Young Chinook salmon are making their annual journey to Lake Michigan. For some of them, growing and gaining strength for the trip began, not in a river, but in a sixth-grade classroom in Van Buren County.
Jane Larson began teaching at Paw Paw Middle School 16 years ago. Last year, she joined a program created by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources called “Salmon in the Classroom”. Larson says her new principal, Jerry McDaniel, gave her the idea; "I signed up and there was a workshop at the Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery and they got us going with it.”
The workshop at the fish hatchery near Mattawan taught participants how to set up fish tanks in the classroom. They also found out how to successfully raise Chinook salmon from eggs to the fingerlings that students release into local rivers. Larson says the salmon-raising program in Paw Paw last year was very successful. She does admit that there was some anxiety, though. “I was really nervous the first year, because I had no idea what I was doing I do not have a fish tank at home I do not have a lot of experience, the kids have had a goldfish here and there at my house but I had not actually ran a fish tank before so I had a lot of learning to do.”
After raising salmon beginning in the fall of 2012, her students released the juvenile fish into the Paw Paw River last May to great fanfare. The project went so well she decided to do it again this school year.
“Having fish in the classroom is really exciting for the students they really look forward to it they were very excited when I first told them in the fall that we were going to be raising Chinook salmon in our classroom. They kept asking when do we get the eggs; when do we get the eggs!”
Chinook salmon are ideal because their life cycle matches the school year. Last fall, the Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery gave Larson over 200 eggs. The project also gets help from others, including a family that donated the 75-gallon tank in Larson’s classroom. The Steelheaders in South Haven donated an $800 chiller to keep the water temperature cool as well as money for field trips. And the Paw Paw Wellhead Protection Committee helped out with the release day last year.
Although maintaining the fish takes a lot of work, Larson says it provides a novel way to engage the students in learning. The students in Larson’s class, like sixth-grader Connor Hood, like the salmon-raising project too. “It was really cool because we got to go to the fish hatchery and pick out the fish we wanted when they were tiny little eggs. They used to be just maybe like the size of your pinkie and now they are the size of your middle finger. They were brownish now they are gray.”
On Tuesday, April 29th, Hood and his classmates will release their salmon into the Paw Paw River where their life in the wild will begin. Student Elaina Daniel looks forward to that day. "We got them through the hardest stages and then we will release them to a river that they can spend the rest of their life.”
Larson says something important happens when the salmon are released into the river. That’s because they’ll return to Paw Paw in three or four years.
The release event at the Paw Paw River will be a celebration for the entire community. It’s the culmination of a long project that serves many purposes. It teaches students about fish and their life cycle. And it engages them in a way only having live animals in a classroom can. Elaina Daniel liked having salmon in the classroom so much she says, “I hope other kids get to do the same thing we did because it is a lot of fun.”