In December, I began this “tribute” to Jack McKenna with an article published almost twenty years earlier than the one quoted below. Well, in 1989, Jack was still asking his students to react to environmental issues. All his former students know that Jack’s classroom was everywhere.

In 1989 Jim Carrier, a Rocky Mountain Ranger, wrote an article for the Rocky Mountain News about Jack McKenna’s students’ reaction to the devastation of the Yellowstone Fires. As always, this gifted teacher brought to his classroom an exciting and educational discussion that sparked a thoughtful debate.

“Burning baby ducks probably swayed more votes than aspen regeneration, but pupils at Graland Country Day School learned this week there are still two sides to the Yellowstone fires. ‘The animals, the helpless animals,’ cried Christine McCabe. ‘Yes, animals died,’rebutted Brian Abrams. ‘But that’s part of life.’

“Before 100 of their classmates, fifth and sixth graders at the private school formally debated whether to let fires in Yellowstone -- a debate that mirrored remarkably the real emotion-ecology split. ‘In nature,’ said Abrams, lead debater for the fifth grade pro-side, ‘fires are neither good or bad. They are just part of the process.’
(Moreover,) Jeff Eldridge said, ‘We are not the only creatures on the planet. It’s like we are born, we grow up, and burn.’

“Sixth graders, arguing against the fires, raised the issue of damaging smoke, the heavy costs of firefighting, and emotion-- always emotion. ‘Imagine the animals as they painfully try to limp home,’ McCabe said. ‘No second guessing will change their blackened forests back to green.’ ‘There are only a certain number of parks for tourists to see,’added David Watts. ‘But the beautiful large trees can take 50 to 100 years to grow. Mr.McKenna showed us a movie, with baby ducks gasping for breath, burned in their nests.’

“Science teacher Jack McKenna used the fires as a class project this year. He was fishing in Yellowstone Park’s Lamar River at the height of the fires in August. ‘I go both ways on this fire,’he said. We have to teach the biology. But I was renting a cabin in Silver Gate and when the fire leaped the park boundary, that’s where we have to stop and think.’

“As in any debate, those arguing may not believe what they say. What counts is the ability to gather facts and deliver them effectively. In Tuesday’s debate, reasoned science got little applause. Emotion won 71 to 65.

“Asked Cintra Pollack as she held up a National Geographic page showing flames, “How can you say this is good?” Personally, she admitted later, she though the burned areas looked ‘just as pretty.’ But at the podium, she intoned, ‘Now it’s a pile of ashes.’

“Rebutted Sarah Byrne, ‘Oh, it’s drastic, but most natural things are drastic. Birth is drastic in some ways.’”

Graland Country Day School

55 CLERMONT STREET    DENVER, CO 80220    303.399.0390   
Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.