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A "Shark Tale" about a Teacher's Potential Influence

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I have been writing some long, “heavy,” and in some cases potentially controversial blog posts lately on topics such as gay marriage, abortion, disasters, death, and most importantly, Tiger Woods. Because my brain is tired, things have been stressful due to my father-in-law’s health problems, and my teaching schedule is about to get busier, I may be keeping things a bit shorter – if I can control myself – and lighter for a while.

So for this post, I want to do a little bragging about my older daughter. Her school had a little science fair a couple of weeks ago, and because we are not (one of those sets of) parents who take over projects in order to show off our kids, we gave her free reign on her topic choice. She loves sharks – she has probably watched “10 Deadliest Sharks” on TV ten times – so she chose them for her subject.  Unfortunately, we did not have any sharks on hand on which to conduct an experiment. But in spite of our shark shortage, she managed to come up with some cool ideas. First, she glued some shark pictures that she found online on a couple of big pieces of poster board, and then she came up with some little captions, which were sometimes pretty funny, to write under each picture. She also made a little undersea diorama and decorated the table with shells and plastic fish.

The display, however, was not the coolest part. She also decided to conduct a survey of the two third grade classes at her school in order to test two hypotheses. First, she theorized that girls would be more afraid of sharks than boys. Apparently, she has already figured out some behavioral differences between genders in our culture. (I am tempted now to ramble for a while about the nature versus nurture debate, but I am supposed to be on brain rest.) Second, she hypothesized that her class would be more afraid of sharks than the other third grade class. So what was the basis of this second theory? It turns out that her teacher at times has shared with the class her intense fear of sharks. My daughter wondered if this fear might rub off on the students.

Sure enough, when students in both classes filled out their four-question multiple choice surveys, both hypotheses proved to be true! Now a pollster or sociologist would have a field day pointing out flaws in our study. The sample size was too small. We did not control for enough other factors that could explain the differences. The questions may not have been specific or plentiful enough. Of course, if someone had made these complaints at the science fair, I would have told him or her to get a life. It’s third grade, for God’s sake! Whatever the case, my daughter deserves some praise. Predictive thinking on this level must be ranked highly on that “Bloom’s Taxonomy” thing that I was supposed to memorize all of those years ago. How many eight-year-olds could even think of a study like this?  It’s hard to say. Maybe many of them could if we parents just gave them the chance. They are probably smarter than we sometimes think. Of course, it’s also possible that this is a case of a child inheriting her dad’s genius.

All of the students who participated earned some type of a ribbon for their project. (It’s not like the good old days when a few kids won something and the rest of us were losers.) She earned an award for uniqueness, which I found very appropriate. I saw some cool projects that night, but no one else conducted a survey. Her project also reminded me of a simple idea that is often easy to forget. Teachers, especially at the grammar school level, can impact students in all sorts of subtle ways. In many cases, their thoughts and attitudes on subjects that have nothing to do with the curriculum may have the greatest impact. As a college teacher, I can also impact students, but a grammar school teacher is dealing with kids whose basic worldview is still being shaped. Many of my college level students have core beliefs, values, and emotions that I will never impact.

Did my daughter’s teacher really help shape her students’ views of sharks? Did she further contribute to shark discrimination, continuing the bad rap these creatures have gotten ever since Spielberg’s “Jaws” came out? This would probably require further study. But I can guarantee you that every day, young students are picking up on a teacher’s beliefs, values, and emotions, and some of these can have a much greater impact on young minds than the promotion of “sharkism.”


  1. When I was a teacher I definitely found that students left to their own devices would be very creative. Some of my elementary school students wanted to draw a house from a scene in a story. They decided to use ziploc bags in the class to show the windows. I would never have thought of it for them. Glad to see your daughter is so creative.

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  2. Sounds like she did a great job to me! Students at my kids school don't control their own projects until fourth-grade. Before that, they do a class project. I think it's impressive that she did something so well thought out in third-grade.


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