2015 Student Field Reporter Project:  We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and it’s impact on their lives!  

Reporter: Kailani C. (High School Student, The Gunston School, Maryland) 

I looked critically at the golf ball-like golden fruits attached to the branch I was holding, weighing my options. The local girls were watching me expectantly, and I thought, If I refuse, they’ll judge me, or worse, be offended. That little kid just climbed a frigging tree to get these things. If I eat them, I might catch some obscure bacterial disease and die. But one of the girls had just eaten a fruit, so I shrugged and decided to indulge in my riskier side. Copying her, I tore off the rind with my front teeth, sucked out the inside, and spat out the seeds. The fruit had a dry, sharp taste that was vaguely sweet, and I grinned. The girls grinned back.

We had spent the last two days immersed in the jungle and the river, and it had come time to reach out more directly with the local people of the Amazon. After an early morning birding trip and breakfast, we left ExplorNapo by boat, heading for the nearby village of Llachapa. A day of community service and cultural interaction with the locals had been blocked into our schedule, and despite the non-Spanish speakers’ nerves, we were excited. On the short ride over, I thought about other times I’ve interacted with native peoples. I was younger, but I clearly remember fishing and playing futbol with Guatemalan kids and punting volleyball and visiting the homes of my Kuna friends in Panama. I have learned that language isn’t everything. If you can hit a ball and crack a smile, you’re in good shape.

Pretty soon we came to a cleared area on the banks, where dugouts and motored canoes were pulled against the shore. A brightly-painted bus-type thing, long decommissioned, perched near the water, adding more color to the land. Wooden-slat houses with thatched roofs rose on stilts above the thick crabgrass, and over the knolls a large group of medium-height people with black hair and warm brown skin came walking. A sign in Spanish announced the village as Llachapa. A spike of nerves surprised me as I saw the local people, most of them children, coming toward us. Oh man, I thought. There’s a lot of them, and they’re all going to be staring at us. And I don’t speak their language. I pushed away the fear as we climbed off the boat onto the grass. The local kids grouped around us, some smiling, others observing carefully. I smiled back, offering greetings of Hola and Buenos Dias.

As they led us over the gently-sloping open space, I looked around. Most of the ground was grass, but some worn-down areas were sticky with mud. Trees were scattered here and there amongst the houses, and chickens, ducks, dogs and cats wandered freely. We crossed a wooden causeway over a lake matted with algal life to a main courtyard in the middle of a group of two-storey, rectangular school buildings. A few circular thatched roofs over cement bases formed meeting areas. We went to the largest one in the middle of the yard, where small wooden chairs were arranged around the perimeter. A string of coil bulbs provided light under the dark thatch. Once we had all settled, introductions, mostly in Spanish, were given from our group and the school administrators. The children who learned here were in school two weeks in, two weeks out at this time of year. At least a hundred kids sat in the chairs. After the greetings, my classmates and I broke ranks, joining groups of the local kids. There was bamboo to be hammered into the ground, slats to be painted, holes to be dug. Swallowing our nerves, we jumped to it.

Jack learning to cut bamboo

Jack learning to cut bamboo

Claire and a few boys digging

Claire and a few boys digging

Over the next several hours, each of us Americans adjusted amongst our coworkers. Emily, despite her earlier apprehension, earned friends by carrying water and a smile. My brother tested his not-inconsiderable Spanish amongst the boys and ended up wandering the village with a few of them, answering questions about the far off Estados Unitos. Momo, an international student, taught a teenager some Chinese. I smiled when a little girl ran up while we were splitting bamboo and attached herself firmly to Kenzie, who had been conversing with some school children earlier. Skin color and language had little significance, after we all got over our initial shyness.

Savannah splitting bamboo with a local girl

Savannah splitting bamboo with a local girl

We broke at 12:30, the local students going inside to eat while we ate lunch. After that it was time for the wildlife scavenger hunt, provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to help share the message of environmental awareness and conservation. My friend Jack and I went with a group of teenage girls. We didn’t have to do much. They read the Spanish names of the target and we took off, ranging all over the village. Once we had gotten most of the boxes checked, they started to show us what laid off the beaten tracks.

Tony, Momo and the rest of the painting crew

Tony, Momo and the rest of the painting crew

The village was small, but big enough to explore. The girls led us behind a row of houses to a small flooded area, where they picked the golden fruits and we shared them. Then a boy in a dugout paddled up. After riding herself, one of the girls invited me into the boat. I nodded excitedly and hopped in. We paddled around the trees, sweeping our hands through the cool water. I tried to keep my body still and steady the boat. We circled back to the shore and continued our walk. We wandered amongst the houses, going briefly inside one for the girls to get some water. When we eventually looped back to our teachers, kids were running for a hill a little ways off. We grabbed water bottles and quickly joined them. It was time for a futbol game to top off the day.

Futbol is soccer, for you Americans who do not travel, and it’s extremely popular in Latin America. I hoped it wouldn’t be Americans versus locals, because we would be slaughtered. We reached the plateau of the hill worn down to red dirt with two goal posts on either end. We scattered into teams, and the game began. For the next fifteen minutes we Americans tried not to get in the way of the lean local boys, who ran and kicked and head-butted the ball like the moves were in their blood. We had a ton of fun playing with them, with Jack scoring the first goal, much to his delight.

When it was time to go they walked us to the rapido and we all yelled thanks and goodbyes, from both sides. A pleased tiredness washed over me in reflection. Their lives were infinitely different from ours. We would never know or understand some aspects of each other’s ways, but that did not exclude friendship. We were all moved by what we had built that day–garden fences, painted signs and a bridge between two worlds, whose crossing we would never forget.

It’s all fun and games until you get birds and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology involved…then mayhem, hilarity, and learning ensue!


Last summer, birding in the Amazon became a full contact sport as U.S. and Peruvian educators and students raced around the grounds outside the Amazon library – flapping their “wings” as they searched for resources needed to survive!   Language barriers dissolved as hands were clasped and teams were formed.  Laughter filled the air as educators learned to communicate with hand signals and pantomime.

How does magic like this happen?  It takes partnerships and a lot of planning, but it is so worth it!  During the annual Educator Academy in the Amazon for K-12 teachers, we partner with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to bring their BirdSleuth programs to the Amazon.


While they are in the Amazon, U.S. educators work with Lilly Briggs, Cornell’s International BirdSleuth Coordinator, and are introduced to the new Habitat Connections curriculum.   This great program uses inquiry, games, and citizen science to help students discover the diverse habitat need of birds and the challenges they face when migrating.  We then partner with CONAPAC’s Amazon Library and host a similar teacher training for Peruvian educators – many of which have to travel for hours by boat to make the training.


The high point of all this in-depth exploration is an afternoon of fun and community building between U.S. and Peruvian teachers.  Together we “field test” several Habitat Connections activities with the students who visit the Amazon library after school each day.

14662568112_248a60d934_oIt was an experience none of us will ever forget, but we left with way more than just happy memories.  All of us have new tools and resources that will improve our teaching and engage our students – whether we teach in a one room school in the Amazon, a private school in NYC, or an elementary school in Tuscola, Illinois.


So how does all this translate back to a US classroom?  Here’s how one teacher took what she learned in the Amazon and integrated it into her classroom.


Connecting the Amazon to the Classroom via BirdSleuth 14750812696_ffdf8d12d1_k

by Pam White-Evans, 6th grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in Tuscola, IL.

(Pam teaches math, science, and social studies but if she ever needs another career she has a real talent for talking to howler monkeys in rehab!)

“Our first science unit of the year this fall was Birdsleuth’s Habitat Connections. It was very interactive and the students really enjoyed this aspect of the curriculum.

The first lesson was “Habitat Investigation.” This lesson gave the students a chance to get outside and explore their schoolyard. We had one particular area in mind that we would like to improve, so we studied it extensively. This was the start of information gathering for a grant that we applied for. The students were introduced to the idea of citizen science. It was an idea they really liked. We got out our binoculars and took a bird walk and practiced taking data to input into eBird.

The second lesson (and their favorite!) was “Migration Obstacles.” It was a beautiful, slightly windy, rather warm day when we did this activity. This activity is so much fun because everyone is involved in some way during the exercise. Improvising “hazards” makes it interesting. Our hazards ranged from a “ghost” building to wetlands to glass buildings and an airstrip, cars to cats. The children enjoyed being the hazard as well as trying to dodge the hazards. It wasn’t as easy as they thought it would be. We talked about ways to improve the migration route and make it more bird friendly. Then they tried again and were much more successful.20140821_142542

There are some very good slides to go along with each lesson. We looked at the migration routes that certain birds followed. They were interested to see the birds that were in South America near the area where we visited the Amazon.

The third lesson “Bird Survivor” teaches about the life cycle of birds in an interactive game. The “Fact or Fiction” is a good way to get them thinking about some common misconceptions they may have about birds. For example, do all birds build nests? The survivor games goes through the life cycle of birds by having some students be the bird and the rest of the class telling them their fate. In the end, not all are successful. It is sometimes hard being a bird!

The fourth lesson “To Migrate or Not” looks at tropical and temperate residents and migrants. Talking about tropical migrants was the perfect time to talk about the birds in the Amazon! Through my eBird account we looked at many of the birds I had seen while visiting. We could then see if they were migratory birds or if they lived in the area year round. The students were able to see additional hazards of migration. This tied in with the sixth lesson “Modeling Migration” that takes a close look at eBird. Students were able to look closely at data and learn to decipher what the graphs were trying to tell them.



The fifth lesson is “Scientist in Action.” I don’t believe that too many of the students had thought that scientists actually study birds and what they do. Nate Senner’s activities intrigues the students. They found his study interesting, but many thought it would be really hard to do that.

The seventh and final lesson is “Improve Your Bird Habitat.” After going through all the lessons, we took another look at the area that we would like to improve in our school yard. We decided to make the area an outdoor classroom where we can observe birds and other wildlife, as well as attract Monarch butterflies. We went through the grant application, so the students could see what needed to be done. They drew sketches and helped write the answers to the questions. We look forward to finding out whether or not we will be funded for our project!

I ended the unit with a slideshow of pictures from my trip to the Amazon. The students were intrigued by the pictures and the information that I shared with them.”


So what’s next?

We have another Educator Academy in the Amazon scheduled for July 1-11, 2015.  This year, as part of the program, we will conduct two BirdSleuth training for U.S. and Peruvian teachers and expand our reach deeper into the Amazon so we can share this wonderful resource with even more Amazon teachers and students.   This is our way of giving back and thanking the Amazon and its people for allowing us to use their backyard as our classroom!

We’d love to have you join us!  More info on the 2015 Educator Academy can be found here:  http://www.amazonworkshops.com/educator-academy.html