Last week the 6th Graders did more than just relax at the beach and work on their tans.  They got muddy, sweaty, and stinky venturing out into a coastal ecosystem to learn about what goes on outside of their classrooms and textbooks.

Bright and early Monday morning a white van pulled into the front lot at Trinity.  6th graders groggily loaded up their suitcases and snacks for a week of outdoor education at Camp Driftwood on St Simon’s Island in southern Georgia. Over the course of the week, they would practice team-building exercises, dissect some ocean life, do water quality testing, meet new reptilian friends, tour the Okefenokee Swamp and Kingsly Plantation, and capture and observe various forms of plankton.

The week started and finished with team building exercises.  “Where’s My Water Bottle” challenged the students to work together as a team to stump our instructor Sarah. Everyone participated in 4ft high Trust Falls, slackline ropes course puzzles and “Tanks”, a game where students had to direct their blindfolded classmates to fire foam balls at each other as tanks.  The games were more than just free time games. They challenged the students’ problem-solving skills, required them to learn how to adapt to a variety of communication styles and work together for a shared goal.

A Disappearing Beach:

The second day was spent at the beach.  An entire day on Jekyll Island spent in the warm spring sun and salty breeze.  Well, that’s not exactly how it went.  Students and instructors loaded up hiking shoes, seining nets, and what seemed like buckets of bug spray and sunscreen in the back of the van to get ready for an early morning exploring low tide on the north shore.  Overcast skies and a cool saline breeze made for a comfortable, almost Northwestern environment to comb the beach for life.

With 6 foot tides, the islands see an exceptional change in the environment every day as the ocean ebbs and flows with the moon’s gravitational pull.  The skeletal remains of trees that have succumbed to ocean level encroachment, a result of beach erosion, are the perfect habitat for small sea life like anemones and whelks.  Each pool contained a microcosm of miniature organisms, all touchable by the students.  Each tide pool was waded into, each hermit crab investigated, and every seagrass covered branch was petted as the students learned about the dynamic environment of tide pools and barrier islands.

A funny thing happens when it’s cool out with no sun, when your busy exploring a new world, when you’re taking pictures and watching horses trot down the coastline, you forget to reapply your sunscreen. The distractions of beautiful weather and a tasty sack lunch provided by the camp partnered with the excitement of crashing waves and the possibility of catching “the big one” in the seining net meant that sunburnt shoulders (its own part of ocean life) were starting to get tingly.

Quickly into the cool surf we dashed. Seining net in hand, it was time to put some of those new team building skills to work.  All 7 students worked together to fight the surf and pull a 20-foot long seining net through the waist-high water towards the beach.  3 tries, several cone jellies, and one confused glass minnow later, we all learned that the water was too chaotic ad the beach was too busy with the last of the spring-breakers to get any exciting life caught in our net.

We learned more about the effects of erosion on the beach through a short project where each team of students built an island in the bleached sand while our instructor demonstrated how the shoreline gets distorted by s southbound current; moving the trio of barrier island south by as much as 5ft annually. We learned about past efforts to halt the erosion, using boulders to stop the sand from washing into the sea, building jetties that blocked the powerful currents from reaching the shoreline; ultimately learning that because of the interlinking between events, the ocean, and island, that changing one thing would affect the other.  All ecosystems are linked together and all ecosystems depend on each other for survival.

Getting Fishy:

Students were understandably a little standoffish when told they would be dissecting a fish and a squid.  By the time the smell and ink had permeated their skin and made sure everyone smelled like your local fishmonger, they all had a new appreciation for the anatomy of these incredible animals. The activity started off with a short discussion about the scientific classification of animals; showing students how we can tell where a species starts to branch off through anatomical classification.   Then class took an abrupt turn for the gooey and slimy.

Scalpels, scissors, and tweezers were handed out and eager hands snatched them up. First, the fins were scissored off.  Pectoral, dorsal, anal, and pelvic fins were removed for inspection. Some fins were observed to have small bones in them, others looked closer to the webbing between our toes.  The students were encouraged to explore their fish more in depth.  Eyes were cut open and lenses were dug out. The students were astonished at how different the makeup of the fish’s eye was compared to our own.  Human’s have hemispherical lenses (think contact lenses) while fish, it was discovered, have spherical lenses.  Small BB-sized spheres were removed from the fish and handled carefully, inspected thoroughly, and set aside for comparison. Next up, gut time!

What does a fish look like on the inside?  We know what the fins look like, we know that the eyes are drastically different from our own, but what about its digestive system?  Well, this is where it started getting a bit messier. I-shaped incisions were made on the fish’s belly – 2 lateral incisions, one from pectoral fin to pectoral fin, and another just in front of the anal fin; and one long incision down the belly connecting the 2 lateral cuts- and immediately students’ noses wriggled up and skin got a bit pale. The bravest of the group reached into the cavity and removed the insides, placing them in a slimy pile next to the rest of the fish; everyone waiting for the next set of instructions.

Biologists learn about new and existing creatures through observation and study.  They also dissect samples to learn about them, their immediate environment, and in our case, their diet.  It was explained to the students that if we didn’t know what our fish normally ate we would find out either by observation or dissection, and since we’re already inside our fish, the students were going to learn about the fish diet by further dissection.  The slimy pile of insides that resided next to the body of the fish was picked up, strung out, and squeezed clean; not unlike a tube of toothpaste.  Using the forceps the students sifted through the stinky sticky mess to try to identify what Whiting typically feed on. It turns out many of these fish had empty bellies, except one which had the remnant of last night’s dinner, a tasty crab!

A Trip Back In Time – Okefenokee Swamp:

We were lucky to have the Okefenokee Swamp located a short 45minute drive away from our temporary residence at Camp Driftwood.  An early breakfast and quick load up to the van and we were on our way to explore a completely different ecosystem than the coastal one we had gotten to explore so thoroughly.  The original plan was to load everyone up in canoes and spend the morning quietly paddling through the blackwater swamp getting personal with the likes of alligators and turtles.  Due to a high wind advisory, our plans had to change.  Instead, everyone was treated to a private boat tour through the canals and into the lily pad prairies deep into the wilderness.   Great Herons, green herons, even hawks and woodpeckers were common sites along the waterway.  We had several impromptu stops along the peat covered shore revealed delicate pitcher plants and water scorpions.  A quick about-face and we were headed back to the docks for lunch.

The equivalent of the classic brown bag lunch was wolfed down as fast as our appetites could handle.  Chips and cookies followed ham and cheese sandwiches being washed down with bottles of water and fruit juice.  Just the fuel we needed for the upcoming hike out to Owl’s Roost Tower and the Chesser Island Homestead. Once again we packed into our now home-away-from-home trusty white van and started off on the wildlife drive to Chesser Island.

The drive is a slow one. Fish and Wildlife officials were everywhere making sure nobody was walking around damaging the delicate scrub pine ecosystem or speeding down the narrow forest road.  Almost immediately our attention was directed toward a scattering of tall pine trees with curious looking white circles painted around their trunks. This was the recovering habitat of the highly endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker.  For the following 5 minute drive toward the homestead, the student’s saw first hand how each tree was marked to help protect and track the nests of these special birds, whose habitat has been destroyed by deforestation and wildfires. Of course, there were plenty of alligators to bee seen in the water holes and drainage ditches that lined the roads as well.

Chesser Island homestead is a time machine.  Left alone since its last renovation in the late1920’s the property is only maintained as needed, which wasn’t much judging by the impeccable condition of the old milled pine lumber that formed the structure of the main house.  Students got to tour the house and see how different life was like for the Chesser’s than their own.  They had to bathe outside on the side porch.  They made turpentine and syrup from the surrounding pine thickets which they sold to purchase the few items they needed cash for.  Everything else was self-sustained.  The hog pen, bird yard, and garden were all still there, just as they were left 100yrs ago.  On the trek back to the lot we stopped briefly at an ancient Indian mound near the property.  Students were asked what they thought might be hidden underneath the piled earth.  It turns out that Indiana Jones would be rather bored by this particular mound.  No treasures or pottery were buried there. Only trash. The native peoples that lived in the region used this particular spot as their village landfill.  Just like how a dissection of a small fish can teach us about its ecosystem, the students learned that the excavation of this particular mound taught anthropologists more about the people that created it.

The next stop on our trip through the Okefenokee would be a 45-minute hike through the swampland to a 100ft tower called Owl’s Roost.  The walk is along a newly rebuilt boardwalk which gave the student another chance to try and spot some wildlife passively.  There were numerous water snakes spotted slithering their way through the watery bog.  Frogs perched themselves on lilypads as turtles basked in the afternoon sun nearby. We were quizzed on how to differentiate between black vultures and turkey vultures (turkey vultures have black shoulders and light feathers).  The remains of the previous boardwalk, burned away in the 2011 Honey Prarie Fire, were evident, with its charred posts still protruding several inches above the water’s surface. Gradually the Owl’s Roost tower emerged through the thick cypress trees.

The tower gave astounding views of the surrounding swamp.  The students suddenly regained their energy and raced up the stairs to the very top of the tower to be the first to gaze upon the wilderness. A telescopic viewfinder let visitors pinpoint large turtles in the pond below as well as the resident songbirds and raptors that were frequent sites along the hike.

The swamp was wildly different than our familiar salt marshes and beaches.  Alligators and snakes took the place of whelks and hermit crabs.  The fresh salty sea air was replaced by the sulfuric smell of decomposing peat and other plant matter.  Towering cypress, pine, and oak trees still watched over the landscape but instead of withering under the pressure of oncoming salt tides the ones in the beautiful Okefenokee swamp were thriving.

Tiny Creatures Under The Sea:

One of the most exciting parts of the trip was learning about the microscopic organisms that are a keystone element in supporting a thriving ocean ecosystem. Tiny plankton are important in keeping everything in the ocean in check.  They’re the bottom of the food chain and if it weren’t for the tiny little critters there would be no food and thus no fish or mammalian life.  After a short walk through and old oak tree plantation near the Driftwood campus, we were led onto a small floating dock.  Our instructor, Sarah, gave a brief description of some of the instruments the students would be using to measure the water quality of the brackish river below us.  Students were them given the chance to gather some data.  The nets were quickly grabbed and several students tried their hand at trying once again to capture some small sea life.  Pool skimmers caught numerous cone jellies which were delicately deposited in a bucket for close observation.

The cast net took a new set of skills to properly use.  Many of the students had never seen one let alone used it.  We were lucky enough to have a seasoned expert in our group who gladly showed everyone the ropes. Thanks, Luke!  After several minutes spent practicing our casts and much more spent trying to get the net unstuck from the bottom of the dock, we were left empty-handed once again.  No fish.  The occasional goo from a passing jelly or some flotsom would get caught but no life. Just casting practice.

The other two tests performed b the students were a PH level test and a water visibility test.  The visibility test had students lowering a black and white checkered disk into the fast moving river until it could no longer be seen.  They would then measure the rope and record the depth.  This day there was about 1ft of visibility in the murky water.  Most of this was due to the fast rising tide and the silt and muck that it was churning up in its current.  The PH test was a little different, however.  Students were told that a PH level of about 7 is what we wanted for our brackish river. They eagerly dipped the test strips into the water, removed them, and soaked the in the testing fluid.  If the fluid turned red, we were in trouble, if it turned green all was fine and dandy on the river. Sure enough, it turned green!  With our samples collected and data recorded it was time to debrief.  Sarah told us that the St Simon’s Island estuaries and rivers were actually quite healthy.  Although there were erosion problems the plankton and the abundance of spartina grasses kept the water quality in check.  They made sure that the water was properly oxygenated, that any pollutants were filtered out and that the many fish, birds, and crustaceans that call the river home had plenty of food and shelter.

With our samples collected and data recorded it was time to debrief.  Sarah told us that the St Simon’s Island estuaries and rivers were actually quite healthy.  That although there were erosion problems that the plankton and the abundance of spartina grasses kept the water quality in check.  They made sure that the water was properly oxygenated, that any pollutants were filters out and that the many fish, birds, and crustaceans that call the river home had plenty of food and shelter.

On our way back to the camp we stopped at another dock. This time our testing equipment wouldn’t be needed.  Instead, students were equipped with special nets designed to filter out any plankton in the water.  Lower the net into the water and skim the surface for about 20ft was the trick.  After our previous lack of luck with the cast net, everyone was hoping to catch something good.  Instead, empty nets were once again raised.  Our instructor looked excitedly at the confused students.  We had brought nothing up and yet everyone was told to empty their nets in a small bucket to take back to the lab.

Ms. Sarah gingerly emptied some of the contents of the bucket into petri dishes using a siphon. Meanwhile, with growing excitement, the students were getting a quick orientation on how to properly use a microscope. What was Ms. Sarah up to?  The dishes were passed out to the student stations. Knobs turned nervously and slowly our catch came into focus under the bright light of the microscopes.  It was clear that we had indeed caught something; any things actually.  There, swimming in a world smaller than what we can see were alien like creatures. They zigged and zagged and rose and sunk in the millimeter deep sample of water.  We caught plankton!

Various forms of plankton were visible under the microscope. Zooplankton such as coral polyps and shrimp and crustacean larvae quickly zoomed around our scopes, sometimes even eating the meroplankton right before our eyes!  Sarah talked o use about how even though we see these critters underneath the microscope and caught them right outside on the dock that we had hundreds of thousands of them swimming and crawling over our bodies when we were wading in the surf seining for our glass minnowSomeOme students didn’t like the idea of microscopic alien bugs crawling on them and skipped out on a secret initiation into the plankton club later on (tasting seawater and plankton), but most were amazed that such a small world can play a huge part in keeping our oceans healthy.

Kingsley Plantation:

The world was a different place when the Kingsly Plantation was at its peak production.  The American Civil War had just begun and Florida was caught up in the mix.  As we made our way back to Trinity we had one last detour to take.  Just north of Jacksonville, on the mouth of the St. John’s River on Fort George Island sits Kingsley Plantation.  We were met on the front drive by Ranger Susie.  Her staunch stature and crisp uniform with its flat brimmed hat made for an impressive sight.  She led us around the main house and its secondary rooms ad explained all about how life worked for those privileged enough to live near the main compound.  She showed us the old ships’ ballast that continues to wash ashore to this day.  She explained that the kind of cotton grown on the plantation is still highly valued today (a pair of socks would fetch $50).  We explored the barn and saw another cane syrup cauldron.  We learned that a 33ft by 33ft patch of land and 3 days hard work was needed to produce a 5lb bag of sugar similar to the ones we buy in the grocery store today.

As we ventured further into the property an arch of little white shacks began to become more and more prominent. These were the slaves’ quarters.  The reality of slavery started to sink in with the students as they wandered around the small tabby shacks.  As Ranger Susie explained that the slaves on Kingsly were under the Spanish Law at the time their life, although still cruel and hard, was seemingly better than those slaves on the southern plantations.  Slaves under Spanish Law has certain rights and were protected from cruelties by their drivers and owners.

The students loved this part of the trip and one the drive out to the highway were asking more and more questions about slave life, eagerly waiting for replies from Mrs. Brockberg and Mr. Mike.  Bringing history t life through experiences such as a trip to Kingsley Plantation is great for our students.  It helps them understand that our history was not just a bunch of stories we tell or dates and statistics to memorize; our history is a living and breathing being.  It changes with every second and we write every page of it.

Meanwhile, Back At Trinity:

For those students who were not able to travel to Driftwood, a special series of lessons and local excursions took place during the week.  Each student was assigned to read a novel set in an ecosystem of study: swamp for Grade 6 students, and marine for students in Grades 7 and 8.  These realistic fiction works launched students into a world unlike their own, and students noted aspects of the environment, and the species of flora and fauna as they read through the different plots from notable authors such as Robert Newton Peck, Gordon Korman, Kat Falls and Jean Craighead George (and yes, Golden Ticket projects prompted great presentations about these unfamiliar biomes and great tales of the outdoors).  Trips to Sea World, and to Shingle Creek, the headwaters of the Everglades right here in Orlando provided unique ecosystem alternatives to the Driftwood experience.

Of particular note is the cooperative group project for Grade 6 students, who read excerpts of “To Be A Slave” the Newberry Honor Book celebrating its 50th anniversary this year!  Julius Lester compiled 1930’s Federal Writing Project narratives from former slaves into this adolescent novel.  While Grade 6 students toured the Kingsley Plantation, the remaining students composed a summary of Plantation Life, The Emancipation, and After The Emancipation, eventually sharing the results of their research with their peers upon their return to Trinity.

A great week of learning was experienced by all in the Middle School this past week!

“Driftwood was amazing. My faviorate part was when we went to Jeklly sland. I loved how we went to Okefenoke swamp and saw 35 aligators!” – Lordisnhe

“My favorite part about driftwood was the okefenokee swamp, and the mud pit.” – Luke

“I liked Diftwood gator tales because we got to see snakes I’ve never seen before.” – Sebastian