by Rosie Costain, MNHC Volunteer

The first time I volunteered with the Visiting Naturalist in the Schools (VNS) program, I found myself dumbfounded by the information a group of 4th graders knew off the top of their heads. January was about identifying skulls. When asked to name different types of teeth, every hand in the class went up while I frantically searched my brain for information from my most recent dentist visit.

VNS brings the Montana Natural History Center right to elementary school classrooms. Throughout the year, a naturalist teacher, along with volunteers, will visit 4th- and 5th-grade classes to teach lessons on natural history topics. Every month they return to the same classrooms with a new lesson. March is all about feather function.

Visiting Naturalist in the Schools lesson on feathers and flight

As a volunteer in this program, I’ve learned more than I thought, whether it was about skulls, body heat and size, or just how to explain things to groups of 4th graders. And I’ve learned plenty from students. They had observations about the shape of feathers I’ve never noticed. I got just as excited as they did hearing them chatter about which feather could be a tail feather and which might be the wing feather or hearing their gasps as they noticed the hooks on an individual barb while waving down a volunteer to show off what they’d found.

Visiting Naturalist in the Schools student studying a feather under a microscope

I also got to know a few kids and got the satisfaction of feeling like I was helping them learn. My first return visit to a school was in Bonner. On my first visit in February, I wore a sweater my mom knit for me. It’s a replica of one worn by Ron Weasley in Harry Potter, maroon with a big yellow “R” smack in the center.

Harry Potter fan with Weasley sweatshirt

The naturalist teacher and I were setting up when a girl with dyed red hair came up to me. She stood on her tip toes, hands clasped together, and asked if I was a Weasley. She continued chatting about Harry Potter and for the rest of the lesson was eager to ask me for help. When we returned for the March lesson a week later, it was “Dress Like Your Favorite Book Character Day.” I walked into the room and kids shouted to the red-headed girl, “Show her your shirt!” She proudly stood up and showed me her maroon sweater, complete with an “R” made of taped-on ribbon. She even had a wizard’s cloak and a wand.

I found this connection with a lot of kids, whether they liked my hair or wanted to share a story about a family pet. Then they would ask me how to draw a line graph or use a microscope. I can’t wait to see what happens when I visit next month.

Visiting Naturalist in the Schools students writing in nature journals