Nineteen little hands shot into the air recently at Cutchogue East Elementary School, where the fourth-graders were eager to share what they had learned about the world’s largest land mammal: elephants.
Their wealth of knowledge — and desire to share it — stems from a new schoolwide elephant fostering project, which has spawned interest in an animal that children are more likely to see in a circus or Disney film than in the classroom.
“It’s amazing,” assistant principal Deborah Guryn said. “The children have really embraced it.”
Ms. Guryn said she was surfing the web a few months ago when she stumbled across an article about three injured elephants that were attacked by poachers but ended up making their way to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, where they were treated for their injuries.
Founded in 1977, the trust is home to The Orphans’ Project, which allows people from all over the world to foster an injured or abandoned mammal and help it on its road to recovery. According to the DSWT website, elephant and rhinoceros populations are threatened by poaching “for their ivory and horn and the loss of habitat due to human population pressures and conflict, deforestation and drought.”
With the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District’s mission statement in mind — particularly the part about “inspir[ing] positive change in the local and global community” — Ms. Guryn researched DSWT and learned that they had a program to foster an elephant or rhinoceros. She reached out to the lead teacher of each grade (kindergarten to sixth and the special education program), encouraging them to choose an elephant to foster.
Ngilai, the kindergarteners’ elephant, was found stuck in a well. Balguda, the second-graders’ foster animal, was only 6-7 months old when he was found abandoned. The sixth-graders’ elephant, Olare, was found beside her paralyzed mother when she was around a year old.
Miranda Howard, a student in Maryellen Gamberg and Bonnie Connelly’s fourth-grade class, said she likes that by fostering an elephant, she is giving it “a forever home.”
Since its inception, The Orphans’ Project at DSWT has successfully cared for more than 150 infant elephants, according to its website. Elephants remain at the wildlife trust until they are deemed healthy enough to reenter the wild.
Fostering costs $50 a year per animal, something Ms. Guryn is personally funding. “Foster parents” receive a certificate, photograph and watercolor of their elephant, monthly updates about the animal and periodic updates about other animals brought to DSWT. Ms. Gamberg said she reads the updates to her class during their morning meetings.
“We felt that we wanted to introduce, of course, the elephant to the students — but we thought it was a great opportunity to do a great deal of nonfiction reading and for the students to use that information from that nonfiction reading for our English Language Arts lessons,” Ms. Gamberg said of her students’ research projects, which hang on the walls outside the classroom.
Students took what they knew about the specific elephant they began fostering in October and expanded on it, with each grade working on a different project. Second-graders drew pictures of elephants that were framed and hung in Ms. Guryn’s office. Third-graders created word bubbles with information about the animals, while fourth-graders did research projects.
“African elephants have bigger ears than Asian elephants,” said fourth-grader Ella Wirth.
Ms. Guryn said she plans to continue the project next year, although she’s not sure in what capacity. One thing she’s thinking about is whether students will sponsor a different elephant once they enter a new grade or if they’ll continue to carry their current elephant with them throughout their time at the school.
“I like adopting [elephants] because we know they’re safe and nothing can happen to them,” Miranda said.
Captions: Word bubble projects created by third graders at Cutchogue East Elementary School; assistant principal Deborah Guryn at her desk researching the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya. (Credit: Nicole Smith)