Sparks teacher wins environmental award

At Sparks Elementary School, "Sister Earth" teaches students about the environment while wearing a long flowered skirt, a wig and, when not in bare feet, flip-flops.

The teacher behind the costume, Elizabeth "Pokey" Fair, also dresses in a lab coat and goggles - and a cowboy hat. Some days, she's joined by another teacher who is decked out as a surfer.


"I like to do characters with the kids," Fair said. "It's something to catch their attention."

Yesterday, Fair, 36, was recognized as one of the Chesapeake Bay Trust's teachers of the year.


"I've gotten other awards, but this is the most meaningful one because it combines my passion for teaching with my passion for the environment," she said.

Fair is the kind of teacher who, along with colleagues Melinda Hoffman and Mary Lu Pool, would stay up until 2 in the morning to drill holes in birdhouses.

The birdhouses now make up the school's bluebird trail, one example of the many outdoor activities the school offers its students through its Eco-Sharks and Outdoor Learning Club programs.

Eco-Sharks, named for the school's mascot, is an after-school program for third- through fifth-graders that allows students to take part in four different outdoor projects every spring. Past projects have included a rain garden, a butterfly garden, planting hundreds of small trees on the school grounds and studying water quality in Piney Creek, which runs through the school's campus. Fair said 100 to 115 students per year participate in Eco-Sharks.

The Outdoor Learning Club takes students on trips to camp, hike and participate in other outdoor activities.

Fifth-grader Brooke Kovinsky, 11, enjoys both programs.

"I like how on every field trip, we learn something new about how to help the environment," she said.

Lindsay Heidelbach, also 11 and in the fifth grade, said planting trees is her favorite activity.


"I like it because you can see you're making a difference when you watch them grow," she said.

In accepting the honor, which comes with a $2,500 award from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Fair was quick to point out that the programs' successes have been team efforts, commending Hoffman, Pool and other teachers.

Pool said the school is an ideal place to teach kids about the environment because of its campus and the cooperation of its teachers and the surrounding community, but Fair is the engine that makes it all go.

"You have to have that ball of energy, and that's [Fair]," she said. "If people are enthusiastic about something, then others will be too."

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who gave Fair a framed painting of the county's waterfront festival, said the programs teach students valuable lessons.

"They're getting a real appreciation of their natural surroundings, and our quality of life depends on that," he said.


The Chesapeake Bay Trust also recognized horticulture teacher John Sandkuhler for his work at the Forbush School at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, where he teaches students with emotional, neurological, speech and language disabilities about the bay and the environment. He teaches them how to plant and grow submerged aquatic vegetation and wetland plants in the school's greenhouse.

Through a partnership with the State Highway Administration, Sandkuhler's high school students have planted wetland vegetation in low-lying areas created by SHA construction. The areas will eventually fill in to become wetlands.

"They have as much to contribute as any other student, and they know they're making a contribution to the restoration of the bay," Sandkuhler said.

Fair is the daughter of two educators. She has been teaching for 11 years. She began in Los Angeles in a program for poor children, expecting to leave the field to pursue a doctorate in sociology.

"By Christmas of my first year, I loved it," she said. "All I could talk about was my kids."

She said her enthusiasm for science has started rubbing off on her 4-year-old son, Owen.


"He does experiments every night at the dinner table," she said. "He'll put macaroni in his milk and say, 'Look, Mom, I'm doing an experiment.'"