Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Smith Island

Since the beginning of the summer I've had limited work days.  I go into my office approximately 1-2 times a week to check things & make sure nothing is falling behind, complete some stuff before the new school year begins...that kind of stuff.  Which means that I've been home a lot more than not & recently I became friends on Facebook with about 5 of my former students from when I was in the classroom around 1998-2002.  None of this is especially remarkable except that during this time I was allowed to really plan my own curriculum which I did in what is considered an "experiential learning" environment.  And what would I create an experiential curriculum on you might ask?  The Chesapeake Bay of course! We spent an entire year adapting the regular curriculum to the Chesapeake Bay.  I did this in conjunction with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's school trips http://www.cbf.org/page.aspx?pid=260& their curricula as well.  In 2000, I'd participated in a 5-day teacher's trip to learn about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's programs for kids--starting in the Inner Harbor to Annapolis to Smith Island, MD. It was amazing & I came back from that determined to take my students through these experiences as well.  

A little background: I worked for what is called a "non-public" school.  This means that it is a state-funded school that the public schools send their students when they are unable to provide the level of service needed to educate them in a regular public school setting. This school was for students with very serious disabilities.  In this particular case all of my students were labeled with an emotional disability (back then called seriously emotionally disturbed or SED).  Many of them also had very intense ADHD & learning disabilities & most took some serious medications too.  So needless to say, these kids were very tough to handle at times (chairs thrown, anyone?) But also most of these kids were VERY smart too.  I recognized that they really needed to be challenged academically which brought me to my plan to take these kids, meds & all, to Smith Island for three days to explore the Chesapeake Bay. Crazy, right??

Not so much.  As I said, these kids were smart.  They were also very limited in their exposure to the world beyond their very urban city blocks. I was determined to expand their worldview so that they knew that there was so much more that the world had to offer them if they just went & looked for it. And so began my year-long quest.  In order to go, we had to have a "service learning" type project.  We chose stream renewal-we did water testing on the Herring Run, planted trees, & cleaned up the streams in our area.  We started in the fall by going on one of the Bay Foundation trips to the Inner Harbor & out to Fort Carroll to look at oyster environments & then in early spring we went on the Stanley Norman, a skipjack out of Annapolis--again looking at oysters & Bay ecology.  What I wanted the kids to do was compare & contrast each area on the bay--from right around their neighborhoods in Baltimore to down in Annapolis (more wildlife according to the kids) & then finally all the way down to Smith Island in late spring.  And in 2001 & 2002, I took my class & about 10 school staff down to Tylerton on Smith Island. I must thank all of the adults who made this possible because without them, we would never have been able to accomplish this amazing journey.  And it was amazing which brings me back to why I wrote this post so many years after the fact.

When I friended these former students on FB, they all said how much that trip changed them & how, when times are tough, they think back on when they were in my class & how much I pushed them to become better people.  They all thanked me & posted very public statements about how I cared about them when no other teachers did.  That is the best reward that any teacher can get. And I'm happy to say that most are doing OK, if not doing pretty good--college for some, & most are working.  These kiddos were my "dream class"--they were always willing to try any hair-brained scheme I wanted to do, & fully embraced all of the challenges I threw up against them--& they excelled despite their circumstances.  They are my heroes really.  Because of them, & their enthusiasm, I have continued to support Bay causes & tomorrow, going full circle if you will, I am taking my son down to Smith Island as I promised him years ago.  I want him to experience some of what my students saw & did.  I have been inspired by them to continue the experience.

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