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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 28, 2010
Over $5K in grants allows BKW students to learn about ecology in a real ecosystem
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
HILLTOWNS Children race through the sun-dappled forest, hiding behind bushes, peeking out from tree trunks. They are looking at Chad Jemison.
Jemison stands with his eyes closed and his arms crossed. He is the predator. The kids are his prey. When he opens his eyes, whoever he sees is out of the game.
Jemison is not just the predator; he is also the executive director of the Huyck Preserve and Biological Research Station in Rensselaerville. This is not a simple game of hide and seek.
The kids, fourth-graders at Berne-Knox-Westerlo, are learning about ecology. Last week, they learned about three distinct ecosystems at the Huyck Preserve a hemlock forest, a red pine plantation, and a mixed deciduous area.
“The kids observed characteristics of each environment,” said Agnes Zellin, a fourth-grade teacher at BKW who developed the program with Jemison. The fourth-graders discovered, through playing Predator and Prey, that the area with deciduous trees has more undergrowth; this is because the leaves fall off of the trees, allowing more sunlight to fall on the forest floor.
“‘Deciduous’ has become the kids’ favorite word,” said Zellin this week. Expanding their vocabulary was part of her plan.
Zellin is the science coordinator for the Berne elementary school. She wanted to make use of the natural world that surrounds the school as generations of BKW teachers have before her.
“If you’re studying ecology in the classroom,” she said, “it makes sense to bring them into the real ecosystem. It seems incomplete to teach just from a textbook.”
It is her goal and the goal of the two fourth-grade teachers with whom she works Bill Dergosits and Carol Willsey “to help kids develop a love of the environment so they will become its stewards,” said Zellin.
Zellin applied for and received a $750 Educational Alliance Grant from Exxon Mobil, which started the project.
A hiker who has climbed half of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks, she enjoys the Huyck Preserve and talked to Jemison about the grant and bringing her students to the preserve. He suggested she apply to the Bender Scientific Fund of the Community Foundation of the Greater Capital Region.
So Zellin worked with Dergosits and Willsey on a detailed application, and they were awarded the $5,520 they had requested. All three fourth-grade classes will make three trips this school year to the preserve. Last week’s trips were the first. The second trip, on water systems, will take place in early April, and the final trip will be in mid-June, near the end of the school year.
“This is a wonderful success story for BKW in getting this additional funding and opportunity for local students in this time when budgets for field trips are being slashed,” said Jemison. “It is also an example of organizations working together in the Hilltowns to support one another.”
“We see this first year as a pilot,” Zellin said, “and hope to make a permanent partnership between the Huyck Preserve and the school.”
Ways of learning
Zellin, who grew up in Brooklyn, fondly remembers childhood visits to relatives in New Jersey where she could play on her own by a stream and learn about the natural world.
“These days, there are a lot of fears of deer ticks, of being on your own and we all spend so many hours at the computer that that kind of discovery often doesn’t take place,” she said.
Zellin laughed and went on, “Maybe it’s just me wanting to be a kid with my kids and feel that freedom.”
The fourth-grade classrooms in Berne have tall plastic columns made of soda bottles where the students are creating terrariums and aquariums. “The kids are doing a series of observational studies on how ecosystems interact with and depend on each other,” said Zellin.
The grants are allowing the fourth-grade teachers to connect the classroom learning with the Huck Preserve learning. “The curriculum is being written as we go along,” said Zellin.
Learning objectives for last week‘s field trip included identifying differences and similarities in the three forest communities; citing examples of flora, fauna, and decomposers; understanding how predator and prey species are aware of their community; and explaining how, in an ecosystem, the abiotic factors, plants, animals, and decomposers work with each other.
Mindful of the required state science test, the teachers have incorporated fourth-grade vocabulary into the studies. The kids on last week’s field trips discussed “abiotic” or nonliving elements, like temperature, moisture, sunlight, and wind that make up an ecosystem. They also learned about “biotic” or living elements.
Each sat for three minutes with a friend, observing the characteristics of the environments they visited. Together, they wrote a list in their journals of how many different living things they observed in the community.
Sometimes, their learning crossed out of the scientific realm into other fields. For example, when they visited the red pine plantation, they saw the tall trees were planted in rows, unlike the natural planting in the hemlock forest.
“Chad told them how, when things don’t grow naturally, it reduces their ability to grow strong,” said Zellin and the kids could see how the tops of some of the trees in the plantation had been chopped off in a windstorm.
They also learned that immigrants had planted the trees in the 1900s to make telephone poles. “I’m learning stuff I didn’t know,” said Zellin.
Zellin also used the trip to the preserve to hone her students’ writing skills. “I had my kids do reflective writing in their journals,” she said.
Zellin, who is 56, started teaching eight years ago as a second career. She had been the public policy director for the New York State Child Care Coordinating Council. “I was working on early care and education issues and the importance of education in the classroom,” she said. “Educators helped me be a better policy person.”
And, having a child of her own he’s now 20 led her to be very involved in his education.
Zellin says she is still learning what it means to live in rural New York. Her husband, Paul Tick, is the manager of the Delmar farmers’ market, something the couple started “to become supportive of the people around us the farmers,” said Zellin.
“We all need to pay attention to our environment and learn about the ecosystem that is so well balanced yet so easily unbalanced, mostly by our own doing,” said Zellin.
She said she is very grateful for a supportive principal and other teachers at BKW, especially in an era when teachers are so burdened by the emphasis put on test performance.
Zellin said of the sort of hands-on environmental learning the fourth-graders are so excited about, “This does help to temper the emphasis on testing, which tends to drag you back to the grill and drill approach to teaching. Those methods are not long lasting. They don’t create minds that question, challenge, and imagine what is possible. This is a fresh-air approach in the midst of high-demand testing.”