Retiring teacher takes one more tour through the rainforest

Years ago teachers Nancy Gussey and Judy Johnson set out to give their students a different kind of learning environment.

IMG_1512 (cmyk)
Judy Johnson

Posted May 2, 2014

By COLE BENZ | Herald Editor |

Years ago teachers Nancy Gussey and Judy Johnson set out to give their students a different kind of learning environment. What they hadn’t planned on was the legacy the rainforest project creates for the students in New England.

The project involves erecting a makeshift rainforest in the classroom and creating different creatures to fill it. The real learning begins when each student is assigned to research, and create an animal. The students then are educated on almost every aspect of the regions and are able to give tours to visitors of the classroom.

Gussey retired about four years ago, but Johnson has kept the project alive and between the two of them it has been a featured part of the curriculum for the better part of two decades.

The idea was first derived when the two educators attended a workshop for teachers. They thought it would be a great idea to try out. At the time Guffey was teaching 4th grade and Johnson was teaching 3rd grade and initially implemented it every other year, that way no student would miss out on the opportunity.

They worked for a few years to gather all kinds of materials to create the environment that included using rolls from carpets as tree trunks. Johnson wanted to get the whole family involved but make sure the student took the lead on the creation. The idea of having the students create one creature themselves with the help of their family was something they did from the start.

“As the years go on, the projects become more and more exciting, and realistic,” Johnson said.

Johnson didn’t think this would be such an annual event, but after the first few times they worked on it, it just picked up.

“It just kind of snowballed,” Johnson said.

Though the rain forest is generally the same size, the classroom does dictate the shape and sometimes the size it covers.

“One year I had 24 students in my room, so that’s 24 desks,” Johnson said. “That year I built the rain forest around all four walls and the rainforest school was just mushed in the center.”

Johnson enjoys putting the whole scene together, but she gets the most joy from watching her students get so engaged in the project.

“I just love how excited the kids are, and how hard they work,” Johnson said.

The students are allowed to create anything they wish between plants and animals that make the rainforest their home, but they have to find a picture of it and mirror the image. They’re given a number of different materials to work with and Johnson can’t believe some of the creativity the students use to make their creations.

“Some of these things I would never thought of putting together to make a flower, but they’re beautiful,” Johnson said.

The students like to construct the rainforest, but they also enjoy the opportunity to show visitors around their little habitat.

“They also like when they get to be guides and take people through it, by that time they are very serious of how important the rainforest is and understand that people need to know about it in order to stop it from being destroyed,” Johnson said. “And I think they really like that role.”

Another aspect of this project is its longevity. With this tradition lasting over the course of two decades, older students that went through the class have had the chance to come back and visit. When asked how often does she see past students, Johnson replied “all the time.”

She even has heard some stories of students hanging on to their creations even years after they’ve been out of the class. She was recently told by a mother of one of her past students that they saved some of the materials, and eventually used them as decorations at her birthday party.

Johnson also maintains the lessons of this project from set up to tear down. In an effort to show respect for the actual rainforest, they take the jungle down very carefully, rather than ripping apart the trees and leaves and discarding them into the trash immediately.

This year’s project has been a great success to her students this year. As of the morning of April 29, her class has given 241 tours of the decorated classroom. Along with students and faculty stopping by for a glimpse, the class also hosts one evening open house.

Johnson will be retiring after this school year, so the fate of her storied project is not known yet. When asked if the project would continue, Johnson wasn’t sure. Though she is willing to let someone else utilize her materials.

Though her time as an educator is coming to an end, Johnson is satisfied with the work she has put in that kept this venture going through the years.

“It’s been a lot of fun, and I’m happy that we started it, because I think it’s been great for the kids,” Johnson said.


Share this post