As Paula Savikko leads her science students along a wooded path near Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School on a search for highbush cranberry, she stops at two stick-like trees.
"Isn't that interesting how in both of those trees there's nothing happening except at the top?" she asked her charges on the Wednesday outing.
"Make sure as you're walking - because I know you're talking - that your eyes and your senses are really open," Savikko advised.
For Savikko, one of five teachers nominated for Alaska Teacher of the Year, hands-on experiences are part of science.
Savikko's and Pam WellsPeters' mixed-age seventh- and eighth-grade science classes gathered medicinal plants Wednesday with the help of several parents.
On Thursday, students chopped up the bark of willow, devil's club, alder and highbush cranberry and the roots of fireweed and geum. They boiled the mixture, strained out the sediments, added beeswax for consistency and made a salve. Everyone took home a little tin of it, decorated with his or her own logo.
"Is there a grade?" a girl asked Thursday.
"Is there a grade? Should there be? No, I call it an experience," Savikko said, but added that they should think of it as a science lab. "For everything that you do, it's purposeful."
Savikko expects her students to take notes from class lectures, participate in labs and discuss assigned readings in small groups. She said she wants her students to be able to think creatively and solve problems, so they can take their place in a democracy, which requires those skills.
"I think kids need real experience," Savikko said Thursday in her classroom. "Science is something I think should be hands-on and experimental. You can't get it totally from a book. The book provides background information."
Sherri Wolfe, a parent who helped with the project, said many children learn by doing things hands-on, rather than by hearing or seeing.
"I think it's well worth it, even without all the mud puddles," she said.
Projects like that aren't an easy way out for teachers. They have to prepare the students and the tools, let a little chaos happen and be ready to answer questions nonstop. Back-to-back 90-minute classes on Thursday left Savikko spent.
"It's always a little messy," Savikko said. "You never know what you'll come up with. Sometimes it flows like the wind. Sometimes it's a whirlwind."
Students enjoy going outdoors and making things in the classroom.
"I never knew you could make lip balm out of the woods," seventh-grader Dylan Kolvig said in Savikko's humming classroom Thursday.
"I never knew that plants can help us heal stuff," seventh-grader Collin Monagle added.
A blue tarp was stretched out under tables where students were making paper from scraps of recycled paper. That task occupied students when they couldn't find a place at the two tables where the salves were being concocted. There was a constant refrain of "Miss Savikko?" "Miss Savikko?" as students tried to figure out how finely to chop roots, or how to measure half a tablespoon using a teaspoon.
"I've never made anything from natural leaves and plants, " seventh-grader Megan Hawkins said. "So it's really neat to have an experiment. Instead of just looking at a book and reading it, it's better to learn by doing it."
Using overhead projections the day before, Savikko prepared the students to gather plants by reviewing the plants' appearance. In her quiet, steady voice she reminded them of details such as the alder leaves' sharp, serrated edges, which differ in that way from the similar-looking cottonwood leaves.
And she prepared them in their attitude.
"It's very important when we go outside that you know why we're going," Savikko told the students. "We're going to harvest plants to make healing remedies. While you're out there, it's important you have a respectful manner."
She told them to take material from the plants carefully, choosing trees from a plentiful stand and selecting the strongest tree.
"If there's only one plant, do you want to take the only plant for harvest?" she asked.
After tramping for about 10 minutes on a wood-plank boardwalk that stretches through the mucky meadows and woods near the school, Savikko's group found the telltale red leaves of a large highbush cranberry.
"Look how excited they are," Savikko said.
Four boys stayed at the bush to cut off pieces of bark.
"So, where would be a good spot to harvest?" Savikko asked eighth-grader Donovan Wilson.
Wilson suggested a low branch because no leaves were growing there.
WellsPeters, whose class was merged with Savikko's for the project, described Savikko as calm and competent.
"What I really like about her is how calm she is when she's presenting to kids," WellsPeters said. "Middle school kids can be really rambunctious. She brings the tone down."
Savikko has been teaching for 11 years. A good teacher is flexible and open-minded, works with colleagues and listens well, she said.
"You just never know where someone is coming from," Savikko said. "And if you're doing all the talking, you still don't have a sense of where someone is coming from, especially if you want to know what families think is important, and you merge it with what the community thinks is important."
A committee of legislators and presidents of parent organizations is expected to pick the teacher of the year in November, the state Department of Education said.
The other finalists for teacher of the year are Thomas Brock Sr. of Aniak, and Koko Mikel, Janene Schoenborn and Kathie Steele of Anchorage.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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