Bee Sticks and the quest for knowledge
Thursday, December 20, 2001
By Paul Tamburello
Shirl and the Bee Stick
Let’s call her Shirl, short for Sherlock, of Scotland Yard fame. The case began one morning as I was checking the science work being done by several of my fourth graders during a Botany lesson. I let slip, consciously, I must admit (a standard tool in a teacher’s repertoire), a remark about the "bee sticks we would be making on Monday". Ears at the table immediately perked up, none so high as Shirl’s.
“Bee Stick? Beeee Stick? What’s that?”, came the choruses. “Is it going to be dead or alive?” “Can they sting us?” “Do we touch them?”
Their fascination with the idea subsided after a few minutes and the others drifted back to drawing an accurate version of their Brassica plant's recently blossomed flowers, which would soon be the landing site for our Bee Sticks.
Shirl’s fascination, however, took on the weight of a holy mission. She grilled me for information. I sure wasn’t going to tell her. Not after noticing how absolutely transfixed she’d become. I knew enough about Shirl to sense that I was in for a treat. Like Holmes’s Watson, I was going to watch.
“You’ll have to make your own guess, or stay tuned ‘til Monday,” I said with a grin.
What had clicked with her? What is it with any of us when those tumblers in that continuously spinning mind of ours suddenly fall into place and open a door into a deeper place, one into which a beam of knowledge must shine? As with her Scottish soul mate, Shirl had to see that light.
“How many kinds of dictionaries do we have?” I heard over my shoulder a few minutes later while I was looking at another student’s drawing. As I looked back at her table, I noticed she’d already plucked one off the shelf and had been busy looking up Bee Sticks! Frustrated, she had wanted to find a dictionary good enough to contain the definition she was certain must exist.
Next, she began to prowl our science area, but found no clues. Like her famous Scottish predecessor, she was unperturbed by the apparent lack of evidence. Shirl eyeballed other shelves in the classroom. Nothing obvious. Then back to the science area for a deeper look, where she found the thin wooden stakes which would soon be used to hold our Brassica plants upright as they grew to maturity.
“The Stick!”, she announced to me, holding aloft the stake with the conviction she’d uncovered part of the mystery.
“Sherlock Holmes has nothing on you!” I said as she turned on her heel and strode resolutely back to the science area.
Minutes later, a tap on my shoulder. “I found the bee!” A wide satisfied smile played across her face as she held aloft the honeybee, a relic, stored from last year’s science class, which had been concealed in a small plastic container in the recesses of the science cabinet. Lesser detectives might have stopped here, but in true Holmesian fashion, Shirl needed certainty. The case was not closed....yet.
On her next inspection of the classroom, she found a Teacher’s Manual near my desk. On the cover, she spotted an illustration of a bee mounted on a small stick (a toothpick!), triumphantly held it up to me and said, “There it is, a Bee Stick!”
Eyes bright, she was fairly jumping our of her sneakers. Not settling for that victory, she looked at the other small illustrations on the manual, including one of a flowering plant, and began deducing how the bee's fuzzy thorax on the bee stick would be used to pollinate the flowers.
“This is what we’re doing on Monday!”, she crowed. Case closed.
Every day I’m reminded of the reasons I entered this profession thirty two years ago: to connect with children, and, in an extended sense, have an impact on the rest of us. The elementary school classroom is a theater of human behavior. When I look carefully enough, I can see it being played out every day right in front of me. Shirl had been unperturbed by the difficulty of her mission - as exhilarated by the the search as by the prospect of finding an answer.
I know there are thousands of problem solvers like Shirl in classrooms across America. As a teacher and a citizen, I can’t wait to unleash these change agents into the workplace to do battle with the medical, environmental, and political issues of our time. And I'm proud that I can provide an environment in which students like Shirl can practice for the future.Paul Tamburello is a teacher and writer who lives in Watertown. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org