A dedicated teacher, Agnes Zellin has played a huge role in assisting the Preserve in integrating our research and science facets into our education programs to make accessible programs for K-12 students. We are thrilled to honor her as part of our 85th anniversary celebration. Below she shares her story of connecting to the Preserve.
When I grew up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, I played “outside” every summer day, and most days during the school year, as soon as I got home and could drop my school bag.
All the kids “on the block” played outdoors. It was a typical city street…row houses, “stoops,” concrete sidewalks, with each house having one 4-foot square patch of soil for a tree to grow. Yes, not only did a tree grow in Brooklyn, but on our block if you stood on one end and looked down the street you would see a long row of trees all leaning in the same direction toward the path of the sun.
“I’m going outside,” was a common early-morning refrain of all the kids. Door slamming behind us, my brothers and I would not be seen again by my mom until lunch time. The same scenario followed the gulping down of our lunch. We were gone, back “outside” until the call to come in for dinner. Sometimes, depending on where we were, on or “around the block,” her high-pitched voice would have to travel over a relay of other moms or other children before it reached our ears.
While we utilized the asphalt street and concrete sidewalks for stick ball, kick ball, tag, giant step, red light/green light, we also made time to find nature. We would dig in the dirt around the base of the trees, finding treasures or hiding them. An occasional worm that surfaced was our fascination; caterpillars by the hundreds would appear at the height of the heated summer days, hang from the trees, and crawl upon every surface imaginable. Birds loved the trees and working dads cursed the morning display of bird droppings on their car windshields as they set out to work.
I spent a lot of time playing in the dirt. Not only in that 4x4 square foot of soil, but using popsicle sticks to dig in between the cracks in the sidewalk. I would be amazed at how the ants would canal their way through those cracks and under the concrete, leaving piles of loosened soil in their wake.
I would be equally amazed at how the most stubborn and sturdy “weeds” (often dandelion) would grow up through every tiny crack available. Sometimes even new trees would make their appearance.
When we tired of street play, we’d head down to the corner, cross the street, and enter Winthrop Park, a one-block square park that became our adventure land for hours.
We had the freedom to play — play on our own terms, with our own imaginations and curiosity leading us, time to explore and wonder.
Fast forward to a classroom in Berne, New York. I was teaching about ecosystems. I had a science text book, a science kit to construct out of liter soda bottles a model of a terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem, and some carefully chosen library books. As I planned the lessons, guided the reading, and constructed the eco-columns with my students, I had this nagging feeling of something missing. Then there was a moment when, while students were attaching the terrarium with the aquarium, I glanced outside.
Berne Elementary is surrounded by land, rolling hills, streams, trees, fields, and wildlife. There it all was, outside my window, and here I was with my students, inside a classroom. Something wasn’t right. I wanted to inspire a deeper sense of curiosity. If I had found that at my students’ age, in the 4x4 patch of soil and sidewalk cracks, and the postage-stamp sized park of my childhood, what could we find in those square miles of watershed outside our school windows? I realized we needed to get “outside.”
Thus began the creative and engaging learning experience of working in collaboration with the Huyck Preserve. The idea for a field-based science project, “Out of the Textbook, Into the Field,” was created under the trees, sitting at the base of the Rensselaerville Falls, with then Executive Director Chad Jemison. An invaluable academic partnership for me had begun. The Preserve’s hemlock forest, red pine plantation, and mixed deciduous forest became our classroom. When Dawn O’Neal assumed the education directorship, and then executive directorship of the Preserve, our collaboration deepened into a carefully constructed project — scientist meets 4th grade teacher and builds an understanding and a plan to bring over sixty 4th graders to the Preserve and discover, explore, learn,
question and make connections between themselves and the natural world around them.
I was lucky to find in Dawn the shared enthusiasm to build a field-based, project-based science program — where students could have the typical field trip experience with the enjoyment of being in the outdoors, AND also “do” science, learn the process of it, find the excitement of discovery it offers, and “practice as a scientist.”
My work with Dawn, Christina, and the Preserve educators during our field- trips has been a centerpiece of my teaching. It has enriched me, made me a better teacher, and given me the pleasure of collaborating with a highly dedicated environmental program to deepen an understanding of and appreciation for precious and sensitive ecosystems. When I was working with my students setting up transects, or capturing, marking and releasing crayfish, we were “doing” science. It has been a gift to work with Dawn and the Preserve educators, in such a special environment, while fulfilling the task of making learning an active process of discovery and constructed understanding. I look forward to remaining connected to the Preserve, being part of its work, and dedicated to its mission.
— Agnes Zellin