Wednesday, October 20, 2010
If the students of Mountain Lakes have a keener awareness of the environment than many of their peers, it is thanks to Jeff Keith, who for 36 years has been teaching the youngsters about everything ranging from CFL lightbulbs to recycling to the water needs of developing countries.
Keith's efforts have not gone unnoticed. Earlier this month, he received the NJ Teacher GreenFest Award, also known as the "Boggy," after being nominated by two of his colleagues at Wildwood Elementary School, Lynn Martin and Mary Lou DeCaprio. The award was presented to him by actor and environmentalist, Ed Begley, Jr.
Clearly touched by the recognition, Keith said, "It was very special to me." Even though he is now retired, Keith, who was a teacher at Wildwood for 29 years, still offers lessons, spending 15 days during the school year with the students. He teaches the kindergartners about Antarctica, first graders about bats, and second graders about the rain forest.
Third graders build a mock Lenape village on four-foot boards and fourth graders visit Sandy Hook in the fall to learn about marine life and in the spring, use compasses to learn orienting.
The fifth graders study the life and conditions of the lake near the school.
The environment is not just the subject of Keith's lessons, it is what he lives. He has traveled to all seven continents studying the environment and it was on one such trip, 19 years ago to the Amazon through the Dodge Foundation, that the "spark" was lit. Keith's interest in the environment was strong before this, as is evident from his master's degree in environmental education, but it was seeing the Amazon that changed everything.
From there, he went on more trips. A few years ago, Keith visited Antarctica for two weeks, going around the peninsula on a research ship with people from about 15 different countries. There were scientists and an historian, helping him learn about the continent and its animals. There were also discussions about global warming.
"It was a tremendous learning experience," said Keith.
There have been other global opportunities for learning. While on a climbing expedition of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Keith studied the changes of topography. The mountain has seven zones. Lessons also included how altitude impacts mental acuity.
Keith has hiked glaciers in Iceland and followed the Incan Trail. He has been to Africa several times, seeing for himself what lengths people will go to for potable water.
"I've been very lucky in my life and have had a very understanding wife," said Keith.
The Mountain Lakes students are also lucky for they, too, benefit from these trips because Keith shares his new-found knowledge with them through lectures, artifacts, and pictures. He said he can talk to kids, but when they see his pictures, "they understand a little better."
Keith noted, "You have to see other cultures," and added that it makes one realize how "lucky" we are.
"There is mostly good in the world," said Keith. "People are more alike than different. I try to present a positive view. Everything is fixable."
Keith proved his point that all things are indeed fixable upon his return from the Amazon when he started the "Pennies for the Rain Forest" collection. He explained that children are like pennies, individually there is not a lot of power, but in a group there is.
"It helps the children become activists," he said.
In her nominating letter, Martin, a fourth-grade teacher at Wildwood, wrote, "Jeff's business card is titled 'Rainforest Man' because for over 20 years he has encouraged our students to save 'Pennies for the Rainforest.' Our K-5 students and Mr. Keith were able to save 524 acres of rainforest throughout the world, including Belize, the Amazon, Brazil, Panama, and Guatemala. The wall outside our school's main office is covered with certificates documenting their endeavors and success in saving these invaluable resources."
The rain forest is just one betterment project that he has worked on with students. Even in an interview about his efforts in environmental education, he began by praising DeCaprio for the volunteer work she does with the Wildwood students through the Giraffe Program.
For about a dozen years, the Giraffe Program, part of a national organization, has been showing interested students in third through fifth grade what it means to help others. The youngsters meet once a week during their lunch period. The objective is to develop service projects that benefit either groups of people, such as residents of a nursing home, or the environment. This is where Keith comes in, letting the students know about causes and giving them the contact information.
It is called the Giraffe Program because, as Keith said, "a giraffe sticks his neck out." Among the environmental causes he has helped students with is water and energy conservation and recycling.
"The kids respond. They do a great job," said Keith.
Keith brought together the fifth-grade students from Wildwood and the Lake Drive School for a joint project in which stenciling was done on the town's catch basins to prevent litter from being deposited in them. The students also worked to beautify a memorial garden.
DeCaprio said, "Lynn and I are both so grateful for how much time and effort Jeff has given the kids. He's shared his love of environmental living and its importance with such passion that we wanted to give back something to him."