Something special arrived this week in my classroom…
The 2nd semester curriculum of 6th grade science in Florida starts with units on cells and how they divide, grow and eventually form living organisms.
When I was planning activities to engage my little darlings, I thought about some of my other teacher friends and their experiences hatching eggs in the classroom. I had some experience hatching and raising chicken and duck eggs from my early days of being a tour guide and farm hand at Old McMicky’s Educational Farm back in college. However, I had never done this in my classroom, and by no means had the equipment to take on this project.
But I was determined to try. I knew the experience would be unbelievably valuable to my urban, inner city students. Hands-on activities are almost always the most effective way to get them to understand and connect science concepts to their world. I decided to put out a call for help through social media and within a day a blogger friend Bonnie, from The Not So Modern Housewife, connected me with a farm friend, Maria, who was willing to not only give me some fertilized chicken eggs, but a mini-incubator to use in my classroom as well!
Within a week I had met up with Maria, and the very next day 7 eggs were in room 603, incubating and bringing oh so much joy to the hearts of my no-so-little 6th graders.
I used a Brinsea Mini Advanced high performance egg incubator, which is PERFECT for any classroom setting. It’s small and compact, holds up to 7 eggs (as small as quail or as large as duck eggs!), everything is set using a timer, and has see-through plastic windows for the students to easily make observations throughout the 28 day incubation cycle.
We spent the first few days supplementing our regular curriculum with literature on the life cycle of chickens to help build their background knowledge on the subject, and to of course, make connections with the standards we were currently studying. On day 5, we candled the eggs using a dark room and a flashlight to look inside them. This was my first time candling eggs, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I divided the students up into small groups, gave them an assignment to do while I called each group one at a time to view the inside of the eggs.
I may or may not have shed a tear when I first saw movement inside the eggs. I can probably say I was as excited as a mother feeling her baby kick for the very first time. It was just an amazing experience realizing that just a few days before, life didn’t exist inside the egg, and now, here we were, looking at a new baby chick, in the early stages of development, moving around! Naturally, I wasn’t the only one beside myself. All of my students, even the most hard-core, “too cool for most things” students, were absolutely enthralled, oooing and gushing over this evidence of life. It was a moment I shared with my students that I will truly never forget.
As the days went on we continued to observe the eggs through the incubator, waiting for even the smallest sign of hatching. Around day 17, as we observed the eggs for our science journal writing activity of the day, one of my students called out “It’s moving! One of the eggs is moving!” Sure enough, each and every one of us stared in awe as our little eggs shimmied and wobbled on the incubator’s platform. We recorded our observations and knew that we’d be celebrating a birthday soon!
On the Monday of the week before Spring Break, I arrived at school early to get some work done. I walked into my classroom, peeked in at the eggs, and then sat down at my computer to catch up on some tasks. It was quite early, so the school was almost silent. When I first heard the “cheep cheep“, I figured it was coming from birds outside my window. It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth “cheep” I realized it was coming from inside the incubator! I hurried over and stared at the eggs for a moment. Sure enough, there was cheeping coming from inside the eggs! It was then that I noticed a small little pip (the very first crack) on one of the white eggs.
Needless to say, I got absolutely NO work done that morning, as I pulled up a chair to watch the action! Over the next 3 hours, little by little, our first baby chick pecked and pushed its way out of the egg and hatched as 4th period was ending. A crowd of onlooking students (and teachers!) cheered and swooned over the event and even risked being late to 5th period because of this amazing moment.
I left our new baby in the incubator to rest, fluff up and get their footing before moving it into our “brooder”, which was an aquarium covered in newspaper and cedar shavings under a heat lamp, with some water and baby chick starter (which you can purchase at any local feed or pet store) . As our first born grew stronger, another egg began to hatch, and by the end of the evening, we had 2 healthy, strong (and almost fluffy!) baby chicks.
By the time I left school that evening, baby chick #1 and #2 were already eating, drinking and walking all around the brooder. I couldn’t believe how self-sufficient and independent they were in just a matter of a few hours.
I was so nervous about leaving them in the brooder overnight (so many things could have gone wrong!) but by the morning, they were just fine. In fact, they had grown a bit, and were much stronger on their feet! Oh, and they had really dried up over night, and had turned into the cutest, most adorable, cotton balls I had ever seen!
Tuesday brought more births with the arrival of baby chick #3 and #4. However baby chick #4 brought a little more excitement than normal. I had noticed pips in both #3 and #4 before leaving school on Monday, and while #3′s pip had progressed quite a bit by the morning, #4′s remained the same. I was worried that he or she may have died in the middle of hatching (which can sometimes happen), but upon further inspection of the pip, I noticed that there was still some movement and that the baby was still making an effort to hatch. It seemed as though the inner membrane of the egg had dried a bit, which was making it difficult for the chick to break through and continue cracking away at the outer shell. I went ahead and sent a picture to Maria, and what happened next was probably one of the most amazing things I’ve experienced in my life so far.
Maria told me that what she had seen in my picture was not good, as once the membrane dries and hardens (you’ll know because it will go from translucent white to dark yellow or brown), that is a sign of a problem. She spent (a lot!) of the morning instructing me on what I would need to do to save the chick, and carefully (of course trying to manage classes of students at the same time!), I moistened the membrane with my finger and some water, and used tweezers to slowly break through the membrane and peel it back so that the chick would have a clear passage to begin breaking through the rest of the shell. However, after an hour, the chick had made no other efforts, and so Maria instructed me on how I may need to actually break off the top of the shell to help the chick hatch successfully. Needless to say, I was extremely, extremely nervous during this, and luckily my science coach offered to take my 3rd period class to their media center lesson so that I could concentrate. I wanted to try and save this baby without injuring it in the process. She advised that if I saw blood, to stop, as I could potentially sever an important vessel, ultimately injuring or killing the baby chick.
After about 10 minutes of cautiously chipping away at the shell, I had our baby almost all the way out. Maria said that at that point, it was best to put it back into the incubator with the bottom half of the shell still attached so that he (or she!) could go ahead and try to use its legs to push out the rest of the way. So I did. And within minutes, it had pushed itself out, but revealed something that Maria was afraid might happen: it was still attached to the shell, and not everything had been totally absorbed into the chick. She suggested that go ahead and leave him in the incubator and hopefully, with some rest and heat, nature would take his course and he would eventually finish developing, close up and detach on his own.
Through all of this drama, baby chick #3 entered the world and was resting up in the incubator as well! Like 1 and 2, it was healthy and ready to go into the brooder within a few hours. As the day went on, I monitored baby chick #4 and had conversations with my students about how we would need to prepare ourselves for the possibility of losing him or her. There were some misty eyes, however they understood and decided that positive thoughts were what the baby needed most. They even suggested we call it “Miracle” or even “Ironchick” if it pulled through.
By the end of the day, it was still attached to its shell, however, it had looked SO much better. Baby #4 was up and walking, trying desperately to detach what was left of its umbilical cord. When I noticed this, and how it had appeared that what was left had dried significantly, I went ahead and grabbed a small scalpel and cut it loose. Within an hour, our little miracle chick was in the brooder with its brothers and sisters, eating, drinking, and cuddling with the others babies, like the events of the morning weren’t a big deal at all.
Conference night just happened to be going on that same evening, and some of the parents who came got to witness the arrival of baby chick #5, and by the next morning, baby #6, our last baby (1 of the original 7 eggs turned out to not be fertile), was waiting in the incubator for me, already walking around, ready to join the rest of the crew.
And just like that, we were the mothers and fathers to 6 healthy, strong, ADORABLE baby chicks that we raised from cell to organism, in a truly amazing hands-on science experience that I know my students will never, ever forget.
And not only did they learn the science behind how life grows and develops, but they also learned priceless lessons that neither rubric nor grading scale could measure. They learned how to care. They learned how to respect, appreciate, and fight for life. They learned that life is precious, and special. And most of all, they learned the true meaning of love.