night, bats have different body parts, and bats hang upside down. Even though students didn’t have a significant amount of background knowledge, it became clear they were very interested in learning more about bats. They started asking questions while we were webbing, and we recorded them: What do you call a group of bats flying together? Where do bats live? What do they eat? Where do they fly?
My expectation for this project was to use the questions that the students asked to help drive my lesson planning. I felt excited to start the project because I knew the students had asked great questions that could lead to even more curiosity about bats. Based on my bat knowledge, I also knew there was a lot of great content for the students to learn as we did more research about bats. It also was helpful to have our instructional coach, Sarah, guide the original discussion. Sarah came in our room periodically to help students engage in their investigations and supported me as I had questions about working through the project phases.
To start our bat project, I read the students a nonfiction book about bats that had a lot of detailed pictures. We first did a picture walk of the book so the students could take their time to look at the pictures, describe what they saw, and ask questions. I recorded their questions on Post-its and added them to the chart as they arose. Their questions were: How do bats use their nose? What is in a bat wing? How do bats sleep? (See Figure 1.)
Next, I created a shared reading experience for my class using a poem I found on Pinterest from KinderByKim called “Bippity Boppity Boo!” (see Figure 2). The focus of the poem was on name identification and rhyming. The students loved this poem and asked to read it over and over. I added a felt bat to make the poem interactive. The students flew the bat to each other as their name came up in the poem. This interaction kept their engagement and excitement about bats high!
I did some research and gathered materials so I would be prepared to answer their questions when students began to dig deeper into the project. I brought in a variety of fiction and nonfiction books about bats from the school library and the community library. They were available for students in the classroom library. This area quickly became a high-interest center because students were so eager to read about bats.
One day at circle I asked the students if they knew what you call someone who studies bats. The students were not sure. I then shared with them the name chiropterologist. We clapped out the syllables and practiced saying the word many times. I told the students they were becoming chiropterologists and they were going to study bats and find the answers to their questions, just like a chiropterologist does. I felt this gave the students ownership and made them feel their research and work on the investigation was very important!
We read the book There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Bat (2002) by Lucille Colandro, and used a comprehension-building activity (Erin From Creating and Teaching) for students to sequence the story in order of what she swallowed (see Figure 3). I introduced this activity in large group, and then it was available during centers. This book also connected the students back to one of their original questions: What do bats eat?
Through reading nonfiction books, we realized that some bats eat bugs and some bats eat fruit. We also learned that there are two types of bats: microbats and megabats. The students were fascinated by this information. To help them differentiate between the two types, we created gestures and a deep voice to use when saying “megabat” and a different gesture and a tiny voice to use when saying “microbat.” This interest led to our class learning that the smallest bat is called a bumblebee bat and it is the size of a thumb. The largest bat is called a flying fox.
To help students answer their question about where bats live, I brought in two pictures that showed bats in a cave and bats in a tree. In the original topic web, one student said they thought bats lived in trees, but other students disagreed, which made it an interesting question to research. The pictures helped the students learn that bats live in both trees and caves. As a class, we talked about how we could make our dramatic play area look more like a bat habitat. Students instantly suggested a cave because we already had a pretend tree in our classroom. This led to the creation of a bat cave in our dramatic play center.
To create the bat cave, we took a huge cardboard box, and the students painted one side black to represent the darkness inside the cave, and they painted the outside gray to represent stone (see Figure 4).
Once the cardboard was painted, we folded the box into the shape of a cave. I added netting, bat costumes, chiropterologist lab coats, bat photographs, magnifying glasses, a pretend computer, nonfiction bat books, measuring tape, white boards, and dry erase markers. All of these materials allowed the students to role play either being a bat in the cave or a chiropterologist studying bats (see Figure 5).
Once we learned about the different types of food that microbats and megabats ate, we added those foods to the center.
To deepen students’ understanding of how bats get their food, I showed them a slow-motion video of a bat using its wing to scoop up insects. We read Amazing Bats (2005) by Seymour Simon and learned that the amount of insects bats eat is comparable to humans eating 20 pizzas in one night. I then played an audio recording of a bat using echolocation to find food. I was amazed at how quiet the students were as they listened carefully to hear each bat squeak. Each time they heard a sound they would get very excited, but would then quickly quiet down to hear the next sound.
We also learned that not all bats use echolocation. For example, megabats, which eat fruit, do not use echolocation. The students used this knowledge, including the word echolocation, to enhance their pretend play in the dramatic play center. Students would pretend to be microbats by making a screech sound and then the students pretending to be a chiropterologist knew to feed them bugs.
The students’ dramatic play reflected their deepening knowledge about bats. For example, I observed a student dressed as a chiropterologist use a measuring tape to measure the wingspan of a fellow student dressed as a bat.
This led to a new question: How long is a bat’s wingspan? We researched and found out that the largest recorded wingspan for a bat is 6 feet. Next, I created paper bat wings that were 6 feet long and attached them to a bulletin board as a reference. I used tape to measure and record how long each student’s “wingspan” was. We added the tape to the bulletin board so students could compare their wingspan to the bat’s (see Figure 7).
To get the families involved from the beginning, I sent home a newsletter explaining that our class would be doing a project about bats, and I gave some examples of ways parents could help support the project at home. As the project developed, I shared information with families about the new vocabulary and important knowledge their children had learned about bats so they could talk with their child at home to extend their learning. I also asked parents to help their children look for bats in their neighborhood at night.
I wanted all my students to have the opportunity to see a real bat during this project, but our options for fieldwork and guest experts were limited. I ordered a preserved bat specimen for the classroom (see Figure 8).
Through this bat specimen, students were able to closely examine the body parts and describe what they saw. This also helped students answer one of their questions: What is in a bat wing? They could see that there were veins, a thumb, bones, and four fingers. This was interesting new knowledge for them.
During this project the students represented their learning in a variety of ways (see Figure 9). For example, they created their own bats. They decided whether they wanted to make a megabat or a microbat. They knew their choice would impact the size of the bat that they created.
Students also completed a directed drawing to communicate their knowledge of the parts of a bat (see Figure 10).
A zoo near our community has a bat exhibit. Our high school volunteer planned to go on a zoo visit with one of her high school classes. She invited our students to ask her questions to investigate while she was there. Some of the questions they asked were: What kind of bats do they have at the zoo? Do they live in a bat cave? What do they feed them? Following her visit, she was able to provide answers through photographs and videos that she took at the zoo. As a result, the students learned that all of the bats at the zoo were fruit bats and lived in a cave.
Throughout Phase 2, I showed students a variety of YouTube videos to support their learning, read lots of bat books (fiction and nonfiction), and also taught them songs about bats. One of their favorite songs was Bats Eating Snacks by NatGeoKids (2018). It was a fun song that also included a lot of bat information. Bo the Bat (2019) by Alma Hammond was one of their favorite books about bats. They asked us to read it over and over again.
I kept referring back to the students’ questions about bats as opportunities to learn the answers appeared during our investigations. I kept a notepad at large group so that whenever a student asked a new question or shared something they learned, I could write it down and later add it to our original web. I knew we were close to the end of Phase 2 as I reflected with students on how they had found the answers to their questions through their investigation. They really had become chiropterologists!
Phase 3: Concluding the Project
To culminate our bat project, I talked with each student about what they learned about bats, and I videotaped what they said. I used the videos and still pictures to create a WeVideo of our bat project. This video was shared with the class and parents.
I also presented each student with a bat expert certificate because they were officially chiropterologists (see Figure 11).
Another way I shared the project with parents was by having all of the representations of our learning (e.g., project history board, directed drawings, 3D bats, bat cave, shared reading) displayed during parent-teacher conferences when families had a chance to come to the classroom. Parents were shocked that their children had developed such an extensive vocabulary (chiropterologist, echolocation, megabat/microbat, etc.) to use when talking about bats (see Figure 12).
One parent even mentioned they began doing bat research at home to confirm the learning their student shared with them. My students were pretending to be bats at home and, in general, talking about the project constantly!
One of my first concerns when this topic came up was that I wanted to make sure it stayed focused on real bats. It was around Halloween, so there were several opportunities for this topic to go astray. However, throughout the project, I actually found that misconceptions and curiosities about bats were heightened because of the time of year.
In the past I have used the Project Approach on other topics. I have struggled with sticking with the entire cycle of the project approach. I found this topic continued to hold my interest as well as the students. My excitement helped fuel the students’ excitement as we continually learned more about bats. This new knowledge led to even more questions.
Something else I did differently with this project was to make sure I sprinkled new things in the classroom each week that would hold the students’ interest. Each week we have a question of the week for students to answer when they sign in. Depending on our focus vocabulary or fact of the week, I would use the question to make a link to the Bat Project. For example, some of our sign-in questions were: Would you like to be nocturnal? Would you rather sleep in a cave or a tree?
Even after we concluded this project, I realized there were several interesting facts that we did not cover. I reflected on how a topic can remain engaging for a long time. I was surprised that the Bat Project had lasted nine weeks. Using the students’ original questions as the guiding force behind the project and taking the time to research the answers using a variety of sources is what I believe kept the project going.
Also participating in the Bat Project were Sarah Pappas, instructional coach; Doren Comings, speech-language pathologist; Sharon Semmelhack, school-related personnel; Jamee Kenny, school-related personnel; and Emmy Maxeiner, a high school volunteer.