spend their Tuesdays scooping and sifting water from
the freshwater wetlands.
Using Wetlands as a Classroom
By Sean Alfano
be alarmed if, while you're
wandering around Randall's Island on a Tuesday morning, you notice
a group of schoolchildren scooping water out of a swamp. Rest assured.
They're not exiles; they're just in class.
Each Tuesday, fourth-graders from the River East Elementary School
in East Harlem cross the Triborough Bridge and spend the morning
on the island. Their work focuses on a narrow swamp-like area that
forms the border between Randall's and Ward's islands.
"My shoes are all full of muck," one exasperated girl
said, looking at her freshly soiled clothes. "My mom will be
so happy I came home dirty."
is part of the Kids Island Club nature program run by the Randall's
Island Sports Foundation. Begun in earnest in 2001, the program
allows schools to visit the wetland area seven times during the
spring. In the fall, classes switch to Ward's Island, where they
explore a forest area. Teachers from Bank Street College in Manhattan
help coordinate and design the curriculum.
Though Randall's Island is barely a quarter-mile away from the brick
housing projects and congested streets of East Harlem, the green
space and serenity that pervade the island make it seem like a different
"These kids live really close, but this isn't part of their
world," said Andrew Chiappetta, referring Randall's natural
habitats. Chiappetta, a teacher at River East who was helping the
children examine the wetlands, said that it was important for students
to become connected to the environment. "In the building, there's
always the feeling that schoolwork is pretend - it's fabricated
activities for their own sake," he said. "When we leave
the building, things are real, and most kids engage more deeply
in the work."
day, the children were immersed in discovery as they searched for
slugs, centipedes and snails. When asked if they ever scoured their
East Harlem neighborhood in a similar fashion, the answer was negative.
"I don't explore it," said Cassidie Derras. "I mean,
I look around but not to study it in the same way."
Abdur-Rahim agreed. "It's dry land," she said of her neighborhood.
"There's not so much stuff that's interesting."
Felicia Sanchez was more succinct. "There's no water or dirt."
On that Tuesday morning, every student was involved in some sort
of scientific activity. Some skimmed the stagnant water for primitive
life. Others peered through microscopes, trying to identify organisms.
"The interaction is what creates the meaning," Chiappetta
said, "and I feel strongly that kids need to make meaning of
the natural world, not just the blocks and balls of school."
When one group found a snail, several children gathered around "oohing"
The discovery gave one student the chance to free associate. Stroking
his smooth chin with his blue, latex-gloved hand, Kwasaan Brito,
nicknamed "KK," said of the snail, "I'm going to
call it Rosa Parks." He added in his talk-show like cadence,
"Rosa Parks, trying to get out of the shell. A shell called
the advantages of spending time outdoors and making education tangible,
finding the time to implement this approach is difficult when there
is an enormous emphasis on testing and accountability in the schools.
But teachers said the nature program is applicable to the curriculum
their students need to advance in school.
"The work that the students do is totally in context,"
said Megan Hall of Bank Street College, who helps teach the children
at the wetlands. Hall mentioned that the children are introduced
to the concepts of sorting and classification as they document the
various organisms they find. "They are learning to apply skills
to a constantly changing set of variables," Hall said.
At 12:30 p.m., it was time to go back to River East. The children
had collected a good deal of data, marking their individual checklists
and describing what they found. In short, it was a productive morning.
But the students did not appear eager to reenter Manhattan or the
classroom. Though the program stimulates their minds, it cannot
eliminate the tediousness of normal classroom routine. Being in
touch with the earth makes the education process more bearable.
Even though he had to spend the next three and a half days of school
inside, Brito was optimistic. "Well," he said, "it
makes Tuesdays more fun."