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Mr. B’s Is a classroom like no other

Mr. B’s Is a classroom like no other

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Mr. B’s Backyard Classroom is a hidden ecological oasis located between Reeds Road Elementary School and Galloway Township Middle School.

The idea for this outdoor classroom came from a workshop led by Dave Crawford, a teacher from Egg Harbor Township (now retired). After that workshop, fellow teacher Guy Buckelew and I went to check out our water management ponds as a possibility for an outdoor classroom. Upon crawling under the fence, we were greeted by a great blue heron and a red-tailed hawk. As we scooped up macroinvertebrates from the pond, we both agreed that this would be a great spot for an outdoor classroom. We pitched the idea to others, but it did not go any further.

The namesake of this project, Buckelew (“Mr. B.”), taught sixth grade science at Reeds Road Elementary School. He instilled a sense of environmental awareness in his students by bringing the outdoors in. When he died in January 2010, fellow teachers and staff were wondering how to remember him. Thinking about the spot under the fence, I pitched that idea to Kathy Warren, a teacher of fifth grade at Reeds Road. She took the idea to her principal, Bill Zipparo, who enthusiastically supported it. Given the approval, we were joined by sixth grade teachers Greg Lick and Jackie Baltozar, and our work began. Kathy Warren came up with the perfect name, Mr. B’s Backyard Classroom.

During the 2010–2011 school year, through the generosity of grants provided by the Galloway Township Education Foundation and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, we purchased picnic benches and supplies. Eric Schrading, New Jersey field office supervisor for Fish and Wildlife, built a dock and bird houses and advised on habitat management.

Through Mr. B’s Backyard Classroom, our retention pond has been transformed into an arena that provides hands-on activities to develop an essential understanding of local ecological concepts. Just under an acre, this area includes a retention and detention pond, trails, bird houses and observation benches. Two former Galloway students earned their Eagle Scout rank by doing various projects to enhance Mr. B’s Backyard Classroom.

This hidden gem is literally teeming with life! The students can learn about a variety of plants and wildlife native to the Pinelands. It is my pet peeve that students know about elephants, lions and tigers, but they don’t know what is in their own backyard. With this project we have stepped out beyond our textbooks and the classroom walls to bring environmental concepts to life. When they step into Mr. B’s, students are amazed at what lies beyond the gate and how things change with the seasons!

The annual Nature Fest was started in 2011. Students select an interesting topic pertaining to the South Jersey ecosystems and organisms, or other environmental issues. They conduct research and create a lesson to be taught to visitors. Displays provide facts and include hands-on materials, organisms, games and other activities to teach information about what they have learned. The Nature Fest also includes outside organizations such as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Go Green Galloway, Stockton University, the state Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Marine Fisheries, AmeriCorps Watershed Ambassadors, Atlantic County Utility Authority, Marine Mammal Stranding Center and others. Over 800 visitors including kindergarten through eighth grade students, parents and guests, rotate through these presentations. Nature Fest has become an eagerly anticipated event.

In 2015, Mr. B’s Backyard Classroom was awarded the New Jersey Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award and Honorable Mention from the New Jersey School Boards Association’s 29th annual School Leader Award. Our program also contributed to earning the Silver Certification for Galloway Township Middle School from the Sustainable Jersey for Schools program, sponsored by PSE&G.

Our program serves as a model for other schools. Schrading agrees. “Mr. B’s is not only a great example of how to restore and enhance a retention basin to serve the purpose of retaining storm water, but also how to provide habitat for wildlife. Additionally, Mr. B’s is a thoughtful and valuable addition as a schoolyard habitat for elementary and middle school students to learn about ecology and our natural world.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools and classes went virtual, students missed out on spring 2020 at Mr. B’s. For the first time, Nature Fest had to be cancelled. Before this school year started, I sent Superintendent Annette Giaquinto an email: “Planting a seed … I saw an article in the Washington Post on outdoor classrooms during the pandemic.” Her response was, “Outdoor classrooms are wonderful all the time and especially now.” With her approval, we made plans to get Mr. B’s ready for students.

Warren’s classes have already visited Mr. B’s. She said, “In these days of COVID-19, where education feels so constricted, it is refreshing to be able to retreat to a place where students are learning in a natural environment, a classroom where life can seem more normal. Mr. B’s Backyard Classroom is that place.”

Kevin Lightcap, principal of Reeds Road Elementary School, said, “I have been taking students to Mr. B’s as a way to get them out and moving. One day School Resource Officer Chris Doyle joined us. He said he wanted to see Mr. B’s for himself because his middle school-aged son has spoken about it so much. It is very rare to have an educational experience that can be so engaging and exciting for all ages from kindergarten to middle school.”

A student, Michael, summed it up perfectly in his blog:

“Mr.B's has had a very big impact on me. This place shows me that even though life is evolving and moving forward does not mean it is bad to stop and go back for a change. Life can be difficult at times, but when you have a quiet small place to go to and ... breathe ... to know tech is not the only source of enjoyment ... then you will fully know that life is not so bad after all.”

Giaquinto said, “Since 2010, Mr. B’s Backyard Classroom has provided a wonderful outdoor classroom experience for our students. The setting enables them to learn firsthand about our environment in general as well as specifics regarding wildlife in our area. Our district is fortunate to have educators like Debby Sommers (retired), Kathy Warren and Bill Dornan to maintain and upgrade Mr. B’s along with the generosity of sponsors such as the Galloway Township Education Foundation to support it. Mr. B’s Backyard is the perfect setting during the restrictions of the pandemic, and we hope that by the spring our annual Nature Fest will return.”

Our students have developed a sense of wonder and appreciation for their local, natural environment. These intrinsic attitudes regarding nature will remain with them into their adulthood, creating citizens who care about their environment.

Learn more at mrbsbackyardclassroom.org

For more information contact:

• Debby Sommers (retired GTMS science teacher) dasommers55@gmail.com

• Kathy Warren (Reeds Road science teacher) WarrenK@gtps.k12.nj.us

Go Green Galloway is a volunteer organization dedicated to reducing the carbon footprint of Galloway through the promotion of energy efficiency and conservation, environmental education and the implementation of sustainable practices. We always welcome new volunteer members. Contact us at gogreengalloway12@gmail.com or call Mary at 609-742-7076. Also be sure to like our Facebook page.

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