Lisa Fehling’s second-graders were practically quivering with excitement Thursday as they tried to listen patiently to instructions before dashing to their desks to begin poking, prodding and squishing octopi through their hands.
Giggling, the students picked up the small, slimy cephalopods by their round heads, called “mantles,” and stretched out their long tentacles to measure them.
“The little suction thingies almost stick to your fingers,” said Paige Drechsel, 8. “This is so cool.”
“This is its brain,” said Jack Meade, 7, turning the mantle inside-out and pointing out a small, dark spot.
“How do you spell siphon?” Nakisha Matheson, 8, asked Fehling, while labeling a drawing of octopus parts. The siphon is a tube that propels the octopus through the water.
The Dalton Elementary School second-graders began using octopi to study animal habitat and the marine food chain several years ago, when teachers Fehling and Wendy Astin came up with the idea. Librarian Barb McFarland embraced it and asked Fisherman’s Market, a Coeur d’Alene seafood market and restaurant, to donate some octopi to the school.
In November, McFarland, Fehling, and special education paraprofessional Lorrie Hall wrote a grant that garnered $500 from the Excel Foundation to support the course. The money bought enough small octopi and squid for every second-grader to have one to study, along with books about marine animals, paints to create T-shirts and other supplies.
The second-graders use the octopi to study several subjects. For math, the children measure and weigh them. For language arts, they write essays, learning the difference between facts and opinions. For art, they draw them and label their parts. They will also spread paint on the octopi and press their images onto T-shirts. Finally, they’ll dissect them.
“They love science, but they have been looking forward to this all week,” Fehling said. “It just is very high interest.”
Some of the children heard about the octopi from older siblings. And parents have come into the school asking if they’ll be studying them again, Fehling said.
Next door, Astin’s classroom still smelled slightly sour on Thursday, even after the two dozen octopi were gone. When Astin asked her students how they liked science class that day, they gave it a thumbs-up.
But the smell? Definitely thumbs-down.
“It smelled like rotten fish,” said 8-year-old Alizabeth Lowry.