Mama Kitty, and Project Based Learning

I was just wishing that I could have captured, on video, the scene of a wild mother cat that adopted us. She was a little calico. Before children, when Paul and I were living in Chicago, she began to visit me on the porch and I started feeding her. I noticed, of course, that the food was often carried away in her mouth. Soon, she began to peek in the house bit by bit to explore. She seemed to have something on her mind. Then, one day, I saw her silhouette coming through the back door, with something in her mouth! From a distance, I wasn’t sure what it was. I was momentarily alarmed, thinking she was bringing me a gift of a rat. Well, of course not. She had decided that under our bed was the best place to put her treasure: four little kittens.

I had the pleasure of watching her raise them. But, what made me think of this story was how her style of teaching her babies to catch and kill food is similar to mine as I design and write lessons, and teach.

Here is what she did on a few different occasions. It must have been late summer because she would go out and catch enormous grasshoppers, and bring them back. The kittens would all come running to see what she had. Then, she would place the grasshopper in the center of the group of kittens and step back just a bit while intently watching the scene. The kittens would explore and bite and paw, and learn to be hunters. When the grasshopper would try to hop outside of the circle, mama kitty would, quick as lightning, gently scoop or bat the grasshopper back into the center for the kittens and then quickly retreat about a foot or so. What a good example of project based learning.

She knew just when to step in, and when to back off. She had good timing. She also gave her kittens a problem to solve that was just big enough to challenge without terrorizing. She knew her kittens well. And, she gave them a project to work on with a real problem to solve. She didn’t give them pre-digested food, but gave them food to kill. Wild kittens need to know how to do that.

What a good teacher she was. And, somehow, as I was writing today, and feeling a bit like a choreographer as I planned my moves, I thought of the little wild cat. Like her, I was trying to carefully and creatively provide  appropriately sized problems to solve, giving just enough hints to entice, and backing off enough to let learning happen. While teaching at home or in a classroom setting, I also try to be available to my students as they work, and when necessary to lend a hand to offer just enough help to keep the exploration going. An ultimate challenge in teaching has got to be knowing  what the student(s) are ready for, and to keep the challenge gauged to draw them forward without frustrating or overwhelming them…or boring them. That requires sensitivity and a careful eye. Not saying that I have all that, but it is the prayer.

After the kittens got a bit older, and more independent, and would pester mama kitty too much, she would bat them once quite severely on top of their heads. I don’t do that.

Here is a perfect little BBC video showing how a mother farm cat helps her kittens learn to hunt.

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