Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Day in the Life of an AmeriCorps: Adventures in Teaching

The wind gusts, waves crash, and the sun sleeps in. The 'Open' signs are stowed away in the Marine Exhibit, awaiting the spring season. Many people think the Marine Science Center slows down in the winter, but I'm going to let you in on a secret... We never slow down! (As proof, I started this blog post in February and just now have time to finish it.)

While the exhibits may appear closed, behind those doors something crazy and wonderful is happening. We call this phenomenon:

Free Science Classes

Over the months of January and February, an excess of 700 squirmy elementary kids swarmed the touch tanks and beaches, searching for crabs and marveling at intertidal invertebrates. Across the street, at the Natural History Exhibit, their classmates dressed up as birds, examined stuffed specimen, and conducted bird surveys.

Each year, the Marine Science Center offers science classes to schools around the state, free of charge! We pick two classes from our selection of amazing curricula (or make two new ones), and the AmeriCorps team up to teach them, oh about 40 different times. 
This year's classes were Crab Lab and Birds of Shore and Sea

So what's it like teaching 4th and 5th graders?? Take a closer look with me, as we dive into the inner-workings of my life on a Free Science Class day.

At 6:00am the alarm goes off, but it's Mango that actually gets me out of bed. She is so excited to be awake she can hardly contain herself. Since I will be wiped out by this evening, I'm forced into early morning runs. I chase Mango through the woods, then hustle back to get ready for work. I inhale breakfast (a bowl of cereal with a few dribbles of flax milk since I keep forgetting to buy more), slap together a PB&J for lunch and grab any snacks in sight, then fly out the door. I hop on my bike, promptly realize I forgot my bike lights, get off my bike, zip back inside, return with the missing items, and peddle, peddle, peddle!

By 8:00am I am pulling out the class material, clipping worksheets to clipboards, arranging chairs, and writing the schedule on the white board, all at once. An hour later, the call from my fellow AmeriCorps comes over the walkie-talkie, "Yellow bus at the top of the hill!", "Roger that! Over and out." I reply.

We wave to the kids, greet the teachers, and direct the whole lot of them straight to the restrooms. Classes never start on time. We quickly hash out a plan of how to make up for lost time. One class heads out to the pier for Crab Lab, following at the heels of my AmeriCorps partner, and the other mobs me at the entrance to the Natural History Exhibit. Then the fun begins.

"Raise your hand if you already know birds are cool" I say, and 25 arms shoot up into the air, including my own. "Great! My job is done. We can all go home now" I joke. We spend the next hour and half learning about bird characteristics, adaptations that help marine birds survive in their environment, and getting up close and personal with "study skins", which are stuffed birds that do not fly away no matter how crazy or loud we are (and believe me, we are both). As exciting as the class activities are, the highlight is at the end, when we all go bird watching.

Someone points excitedly to the mossy roof of the Marine Exhibit. Fifteen pairs of bright yellow binoculars zoom to the left, along with fifteen bird guides attached to sticky fourth-grade fingers. Their faces light up as they successfully identify and count their first sighting-- about 30 rock pigeons.

Twenty minutes later, we file back into the classroom, briefly recap what we learned, and then record our bird survey data onto brightly colored bar graphs. By this time, nobody can hear me over the rumble of their own stomachs. Finally, the moment they have all been waiting for arrives: LUNCH! I release the pack of hungry wolves. They chow down their food at the beach, beneath the watchful eye of several crows and a handful of chaperones.

Meanwhile, back in the classrooms, we get ready for Round Two! When lunch ends, the classes switch and we do it all over again.

After waving goodbye to the kids and watching the yellow bus climb back up the hill, I undo everything I did that morning. I put away the class material, unclip the worksheets from the clipboards, put away the chairs, and erase the white board. I also wipe wet-erase marker off of 30 bird ID guides, sweep the floor, untangle the binoculars, and make sure the beach is free of wrappers. More than once it has crossed my mind that I spend double the amount of time preparing for the classes and cleaning up afterwards than I do actually teaching them.

After the kids leave and the sugar high of teaching has dissolved, I crash hard. My body is physically drained of energy and my brain refuses to do anything resembling productivity. So I sit down, breathe a few deep breaths, and read the students remarks on their favorite part of the day.

"What was your favorite part about today's classes?"
Written on nearly everyone's paper are the words "Bird watching" scrawled in typical fourth-grade fashion. Some even say the best part was having wonderful teachers. It fills me with pride. This, my friends, is why I love teaching. Sure it's exhausting, but it is also exhilarating, exciting, inspiring, and rewarding.

Words of encouragement from a fifth grader.
Teaching young minds to appreciate nature is imperative to the conservation of the Salish Sea and beyond. Through Free Science Classes at the Marine Science Center, kids are given a chance to see first-hand the splendor of a marine bird, learn the importance of crabs, and so much more. If even one of our short-term students decides to pursue environmental conservation, it will have been worth every exhausted evening and frantic morning that we put in. Call me optimistic, but I think there will be more than one.

Thumbs up to science!

Danae Presler

AmeriCorps member
Environmental Educator
Birding Enthusiast

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