Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Turtles, snakes, and alligators - oh my!

Evening, all!

We finally got a few more pictures taken today, so I figured I'd update the blog again quickly. We're getting run pretty hard by the kids here (it hasn't even picked up to full steam yet!) so we're both really tired, so this may be quicker than it really should be.

A few groups have come through already, so there has been some opportunity to practice teaching classes we're unfamiliar with (since we're newbies, that would be all of them) and practicing teaching methods. There is also a strange custom here called "lead staff," in which one staff member's sanity is sacrificed so all the others may thrive... I kid, of course. Each of us is assigned to be lead staff for groups, one staff member for each group, to make sure their stay here goes smoothly. We show them around, make sure they get to meals on time and together, put out fires, etc. Jeff got to practice lead staff for a group last week that were a bunch of angels - seriously. This week, we each got to be lead staff for more ... normal groups.

When you are lead staff, you teach classes only with that group. It is a bonding experience. So I spent the week with a group of 5th graders that was from a suburb of Atlanta, and was informed by several students that they had never been in the woods before. Quite the adventure for them, then, that we not only took them into the woods, we also had them wading in the lake and digging up muck from the bottom to find little creepy crawlies to study. They were freaked out for all of 30 seconds - then they were in the lake and loving it. And next, there was canoeing class.

Ah, canoeing class. Most of the kids don't know how to swim, and no matter how many times you tell them that the personal flotation vest will keep them up, and that they'd better not end up in the lake anyway, some of them were still freaked out. Including the teacher. Fortunately for me, Jeff had that class period off from teaching, and since it was my first time teaching canoeing, he had asked if he could help me out. Thank goodness. I had boats drifting all over the lake, two of them with a kid inside totally frozen from fear. He tracked them down and got the scared ones on land while I tried to teach a class - but no matter how much you scream on the lake, kids in a canoe are not necessarily going to listen. So after hollering for them to come over and "gunny up" (get side-by-side to make a raft-like thing for discussion), after about 15 minutes I tried to teach turns to those who were there. It was far more fun for them to watch Jeff take in the scared kids, or look straight down at the water, or talk about Miley Cyrus, or whatever, though. No one really got the turns. So we tried to do some races... hah! One kid figured out paddling pretty well, and had his boat going the way he wanted, but if another boat got in the way, he'd just yell, "Oh, no, we're going to hit them!" and paddle harder in the same direction. Stopping paddling never occurred to him, to speak nothing of paddling backwards. It was quite the class. But everyone got in a canoe, and everyone got back to shore and out of the canoe, and no one tipped, so I guess it was a success of a kind.

Another part of the weekly routine here is "lab," where you and a partner are assigned to keep track of a set of animals or an area of campus or whatever to take care of. Jeff is in the aquatics lab, so he keeps track of a building that we use for lake ecology classes, and feeds the fish and turtles there. I'm in the museum lab, so I keep up exhibits for the museum and take care of the animals on display there. One of my favorites is our baby musk turtle:

It was feeding day today, so I got my favorite grumpy-old-man look from our snapping turtle, who was waiting for his food:

I've also been working on making water molecule and ice crystal models for the museum. Even though chemistry is not my favorite subject, I've been having fun because I've gotten to use a drill press and fuss around with painting and constructing models. Yay!

My big challenge for the term is to learn to teach the herpetology class. It's not so much the science part that I'm worried about, it's more the handling part. We have several snakes and turtles, a couple alligators, and a couple salamanders that we teach with, and part of the class is to take them out of their cages, carry them to the classroom, and pass them around to kids (if the kids can handle it - but then, part of the job is also to make it so the kids can handle it). I'm not afraid of snakes in a phobia kind of way, I just have never been exposed to them, so I don't really know what I'm doing. And they're creepy. But it's a big goal of mine to teach that class - it's part of why I took this job.

Jeff got to teach a modified version of the class, just on snakes, a couple days ago. He's more comfortable with the snakes - here's him and Fezzic the king snake checking each other out:

I, on the other hand, just held my first snake today. Actually, I held five snakes today. One at a time! Me and Winston the grey rat snake get along fairly well:

I wanted to start with slower-moving snakes, who tend to be the bigger ones, like Winston. But I agreed to hold Hugh the corn snake because Jeff told me Hugh was a nice guy. Turns out, while Jeff was teaching his snakes class, we had a big storm. The big storm dropped a tree on a power line, which gave us a two hour blackout. Jeff was holding Hugh at the time of the blackout, and Hugh was cool with it. So Jeff is cool with Hugh, and so am I:

Hugh is the slowest moving of the corn snakes, though, so I still have some work to do with some of the others. Today, though, I took it slower and went back to the rat snakes - here's JJ the black rat snake:

JJ, as it turns out, is a wiggler. He likes to explore. All over. He kept going back and forth from Jeff to me to Jeff to me, too:

After all those pictures, he started wondering what the heck the camera was, so he came up to sniff it:

After my success holding snakes, we decided to check out a few of the other animals in the herp lab. Jeff wanted practice with the alligators - I'm still working my way up to these guys. You have to flip them over just after you pick them up to calm them down, or they'll fight you:

Then, because turtles are awesome, we decided to get some pictures of them, too. Here's a bigger snapper than the one that I feed in the museum:

... and an even bigger one - an albino, Apollo:

... hee hee! I love the looks on their faces!

Next was the softshell (I think) who is really, really quick in the water, so was tough to catch:

And the yellow bellied pond slider, who's not as quick and really not very bright, so somewhat easier to catch - but he's good at getting into his shell:

This guy is a musk turtle, so the little dude I feed in the museum will someday look like this. He's cuter now, but I guess you can't stop them from growing...

And lastly, our gopher tortoise, Digger. He's heavy.

Hope you all enjoy our pictures! I probably won't be posting pictures of us with kids, since that might not be kosher, but we kind of consider our animals our kids, so good enough.

Nighty night!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Georgia on my mind, and under my feet

We had a couple requests to continue this blog after getting home from South America, so here it is...

We made it to Georgia! For those of you who didn't already know, we accepted jobs at the Rock Eagle 4-H Center near Eatonton, GA (between Atlanta and Augusta, south of Athens), for the fall term. We're teaching environmental education and teambuilding to groups, mostly school groups, who come to the center. Rock Eagle is the largest of the five 4-H centers in Georgia, and can hold up to 1000 people overnight. Most of our groups stay two or three days, but we occasionally have a day group or a full-week group.

Some of the classes that Jeff and I teach are lake ecology (we make sure the kids are filthy by the end of that class), forest ecology, watershed studies, herpetology (it will take me a while to be comfortable enough with the snakes and alligators to teach that one, but that's my big goal for the term), Native American skills, Native American games, pioneer tools, campfires, orienteering, challenge course, and teambuilding. We've only had one group so far, so we've only taught lake ecology and teambuilding, and next week is fairly slow. But soon enough, we'll be in full swing.

We live on campus in a house with four bedrooms (we get two) and shared kitchen/living space. There are four houses with three to four people living in each, all right next to each other, so it's one big block party several times a week :-) Actually, there isn't a huge amount of partying going on, but we're hanging out at each others' houses a lot. The team is awesome, and we're both learning a lot from our coworkers.

The commute is 10 to 20 minutes walking, complete with trails through the woods and a foot bridge over the lake.

Staff training was two and a half weeks, although we missed almost the entire first week because we were getting back from Peru and then moving from Kentucky. A couple days were "all-staff training," when the rest of the 4-H centers' staff came to Rock Eagle so we could party- uh, train together. After the first day of all-staff training, we had a pool party in the pool with the waterslide (there are two pools, so that's how we specify).

We're meeting other friends, too:

Jeff and I are at a slight disadvantage because of the four days of training we missed, so we don't know how to teach some of the classes. Fortunately, everyone is very friendly and helpful, so we're catching up, class-by-class. We took over a full Saturday of Lester's time for a canoe class.

We got the how-to-right-a-swamped-canoe training, for which another staff member and neighbor, Brian, joined in:

Lester took no pity on us and made us do every exercise the rest of the class had done, including having two people tip two canoes and right them without help:

Jeff didn't need a whole lot of help. He's that good. So I hung out quite a bit while he did the heavy lifting.

We did manage to right both canoes, and were happy about our accomplishment...

... and then Lester told us they both had to be dry in the bottom. We had to tip one again, but we got it.

After our private canoeing class, we took advantage of our access to the pool with the waterslide, and a few others joined us. Jeff -loves- waterslides.

We were asked if we wanted to be available for assisting the high ropes course, which mostly consists of safety checks and belaying climbers. I went through most of the training, but couldn't get myself psyched enough to finish (more on my energy level in a bit). Jeff, however, was the first to finish the training, and became everyone else's practice monkey, climbing the wall several times so others could practice belaying him.

This from the guy who's afraid of heights.

The only thing not going swimmingly is that I brought a friend home from Peru, in my belly. The stomach troubles that made it so I couldn't do the Choquequirao hike haven't totally gone away. It's not as bad as it was when it started in Peru, but I'm definitely slowed down some, and my stomach sometimes decides to be grumpy. We're trying to figure out what's up, so hopefully I'll soon be better. The worst part is actually fighting with the insurance companies. Wish me luck!

I hope all is well with all of you, and sorry for taking so long to write this up. We've been a little busy :-) Cheers!