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Teaching pupils, parents science with help from Mother Goose


THE GLAD cries of "snow day!" are countered by some disappointment at Laurel Woods Elementary. Reading teacher Nancy Gifford has heard complaints from disappointed children in the Mother Goose class.

The children aren't learning nursery rhymes. These sophisticated kindergartners and first-graders are participants in "Mother Goose Asks Why" -- a five-session, weekly after-school program teaching parents about science in classic children's literature.

The program "teaches parents how to look at books to teach scientific concepts and habits, to look at the ideas in the books," Gifford said. "It teaches parents how to do little experiments. Last week, we did air currents. I had kites and little parachutes."

To top it all off, the parents receive copies of the books to share with their children.

"We hold it later in the evening to increase our participation rate," Gifford said. "Most of our families work, and it's hard to get them here during the day."

To accommodate the children, the school offers baby-sitting while the parents attend the lectures. But, reluctant to let a learning opportunity go by, Gifford and teacher Pat Whittier put together a children's companion program to teach what the parents are learning.

The popular Mother Goose program, in its second year, is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and the Vermont Center for the Book.

Whittier, a teacher at Swansfield Elementary, presents the program to the parents. She and Howard County library children's librarians Hope Chase and Susan Morris founded the program, put the package together and applied for funding, Gifford said.

Last night, featured books were "Seven Blind Mice" and "The Two Bad Ants." In each book, Gifford said, the characters' perception of reality is limited.

The mice, whose blindness limits the information they can glean, describe an elephant.

"It is like a tree," says one mouse, near the elephant's leg.

"No, like a snake," says the mouse near the elephant's trunk.

But together with the other mice, the tiny animals are able to formulate a reasonably accurate description of an elephant.

While the parents discuss this concept, Gifford conducts a related program for the children. She used a peephole view of elephants and other animals. Through the peephole, the children could see a small part of the whole picture.

Gifford has the children lift the flaps and try to guess what all the bits of pictures add up to.

"Mother Goose Asks Why" has enthusiastic supporters -- about 25 families.

Attendance at last year's series was almost perfect. Gifford received requests from parents to extend the program, but funding did not permit her to do so.

Gifford said the school welcomed 150 new families this year. The school population consists of 500 families.

"It is a challenge that we all kind of welcome," she said. "We embraced the idea that we want to reach this population [new families]. The idea is to try to address everybody's needs in the best way we can."

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