Colleagues: A Fish Story

November 01, 1998 2 min read
Judith Sander has landed a winning curriculum with a rod and reel.

If the sign “Gone Fishing” hung from the door of Judith Sander’s classroom, no one would think twice. Sander, a 4th grade teacher at East Evergreen School in Kalispell, Montana, has turned fishing, a time-honored enticement to play hooky, into an award-winning curriculum unit that teaches math, science, reading, and writing.

Kalispell offers the perfect outdoor classroom for Sander’s unit. It sits in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in northwest Montana, about 30 miles from Glacier National Park, and a river runs just steps from East Evergreen’s door. “We really do live out in the wild here in Montana,” Sander says. “We often see wild animals right in town.”

Sander’s yearlong fishing unit is interdisciplinary. Her students pick up math skills as they weigh and measure their catch of the day, and they bone up on geography as they scout the lakes, rivers, and streams where they’ll drop a line. Biology finds its way into the unit when the kids study aquatic insects and then use what they’ve learned to tie flies that will fool the fish.

Sander’s students also compile journals about their fishing experiences and write thank-you notes to the wildlife experts and volunteers who accompany them on trips. The unit even touches on civics: The 4th graders recently wrote to state lawmakers about a proposed bill on fishing licenses, and the letters were read on the legislature floor.

This blend of real-life fun and learning won Sander a 1997 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, administered by the National Science Foundation on behalf of the White House. And even though the teacher had never fished before adopting “Hooked on Fishing” three years ago, she’s turned out some champion anglers. One of her students, 10-year-old Sheena Roberts, won a state fishing competition last year and traveled to a national contest in Tennessee.

The outdoorsy theme of Sander’s unit is not a radical departure for her district. The 4th grade curriculum calls for the students to read novels about survival, including The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare, and My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George. When Sander’s class studies these books, they discuss how they would catch fish if their lives depended on it. “When you’ve actually done something, you understand it much better,” Sander explains. “We’re building a wealth of experience for the kids which they can draw upon in life.”

Sander and her students haven’t been forced to put their newly learned survival techniques to use, but they’ve fished in all kinds of weather, including the bone-chilling cold of Montana’s winter. “We fished once, I remember, when it was 13 degrees below zero,” says Sander. “It wasn’t as bad as you might think. If you stay huddled down next to the ice, it’s not so cold.” n