This One is For You Mr. Louv
by Mary Stone, M.Ed.
I have, without a doubt, my dream job. I teach environmental systems at Kerrville's Tivy High School. I get paid to be outside finding innovative ways to teach seniors environmental science. Most all of my resources are nature made and 5 minutes from my indoor classroom. Before I get too ahead of myself I want to back-track to the day before my interview for a biology teaching position at Tivy. I drove to the campus to be sure I knew how to get there. Tivy is nestled perfectly amongst the hills, the cedar and Live Oak trees in Kerrville. Much to my delight as I drove towards the school, I saw a small creek that ran parallel to the school on campus. This is Third Creek which is a small riparian system that flows past the school, past the waste water treatment plant and into the Guadalupe River. This kind of a resource on a school campus is extremely rare. I was ecstatic! I had to get the job first - then find out about that little jewel of a creek.
I taught freshman biology that year at Tivy and incorporated Third creek into my biology curriculum as often as possible. My students learned quickly that I was serious when I told them not to wear their best shoes on outdoor classroom days. From a biological perspective the creek is a study in homeostasis with abundant diversity in plant and animal life. There is a mix of still water ponds and shallow riffle areas that include springs and ferns. The macro invertebrates are abundant and all observed to be clean water indicators. Native plants such as button bush and Mulley grass are firmly attached to the slopes of the creek. We were all over the creek that year and saw skunks, deer, water snakes and unfortunately, lots of trash.
The following year the school brought in environmental systems as another science option for seniors. I was given the honor of teaching this class. From an environmental systems perspective I literally could plant my classroom outside on that creek and have my name plate affixed to a tree. Now I could seriously get busy uncovering the great potential of Third Creek. The main problem with the area is accessibility due to plant over¬growth, debris and trash from past flooding which has created some heavy congestion. I saw a few teachers in the English and history departments attempting to take their classes down to the creek but chose instead to organize their classes on the bridge over the creek that connects the campus to the athletic fields and tennis courts. There isn't any dear access to the creek for an organized class to form so this was the best option for them. Not far from the bridge is a grassy area along the creek about 40 yards in length that is shaded by a group of cedar elms. It is a tranquil setting around an area I call the frog pond that is gorgeous in late fall.
This spot would make a perfect outdoor classroom with its proximity next to the creek, the short distance from the school and the shade from the trees With this in mind I began asking my fellow teachers if they would consider bringing their classes down to the creek if there were an easily accessible area to gather and sit along the creek. I received an enthusiastic "YES" from all including the drama teacher who said she would definitely utilize a resource like that. It was time to call in the experts
I knew on riparian systems and native plants to get advice on how to proceed to create an outdoor
classroom along Third Creek for Tivy High School.
As with all ecosystems, if a change is made it can have a ripple effect all throughout it in some way even at the microscopic level. I had to be smart about this and not remove too many of the over-grown plants. The main plant in question is willow bacharis, a native plant with invasive characteristics. It is the overgrowth culprit but is considered important because the roots hold the soil in place when a flood comes through. The seeds of this plant are also an important food source for birds, Another sensitive area to be mindful of was a small grove of big, beautiful Black Walnut trees that are healthy and happy in their world along the creek.
Once my plan was in place, I needed funding and the best way to get it was through the Kerrville Public School Foundation (KPSF) and their grants for innovative teaching. Grant writing for busy teachers is not easy. It takes time to gather the information and to write in addition to juggling the rigors of teaching your classes. I believed in the project, had support from colleagues and administration, and had a sound plan. It took a month of writing and re-writing to get the grant to where I was satisfied with it. My family got tired of delivery pizza during this time but it was well worth it because the grant was awarded this spring! Tivy High School's Third Creek Classroom will be created during the 2015-2016 school year. The three-phase plan includes clearing congested areas of trash and debris, creating sitting areas for classes to meet with clear access to the creek for enrichment in both biology and environmental curriculum. Or maybe it will serve as a quiet place by the water for some inspiring writing by an English class? Studies show that schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of experiential education produce significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts and math. Children in outdoor education settings also show improvement in self¬esteem, problem solving and motivation to learn (American Institute for Research, Jan. 2005).
Tivy students will have a huge part in helping to form this outdoor classroom during the school yea and up to its completion by mid-April with the planting of new native plants and trees along the creek banks. I would like to give a loud shout-out to the Kerrville Public School Foundation! With their help, teachers can reach for the stars. Thanks to KPSF, Tivy High School's Third Creek Classroom will be a reality that will continue to evolve and grow as an educational resource for years to come.
"Everyone is entitled to a ho:me where the sun, the stars, open fields, giant trees and smiling flowers are free to teach an undisturbed lesson of life."
(Jens Jensen, 1930 - taken from Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv)