Out of the classroom, into adventure

Teachers across the country break out of their normal routines during the summer.

For California elementary school teacher Tom Dwyer, summer vacation means parachuting out of airplanes to fight forest fires with little more than two days' food and some axes in his pack.

Compared with the school year, though, Mr. Dwyer says serving as a US Forest Service smokejumper is a "super stress reliever" - even if that means occasionally taking cover from infernos under a portable shelter no thicker than a blanket.

Not every teacher takes that extreme approach to relaxing - or at least recharging - during their summer vacation. Some stay in front of the classroom during summer school or switch to their other full-time job as parents.

But whether through manual labor, travel, or learning, many teachers view the summer as a chance to break out from their school year routines.

The Monitor asked a sampling of teachers to share the way they spent their vacations this year. Their responses run the gamut from the quirky to the awe-inspiring.

Tom Dwyer/ Weldon, Calif.

Tom Dwyer teaches first through fourth graders who need extra help for the South Fork Union School District in Weldon, Calif. He says it was the excitement that first drew him into fighting fires throughout the western United States.

The camaraderie keeps him coming back.

After a year behind a desk, Mr. Dwyer looks forward to hooking up with his extended family of firefighters. "Sometimes it seems like teaching is a lonely or solitary thing," he says. "I've built up ties with the people I work with here - there is a trust when you do the kind of work we do."

Now he brings his wife and two sons along each summer to his posting, which this year is in McCall, Idaho. He's worked his way up through the Forest Service's firefighting hierarchy.

Instead of repelling out of a helicopter as a "helitack" crew member, he now jumps out of airplanes as a smokejumper. In exchange, he earns between $6,000 and $14,000, depending on how many fires break out.

It is a job full of danger. This season alone, five firefighters have died fighting Western blazes. Dwyer says his scariest moment in 24 years of firefighting came last year in Bryce Canyon National Park when a fast-moving fire forced him to take cover under his portable shelter.

Even that didn't scare him away, though he says he'll probably retire in a couple of seasons to spend more time with his sons.

Julia Russell/ Dedham, Mass.

Julia Russell didn't mind spending five nights in a sleeping bag on the floor of a Montana junior high school gym and eating every meal in the cafeteria. She didn't mind lugging bales of hay through the Great Plains' dry 90 degrees.

It was all for a good cause - helping build affordable housing on a native American reservation. And how else, she asks, could she get such a "once in a lifetime" glimpse at reservation life?

There was the horseback tour of the reservation with a local botanist who described the blooming flowers and herbs. The July 4th powwow where native American women each danced their own version of the same step.

Russell and her colleague Kate Coon were there to scout out possible community service opportunities for students at the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass., where she teaches high school English. She also picked up whole lists of books she'd like to incorporate into her curriculum, from Ian Frazier's "On the Rez" to the poetry of Sherman Alexie.

Russell is spending the rest of her summer on a novel about women athletes. "I love teaching when I'm doing it, but I do appreciate this kind of time," she says.

"It feels so luxurious to be able to get up when I get up, have a cup of coffee, write for a couple hours and still have the rest of the day."

Michael Jacobs/ Conway, N.H.

Don't call Michael Jacobs a gardener. Not even a landscaper. No, when the school year ends, Mr. Jacobs the high school math teacher becomes Michael the mower - and he wouldn't want it any other way.

Each morning, he puts in his ear plugs, jumps on a riding lawn mower, and works his way through the grass of local businesses, condominiums, and private homes in Conway, N.H.

"It's very appealing after the school year, which can be mentally draining," he says. "I love being outside and there's not a lot of pressure. I don't have to make any decisions - I just wake up and mow."

There's plenty of time to think about school, life, or even what might make a good landscaping commercial. Last year, he mowed right past one of the students he coaches on the high school basketball team.

"He just laughed and smiled and said, 'Mr. Jacobs, how's it going?' "

Jacobs mowed his first lawn for money as a high school student and does it today to help pay for his wife's master's degree. With no taxes withheld, his mowing paycheck is actually bigger than his salary from teaching algebra and geometry.

Jacobs says the best part of his summer is yet to come: a week coaching at a New Hampshire basketball camp.

Eventually, Jacobs says he'd like to buy his own sit-down John Deere. Maybe settle down each summer and get a contract from a local golf club. "A little sunscreen and I'm ready," he says.

Denny Pendergast/ Amesbury, Mass.

When Denny Pendergast prowled the aisles of a Massachusetts Wal-Mart this summer, she was neither an employee nor a customer. Rather, she was hunting for quadrilaterals.

Her goal: Find examples that could make her high school geometry lessons less abstract. A $3,000 grant from the National Science Foundation gave her the freedom to explore Wal-Mart and pick its managers' brains.

"I'm always looking for something new in the classroom because the kids get bored," says Ms. Pendergast, a teacher at Amesbury High School.

How about a graph of sales over time? Or perhaps her students might absorb the calculations that go into allocating floor space for auto parts, housewares, or linens?

The project was more than spending time in a big-box retailer. She's also developing a computer-based tool for teachers to help make geometry more accessible.

Mona Kolsky/ Philadelphia

Mona Kolsky lamented that students in her Philadelphia reading and literature classes didn't know much about the civil rights movement. So this summer, she found a way to retrace parts of it.

She also stood on the spot in Montgomery, Ala., where Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus to a white man. She walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., site of a bloody 1965 confrontation where local police wielded billy clubs and tear gas against a crowd of peaceful civil rights protesters.

Ms. Kolsky's visit, organized by the Birmingham school system, were part of a one-week program, "Stony the Road We Trod," that offered a look at the civil rights movement and the South today.

Thirty teachers visited historic sites, listened to foot soldiers of the movement, and discussed the era with historians.

Kolsky, who was a teenager when she watched news reports on the civil rights movement on TV, says her week in Alabama was a "profound experience."

"I've learned a lot of important things to take back to the classroom," she says.

Aaron Becker/ Evanston, Ill.

No matter what part of the globe Aaron Becker travels to each summer, he still sees the world through his students' eyes. During summer trips from Russia to Turkey and Japan designed to immerse himself in foreign languages, Mr. Becker stops in local music stores and at McDonald's to videotape conversations with teenagers.

The result is a series of short movies he shows his social-studies students in Evanston, Ill., in which foreign children share their views on the US. Sure, his original purpose during these trips was to learn foreign languages. He's picked up half a dozen - enough of each to read or talk with a cab driver.

Mostly, though, the trips are a chance to rejuvenate. "Without the summer we wouldn't be able to keep teaching," he says. "You get to be creative and grow."

This summer Becker chose to stay slightly closer to home, camping, hiking, and fishing his way through Alaska. "It's nice every once in a while to hear a language you understand," Becker jokes. "Plus, there's so much to see here. The country is so gorgeous." He also brought back an eight-minute film of native American teens who talk about their dual identities as Alaskans and Americans.

Now entering his sixth year of teaching, Becker says he looks forward to a sabbatical when he can revisit the countries he's previously visited and brush up on languages already learned. And he's already got his eyes on the next summer destination: either Morocco or India.

Cathy Jones/ St. Louis

Cathy Jones spent the summer in a laboratory beside one of her favorite students. Of course, she's slightly biased. The student happens to be her daughter.

For six weeks Mrs. Jones and her daughter, Megan, worked at a St. Louis University lab researching how proteins and enzymes cause DNA to "unzip." The first day, their supervisor asked Megan whether she was OK with the arrangement. Not every teen wants to spend vacation beside a parent - let alone one who doubles as a teacher during the school year.

Jones taught her daughter chemistry at Westminster Christian Academy, a private school in St. Louis, and will again teach her this fall in an anatomy and physiology course. Nonetheless, they surprised their supervisor by working so well together.

This was Jones's second summer in a lab; last year, she worked at Washington University, examining programmed cell death. This year, she developed new lab curriculum she'll use in the fall on new ways to separate substances.

Next summer, Megan will head off to college and Jones will switch to another lab and learn about the biochemistry of plants. "I love it," she says.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald contributed to this report.

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