Originally published here.
By H.M. Cauley, For the AJC
When classes at the Greater Atlanta Christian School went on hiatus in March, few faculty members thought the disruption would last more than a few weeks.
“Then we were told we weren’t coming back,” recalled Lisa Chase, the school’s lead environmental teacher. “All I could think about was how kids were going to be spending more time in front of their computers, without athletics and other activities to get them outside.”
While many classes have forced students to sit in front of screens, Chase took a different approach.
“In my class, we leave the computers and iPads, and spend time outside,” she said. “So I started trying to find ways to connect the curriculum with what was happening at home and to get them out of the digital world.”
Chase couldn’t replicate the Norcross school’s greenhouse, chicken coop and koi pond with its herons and frogs. Nor could she ask her third, fourth and fifth graders to grow their own aquaponic plants.
“Not everyone even has a garden, but I wanted to bridge what we do at school and how it applies to their homes,” she said.
So Chase began by turning her students’ attention to birds. “At this time of the season, there’s a lot of migration and baby birds. I asked them to observe birds in different places, and it was interesting to see that they were learning and hearing things they never had.”
The results were impressively creative. One student conducted a neighborhood safari that involved drawing animals and putting them in the scene. Another took a collection of stuffed birds and put them in trees, then narrated a video of them ala British natural historian David Attenborough.
“He even did it in a British accent that made me giggle,” said Chase.
Her next idea was to tap into that perennial kid-pleaser: worms.
“At school, we have compost with worms, and the kids love to get their hands in there and play with them,” she said. “We talk about taking care of the Earth by recycling and how other creatures are decomposers. So I wanted to engage them to think about where they’d find things that are decomposing around where they live.”
Students were challenged to get outside, discover places where worms abound and send in photos. The top responses earned special recognition: a visit from Chase’s “Prize Wagon” – her car packed with goodies such as small flowerpots, insect pencils, organic gummy candies and a recipe for dessert dubbed “worms and dirt.”
Chase’s car is now part of her classroom as she drives an average of 110 miles on prize days to deliver rewards to as many as four students who live as close as Norcross and as far as Braselton.
“The kids are very excited to see me and their prizes,” she said. “If I give them something to cook or make, I get pictures later in the week. I gave them bug jars, and I got emails about how they can’t wait to spend the summer with lightning bugs on their nightstands.”
Being out in the natural world has other benefits, Chase points out. “So many studies talk about how being in nature encourages kids to be more creative. They see the creativity in nature, and that also reduces depression. At the same time, I don’t want them to miss out on this part of their learning, even though they’re mostly inside and not going anywhere.”