Saturday, December 14, 2013

Neighborhoods Turn into Living Classrooms

By Tracy Leavenworth and Sage Passi

Conrad Freeks, longtime Beaver Lake resident shares his stories and perspective with
L'Etoile du Nord fourth graders.

This fall two fourth-grade classes from L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion and a second grade class from Battle Creek Elementary left behind their traditional classrooms to engage in interactive watershed learning experiences in their East Side neighborhoods. Ames Lake, Battle Creek and Beaver Lake became the “living classrooms” for Nick Gasho’s and Audrey Gagnaire’s fourth-graders and Don Booth’s second-graders who explored the surroundings of their nearby water resources by bus and on foot.

These neighborhood tours were designed by Watershed District staff to introduce students and teachers to water-related issues that are happening right “in their back yards” and connect them with local watershed stewards who can provide ideas, inspiration, and assistance for meaningful service projects that students can implement in their own community. This fall, the community partners who supported these initial investigations included Maplewood Nature Center and St. Paul Community Education’s Service Learning Program.

L’Etoile du Nord’s Investigation at Ames Lake reveals some “hot buttons”

Sage Passi uses quilt pictures to explain the
history of Ames Lake to French Immersion students.
Preparation for these field trips involves an introduction to watershed basics and some hands on learning in the traditional four-walled classroom. Before venturing to Ames Lake, Gasho’s fourth-grade class used squares from a story quilt to learn the history of how the lake was once filled, paved over and covered with a shopping mall back in the early 1960’s.
Ames Lake, though much different now than it once was, is a success story of urban habitat restoration in the City of St. Paul that still faces some on-going challenges.

On their field trip at Ames Lake the fourth-graders “met” the native plants that surround the lake and learned that efforts to manage the area were needed to remove invasive plants. They learned that the prairie around the wetland needs to be burned periodically to remove unwanted species and to nourish the soil. They explored the variety of habitats the plants provide for animals and birds and documented issues including invasive species, turbid water, litter and graffiti. 

French Immersion students enjoy a first-hand experience of Ames Lake’s ecology on their scavenger hunt.

“My students loved the activities and are excited to keep it going,” said L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion teacher Gasho in a follow-up email after his tour in late October. During their enviro-scavenger hunt bingo at Ames Lake, Gasho commented that the students, who would normally have had a difficult time focusing in the classroom, worked enthusiastically to recognize native plants and documented landmarks and issues they discovered around the lake.  

This coming winter and spring his students will have the opportunity to meet some of the local enthusiasts and elders who have been involved in the neighborhood projects. They’ll return for a visit in the winter and then when the lake thaws in the spring, they’ll investigate the water quality, study animal and insect life, learn how the area connects to other wildlife corridors and bring their learning to life through a service learning project.


Kathy Sidles, a local environmental activist, joined French Immersion fourth-graders at their clean-up event at Ames Lake last spring. It’s a partnership that she hopes to continue with French Immersion students this year and augment their efforts by uniting multiple East Side St. Paul schools in a joint effort to clean-up and remove invasive plants at Ames Lake and along the Bruce Vento Trail that runs through St. Paul neighborhoods.


Battle Creek gets a visit from Don Booth's motivated second-graders

Beginning the adventure along
the creek corridor.
Battle Creek, the stream in East St. Paul that precipitated the birth of Ramsey Washington Metro Watershed District in 1975, has spawned many watershed heroes through the years, including a long list of teachers, students and citizens who have taken on the mission of advocating for and protecting its water quality and nearby habitats by building rain gardens, installing trench drains and doing creek shoreline restoration and buckthorn removal.

Battle Creek Elementary second-grade teacher, Don Booth, no stranger to teaching, is a recent transplant to the neighborhood and is destined, in all estimations, to become a hero in the area in the near future. It may be his first year teaching at Battle Creek Elementary, but he has an impressive track record of guiding his students to watershed action and community involvement in many projects over the years. While teaching at Parkway Elementary School on the east side of St. Paul a number of years ago, he and his fourth grade students installed a native garden and took on the goal of saving the large wooded area and open space next to the school to prevent it from being sold by the School District. His efforts helped set the stage for the next school that moved into the building. Following the lead of Don and other Parkway teachers, L’Etoile du Nord moved forward in Parkway's former space to complete a butterfly garden, a large scale hillside restoration project and a rain garden on the school grounds.
Left: Tracy Leavenworth pours a bucket of water to demonstrate run-off into the creek. 
Right: Don Booth's class waits for the water to arrive at the nearest storm drain.

Visiting a Battle Creek Neighborhood rain garden built by
middle school classes and residents.
This fall’s field trip in the Battle Creek neighborhood provided an opportunity for Don and his class to find their bearings in the neighborhood. They took a walking tour to the creek near the school and observed how water carrying pollutants flows to storm drains and then into Battle Creek. They visited two rain gardens and met a couple of the neighbors who built them with the help of Battle Creek Middle School classes a few years ago. They learned how rain gardens prevent run-off from polluting the nearby creek and took note of the problem of buckthorn as they walked along the creek corridor.

As the year progresses, it will be inspiring to see how these second graders turn their observations into action steps with the guidance and seasoned experience of their teacher, Don Booth.

Audrey Gagnaire’s fourth-graders team up with Beaver Lake residents and Maplewood Nature Center

Ann Hutchinson shares her LEAP Award-winning garden with
French Immersion fourth-graders.

Gagnaire’s tour began at the home of Maplewood Nature Center Naturalist, Ann Hutchinson, who lives across the street from the west shore of Beaver Lake. Ann is a longtime partner of the Watershed District who provides education for the community about watershed issues and helps lead citizens to take action. A few years ago she helped the Nature Center become a model for “Protecting Water One Rain Drop at a Time,” by installing innovative best management practices (BMPs) and colorful signs to communicate clean water messages to the community.

French Immersion fourth-graders discover the features at Maplewood
Nature Center that help to maintain clean water.

Ann initiated French Immersion’s trip by doing some teaching on her own turf – her home turf that is. Turf is not exactly a word in Ann’s vocabulary. Ann’s mission is to “replace” turf in her yard by planting beautiful native plants that perform water-cleaning functions and provide great habitat for birds, butterflies and other creatures. She and her husband, Rich Lindell are the recipients of a LEAP (Landscape Ecology Award Program Award) in 2007 for their sustainable yard practices. 

Students discover a place above Beaver Lake where runoff is causing
erosion on the hillside leading down to the lakeshore.
After identifying examples of watershed stewardship in her yard, Ann guided the students along the sidewalk above the shores of Beaver Lake, pointing out erosion issues and calling attention to wildlife and plants present in the area. The next tour stop, a couple blocks from her home was at Achieve Learning Academy to explore two rain gardens that the school established in 2011 with help from the Watershed District. While there, Gagnaire’s fourth-graders collected seeds from the native plants in the rain gardens and learned how their long roots soak up water and protect it from being polluted before it ends up in nearby Beaver Lake. 
Left: Collecting seeds at the Achieve Learning Academy rain gardens.
Right: Checking out the outlet at Beaver lake.  There are a lot of leaves in the water here!

For their next stop, the French Immersion fourth-graders visited eighty-eight year old resident and self- taught Watershed Steward, Conrad Freerks and his wife, Yvonne on the east side of the lake. Freerks recently attended one of RWMWD’s Community Conversations in the Watershed and sent the District a long letter documenting his observations from around the lake including a tally of people who frequent the paths around the lake. Students listened to his stories about how the area surrounding the lake has changed over time while walking down to the shoreline below his Beaver Lake home.

The neighborhood tour culminated at Maplewood Nature Center where students explored the watershed features on the site that included several rain gardens, pervious pavers, a cistern, a drain channel and a rain chain. They interacted with teaching tools inside and outside that related to ecosystems and water quality protection. Delighted students were surprised with hot chocolate from the Nature Center and chocolate cookies freshly baked by Conrad’s wife, Yvonne. It was a welcome treat on such a cold day!

Left: Homeowner Conrad Freerks gives the students a tour of his Beaver lakeshore property.
Right; Students enjoy a lesson (and hot chocolate!) at Maplewood Nature Center.

As this class considered the issues they encountered on their neighborhood tour (erosion along the lakeshore, a build-up of leaves in the lake near the outlet and lake level fluctuations pointed out by Conrad), they also took note of the partnerships developing between the Watershed District, homeowners and the Maplewood Nature Center. They will have much support on their chosen project in the spring!

Our partners who help us with our investigations and projects such as these are invaluable. They are the ones helping students determine how clean their water is and what their role can be in improving it. Our partners are critical conduits who help us find and make connections between people and places. They show us the way to tap into resources, inspire a group’s imagination, foster visions, share knowledge of the community and teach leadership skills.

Many thanks to these partners who help expand the definition of a "classroom:"

-St. Paul Community Education

-Maplewood Nature Center

-Engaged and willing teachers

-Enthusiastic students

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