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Early education of the right kind: Schooling of two kinds

Eileen Rice’s first grade unit of “Fish, Fishing and the Environment’’ has evolved over 27 years and is going strong.

Joshua Dawood gives an angler’s classic demonstration to teacher Eileen Rice of how big a fish he was going to catch.
Dale Bowman

As Dreiden Harris swung the bluegill toward the shore and his mother Melissa Kelly, he said, “I catch my first fish. I want to catch another one.”

There’s the testimonial for what teacher Eileen Rice’s fishing unit means.

Catching any fish brings hubbub.

The first brings a dab of something extra.

A lot of that goes on around Rice’s first-grade unit on “Fish, Fishing and the Environment,” at East Prairie School in Skokie.

In late May, I caught up with Rice and her fishing unit at the culminating field trip to Skokie Lagoons. More than 20 years ago, I first observed Rice’s program at Sterling Lake with 350 kids from 13 classes at B.J. Hooper Elementary School in Lindenhurst.

Rice has done this for 27 years. First were two years at the former St. Gregory school on the North Side, which fished Axehead Lake, then four years at Hooper, and now 21 years at East Prairie.

There have been some constants. Key is support from administrators (principals and superintendents), colleagues and, truly, parents. I’ve raised four kids and am astonished at the turnout of parents.

This year, I decided to follow Ignacio Lopez and his daughter Delia.

“This is my fourth time coming out,’’ Lopez said. “Every year it has been great, four kids coming through the school. The oldest is heading to Niles West. The first time, my oldest daughter caught a largemouth bass.”

Later on, Rice asked me how I decided to follow them and I said, “Because he had on a Sox shirt and I thought he might have a thought more profound than ‘Cubs Woo, Cubs Woo.’”

And Rice said, “You know I am a Cubs fan.”

Then she pointed out he is the president of Harold Washington College. Wish I had known that beforehand, I would have asked his perspective on the educational importance of Rice’s comprehensive unit on fishing.

Make no mistake, this is an educational unit based on fishing. It is fun, especially the field trip, but it is education rooted in hands-on learning.

“It is always a well remembered field trip from our eighth graders at graduation,” Rice said.

The unit has evolved over the years.

“Quite a bit,” Rice said. “Originally started as more religious because it was at a Catholic school and we talked about Jesus being a fisherman and fishers of men. Now it is more learning about the environment and being a respectful angler.”

In it’s current form, it is three weeks, though Rice said, “I like to let it go for a full month.”

“Most of the children are wanting to catch that first fish, but, as the day goes on and they are not being successful and they catch a weed or log, I say, ‘You caught a weed bass or log bass,’ and being out in nature takes over from that I have to catch a fish,’’ Rice said. “One little girl was playing with wax worms and made a hot tub for them. She was playing on a stump of a log and having a grand time.”

Dreiden Harris caught his first fish on a school outing at Skokie Lagoons in May.
Dale Bowman

The unit begins with learning different fish. Students learn gills and fins through a song. Various books from the Illinois DNR and Illinois Conservation Foundation are used. The Fishing is Fun comic book is key.

“The lighter side is a lot of children’s literature,” Rice said.

That’s such books as “Rainbow Fish,” “Big Al,” “Fish is Fish” and “Swimmy.”

“We go on that last week to actually how to fish, talk about different baits, hooks, line, sinkers, bobbers and rods; the difference between spincast and spinning reels,’’ Rice said. “Then we go out to a field and practice casting. They line up on asphalt and cast into the grass. We usually get three poles out and line up the kids.”

They are taught about safety, looking left and right and behind before casting on a 1 to 11 form.

That teaching goes on to how to walk with a rod.

“Walk and hold it like a solider, so they are holding it straight up and down,’’ Rice said.

The unit was born when Rice’s husband Bob suggested a field trip to take the kids fishing, When they were in Springfield, Missouri, he suggested they talk to the people at Bass Pro Shops.

“[Bass Pro radio host] Larry Whiteley interviewed me right then and there,’’ Rich said. “From there, it snowballed.”

This is far from an individual effort. Radio host Chauncey Niziol puts his humor on for the kids annually. Forest Preserves of Cook County fisheries staff do a fascinating presentation each year.

The fishing rods came through grants. Each year Ken Schneider reconditions them before they go back to East Prairie.

Asked what brought most joy, Rice said, “Hearing that the kids and their families have gone fishing again.”

Eileen Rice checks PFDs and hands out rods after the lunch break on the culminating field trip to Skokie Lagoons.
Dale Bowman
Eileen Rice checks PFDs and hands out rods after the lunch break on the culminating field trip to Skokie Lagoons.
Dale Bowman
Eileen Rice checks PFDs and hands out rods after the lunch break on the culminating field trip to Skokie Lagoons.
Dale Bowman