Our third graders have been studying the importance of the wetlands on the Crocker Conservancy. Students put on their muck boots and waded into the wetlands to discover which plants and insects were thriving in our calcareous muck fen.

Throughout our unit of study, students explored the wetlands both as a filter for the stream and as a habitat for plants and animals. We splashed out to Crocker through the puddles left by recent rains, listened for signs of life from the boardwalk, and finally waded down into the muck for a much-anticipated closer look at the habitat. After two weeks of study, students felt ready for our wetlands field day, an event planned as the culmination of the unit.

Brent Barriteau from the USDA returned as our soil and wetland plant expert, joined by Allyson Ponn, an Education and Program Support Specialist working with the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District. We learned from them about distinct wetland soils, water-loving plants, native trees, aquatic invertebrates, and measures of water quality.

Students rotated between three stations. At the pavilion, Mrs. Gilpin led a “Habitat Hunt”. Students concluded that a wide variety of native species could find a suitable home on the Crocker.

At another station, In the wetland itself, students used their senses to explore as Mr. Barriteau explained the colors and textures of the mud pulled up by a soil sampler. As we held the soil in our hands, students were fascinated to hear that a handful of healthy soil contains more organisms than there are humans on the earth.

Roseville Run was high today, but despite the strong current and muddy waters that follow heavy rains, Miss Ponn, Mrs. Slavin, and the students were able to find some promising evidence of life in the stream. After mastering the macroinvertabrate shuffle, students waded out into the stream to see what aquatic critters they could uncover. Their favorite catches of the day were two crayfish, a couple of small fish, and several damselfly nymphs.

It was a wonderful afternoon of learning, and we want to say a huge thank you to the two conservation professionals who came to share their expertise with us today. Their enthusiasm for the mud, the critters, and the plants was obvious as they shared their wealth of knowledge, but they also conveyed a sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural world. What a great and lasting lesson to share with our students!

~Mrs. Coutts, Lower School Science Teacher

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Experts in the Field

Having Mr. Barriteau and Miss Ponn work with the students adds a deeper level of knowledge and understanding to the Wetlands experience. “It was a wonderful afternoon of learning, and we want to say a huge thank you to these conservation professionals as they came to share their expertise with us,” said Mrs. Coutts. “Their enthusiasm for the mud, the critters, and the plants was obvious as they shared their wealth of knowledge, but they also conveyed a sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural world. What a great and lasting lesson to share with our students!”

Throughout our curriculum at Powhatan, teachers often bring in experts in various fields to spark enthusiasm, inspire students to think beyond the classroom, and show that we truly do learn not for school, but for life. This year in science classes, we have had visiting physicians, electricians from Rappahannock Electric, biologists and conservationists from Trout Unlimited, the Virginia department of forestry, and NRCS, among others.

This week we were also honored to have Jeff Kelble, former Riverkeeper, longtime advocate for clean water, and avid outdoorsman, visit campus to share his wealth of knowledge about the Shenandoah and beyond with our fifth graders on Friday. “It was an excellent way to address lingering questions and wrap up our water unit,” continued Mrs. Coutts. “We had just returned from our overnight field trip to the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on the Rhode River (Edgewater, Md.), where students explored clean water issues by looking closely at oysters, sharks, crabs, plankton, and the variety of critters they could catch in seine nets.”

“A big thank you to Mr. Kelble and to all of the visiting professionals we call on to bring subject matter to life for our students,” continues Mrs. Coutts. “Your connections to the real world are inspiring, and make a big difference to the way students learn and grow in their understanding of the world around them.”


Real-World Experiences

A week ago, sixth graders visited Oxbow Farm as a component of their wildlife unit of study. While there, students learned about real-life examples of conservation in action. Sixth graders saw and learned about several species of birds including bobolinks, orioles, and red-winged blackbirds. In particular, they learned about the bobolink bird (Oxbow Farm has the highest concentration of bobolinks in northern Virginia!), which has seen a large decline in population over the past few decades. The most significant reason for the decline is the loss of habitat, mainly hay fields and meadows, due to land-use changes across the region. Oxbow Farm has been restoring hayfields to maintain a breeding habitat for these migrating birds. Our hosts, the von Gontards, explained the significant conservation actions they were undertaking on the property to reverse declines and create a sustainable habitat for the bobolinks.


NEAL & The Crocker Conservancy

The third grade Wetlands study this week was not an off-campus field trip, but a on-campus experience on the Crocker Conservancy.

At Powhatan School we use an approach called Nature Enhanced Approach to Learning (NEAL). NEAL is a lens through which we can teach any or all components of our curriculum. We use it to bring our students outside into the natural world and to bring the natural world indoors to our students.

“The Nature-Enhanced Approach to Learning (NEAL) program at Powhatan is designed to integrate the value of nature across the curriculum. It recognizes that nature is not just studied in science but also in all disciplines. It brings the ‘outdoors in and the indoors out’ by exploring the rich natural environment of our campus and adjoining areas. At Powhatan, we hope to inspire with the infinite possibilities of nature.”
– Mr. Legge, Science Department Head

Teachers create lessons that utilize nature to supplement classroom materials in order to engage the students. Lessons are designed to incorporate nature, regardless of the subject. Students have easy access to the outdoors here at Powhatan, including the addition of the Crocker Conservancy, to map trails, read or write nature poems, adopt trees and square meters for observation of changes, record data in journals, run and walk the trails, and raise trout for release in the stream. We are continually using the lens of NEAL as we create, amend, and reflect upon our curriculum in all areas. The Crocker Conservancy adds a whole new dimension to the scope of the NEAL program, allowing for the 47 acres directly behind the school to become an outdoor laboratory.

Powhatan School has won multiple statewide awards over the past decade for the NEAL program and the school’s commitment to conservation and environmental education. More recently, in December of 2018, Mrs. Coutts was chosen for Virginia’s Conservation Education Teacher of the Year Award in Elementary Education.


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