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DOCENT ORIENTATION MEETING

When: 6 to 7:30 p.m., Feb. 19

Where: Heron Hall at the Laguna Environmental Center

900 Sanford Road, Santa Rosa

More information: www.lagunadesantarosa.org


To see a child connect the lives of microscopic pond critters from the Laguna de Santa Rosa to the Earth’s interconnected ecosystems is a special thing.

That’s exactly why Tish and Brendan Brown became Learning Laguna docents.

The Santa Rosa couple, both retired teachers from Contra Costa County, have become enthusiastic ambassadors since they began teaching with the program in 2011.

“It’s awe-inspiring,” Tish Brown said. “The kids really love it. It encourages them to love where they live and it encourages them to be future stewards of the land.”

Learning Laguna is a free wetland science program offered for second-, third- and fourth-graders who attend schools in the 250-square-mile watershed – from Windsor to east Santa Rosa, Cotati and Sebastopol.

Since it began in 2000, volunteer docents have visited more than 540 classrooms and taken about 14,000 students on wetland field trips to experience the laguna and its myriad wildlife up close.

The program is recruiting for the next round of docent training, a 10-week course beginning March 9.

“The Learning Laguna docent training program is really fun,” said Christine Fontaine, the director of education programs for the Laguna Foundation. “It is a commitment, but all the docents tell me they end up getting a lot more than they give because it’s so rich and rewarding.

“It is an opportunity for personal growth, an opportunity for people to develop a sense of place, to connect to their home environment.”

And, it’s a chance to instill those values in young people, who these days often have their faces glued to electronic devices rather than telescopes looking at turkey vultures communicating with each other via their flight patterns.

Brendan Brown, a retired community college math teacher, said the hands-on activities spark an excitement about learning for both docents and the kids they lead. Tish Brown, a retired kindergarten teacher, is a “hobby birdist” who still enjoys passing on her joy to little ones.

Docents participate in a 10-week training program where they learn from experts in biology, hydrology, natural history, cultural history and environmental education. A $145 class fee covers the cost of the classes, field trips and binder with reading and reference material for each class.

“I thought this was just the coolest thing,” Tish Brown said of the docent training.

“You don’t just pass on facts,” Brendan said. “It’s guided discovery.”

After docents finish their training, they shadow others and eventually lead their own class visits and field trips in the spring and fall, which go to the Sebastopol Preserve and the Stone Farm, where the hands-on classroom learning meets the real-life environment.

A “mammal box” of pelts that kids pet in school and mud-preserved tracks translate into detective-like work in the field. In the wetlands, docents help kids find tracks, figure out what kind of animal left them, and then learn about what that animal eats, what its physical characteristics might look like and why it spends time in the laguna.

At the laguna and the farm, they see wildlife in action – eagles swooping around looking for food, hidden dens where animals sleep or hide, maybe even coyote or bobcat scat. They weave a Pomo bittern out of tule and get to take it home.

DOCENT ORIENTATION MEETING

When: 6 to 7:30 p.m., Feb. 19

Where: Heron Hall at the Laguna Environmental Center

900 Sanford Road, Santa Rosa

More information: www.lagunadesantarosa.org

The Browns said it is exhilarating to see children make the connections between the animals — like those they see through microscopes of wetlands water — and how the natural world around them works in concert.

“One said ‘This is the best day ever,’” Tish Brown said. Another student told them it was the best field trip they’ve ever been on, Brendan said.

Their favorite reaction came from a child who learned about how all the rainfall in the area weaves its way through the laguna watershed, eventually making its way to the Russian River and the Pacific Ocean: “I can’t believe I’m in school!”

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.