Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Fun In The Mud

Survive, I did! And quite well, I might add. Although I think I'll be working on getting the "marsh" out from under my fingernails for a while.

The annual Blair Magnet 10th grade trip to Wallops Island is an ecology lover's dream. Four days exploring wetlands, dunes, marshes, intertidal zones, and a maritime forest was an amazing experience given my bias toward live-event learning.

As a newbie (this is my first year teaching magnet students), I was unsure of what to expect. I had heard many students talk about the mud pits. This seemed to be the most touted segment of the trip in prior years. "Are you going to go into the mud pit, Mrs. Balla?" they would ask. "I'll think about it," I'd tell them. While the mud was definitely on my mind (actually, the thought of having to get myself out of the mud, which I imagined to be a consistency somewhere between quicksand and tar, was on my mind), I was hoping, and was actually pleasantly surprised, to experience other highlights.

Starting with two sunrises on an Assateague beach, I accompanied a few other chaperons and a group of around 40 bleary-eyed but delightfully motivated 16 year-olds on a birdwatching expedition. Nothing like watching terns dive for breakfast and Great Egrets wade at water's edge in the adjacent wetlands.

Next, a boat ride with Captain Mark and Group 6, "my group" as they were affectionately referred to. This was definitely not a sit-back-and-relax type of excursion but rather a chance to measure current speed and direction, observe water color and clarity, check for temperature and salinity, and actually locate our position in the world...without GPS. Completing this mission required throwing a large net and trawling the bottom in search of sea creatures that we would later classify. All in a morning's work.

With weather in the "perfect" category, it was time to experience what I had heard about for weeks. Time for the marsh. In actuality, this was probably my favorite part of the trip. The excitement in the kids was electric as they attempted to walk across the peat (layers of decaying matter atop the water) toward the mud pit. Student after adult stepping ever so gingerly to avoid their feet piercing the peat. Student after adult ending up knee or thigh deep in murky water and taking a break at a safe zone where the peat was strong enough to support everyone and flexible enough to bounce up and down, vaguely reminiscent of a muddy trampoline. Now we could see it...before our eyes...the ecosystem that we all wanted not only to see but to become part of. "Everybody in!"

Knowing I'd never live it down if I didn't take the plunge, I didn't hesitate. It was warm, mushy, and a little smelly. Kind of like a spa but without the fluffy bath robe. (Well, maybe not even quite that close...) But it was fun. And to see America's youth caught up in the moment without cell phones and Internet and all the bells and whistles that have become part of their culture, with shrieks and shrills that showed how wonderful it can be to "just be a kid," was truly reassuring. While getting out was my nightmare-come-true and the cleanup a bit onerous, it was worth all the effort. Mud pies rock!

The next two days were equally interesting (albeit, maybe not quite as fun) as we collected samples in the intertidal zone, walked along the dunes to study their formation and succession, worked in the lab to identify all the organisms we had collected, and finally observed the flora and fauna (including some giant, starving mosquitoes that had obviously hatched overnight) present in a maritime forest.

What a great learning experience for me. Oh, and for the students, too!


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Four Out Of Four Ballas Surveyed...

...Say that the original Clash of the Titans, with all of its hokey effects, was much more enjoyable than the new one (which we finally got around to seeing).