Thank You Notes From Fifth Grade

When the programs end, the kids are turned loose into the aquariums with their chaperones, or we send them off to board their buses, I inevitably feel a sense of relief mixed with exhaustion and a dash of hope.   The relief is mostly that all we didn’t lose any students in the chaos that can be any informal teaching environment (zoos, aquariums, museums).  The exhaustion is easier to explain.  But, for what am I hoping?  That something I taught those students will stick.  It could be anything, something as simple as the word “counter shading”, but something.

Its rare in the world of environmental education to be loaned students for a large enough window of time to really see them grow and add to their understanding. (And concurrently, its difficult to evaluate the positive impact of your teaching efforts over time.)  Avoiding the pitfalls and time consuming motions of pre and post testing, I find there is one easy way to see into your students experiences of a program: weekly journals and thank you notes.

I received a lovely packet of thank you cards, all hand made, from a group of fifth grade students who had joined myself and another teacher on a sleepover program recently.  Most of the cards were lovely and concise little thank-you’s with beautiful drawings.  Some were downright hilarious: including a handsome depiction of me saving the other teacher from falling into a large pool full of sharks, minnows, and moray eels.

For a few of my students the appeal of alligator songs, mascot chants, and ghost stories outweighed perhaps the lessons we had in mind on habitats and native vs. invasive species, and their cards bear this out in detail.  But moreso than anything else, they all equally express joy at having had the experience.  For me, a positive experience about learning in the world outside the classroom, and to interact with animals in a way that is safe and rewarding and encouraging, is worth all the time and effort and exhaustion of teaching programs.  And I do love the thank you notes.  I’ve kept many over the last few years and will continue to do so for as long as I teach.

If you ever visit a museum or zoo with you students, don’t forget the thank you notes as a way to recap the day when you’ve finally arrived back at school.  We environmental educators need them as encouragement – our own little forn of positive reinforcement – to keep us inspired and laughing and excited about teaching.