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Students Hit the High Seas for a New Learning Initiative

June 29, 2011

Ryan Cooke, PS 306 teacher and creator of the Classroom Without Walls learning initiative, with a student and her catch on the Long Island Sound. Photo by Fausto Giovanny Pinto

By FAUSTO GIOVANNY PINTO

At noon on a recent Friday, while most students across the city were hitting the lunch line, the students at PS 306 were busy tossing out fishing lines and reeling in fish onto a boat bobbing in the Long Island Sound.

As part of a new learning initiative that takes kids out of the classroom and into the real world, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade Special Education students at PS 306 set sail on a day-long fishing trip. It marked the culmination of this year’s Classroom Without Walls program.

“We want to give them a glimpse of what’s out there so they can see it and take it further,” said Ryan Cooke, a 4th-grade Special Education teacher at the Mt. Hope-area school and creator of the innovative program. “These aren’t just field trips,” he added.

During the trip, as the students waited for a bite on the line, a special skill was subtly being emphasized: patience. Young kids, in general, have short attention spans. But a lack of patience is especially prominent for Special Ed students. Fishing, Cooke says, teaches them to control their feelings and focus on a long-term reward.

Silence on the boat was broken as cheers erupted from one side of the boat.

“I got one!” screamed 11-year-old Alexander Sanchez. “Reel it in!” yelled Captain James Whitten.

“I wish I had trips like these as a kid,” Whitten added.

As the crew of the boat helped Alexander reel in the fish, his fellow classmates cheered him on with high-fives.

“I didn’t think I was going to get it, I thought my pole was going to fall in [the water],“ said Alexander, a 5th grader. “I’m going to tell my mom to cook it.”

Students receive a handful of lessons of relatable material prior to the excursion. On the trip they received a mini lesson and afterwards were asked to reflect on the experience in a journal. For the fishing trip, the students studied Marine Biology.

The students have also saw a Broadway show, “The Lion King,” and went on a backstage tour. On a trip to the Museum of Natural History, students went behind the scenes to see how the fossils are put together.

Cooke, a former Special Ed student himself, says a different approach towards Special Education has been long overdue. He said since the program’s inception four years ago, students have been more focused and excited about learning.

“[As Special Education students] they have labeled stereotypes,” said Edgar Irizarry Jr, a paraprofessional at 306. “This gives them motivation and tells them you can do this. Ninety-nine percent of these kids have never gone fishing as well.”

The program, which works closely with the school’s parent association, raised enough funds to take a record number of kids this year, more than 100.

As the school bus pulled up to PS 306 on West Tremont Avenue, after a tiring and exciting day out at sea, one of the more vocal students turned to his teacher and spoke with the excitement only a child could exhibit.

“I’m happy I got to catch a fish,” he said. “I never did that before.”

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