When I read with S, the first grade student that I read with, we finished a story about an egg that a boy found and watched hatch. "What does hatching mean?" he asked.
I turned back to when the duckling first began to crack out of his egg and said, "well, see here, it means the duckling is breaking out of his egg. He's ready to come out into the world."
"Where's the mama duck?"
"This little story only gives us a part of the story. The mama must have gone away and left the one egg there to hatch."
"How do you know the mama duck left the egg. Could it have been the dad that left it? How can you tell if animals are mamas or papas?
"Well..." I started to smile, looking at S's animated face, full of energy, curiosity, and wonder, standing at this point, but still at my eye level while I was seated.
"Maybe you should ask your parents."
"We have two dogs. I asked about them."
"What did they say?"
"They said that they chose."
"Ah, so that's what they said. So they didn't exactly answer..."
I was trying to keep it together, but I reverted back to what happens in uncomfortable situations, where I know how I can tell the difference between a boy dog and a girl dog, but I can't say it to this first grader, so I start laughing, but I can tell he's not taking it personally or badly. And luckily he didn't think it too strange that I burst out laughing.
When I had gotten the nervous laughter out of my system, he said, "No, really, how do you know?"
"You know what? This is a very good question, S. And I'm going to try to find a book that helps explain and shows us how we know."
"That would be cool! Yeah, if you can bring a book next time, but you don't have to. But if you find one..."
Our reading time came to a close and I walked S back to class. On the way to work, driving down the road, past some apartments, I saw a female turkey with her feathers spread out in a full fan. She stood still, trying to get the attention of two male turkeys that were at the edge of the grass. Who knows how long she would be waiting.
When I got back to the office, I wrote a quick email to the public librarian asking for any books that may discuss the differences in female and male animals, differences that relate to their plumage or other such characteristics, something appropriate for a first grader. I appreciated their frantic search; they weren't able to find exactly what I was looking for, but did point me in the right direction.
In the meantime, I did a quick google search for a few animals that I know have visible differences: mallards ducks, lions, deer,–and sometimes, with certain animals, you really can't tell. So that's all I have for now and we can ask the school librarian, but I didn't have time last week.
For now, hopefully, he'll be satisfied with what I've got when I see him next, which is not much. At least I can provide him with some pictures of ducks, deer, and lion, that show one way we know.