My long-time enjoyment of earth science, had me doing earth science
activities for kids from the time my own children were little ones. So
when my middle school asked me to pick something to teach for six weeks
that I just enjoyed, this was the first thing that came to mind.
It was set up to be more like a club than a class, so while there were definitely learning goals, the most important goal was to have fun and enjoy ourselves. I knew I should include fossil activities in my lesson plans. There had to be a lot of hands-on activities with an emphasis on fun.
When I got my class list, I saw immediately that I would need to do some revisions in my plans: I had a small class, but it included several students with learning disabilities and behavioral problems. These were not going to be internally motivated kids. I knew that my most important class would be the first one. I needed an earth science activity that would get the students “hooked” on the subject right away.
I had seen an activity with younger students called the “magic bag.” It capitalized on the unknown and their natural curiosity. But these were middle school students-and some tough ones at that! I knew I’d have to have a pretty solid subject area-something that could intrigue and impress.
I placed a small fossil in enough velvet bags for each student to have his/her own. Before handing them to the students, I asked them to explore the contents of the bag without opening it. Since the students knew the topic was fossils, I didn’t give any clues as to the contents of the bags.
Instantly the air was filled comments: “It’s round!” “ Mine is like a cylinder.” “Mine’s got ridges.”
Then speculation and conjecture: “I think this is that animal that looks like a clam.” “I think this could be a tooth.” “I know; it’s a snail!”
I had the students pass their bags to the next student and compare observations and guesses. Eventually they were begging me to open the bags.
But before we did, I asked them to tell me what they knew about ancient sea life. There were lots of pictures in their minds; some were accurate. Then I asked them to imagine which of those species might have left fossil remains. We talked about how fossils are formed.
Finally, as a last observation, I asked the students to guess at the animal contained in their bag, either by name or species. When fossil was finally revealed more questions, especially about identification and behavior, waited to be answered.
Ready For Follow-Up
If this had been a research class, there would have been more than enough curiosity to compel these students on to further study. In this class, our next earth science activity was to do a real fossil dig, with real fossils. The “magic bag” earth science activity had the students thinking, talking and ready for more fossil activities.