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Spotlight Iowa City: Not the bird whisperer, but close

BY NICK GANS | APRIL 28, 2010 7:30 AM

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In front of 12 silent fifth-graders in the depths of a dense forest just outside Iowa City, Meredith Caskey let out a mellow blue-jay call on a clear morning last week. Caskey and the students quickly turned their heads to the sky and scanned the horizon, hoping that a bird would arrive.

Bird calling is one of the talents that have allowed the 35-year-old program assistant with a passion for teaching children to find her niche at the School of the Wild, a University of Iowa division located at the Macbride Nature Recreational Area.

The weeklong program focuses on teaching elementary students the importance of having awareness, appreciation, and action in the environment in which they live. And Caskey is an integral part.

“Sometimes, the call doesn’t work,” she told the watchful group, glancing toward the sunlit sky on a 76-degree day.

Even though the blue jay didn’t come to Caskey, she promised the jovial group they would catch a bird by the end of the day.

Teaching is something Caskey has long envisioned herself doing, as a high-school student in Belgium to her time as a theater and art-history major at the UI. But she said she never thought her educational ambitions would take her to the Iowa outdoors.

“I’d have to credit my dad for getting me to love the outdoors, but it was my mom who encouraged me to take a class or do something that had nothing to do with your plan and see where it takes you,” Caskey said.

The School of the Wild was just that, she said.

Some volunteer work eventually led to a full-time position at School of the Wild, where she spends the morning and afternoons teaching students about the various ecosystems of Iowa and marking the animals she catches for research on migration patterns.

She has since gained the admiration of the students, teachers, and coworkers.

“I’m just amazed at Meredith’s knowledge here and how she can relate it to the students,” said Meagan Zwanziger, a 33-year-old fifth-grade teacher at Coralville Central Elementary. “It’d be very easy for it to go over their heads, but she’s just a natural at it.”

Said Jason Jensen, a fellow program assistant: “I can’t say enough about what she’s done since she got here. Meredith’s enthusiasm just rubs off on everyone here, from the workers to the kids.”

Caskey credits this and her energy around children as reasons she loves her job. Her work could be difficult for people who aren’t flexible with their time or ready for the spontaneity of children, she said. But that’s what she enjoys most — and it shows.

As the students took turns asking her questions about the sparrow they caught, Caskey sat in the middle of the log benches, the center of attention with as much euphoric enthusiasm as the children.

“I get to deal with different kids every week and when they are really eager to learn,” the Lubbock, Texas, native said later. “I have a hand in educating a lot of the students around the area about something I love to be around. It’s tough to beat it.”

Even at home, Caskey’s job as a teacher remains.

“I’ll be playing with my 2-year-old daughter, and she’ll tell me, ‘Mommy, go get that bird,’ ” the mother of two said. “ ‘It’s a little tougher than that,’ I tell her. I’m not the bird whisperer.”

But don’t tell that to the fifth-graders, who bevy her with questions as they exit the forest for a lunch break.

By the end of Caskey’s day with them, she kept her promise. Using a net, some birdseed, and the assistance of the students, she captured two sparrows and answered all the questions the newly enthusiastic students could come up with.

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