A Teachers's Perspective

I almost tossed the package. "Just another unsolicited solicitation jammed into my school mail cubby," I thought.

San Ramon waterfall

But the Smithsonian's sunburst logo caught my eye and so I opened the manila envelope, never imagining that it would one day lead me to a cooling shower under a towering waterfall half way up the slope of a volcano.on an island.in a lake.in Nicaragua. It was the birds that lead me there.

I knew virtually nothing about birds when I first ventured into the Smithsonian's National Zoo "Bridging the Americas" program. Most fly, some sing, males are usually more colorful than females. They come in lots of shapes and sizes. That was about it.

I'm certainly no ornithologist now, but the program has enriched my life and enhanced my teaching—and my students' learning—in innumerable ways.

I can count on it to excite my students. Its "real world" applicability motivates them to read, write, and research. It lays the foundation for further exploration and builds cross-cultural friendships that could last a lifetime.

So what is Bridging the Americas, how does it work, and why should you try it? As noted elsewhere on this website, "Bridging the Americas/Unidos por las Aves is a cross-cultural environmental education program that links elementary school classes in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., with classes in Latin America and the Caribbean through an exchange of art work and letters that focus on Neotropical migratory birds." Since 1993, more than 7,000 students from 280 classrooms in the United States, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, and the British Virgin Islands have participated.

Coordinated by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) at the National Zoo, the program aims to "increase environmental awareness, instill an appreciation for birds and the phenomenon of migration, and stimulate an interest in learning about other countries and their cultures." It does.

For the past four years, students in my fourth-grade classes at Forest Knolls Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland have traded correspondence, drawings, and CDs with students attending school on the Isle de Ometepe, a twin-peaked volcanic island rising from the waters of Lake Nicaragua.

When I first opened the nearly discarded manila envelope I was impressed with the quality and breadth of material SMBC provided. Unlike so many "free" teacher-targeted offers, Bridging the Americas is self-contained, complete, and endlessly adaptable. A plethora of up-to-date, accessible, in-depth readings and related material give the teacher sufficient background to immediately launch the class into reading, writing, and research projects. A step-by-step questionnaire establishes a link between the U.S. students and their Central American or Caribbean counterparts.

Initially, I limited the project to writing friendly letters. The students used the questionnaire as an outline for sharing basic family information, like the number of siblings they have or parent's employment. They also filled in their new pen pals on key cultural touchstones, such as favorite foods and TV shows, books, movies, and sports. In addition to sharing information about themselves the students wrote short one-page pieces on facts about the birds they researched and drew or traced pictures of the birds.

[Child's watercolor of flying bird]

In my second year, I teamed with art teacher Debbie Bermudez to include student water colors of the migratory birds they had chosen. We strove for accuracy in areas such as the size, shape, and coloring of the birds. No orange ovenbirds! The children's work turned out so beautifully, we published a Book of Birds—with scanned watercolors on one page and important facts and interesting details on facing pages. Working with Susan Michal, the school's Communication Arts Magnet Program Coordinator, and Susan Osmun, our Media Specialist and School Webmaster, we added an after-school club that produced a "Bridging the Americas" webpage. The page was among the school's winning entries in the 2005 International Student Media Festival.

By the third year I was really hooked. Working again with teachers Bermudez, Michal, and Osmun, the students produced a "sequential stills" film on the human-made hazards faced by migratory birds. (The final product can be seen on the Forest Knolls website.) This entry won first prize in its category during an annual school media festival sponsored by Montgomery County, Maryland.

The evening of the school's annual Media Showcase, we aired the award-winning piece and displayed the students' original water colors, copies of their letters to their Ometepe pals, art work we had received from the Ometepe kids, and the island students' original letters, along with printed translations, done by school staff and parents. It was an impressive display, appreciated particularly by the Spanish-speaking families whose children are first-generation Americans. For them, it was an important link-a cultural bridge-to home.

Last year, other demands made it impossible to coordinate with my art and media colleagues, so my "Bridging" program was "abridged" at bit. But we still corresponded with the Ometepe students, researched our birds, wrote about them, and drew pictures, and the thrill of receiving that big, thick package of pen pal letters and art-and an accompanying CD from our Ometepe point of contact, Alvaro Molina—was no less intense than in previous years. And that's one of the things that makes this program so useful. It is readily adaptable to your requirements and your needs. It fits seamlessly with curriculum demands. The SMBC site even lays out how the program fits various state standards. The only requirement? Have your students learn something about migratory birds and exchange drawings and letters with your partner class.

[Nicaragua: Maderas volcano in background, lake in foreground]

Late last fall, I realized that writing letters and sharing art and CDs just wasn't enough anymore. I had to see Ometepe with my own eyes and meet the children and adults with whom we had become long-distance friends. So at spring break my family and I found ourselves hurtling southwest toward Managua at 35,000 feet. Reclining my seat and staring out at the darkness below, I wondered if our flight paths would cross. Somewhere, above the Gulf of Mexico's vastness, an intrepid flock was winging northward, frantically beating their wings, burning stored fat reserves, struggling through perhaps the most perilous leg of their astounding annual northern migration. I guess I have learned something about birds after all.