Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Power of TTEC

By Kate Weinman Fisher, Teacher Librarian at Upward Elementary School, Flat Rock, NC, TTEC Alum ‘08

Jan Onan and Kate Fisher at Bear Mountain, Harriman State Park, NY.
  Photo by Karen Lutz

I recently moved a 3600 lb. granite boulder 15 feet using a stick. Really. This is no fish story, although one of my team members tried to exaggerate. Okay, maybe I need to say that the stick is also called a rock bar.  I was working with another educator and our instructor from Tahawus Trails LLC at the most recent Trails to Every Classroom Alumni workshop on Bear Mountain in New York State. The focus of the weekend was Trail Design and Construction and included actual work on the Appalachian Trail.  We used simple machine physics – the kind I can teach my elementary students. This experience is just one of the many that has shown me the power of TTEC and released the power that I have to make things happen when I join with others.
I first heard of TTEC in 2007 when I was working with kids to map our school campus.  Our counselor said, “I have something that can help you with that.”  She had just returned from NCCAT (North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching) where the first cohort of TTEC teachers from the southern region had gathered. At that point, I thought the AT was something for elite thru- hikers, but I still felt that I wanted to be a part of the next year’s TTEC group and recruited two teachers who also enjoyed hiking.  We met with Julie Judkins, our regional ATC representative in Asheville to find out how we could make this happen.
By April 2008, we had been accepted into the program and met teachers from Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina at Len Foote Hike Inn near Springer Mountain, GA.  We returned with more energy and ideas than I have had in decades. In no time we helped to design and implement a Nature Explorers’ Camp for 8-10 year old children based on Questing[i]. The camp, held at Bullington Education Center for a week each summer, has changed slightly but is still going 4 years later. 
In July that same year, we met 40 more educators representing the 14 states linked by the AT. The week-long professional development featured nationally known experts in the fields of environmental education and service learning and was fueled by the energy and ideas of passionate colleagues. My team began work on curriculum for 3rd grade students, a “Plant Patrol” of invasive non-native plants in our community and on the AT, less than an hour from our school.  When we implemented the curriculum later that year, students consulted local horticultural experts and focused on the most troublesome species.  They engaged in three service projects to remove Japanese Knotweed, Chinese Silvergrass and Autumn Olive at our local horticultural education center and on the AT near Hot Springs, NC.  The trip to Hot Springs and the brochure the kids designed for our school and community were made possible by a grant from the ATC.  Sixty students had their first opportunity to walk on the AT, meet a real thru-hiker, and engage in a meaningful community service project that day.  Many of them formed dreams of hiking the AT and returned to school to write letters to AT hikers which were placed in the Hot Springs diner. Hikers who read the letters at the diner wrote responses and 4 years later, this notebook is still a favorite read in my school library. One of the 3rd grade teachers involved moved to a charter school the next year and has replicated and expanded the project to the point where her students camp at Hot Springs each year while engaging in community service on the trail.
Third grade students digging up Autumn Olive roots as part of "Plant Patrol" service project.  Photo by Jan Onan

Our fall TTEC meeting was at Elmer’s Sunnybrook Inn in Hot Springs, NC.  I suppose it was then that I fell in love with this tiny trail community and its people.  I learned about Benton MacKaye and Myron Avery, the history of the AT, and experienced the power and satisfaction of volunteering on the Trail on National Public Lands Day. I also had my first experience with Trail Magic, something that is impossible for me to explain but involved bagpipes, the symbolism of a red bridge, and the feeling that I was part of something magnificent. 

3 Kate Fisher and Julie Judkins taking out Japanese Knotweed along the AT near Hot Springs, NC.

4 Trail Magic appeared at our closing ceremony in Hot Springs, NC as we contemplated our role in the future of the AT.

To say that these TTEC experiences inspired me is an understatement.  Jen Pharr Davis had just completed her first record breaking AT supported thru-hike.  I contacted her and arranged to have her visit our school for a whole day and kick off the biggest school event I have ever organized.  That evening, over 300 family members arrived for family night.  We began in the gym where she told about her thru-hike using a slide presentation.  After that, everyone proceeded out to the foyer to pick up a Trail Diary prepared by our Parent Involvement Coordinator. This included puzzles, facts, rules of the trail, and questions about the 6 learning stations spread out along our main hallway. Between them were brown poster board cylinders marked with white blazes. Families spread out and rotated through stations that represented each of the 5 AT regions (Northern New England, Southern New England, Kid-Atlantic, The Virginias, and our own, the Southern Appalachians).  Julie Judkins, from the Asheville ATC office, supplied the AT Journey magazines used to create the display boards, a large AT license plate banner, AT tattoos, and a large Katahdin sign for the last station where students could have their photo made with Jen Pharr Davis. Our Carolina Mountain Club and local outfitter Diamond Brand provided displays of books, backpacking equipment, and volunteers, who were available to talk with students and their families.
5 Families learning about the 5 regions of the AT during Upward Elementary Family Event

6 AT Family Night display in foyer at Upward Elementary, Flat Rock, NC

7 Jen Pharr Davis gives students the "high 5" after a presentation about goal setting and her record-breaking hike.
In the month leading up to this event, I worked with PTO and our entire staff to plan a 21 day AT Read-a-thon where kids earned miles for minutes read.  Each class picked a trail name and we prepared spreadsheets to record individual student minutes and one to calculate their class average.  As a part of the TTEC program, I received a 3 x 15 foot map of the AT to hang in my library.  We used the map to teach geography and to show the reading/hiking progress of each class. Every day, selected students read about a point of interest during morning announcements.  In all of my K-5th grade library classes, I taught our Reading, Information & Technology Standards using information about the AT and the Southern Appalachians.  Over 600 students learned about the trail as we integrated reading, history, science and cultural studies. 
They also learned about resources in their local community, as well as the wider community of outdoor education. Leki donated youth hiking poles as prizes for the top two readers, and we obtained other support from individual CMC members, including a visit by one of our trail maintainers. REI also funded a visit by long distance hiker, Walkin’ Jim, who gave special performances to the classes and individuals who read the most at the end of the Read-a-thon.

8 TTEC Team member Jan Onan, Julie Judkins from the ATC Asheville office, and Walkin' Jim Stolz at our AT Read-a-thon Celebration

Support came from far and wide and we believe the impact was also far reaching. Our two month focus on the AT was featured in the Henderson County Public Schools Superintendent’s newsletter that April, reaching the families of approximately 14,000 students.
Since that time, our TTEC team has been privileged to attend yearly TTEC workshops as presenters, volunteer at local ATC events, and continue exploring the AT on and off the trail.  Jan Onan attended the Youth Summit in New Hampshire last summer, and we both contributed to a resource designed for hiking with families. 

9 Kate Weinman Fisher and Jan Onan at the Hot Springs, NC Visitor Center

In this, the 5th year of TTEC, we made new and renewed connections with educators who have been involved in the last four years.   Alumni workshops have helped us discover new ways to serve our students and communities.  Jan and I attended the spring workshop with Delia Clarke and worked with other TTEC alumni to design The Guardians of the Grayson Highlands Quest, an educational treasure hunt through which visitors learn about the natural history of the park. Then we came back and worked with Julie Judkins and Jeannette Kendall, a 4th grade teacher in Hot Springs, NC to design a quest for that Trail Community.  This summer we worked with a Teacher/Park Ranger at the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site right here in Flat Rock to design another quest for park visitors.
Moving mountains, not quite. . . but I can move something larger and farther than I ever thought possible and it isn’t just a boulder. My hope is that I will continue to move and inspire the next generation of hikers, stewards, and supporters of the AT.  This is the power of TTEC.

[i] Clarke, Delia and Steven Glazer. Questing:A Guide to Creating Community Treasure Hunts. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2004.

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