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Earth Educator Spotlight: Teacher Debra DiBenedetto of Dixie Elementary School

For over 22 years, Debra DiBenedetto has been teaching kids and infusing her classes with hands-on, outdoor education experiences. Debra, who spoke with SPAWN before the start of her 10 am class, is currently teaching a class of 23 second grade students at Dixie Elementary School in San Rafael, Calif. Debra incorporates SPAWN and Turtle Island’s projects into her curriculum and gives her students the chance to engage with the science happening outside of the classroom’s doors, in the real world.

To Debra, this is critical not only because California’s science education standards are changing and focusing more on inquisitive learning, but also because of the ‘ah ha’ moments she sees in her students when they have the chance to learn outside of the classroom.

“They are learning about their environment and becoming aware of the world around them. They ask questions and develop a love for the nature that’s around them. They learn they can make a difference and see the results from their work. They also see the natural changes and how land changes over time slowly and quickly. They begin to see nature is interconnected,” she explained.

Last Fall SPAWN worked with Debra’s class in a fun, outdoor restoration day. Fourth and second grade students dug in and removed invasive bushes, helped plant native plants, and even took SPAWN nursery-grown plants back to their school for use in a creekside bank stabilization project there. SPAWN and Debra worked together to restore the creek near the school with community workdays, and to educate the kids about the process with biweekly classes. Now, this creekside habitat is populated with native plants like sticky monkey flowers and juntas.

Photo courtesy of Teacher Debra DiBenedetto.

Photo courtesy of Teacher Debra DiBenedetto.

This year, Debra teamed up with SPAWN again to teach a special endangered species class with a summer program called Summercrest. SPAWN’s Education Specialist Catie Clune came in and shared endangered wildlife exhibits with shark skin, turtle, bones, etc. and explained the importance of protecting wildlife. Afterwards, the students held a bake sale and raised $130. They donated the funds to Turtle Island and the Marine Mammal Center. This direct connection with real-world issues in both science and the environment is Debra’s specialty as a teacher.

All ages become engaged with the simplest part of nature – roll polly bugs, the water creatures in the creek, the wildflowers – and there is so much to learn about interdependency. Science can be integrated into reading and writing and math. It allows children to grow their mindset and be creative thinkers,” she explained. 

Debra is currently busy working on designing and putting in a nature walkway by the school, a viewing platform that will allow students to study and observe the creek in all weather, and working with SPAWN to restore the creekbed by controlling erosion with native plants and a willow wall. These exciting changes are funded by a small grant from the Dixie Outdoor Classroom or DOC, and community supporters.

“Students love to learn and be outside,” said Debra. Adding, “I think it is critical to help them understand the importance of the environment and how to become stewards of the lands we live on.”

Photo courtesy of Teacher Debra DiBenedetto.

Photo courtesy of Teacher Debra DiBenedetto.

SPAWN is honored to be able to work with outstanding educators in the Bay Area like Debra and help provide classroom resources and professional trainings to help even more kids get outside learning about our creeks and endangered coho salmon, and on their way to becoming the next generation of environmental stewards. Please let teachers in your community know that SPAWN is a resource for them. If you are a teacher, please email Catie Clune at Catie@tirn.net to learn about our upcoming professional development training as well as outdoor education opportunities.