Thursday, October 13, 2011

Estuary Experience: Teaching Outside the Box

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Today:
Shovels, wheelbarrows, hoes, rakes
Broken down wood palates, old newspapers, a mature bull moose sporting an impressive rack
Tights under my jeans, a down coat, a knit hat, boots, fleece mittens

Looking at our crew, you'd never know it was mid-October--and not mid-January.

The nip in the air has been increasing all week, with Monday's morning temperature in the low thirties, and today's dipping ten degrees lower. It was easy to see our breath as we gathered rotted wood and rusted barbed wire in an attempt to clean up city-owned property: an old homestead turned estuary.

Some of the teachers I work with discovered this service-learning opportunity a couple years ago and have taken students to this site to help with every phase of the project, from dismantling the original homestead and make-shift shacks to gathering up debris and trash from the surrounding area. The students were shuttled through different activities, from identifying local critters to observing and discussing the diverse bird population in the estuary, but many enjoyed the manual labor most. After all, how often do most teenagers get to dismantle rotting, wooden structures with brute force? How often do they get to destroy anything without getting in trouble?

Though the chill was enough to numb my fingers and toes by noon, by the end of the afternoon I could feel my face glowing from the sunshine. There is something satisfying about working alongside the students in something other than constructing stories. There is gratification in seeing a clean field where there was previously a generous spread of debris.

When we returned to school, we spread one of many treasures we found in the debris out on my classroom tables: newspapers from 1981. They marveled at the advertisements and the haircuts, and commented about the style of the televisions. They were in awe of the housing prices, which is perhaps what has changed most in the last thirty years, and noted the businesses with which they were still familiar. It is crazy to think that thirty years ago someone lived in a house on that abandoned field, on a bluff overlooking the ocean when now there is nothing now but ruins. Up in Alaska we have so few "old" structures, so little preserved, tangible history that experiencing old buried cow bones and newspapers mysteriously wrapped in plastic feels sort of like an archaeological dig.

Tomorrow we return to the norm: books, papers, pencils, bells. I hope in the return is a new sense of energy that can only come from running through fields of tall grass, working together in projects where I am no more skilled than they are. Yes, in the classroom I call the shots, but they have as much to contribute as I do. And hopefully today reminded them of that fact.

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