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‘I really loved it’: Carroll students who speak other languages learn about nature during school recovery summer camp

As the sun rose high, an ice cream truck parked by the big, red barn that houses the Wetlands classroom at Hashawha Environmental Center. Three girls ran ahead, screaming with excitement as the rest followed.

One of them was Jahaira, an eighth grader and English learner from East Middle School. Before the pandemic, Jahaira would often go to parks, where she would stay until late hours of the night. But in the past year, she was stuck at home due to COVID-19 pandemic.

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“I used to miss it so much,” she recalled, as she licked a mango and strawberry lemonade gelato with vanilla sauce, caramel, raspberry and rainbow chips.

So, the environmental exploration summer program for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students was special to her. Beginning on June 21, the program, which is one of Carroll County Public Schools’ summer recovery efforts, ran for two weeks from Monday through Thursday.

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Using COVID-19 relief funds provided by the state, the program was the first of its kind in the county. The county selected 50 students from third to eighth grade to participate, said ESOL supervisor Pam Mesta. The overarching goal of the program was to reengage students in learning and connect them to the environment, she said.

While the day started off with a lightning warning, the kids spent their last day of the program gardening and hiking. At around 10 a.m., students with red, blue and yellow rain ponchos followed Dean Mann, a teacher at Carroll County Outdoor School, to the Lake Pavilion. As they walked through the woods, they chattered and laughed, their smiles uncovered after months of COVID-19 restrictions that kept them in online learning.

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated challenges that theses students already faced, like language barriers and lack of access to reliable internet and technology. Sally Powell, an ESOL resource teacher at Carroll County Public Schools, recalls the past school year as the most challenging in her 24-year-old career. But it was also the most rewarding.

“The students learned a lot because they were having to navigate a lot of new technology and learn the language and learn the content at the same time,” she said.

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The technology Powell and other ESOL teachers used in classroom also allowed them to develop close relationships with the students’ families. One app that they used, a translation and messaging platform called Talking Point, allowed the families to translate messages in their preferred languages.

In the past two weeks, the main focus of the program was to teach students about pollinators. After they explained the role of milkweeds for the life cycle of monarch butterflies, for example, they would help students plant the flowers. In one of the days that rained, they caught salamanders, and learned how the amphibians can indicate how healthy the stream is. Other days, they hiked around Lake Hashawha with its spattered dock lilies, surrounded by pickerelweed and cat tails.

Tom Vail, who has been an Outdoor School teacher for 23 years, hiked the students to see the raptors. The kids beamed when they saw hawks and the great horned owls. One particular boy couldn’t keep his hand down, asking all sorts of questions — what do they eat? How big do they get? What are their names?

But nothing drew more excitement as the screech owls, tiny like fists.

“The kids loved it,” Vail said. “Anytime you can put a living animal in front of a kid, most the time we’re going to get pretty good results.”

Mann, another teacher at the Outdoor School, also said the children light up when they see wild life at the park, like when they saw snapping turtles at the lake or a bald eagle landing on one of the corn fields.

Other days, they went fishing, where they caught bluegills. And for a lot of them, that was their first time fishing, Mann said.

“To have a hands-on experience outside … it’s really important because that’s what helps connect kids to the environment,” he said. “And you can’t have that on a screen.”

Jahaira loved seeing the animals and walking in the woods, she said, even if she felt tired in the end. She felt connected with nature, she said.

“Everything, I really loved it, the people that I met in here and made friends,” she said. “It was really good.”

Outdoor School teachers aim to empower students to not only learn about environment but also to have a positive impact on it, Outdoor School principal Gina Felter said.

“When kids are born, they are naturally connected to their environment. They have a natural curiosity about the world that surrounds them. I mean, this earth gave us life, right?” Felter said. “Because they have that natural curiosity, whenever you can bring students — be [they] English learners or any students — here and have them connected to the environment … [it] will improve and increase their knowledge.”

A poster hanged in the lake pavilion, with bright, colorful translations of “Welcome” in several languages. The kids sat at a long picnic table and began to work. They were quick and ready. They wrote their names in the pots, handling the soil with carefulness. After all, they would be taking those plants — like “tiny treats” cherry tomatoes, jalapeños, oregano, sage, basil and parleys — home. Grown in small containers, it could fit in gardens, patios or even a kitchen’s counter.

After so many months cooped up inside in front of computer, it seemed to Courtney Coddington that taking these kids to an outdoor experience brought their sparks back.

Coddington, a University of Maryland extension agent specializing in home horticulture, worked with the students teaching them about gardening. She would walk them through the gardening steps and how to appropriately plant the seeds, as if they were pros.

But just as Coddington was there to teach the kids, they taught her, too, she said. She would learn different names for vegetables. The students would tell her about different recipes from Latin American and Asian cuisines.

“It’s wonderful to have different cultures and different languages and different perspectives,” she said. “This is probably one of my favorite classes to work with.”

Some kids, Coddington said, told her about their grandmother’s garden in Guatemala, and how they used to help with seedlings.

Axel and Billy, twin brothers, had an edge over other students when it came to gardening. They have a garden at home, their mother Sonia Nolasco said, and they have been helping her for years.

Each time they got home from the camp, they arrived happy, Nolasco said, listing the animal classes they had learned. They saw a bird, they will tell her, and salamanders, and explored a lot in the woods.

At Nolasco’s garden at home, which she planted herself, there are white daisies and big tomato plants. And on Thursday, Axel and Billy went back home with new additions to their garden. Cherry tomato plants, which they assorted themselves.

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