Something that I’ve discovered about myself since I’ve come to Emmanuel is that I love helping people learn. Even in freshmen biology when my classmates were struggling with material, I found that I could usually explain the concepts to them with relative ease. As a preschool teaching assistant, I noted that kids especially learn best through sensory components. This makes a lot of sense to me, and I’ve adapted much of the way I speak with kiddos to 1) always ask them questions, and 2) show then tell. For example, one of the munchkins in my class asked me once what the detergent pods were that I was putting into the dishwasher. Simply telling him it was soap wasn’t going to make much sense from his perspective. So, I got him a cup of warm water and a spoon so we could see what happened when he dropped it in and stirred. I wafted it up to him and asked what it smelled like, to which he replied, “laundry.” Sometimes they get there.
That’s why one of my favorite exhibits to visit at the Aquarium is the live coral tank. Easily overlooked, this is some of the only real, growing coral in the building. The structure built in the Giant Ocean Tank, for example, was built out of fiberglass because it would take somewhere around 1,000 years to grow a coral reef that size. With some of the dangers that face these ecosystems today, it would certainly be unethical to remove something like this from the ocean. Instead, the small pieces that make their way to the aquarium are taken special care of behind the scenes and give the education department a great place to have meaningful conversations about conservation.
A mandarin fish (also my favorite fish) swimming among the coral. Copyright New England Aquarium 2017.
During the time I’m given to roam around the floor, sometimes I (and other visitor educators) like to take a coral skeleton and piece of fiberglass coral from the “biofact” closet and bring it down to this exhibit for the visitors to interact with. This is a good plan for a few reasons: 1) it prompts visitors to ask me questions, 2) each of the biofacts is textured and interesting to feel with your fingers, and 3) it’s easy to initiate a conversation about them by asking the visitor to compare the two and try to guess which one is real.
From this point, though, is the best part to me. You never know what kind of conversations you’re going to have with a guest. Do they want to hear about how they can help save our blue planet, or are they here to look at some fish? Have they ever heard of climate change and are these issues too far removed from their daily lives for them to care? Can I put the right information in their hands for them to see themselves not as consumers, but as citizens who can affect change in their community?
Sometimes, I will admit, I make unfair assumptions about people before I’ve even tried talking to them. I say unfair because now that I’m halfway through my internship I know that some of the most productive conversations I’ve had have been with the least likely individuals. A few weeks ago I met a ten-year-old kid who had just finished watching An Inconvenient Truth.
Here, I’ll provide another example. There are definitely visitors that come in that have limited proficiency in the English language, making it a little difficult to gauge what depth of discussion to reach for in this case. One day I was down at the live coral tank and a couple came over to peer into the glass, chatting to each other about what they were seeing. The woman, in particular, seemed struck by what she saw, whispering, “que linda”, to herself as she watched the brightly colored coral polyps sway in the water.
Jumping out on a limb, I offered her my knowledge of tropical coral colors. “Most of the coloration you’re seeing in these animals actually comes from a photosynthetic bacteria that lives inside of them,” I said. She stared at me warmly, although blankly, for a moment until her partner jumped in and translated what I said to her. This continued on for about ten minutes, myself explaining the dangers of coral bleaching as he quietly recited back to her in Spanish in a concerned tone.
I don’t know that there’s anything more rewarding to a teacher than to see real participation in a lesson. Whether it’s active listening or the word, “laundry,” it brings us a step close to coming to an understanding, which is really the goal isn’t it?