Kindergarten teacher - 'They will carry those fish with them forever'

Students release trout they raised in their kingarten classroom under the watchful eye of their teacher, Eleanor Sather. Cole Larsen/Trout Unlimited

By Eleanor Sather

I am, above all, a teacher who wants to inspire in her students a curiosity in the natural world and a respect for the world around them. So for me, Trout in the Classroom, along with integrated lessons and free explorations, was a natural way to achieve both.

I first learned about Trout in the Classroom after my fish-crazy son and husband met Kelly Marquart, National Trout Unlimited Leadership Representative for the Utah Council, among rows of rods, reels and rooster tails. Through this chance meeting the boys became involved in Weber Basin Anglers, the local chapter of Trout Unlimited. They started tying flies and working on and fishing our stunning waterways every chance they got.

When I landed a job as the kindergarten teacher at DaVinci Academy of Science and the Arts in Ogden my very first, very enthusiastic, question was, “Can I run a Trout in the Classroom program in my room?”

Fortunately for me we have an incredible elementary director, Erika Kortman. Not only was she excited to learn about the program, her response, along with the response of our STEM coordinator Deb Neal, was, “How can I help?”. What a rare and precious response in today's academic climate!

Our first obstacle was getting the funding needed to set up the tank. At around $2,000, my $300 a year classroom budget wasn’t going to cut it. When I learned of the $1,500 grants available through the Utah S.T.E.M. Action Center I immediately wrote the grant and sent it off with a hope and a wish. Soon enough we found out that I had been awarded the full $1,500.

Trout from the kindergarten class at DaVinci Academy of Science and Arts in Ogden, Utah, just before they released. Cole Larsen/Trout Unlimited

At this point Paul Burnett, Utah Water Project Coordinator for Trout Unlimited, swooped in to help. He was beside me at every step, purchasing the needed equipment and setting up the entire tank, chiller and cooler. The students were intrigued, confused and excited as we left for winter break with a tank full of tubes, water and little else, “But where are the FISH?”.

The fish, or rather 200 bouncing baby trout eggs, came the day we got back from Christmas break - in a gas station Mountain Dew cup nonetheless! The dynamic duo of Paul Thompson, Northern Region fisheries biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and Paul Burnett poured the contents of the cup into the small basket in the tank. The kids were fascinated! Aiding their fascination was the fact the eggs had eyes. Eyes on eggs! Who knew?!

At this point the children were free to observe the eggs, using magnifying glasses, and making notes in their trout journals. They were thrilled to be scientists and earnestly attended to the eggs - for three short days! Our trout were real go-getters from Day 1 and in quick succession they hatched! Delicate tail fins emerged, as did stubby heads and those eyes we had been gazing into through the eggy membrane.

A student studies trout in his classroom with a distintive eye. Courtesy DaVinci Academy.

It is incredibly important to me that I act as a guide to the kids, more than a giver of knowledge, so I presented the different stages of trout, from egg to adult, and we had very earnest small group discussions, even arguing with evidence as real scientists do, about what stage the fish had reached. Most of the kids agreed on alevin (they remembered this by thinking of Alvin and the Chipmunks, but of course), but there were a few dissenters; an important lesson in life. Not everyone will always agree and that’s okay.

Paul Burnett, the Utah Water Project Leader for Trout Unlimited, helps students net their fish for release into the Ogden River. Cole Larsen/Trout Unlimited

From here on out the students began to work on their observational drawing skills. As a scientist, as a biologist, it’s crucial that any field drawings are done accurately. We would gather around the tank with our field journals in our laps and magnifying glasses in hand and look, really look, at the fish. They kids were urged to draw the fish they saw, not what they think a fish looks like.

How at least one kindergarten student interpreted the trout swimming in the classroom at the DaVinci Academy. Courtesy DaVinci Academy.

Over time their drawings became markedly more detailed; straight lines replacing smiley faces, unblinking black eyes replacing more feline, even heart-shaped eyes. The fish now had correct markings. Fins were counted, recounted, the nearly invisible lower fins being gleefully discovered. 

One of the most fun and memorable activities we did was comparing trout - they had absorbed the yolk sac and were swimming freely - and guinea pigs. The pigs sat on the table, the trout in the tank nearby. The kids wondered like crazy and observed a wide variety of similarities and differences.

What do guinea pigs and trout have in common? Photo courtesy DaVinci Academy.

“Fish don’t have hair and guinea pigs do!”

“Fish live underwater and guinea pigs don’t.”

“They both move.”

“They both make more of themselves.”

“They both eat.”

And then, the hilarious and true observation, “They both POOP!” Indeed they do!

We also wondered, wondered and then, for good measure, wondered some more. Day in and day out we wondered. “When will they start to swim?”  “What will they eat?”  “Will some turn into sharks?” “When will they go in the river?” “Will they be safe in the river?” “What’s the food made of?” “Why are they eating each other?!” “Why does that fish have two heads?!” To me there was and is so much power in asking questions and then trying to find the answer; in reaching into whatever the depth of your knowledge is, deep even at five or six, and come up with reasonable guesses.

Students watch the trout they raised in their classroom "meld" into the Ogden River upon release. Phil Douglass/Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

The days, weeks and months ticked by. We fed, hauled hoses, changed water, drew more, wondered more, visited the river (their eventual home) as much as possible. We read and loved Trout are Made of Trees. We created an art installation on the ceiling that represented the river and added all the things that our trout would need to survive: shade, rocks, water, bugs. With some help, we tied flies that mimicked the bugs our trout would need to eat to survive. We immersed ourselves in all things river, in all things rock, in all things plant and, of course, all things trout.

When the big day rolled around, the day we would walk to the park and release the trout, the kids were excited. They walked faster than they ever had to the park and couldn’t believe - some of them still don’t - that our trout were in the buckets by the river.

Each child was able to scoop up and release fish two times. Each child was able to watch as the trout they observed, cared for and loved, melded seamlessly into the river. It was a shock to all of us that the moment the fish went into the water they disappeared; either perfectly camouflaged or so fast that they were gone in an instant.

We had no tears at the river, but on Monday, the tank nearly empty of water and entirely void of fish, we had some long faces and some confusion. “Those fish were ours?” “We won’t get more?” “I feel very sad the fish are gone.”

Kindergarten students from the DaVinci Acadmey of Science and the Arts in Ogden, Utah, gathered on the banks of the Ogden River to release trout they raisied in their classroom. Cole Larsen/Trout Unlimited

I understand, I feel their pain, but I know, I just know, that they will carry those fish with them forever. They will carry them and then, when walking along the river, they will remember. They will remember their fish. They will remember the tingling of their fingers in the cold tank. The slick feel of the glass as they touched it after watching the fish so closely that their breath fogged up the glass. The sensation of lifting a fish from a bucket and allowing it to slip away into its forever home. These memories, the fish they carry in their hearts, will keep awake in them the idea that the river is important, the fish are important, and that they alone have the power to keep these things safe and sacred. I believe that we are raising stewards of the waterways, of All Things Great and Small. What a gift we’ve given these children. They are the lucky ones. We are fortunate to have held witness to it.

Eleanor Sather is the kindergarten teacher at the DaVinci Academy of Science and the Arts in Ogden, Utah

See a great story and video on the event from the Standard Examiner.



Add Content