Educator of the Year 2020
Last November, second grade school teacher Melitza Rodriguez began teaching her students about the Chicago River system, Native Americans, and the animals and plants that live in and along the river. Tapping their imaginations, students time traveled to the banks of the Chicago River in 1640 and worked their way to present day through events in the life of the river; meeting Native Americans, the first non-native settlers, and exploring the effects of erosion, river pollution, and the river’s reversal in 1900. For her creative approach and participation in the Chicago River Schools Network (CRSN), Friends’ flagship education program, Rodriguez is Friends’ 2020 Educator of the Year. The veteran teacher is an active participant in the CRSN which has educated more than 450,000 students since it was established in 1996.
Rodriguez’s students at the Louis Nettelhorst Elementary School in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood were also tasked with building a better future for the river. Creatively, the students launched a Poetry Jam to teach their friends and families what they had learned and to raise funds to help restore the river. The students’ artwork and poems were auctioned off in March, raising $780 in donations for Friends of the Chicago River to support the river’s restoration.
“I like working with the CRSN program because it’s hands-on learning which is so important to help children be life-long learners,” said Rodriguez. “With CRSN activities the students gain a deep appreciation of their local ecosystem. This year we did a virtual field trip through CRSN and encouraged the students to visit the river with their families where they did activities and posted pictures to the classroom’s virtual newsroom.”
Rodriguez was recognized with the honor at the 24th Annual Chicago River Student Congress held virtually on Saturday, April 24, 2021.
“Teachers like Melitza bring the planet to life for their students and help them understand that they are a part of our environment and can act to protect it,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “Creatively using the life of the Chicago River system, Melitza helped these students learn what it means to be good stewards of the environment.”