The Colorado Coralition

One teacher takes his school’s focus on deeper learning to heart, empowering students to take action on an important environmental issue.

It’s a brisk Tuesday morning in February, and a group of Poudre School District students are underwater. Clad in scuba gear—masks, fins and buoyancy compensators—they kick around the diving well at Edora Pool Ice Center, working out their nerves. A seventh-grade boy listens to the whoosh of air as he inhales, calming his breath. Nearby, an eleventh- grade girl descends from the surface feet-first, focused on equalizing. A couple of ninth graders at the bottom of the pool signal that it’s time to start today’s task. In their hands they hold the most unlikely objects: the branches of an artificial Christmas tree. Then, using only nonverbal cues and color-coded instructions that look funky in the water, the students work together to assemble the tree. Piece by piece, the spiny branches begin to take shape.

Maybe this sounds like an experiment orchestrated by a zany science teacher. But actually it’s an important simulation meant to help the team learn to transplant coral polyps. Polaris Expeditionary Learning School’s Matt Strand, PhD, stands poolside in a black hoodie and jeans, smiling at his students. In 2014, he started the Colorado Coralition, a project which engages seventh to eleventh graders in the study of an important environmental issue: endangered coral reefs. Over the course of a school year, participants prepare for their scuba certification, learn the science of coral reefs, discuss issues like climate change which have drastically reduced the world’s coral populations, participate in reef restoration simulations like the one at EPIC and design creative fundraisers. Things culminate in a May trip to the Florida Keys, where the youth are empowered to be part of the solution, volunteering with the Coral Restoration Foundation, planting coral that’s been grown in an offshore nursery onto dying reefs in the ocean. 

Dr. Strand first got the idea for the Coralition when he was visiting his wife’s family home in Key Largo, wondering if he could write a grant and create a project around diving. But even earlier, the inspiration sparked in his youth, when he says he “didn’t like school, but he liked learning.” As he made his way toward a teaching career, starting out first as a wilderness guide, he wanted to address that disconnect. “I like to have a creative spin about how I teach,” he says. “I want to be as innovative as possible.” At Polaris, a public school that embraces an experiential learning model, his idea was welcomed. He applied for the grant and got it. 

But man, the Coralition is an ocean of work. From arranging the dive certification process, to booking group plane tickets to Florida, to supporting students through the series of healthy risks the project presents, Dr. Strand spends dozens of hours outside his secondary English classroom making things flow. As a result, he engages a group of parent volunteers, and he’s only offered the program every other year. Yet each time through, every minute of work ends up being worth it, he says, “because of those moments when we’re literally speechless at the bottom of the ocean and so connected and working together, and we come up and we’re looking at each other like ‘I can’t believe we did that’.” 

So far, more than 50 students have participated in the Coralition, and the experience has shaped their lives in so many ways. Some have had the chance to present a master session at a national conference. Others wrote, performed and recorded a song about their experience. A few students have gone on to study marine biology; others have found their passion in social justice projects. Current Coralition participants recently got to learn and share ideas with Zack Rago, a coral expert who was featured in the award-winning documentary Chasing Coral

If he looks at the Coralition through his English-teacher lens, Dr. Strand can’t help but see a metaphor. “To me, how we are planting coral on the reefs is so similar to the type of passion for learning and positive change and leadership that I see in the students. It’s a mirror image,” he says. And as for how all of this has impacted him, he sometimes finds it hard to put into words. “In some ways, it’s become an opus,” he says. “I didn’t know this was going to be so big. I didn’t know that being on the bottom of the ocean with my students would be the high point of my career.” 

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