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Spinning a web of knowledge

Students learn about spiders through environmental education program

VERNON—Fourth grade students, a volunteer, a teacher, and a reporter at Vernon Elementary School now know a lot more about some spiders common to New England than they used to, as well as some of their webs, their bodies, their diets, and the adaptations they’ve developed to survive in their environment, thanks to programs created by the Four Winds Nature Institute in Chittenden.

During a training for this detailed spider program, the trainer, the volunteer, and the reporter spent a little time outdoors and in no time found four of the webs common to this region on the shrubs and in the interstices of plants and of manmade structures.

First, there was the funnel web, an asymmetrical horizontal sheet with a silken tube at the back. The web catches insects, and the spider, hiding in the tube, waits to feel the vibrations and then darts out. The spider delivers a paralyzing bite and drags the insect back to the funnel for immediate or delayed snacking.

Grass spiders are funnel-web creatures found often in this region, mostly outdoors and rarely inside. They are generally brownish or grayish with light and dark stripes near the head, and they’re about three-quarters of an inch long.

They’re called grass spiders because they usually construct their webs in tall grass, heavy ground cover, and in the branches of thick shrubs.

Some other webs include the ubiquitous and dust-collecting cobweb, hanging from everywhere; the gossamer sheet web on the grass; and the orb web, the most recognizable of all the webs, with a round, compartmentalized shape.

Four Winds delineates five broad natural concepts for volunteer teachers to follow in their presentations: patterns of similarities, cycles of nature, structure and function (adaptation), ecosystem and earth, and the environment.

Within those concepts, volunteers can teach 14 subjects, from rocks and minerals to insect life cycles to traveling seeds to predators and prey. The concept chosen applies for the entire year.

Volunteer teacher Beverly Current, a busy swimming coach and teacher, had spiders as her subject (under the structure and function/adaptation rubric) to teach the 21 fourth graders at Vernon Elementary School.

She first taught the Vernon class in 1987, when her daughter was in kindergarten, and she’s been doing it ever since.

It was raining the day of the class, so there was no going outside. The class began with the “Olympic Puppet Show,” created by the institute and performed by five class members who had first practiced.

The puppets were paper spiders attached to string and sticks which could be manipulated up and down.

They chat with a woodchuck.

The objective of the show is to introduce general information about spider adaptations and other information in story form, such as: spiders are not insects (they are arachnids); they have two body parts, the head (or cephalothorax) and the abdomen; and they have eight legs and spinnerets, organs on the abdomen from which silk is extruded.

In most cases, spiders have eight eyes, each one performing a supporting function. They have fangs and jaws and pedipalps (feelers), organs that differ in shape in male and female spiders.

All spiders can produce silk but only some spin webs; others catch their prey by hunting. Sometime spiders are called web builders and wanderers.

Web spinners may use their silk for many things: as snares, to wrap eggs, to subdue their prey, to sew leaves together to form a shelter, to trap air in a bubble to form an underwater diving bell.

Non-web builders may use silk strands sometimes for nest building under leaves, for navigating, or for leaving trails. (So the next time you’re wondering how spiders get from one place to another, remember that.) Some spiders can walk on water, facilitated by their extra hairy legs.

* * *

When the puppet show is over, out come the spiders in about eight glass jars with perforated lids and, in this case, spiders caught by Current. She tells the children to study the spiders and not to upend the jars.

“It’s okay to be afraid, but it’s not okay to scream or drop the jars,” she said.

One child said, “I don’t feel good now.”

Another was really scared, and she disappeared behind a wall in the classroom. Toward the end, she sat in a chair away from the tables and studied a drawing of a spider.

Another young girl was also afraid at first and became very pale. By the time the class was over, she was actually sitting at a table and handling a spider jar.

The class was relatively subdued, and, even when the spiders came out, most of the kids were contemplative. Some studied the spiders intently and commented on their size or color.

After studying the spiders and passing the glass jars around, each child was given a felt board and a packet of felt cutouts of spider body parts to create a spider on the basis of what they’d observed.

Most of them placed the eight legs on the larger abdomen, as most people would, and were quick to correct that when asked to take another look to find out where the legs really belonged — on the cephalothorax.

Another task tested one’s ability to detect vibrations. A wooden square with long strings attached was placed in the center of a table. Each person took a string and one student, the designated spider, whose eyes were covered, had to detect where a deliberate vibration was coming from.

Two more tests included “spider truth or fiction” and “sharing a web,” in which a ball of yarn was rolled among a circle of eight to ten children until a tangled cobweb was created.

Four Winds Nature Institute describes itself as “a nonprofit organization advancing the understanding, appreciation, and protection of the environment through community-based natural science and research.”

An outgrowth of the Vermont Institute of Natural Science Environmental Learning for the Future, or ELF, programs, Four Winds has been independent from VINS for five years.

The institute has devised a series of nature programs appropriate for elementary schools that include detailed information and materials and training for volunteers who deliver the programs to classes.

Individual schools may buy the programs for varying fees.

Nine elementary schools in the Windham Central and Windham Southeast supervisory unions have purchased the programs, according to Lisa Purcell, director of Four Winds. They include Vernon, Putney, Guilford, Green Street, and Academy in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, and Townshend, NewBrook, and Wardsboro in Windham Central Supervisory Union.

The institute recommends that each school provide eight workshops per school year, and smaller schools are encouraged to share workshops.

More information can be found online.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #122 (Wednesday, October 12, 2011).

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