Talk NERRdy to Me: Jeff Dutrow

Feb 1, 2024

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our 30—soon to be 32—Reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov interviewed Jeff Dutrow, education coordinator at Florida’s Apalachicola Reserve. They spoke of organizing wonders and pedagogues’ blunders, the power of music and questions to transform land and minds, and the one book every educator needs right now.

Nik: We’re here with Jeff Duh-trow aka Doo-trow, education coordinator from … Apalachicola? Or is it ACE Basin? I always get those two confused. Big Southern river, empties out somewhere, hundreds of thousands of acres … 

Jeff: Oh goodness, bless your heart, it’s Apalachicola.

Nik: Aren’t they really all the same?

Jeff: Well, there are ecological patterns, but one is in South Carolina and the other is in the Gulf of Mexico.

Nik: I really don’t go south of New York City very often. Aren’t you in Alabama?

Jeff: I’m a Florida State fan, if you want to fight. But from a cultural, ecological, and geographic standpoint, Alabama is west of us. South of Alabama is the Panhandle of Florida, and Apalachicola is well east of that, a little closer to the Big Bend.

Nik: Ah.

Jeff: And it’s very different, especially culturally. When you get to our area, you’d be surprised at how rural it is. If you look at the Panhandle on one of those satellite maps, it’s one of the darkest areas in the U.S. If you drive along the coast, which they call the Forgotten Coast, there are very distinct towns culturally. Some are separated by major air force bases or national forests. It’s not easy to get here. There are very few north-south routes. You have to want to be here.

Nik: Is there still a beach, though? You’ve been smacked with hurricanes for the past decade or so. Michael, Idalia … who else?

Jeff: Michael was the big one and it hit pretty hard especially an hour west of us in Mexico Beach. It’s largely rebuilt now. High energy beaches have been wrangling hurricanes for a long time. You’re not likely to lose a whole beach; they just move around a little bit. Our barrier islands are very protective. Apalachicola is a real interesting rural seafood town, a wonderful place. It’s a tourist destination and quite a music town. I get to play music every weekend.

Nik: You’re a harmonica player?

Jeff: I am a Harmonica Player. 

Nik: You keep your harp in a jar of whiskey next to your bed at night?

Jeff: No, not if I want them to survive; I keep them together like this. 

Nik: You’re holding up what looks to be a lunch box filled with, easily, 30 harmonicas.

Jeff: Yeah!

Nik: That’s more harmonicas than keys in music!?

Jeff: That’s because they come in different octaves so you can have a lower of one key and then a higher of another. That gives you an opportunity to choose sonically or texturally what you want to do with a song. You gotta have that many to work. It’s a toolkit.

Nik: Why do you make music, Jeff Dutrow?

Jeff: Well, it’s not a lot different than why I teach. It’s experiential. Music is transformational; if you do it in a way that really reaches out to people. Music is one of the more powerful things I’ve ever had the opportunity to do. 

Nik: You find your work transformational too?

Jeff: Yes, very much. I teach the types of experiences that foster transformation, be it with engaging exhibits or field programs that get people to notice and pay attention in ways that they don’t get to do in the rest of their lives. 

Nik: How long have you been doing it?

Jeff: A long time. I think what led me to all of this is my own personal experiences with birds, rocks, trees, dirt, crabs, fish—moments that were just powerful. My mother was patient enough to slow me down to notice things, like looking longer and closer at a caterpillar and starting to watch what happened over time. Metamorphosis: when you can share that with people, they change too. It’s really heavy stuff. Because we’re in such a hurry, when people start to slow down and notice more in the rest of their lives, that’s transformational. My job as a teacher is to create those experiences as intentionally and structurally, as often as I can.

Nik: You’re in a place that’s about as rural and dark as you can get, and yet you STILL have to slow people down, still have to get them to pay attention to nature?

Jeff: It might seem like we wouldn’t be in as much of a hurry here, but it’s in many ways probably not a lot different. We all have phones in our pockets, if not in our hands. We’re all in a hurry for the next thing. I don’t think it’s automatic that just because you’re not running around that you’re actually going to look very closely at something. Helping people learn to slow down to where it becomes something that they value and seek is something that you have to be taught. Fortunately, doing it outdoors works because nature has a knack for teaching itself. 

Nik: You’ve been doing this for a while, so what are some of your tricks to get folks to stop and pay attention?

Jeff: I have to be careful not to get on a soapbox about how not to do this because I’m very passionate about teaching and learning. A lot of people think teachers know stuff, and that’s what it takes to teach. Far too often, unfortunately, that translates into didactic delivery of information. We default to this so easily: we hold a class, people sit there, and we present a bunch of information. We don’t learn that way. Trying to understand how people learn is a fabulous challenge. 

One of the easiest ways to kill learning is when somebody asks a question like “what’s that thing,” and you literally answer it. It’s the end of thinking. It’s over. The name of a thing isn’t really what’s important. The goal is for them to understand. That takes time and looking closer. There are ways I like to get at that. You can repeat the question in a way that’s a little extra fascinating: yeah, what is that?! Then you’ve honored the question and fostered more thinking. Or you can ask Ooh! What is it doing? or Let’s look closer. You’re encouraging the process. Another strategy is to ask a related question, ideally one that you think they might be able to answer, which leads them to make connections with their original question. Education Research calls that approach the “middle question”. 

Nik: Which age group responds best to this approach, do you think? 

Jeff: Everybody! Cashiers at the grocery store–I’m relentless on them. I have these conversations with everyone, everywhere I go. We all need to notice more. If I’m doing a lab, what I don’t do first is present all the background information. I think the power comes in presenting the mystery or phenomenon first. That generates questions, and student generated questions are the medium that drives it all. If I’m asking the question, the investment in the answer is so different than if the student asks the question. When they do, they’re going to want to know more; that’s teaching and learning. 

Nik: This is not, as far as I know, how schools or teacher education programs work. Did you learn this on the job? Besides your mother, who taught you to teach?

Jeff: I had a lot of really powerful mentors who taught me how to pay attention. My graduate research with Dr. Bill Herrnkind on inquiry-based teaching was pivotal. I never imagined myself as a teacher. Teachers were “the people with answers.” I worked with a lot of student programs, and I had a couple of people tell me I should think about getting into teaching. I thought: that’s not possible. I’m supposed to have all this knowledge to do that.

Nik: What were you studying?

Jeff: I was working for the Blue Ridge Parkway system, leading hikes for adults and children at Wintergreen, a nature center at a resort, near Charlottesville, Virginia. I tried to advance my position with that group, and they wouldn’t hire me because I didn’t have a college degree. That set me off finally, in my late twenties, to go to college. And it was there that I got a good foundation on teaching and, especially, learning. I taught middle school science for 15 years. I had a knack for creating a classroom environment where kids wanted to be there. I had a disco ball and a massive stereo. If we had 43 minutes of solid learning I would let the kids push the chairs to the walls and I’d put on Slayer and have a mosh pit. Or we would do country line dancing. Or I’d put a laser on the disco ball and play the Bee Gees. I would read to them – because I had some great science books that were written like diaries – they loved being read to. And I held them really accountable for learning. They knew that. I paid attention, really listened, and prioritized their questions; and I knew when they weren’t learning.

Jeff and the Apalachicola Reserve education specialist, Melanie Humble.

Nik: One of the reasons NERRA is interested in talking to you this month is: How did you get people to come out and restore a marsh? What are your secrets, not just for engagement, but involvement with actual restoration work? 

Jeff: Because I am at a Reserve, I don’t have a herd of kids coming every hour. I actually get to think about developing programs. I don’t have to schedule time to pee. That’s what teachers have to do.

Nik: People die that way. Tycho Brahe!

Jeff: Teachers, bless them. I know it’s like living in a tornado all day. We get to work in the field. We’re NOT going to start in the classroom with a slew of directions assuming you will understand everything before you get out there. 

I was fortunate to lead a National Science Foundation project for about 12 years. They were research experiences for teachers and it was all about inquiry-based teaching, which really drove me into research on experiential and phenomenon-based teaching. This informed so much about how I pay attention to the experiences I build for kids. It can be subtle, like when we go to seine in the marsh, I don’t give safety talks right away. They’re chomping at the bit to do something and get in the water. I say, “First thing we’re doing, everybody find a hermit crab.” All I’m doing is paying attention to the kids and their experience. With their pile of hermit crabs I’ve bought some latitude and they’ll be more focused. 

Nik: Yeah, yeah, but how’d you get them restoring a marsh?

Jeff: The marsh invites people, in the same way a beach does or any wild place. With adults, the appeal can be protecting the community or even mitigating climate change. Our living shoreline program is with every fifth grade class in the district. Students get to be outside in the mud in boots, by the water, and that has its own sensory appeal. How many of these kids have ever planted anything? How many of them have become an integral part of continuing an ecosystem planted by prior classes? We have created a continuity of programs across grade levels; the local schools want to participate. We make it interdisciplinary and relevant: using math, for example, to estimate the density of grass planted in previous years, analyzing trends, using spatial skills in their own backyard. Now we have this glorious contiguous marsh that generations of kids have planted over the past 12 years. It is powerful.

The same students come back as 7th graders. The activity is an inquiry-based food web assessment of the marsh. They count periwinkle snails asking primary questions: Why are these snails climbing the grass? What’s that about? They generate a series of hypotheses. Are they avoiding drowning? Are they eating? Are they avoiding predators? Seventh graders arrive at the primary hypothesis that these snails are up the grass stalk to avoid predation. This also means that students can actually find all the snails, and as a result they can get a really accurate assessment of that component of the food web. Snails depend on the grass, which connects directly to the sun through photosynthesis. All that data is collected and charted. The takeaway for students: Look at the food web you created. It’s not just that we planted grass and it’s there. If these snails are here, all the rest of it is too. It wouldn’t be here without you.

Nik: Transformational.

Jeff: That’s the right word. Kids that I taught 15 or 20 years ago still run up to me at the grocery store and want to talk about all this stuff. 

Nik: There’s a sign right behind you on your shelf that says Science is organized wonder. You’re organizing the wonder. 

Jeff: Yes. Similarly, I’ve started using this book a lot in my work to organize that wonder. I wish I’d used this in my teaching much sooner. We’re building it throughout all of our programming now. We’re actually installing a nature journaling area into our nature center. It will be an incredibly powerful way to get people to slow down and notice more. If I could encourage every education coordinator to do this kind of journaling work, I would. I journaled a full page about a single peanut. It was ridiculous how much I learned by looking closely. How many questions are in a peanut? You’d be surprised.

Jeff: The same students come back as 7th graders. The activity is an inquiry-based food web assessment of the marsh. They count periwinkle snails asking primary questions:  Why are these snails climbing the grass? What’s that about? They generate a series of hypotheses. Are they avoiding drowning? Are they eating? Are they avoiding predators? Seventh graders arrive at the primary hypothesis that these snails are up the grass stalk to avoid predation. This also means that students can actually find all the snails, and as a result they can get a really accurate assessment of that component of the food web. Snails depend on the grass, which connects directly to the sun through photosynthesis. All that data is collected and charted. The takeaway for students: Look at the food web you created. It’s not just that we planted grass and it’s there. If these snails are here, all the rest of it is too. It wouldn’t be here without you.

Nik: Transformational.

Jeff: That’s the right word. Kids that I taught 15 or 20 years ago still run up to me at the grocery store and want to talk about all this stuff. 

Nik: There’s a sign right behind you on your shelf that says Science is organized wonder. You’re organizing the wonder. 

Jeff: Yes. Similarly, I’ve started using this book a lot in my work: How to Teach Nature Journaling. I wish I’d used this in my teaching much sooner. We’re building it throughout all of our programming now. We’re actually installing a nature journaling area into our nature center. It will be an incredibly powerful way to get people to slow down and notice more. If I could encourage every education coordinator to do this kind of journaling work, I would. I journalled a full page about a single peanut. It was ridiculous how much I learned by looking closely. How many questions are in a peanut? You’d be surprised.

Want more Reserve stories delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter.

ReservesApalachicola, FloridaTalk NERRdy to Me: Jeff Dutrow