MOORE — “Mr. O! The crawdad's molting!”
Central Junior High School's outdoor classroom had worked its magic on yet another student.
The boy's classmates rushed over to ask him about what he had found in the pond of the outdoor classroom — the O.C. for short.
The youth, who had never shown much interest in school, “puffed up like a rooster,” science teacher Dan “Mr. O” O'Halloran said.
“That kid had a good day at school. He didn't have many.”
O'Halloran is retiring this year after 24 years of teaching. He says he will treasure his memories of helping develop the O.C. and using it to teach about nature.
“This has been my best experience as a teacher,” he said.
This year, the space was designated The O'Halloran Classroom at a retirement party in his honor.
When he arrived at Central in the Moore School District 16 years ago, O'Halloran noticed the unused courtyard and told Principal David Peak, “This is an outdoor classroom waiting to happen.”
He set to work creating a pond and stocking it with small fish. Over the years, plants and trees have been added — some by humans and some by Mother Nature.
The leafy 42- by 108-foot enclave is visited by several species of birds, which mate and hatch families there. Butterflies flutter around colorful flowering plants.
“If you provide cover, food and water, the animals come,” he said.
Hidden beneath the leaves are garter snakes and lizards, some of which were contributed by students.
A couple of box turtles wander across the sidewalk. O'Halloran drops them some earthworms, which they eat like pieces of spaghetti.
Lessons from nature
The classroom gives students a window on nature.
“Kids don't go outside anymore,” O'Halloran said.
During a session in the outdoor classroom, students record weather data, check the temperature of the pond and are asked to make 15 observations, written in complete sentences.
A visit to the O.C. acts to “stimulate real science, make it real for a kid,” he said.
On one day, they might observe carpenter ants moving in and out of a hole in a redbud tree branch (Oklahoma's state tree, O'Halloran points out). Bits of sawdust drop to the ground as the insects work.
Or they might see hummingbirds sip nectar from a trumpet vine that has been trained to grow up a tree trunk.
Another time, they might see a mother robin cutting a worm into three equal pieces for her babies to eat.
One of the classroom's residents, a female box turtle with a badly damaged shell and probable spinal damage, is a living illustration of O'Halloran's signature phrase: “Respect all life.”
The turtle is named “Hole in the Shell” for injuries suffered at the hands of someone who was trying to beat her to death 15 years ago. A student rescued the turtle and took her to school, where she has lived ever since.
“She probably would not make it in the wild,” O'Halloran said.
Time for transition
O'Halloran's last day at Central is May 24. He is passing the outdoor classroom baton on to Shelly Langan, a life sciences teacher who joined the Central staff in February.
“From the moment I walked into that facility, Mr. O came up to me and started trying to teach me about it,” Langan said.
“He's so sincere about it. I have pestered him ever since to tell me more about it.”
Langan said she is thinking about introducing horned toads to the habitat, and teaching students to plant and tend vegetables that will serve as food for the animals.