4th Graders’ Class Pets Are No Longer Small Fry

Tara Malone, Chicago Tribune

Patrick Drake never had much luck with pet fish. His first died after only a day. His friend Joe Akason's fish almost made it to 48 hours.

But the boys and their 4th-grade classmates have successfully nursed from infancy to adolescence a tank full of rainbow trout during a six-month project at Central Elementary School in Wilmette. On Wednesday, more than 150 fish will be released into the wild.

"We didn't think they would feel like a pet, but they kind of do," said Sara Nicholas, 10, as she volunteered with Patrick and Joe during lunch to feed the trout and test the water quality. "We take care of them."
The experiment is among the first of its kind in Illinois.

Called Trout in the Classroom, the program gives students a lesson in the life cycle and anatomy of the cold-water fish. It also teaches the scientific method used to test the tank's water quality and align it with Lake Michigan's -- necessary steps for the trout's release into Wilmette Harbor in commemoration of Earth Day.
Each student will carry a fingerling -- teenagers in the life span of a trout -- in a plastic bag to the water's edge and watch as it swims away.

Three schools in Hickory Hills, Lake Forest and Wilmette rolled out the trout initiative last fall. Local chapters of the Trout Unlimited organization contributed about $1,200 for equipment. The program that began in four classrooms in New York now is used in more than 200 classrooms nationwide.
Parent and avid fisherman Mike Jacobs of Wilmette proposed the trout project at the start of the school year. He thought it might give students a chance to learn about a fish they might otherwise never see and boost a trout population that many conservationists contend needs protecting.
"These are a fish that were all over from the Ice Age because they could tolerate such cold water temperatures. Now kids just rarely encounter trout, especially in Illinois," Jacobs said.
Jacobs pitched the idea to his daughter's 4th-grade teacher, Jim Tingey, who's also an angler. The school's other 4th-grade teachers quickly got behind the project, using the trout to augment lessons in ecology and science as well as other subjects.

Students learned how to test and record the level of ammonia, nitrate, nitrite and the pH -- the acidity or basicity -- of the tank water. They tracked the data online and created graphs to chart it. Students basted the water for weeks, creating what Tingey called "the biological soup."
In November, the tank was ecologically balanced and ready for an estimated 250 trout eggs provided by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The 55-gallon tank was shrouded in Styrofoam to simulate the darkness of a stream bottom. As the eggs hatched and dozens of fry began to emerge, the covering was removed as they became light-tolerant.

Students took turns testing the water during recess. Tingey and Jacobs tag-teamed the task of changing the water, swapping about 20 gallons a day, to ensure the nitrite and ammonia levels did not get dangerously high. The larger the fish grew, the more water needed to be changed.
In a lesson about the survival of the fittest, the students learned how the smaller fish were gobbled up.
"The bigger they are, the more likely they make it," said Cooper Woolford, 9.
Students wrote poetry about the fish and practiced non-fiction reading with science materials about trout. They read about the fish and swapped letters with British students immersed in their own trout project. They also played a song called "Bye, Bye Trout," sung to the tune of an Everly Brothers hit.
Tingey began tutoring kids in fly-fish casting during recess when he saw their excitement about the trout.
Observing the rainbow trout every day as they grew, ate, swam and grew some more gave the students a real-world connection to nature that's not often found in a textbook, said teacher Michelle Bueche.
"It's real fish. It's not like we're watching a video. It makes a stronger impact on them," Bueche said.
On a recent morning, teacher Marc Elman encouraged his students to write poems about the trout, putting the words in the shape of a drawing they each made of the fingerlings.

Maggie Maher, 9, said she was a little sad about the sending the fish off into the wild as she wrote her poem: "Some of my friends die. But I was still a fry. I didn't want to say good-bye."
Sitting next to her as he wrote his own verse, Mike Zummer, 9, took a practical view of the fish.
"It will be a little sad, but they should be out in Lake Michigan," he said. "It's better for them."

Credit: By Tara Malone, TRIBUNE REPORTER
Chicago Tribune - Chicago, Ill.
Author: Tara Malone
Date: Apr 22, 2009Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission