What Does a Teacher Look Like?

Yesterday I walked up to a group of fifth graders for their first class with us.  As I started to introduce myself, a boy asked incredulously, “Do you work here?”

“Yes,” I said, “I’m you’re teacher.”

“Really?  You don’t look much like a teacher.”

What does a teacher look like?  To him, apparently, not like a young woman in a t-shirt, ragged jeans, and dirt-encrusted boots, her wild brown hair tied back in two uneven ponytails, who encourages them to taste the sand so that they’ll remember forever that the marsh is salty and uses the word “farts” to describe the smell of the rich black marsh mud.  Whatever.  As long as he learned a thing or two in marsh class, I earned the right to call myself a teacher.

Important Announcement!

I got some very exciting news last night: I’ve been accepted into the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point’s graduate fellowship program in environmental education. What this means is that in July I’ll be moving to Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin (which is in the wilderness up near the border with UP Michigan) to spend the next two years working at a conservation-themed semester school for high school students while simultaneously completing my MS degree in natural resources with an emphasis on residential environmental education.

Obviously moving from the coast of Georgia to northern Wisconsin is going to be a big change – for our Friday staff meeting this afternoon my boss, coworkers and I went to Dairy Queen and sat outside in the warm, sunny weather eating ice cream, something I doubt I’ll be doing this time next February. But I’m really looking forward to it, because it’s a gorgeous part of the country. I know a fair number of you who read this blog have started doing so since I moved to Georgia and may have a special interest in this area, but I really hope you’ll all stick with me when I head to the North Woods. It’s going to be an adventure.

Anyway, I’m still going to be here on Jekyll Island until at least the end of May, so there’s time yet. Right now it’s time to head out for my afternoon constitutional on the beach!


Often visiting school groups here will have campfires for their kids after dark, and last night it was my job to make sure the fire was really, truly, completely out before I went to bed. (They have a nasty habit of re-igniting during the night if the wind comes up.) By nine-thirty, the students were back in the dorm packing and getting ready for bed, but several parent chaperons were still socializing around the fire. Fine with me; I watched TV in the staff lounge and poked my head out the door during commercials to see if they were done yet, in no hurry as long as I had a new episode of Bones to keep me entertained.

The third or fourth time I peeked outside, though, I spotted a pair of raccoons raiding the garbage cans in the pavilion. I hate raccoons, at least when they’ve become habituated to humans and raid garbage cans and make messes, so I stomped across the deck toward them yelling “Go away!  Go away!” and waving my arms until the two mangy vermin finally fled toward the bushes. I watched them disappear and then turned toward the fire circle.

The parents had heard my shouting and stomping and were now watching me with alarm.  “We’re – we’re sorry,” the said.  “We’re going now.  We swear.  See, look, we’re pouring the water on the fire and everything.”

I did my best to convince them I’d been talking to the raccoons, not them.  They believed me… mostly.

Bird Behavior, Kid Behavior

I taught an ornithology class for a group of seventh graders this afternoon.  As I often do, I started out by trying to convey to them that birds are something I’m passionate about, not just something I’m assigned to teach them about. “I own my own binoculars,” I said. “I own about five field guides.  I keep a list of the bird species I’ve seen.”  As I told them this, one girl in particular – twelve years old going on twenty-one, you know the type – was eyeing me with scorn, like keeping a life bird list made me the weirdest, most uncool person she’d ever met.

After we’d done an activity matching photos of birds’ bills and feet to the behaviors they’re adapted for, I passed out binoculars to each of them and we headed for a nearby pond that’s often a good place to see herons and egrets and ibises, flashy birds that are good for impressing kids.  At first it looked like there wasn’t much activity there and I was worried I was going to lose their interest, but then came the anhinga.

It appeared swimming as anhingas often do, with only its head and its impossibly long, slender neck out of the water, like some kind of miniature sea monster.  In its beak was a fish, which glinted in the sunlight as it struggled.  The bird was making for the bank at top speed.  Twelve seventh-graders, two chaperones, and I watched the race: would the anhinga make it to land with its prize before it lost its grip and the fish escaped?  Finally the gangly bird reached its goal, hopped up onto a branch, and gulped down its lunch.

Miss twelve-going-on-twenty-one had followed the drama through her binoculars.  Now she lowered them and turned to me. “I didn’t get before, why someone would ever want to just stand around looking at birds,” she said. “Now I get it.  This is cool.”

So that was my day.

Kids Say the Darndest… Well, You Know

This is just a quickie post before I go to bed, but I was thinking back to something a fifth-grader said to me today at lunch, shortly before he and his classmates were to leave Jekyll Island and head home.  He was lamenting the fact that he had to go back to normal school after his three days at the environmental education center.  “It’s just so cool,” he said fervently, “when what you’re learning about is right there in front of you!”

There you go, straight from the horse’s – uh, child’s – mouth, the justification for outdoor, place-based education boiled down to its simplest form.  Even the fact that the school day here is far longer than his conventional one at home (our afternoon classes don’t end until almost five, and there are often evening classes as well, a long day for an eleven-year-old) didn’t dim his enthusiasm.  This is just the latest addition to my store of memories of kids’ light bulb moments, like the girl who commented thoughtfully that demonstrations are much easier to understand than explanations, or the seventh-grader who suddenly got the concept of adaptation for the first time when I showed her how a swimming crab’s legs are different from a land crab’s.  You never know what will get that spark going.

Environmental education: where what you’re learning about is right in front of you.

Intrinsic Value

For an environmental educator, particularly one working with kids, it’s important to always emphasize why we should even care about the organisms and ecosystems around us.  Why is a salt marsh more than just non-potable water with grass growing in it?  Why isn’t the only good snake a dead snake?  I always have to have a list of reasons I can rattle off.  Marshes are important because they protect us from hurricanes and filter water and provide a nursery for economically important species.  Birds are important because they disperse seeds and eat nuisance insects, because they provide recreation for hunters and birders, etc., etc., etc.

Somewhere way down on the list someone might mention the cultural significance of birds – the Bald Eagle as a patriotic symbol, for example.  And below that, an afterthought, one might toss in the phrase “intrinsic value.”  Birds are cool.  Just because.

It bothers me immensely that intrinsic value is the almost-forgotten tail-end of the list of reasons to care about birds.

Don’t get me wrong.  If talking about mosquito control and the economic significance of birding will get more people interested in conservation, I’m all for it, and I also understand that the concept of intrinsic value gets into ethics and philosophy in a way that’s above the heads of most of the middle-schoolers I’m teaching.  But it’s important.

Birds (and marshes and frogs and insects and what have you) have value simply by existing.  If they had no economic value whatsoever, birds would still have a right to exist.  It’s incredibly arrogant to rate other species solely based on how they benefit us.  Every species has a necessary role to play in the functioning of its ecosystem, whether it’s perceptible to us or not.

When I took my first introductory zoology class in college – five years ago seems like a lifetime now – the professor diligently pointed out all the instances of anthropomorphism in my lab reports, curbing what she (perhaps correctly) saw as a bad habit.  Anthropomorphism is defined as the attribution of human characteristics to animals or non-living things; in science writing it’s considered bad form to imply that an animal might be frightened or angry or excited, despite the fact that anyone who’s ever lived with a dog or a cat knows that animals experience all these things.  In my opinion, the greater sin is not anthropomorphism but anthropocentrism, regarding humans as the most important species on the planet and measuring everything else by how we can benefit from it.

The Palm Warblers I saw on the golf course this evening were passing through on their way to their winter home in Central America or the Caribbean.  I have no idea whether any of them ever ate a mosquito that might have caused someone an itchy bite otherwise, or how many birders have ever looked at one of them with an expensive pair of binoculars that helped stimulate the economy, but I do know that the world would be a lesser place without Palm Warblers.  Here’s hoping that’s a world we’ll never have to experience.

Environmental Education à la… Spongebob?

When you think of educational television for kids, this may not be the first thing that comes to mind:

Yeah, I can’t believe it either, but lately I find myself using Spongebob as a point of reference when teaching kids about the natural history of marine invertebrates.  It started when I told a class that the clam whose shell I was holding was a filter feeder, and started to explain what filter feeding is only to have one of them pipe up say, “Oh yeah, like Spongebob!”  Apparently the cartoon occasionally shows him filter feeding just like a real sponge.  Now I find myself doing some Googling to figure out whether Mr. Krabs is a hermit crab or a true crab.  If he’s a true crab, has he ever been depicted molting, I wonder?

It isn’t just Spongebob, either; the other bit of pop culture that seems to come up regularly is Finding Nemo.  When I take kids to the salt marsh we talk about how the marsh serves as a nursery for baby fish, who are much safer from predators there than in the open ocean.  “Like how Nemo was supposed to stay on the reef?”  Yes.  Exactly.  Where the barracudas couldn’t get him.

Honestly, if it teaches kids something about nature, I am all for it.  Just so long as they understand that sea stars don’t really wear swim trunks!