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Local students get environmental instruction from AmeriCorps volunteers

  • Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz...

  • Aletha Spang and Christian McGrath, AmeriCorps Volunteers, teach students in Jen Comiskey's thrid grade class at the Bernardston Elementary School about extreme weather and natural disasters. January 10, 2018. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz...

  • Christian McGrath and Aletha Spang, AmeriCorps Volunteers, teach students in Jen Comiskey's thrid grade class at the Bernardston Elementary School about extreme weather and natural disasters. January 10, 2018. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz...

  • Christian McGrath and Aletha Spang, AmeriCorps Volunteers, teach students in Jen Comiskey's thrid grade class at the Bernardston Elementary School about extreme weather and natural disasters. January 10, 2018. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz...



Recorder Staff
Tuesday, January 16, 2018

BERNARDSTON — When Christian McGrath and Aletha Spang walked to the front of Jennifer Comiskey’s third-grade class one recent Wednesday morning, McGrath enthusiastically asked the students, “How much did you miss us?”

The room echoed with exclamations. “A lot!” shouted one. “Bunches!” yelled another.

McGrath, 25, and Spang, 21, are weekly visitors to the Bernardston Elementary School classrooms. As volunteers with AmeriCorps, the two teach students about various facets of the environment, including weather, topography, mapping, engineering and how animals adapt to survive winter months. After school, they also run an outdoors club.

For example, children in Comiskey’s class were asked to divide phenomenon like hurricanes, pollution and blizzards into three categories: extreme weather, natural disasters and man-made disasters. In the process, the volunteers even learned a thing or two, with Spang recounting how she’d never heard of a polar vortex — a pocket of cold air circulating above both of Earth’s poles — before formulating her lesson plan. (In case you were wondering, a polar vortex qualifies as extreme weather.)

After the children selected a category for each phenomenon, McGrath and Spang advised them of seeking shelter from and preparing for extreme weather, like the recent snowstorms.

“It’s important in a severe weather event to prepare for it and think about what you can do,” Spang said, with the children recounting how their parents bought firewood, heating fuel, food and snow tires before the storm.

McGrath and Spang are two of 18 AmeriCorps volunteers who reside in a bunkhouse at the Kenneth Dubuque Memorial State Forest in Hawley as part of an arrangement between AmeriCorps, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Massachusetts Service Alliance and the Student Conservation Association. AmeriCorps is a volunteer public service program supported by the federal government, foundations, corporations and other donors.

Locally, the group volunteers in pairs at roughly a dozen schools, Spang said, including Bernardston Elementary, Pearl Rhodes Elementary School, Northfield Elementary School, Rowe Elementary School and Colrain Central School.

Bernardston Elementary Principal Bob Clancy, a former principal at Rowe Elementary, remembered how Rowe Elementary was one of the first schools to integrate AmeriCorps volunteers, and brought the idea to Bernardston Elementary four years ago.

“I’m kicking myself for not having gotten them earlier,” said Clancy, who has been Bernardston’s principal for seven years. “These folks are just awesome role models for kids. … The teachers always come back saying they’ve learned something new.”

Both McGrath and Spang got into the program because of a mutual interest in environmental education, with McGrath studying education at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

“It just happened to coincide with a pretty awesome program,” McGrath said.

“Environmental education is really important no matter what you do,” Spang added. “If you can explain it to children, you can explain it to anyone.”

The children think having McGrath and Spang at their school is pretty awesome, too.

“We get to do fun projects,” said 11-year-old Nick Shattuck.

“They teach us the life of recycling and decomposition, and outside nature,” added Shattuck’s classmate, 11-year-old Ethan Boliski.

The two especially enjoy annual trips to the Hawley State Forest, where they not only get to see where the volunteers live, but use compasses and learn how to identify different tree species.

The children teach McGrath and Spang a little something, too.

“The way they look at things is very inspiring,” Spang said. “They’re very creative with their thinking. Sometimes they say things I haven’t thought about, that actually could be an answer to the question.”

Reach Shelby Ashline at: sashline@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 257