Teacher of the Year is earth-bound
In deference to her guest, Scituate High School teacher Shannon Donovan passed on the chance to show firsthand some of what her science students take pride in – a walking trail behind the school that was first created in the 1970s. “I don’t think we’d see much under six inches of snow,” she laughed. Still, Donovan had plenty to share in her utilitarian classroom carved from a former mechanics garage.
It was, after all, the classroom of the 2011 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year. Donovan is the only teacher in the state with this title, but she is unique in other ways as well. Among her areas of interest, environmental science is a standalone in the high school curriculum. Her classroom extends beyond the four walls into a greenhouse and then the endless opportunities offered on the school’s rural property. Indeed, the walking trail – her favorite stewardship project – even takes her students away from the school and into the community.
In restoring the trail, Donovan guided students through the creation of a management plan for the forested land. They interviewed members of the administration, the school committee, and the town council to determine shared goals. They researched the history of the land through deeds and land transactions, and investigated the original functions of still-standing stone walls and a mysterious circular stone structure.
Lastly, the students conducted what’s known as a forest inventory – documentation of species and their health, age, stands (or groupings), geology, hydrology, threats to their survival, and benefits of the habitat.
“That,” Donovan said triumphantly, “is how I like to teach, providing real context for the information learned in a classroom. This project was perfect for it.”
Bringing passion to the job, she said, is what makes a good teacher. “If the teacher is bored, you know the students are.”
There are other studies going on in her classroom that are far from boring. In the fall semester, she teaches an introduction to biotechnology. The second semester focuses on plant propagation in the greenhouse – another opportunity for applied learning related to sustainability – which culminates in a community plant sale. Each year her physical science students host an “Energy Night,” a community event that showcases student projects that about energy efficiency and renewable energy.
There’s an electric vehicle project in the works involving an old pickup truck. And numerous plaques adorning her classroom walls are evidence of past conservation and energy accomplishments. She also teaches biology, and has taught chemistry in the past.
Her message for teaching colleagues? “Tap into your personal perspectives when trying to create a context for learning,” Donovan advised. “Being an educational professional is mentally and physically challenging, but when it’s connected to something you care about it’s easier to keep up the energy and interest – for you and your students.”