Everglades Study Field Trip
Day 2: Tuesday, March 26, 2019
With a late sleep in after last night’s late adventure, we gladly devoured Kyle’s and Jim’s pancakes before heading back to see what bright sunshine would reveal that darkness hid from us only hours before. The slough was alive with sounds of the day. Birds argued, warning others to stay away. Giant anhinga chicks screeching in their nest demanding more and more food from their tireless parents overhead. Fish made their presence known as they surfaced and splashed everywhere. Silent alligators glided along the surface of the still pond, submerging silently as they searched for prey.
Too soon we had say, “Later, Gator,” as we headed for the Daniel Beard Research Center to meet Marine Ecologist, Christopher Kavanaugh. We were most privileged to be invited behind the scenes, where scientists work to ensure the health of the Everglades, now and into the future long after their work is done.
Christopher transported us back in history telling the story of the River of Grass from its very beginning. We began to understand why this place, unique in the world, is so important to preserve, and why both nature and humankind need to co-exist and thrive, keeping sacred this delicate balance. Ask us about elevation, salinity, drought, water depth, flora and fauna, and environmental issues. Thanks to Christopher’s patience in answering all of our questions and sharing his obvious passion, we leave with in-depth understanding and the resolve to make a difference for this dynamic and precious ecosystem.
A cooling dip in our little spring fed lagoon-pool back at the hostel refreshed us after our nearly 90-degree day. What a treat to have come from Massachusetts’ big chill to south Florida’s mid-summer-like heat. Kids splashed, breeched, glided underwater, and braved the waterfall gauntlet together before getting back to our journals.
In the fairy light studded gazebo, we broke out our watercolors to paint the Everglades night. How do we represent the feeling of being enclosed in darkness, hearing the music of the glades? It was a good problem to solve, stretching our talents and imaginations.
Everyone wanted to share their Night Walk writing, so before we retired for the night, we listened to the night through each others’ words.
Written by Barbara McFall, Founder of The Phoenix School
The Phoenix School’s 6th-8th graders recently got back from the Florida Everglades and have spent the last two weeks going over their research and discussing what they had learned on the journey. Since the Kindergarten through fifth graders had also completed a similar imaginary journey, the two groups were able to share notes and discuss their findings.
There was much debate about who really had the better time.
There is no debate however that the actual trip to the Everglades itself was an exciting adventure for all involved, especially for two students James (7th grade) and Emma (6th grade). Throughout the week the students rode bikes through Shark Valley, canoed through the mangroves, explored wild Anhinga trails, navigated into Cypress domes on a slough slog, and kicked back at the Hoosville Hostel in Homestead.
“The first night we were there, even before we went to the hostel, we stopped at Anhinga Trail,” James explained. “It’s this really beautiful space with a boardwalk where you can see Anhingas. Each student had a chance to walk to the ends of the boardwalk by themselves, which was really creepy because you could hear the little slaps of the tails of fishes on the water as you moved.
“But every so often you would hear a much larger slap on the water, and those were the alligators,” he added.
The next day, the students met up with Christopher Kavanaugh, a marine biologist for the Everglades ecosystem who talked to the kids about the salinity of Florida Bay and the impact of boat passage through the delicate environment.
Another exciting part of that week was a 2.5-mile kayak trip in Flamingo right next to Florida Bay.
“We didn’t see much on the way up there,” James remembered, “we were just kayaking. Then on the way back, the incredible things started to happen.
“A manatee came up to our kayak and bumped it before swimming past underneath us. If it had been something else it would have been frightening, but manatees are so friendly and curious.”
The last adventure of the trip was a 15-mile bike loop through Shark Valley where students could see more flora and fauna both up close and from above at the observation tower halfway through the ride,
Emma (6th grade) found the bike trip to be especially interesting because this was her first time doing something like this.
“On the bike trip, I couldn’t believe how easy it was. I didn’t fall one time. Now I know what people mean when they say ‘It’s as easy as riding a bike,’” she said.
During the trip, the students also had to be wary about accidentally running over the local wildlife.
“At one point there was a large alligator just lying in the trail,” Emma recalled. “We just went around it. Fortunately, the alligator didn’t mind us at all, because if it did I don’t think I could’ve gotten my bike up to more 15 miles per hour which is how fast an alligator can run.”
“Here pedestrians get the right of way, there, the alligators get the right of way,” James explained.
Everglades Study Field Trip
Day 1: Monday, March 25, 2019
Phoenix School kids gathered like squawking anhingas waiting to check in for their flight to the Everglades for a week of science and adventure. Upon landing, Kyle and Jim met Mike, Barbara and 8 Phoenix kids, all Everglades experts excited to learn in the field what they had researched in school. We loaded our gear into Kyle’s truck and headed for dinner–our first adventure. Kyle led us to a food truck gathering, where we each chose a delicacy from one of the many trucks serving tasty ethnic specialties. Kyle treated us to a delicious meal and the best lemon-limeade ever before we set off to listen to the music of the Everglades.
Darkness descended well before we reached our destination so we were left wondering what lurked in the inky black that lay beyond our ribbon of road. We marveled at the sky with more stars than we can ever see in Salem. Soon we left the comfort of our cars behind and walked through the shadows to the trailhead. We felt encompassed by the velvety night as we started down the Anhinga Trail that looped just above the slough. Into the darkness we walked, one by one, alone and on our own, protected by the rails of the boardwalk, but open to the noises of the night. It was a solo-walk into the night, some of us striving to hear the Everglades speak to us, some of us more wary than others. Let snippets from our journals describe the lure of the glades we all felt.
Emma: I stand looking out at the still water, unable to fully comprehend what I’m seeing. It’s eerie, being here by myself, in this slough devoid of human touch. I never knew how loud the night could be until now. It’s an orchestra of birds and insects; everyone has a place in the choir. I can hear the balance of nature around me, and though it’s loud, it’s also quiet and tranquil.
Quentin: Standing in the moonlight, I looked out at the shimmering waters of the Everglades. I closed my eyes and listened to the symphonic cacophony of the night animals. My nose was flooded with the scent of brackish water and flowering plants. The Everglades delighted all my senses.
Lucas: A forest of calm is unbroken by voices and preserved for me to walk alone inside. I can barely differentiate the trees from the wooden path in this monochrome landscape. The Big Dipper almost illuminates alligator filled water that refuses to be pierced due to the endless nightscape’s grasp on the trail.
Julia: Mosquitos haunt my ears as the boardwalk in front of me curves into the mysterious dark. Unexpected splashes sound on each side of me. Shimmering stars from vibrant to dim guide me with their light. Dark calming night surrounds me in comfort and life.
James: Fish aggressively slap their tails on the water’s surface, sending shivers up my back. Tall grass gracefully sways to the song of the crickets making me want to join in. The illuminated moon shines above, looking down at this hidden treasure. I feel lost, but in no hurry to find myself.
Arianna: Mosquitos bit my arms and legs as I walked along the bridge. My mind was out of control thinking about a million things at once. I walked slowly and breathed in and out. Eventually I calmed down. I tried not to think of any alligators coming my way.
Raya: Two paths, two different directions. Guided by the stars and fate, my path is chosen. Boards creak under my feet making me extra aware. Shadowed spots that lay before me send shivers all through me. Heart racing, I fear the worst. Hopefully answers are in the stars. With my gaze tilted upward, I finally feel safe.
Ella: I begin my trek down the long looped boardwalk. My ears tingle at the sound of swishes and splashes below in the murky water. Two eyes and a snout rise barely above the surface. Everything around it becomes blurry as my eyes only focus on the prehistoric creature that rules the slough.
No one wanted to leave the slough so Mike, Kyle, and Jim lit up the waters with their flashlights, revealing jumping fish, cruising gators and pairs of yellow or red eyes flickering from the darkness. Eventually we had to concede that tomorrow would be coming too soon, so we packed it in and headed for our youth hostel. We all earned an extra hour or so of sleeping in.
Brackish water fills my shoe, saturating my sock, as I take my first step. In the distance a lone bobcat cries out, sending fear through my body. Another step causes me to slightly sink in the slick mud. Fear sinks to the bottom of my stomach. Just let me not come face to face with the mouth of an alligator! I keep moving forward making my way through the cloudy water. Mangroves tower over me, blocking out the majority of the sunlight. It’s been a dream of mine to be in the presence of these swamp trees. Every step sends fear through my veins. I take one more and I fall backwards. My instincts kick in and my hand grabs onto a mangrove branch. I always knew my leafy friend would save me one day! After that encounter, nothing can shake me!Everglades AnticipationRaya ~ 8th Grade
The classroom was full of the hustle and bustle of children shuffling quickly through a makeshift security line. “Take off your shoes and your belt and put all of your personal belongings in the bin to go through the scanner,” one fifth grade student said to a third grader in line.
“Don’t forget to empty out all of your pockets,” he added as an afterthought. This past week, the students at the Phoenix School took off to the Everglades, and while the 6-8th graders took the actual physical trip to Florida, the Kindergarten through 5th graders created an imaginary journey where they would re-create every aspect of what it would be like to take such a trip. While the older kids were off exploring the mangroves of Southeastern Florida, the fifth graders at the Phoenix School were the ones left in charge.
It was up to them to design a trip that would get their fellow classmates (and flight passengers) to their final destination safely and securely. In doing so they were able to make use of the social, emotional, and leadership skills they’ve gained over the course of the year and incorporate it into a week of imaginary travel. While they were handling all the main details like flight paths and deciding which was the best route to take through the mangroves, the younger kids engaged with their environment by experiencing the imagined journey, taking notes on their findings, and doing research projects to prepare for the trip.
Throughout this process, they also engaged with fundamental learning techniques like writing, working with numbers, and logic, but in a way that allowed them to use their own personal learning style in real-life scenarios. Once all the students passed through security and took their seats aboard the plane of the imagination, the fifth-grade captains made announcements over a pretend loudspeaker. The screen in front of them played a Google Earth Flight Simulator depicting the view of the runway.
“Welcome aboard flight 406 to Fort Lauderdale,” the first captain said.
“Please buckle your seatbelts for takeoff and make sure that all of your personal belongings are in an overhead bin or tucked under the seat in front of you,” the second captain said.
The plane started to take off in a wobbly fashion, causing the passengers to giggle uncontrollably.
“Please don’t worry, we are professionals at this,” the third captain explained with a laugh as the simulated plane rose higher into the air. “Let’s do a barrel roll!” Someone yelled from the back.
During the week, in addition to the imaginary travel, the students also pursued their own research projects about the flora and fauna of the area, including a creative writing piece where the students told a story from the perspective of an animal in the Everglades. The teachers also incorporated the thematic subject into their foundational studies, asking important mathematical questions like “How many Anhingas can an alligator eat in a day?” and “If an Alligator eats 3 Anhingas a day, how many Anhingas would they eat in a week?”
Although these questions may not be great for the development of the Anhingas, they are incredible for the development of the students, and of the course of the week of imaginary travel, they will have had an experience and stories to swap with the 6-8th graders returning from the real alligator alley with tales of their own. Stay tuned for next post when we share stories and photos of the older kids’ adventure to the Everglades.