By Reed Strength
Over the summer, 21 teachers embarked on an eight-day journey across Alabama to learn more about the state’s bountiful biodiversity and natural beauty. Of those, eight were from the Over the Mountain area, including four from Deer Valley Elementary, two from Oak Mountain Intermediate and two from Homewood City Schools.
Those two Homewood teachers, Lisa Lucas of Shades Cahaba Elementary and Lynn Hardin of Homewood High School, caught up with the Over the Mountain Journal to share their experience on the trip and how it influenced them to allow new lessons about conservation and the environment to take root in their classrooms.
The trip was hosted by Legacy, an environmental education non-profit based in Montgomery, which offers various teacher excursions each summer to provide “fact-based environmental education to the educators and citizens of Alabama.”
According to Legacy’s website, these workshops “train the participants to integrate environmental topics, such as pollution prevention, ecology, natural resources and waste management into their classroom curriculum.”
The annual trip the eight teachers attended was “Mountains to the Gulf: Teachers Making Connections,” which lasted between June 24 and July 1.
“The purpose of Legacy’s ‘Mountains to the Gulf’ excursion is to connect Alabama educators, both formal and informal, to their state,” said David Matson, Legacy’s educational programs coordinator. “We want educators that participate in Legacy workshops to come away with a new-found respect and admiration for our highly biodiverse and beautiful state.”
The group started at Winston County’s Camp McDowell in the northwestern part of the state. Over the next eight days, a charter bus transported the educators down through some of Alabama’s most notable natural wonders.
During the course of their journey, they reached Alabama’s highest point in Cheaha State Park, kayaked the Tallapoosa river, examined the lush greenery of Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center and studied acquatic habitats at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab near Mobile.
“This teacher training used our state’s best resources and the passionate, highly educated people that love it to not only teach us, but to show us what we should be celebrating and how to get others to celebrate too,” said Lucas.
Lucas, who previously had experience teaching special education and first grade before becoming an art teacher, claimed she intially had trouble finding meaningful professional development courses for her art curriciulum before this trip.
She even tried getting involved in the Greater Birmingham Math Partnernship to “stretch her abilities and comfort zone” despite math not being her strong suit.
When Dr. Patrick Chappell, director of instructional support for Homewood City Schools, brought Legacy’s Mountains trip to the Gulf to Lucas’ attention, she was game to try something fresh for her classroom.
Already an avid outdoor lover, Lucas said the trip only embolded her passion for the preservation of the great outdoors, even started her referring to Alabama as “America’s Amazon.”
Hardin, who has taught science education for 25 years, said though she had a strong foundation in Earth science, she was looking forward to getting firsthand experiece in geological fieldwork by trained experts.
Both spoke on the rare opportunity the trip offered in getting to know and learn with educators of all backgrounds and ages.
“The uniqueness and variety of Alabama’s ecosystems mirrored the passion and diversity of the group of teachers,” said Lucas. “We had a retired teacher, a graduate student, early childhood, elementary, high school, special areas, men and women … even ages 20 to 70 and up.”
According to Hardin, it was refreshing to be around educators of several disciplines and areas of study.
“It’s easy to get tunnel vision in your content area, particularly at the secondary level,” said Hardin. “Knowledge is about seeing connections – history, art, science. We miss out on complexity of thought when we just focus on one facet.”
Of all the excursions the group went on, Hardin picked their stop on Mt. Cheaha as her favorite. While there, the group examined pure quartz cutting through the rugged sandstone of the mountain.
“Mt. Cheaha and the rest of the Appalachians were formed when the large land masses collided to form Pangea. To ‘know’ this is one thing, but to see visual evidence in person of the great pressure needed that had to have melted the rock enough for pure quartz to recrystallize was amazing,” said Hardin.
Hardin explained she looks forward to implementing more field experiences in her curriculum. She said she may take her students to survey the rocks in Shoal Creek near Homewood High School that, through the natural process of the rock cycle, will one day become the sand on Alabama’s beaches.
She even pointed out a geological history lesson that can be observed as Birmingham residents drive down the Red Mountain Expressway.
“Notice how all the layers are at an angle – this means that some force was strong enough for mountain building to take place,” explained Hardin. “Each of those layers is like a page in a story – a story of how our hometown was formed. It’s the story of how and why we have iron to make the steel that our city was built upon.”
Further, both look forward to highlighting the importance of conservation and ecology in their classroom lessons as well.
“It’s my job to foster awe, wonder and discovery of our states’ ecology so that the future generations can pursue careers to discover the unknown, find ways to increase revenue, outshine our sordid history and lead the world in saving ecosystems,” said Lucas.
Hardin agrees. “This is our home. You don’t trash your home. You take care of it because it is yours. We have a responsibility to future generations to make sure they have a home that is beautiful and as healthy as it can be. Human life depends on our understanding of our planet and being good stewards of this gift that has been given to us,” she said.
For those looking to learn more about Alabama’s natural wonders on their own, Legacy offers plenty of free resources and information on their website legacyenved.org/.