I am a first-grade teacher, and we’ve been doing a project hatching eggs into chicks. While the eggs in my classroom have all started to hatch, the eggs in the room next door are showing no signs of life. How can we help our students turn something so sad into compassion and empathy and still have this be a positive learning experience?
Children learn a great deal from the typical school projects of watching eggs hatch into chicks or seeing caterpillars transform into butterflies. When I was in elementary school, we memorably put mealworms through a maze one year and, another year, we had a tank full of crayfish in our room, which we got to name and study up close. These animals didn’t seem that important to me at the time, but decades later, these experiences are still with me.
However, as you’re seeing, any time you embark on a project that involves living things, you run the risk of natural effects interfering. Sometimes the effects are not so natural either: When I was a teacher, we built whole elaborate terrariums out of soda bottles. A kid knocked one over, sending the poor fish and snails into the heating vents. We spent a lot of time after that talking about whether the fish in the vents would start to smell. Sure, the students were sad, but they were also oddly fascinated with the consequences. (Fortunately, there was no perceptible smell.)
While you wouldn’t plan this lesson to teach kids about eggs not hatching, you could hardly orchestrate a curriculum that would prevent kids from bumping up against tough questions about mortality.
Classmates’ relatives pass away, someone steps on an ant at the playground, kids have lockdown drills because of school shootings, you study dinosaur bones. The list, obviously, goes on. You can’t study life without having to answer questions about death.
I wonder if you and the teacher next door could swap some of your eggs. Your kids would have the experience of disappointment and sadness from seeing the ones that aren’t hatching, and the other class could still have the joy and anticipation of seeing something living come out of an egg.
Then, there are some great writing prompts that you could do: When I saw the chick hatch, I felt … When I saw an egg that didn’t hatch, I felt … When I think about the eggs, I wonder … One reason eggs might not hatch is …
Be prepared for sadness and deep thoughts, and also be prepared for some wacky and hilarious theories. As long as you support and encourage the range of how they might respond, you’re creating a positive learning experience.
You surely know this, spending all day with your students, but it can be intimidating to talk about something (like death) that seems so delicate and that different families may want to handle in different ways. Your job as their teacher is to help develop their coping skills through knowledge and information and in relationship with their classmates and with you.
Giving them a space to talk openly about why this project didn’t go as planned can also lead to a wonderful life lesson about resiliency. Chicks or no chicks, your students will be better off for having encountered the fragility of life in a safe and supportive place.
This is indeed a very sad thing for students to experience. Fortunately, there are myriad humane and ethical ways to teach about life cycles without harming animals. From virtual incubators to 3D egg kits, students can learn the same lessons without hatching live chicks.