March 19, 2010

When Students Become the Teachers

Pinkerton Academy's surgaring season is over, but the educating continues.
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – James Lyon is not one to get sappy about the close of another sugaring season. But this was one for the record books.
“It was by far our worst sugaring season in 29 years,” said Lyon, waiting for his 10 a.m. Environmental Studies/Outdoor Skills students to arrive. “Sap only runs when the trees are thawing, and we haven't had cold enough nights to freeze the trees.”
The campus sugar house has been a staple of the high school's forestry program for decades. By mid-March students have normally produced about 60 gallons of maple syrup. Right now, their meager sap collections have boiled down to only 20 gallons of the sweet stuff.
While producers in other parts of the state may be having banner seasons, Pinkerton's operation is a victim of bad timing as much as anything, said Lyon.
“We tapped on Feb. 28 when they came back from school vacation. The best run here was the week before and during vacation. Our season is over, as of today. The sap went bad overnight,” Lyon said, filling a collection bucket with a little bit of water, for demonstration purposes.
Even though the season is over, his students continue to do tours of the campus maple groves and sugar house for local school and community groups. As his next class assembles, a busload of 19 second graders from Main Street School in Exeter drop their backpacks at the gazebo and line up in groups of two.
One group follows seniors Mike Brassard, Steffan Morgenstern and Nick McEachern to the tree with the sap bucket that has been filled with decoy water.
“On a good day, the buckets will fill two times a day,” said McEachern, as three boys plunge their pointer fingers into the drink.
“Tastes like water,” said Brian Weston, 7, picking up on the well-intentioned ruse as he licks his finger again, just to be sure.
“Actually, the sap is only about 2 percent sugar now. We'll boil it down to about 67 percent,” said McEachern.
Lyon's proteges fielded all kinds of rapid fire questions from the school group with ease, including why so many buckets on one tree (depends on the size and health of the tree), what happens to the ants inside the bucket (they get filtered out) and what is that little hole for at the bottom of the tree (it's where leprechauns hide.)
The tour included an explanation of the gravity-driven sap tapping tube system that connected several trees and emptied into a large collection barrell, filled with sap that passed the finger-licking test, and a stop inside the sugar house, where the science of syrup was explained.
Outside the sugar house, Pinkerton students Paige Gerhardt and Donald Swan used a poster to teach the kids about the threat of Asian Longhorned Beetles to the state's maple tree population.
“This whole thing is wonderful,” said Kathy Bean, teacher of the Exeter second graders. “I especially love the fact that they're using students to teach my students. We all learned something today,” she said.
Although field trips to sugar houses has always been part of her science curriculum, Bean said this year the school budget forced her to be creative.
“I looked on the Internet and found that Pinkerton did these tours. It's a free trip for my kids to a school campus, which is a bonus,” Bean said “I'm glad we came here.”
As Bean's students slurped tiny cupfuls of Grade A medium amber goodness, Lyon watched from afar as some of his own students said goodbye to the second graders while others assisted a group from Silverthorn adult daycare in Salem, just coming out of the sugar house.
“This program gives our kids a chance to polish their public speaking and group management skills,” said Lyon, who likes to keep a low profile during the tours. “It's something special. I don't know that there's anything else quite like it at Pinkerton.”

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