Book Connects Students, Teachers Across Years

by Steve Parker
Sullivans Elementary School

Yokosuka Navy Base,Japan  Usually, we live our lives one day at a time, moving from one obligation to the next, filled with the requirements of time and responsibilities, but sometimes the fabric of life that weaves across our world reaches out and touches us in a unique way.  This is one of those times. When lives and events lived years ago reach across time and distance to touch a new generation. It is a story of teaching and learning at two different elementary schools on two different continents in two different centuries and the ways they touch each other.

Ms. Jodi Harris, 4th grade teacher at The Sullivans School on board Commander Fleet Activities, Yokosuka (CFAY), in Yokosuka, Japan, was looking for a nonfiction book to teach her students about habitats. A colleague suggested, "Come Back Salmon" by Molly Cone with photos by Sidnee Wheelwright. The book details the human impact on watersheds and highlights the efforts of teachers and students at Jackson Elementary School in Everett, Washington in 1984 to rehabilitate a polluted stream, Pigeon Creek that ran close by their school.  Pigeon Creek had, years earlier, succumbed to the rapid growth of Everett and was a polluted unrecognizable shell of its former self, Teachers at the school, one in particular, Mr. Lauristan (Laurie)Baker told children stories of the Pigeon Creek of their childhood, a clear mountain stream that “ran red with salmon. “ The students listened to those stories and, with the help of their teachers, adopted the creek, cleaned up the debris, cleared culverts, spawned fry, tested water samples, and with pride, restored the salmon once again to their area. It is a wonderful story about the difference students can make in a community. Read it. When you are done, read it again, to a child. Ms. Harris did this.
Harris noticed immediately, upon her first reading, a curious element to the story that really brought the story home so to speak. The story was about her former Elementary School! Yes! She had once been a student at Jackson Elementary School before the events of the story were chronicled. She remembered the dirty old creek on the edge of her playground. She remembered walking up the hill, past the  school, down a trail to the bottom of the of the hill below the railroad tracks where Pigeon Creek emptied into the Puget Sound and she and her friends would go swimming.  The story became real for Harris and she, backed by vivid memories of her alma mater, and years of experience teaching, made the story come alive for her students. She read the story with pride and emotion in her class. She and her students discussed the Indian legends surrounding salmon, identified the genre as narrative nonfiction, learned about the life cycle of the salmon, and made posters for their bulletin board. Then they moved on. They learned about irregular plural pronouns, and superlative adjectives. They learned how to simplify fractions using College and Career Ready Standards. They moved on. They had to move on. It was 2015 and they were 21st century learners at the largest overseas school in the Department of Defense Education Activity's (DoDEA) Pacific Region. They needed to move on to the next lesson. Then, the letter arrived.
The letter began, "Hello, my name is Laurie...I understand you are reading the book "Come Back Salmon"...I was Mr. Baker in the story and ...." You could have heard a pin drop. The students were stunned. How had this happened? How did a character in a book respond to them reading it?  In a new century? on a new continent? in a different classroom? Across an ocean? just as quickly the stunned silence disappeared and excited voices filled the classroom.  How did he know? He wrote us a letter! I can't believe this happened! What are we going to do? The questions came, fast and furious as the story they had read, remembered and already moved on from, exploded once again right into their lives! Off the page and into their classroom! Their teacher, Ms. Harris smiled knowingly to herself.
She had mentioned, "Come Back Salmon" in passing to her father over the phone weeks earlier as she first began her lesson. Harris' father was Larry O'Donnell, a retired administrator, who still lived in the Everett area she had grown up in. He had mentioned it in passing to a colleague with whom he shared a weekly bike ride around the Puget Sound. Who was his colleague? Mr. Lauristan Baker! former Jackson Elementary School teacher, retired now, and one of the driving forces behind the Pigeon Creek rehabilitation project. Unbeknownst to Ms, Harris, he had written the letter to her students, delighted to hear that a new generation was learning about a project he fondly remembered from his days in the classroom.
Harris' student’s first response to the news was probably the first response all of us would have, "Let's take a field trip!" Ms. Harris laughed, envisioning a field trip to her former school, The impact on the lives of her students, the memories, the experiences, the learning, and the cost. Oh, yeah. the cost. "Why don't we write a letter, instead?" Her students sat down and the words poured forth. Once again, she found herself listening for the aforementioned pin to drop in her classroom, as the students poured out their feelings, questions, and comments filling the blank pages with words, thoughts, thanks and ideas. Harris said, "Though the project occurred a number of years ago, the science is compelling, and the story of children, staff, and parents banding together to make a difference still resonates, and inspires.”
Kyle Torio, one of Harris's students shared, "When I was little I had never thought of fish but now I love fish, because they are important to the environment." Finally, Laurie Baker, in his letter to the children told them, "With some hard work and staying with a vision, anyone can make a difference."
The words have been written and the letters have been sent. The 21st century learners of the Sullivans School have once again moved on to learn new lessons. The bulletin board with posters is up on the wall and the fabric of life weaves around us once again. Surely, in a few more years another teacher will read the book to her classroom and another generation will be inspired by the efforts of the "small fry" at Jackson Elementary School, as well as the "small fry" of Pigeon Creek.
Jackson Elementary School is located in Everett, Washington in the Everett, WA school district.  

The first organized schools for the children of U.S. military personnel serving in the Pacific were established in 1946 during post-World War II reconstruction. Throughout the decades, DoD schools evolved to become a comprehensive and high-performing K-12 school system solely dedicated to educating the children of America's heroes. Today, DoDEA Pacific's 48 schools serve nearly 23,000 military-connected children of U.S. Service members and civilian support personnel stationed throughout the Pacific theater. The DoDEA Pacific teaching, administrative and school support team includes more than 3,000 full-time professionals. The schools are geographically organized into four districts: Guam, Japan, Okinawa and South Korea. The Sullivans School is the largest school in DoDEA with a student body of approximately 1,200 in grades K-5.

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