A family vacation leads to lessons beyond the classroom

Sharon Thomas, a third-grade teacher at Panola Way Elementary in Lithonia, is used to being the one to teach her students new and exciting things. But during a family trip to SeaWorld in 2018, it was she who became the student.

students hold project posters

“We were at a restaurant, and we were told they stopped providing straws and lids,” said Thomas. “At first I was frustrated, but when I got home, I started to research the effects of plastic on the environment. After I read about it, I thought this is something that my students should learn about.”

Last year, SeaWorld removed all single-use plastic drinking straws and single-use plastic shopping bags in all 12 theme parks to cut down on pollution and help save animals.

After learning of the measures SeaWorld was taking, Thomas took action. She discovered her class was doing a segment on pollution for their curriculum and incorporated a new lesson into a project for her students.

“I wanted them to do a hands-on project,” she said. “The project was for the students to do some research and read articles on the effects of plastic on the environment and pretend they are managers at the SeaWorld restaurant and explain to a customer why straws and lids aren’t provided.”

Thomas admits she wasn’t sure how engaged her class would be with the project but was surprised when it came time for presentations. Students had poster boards full of information, pictures, as well as enlightening PowerPoint presentations.

“I think this exercise had a great impact on my students,” said Thomas.

In fact, the students loved the project so much that they asked to do more. Many students began using reusable bottles; they asked to visit a landfill, and even offered to clean up roads around the school.

posters on desk“We take this seriously,” said Panola Way Elementary Principal, Dr. Corey Stegall. “We’re not just here to do education. We’re here to make the world better so that it’s in a better place than it was when we walked into the building. Our teachers and our students are on board with the same commitment.”

Officials at SeaWorld decided to go a step further for Ms. Thomas.

When she asked for discounted tickets for her students to visit the amusement park, Joe Sanchez, SeaWorld’s supervising trainer, Skyped in from Orlando with some surprising news:

Thomas and her class were granted 25 complimentary passes to SeaWorld Orlando. They also received a free ticket to the Georgia Aquarium. The announcement fittingly came during Teacher Appreciation Week 2019 in May.

Students Kayla Marie Byron-Cox and Vincent Ricks said they both plan to ask their parents for a trip to SeaWorld and the aquarium.

“I want to see the stingrays,” said Kayla.

“This whole experience has meant a lot to me,” said Thomas. I want to thank the people at SeaWorld and the aquarium who gave support to our classroom and donated the tickets. And it really made the children feel good to know that someone outside of this building cared about what they are doing. For them to know that when we speak and when we act the world is looking, and that made it special to us.”