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February 22, 2013

Tale spins silkworm project idea

MIDDLEBURY — Some books can rouse curiosity. Others keep readers up until the wee hours of the morning until the last page is turned.

But the best books of all don’t end. They inspire the reader to do something.

That’s exactly what happened when Middlebury fourth-grade teacher Anne Toth read Mulberry Project by Linda Sue Park over the summer months.

“I couldn’t get this idea out of my head,” Toth said. “I could just see my class doing this — easily.”

“Project Mulberry” chronicles the activities of Julia Song and her friend Patrick whose desire to win a ribbon at the state fair leads them to raise and study silkworms — much like Julia’s Korean grandmother did as a girl.

The journey is one of discovery — not only about silkworms, but about Korean heritage and Julia’s desire to leave it behind, plus racism, prejudice, death, phobias, self acceptance and friendship.

Toth could see her class raising silkworms from eggs to larvae to moths, studying them under microscopes, creating something from the silk, as well as discussing the book’s more sensitive issues.

“Besides reading about and raising the silkworms, we’d be using the computer, journaling. There’s so much we can do with this book,” Toth said.

But first Toth had to see if her idea was really plausible.

Turns out, purchasing silkworm eggs was the easy part. Finding mulberry leaves (the only food that silkworms eat) was a whole different matter.

“They have to eat three times a day,” Toth said. “I found out that mulberry trees are indigenous to our area, so I went on the look out.”

Toth was about to give up. She was relaying her tale to her hairdresser when she heard these words — “Oh Anne! You can have all the mulberry leaves you want!”

With that hurdle out of the way, Toth ordered the eggs.

“There were about 200 of these eggs on a 2-by-3 inch piece of sticky paper,” Toth said. “They were like very tiny pieces of very thin thread. You could almost mistake them for nothing!”

Although they grew quickly, there were obstacles to overcome. The worms wouldn’t spin in the suggested egg cartons. But after experimenting, Toth found out they did like cut up sections of cardboard toilet paper tubes.

Even with a diet of fresh mulberry leaves, hand-delivered three times a day (even on the weekends), the cocooning silkworms began to die — in large numbers.

Just in time, Toth discovered silkworm chow. Of the original 200, five survived.

The project was enough to fire up the imaginations of her 27 fourth-graders.

“They were all so excited. Really, they were in awe of the project,” Toth said. “That was so fantastic, so rewarding. But it also exposed some needs.”

For starters, there weren’t enough books for each child, and the classroom only had two, rather old microscopes.

About that time, a piece of paper crossed Toth’s desk that gave her great hope.

The Toshiba American Foundation was offering a $1,000 grant to help kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers bring an innovative hands-on project into their own classroom.

The grant seemed custom fit for Toth’s silkworm project. Apparently Toshiba thought so, too.

Toth, with the help of Middlebury Schools grant writer Delores Merrick, applied for the grant in October of this school year and was awarded the $1,000 in December.

On the advice of a Northridge High School science teacher, Toth contact Larry Winkelman Microscope Service in Kokomo.

“He came up and gave a one-on-one lesson on the different microscopes,” Toth said. “He was so helpful.”

The grant allowed the purchase of 40 copies of the book, supplies, three new microscopes, including both a stereoscope and a compound microscope, as well as several handheld microscopes.

Thanks to an idea of one teacher and the Toshiba American Foundation grant, the silkworm study will likely be an annual project in Toth’s and several other teacher’s classrooms at Heritage Intermediate School. And it’s got Toth thinking even further down the road.

“I got so excited about this project and so did the kids,” Toth said. “Before I retire, I’d really like to see a lab set up in the building. We could all learn so much.”

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