Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence was on another of his learning walks, an opportunity to observe classroom teaching and learning firsthand. He was joined by Thalia Elementary Principal Pamela Pastros as they were walking to meet up with the class.
But, instead of stepping into a classroom, they climbed aboard.
That’s because the day’s classroom was a 40 foot Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) boat.
“Our school has been raising oysters for eight years or so,” said Ecology Club sponsor Sandy Doyle. “We used to be able to keep them in the Thalia Creek right behind the school. But the creek had filled in so much that we had to move them to another location. We now keep them off the dock of one of our teachers who lives on the Buchanan Creek, on the other side of the Thalia peninsula.”
Each year, the school purchases 1,000 spat, which are delivered in September. Each month the club meets to sort through the spat, removing and counting the dead ones as well as measuring a random 10 oysters for each of six groups of students. The spat is then returned to bags to be placed back in the creek.
Going back to the classroom, the students analyze their data and the overall average of the change in oyster size so they can graph the growth. They learn how to read water clarity using a secchi disk and a refractometer to measure water salinity. In colder months, the club spends its meeting time researching the questions students have about the oyster, its life cycle and the history of the oyster in the Chesapeake Bay and the Lynnhaven River. After tending to their oysters through May, they take the boat trip to deliver the oysters to a reef in the river so they can join the other oysters filtering the waterways.
The trip embarked from the CBF Brock Environmental Center at Pleasure House Point.
Following a safety briefing, Captain Jimmy Sollner, better known as Captain Jimmy, guided the boat into a channel in the shadow of the Lesner Bridge. A former commercial fisherman, he understands the bay as a workplace. Also onboard was Yancy Powell, manager of education, who has a degree in environmental education and a wealth of information about the water, the land and how all the systems interact.
Once they reached the reef in the Lynnhaven, Captain Jimmy shifted into reverse so students could dump their oysters from the rear of the boat. One-by-one, students groups turned their plastic containers over and the oysters splashed into their new home.
“I liked getting to take the oysters out to their environment and then see the different things that lived out there,” said Alexeus Rouse, fifth-grader.
With that mission accomplished, it was time to explore, Captain Jimmy steered the boat toward Broad Bay while Yancy had the students cleaning their plastic containers. Dr. Spence even dropped a bucket into the water and hoisted it out so the students had rinse water, and everyone then began to examine a tub of live crabs that were on board. Of particular interest was a large spider crab.
“This is a great way for children to learn,” Dr. Spence remarked. “A perfect day weather-wise, with knowledgeable educators, hands on learning, look how engaged they are. They’re excited.”
Next up was dragging the bottom of Broad Bay. Yancy tossed a net with weights off the stern of the boat and Captain Jimmy slowly dragged the net along the bottom for about five minutes. The, students lined up and hauled the net in, pulling the rope as if they were in a tug-of-war. When the net was on deck, Captain Jimmy and Powell went to work removing plants, mud and an abundance of jellyfish. Into the plastic containers they placed croaker, flounder crabs and other assorted fish for the students to review.
Then, class was in session. Powell displayed the fish, explaining to the students each unique feature, teeth, eyes, gill structure and how these features help them adapt to their habitat.
“Our purpose for the club is to make the kids aware of how their actions affect a much larger world than they think,” Doyle said. “We want them to understand that what we do on our playground affects the creek, the river, the bay and in the end the ocean. Our school is perfectly located to teach that lesson.”
As the boat turned for home, club members reflected on their experience. “It was really cool and fun to go on the boat,” said Hanna McKitchie. “Getting to hold and pet fish was amazing.”
Mackenzie Locklear added “It was fun and it felt good to help the environment. It’s good to help and it was a fun experience.”