After summer in Acadia, Portland teacher brings nature to classroom

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PORTLAND — Kristen Fox, a second-grade teacher at Reiche Elementary School, took part in a teaching fellow program last summer at Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island.

Now she’s encouraging other teachers to apply for what she called a “magical experience.”

Fox said she was looking for a “summer job experience in an outdoor setting where I could develop knowledge and skills about conserving our natural world,” when she first heard about the teacher fellowship opportunity at Acadia.

“I wanted to both re-energize myself and learn how I could effectively engage my students in learning about and caring for our natural world,” she said this week about why she applied.

But more important than even her own inclination, Fox said, was the knowledge that “many of my students spend most of their time indoors and don’t even know that the ocean is within walking distance of our school.”

“I brought back many ideas that I (can) use with my students,” she added. “For example, a simple and effective lesson that all teachers can do is a phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, (which can be observed even in the) small patch of land right outside your classroom window.”

Engaging with youth and helping them to better understand and appreciate the natural world is the goal of the park’s annual teacher fellowship program.

Using teachers, the park is able to connect with students and share its mission in classrooms locally and across the country, according to the fellowship web page.

After spending six weeks of their summer in the park, “Teacher fellows will leave … with the resources to develop tailored, curriculum-based units that help students better understand their natural and cultural heritage,” the website states.

Fox said each month she now asks students to draw and describe what they are seeing out the window. “This provides a close look at the changes that happen throughout the year, and teaches students to closely observe and wonder about their natural surroundings,” she said.

Fox also feels that it’s “important for children to understand the interconnectedness of all living things and to understand what living things need to survive. Students need to understand how people depend on our natural world for survival, and how human actions can nurture or harm our natural world.”

In all, she said, seven teachers took part in the fellowship program at Acadia last summer. The majority were from Maine, but Fox said there were also teachers there from Rhode Island and New Jersey.

For six weeks, according to Fox, “We explored the forests, we went on educational boat excursions … and we even rode with a park law enforcement ranger for a day. Each day … was different and the range of activities we experienced provided us with a multidimensional view of how Acadia National Park is maintained.”

“Every day of those six weeks generated a favorite memory,” she said. But one of her most unique experiences was working alongside the forest ecology director at the Schoodic Institute for a day collecting data about trees. “He was documenting changes in the forest due to climate change,” Fox said.

“Another highlight of the summer was attending a conference with young scientists at the Schoodic Institute. The focus of the conference was using storytelling techniques to share scientific data (and) at the end of the day the teacher fellows … brainstormed ways to introduce science to children(in ways) that would be fun and engaging.”

Applications for the teaching fellowship are open through March 1 and the Acadia Park website describes the experience as “spending your summer hiking through spruce-fir forests, exploring tide pools, or sailing on clear waters in search of bald eagles, porpoises, and seals.”

Teacher fellows are welcome at either Acadia or the Saint Croix Island International Historic Site in Calais and applications are open to all full-time, public school teachers. Fellows are provided with uniforms, shared housing, if needed, and a $400 weekly stipend.

While spending the summer at one of the most beautiful spots in Maine is a benefit, the teacher fellows are also there to work.

They become part of the park’s interpretation and education division and are expected to create both an education project for the park, as well as prepare a place-based lesson plan that will be used later in their own classrooms.

The teacher fellows are also expected to explore the possibility of creating or enhancing outdoor classroom and climate change initiatives at their respective schools.

During their time in the park, the teacher fellows work with trained interpreters, field researchers, protection rangers, resource management staff, trail crews and citizen scientists, among other activities, according to the fellowship website.

What Fox most enjoyed was “meeting other teachers who share my values. Each teacher in our group cared deeply about their students, was passionate about Acadia National Park, and wanted to expand student knowledge and interest in the outdoors.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Kristen Fox, far right in the first row, is a second-grade teacher at Reiche Elementary in Portland. She spent last summer as an Acadia Teacher Fellow at Acadia National Park. Here she and the other teaching fellows enjoy a boat ride.

Kristen Fox described her six weeks spent at Acadia National Park last summer as a “magical experience.”

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