The Habans Stormwater and Nature Center gives enrichment teacher Kevin McDunn many opportunities to use nature itself as his classroom. From identifying bird calls to keeping outdoor journals, scholars are able to engage with the outdoors in new ways. To learn more about how Kevin uses the Stormwater and Nature Center as part of the school’s enrichment program (and which spiders the students encounter most often), keep reading.
Can you tell us about your background and your interest in the outdoors?
I grew up going camping for family vacations, and I actually went to law school to do environmental law. After I graduated, I got a job as in-house counsel for a state agency, The Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office, working on the natural resource damage assessment for the BP oil spill. I was the state of Louisiana’s legal representative on several different working groups to determine the damage the spill did to natural resources to figure out how BP could pay back the damage to the environment. I spent five years talking to scientists and collecting data to determine how everything would fit into the court case. I then worked for local refuges, doing reptile and amphibian surveys. For about a year and a half, I spent 40 hours a week going out to the swamp and the woods, counting snakes, and listening to frog calls. I still do frog call surveys on a volunteer basis for our state agency, and I’m hoping to get some of our middle schoolers involved with that type of work. Then I worked as a canoe and kayak tour guide for a local outfitter. I did that full-time for two years, and it was a blast. But I’d been thinking about going into education for a while, so I ultimately applied to Habans, where I’ve worked for the past three years. But I still work part-time giving swamp tours and volunteering to survey frog calls.
Can you tell me about your role at Habans and how you’re getting the scholars involved with the Stormwater and Nature Center?
What we’re offering this year is Nature Enrichment. I first joined Habans as the fifth-grade science teacher. It was my first year in classroom education at a school. I was originally planning on teaching at the high school level but I applied to Habans because I saw that they had received a grant to build the Stormwater and Nature Center. I thought there was a lot of learning potential that would come with that resource. The Center was completed in the summer of 2021, so this year is my first year using the Center full-time. I’ve been using the Center every day for all of my different grades.
What kind of enrichment activities do you do with the scholars at the Stormwater and Nature Center?
Everything is differentiated by age. Our kindergarteners are always in the classroom during the first half of class, and we introduce them to an organism that might be active out in the Center at that time. I have an educational TikTok channel that they love, so I’ll usually go out there the day before and make a TikTok about some baby parachuting spiders that I saw out in the garden and we’ll watch it with the kindergartners. We’ll talk about how cute they are and how they’re not going to hurt you as long as you don’t scare them. Then we’ll make our nice little line, and we’ll go out there and walk around. They’ll listen for bugs and things li
ke that, and look for the spiders.
For first grade and second graders, we’ll do a lot more “sit, look, and listen” sessions. I also teach my first and second graders some bird calls to listen for, and a couple of different frog calls so that they can hear them when the weather is right. It’s amazing when a little second grader can tell the difference between a Fish crow and an American crow because of what I’ve taught them. It’s like a little miracle for me.
How are enrichment activities different for the older students?
For my third to fifth graders, we do more advanced activities like nature journaling. It depends on the time of the year, but we might look for seasonal changes that they then document in their journals. I also have them collect and press different plants that they find growing in the adjacent lawn area, which is surprisingly biodiverse. I also have them learning how to use some plant identification apps on smartphones. The students also document the biodiversity of the grassy fields using cameras on ten, school-owned, smartphones. I also have them do some entomology pitfall traps out in the grassy fields. They make a little trap to collect some bugs, and they sort through the different things that they catch. When students catch a wolf spider, they’re convinced they caught a tarantula! After we’ve been collecting plants and things for a week, they’re amazed at how many different plants are out there besides grass when they’re looking close.
For my middle schoolers, we do some more advanced things. I’ve kind of settled on just giving them a taste of different career-based skills, so one thing that we do is sample different size quadrants and get an idea for the different biodiversity happening in different sized areas out there. We also do some trapping, too.
How have the scholars responded to having this enrichment program and being able to get outside of the classroom?
Oh, they’re ecstatic. Third to fifth grade can sometimes be a behaviorally challenging group, and I give them pretty complex sets of instructions. There are ten smartphones for a class of 25-30 students, so they all have to share the equipment. They have to learn how to use the identification app, and the students receive a very basic introduction to taxonomy and classifying organisms. When they use the app, they learn how organisms are classified, and they have to figure out how to use the tech to focus on the specimens. They take turns using the phone to find an organism and then do journal sketches of it. They write down the scientific names, and there are a lot of steps for a third-grader. But when they pull it off, they’re so proud, and I’m proud, too.
My favorite part has been seeing the respect that the kids are showing for plant and animal life that they didn’t have before. Walking out there, they have the interest and the ability to look and listen closely. I feel like it’s opening doors for them, and it’s reaffirming my own fascination at the same time.
What’s your favorite part about working in education now?
My favorite part is building relationships with the kids, and watching them grow up has been really special. I’m in my third year at Habans now, and I’ve seen my relationships with individual kids change and their relationships with each other change. They feel like my little nieces and nephews at this point. I really enjoy seeing the daily delight and interest of the kids. When they come out to the Center with me, no matter what kind of day they’ve been having, being outdoors is a reset for them. They know they’re doing something different than what they’ve ever done before, either in the classroom or out of it. Every day they come out there with open minds and excitement, and I’ve enjoyed being able to see that fresh perspective in the kids. Seeing how they tackle the challenges that I put in front of them is really rewarding.