Teachers from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania participated in CBF's Chesapeake Classrooms Teacher Professional Development courses this summer. Three of them agreed to share their experiences with us. Today's guest blog is by Claire Gardner, a first-grade teacher at Cedar Grove Elementary School in Germantown, Maryland. Photos by Bill Portlock and CBF staff.
Sometimes teachers get so busy trying to inform, that we squander our chances to help students form. We lose sight of what is important. But my week with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation brought everything back into focus, and my goals for the new school year include taking time (and making time) to allow my students to connect with nature. The Chesapeake Classrooms course allowed me to become a student again and realize the value of these necessary experiences. More than half of our group had attended a CBF summer immersion course before. As CBF ‘veterans,' we could allow ourselves to enjoy the full experience since many of the ‘unknown concerns' had been addressed in previous settings. After all, aren't we like our students: how many times (and how many ways) must a concept be presented before it is truly part of our base of knowledge?We were led by Bart Jaeger with collaboration from Shawn Ridgely, Adam Wickline and Bob Lehman. These educators love the Bay. They love it because they know it, and they know the Bay because they experience it with every fiber of their being; I think brackish water must flow along with the blood that runs through their veins. I would be willing to bet that they are truly at their happiest when totally immersed in the bio-region of the Chesapeake Bay.
We started the week's study at the Horn Point Laboratory outside Cambridge, MD, learning about the lab's role in identifying solutions for restoring the Bay, which include researching submerged aquatic vegetation, and providing the largest hatchery on the East Coast for developing oyster spat used to re-seed depleted oyster beds. As we continued driving through the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, we all marveled as I braked for a heron and egret as they gracefully lifted their long legs, searching for food at the road's edge. Since the road went directly through the marsh (and is occasionally underwater at high tide), extra caution was needed when driving. This gave us an opportunity to slow down and observe; this was a fitting and important prelude to the entire week. The road led us to CBF's Karen Noonan Study Center, a renovated hunting lodge and an Environmental Education Center dedicated to the memory of Karen E. Noonan, a young teacher who perished in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
After dinner, Bart guided us through the development of our organizing question: How has the change in natural and social systems affected the health of the Chesapeake Bay? Already, the experiences from the afternoon and evening were helping us formulate a response. We found that we were steadily refining the question and looking at it from different points of view as the learning continued throughout the week. Again, aren't we like our students; don't we want them to form opinions and responses based on thorough consideration?
The next day brought canoeing, marsh mucking, bay wading, shore exploring, a trip to Deal Island, oyster dredging, a crab feast, and a light show provided by Mother Nature. The canoeing, mucking, wading, and exploring were all combined in our study of the natural system of the marsh as we discovered its value, purpose and function. On closer inspection, we found a diversity of vegetation and animals and a discussion of interdependence followed. The experiences of this day were empowering; don't we want our students to gain and feel the empowerment of accomplishing goals that may have previously been denied because of fear or lack of exposure to an activity? Isn't a stronger sense of self an essential goal for all students?
The next morning, we said, "Goodbye," to the conveniences of water pressure, electric lights, and air conditioning. Our trek to Fox Island would be by way of proggin' on Holland Island, passing South Marsh Island and the Martin Wildlife Refuge, and visiting the communities on Smith Island. These events brought us face-to-face with the ‘social systems' portion of our organizing question; these communities are shrinking just as quickly as erosion is claiming their shoreline. Our visit allowed us to see first hand the fierce pride and determination that embody the Islanders. While we question the effects of the social and natural systems on the health of the Bay, I cannot help but wonder about the influences of the social and natural systems upon each other.
We watched with awe (and a little fear) as an evening storm approached and inundated the lodge. With all manmade distractions (and conveniences) stripped away, it was a chance to reconnect with nature and find the wholeness that we often don't even realize is missing. Fox Island is magical to me; it provided a means to "strengthen the core skills underlying all learning: concentration, observation, relaxation, and open, receptive awareness with a positive, curious attitude." (*McHenry and Brady, 2009) As a class, our best discussions and exchanges happened at Fox. At our final group meeting, Bart encouraged us to use what we'd learned and experienced to influence how we teach our students: "You're good enough. You're strong enough. People like you. Make it happen." I feel privileged to have been on such an inspiring adventure! As teachers, don't we all want to have that kind of positive impact on our students?
A plaque on a bench by the dock at Fox put everything in perspective: ‘Open Spaces, Sacred Places.' What a perfect setting to sort things out and focus on the impact of our actions. We were given the opportunity to see the big picture and come to the realization that we have more power than we know. We may now have more questions than answers, but we are able to ask them through a filter of respect for this fragile, vulnerable, one-of-a-kind, no-other-place-on-earth crossroads that has retained its ‘wildness.' I look forward to helping my students find meaningful, authentic learning experiences in nature; wild is the way!*McHenry, Irene and Richard Brady (2009). Tuning In: Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning, Friends Council on Education