Teacher's enthusiasm added glitter to transition from summer freedom to classroom learning

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
OPINION: While Alaska children have a good chance to get a balance between the two worlds of practical experiences and classroom education, too many children do not know how good it feels to romp on a muddy beach dragging salmon from a net in the summer sunshine. Pictured: Kids take a break from swimming at Goose Lake in Anchorage to get ice cream from Bob Hickey's Alaskan Polar Bear Ice Cream truck. June 14, 2013. Loren Holmes photo

Yesterday was the last day of summer vacation for my children. After a week of rain, the sun came out in its blazing glory, polishing the jewel of Alaska’s summer landscape. Every stem of fireweed was brilliant purple, the grasses gave off a pungent air of life, and the breeze, though steady, was warm.

Determined to wring every drop out of the day for my kids, we quickly finished up our chores and headed for the beach. My friend has a setnet site there and the fish were coming in. I took along a couple of visiting houseguests to see the fish that have made Alaska famous.

The children clambered into the old truck, bouncing along the beach rocks and laughing.

When they got to the net, spread out across the mud, partially still in the ebbing tide, there were shrieks. The net was full of beautiful silver salmon, each requiring muddy fingers to untangle it. Along the way there were jelly fish to look at, and rocks to jump on.

One by one, the fish were carried by small hands to the cooler in the back of the old, blue Ford. It quickly filled as 10, 15, 20, 25 fish were piled in. Once in a while, we would find a fish that was still alive, and it would splash the already muddy children, making the visitors’ eyes widen.

I took a lot of photos, and later, back at the house, I sifted through them, noting the wide smiles and joy I saw there. There is magic on the beach, harvesting salmon, in the mud, just like there is joy in the garden, picking the freshest snap pea and the sweetest cherry tomato.

As the day drew to a close, we had an amazing feast, filling the table with the freshest ingredients on earth. The sun still blazed. It seemed impossible to imagine going to bed or getting up and going to school. Part of me wondered why.

There’s a popular post going around right now about “unschooling” your children. It takes the approach that children learn more from being out in nature than they ever will from a classroom. And after a day like yesterday, I can see why. It’s hard to compare the importance of memorizing your multiplication tables with understanding the life and death of the things you eat, or the importance of protecting the environment that sustains them.

While Alaska children, especially those who live in rural communities, may get some degree of balance between the two worlds, there are generations of children who do not understand how good it feels to romp on a muddy beach dragging salmon from a net in the summer sunshine. That’s too bad.

But then today arrived, and we went to my son’s class and met his teacher, a man who has been kid-wrangling for more than 25 years. He was completely animated -- giddy even -- to tell us lingering parents about his new approach to his curriculum. He told us he’s been reading research about game-based learning, and has written a game that will last the entire year and will span the entire fifth-grade curriculum. His beginning-of-the-year newsletter was equally enthusiastic, full of ways that we as parents could help our children learn new skills that go way beyond the three “R’s.” This teacher wasn’t as focused on teaching specific subjects as he was on exciting this class of students about learning and growing. What a gift. My son came home glowing about how much fun he had in class, and all the things they were going to do that year. The excitement was infectious.

Over at my daughter’s school, parents and students flowed in and out as the teachers gave out hugs and people reunited after a summer apart. It felt like a happy family reunion as the children dashed around the playground.

There are probably a lot of things wrong with our current education system. The way we absorb and access information is changing.

The old models don’t apply, and I sure do wish there were more practical things taught in school, too, like how to balance a checkbook, how to make a household budget, and how to fix a busted water pipe.

Our children’s world will not look anything like ours; the jobs will be different, the offices will be different -- if there are even offices anymore. And understanding our natural environment will be even more important for them than it was for us.

But there are beautiful things being taught in school, too, like how to relate peacefully to one another, and how to take turns. And then there are people like my son’s teacher, still as excited as ever to be doing what he’s doing. How can that excitement not rub off on his students? How can they avoid being inspired by his enthusiasm? Just seeing an example of someone who has found his calling in life is a lesson in itself not to settle for an occupation that brings you anything but joy.

The muddy salmon will be there after 3 p.m.

Carey Restino is the editor of the Arctic Sounder and Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman, where this commentary first appeared.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.