‘Different Kind of Learner’ Goes Back to School and Becomes a Teacher
Not too long ago, inspired by a friend’s successful experience at Antioch University New England, Will Smiley, 35, enrolled in the graduate school’s Educating for Sustainabilityprogram. That decision surprised those closest to him. “My wife couldn’t believe that I was going back to school and my mom laughed, he said. I was never the star pupil in my family. I did well academically, but I was a different kind of learner.”
Will always had a passion for the environment, sparked years earlier by his high school science teacher. After earning an undergraduate degree in biology from Washington College in Maryland, he worked for the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation conducting watershed education programs for local school groups. Five years ago, he, with his wife, relocated to Christchurch, Virginia, where he joined the faculty of the Christchurch School, an Episcopal residential facility for boys and coeducational day school for grades eight through twelve. Will teaches ninth and tenth grade science.
At Christchurch School he now rallies his students to save the oyster population of the nearby Rappahannock River, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay. “Oysters are in real trouble,” he said. “If restoration wasn’t happening, the oysters wouldn’t make it in Chesapeake Bay.”
Will envisioned rebuilding the river’s oyster population. To turn that dream to reality, he enlisted the help of students, school staff, and the community to collect thousands of aluminum cans for recycling to fund the project. Drop-off points included the church, school, and a local restaurant. “I laugh a lot,” said Will. “It’s a collaborative effort among a church, a school, and a bar. Men bring their empty Budweiser cans to the church to help out.”
With recycling proceeds and donations, the school rented sixty-five acres of riverbed and purchased hundreds of thousands of native oyster larvae, which students grew in cages. Will coordinated everyone’s efforts and garnered advice and assistance from local businesses and oyster industry experts.
“My program, Educating for Sustainability in the Experienced Educators program, helps me to focus on ideas, to troubleshoot what’s really important,” he said. “It gives me more credibility and definitely more confidence. Part of my Antioch work includes communities and curriculum. I’m making community connections all the time with the oyster project. It’s just a win-win situation.”
Bucket Brigade Helps Restore Oyster Habitat
On September 29, 2008, he and more than one hundred students, staff, and community members, by bucket brigade, transferred over three hundred bags of oyster shells and seed to form a new Rappahannock oyster reef. Students will continue to add to the reef twice per year. Will, who recently has been invited to serve as the school sustainability coordinator, plans to turn the project into a business with student participation. The first step is to name the oyster business. His personal choice is Sea Horse Oyster Company.
According to Will, each mature oyster filters fifty gallons of water per day. Now that the reef is growing and successful, the oysters can filter ten million gallons of water daily.
“It’s really a positive experience and we’ve seen some species we haven’t seen before, like the seahorse,” said Will. “It shows and tells us that the environment is improving. It’s exciting, and it’s so much fun.”
During Parents Weekend this October, participating students hosted their first oyster roast for family and friends. “The kids were really proud to be cooking oysters for their parents,” said Will. “It’s not about super students. These kids aren’t star athletes. They don’t normally get a time to shine. This project gives them their moment.”
Much of his success he credits to Antioch University New England. “I have two kids, a wife, a mortgage, four classes to teach, and two to take,” he said. “Educating for Sustainability relates to real life, especially the whole green movement in schools. It’s perfect. But, I’m not on cruise control. It challenges me and gives me great ideas.”
“I’m really grateful for Antioch,” he said. “It’s really exciting to know that some of the projects I work on fit into the sustainability model. I feel that I’ve found a place where the Will Smileys of the world can go to grad school.”