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Illinois teachers paddle & learn about watersheds on the Rock River

Peter Medlin
Teachers kayaking down the Rock River, just north of Rockford.

A small group of teachers paddle south on the Rock River towards Rockford. They point out native plants used on the side of the river to control erosion & make small talk about possible environmental projects they can plan for their school.

This kayak trip was the culmination of a free workshop from theUniversity of Illinois Extension.

Northern Illinois teachers spent a week learning how to teach their students about water and their local watersheds The K-12 teachers soaked in lessons from local hydrologists, a geologist and soil specialist.

“What you know about is what you take care of,” said Peggy Anesi. She’s an environmental educator with the U of I extension who organized the watershed workshop.

Teachers of all sorts took part, not just environmental educators. And because “what you know about is what you take care of,” the week started with a lesson on what a watershed even is.

Anesi says you can think of a watershed like a bathtub. All of the water that falls into your watershed collects and eventually drains -- like the tub drain in this simile --- into a river, like the Rock.

“So, you have tiny watersheds that are in bigger watersheds, and eventually 1/3 of the U.S. drains into the Mississippi watershed,” she said. “The Mississippi literally drains ⅓ of the United States and that's our big watershed that we're in. Everything we put in it, from lawn care stuff to stuff down the drain, everything goes in your watershed.”

Chris Mrofcza is a counselor at Hiawatha High School who’s moving downstream with the current.

“It's almost like it changes your entire world,” he says. Mrofcza says he’s learned so many things that are taken for granted during this week.

“There was a moment where we were in the water and looking at these macro-invertebrates and all of the larva from caddisflies and all these things," he said. "He [a program instructor]'s teaching us that these are bio-indicators. These things are telling us that this water is clean because they're able to live here. I saw through his eyes that he's like, ‘This is really clean water, and I'm happy about that.’”

As a counselor, he’s probably not going to go back to school and do a water table activity with his students, but he wants to work with his fellow teachers to incorporate these resources, and also tell his students about the career fields he learned about.

“I advocate for so many things. That is sort of what a school counselor does. I'm just going to add it to the list of things to advocate for: care about our water. You live here too. Install some plants. That's all you’ve got to do to make a little bit of a difference,” he said.

Jodi Gudewicz is a science teacher at Sandwich Middle School. She says a few presentations from the week stood out.

“I really think the connection between soil and water and the kids understanding that connection, I think that is huge,” she said.

At her old school, a group of her students planted native plants to help prevent flooding behind the building. Now, she’s building up her new school’s STEM program and figuring out how to incorporate environmental science.

“Where am I gonna find this grant money to make these kids do this class, but then design a rain garden for our campus, and then be able to actually implement the design that the students have come up with,” said Gudewicz.

Becky LaBolle is a 4th grade teacher in Somonauk. As she paddles, she’s looking for examples along the water of best management practices. And, she’s thinking about the passion the experts showed this week and how she'll bring some of those lessons back to her elementary school students.

“How do we take care of our water and our soil? All of those things you can take back into the classroom, no matter what age you work with,” she said.

Luckily, a few of her colleagues are out on the water learning too. And all of the educators -- no matter their grade level -- are hoping to use what they’ve learned to teach their students how to see their community in a new way, to show them how connected they are to their local watershed and the positive impact they can make.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.