Texas High School teacher Penny Smeltzer meets a sea lion.© PENNY SMELTZER
A key part of the teacher program was to not only explore the islands from an ecological and evolutionistic perspective, but also to share teaching methods with Galapagueño instructors. My U.S. colleagues and I began with the idea of sharing with Galapagueño teachers how to educate students using cross-curricular environmental lessons. The more we talked with the Galapagueño instructors, the more similarities we discovered. We found that an ecological approach could be used in every discipline, and I learned that Galapagueño teachers, as well as teachers all over the U.S., are trying to do what I try to do: teach responsibility for the planet one student at a time.
After spending time in the Galapagos Islands, it surprises me how much I still think about the people I met there. Their kindness and strong values struck me immediately. The Galapagueño teachers reacted with surprise when I asked about the “values instruction” listed after several teacher names in the school directory. "We all teach values. It’s part of every classroom curriculum," they said. The results were obvious during my friendly encounters with shopkeepers, children, restaurant workers, educators, wildlife workers, guides and people on the streets.
The U.S. teachers we traveled with also taught me a great deal. In just two weeks, we became lifelong friends with a common goal. We began sharing lesson plans, ideas and challenges immediately upon our return. I am filled with great hope for the positive change these teachers will bring to their classrooms.
Bringing It All Back Home
Just thinking about my adventure in the Galapagos Islands reinforces how difficult the experience is to relate to others. The question, "How was your trip?" is impossible to relay during a two-minute chat between classes.
I am eager for opportunities to share my lessons from the Galapagos Islands. So far, I have coordinated a related student workshop in Dallas, Texas and an AP session in Houston, Texas. This summer, I am conducting three, week-long institutes in the Southwest U.S., one in Las Vegas, Nevada and a group meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. All sessions are statistics-based and will include examples and lessons from the Galapagos Islands.
Learning of the accomplishments of my fellow travelers, seeing the results of work on the islands and understanding specific areas in need of improvement has revitalized my motivation to work on conservation efforts. Coincidentally, a parent of a former student contacted me shortly after my return. It turns out that her son and his friends were home discussing their future plans and reminiscing about high school. They now have college degrees. One is going into alternative energy research, one into public policy making and another taking a job with the National Park Service. She wanted me to know they started talking about how proud I’d be of their choices, since I always emphasized environmental activities in class. Now I know for sure that once related lessons get out there, they begin to make a difference.
I have already had success sharing details of my Galapagos Islands experience in the multiple classes I teach. But the special moments of discovery were so many that it will take many presentations to fully explain. Here is just a sample of memories and lessons that strike me:
" People can communicate without knowing each others" language;
" The balance between human development and conservation of natural resources is precarious at best;
" Conservation takes funding, experts, teachers, responsible business policies and responsible government;
" A simpler lifestyle is better for the planet and the spirit;" Fresh water is valuable
" Lava lizards are fast, but finches are faster:
" The island origins of the tortoises can be identified by the shape of their shell.
Overall, my most important lesson from the Galapagos Islands is that it is imperative to teach the value of environmental stewardship worldwide. Biodiversity cannot be recovered once lost. Responsibly protecting natural resources requires all stakeholders on board to make the
necessary changes. And the Galapagos Islands serve as the best microcosm to teach us all.
PENNY SMELTZER is an Advanced Placement (AP) statistics teacher at Westwood High School in Austin, Texas.
CONTACT: Institute of International Education