Running A Bear Sanctuary

This ‘Mantle of the Expert’ project was started with the help of Professor Luke Abbott. He came for the first two days and began by reading the class a story – Mr Bear and the Bear by Frances Thomas.

This book is set in 1500’s in central Europe. It’s about a bear that is cruelly treated and made to dance in the street.

The children were unhappy about the treatment of the bear and a discussion followed with Luke eventually being in the ‘Hot Seat’ as the bear owner. The discussion became quite heated and all of the children were fully involved. None of them felt that it was right to keep a bear like this. Luke made a good case however for the poor owner and his need to eat, but the children were adamant that the bear needed to be set free.

In the next session Luke talked to the children about the fact that in some parts of the world bears are still made to dance. The children could not believe this and desperately wanted the bears to be released. This led to more questions about how they might survive in the wild and what we could do about it.

Introduction over, the children were now ready to take part in the ‘Mantle of the Expert’. The ‘trick’ as the name suggests is to make the pupils feel as though they are the experts and have the answers.

They decided that they would need to set up a bear sanctuary.

Groups of about five were formed and started to draw the sanctuary on large pieces of paper. There was lots of discussion and negotiation in each group as to what would be needed. (The assumption by the teachers is that the children know what bears need.) Some went to the library or checked on the Internet to find information but eventually, a large area of grass and woodland was mapped out with some mountains and caves, a stream for fish and an electric fence to protect the bears from hunters.

Each group was allocated an area of wallboard to display their work, notices etc. These displays were not beautifully printed and mounted documents but working, useful information. As the work in creating the Sanctuary progressed so did the need to write things down. Rotas were needed for feeding and checking the fences. Orders needed to be placed with the administrators for food and vehicles. The vets needed to be contacted to examine those animals that were sick or injured.

Questions were asked

  • How many bears are there in your sector?
  • What type of bears do you have?
  • How many bears can you look after?
  • How many bears are there in the Sanctuary?
  • How much food do you need this week?

And the children provided the answers!

Telephone calls’ are a useful way for the teacher to intervene as by this stage in the project the children have taken on all the leadership roles.

A call was received from India asking if the Sanctuary could look after a Sloth Bear.
A meeting was called to discuss this chaired by one of the pupils. Nobody knew what Sloth Bears were like, what they ate or what type of habitat they needed.
Somebody was delegated to go and find out on the Internet.

They discovered the planted site which had information about a new sanctuary in India set up for Sloth Bears. This site was useful as it had short descriptions of the bears at the sanctuary and also asked for donations to help the work.

The decision was taken that we needed to write profiles about the bears in our sanctuary. This profile was written by Alistair a year 3 child.

‘Arnie: A little polar bear cub, Arnie is five years old and taking a little time to recover from the shock our electric fence gave him. We found Arnie in a forest in a bear trap with a big wound in his hind leg. He was taken in on 9th September 2002 and we think he will be released in 2006. Arnie is a very gifted bear because he was able to swim after a few days training. Arnie is very friendly but he does tend to retaliate sometimes.’

What was the Sanctuary called and where was it? We needed an address if people were going to write to us!

Another phone call- what about a honey bear?
By this stage leaders have emerged. They are quick to consult and decide that regretfully they won’t be able to look after a Honey Bear. They don’t have the right habitat. One group decides to compile a booklet about all the different bears and there requirements to make it easier to decide.

Life is becoming quite hectic by now. Everybody is fully in role. Bears escape, need feeding, become sick, have cubs, break through the electric fence and we even have some poachers. A group meeting decides that we need more staff as there is too much work to do! Posters and adverts are produced to get new recruits. There are heated discussion about rates of pay and qualities needed to do the job!

The next intervention came from a familiar source!

A letter arrives from the bank suggesting that the project is running out of money. The group meeting decides that in order to raise funds they need to write a newspaper article and set up a web site so that people can find out about us and send money to help. They also decide to contact the TV companies.

Later in the day a film crew arrives (in the shape of the Headteacher with a video camera). He needs showing around and interviews have to be arranged.
The children really enjoyed this new way of working and were all very involved in the project. Even six months later, when I asked them about it they had very positive memories and would have happily continued.

“I liked the bear sanctuary. It was fun. If we ever carry on doing it, I would like to have a visitors bit for guests to come and see the bears. I don’t want the bears to do any tricks though because that would be cruel. With the money we could get better features and extend the area of landscape.
Nick year 3

And another said,

“I loved the sanctuary. Every day of it was an exciting new adventure.”

How often do our pupils say that about our teaching!