Jackson St. School – A Residency Connecting Nature, Scientific Inquiry, and Language

By Jessica Schultz

During the 2014-2015 school year, Hitchcock Center educators Patty O’Donnell, Patrick O’Roark, and Helen Ann Sephton worked with 330 students and teachers in grades 1-5 at Jackson Street Elementary School in Northampton, with funding provided by the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s STARS (Students and Teachers Working with Artists, Scientists, and Scholars) grant.

Students and teachers studied and explored their school grounds, and the nearby Barrett Street Marsh, through winter and spring seasons. They shared in learning across themes of trees, plant and animal study on the school grounds, animal adaptations, vegetation & animal plot studies in forest habitats, and geology of the Connecticut River Valley.

Patty worked with students in grades 4 and 5 for two days in a row this spring – first at the marsh and then in the classroom. This timing allowed Patty to set-up an aquarium in the classroom for students to observe the aquatic invertebrates and tadpoles they caught the day before at the marsh.


A tadpole in the classroom.

A group of students exclaimed suddenly, “Miss Patty, Miss Patty…..we just saw a leg pop out!!!” The timing for this lesson could not have been better for observing maturing green frog tadpoles.

Helen Ann, working with 1st and 3rd graders, found that the students happily engaged in digging for decomposers during an inquiry exploring the forest floor. During a visit to the marsh, her classes walked on the beaver dam to experience its strength and construction.

Patrick led 2nd graders to the marsh for three separate observations. During the first winter visit, the classes looked for wildlife tracks, nests, and generally explored animal signs. As spring brought more obvious signs of life to the marsh, Patrick had students record their observations on a map and observation sheets. Students brought natural materials back to the classroom to take more time to investigate. Highlights included, students observing the spindle galls forming on maple tree leaves in the spring. These spikey galls are created by mites and offered a perfect example of sign of animals rarely seen.

Hands-on experiences allow for excitement and memories, but Mary Clark, a parent volunteer at Jackson Street School, observed that something more also happened for the students. “With over 13% of the students English language learners…having hands on projects not only bridges the language barrier, it provides concrete reinforcement for crucial vocabulary learning: ‘A bug!’ ‘Dig deep!’ Look at the base of the stem.’ This hands-on work is so important to providing inclusion in activities where language is still a barrier.”

Support from principal Gwen Agna and all of the teachers was critical to making this STARS Residency a success. Jackson Street School hopes to continue this Residency for the 2015/2016 school year, and plans to reapply for project funding.

Jessica Schultz is Communication and Capital Project Coordinator for the Hitchcock Center. She guides on-going media relations, website and social media, publications, marketing planning and photography. She also supports the Executive Director and building committee in planning for a new environmental learning center.

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