Education Foundation for the St. Vrain Vally Logo

Shannon Brennan and Shelia Freehill

Just as Ghandi so eloquently spoke, “be the change you wish to see in the world” we are striving to lead by example.

Prior to the 2018-2019 school year, Eagle Crest Elementary adopted a new leadership motto with three pillars for leadership: “Communicate, Create, Inspire. I am a leader. I help to build a better world.” The leadership team agreed that classes would participate in a variety of service learning project to build capacity and connections between students, our community and our world in order to develop practical skills and a sense of civic responsibility.

As a result of Sheila’s National Geographic Certified Educator program, we applied to participate in the National Geographic Educator Exchange program and were accepted and partnered with Daniel Arauz Naranjo, a marine biologist in Costa Rica who manages a sea turtle project at Costa Rica’s Rescue Center for Endangered Marine Species (CREMA), where he catches, tags, and monitors sea turtles in foraging grounds in Costa Rica.

In conjunction with our day to day teaching and service learning projects, our inspiring and transformative year-long collaboration project with Daniel Arauz led us to apply for the Eleanor Venture Travel Grant. When we applied for the Eleanor Venture Grant, we were hoping to culminate a year’s long relationship with a National Geographic Educator Explorer named Daniel Arauz in Costa Rica. We wanted to experience the life of an explorer scientist first hand. We also sought to deepen our cultural understanding by living with a Costa Rican family while attending Spanish language school for a week. Finally, we intended to explore the beauty of and learn about the climate change impacts on the Cloud Rain Forest in Monteverde.

By experiencing life with our host family in a foreign country, we anticipated that we would experience great growth as culturally responsive educators. We attended a week of Spanish Immersion and lived with a local family in a homestay through the Intercultura Costa Rica. While the intent was to allow each of us to improve our language, the reality is that one week at language school wasn’t enough. However, this experience encouraged a desire to go back someday, for much longer, in hopes of building more Spanish language skills.

During our week of language school in Samara at Intercultura, we experienced the highs and lows of learning in an immersion setting. The school grounds were almost 100% Spanish speaking zones, with an occasional area dedicated as multilingual. Our varied Spanish speaking skills were considered, and we began the week with an intimidating (though not intended) language assessment in order to place us in a leveled class.

Our homestay was beneficial to have a place that provided us with our own space for quiet reflection, reading, naps, and homework, but staying with the same host family also offered us comfort alongside the discomfort! Our host family was gracious, welcoming, loving, and accommodating! There were a few things that were surprising to us, however. The windows in Shannon’s bedroom didn’t have screens, which meant a major mindset shift for bugs and bug spray! Sheila embraced powdered milk in her coffee! Upon our arrival, we were informed that our host house didn’t have internet, and though we were disappointed at first, we quickly learned to appreciate our focus on people around us rather than devices! We adjusted to breakfast and dinner of rice and beans accompanied by steamed local veggies or fresh local fruit. All of the details of our stay that were a shock in the first day or so became parts of our trip that we treasured greatly! The homestay provided us with daily opportunities to intimately learn cultural norms of the Costa Rican people and enhanced our abilities as culturally responsive teachers. For Sheila, who already speaks Spanish, but lacks opportunities to deepen her language practice, this intensive opportunity allowed her to dive deeper into her knowledge of Spanish and deepen her understanding of the Latino culture and have a chance to exchange and capture stories for her teacher and homestay family. This awareness has supported her connection with her Spanish speaking students at Eagle Crest and has improved the parent involvement of her Spanish speaking families. An added benefit to this experience was that we developed greater empathy for our students who are newcomers as we experienced what it is like to not understand what everyone is saying.

We also used our time in Samara to enjoy the beauty of our surroundings when we were not in the classroom. We had class every day for four hours; it was either 8-12 or 1-5. Having class in the mornings typically meant spending the afternoon on the beach either doing homework or reading; class in the afternoon meant we had time for morning activities and excursions. Shannon ran daily, went on a turtle nesting excursion, took a surf lesson and a cooking class, and read a lot! Sheila also exercised daily, went on a horseback ride, and enjoyed the beach daily with a bike she rented for the week!

During our second week in Costa Rica we met up with Daniel Arauz, a marine biologist in Costa Rica. We visited the CREMA field site and collaborated with Daniel. We observed and participated in the netting of endangered juvenile le Hawksbill sea turtles off the shore of the research station. We slept at the remote research station and rose before dawn for two days to try to net some turtles to gather data on their health and growth rates. While we were there we went on an amazing rainforest hike up a river to this beautiful waterfall. We did not have our swimsuits, but we jumped in anyway. During the field expedition we stayed at San Miguel Station, a research station from the ministry of environment located inside Cabo Blanco National Park; the entrance is next to the town of Mal Pais. We were lucky to net one turtle and gather the data on it. It was a very rewarding experience to observe and participate in the life of a marine biologist. We learned a great deal about how to protect these special creatures and also were able to share our learning as explorers with our students to inspire them to learn more about science.

We left Mal Pais after a few days, and we travelled the long and bumpy road to Monteverde. While in Monteverde we spent a great deal of time in the cloud forest. One day we hired a naturalist guide to walk us through the cloud forest so that we would be more likely to see the wonders that live there. He pointed out plants, flowers, and animals burrows. By hiring him, we experienced so much more than we would have seen on our own. We also got a local’s perspective of the impacts of climate change and how it has impacted the cloud forest. We heard from him how life in Monteverde has changed in his lifetime. He showed us parts of the ecosystem that we never would have seen like a bat cave on the underside of a huge tree branch, sloths climbing in the trees, tarantula burrows, epiphytes and how they survive on the branch of a tree, and the beauty of hummingbirds.

After we were awarded the grant, one of Shannon‘s families mentioned that they were modifying their travel plans for the summer to go to Costa Rica; but the child in my class was so inspired to see the country that he spent so much time learning about. We exchanged contact information not really knowing what we were going to do, but they met us in Monteverde after modifying their travel plans knowing that we were going to be there.

After a day with Manolo, we met up with them and shared with them all the knowledge that we had just learned from him. We watched hummingbirds, ate lunch, and went on a hike together. We said goodbye that afternoon it made plans to go zip lining together because the kids wanted to go but their mom did not. Shannon and the kids went zip lining while Sheila and their mom went on a hike through the cloud forest. We felt like our time with the Ortiz family in Costa Rica really summed up the beauty of teaching and positive relationships.

Upon returning to school, Sheila was excited to share her experience being an explorer educator with her students to inspire them to learn to care for their world and develop their English skills at the same time. Her intention is to help her students learn how to ask questions about topics they are interested in and then go out and find the answers. She wanted to cultivate and model a growth mindset and celebrate the joy and freedom of exploring and experiencing hands-on learning.

Sheila is grateful for the opportunity to bring her explorer educator experience into the classroom and share it with her students, hopefully inspiring them to respect and care for the world. As students learn and communicate, they will become empathic leaders by seeing the needs in others and in the world around them. The more empathy we have for others and the planet, the more we will learn to care. Sheila’s greatest hope is to inspire others to take action to make the world a better place.

This trip provided time for Sheila’s personal and professional growth. It also helped cultivate a deep level of empathy for her students as English Language learners while she worked on improving her grammar skills in Spanish. This trip was life-changing and inspiring. It was rejuvenating and it has encouraged Sheila to bring the world into her classroom and connect her classroom with the world to expose her students to the amazing gifts our planet has to share.

For Shannon, one of the greatest gifts of this trip was having the time to BE. I realized how easy it is to race through our lives eager to get to all the places we need to be and do all the things that need to get done, it’s easy to miss the beauty and details in life. In Costa Rica, I had the time to see and feel the beauty of being a teacher; I prepared for the energy and effort it would take to create a positive learning environment and build relationships with a new group of students. Upon my return, I was inspired to authentically integrate my learning into my classroom.

My third grade team started the year with narrative writing, and we collaborated to create a storytelling podcast. Students created podcasts and recorded a story about their summer. I created my own example that came from a turtle observation excursion that I went one one morning during our week in Samara. I shared a story of two guides helping a turtle get back to sea after going through the motions of laying eggs in her old age. My students were mesmerized by the beauty found in their gracious act; I connected this to our classroom community in that we all have to support each other to be successful. Hearing each other’s stories helped to build capacity for a safe learning community!

After an Eco-Cycle presentation about reducing our waste, celebrating 10 years as a Green Star School, and hearing about my experiences in Costa Rica, my students were inspired to reduce trash and created a service learning project to collect broken holiday lights and wrapping paper to be recycled through CHaRM in Boulder. After the holidays, our collection of wrapping paper was overflowing, and we redirected roughly 35 strands of holiday lights! My students have been inspired by the efforts of Costa Ricans to reduce pollution and were thrilled with the amount of waste they were able to divert from the landfill!

My (Shannon’s) students spent a lot of time examining their own culture and traditions as part of a ReadyGen unit! After writing about parts of their culture that were significant to individual students, everyone participated in a 3rd grade Cultural Celebration. We had the opportunity to learn about a variety of cultures from around the world because parents volunteered to share their own stories of their culture…India, Germany, Scotland, Benin, China, and many others! Learning about other cultures helped students to build empathy for others.

In December, roughly 60% of Shannon’s class from the 2018-2019 school year returned to name the turtle they worked so hard to adopt. Students decided to name our turtle Venture Hope–Venture as a play on “adventure” and to thank Eleanor Flanders the Education Foundation for this incredible opportunity that brought our learning and work full circle, and Hope to represent their hope to “Build a better world.”

We have been able to connect so much of the learning that has occurred in our classrooms to our trip to Costa Rica. In addition to these specific examples from the year so far, we have had countless interactions with students that drew upon our own experiences as struggling students and travelers. We are also more culturally responsive and empathic teachers! We know this is just the beginning of this learning progression for us!

We are incredibly thankful to the Education Foundation for providing us with this life changing trip; our experiences will continue to inspire us in our work as educators.