Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Pop Quiz: Jeff Corwin

The Animal Planet host talks the talk of ecology and environmental preservation.

May 26, 2008

Wildlife biologist and Emmy Award-winning TV host Jeff Corwin is best known for his wildly popular Animal Planet shows, in which he explores the unique ecosystems and animal species of our fragile Earth. A die-hard environmental advocate, Corwin also has established an interactive museum and education center called EcoZone, focused on the local wildlife and wetlands in his hometown of Norwell, Massachusetts. He lectures about ecology and environmental conservation across the United States and has written a book called Living on the Edge: Amazing Relationships in the Natural World.

What is your idea of a perfect teacher?

A teacher who uses interactivity to enlighten. A teacher who recognizes diversity with regard to the different abilities of his or her students. And a teacher who is passionate and enjoys the challenge of educating.

What was your most memorable school experience?

When a teacher recognized the class clown in me, focused that into drama, and got me up on stage. I remember trying out for plays, and one day getting the lead and feeling that I'd really accomplished something.

What was the low point of your school career?

It was the point where I was struggling as a student, sitting down with the counselors and hearing the dreadful conversation: "Well, we can keep him back for a year, or have him go to summer school." It really reinforced my feeling like an outsider in the traditional, mainstream educational experience.

Did you go to public school, or private school?

Public, but I barely got out of high school. I had to really work my way into college, but I ended up excelling. I fell in love with the learning process, but that didn't happen until well outside of K-12 public school.

Where did you fit in your schools' social hierarchies?

Until I found drama, where I realized I could use my personality as a tool, I was not the traditional kid. I was sort of heavy, and I didn't feel like I fit in, because I went to a jock school.

What was your favorite subject?

A lot of people would assume my favorite subject was biology. It was, but I wasn't looking at it the way they wanted me to. While I wasn't performing academically in biology, I was working with a veterinarian in a wildlife center to develop new techniques for healing broken turtle shells.

If you could change one thing about education in America, what would it be?

I would want to make people put their money where their mouth is. I get weary of people telling me how important education is, but they don't prioritize it when it comes to their taxes or providing a decent, legitimate, competitive income for educators.

What is impossible to learn in school?

I don't think anything is impossible to learn in school. I think we should look at the educational institution less as a building and more as an experience. It's not just a book; it's technology -- it's all these other media that can come together to make a very rich experience.

What should they teach that they don't now?

A student needs to learn how to be a wise user of natural resources. The idea of sustainability, of what it means to be a good parent, of how to apply nutrition in our lives, exploring peace and tolerance -- all these things are just as important as a math course or a science course or a history course.

What did you learn today?

I've been doing a lot of research about whaling lately, trying to really understand it, as I prepare to do a documentary in the Arctic.

What did you teach?

This morning I taught my daughter, as I teach her every morning, to please pull her chair in closer to the table so she doesn't get food all over the table. I taught her that if she wants more, she needs to say "Thank you" when we give it to her. We teach her that every day, but she forgets every once in a while now that she's at the ancient age of four.

What is in your dream lunch box?

Some nice, chewy, fresh Vietnamese summer rolls loaded with vermicelli and a big bowl of papaya salad with lots of peanuts and hot peppers.

If you wrote a textbook, what would it be called?

Probably something like My Backyard Safari. It would be tailored to every kid, for their culture and their economic background and their unique family situation. So the kid in Costa Rica looking at a long millipede, or the kid in Manhattan looking at a daddy longlegs can have the tools to take that experience and bring it together.

If the prom were tomorrow, whom would you take?

My wife doesn't like proms, so I wouldn't take her. I could take my daughter, but I take her a lot on the road. So probably my friend Ellen DeGeneres. She's really funny and wacky and sentimental and silly. We'd have a lot of fun.

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