I start out the lesson like this:
"Today you will be learning a bit about the amazing, endangered Mountain Gorilla. Who can guess the geographic location of mountain gorilla?"
If they say mountains, I guide with, "Yes, but in what country or region of the world?"
I explain that Mountain Gorilla are a subspecies and are genetically different from the more common Lowland Gorillas that inhabit many more areas of Africa.
"Today we will read about how habitat loss is affecting this species, but before we do that, I would like you to get to know the mountain gorilla a little bit better, so we are going to watch a few videos. As we watch them, I want you to reflect upon what is fact, what is opinion, and (optional), what is a moral imperative."
This World Wildlife Foundation clip on Virunga National Park gives a beautiful overview of the park that will help students envision the habitat. The threat to Virunga mentioned in this clip is oil exploration and development.
This longer video, The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanada, Africa (7 min.) is by Canadian photojournalist Ryan M. Bolton. It is a beautiful video and also a great venue for discussing how opinion and moral imperative intertwine in the presentation. In the presentation of fact vs. opinion we can't shy away from the fact that there are some "opinions" that are perceived as moral truths, though even this is open to debate. What does this photojournalist see as their moral imperative? Is it a moral imperative or is it just an opinion? (Do we have an obligation to protect other living creatures? Are we responsible for the natural environment? Is the natural environment ours to use as we see fit, regardless of the consequences?)
Additional Video Option:
I am a Netflix member so I show them a carefully selected clip from the powerful documentary, "Virunga". I would not show students this entire movie without signed parental consent as it shows violence toward people and animals. The part I show them starts at 7 minutes. The first image you might see is a straw hut burning (nobody is in it) and then after that there is a gorillas peeking out from behind some plants. The next image is a hippo rising up out of a river. There is a little background on the life of one of the rangers, including that he was a child soldier. If you want to skip that part, go 8 minutes in, and you will hear him say, "But my mother insisted, 'You must leave the army while you are still alive.' So I then escaped the army to dedicate my life to the National Park.'
At this point you can watch for ____ minutes to see some amazing footage of the only Mountain Gorillas in captivity, in the world. They were orphaned by poachers and are being raised and kept alive by a dedicated group of rangers in Virunga National Park.
Stop where the ranger says, "They have a great affection for each other. It is love." You will know it's the place to stop because the images turn to black and white. Then they discuss and show a poaching incident.
My goal in having students read these passages and then engage in scientific debate with their peers is twofold. I want to develop their oral language skills for reasons I'll explain in a moment, and I want them to think about the real-world applications about understanding how an animal responds to environmental changes.
Oral language is an essential building block for increased reading and writing fluency. My experiences as a primary teacher made this clear to me and I am convinced that listening and speaking skills are often not taught as often as they should be in upper elementary, so I work to build them in to my lessons on a consistent basis.
In their explanation of the problem they read about, its causes, and its effect on the gorillas, the students needs to use precise scientific vocabulary. Their solution to the problem, which is based more on their opinion (as 3rd graders do not have the necessary scientific background to create a real conservation plan) needs to be clear and logical but I accept any answer that they can justify. Their classmates are invited to point out strengths, weaknesses, and areas for further research in the mini conservation plans of their peers.