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Woodstock Teacher Brings Lessons from Africa Back to Her Students

Woodstock Academy biology teacher Valerie May.

Woodstock Academy biology teacher Valerie May holds a darkling beetle she collected at the Mozambican national park. The insect uses its exoskeleton to collect dew, allowing it to live in very dry environments. (Photos courtesy of Valerie May.)

It was an incredible opportunity—spend ten days in and around Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park leading a professional development course and learning about the park and its mission. Woodstock Academy biology teacher Valerie May jumped at the chance.

“It was a big honor to be asked to lead the workshop,” May said.

May has worked with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for the past four years, leading workshops at national conferences and running workshops in several cities around the country. The organization is clearly impressed by May as they invited her and two other public school teachers, Cindy Gay from Colorado and Ann Brokaw of Ohio, to lead a two-day workshop in Mozambique this summer.

The Gorongosa Biodiversity Science Education Program, located inside the park, aims to “guide the next generation of Mozambican university students, biologists, and conservation leaders in biodiversity research and wildlife preservation through hands on capacity building workshops, research fellowships, and higher education opportunities.”

The instructors who work for the Education Program are all experts in ecology but don’t necessarily have backgrounds in education—which is where the American teachers came in.

May, Brokaw, and Gay focused on different strategies the instructors can use to teach for understanding—shifting away from a traditional lecture model of teaching to incorporating more active learning. May said the instructors’ response was very positive.

“Throughout the workshop, we modeled different strategies they could use in their courses to facilitate learning,” May said. “The instructors learned the backward design of curriculum in order to focus on student understanding rather than just conveying content.”

May said that one graduate student who took part in the workshop had planned to focus her career on research, but the workshop made her think differently about her ability to teach.

A unique partnership creates opportunity

The Government of Mozambique has partnered for twenty years with the Gorongosa Restoration Project, a U.S. non-profit, to balance the needs of wildlife and people who live near the park.

Elephants are vital to the park’s ecosystem and an important draw for tourists.

“With the Gorongosa restoration project, they’re really trying to do things the right way,” May said. “They’re focusing on conservation while also taking into account that people live in the area and have needs.”

May said that poaching is one problem the partnership is trying to address by working with people who live in the buffer zone around the park.

“It’s a farming project,” May said. “If farmers agree not to poach, they’re given resources and a plot of land. As they’re successful, they can sell food and move up the economic ladder.”

May and the other teachers went on a number of game drives and twice saw lions. Due to poaching, the park is having trouble restoring the lion population. While the snares placed by poachers are not intended to snare lions, the lions get caught in the traps—resulting in the loss of limbs and, in several cases, death.

“While the lions and elephants are vital components of the park’s ecosystems, they are also necessary to bring in tourists, and tourists are necessary to bring in money to the region,” May said.

Bringing lessons back to Connecticut

“The experience reaffirmed what I teach my students about ecology, human population growth, and the issues of the developing world,” May said. “It surprised me how much the trip reinforced and impacted my thinking.”

park gates

The main entrance to Gorongosa National Park.

One local English teacher who took part in the professional development workshop May and the other Americans led invited them to visit the school where he works in Vila Gorongosa, the largest town in the area.

“It’s an extremely rural area in an extremely poor country,” May said. “At the public high school we visited, of the 2,300 students, only 800 were girls. The class sizes were large and the teachers had no resources at all.”

Most of the students at the high school want to continue on to university but their families don’t have the funds to afford higher education. “There’s a real lack of opportunity, which is why the Gorongosa Restoration Project is working to provide opportunities for those living in the park’s buffer zone,” May said.

When May teaches the human population unit of her AP biology class this year, she plans to have her students come up with questions to email to a man she met who is in charge of many of the programs in the buffer zone around Gorongosa National Park.

“He’s going to answer some of the questions my students generate,” May said. “That kind of authentic interaction makes a bigger impact on the students than if I simply hand them the facts.”

In her ecology unit, May also plans to use a set of free ecology classroom activities related to work going on at the park. These are produced by BioInteractive, the science education division of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

In a blog post about her time in Mozambique, May wrote, “Gorongosa National Park and the communities that surround it are a special place where science, conservation, education, and community assistance are coming together to save a natural wonder and provide a hand up to a resilient community of people.”

May has been back in the U.S. for a month now, but she says her experiences in Mozambique will stay with her for a long time to come. “I hope that at the very least they will help me to remember to appreciate the opportunities I have been given and to be more present in the moment.”

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