Teacher program brings parks to classrooms

Donna Shrum, eighth grade English teacher at North Fork Middle School, is shown at the Fisher's Hill Picnic with her granddaughter Milani Raigner on Aug. 1. Photo courtesy of John Shrum

Shenandoah schoolteacher Donna Shrum marked a first for Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Park when she decided to participate in the National Park Service Teacher Ranger Teacher program there this summer.

Through the program, K-12 teachers around the country network with parks by working as a ranger for the summer, forming lesson plans and teaching projects based on their experiences there. Simultaneously, the teachers earn graduate credit hours through the University of Colorado, Denver.

Shrum had to shift her summer schedule around to accommodate the demands of the program after learning about it in the last week of school.

“Everybody knows I’m kind of crazy about history and I had done some research at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove,” she said.

Starting the program immediately as school let out and finishing with a final meeting recently, Shrum had to cram her summer schedule to fit in her other commitments.

While she said the program didn’t provide many applications for students in her eighth grade English classrooms at North Fork Middle School, her TRT project will introduce both the park and new learning opportunities to elementary and middle school age children.

“It’ll probably be more beneficial in the long run for the school system,” she said.

To the park’s chief of interpretation, Eric Campbell, Shrum’s participation was the beginning of a new chapter in the park’s accessibility to classrooms in the area.

“It was good because we made a connection to the Shenandoah school district,” he said.

As a fairly new park, Campbell said there was a lot of groundwork for the small park staff to solidify before they even applied to the program, and they didn’t receive funding until late May. Campbell said that given Shrum’s familiarity with the park and some of the programming, she was an ideal candidate.

Although the program program was established in 1998, it went through some changes before this year. One big change was that the participating parks could no longer bring in the same teacher year after year – something that Campbell anticipates will prove frustrating.

“Once you get somebody trained up … you’ve got to hire somebody else new,” he said.

Campbell said that funding for the program should come through earlier next year and allow him to take more time to review and prime candidate teachers for their time at the park next summer. With the process bumped back in the year, teacher rangers will also be able to plan their summers ahead of time.

Shrum’s project from the teacher ranger teacher program involves park rangers visiting classrooms to provide modified interactive versions of park programming rather than the classes visiting a park that even some teachers are unfamiliar with.

Campbell said the subject material can be customized to complement the SOLs administered in fourth and sixth grade for Virginia and U.S. history. Alternatively, the rangers can focus on other topics like the formation of the valley to apply subjects like earth science.

The next step in implementing Shrum’s project will come from meetings of the park’s five key partners to further refine the details of the project and approach the schools as a united front. The park aims to send rangers to the schools for presentations by this coming winter.

Shrum appreciated the chance to exchange teaching philosophy with the park staff and write curriculum for her fellow teachers based off her summer at the park.

“That’s kind of the neat thing about teaching and learning, it’s all connected somehow and sometimes it’s in ways you didn’t expect,” she said.

Shrum’s participation in the park program marks an inaugural year for Cedar Creek and Belle Grove, and Campbell sees the opportunity the program creates by opening the floodgates to further outreach in local schools.

“For a park like ours that doesn’t have a student program … the TRT is such a great program,” he said.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com