Bringing the World Home to Fairview

By Cindy McMahon

Global education: it’s a top priority for Buncombe County Schools. We want our students to understand their place in the larger network of the world, and that starts with the teachers. What’s the best way for teachers to bring the world to their classroom? They need to get out in it!

Jennifer Williams, a 6th grade teacher now in her 14th year at Reynolds Middle School, was granted a wonderful international and educational experience this past summer, thanks to the Tropical Ecology Institute.

The Tropical Ecology Institute is one of several Educators of Excellence Institutes offered by the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. The purpose of the Educators of Excellence Institutes is “to enable exemplary educators to experience the natural world in selected outstanding environments, increase the use of reflection and direct environmental experience in teaching, become inspired and recommitted to the teaching profession, and become part of a statewide network of exceptional educators for continued support and learning.” Science teachers and school administrators may apply for these programs, which are subsidized by the Friends of the Museum Educators of Excellence Fund.

The Tropical Ecology Institute began in 1987. Nearly every year since then, a group of outstanding NC educators has traveled to Belize, where they are joined by Belizean teachers. This select group explores Belize for nine days, finding learning, adventure, and volunteer opportunities from the mountains to the sea.

Williams’ group, made up of twelve NC teachers (including one other from Buncombe County) and two from Belize, arrived in Belize City on July 25. From there they made their way west to the Bermudian Landing Howler Monkey Sanctuary and then to the Cayo District, where they spent three days. The group went into the jungle and found tracks of a tapir, the national animal of Belize and exceedingly rare in the wild. They canoed down the Macal River and hiked to Mayan ruins. All along the way they learned about the jungle wildlife around them: tropical flowers, huge caterpillars, colorful birds, iguanas hanging from trees, and much more.

The Educators of Excellence then left the mountains for the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve, located near the village of Maya Center. Though sleeping in the Jaguar Preserve felt a little dicey for some, they enjoyed the night hike, where they were able to see tree frogs in the dark. They met Sharon Matola, environmentalist, founder of the Belize Zoo, and author of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw. And in nearby Monkey River Town, they volunteered at the K-8 school, where Williams helped a group of students create a paper quilt of hand-drawn Belizean animals.

The final third of the trip was spent on, around, and under the ocean. The group took a boat to South Water Caye, located on the Great Barrier Reef of Belize, the second largest reef in the world. This part of the trip included both highs and lows. They saw teeming sea life while snorkeling around the reef and watched five newborn turtles make their way to the sea. But they also faced the disturbing experience of snorkeling through a part of the ocean clogged with plastic garbage.

The trip to the tropics was clearly an amazing experience for Jennifer and the other Educators of Excellence on this trip. But the impact of the Tropical Ecology Institute is intended to stretch far beyond the nine days in Belize.

So I asked Williams: how has this experience changed your approach as a 6th grade science teacher? She answered, “I experienced many different environments during this trip. I am able to talk with my students about a rain forest and share a real-life experience with them. We talk at great lengths about the plastic in our environment and how it’s polluting our oceans —seeing the plastic in the ocean makes it that much more real and brings an awareness to my teaching that I didn’t have before.”

This is precisely the purpose of Buncombe County’s global education focus: to bring the whole world into the classroom, and make learning come alive for our students.

Cindy McMahon is the Reynolds District Representative, Buncombe County School Board. Contact: cindy.mcmahon@bcsemail.edu.

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