Thursday, April 25, 2013

"Are You Sure You Want to be Worm Exterminators?"

“Are You Sure You Want to be Worm Exterminators?"

After a snowy morning, a group of boys decided that they wanted to see which environments worms liked best, so they filled separate plastic cups with snow, dirt, rocks and water and dropped in some worms. They came back to check on the worms sparingly, and so after two days of testing this way I asked the group to slow their work down and think more deeply about it. I did not expect how the conversation would unfold...

Teacher: Why don’t you tell K. and B. what you were doing with the worms in different cups.
Op: We were testing if the worms liked them or not.
Teacher: What did you notice?
E: I didn’t notice anything cause my worm died.
Op: It was just really calm, cause worms like water.
B: It probably is dead, because it was really cold water.
E: I tried warm water.
K: They could freeze in the snow.
D: Only if you put it in water and then put it in the freezer overnight.
Op: It would be an ice cube.
Teacher: Would the worm survive?
D: Yeah…
E: I wanna put a worm in the microwave for a minute.
Teacher: E., what if I put you in a large human-sized microwave for a minute?
Op: He would probably get sunburns and die.
E: I think worms and humans have like different…cells, I think…
D: If we put a worm in water and put it in the freezer, well it breathes through the skin so it would probably melt the ice.
Teacher: Is there a chance the worm will die?
D: Yeah, an 80% chance.
Op: There’s a 99% chance the worm will die.
D: An 80% chance.
E: An 80%, 90% and 70% chance.
Teacher: Is it ok to do this test if there’s that much of a chance the worm will die?
Of: Maybe.
E: Maybe, because we don’t know. We’ve never done it.

Horrified that I might have to allow the microwaving of worms, even if there was an 80%, 90% and 70% chance that the worms would die, I sought out a conversation with my colleagues. They helped me think of possible routes for the investigation-- maybe I should ask the boys to create a “proposal” for the experiment, which would explain why freezing and microwaving the worms are absolutely necessary. Or maybe I should say to the group ‘I’m not ok with killing worms, but if you’d like to see the effect of freezing and microwaving things, what other materials could we look for?'. Really I as trying to figure out:

What was the best way to engage 7 year-olds in a discussion about the ethics of testing on animals?

The next day L, who had been sick, joined E, Op and D. as they re-convened to discuss their plan. After listening for a bit, he spoke up:

L: Are you sure you want to be like worm exterminators?!

The other boys didn't answer right away, and it was only after L. repeated the question three times that they finally answered him: No. They did not want to be worm exterminators. 

L: No, if you put it in the freezer it’ll just freeze to death, if you put it in the microwave…
E: But you don’t know that.
L: Yes, I do. Everyone can freeze to death if it’s cold enough. Every person on earth, including worms, can freeze to death.
Op: Including the rug.
L: No a rug can turn into an ice cube, it can’t freeze to death. It’s not alive.
Teacher: Oh, so it has to be alive in order for it to freeze to death?
L: Yeah.

And with this, the boys moved past their fascination with microwaves and freezers. L. had pointed out to them that worms were living--just like humans--and no one wanted to be the direct cause of worm deaths.  
Soon thereafter, D. suggested placing the worms into a tray containing different environments, and Op. suggested a clear cup with layers of different environments so that worms could choose which environment they wanted to spend their time in. This time around, the suggested environments were more appropriate for worm habitats: rocks, water, sand, soil. 

An experiment plan created after L.'s piercing question.
"Rocks, sand, soil, water." 

After school Andrea, the third grade teacher,  helped me find the words to describe the incredible change in direction that I had just witnessed: 

The conversation about ethics did happen, but it was as short and succinct as it needed to be.

 I had spent considerable effort trying to find a way to lead these boys into a consideration of ethics, but in the end they didn't need me at all.  They simply needed to be confronted about their choices by the honest feedback of a classmate. 

-Posted by Mauren Campbell


  1. It never ceases to amaze me how well groups of children negotiate...moving into the realm of ethics is especially impressive. What I love most: these are the conversations they will come back to time and time again as they move through their educational life, they will build on this every time they return to any conversation on ethics-perhaps someday citing their first grade experience as they argue in the supreme court. Thank you again for a glimpse inside and for your constant careful attention as to when to step in and when to step back.

  2. It boggles my mind to see what can happen when a teacher is patient enough not to "shut down" a troublesome situation. I wonder how the concept of the discussion being as short/succinct as it needs to be can apply to adult interactions surrounding ethical issues?