Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Linnaeus Nightmare

So there I was, down on my knees in the wet sand, examining a set of tiny tracks. I had just made a suggestion that the teaching team learn sign language for all the most common animals we track, so we could discuss the tracks without giving anything away when students wanted time to puzzle out track ID for themselves. Marcus was there and he mumbled something to Alexia. It sounded like, “zap us.” Was he swearing? Then he burst out with a string of Latin names for small mammals. Now I was sure he was swearing. I got the point, Marcus, really, I did. If I wanted to talk about the tracks I could use the genus and species. As a teacher, I learned that we have receptive language knowledge and productive language knowledge. My receptive knowledge of small mammals species names was good enough to let me know he had suggested I consider vole or deer mouse for the ID of these tiny tracks. I couldn’t have produced the Latin name for vole, but remembered it when he said it. But what was this zapping thing he was talking about. With a far too sneaky twinkle in his eye, Marcus wandered off leaving me to the mercy of Dave, who was only slightly less twinkly. Turns out Zapus trinotatus is our friend the Pacific Jumping Mouse. I hadn’t considered that since I knew the track was vole. But that hadn’t helped me here. I decided it was time to study up.

So I’ve been writing common names on small cards with Latin names on the flip side. Plugging away at it pushing names from merely receptive knowledge into productive and then adding more from the never-knew-in-the-first-place category into receptive. I’ve gotten 33 mammals and a hand full of birds up that conveyor belt now. I’ve been even sending slightly off color emails using the Latin names as puns to torture Marcus and Dave. The mustelids seem fairly easy. Maybe since it’s my second try with them. Porcupine was a cinch having read a children’s book where the main character, a porky, was named Erethizon. Crow sounds like a crow retching (brachyrynchos). Sandpiper is being remarkably stubborn. I’ll keep you posted.

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