School’s Teacher of Year uses river as a resource

Published: July 9, 2008 | 7175th good news item since 2003

Teacher Jill Wnuk believes middle school is not just about math, science and social studies: It is also about helping them discover what is really important in life.

“At this age,” she explains “the kids are so ‘all over the place.’ They’re growing up. So we really try to not just teach them subject matter, but also teach them about how to take responsibility and how to make a difference.”

So, just before the school year ended Wnuk’s students donned rubber gloves and picked up garbage bags and trekked down to the banks of the nearby Hockanum River which winds its way around the bend behind the school.

The tally after the day-long campaign: 30 bags of trash – cans, cardboard, plastic, bottles, boxes and even some corroded lengths of pipe that looked suspiciously like an old football goal post from back in the day when football captain and quarterback John Larson was helping his EHHS Hornets score touchdowns on the old high school field at what is now the town’s middle school.

“This is our second time cleaning up along the river,” related Wnuk. “It’s part of an environmental project that we started last year sponsored by [non profit] American Rivers. We keep doing it because (students) understand that it’s important to clean up their community.”

Students really “get it,” said East Hartford Middle School’s ‘Teacher of the Year’ for 2008-2009. “We have 100% participation. They all do it.”

From the baseball fields of Labor Field in Mayberry Village down to the Forbes Street bridge, little seemed to escape the determined middle school garbage avengers.

Teacher Wnuk worked to restrain the students’ eagerness for safety reasons. The kids were given gloves and instructed not to pick up anything they could not identify.

“We told them not to pick up glass. Anything questionable, don’t pick it up. Let an adult pick it up,” Wnuk said. “Last year we spent a whole day out here, and collected crazy things” she recalled. “Chairs, a boat, a dead cat, and big rolls of chain link fence – the kids dragged everything out [and] our custodians put everything away in the trash.”

Among other things, the teacher said, kids organized a cell phone recycling drive. They studied articles on global warming and solar energy, and wrote letters to state leaders about the problem. “Nobody answered,” Wnuk observed.

What was important is that the kids responded to the message of social responsibility and civic mindedness, she added.

“When we were on a field trip in Hartford we went to the State Capitol as part of that, and they were mentioning, when we drove down some street, they were like ‘look at all the trash.’ They don’t litter, and when someone drops something they pick it up.”

As for the “Teacher of the Year” award Wnuk said, while it was a surprise and an honor, the title for her is more about representing the school than a personal accolade. “It’s a team effort” she stressed.

EHMS Principal Pietro Cerone pointed out there was a big reason Wnuk was picked. “She’s very involved in school activities. She’s very involved in our school,” he said. “She runs the Student Council as well as the River Cleanup. And there are many other positive programs that she’s involved with. All of these are volunteer programs. We don’t ask her to do it. She’s a team leader.”

Published in Teachers
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