Dilys Hillman, a special needs teacher with responsibility for the curriculum at William Patten primary school in Hackney, east London, tells Diana Hinds about visiting the land crabs of Tobago
The idea of going to the rainforest came one cold February evening when I saw an article in the Guardian about fellowships offered by the environmental charity Earthwatch for people in education.
When Earthwatch rang and asked if I wanted to go to Tobago, I was so thrilled I screamed. I spent two weeks on the island studying the behaviour of land crabs. They are vicious, huge and very fast; they live in streams in the rainforest and are a threatened species.
I have no scientific background, apart from creating a conservation area at school with a pond and herb garden. But it was good to put myself in the position of a student again, to be with people who were so knowledgeable, and to be the one asking questions.
As a primary teacher I often put children in investigative situations, but I always know the answers. This time I didn't, and the hypothesising we did was wide-ranging and challenging. It made me more determined to secure this kind of provision for children, where they feel all ideas are important and can contribute to a group perspective.
Before I went, I asked all 14 classes in the school to give me six questions, about the habitat and lifestyle of the Caribbean. Lots of them wanted to go too, and the children who come from the Caribbean got excited, telling me what I'd see.
When I got back I spent time with each class, reporting back, answering their questions and showing my photographs of crabs, rainforest, fruit and vegetables, animals and people. I made a display of enlarged photographs and we had a Caribbean evening involving parents. I made books for the children, too. The younger ones have been making models of Caribbean islands - not all of them knew what an island was.
I was surprised and pleased by how much the children seemed to get out of an experience they hadn't had themselves. They would ask questions such as "What was it like when you saw the python?". Parents told me some children were getting more books about the Caribbean out of the library.
Our end-of-term musical show, involving all three to seven-year-olds, also had a Caribbean focus. It was based on two or three Caribbean folk tales, with Tobagan songs, and incorporated features of my trip. Some of the children were dressed as land crabs. We adapted the calypso-style song, "Feeling hot, hot, hot", to the crabs "going snap, snap, snap".
We also had pythons in the show - I had a terrifying experience one night in the rainforest, meeting a 25-ft long python - and pelicans, which would swoop down to catch fish while I was swimming in the morning. Other children, with ultraviolet lights on them, were the fireflies, which sparkle everywhere at night and seem like a continuation of the skies.
The experience has stimulated ideas in me which I don't get time for as a teacher, because you are always trying to pass things on. My new-found knowledge of wildlife will benefit me on a personal level, and will also inform my teaching. I hope the discussions we've had about Tobago will encourage the children to become aware of some of the global issues about conservation, and provide a focus for our own local projects. Older children, for instance, have been looking at issues relating to the Earthwatch project - how can we discover and preserve the crabs' habitat? - which they will be able to apply to the new wild area we are developing.
More information about Earthwatch Millennium Fellowships from 01865 311601