Simple question leads to Everglades adventure

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Emma Russell (left) Richard Kern and Kay Russell pose at the entrance to Everglades National Park.

‘Do you take teachers out into the Everglades with you?’

By Carol McIntire


Students in Kay Russell’s fifth grade class at Carrollton Elementary closed out the 2021 school year by accompanying their teacher on a trip to the Everglades without leaving their school desks.

Russell and the students were part of an educational experience made possible by COVID-19. Yes, the coronavirus made the trip possible by forcing school districts to implement new technology during the pandemic. Students were limited to in-class learning and Russell sought a way to keep learning interesting and engaging for the students.

She found the answer in a program offered through the Stark County Educational Service Center (ESC).

The program, “Building A More Sustainable Future,” was made possible by a grant from the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation. As part of the grant, school classrooms had access to a film created by Richard Kern titled “Everglades Rising,” and a virtual question and answer period with Kerns following the program.

The film was a documentary on the Everglades, which Kern explores, and focused on how the Everglades has been tamed and altered, the threats faced by invasive species and the looming effects of climate change.

The Hoover Foundation provided a grant for Kern to create the documentary. He visits Canton Schools on a yearly basis as part of the grant.

During the question and answer period, which followed the Zoom session, Russell asked the question that inspired the learning experience for the teacher and her students.

“Do you take teachers out into the Everglades with you?” she asked.

“When he replied, ‘yes,’ my mind started racing,” Russell recalled. “The kids heard me ask the question so I had to follow through with the request. How could I not follow through when I am the one who is supposed to inspire students to do new things?”

In preparation for the trip and the Zoom meeting with Cano, students broke into groups and prepared for the meeting by conducting research on the Everglades, the habit, inhabitants and other facts. They used the information to create slide shows and reports.

Russell sent photos and videos each night along with a written log of the day’s activities, organisms, etc. through Google classroom.  Students sent questions and comments back to Russell via email.

Thursday’s itinerary included the visit with Ranger Cano, the Anhinga Trail Boardwalk, Gumbo Limbo Trail, Pa-hay-Okee overlook, a swamp slog in double-Dome, photos at the “Z Tree” as well as looking for crocodiles, manatees, osprey, bald eagles and roseate spoonbills at Flamingo as well as bird watching at Eco Pound.

Friday was busy with stops a Clyde Butcher’s Swamp Gallery and the Oasis Visitor Center, and a visit to Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park.

Following the trip, The Messenger visited Russell’s students to talk about their experiences, what they learned and if they were inspired to investigate the Everglades further.

Several students admitted they didn’t know the Everglades existed before the project.

Wyatt found the trip very interesting, saying he learned a lot about a whole new environment. A fellow student noted it was “cool that Mrs. Russell was learning something new and took us along with her.”

Colton said the learning experience was exciting because, “With Zoom it was like we were there with her.”

Several students commented the Z-tree (a tree that grew in the shape of the letter Z) was their favorite while others pointed to the Barred Owl which Russell sent of and, during research, students learned the owl is also native to Ohio.

Another favorite of a group of students was watching Russell taste sawgrass. “She actually tasted it!” one student pointed out, as Russell nodded her head in agreement.

“How did it taste,” another student asked.

“Tough,” their teacher replied.

Many of the students enjoyed the research they conducted and stated facts on several species that call the Everglades home.

Yet another student pointed out the Everglades contains over 1.3 million miles in southern Florida.

The common theme among nearly all students was that their teacher had inspired them to do something new, with one student stating he plans to visit a national park next year.

“So, where do we go from here?” Russell asked.

Her goal is to gather a group of teachers to make the trip next year and “get kids active and engaged” and even inspire interested students to visit Biscayne National Park, which offers scholarships. Russell visited the park on the final day of her trip.

“Wouldn’t it be amazing if both teachers and students could visit and bring life back to our classrooms?” she asked.

The first step to reaching that goal was a presentation at the June school board by students Billy Indorf, Thomas Turnipseed, Kendall George, Nautia Lucas and Cara Cook (Wyatt Ridzon was unable to attend) to share what they learned and inspire others to explore the Everglades. 

The wheels were set in motion for Russell to take her students on a trip to the Everglades. She pitched the idea to Ed Robinson, director of programs for Carrollton Schools and he enthusiastically bought in and arranged for funding. Robinson made the trip become a reality, but didn’t see the results of his efforts as he died unexpectedly May 8, while Russell was in the Everglades May 6-9.

Kerns planned a two-day itinerary (12 hours each day) for Russell that included a trip to Everglades National Park. Russell arranged for an interactive Zoom meeting for her students with her and the park’s head ranger, Yvette Cano.  

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