This Tennessee teacher brings lessons from the ocean to her landlocked students

A woman with short hair and wearing a blue shirt poses for a portrait in front of a water view and rocks in the background.
Devon Jones, a sixth-grade science teacher at Kirkwood Middle School in Clarksville, will join an expedition to map part of the Pacific Ocean floor. She'll communicate with students along the way. (Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust)
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

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As a child in Panama City, Florida, the call of the ocean was always within earshot of Devon Jones.

“I spent the first seven years of my life living on a boat or around the water,” Jones said. “I always said, ‘I don’t have friends, I have fish.’

“I spent weekends and summers with my grandmother in Mexico Beach, [Florida], so water was my backyard.”

Marriage to a military spouse and family ultimately landed her in Fort Campbell, which sits on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. It was a move that took her away from the sea and away from her dream of becoming a marine biologist. But it didn’t stop Jones from finding another career that allowed her to share her love of the ocean with others: teaching sixth grade science.

Jones, who has been teaching for 15 years, works at Kirkwood Middle School in Clarksville, on the edge of rural Montgomery County, where many of her students haven’t seen much, if any, of an ocean.

This fall, though, she will get a unique chance to get her students excited about the sea. Ocean Exploration Trust, a nonprofit organization that aims to explore the ocean and apply discoveries to Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics education, selected her as a 2024 Lead Science Communications Fellow.

That means Jones will spend 26 days onboard Exploration Vessel Nautilus in late September and early October. The expedition — Jones’ second — will explore and map the seafloor around Howland and Baker islands in the Pacific. The journey begins in Pago Pago, American Samoa, and ends in Koror, Palau.

Once onboard Jones, who is among 13 fellows selected nationally this year, will coordinate live, daily audio commentary and question-and-answer sessions through the Nautilus Live website. While ashore, Jones will use Google Classroom and other learning tools to engage communities and students around the world.

Jones recently talked to Chalkbeat Tennessee about how she approaches her work.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How does teaching ocean science to middle schoolers excite you?

Tennessee is landlocked, so I get a chance to bring that part of the world to my students, a world that they are rarely familiar with and a world that is largely unknown to them. I love that I can get them hooked. I tie the curriculum back to the ocean because, in some way, we all are connected to it. I want the students to have the opportunity to learn what’s out there, and the only way they can do that is for me to keep learning about what’s out there.

Why sixth grade?

I started out teaching fourth and fifth grades, and I was feeling a bit of a burnout, but someone told me about the science curriculum in middle school. I looked into it, and I decided, ‘Hey, sixth grade science — this is some really relatable stuff. This is something that I can really make an impact with.’

So, I decided to make the jump. I love the age range, the kids, the curiosity that they have. They’re at that age where questions are abundant. I can show them how what they’re learning is impacting their lives on a daily basis.

What’s your favorite lesson to teach?

One of my favorite units is biodiversity and human impact. On the very first dive we took [on the 2023 expedition] on one of the reefs, we saw something that looked familiar, but we weren’t quite sure what it was. But when we got closer, we saw that it was trash. But because we were able to date it — it had a Pepsi can from 1980 — I was able to show the kids the impact of what trash does, and how long it remains in the environment.

It was horrible to see, but its relevance made it a teaching moment. Helping them understand how they impact the ecosystem and the environment around us is huge because I want them to see that while they have the ability to destroy something, I also want to show them that they have the ability to change something for the greater good.

Describe your role on the expedition this time.

I get to lead other teachers as this will be their first time out. They’ll reach out to schools all over the world via telecommunications. They’ll take the kids on a virtual tour of the boat, and connect them to what the ROVs [remotely operated vehicles] are exploring at the bottom of the ocean.

We’ll cross the International Date Line to do seafloor mapping on a part of the ocean that hasn’t been mapped before. This is all new exploration to learn what is lying beneath us. Are there more trenches? We know they exist, but how do they affect biodiversity levels? We’ll be doing the mapping, and we’ll be out there for 26 days.

So, it’s a great way to get science into the classroom, and to get the kids excited about things that most of them have never known existed.

How do you use what you learn to help students relate to their immediate environment?

Clarksville is booming. There’s a lot of development, and I want them to understand the impact it has on the ecosystem, like humans have on the ocean. I want them to understand that in a few years, they’re going to be in charge of that future, so they need to understand the biological factors involved [and]the importance of what those changes are bringing.

What’s the best advice that you abide by?

Never be afraid to put yourself in positions where you can still learn and grow. In my classroom, I always see myself as the lead learner. As far as teaching goes, it’s building relationships with your students, to show that they’re not investing in you, but they’re investing in themselves. Also, keep the alarm clock ready and make time for yourself because while teaching is a rewarding career, the burnout is real.

How do you spend your spare time?

I focus on my family. I have three children and 12 grandchildren. I’ve been married for 32 years. Making memories is everything. Family is everything. I love to travel, and I’ll travel to places that I know are going to bring me peace and happiness, and it’s always going to be back to the water.

Bureau Chief Tonyaa Weathersbee oversees Chalkbeat Tennessee’s education coverage. Reach her at tweathersbee@chalkbeat.org.

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