Summer 2011
June 27, 2011

Port Washington uses 'town as textbook'

Author: Bernie Mulligan
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Jim Jones, a retired Port Washington teacher and volunteer naturalist, captivates fourth-graders during a visit with birds of prey that students might see on Long Island. Photo by Miller Photography.

Science and social studies come to life, inside and outside the walls of Port Washington's schools.

Dedicated community volunteers and in-service and retired members of the Port Washington Teachers Association coordinate in-town trips and in-school presentations to reach students in the Nassau County district.

In 2007, after taking her first tour of the Port Washington sand pits (a key element in building the Big Apple's skyscrapers and sidewalks in the early 20th century), Marilyn Gilbert, a retired elementary teacher "realized that our local environment could be used to support fourth-grade science, social studies and language arts curricula, as well as meet state standards."

Gilbert, working closely with teacher Diana Conway, designed a program "to bring student textbooks to life." Using district funding, community volunteers and dedicated classroom teachers, the program reaches into several of the district's elementary schools.

"Too often, we think we have to go outside our community," Conway said, "but we've learned the best enrichment could be in our own backyard."

Under the guidance of PWTA members and volunteers, the program is built around student activities. A retired geologist leads students on an exploration of the Sands Point Preserve to learn about geology, geography and the town's famous sand. An Audubon Society educator teaches them about bird watching. A local expert on the local sand miners introduces students to the sands' contributions to New York City's growth and the impact of the multi-ethnic workforce on the town's diversity.

Jim Jones, a retired Port Washington science teacher, now a naturalist at "Volunteers for Wildlife," brings birds of prey into the district's classrooms. In a recent visit to a combined group of fourth-graders, Jones held 50 students spellbound with birds that his organization has rescued.

"When a falcon is in a controlled dive, and hits the bird that he's hunting, he's going 150 miles an hour," Jones explained.

A 5-year-old, partially blind owl prompts a discussion about owls' nocturnal search for food. Jones' explanation that the dark circles under the eyes are discs to help hearing, opens another discussion about birds of prey.

"I'm very proud of members' work on this program," said Port Washington TA President Christine Vasilev. "It's all part of the interconnected web of learning."