5 Lessons Learned from Rainbow Trout

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”


You never know who your next ‘teacher’ is going to be.  As a librarian, I’m always learning things from my students, volunteers, and co-workers.  Recently I’ve had a teacher of a different ‘sort.’  These guys are: always in motion, growing ALL the time, a little bullish when it comes to food, bright-eyed, sensitive, skittish, and ever-curious; and I'm not talking about the students! For the last seven months, our library has been ‘home’ to some teeny tiny visitors of the finned sort.  We’ve partnered with the Elliot Donnelly Chapter of Trout Unlimited to raise a hover of Rainbow Trout.  Our students have learned about the life cycles and food webs of both trout and the other organisms that make up their environment. They've learned about the habitat restoration work that Trout Unlimited does. They have had a front row seat to the importance of water quality and the fragility of life.

Five Lessons Learned from Rainbow Trout

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we had raised trout before.  Seven years ago, my last year in the regular classroom, we had a tragedy happen.  With less than a month left before our release date, we experienced a power failure over a weekend and lost nearly one hundred trout that were over two inches long.  The students, who had been testing the water, feeding, helping with water changes and more, were devastated.  Thankfully, the story had a somewhat happy ending because a fellow teacher, who also was doing the program, shared a couple of dozen fish with us.  We were able to release all the trout together at Wilmette Harbor.  While it was a difficult lesson, in some ways I think the students appreciated the overall experience even more.

Lesson one: And that is the first lesson that I learned from our hover of trout:  Life is fragile.  

As we began planning for our new batch of trout, we tried to learn from all of the other successful groups who have raised trout.  We opted for a much bigger tank; twice the size of our previous one.  The 110-gallon tank allowed us to have a ‘buffer’ that would help us survive a possible short-term power loss.  The extra water would hold dissolved oxygen and that could potentially help the trout for a short period of time.  Additionally, we had three, not two filters.  We had a backup to the backup and all three were running at the same time.  We also added a streaming webcam to the tank.  This gave me, and others, the chance to ‘check in’ on the trout each morning and night; and especially on weekends!  If God forbid, we had a power failure.  We would know about it in hours rather than days, and one of us could get to the tank to take emergency measures. As we made final preparations, we studied the ecosystem and food web of these tiny creatures. We read the fantastic picture book Trout are Made of Trees, and we began to understand how we are all connected through food webs.

Lesson two:  Always have a backup plan, and if possible a backup to the backup.

Before we could even begin filling our tank with water, though, we had a problem.  Trout Unlimited had not budgeted for our project; they had already sponsored a school for the year.  However, they decided that they would find a way to get us back into the program.  They purchased our tank, filters and the monster chiller that keeps the water frosty cold.  They didn’t, however, have funds for a tank stand.  We didn’t have a suitable surface that could hold the over 1,000-pound tank.  Were we going to have to skip the opportunity?  Of course not!  The students and I decided to design and build our own tank stand.  And so, a group of fourth-grade students and parent volunteers  helped design, build and paint a beefy wooden stand that is perfect for our location.

Lesson three:  Given the proper tools, time and guidance, - kids can do just about anything!

Unlike having my own ‘individual’ classroom, where the students ‘see’ the tank every single day, my students only see it when they are up in the space.  This makes it a little harder for them to ‘connect’ to the process.  I had done the project one other time in the Resource Center, six years ago. However, I’ve been impressed with the way they have owned the process and have co-taught one another how to perform the critical water tests.  I taught the first group fo three students and they carried on the instruction, passing it on to others throughout the entire process.  Without my prompting, reminding or requesting, the students consistently performed these duties.  It was a bit of a tradition to get the ‘water report’ each day.  

“Mr. Burleson, the pH number is off the chart! “  

“Mr. Burleson, you need to do a water change STAT; the nitrate levels are very high!”

The kid’s favorite part of the process was feeding them; they were thrilled with the way the trout would leap at the surface trying to get at the feed pellets.  As the fish grew, so did the amount of food given to them.  The trout soon figured out the connection between kids and food; I’m not sure who was more excited at feeding time!

Students made frequent measurements, drawings and paintings. It was the first place they looked each and every time they entered the library. There would be an audible buzz for the first few minutes as they made observations and squealed with delight.

Lesson four: If kids care about something, they will take care of it.

This morning, I arrived especially early to work where Mike Jacobs (from Elliot Donnelly Trout Unlimited) and Dave Cozzolino (from Wilmette Pet) were taking putting our trout into buckets filled with ice water.  As we chatted, we remembered the events of seven years ago.  Both of the men, who have helped throughout the process, were shocked that I wanted to do the project again.  “I think my kids learned more from the tragedy than they ever would have if things had gone perfectly,” I said.  Both men agreed.  A few minutes later, we were at Tower Road Beach in Winnetka on the shore of Lake Michigan.  Colorful buckets of ice water held one large trout each.  Students, parents, and teachers gathered in the warm, morning sun beside the calm water.  I shared the story of seven years ago and thanked all who had even a small part in the process.   I told everyone that we have kept the two smallest trout back in the tank.  We are going to give them another month or so to grow and then release them into the ravines a bit further north at the beginning of the summer.  Finally, students carefully carried these buckets to the water and gently released the trout into the lake.  It  was a beautiful conclusion.

Lesson five:  Get others involved. They know stuff you don't!

The students are already asking me about ‘next year!’  For today, I’ll enjoy the sound of the bubbling tank and the two lonely trout who are swimming about the huge tank looking for the rest of their hover.  Summer beckons. I am going to marinate in the wisdom of the fish! As a 21st century librarian, I can't wait to re-introduce a new hover of trout into the tank. Students are sure to learn more, care more, and have a larger perspective from the incredible experience of helping raise these tiny creatures!

Project Video


Todd Burleson is a library media specialist in Winnetka, IL.  He is a passionate maker and has been instrumental in reshaping his library into a libratory.  This exciting new space is a pilot STEAM space for his district and is continually evolving and growing. You can read more about his work at: https://toddburleson.com/tag/a-zen-librarian/ or on twitter @todd_burleson and @HWSIdeaLab

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