This past school year, students in Dana Coleman’s first-grade classroom at Andover Elementary School have learned about Scottish weather, food, customs and talked about their mutual love of bears with a six-year-old girl from Scotland.
This was not an old-school pen pal exchange. The communication came immediately over the Skype Internet messenger program which allows people across the world to interact face to face.
Every Friday during the school year, Eva Eaglesham logged onto Skype at 7:30 p.m. from her home in Winchburgh, which is west of Edinburgh, so she could visit with Coleman’s students at 1:30 p.m. CST.
Bears are what connected this girl from Scotland with the American students.
Coleman’s classes have been viewing the lives of black bears through web cams set up by Dr. Lynn Rogers of the Ely-based North American Bear Center. At first, her class watched Lily and her cubs Faith, Hope and Jason. Only Lily and Faith are now alive. Jason died April 12, 2011 from an infection. Hope was killed by a hunter on Sept. 16, 2011.
Coleman said her first-grade class from this last school year heard about Lily and her cubs, but they mainly observed Jewel and her cubs Fern and Herbie.
Through social networking, Coleman has connected with people from other parts of the United States and the world. Rhonda Hennis, a teacher from North Carolina, visited the class in April 2011, delivering $150 worth of books, stuffed bears and other educational material.
Hennis also paid a $150 fee so the class for two weeks would have access to an educational bear kit from the North American Bear Center. Material inside the box included a portion of a black bear hide, scat, molding of black bear tracks, PowerPoint presentations, DVDs, games, posters and much more.
Coleman became friends with a person living in the United Kingdom, who operates a website about Lily and her cubs. Through this friendship, she heard about Eaglesham and how this young girl raised what amounts to over $7,750 in U.S. dollars to help three former circus brown bears named Carmen, Peggy and Suzy find a new home at the Five Sister Zoo in Scotland.
Eva said she did interviews on television and with newspaper reporters to spread the word. She held garage sales and raffles and did face paintings to collect the proceeds to help the three brown bears.
Every Friday at 1:30 p.m. throughout the school year, Coleman’s class spent a short amount of time speaking with Eva over Skype and asking a few questions. Every student would write three to four questions as a writing lesson. Coleman then chose a few questions that the writers could directly ask Eva.
At first the questions were specifically about Eva’s work with the bears, but the students began inquiring about Eva’s school, the village where she lives, the food she eats, the weather and her everyday life.
From June 11 through 18, Eva and her parents June and Simon were in Minnesota staying at Coleman’s home. The school year was already over, so Eva was unable to stop by the classroom, but several kids came out to Sunshine Park next to the school the evening of June 12 for an ice cream social.
During their time in Minnesota, Coleman said she and the Eagleshams visited numerous attractions such as the Minnesota Zoo, Como Zoo, the Mall of America, Minnehaha Falls, Duluth, part of the North Shore scenic highway and, of course, the North American Bear Center in Ely to meet Rogers and see some black bears.
Coleman said she never thought all of this would come from watching the bears online.
“It’s been great for the kids,” she said.
The black bears have been more about curiosity and social connections for Coleman and her students. By watching the bears and reading updates from the lead researcher, Rogers, they have learned much about the real world, both positive and controversial.
They learned that Lily shields her cubs from wind blowing into their den when they are sleeping. Lily eats bear droppings, called scat, to keep the den clean and produce milk for the cubs. Bears eat snow in the winter to get water.
The first-graders learned about the political process when they initiated the introduction of bills in the Minnesota House and Senate to have the black bear become Minnesota’s state mammal. The bills were not approved this past legislative session.
Eric Hagen is at firstname.lastname@example.org