October 31st, 2004

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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Schoolies: Fly Fishing in High School

Kathy Scott, Norridgewock, Maine

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: truth, too, in fly tying. But, since the eventual "beholders" will be locked under ice for a few months here in Maine, the best judges of these flies are their creators. The artists at hand are high school physical education students. They are part of the phoenix of our junior high program, now a casualty of a schedule change. Instead of struggling to recreate a junior high/middle school program, a more reasonable effort spawned a threefold partnership: junior high (my four years with integrating fly fishing into the regular curriculum), high school (they had kids and were looking for real life experiences) and our local Trout Unlimited chapter (a wealth of experience, equipment, and expertise).

"Look at this one!" An outstretched hand with perfect purple fingernails displayed a pink chenille wooly worm wrapped with a purple feather. "My last one was black with a green feather. Isn't this cool?" Her good friend, Jake, raised one eyebrow to their other tablemates. Friendly laughter. Good fun.

Jake showed us his fly, gray chenille, grizzly hackle, a tidy size 16. He grinned and shrugged. "Different strokes."

I love these borrowed high school kids. I love middle school kids, too, to be sure, but these guys are so...old. Witty. More confident. Hidden talents. They do seem to tie a little slower that my 12 year olds, but there's certainly less debris on the floor.

This was our third session together. Before the first, the two high school physical education teachers split their class, giving students the option of trying fly fishing or continuing with regular activities. The fly fishing half was limited to 15 to 20 kids for each of three teaching blocks. Meanwhile, I contacted Greg, my key TU mentor from the past years at middle school, and tested the waters. He was both willing to come and willing to round up help; just name the dates. Back to the teachers; no date preference. Pausing at the calendar, I consulted my principal and found dates least likely to impact my own students if she freed me up to assist in high school phys ed on four days. Tuesdays in October it was, confirmed by the TU volunteers and high school teachers. Other details followed a similar route.

There is a certain amount of jumping through hoops figuratively before casting through hoops literally. I had to hand it to my TU volunteers. After four years of unflagging support with my middle school program, their middle school program, they didn't bat an eye when I proposed they invest a big part of their free time teaching high school kids in a school district that had just forced us out as collateral damage. The middle school had no intention of doing away with fly fishing; never even thought about it when instituting an anti-bullying advisor program in the same time slot.

It took me longer to see the humor in the situation: a semester of twelve kids with three community mentors who guide them through a shared passion for fly fishing replaced by, hmmm, a commercial program intended "to match a few kids with an adult who cares and give them a common basis for understanding as well as life long skills and a link to the community?" Such is school. Jumping through hoops all over again is just jumping through a few more hoops. No big deal. My own principal was among the most supportive, assuring me time out of the library to help out at the high school.

We combined our past experiences with the class objectives and national standards, creating four seventy-minute lessons. Nothing flashy, nothing any angler couldn't do. During the first block, our students learned the terminology for the equipment as well as proper care and assembly (and disassembly) of the gear. Then we sent them to mentored basic casting in pairs along the center line of the gym. Orange cones marked the lanes. After two blocks, I headed back to my school for two hours, and the high school treated the TU mentors to cafeteria lunch in the lively confines of the Teachers' Room. Obviously brave and adventurous, these three guys. During study hall, they had a moment to slip down to the local fly shop. Then we taught one more class, complete with school fire drill (why not?). After that block, we planned for the casting situations the next Tuesday.

Late notice came that the first block on the following Tuesday would be set aside for district-wide writing assessment, all students writing to a prompt for eighty minutes. We'd be one class short. Un-phased, we used the disrupted schedule to set up in the gym. Our plan was to have six stations. After some brief instructions and some discussion of real world casting situations, students in pairs or threes would move to a station, try it, and move on in an eight minute rotation.

Stations were varied. One involved casting 30 feet to touch the fly on a floor cone nestled between two chairs; the next, sitting to do the same (canoe posture). A station in front of a basket involved casting under the hanging web of net, but through the equipment room door (loop size exercise). There was a T-shaped obstacle at another station, and students tried to place the fly under the right then left overhang. Successive hula-hoops lying on the floor provided incremental distance targets at the next station. The last, to practice small loops for casting into the wind, involved casting through an upright hula-hoop taped to a chair for support but required the fly to land beyond the hoop between cones on the floor. Many of these ideas we'd been given at an L.L. Bean workshop arranged by TU with this very outcome in mind.

The kids loved it. At least one station was challenging for every student, and some found them all tough. With an angler as mentor at every station, there was help available, although we were careful not to hover or butt in too much. Give the kids space, give them encouragement, give them a safe chance to learn. They all did. I particularly enjoy the part when an impossible task becomes a possible cast. The pride is priceless. A couple mastered every station quickly, and we set them to casting to the letters on the gym floor spelling out the school's name and mascot (no false casts, please!) The two teachers traded off which half of the class they were teaching, fly fishing or weight training, so that they would both have a chance to be involved.

To tie, we switched from the gym at the high school to my library where we had tables. It felt like old home week to the kids and me. Every one of them had been in my library a good part of their junior high experience. For my part, I'm the only middle school teacher who gets every student for two full years, plenty of time to grow close. I always wonder how they all turned out, life after eighth grade.

The plan had been to integrate economics, conservation, and other topics during the fourth session, but time was spread too thin. We opted to do it subtly as we tried tying again, refreshing kinestic memory by first tying the same fly and then going on to others. Revisions may be in order for the next semester's groups.

Maine has a well-established tradition in the outdoors and the role of our junior high program in piquing interest early in these particular students can't be discounted. Still, if it doesn't exist there already, I would champion the consideration of a like offering for other schools. For both immediate rewards and eventual promise, it's hard to match.

In that third session, Dawn, who never speaks, ventured out. "I brought these in." Her voice was so quiet we almost missed it, but the offering was precious. She had arrived with a baggy of beautiful streamers, all hers. It was her classmates' turn to be quiet.

"You tied those?" Jake asked.

Dawn smiled.

Later, Greg sat down with his dubbing box and gave Dawn a next step lesson; she embraced it. As someone outside the school, he had no way of knowing how much she struggles. It had seemed to me like she'd be forever in junior high, a bright technical star in my television studio until the core curriculum teachers pulled her out of extra curriculars for never completing her homework. Her sympathetic gym teacher and I exchanged happy glances; this was worth any extra effort.

Jake wandered over to finger the bright streamers, black and red and orange and white, all kinds. "They're beautiful!" he told her.

"I think so," Dawn said. ~ Kat

About Kathy:

Kathy noted in her first contacts with us that interest in kids' programs have really picked up in Maine. She says, "You are absolutely correct in saying the folks at the state level are helpful and appreciate the interest. I've also found our local chapter of TU very receptive, as well as the assorted Registered Maine Guides and the local fly shops. At the National level, Greg Ponte received TU's "Distinguished Service Award" for kids outreach work in Maine, and middle schools are becoming so interested I received an "Exemplary Practice" award from the Maine Associate of Middle Level Educators for my program for 7th and 8th graders. Gred, Tim Soule (a member of FAOL) and I presented at the state middle school teachers' conference this fall."

Kathy is also the author of Moose in the Water Bamboo on the Bench, reviewed in our Book Review section (it's really delightful) and Headwaters Fall as Snow. She welcomes contact from others wanting to set up a similar program in their schools. She is a full-time teacher, you can reach her by email at: dpvbkjs@tdstelme.net

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