Chesapeake Bay watershed provides classroom for Hampton teachers

On a hot, sunny Thursday morning, tucked inside a freshwater marsh near the Chickahominy River, a group of people floated in canoes with names like Menhaden and Osprey.

There, with a great blue heron skimming the water in the distance, they made solemn oaths, some with mud from the marsh bed below smeared on their faces.

“I promise to enjoy all of the functions of the marsh, because it’s amazing,” they enthusiastically swore, following the lead of Kathlean Davis, program manager for the Elisabeth Reed Carter Virginia Canoe Environmental Education Program.

“And it’s squishy. And it’s smelly. But most of all, it’s great for the bay in these five ways: food, filter, function, flood control and protection. And I will do my very best to share this knowledge with everyone I know.”

The Hampton City Schools teachers had paddled there in canoes, paired in groups of two or three, from a launch at Gordon Creek along Chickahominy Riverfront Park in James City County.

It wasn’t their first water-based activity that week: they explored a broad swath of the types of the Peninsula’s waterways that affect the Chesapeake Bay.

Monday was spent canoeing Sandy Bottom Lake; tests conducted there were compared to what they saw along the creek and inside the marsh Thursday.

Tuesday included a trek to Grandview Nature Preserve, where scoops of water revealed a seahorse.

Wednesday was a boat ride along the Warwick and James River. On Friday, they headed to Fort Monroe to test what they had learned so they could take it back to their classrooms.

The week of professional development, put on by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for the 26 teachers, is part of the science department’s HELP — Hampton Environmental Literacy Training — program.

This is the third year of HELP, which is funded through a $360,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Basically the whole point is to make sure that we get environmental literacy out to our students because it fits into our curriculum beautifully. It starts at fourth grade and we go all the way through seniors,” said Venicia Ferrell, science curriculum leader for Hampton City Schools.

“This year we’re actually looking at more of a focus of the life science,” she said, which is covered in tests taken in fifth and eighth grades, as well as high school biology.

Teachers across those grade levels flexed their muscles Thursday by also designing and building traps for marine life out of wire mesh, zip ties and whatever natural resources they scavenged from the campsite along the creek.

The baits of raw chicken, or perhaps just the few hours they were tied to the dock, weren’t enough to entice any crabs or fish to the traps. But that didn’t discourage the group.

As they looked at the school year ahead, they talked about ways they could use the traps again with their classes, or find a way to incorporate what they’d learned with drawings they had made about their goals for their schools.

Tirzah Sarro, instructional leader for science at Phoebus High School, looked at her sketch for her plans. She had drawn two interlocked hands filled with fruits, vegetables, free little libraries, recycling bins. The question she wanted to answer was, “how can we best share our campus with the community?”

She envisioned an aquaponics garden, greenhouse and spaces to enjoy the environment with members of the neighborhood who often cut through campus, giving students an opportunity to get hands-on learning experience.

With the NOAA grant ending this year, the week was capped off with what essentially was a science fair of local community partners for the science teachers to find those opportunities like Sarro’s.

They’ll need to find resources that aren’t funded through that grant, and organizations like the Virginia Zoo, Peninsula chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists and Virginia Cooperative Extension explained what they have to offer.

“They’ve been working all week on what they’re going to do with their students and how it’s going to fit into their curriculum,” Ferrell said. “We give them suggestions but we want them to go a step further than that. Some of them are doing school gardens, some of them are doing rain gardens, some of them are going to do just school habitats. Some of them are doing oyster restoration. They’re going to do all different kinds of things.

“All the great things that they’re doing, we want that to continue, but not just continue in their schools, in their homes as well. So that’s that whole civic responsibility that we want them to understand, and being good stewards of their community and of course being environmental citizens.”

Hammond can be reached by phone at 757-247-4951 or on Twitter @byjanehammond.

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