By Brian Swartz
Weekly Staff Editor
BREWER — Decades past, Brewer third-graders learned about Maine by reading books and memorizing key (albeit boring) dates and people.
This fall 18 third-graders at Brewer Community School learned about Maine by “meeting” the state’s mammals — and studying their tracks, poop, skulls and pelts.
On a quiet fall morning, children clustered excitedly around third-grade teacher Carie Cuskelly while she placed a Cabela’s tote bag on a classroom shelf. As Cuskelly reached into the bag, eager hands shot ceilingward even before she could remove the first mammal pelt and ask for the species’ identity.
The Cabela’s bag contained more than a dozen pelts and other mammalian information, all supplied for free by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. After discovering online that the DIFW offers a Furbearer Fundamentals Kit for classroom instruction, Cuskelly contacted the department’s Bangor office and arranged to borrow the kit for two weeks.
As she unveiled pelt after pelt, youngsters now knowledgeable about Maine mammals waved their hands and blurted, “Fox!,” “A beaver!,” “A coyote!” Someone mistook the raccoon pelt for a skunk’s, and the muskrat pelt briefly threw off the identification process.
Cuskelly passed each pelt to a child. The raccoon pelt arrived on one boy’s lap and stayed there a while; a girl draped the coyote pelt over both arms and examined the fur.
The Furbearer Fundamentals Kit also contained the corresponding animals’ skulls, scat and tracks, all molded from plastic. Also inside was a K-12 curriculum.
Cuskelly used the Furbearer Fundamentals Kit as part of the science curriculum, [the] Maine Mammals Study. “I introduced various pelts each day and talked about the characteristics of mammals as we examined the pelts,” she said.
“I require them at this level to know what the characteristics of mammals are,” Cuskelly said.
With the plastic animal skulls Cuskelly taught her students about the differences between carnivores and herbivores based on looking at their teeth. The children quickly learned to recognize the canines on carnivores, she said, and discussions also encompassed what types of food each animal would eat.
Cuskelly showed her students photographs of each type of mammalian species represented by a pelt. Being able to touch the pelts has paid dividends for the students. “I can tell they’ve learned much more having a hands-on activity such as a pelt,” she said.
She said her students get to use more of their senses to touch and smell the pelts, a sensory advantage that really helps to solidify what they’ve learned. “It brought out a lot of excitement every day when I brought out a pelt,” she said.
Among the mammals studied by Cuskelly’s students were a mink, an otter and a weasel. “They loved the bobcat and the gray wolf, two of their favorites,” Cuskelly said, referring to her students.
“They knew most of them [mammals] by the end of the time we had,” she said.
In the third grade, students study the state of Maine and learn specific facts, such as the state bird (chickadee) and the state tree (white pine), Cuskelly said. Her students learned about the Maine forest, its canopy, the forest floor, which kinds of animals would live in each layer.
“It’s really fun to teach these topics. The kids get very excited about it,” she said. “It’s fun to see the learning, and they take something away from it [that] they didn’t know before we started.”