The mission of the Van Andel Education Institute is to bring hands-on, comprehensive learning to classrooms across the country, while also empowering teachers with the latest tools for instructing their students. Our Blue Apple Teacher Feature is how we introduce readers to exceptional educators. Individuals who are building classrooms where curiosity, collaboration, and creativity thrive! Are you searching for new ways to connect with students? What about techniques for fostering perseverance and confidence within your classroom? To find these answers, we spoke with Becky Schnekser, an established teacher and author of the Blue Apple watershed project, What’s in Your Water?

Becky Schnekser is a veteran educator with a passion for field science; bringing the field to the classroom, and classrooms to the field. As a National Geographic Certified Educator and Trainer, Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, and Presidential Award recipient for Excellence in Mathematics, Becky has had no shortage of adventure in her career. In 2018, she traveled to Peru, Galapagos, and the George Washington National Forest to complete field expeditions in order to bring her passion for field science into classrooms worldwide. As a member of these expedition teams, she used the experience to inform her own classroom instruction. She continues to replicate fieldwork with students and create learning activities for classrooms worldwide through the National Geographic Educator Community.

Why did you get involved in education?

I wanted to make a difference in the world and love the hope, curiosity, and determination of young children. I felt like education was the avenue through which I could make a difference, by working with students, exciting them, empowering them, and setting them on a course in life to make an impact as well. The future lies with the youth of the world and if I can be a positive force within their educational journey, that’s what I want to be.

What do you believe are the greatest challenges facing teachers today?

I feel the greatest challenge for teachers is all of the “noise” out there. There are so many things that have the opportunity to distract from what education is really about: the kids. Getting through the noise of legislation, red tape, and distractions is difficult and teachers need help navigating through and around the noise to be the most effective positive influences they can and want to ultimately be.

What do you believe are the greatest challenges facing students today?

Resilience. Students’ worlds are also filled with so much “noise” of a different variety that I often see them give up (or try to, I do not let them off that easy!) when faced with adversity. This might happen during a math problem, open-ended design challenge, or conflict with a peer. Resilience is a skill that they desperately need, especially if they are going to be the positive change-makers I envision them all to be. More important than any content we attempt to deliver, is building this important life skill, resilience.

What tools have you found most useful for inspiring students to think critically and creatively?

Imagery is one of the most powerful tools I use. A photograph illustrating a concept or a cartoon about the topic with which we are grappling. Using imagery to introduce a concept, enhance a point, or inspire conversation truly engages students. This might even come in the form of creating their own visuals to display their own knowledge. Pictures are worth 1000 words, right? With just one image, my students have broached a range of topics. From classification of animals, weather, and even climate change, they have extended these conversations into creative writing pieces, blogs, podcasts, and even augmented reality projects. It’s absolutely amazing what you can do with a simple image.

How would you like to see education change in the next ten years?

I would like to see a total shift, across the board, to incorporate student voice and choice. Allowing students the ability to truly be a part of their educational journey is such an important part of education. It has a rumbling presence which is a great start, but I would like to see this as a part of teacher preparation programs and part of the norm of classrooms rather than the exception or minority.

How can parents assist students in developing curiosity and iterative thinking?

Allowing students to just explore, make messes, ask questions are basic elements of learning and thinking. How do we learn to walk? By trying, failing, and trying again! Encourage them to come up with solutions to problems rather than fixing it for them. The wheel fell off a toy car? How can they fix it? What can they do with the car now, other than throw it away or buy a new one? How many different ways can we solve the problem? All of these are great ways to encourage creative and iterative thinking. Let them explore and yes, make messes!

What is one of the most authentic learning experiences you’ve ever done with your students?

One of the most authentic learning experiences with my students had nothing to do with me, actually. One day, after rainfall, my second graders came to my room insisting that we go out and investigate the rainwater runoff. They told me they wanted to set up a field work station, collect samples, test the water chemistry and use microscopes to observe microorganisms within the water samples. How could I say no? They were empowered, excited, and had a plan to complete their own field investigation.

What do you wish for each student?

To know, understand, and BELIEVE that no matter who they are, where they come from, what happened yesterday, they can be whatever they want. It will be difficult, but they can absolutely be what and who they want.


About the Project: What’s in Your Water?

Water is essential for life. All living things depend upon it. Yet every day, our actions contribute to pollution that is detrimental to our waterways—and ultimately our watersheds. Imagine if the actions we take now to protect our watersheds resulted in cleaner and more sustainable waterways. What a difference this would make for all of Earth’s living creatures!

Interested in learning how you can better impact the lives of students? Check out our webpage and stay tuned to meet more dynamic teachers!