By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Oct. 21 — Luray Middle School science teacher Chris Riley remembers bringing a queen bee cage into his classroom once to see who could tell him what it was.
“I told them: ‘You have to be a scientist, ask 20 questions and figure out what I have in my hand,” Riley said during a recent interview. “I probably approach science different than other science teachers. I believe it has to be real world… of the world around them.”
Students of the sixth grade science teacher have not only benefitted from what he brought into the classroom, but also from the learning experiences he provided them outside the walls of his classroom.
“My Science 6 students apply their knowledge of natural resources in the science classroom and beyond the classroom walls where the logic of science is always important,” Riley wrote in response to questions posed by the Shenandoah Valley Soil and Water Conservation District.
“I encourage students to write letters to politicians concerning their thoughts on renewable and nonrenewable energy,” Riley’s response continued. “All sixth grade students experience a meaningful watershed experience by going to the Hawksbill Creek to study water quality… Also students conduct experiments in the science curriculum to encourage thinking and scientific logic.”
Last month, the regional soil and water district selected Riley as the 2020 Conservation Teacher of the Year. The list of instructional programs and opportunities that Riley made available to his LMS students make it easy to see why the selection committee awarded him this year’s top honor:
- “…reached out to Friends of the Shenandoah River about sampling and analyzing water quality.”
- “…talked to staff of Shenandoah National Park about the results of their water samples and my water samples.”
- “…directly worked with the Earth Science and some of the Math professors at James Madison University…funded by the National Science Foundation to incorporate math in the science curriculum, and science in the math curriculum.”
- “…worked with the ecology professor at Bridgewater College. While he as on sabbatical, we worked on qualities and quantitative analysis of macro-invertebrates of a local creek.”
- “…had a guest lecturer from [the Department of Environmental Quality] discuss the fish kill in the Shenandoah River.”
- “…had an intern from [Shenandoah Valley Soil and Water Conservation District] assist in the macro-invertebrate collection.”
- “…include a lot of volunteers in my collecting data from the Hawksbill Creek. These volunteers have included members of the retired teacher’s association, central office staff members, as well as interested community members.”
Riley was nominated for the prestigious award by former LMS principal Ben Bailey. After the nomination, Riley responded to a half dozen questions posed by the soil and water district’s selection committee. In describing his curriculum, Riley lays out lessons that would be as beneficial to adults as sixth graders.
“I teach about the importance of conservation throughout several units. One of those units concerns water quality with watersheds. I also discuss land-management best practices in regards to residential areas, factories, small businesses, farmland, and parks,” Riley stated. “The pros and cons of environmental decisions are discussed with this, as well as with renewable and nonrenewable energy. Conservation is also discussed in saving electricity, water, and natural resources.”
The sixth grade science teacher earned his associate’s degree at Lord Fairfax Community College before attaining both his bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree at Eastern Mennonite University. While earning his master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction, Riley was selected as a Japan Fullbright Memorial Fund fellow. He also took classes at Oxford University and taught various subjects in grades 3 through 8, before settling into sixth grade science over the last nine years at Luray Middle School. Riley also serves as the head of the science department at LMS and has sat on the leadership team for the school for several years.
Riley’s passion for teaching, as well as conservation, shows in his responses to the soil and water district.
“As I continue to teach more, I continue to learn more,” he wrote. “I’m excited to share my knowledge with others, and for them to share that with me.”
Riley has shared materials and lesson plans with sixth grade science teachers in several surrounding school divisions. Camp Brethren Woods used his materials to create a program centered around watersheds and water quality. Last summer, he served as one of two TRTs (Teacher Ranger Teachers) for Shenandoah National Park.
“This was a great opportunity to design a field trip for middle school level leaners,” Riley wrote. “One of the complications was to incorporate science and history into a field trip that was realization to the needs of semester-based classes. We were able to do this creating an exciting, practical learning experience.”
He had been planning to take students to the national park last spring, but COVID-19 shut that down. He hasn’t been able to test the field trip he developed yet, but he hopes to when the public health threat has been lifted.
Outside of his classroom, Riley enjoys his 120-acre farm just outside Luray’s town limits, where he has cattle, chickens, ducks, geese, bees, and a wide variety of seasonal vegetables.
“More and more, I encourage others to garden,” Riley said. “As I see it, there is just so much to learn in our world by being in the soil and water. Community building and community gardening can go together to educate all of those involved.”
It is clear that Riley has chosen the right profession.
“I get to teach some fascinating information,” Riley said, listing the subjects in a dreamy tone, “the solar system, the scientific method, the weather, intro chemistry…We may study science, but we’re also doing some reading, and some writing, and some math as well.
“The greatest reward of teaching is learning.”
When asked if he was referring to the student or the teacher, Riley simply replied, “Yes, exactly. I’m always learning new things on the farm.”
“Having a realistic approach to soil and water allows me an interesting perspective to encourage logic, reason, and best practices to my students and everyone that knows me.”
Megan Trice, the representative of the Shenandoah Valley Soil and Water Conservation District who handles the annual contest, did not respond to last month’s request by PVN for comment about Riley’s selection as 2020 Conservation Teacher of the Year.