For Sultan High School science teacher Ryan Monger, education is about more than just homework and good test scores. It’s about discovering passions through experienced-based learning that often occurs outside the confines of the classroom.
A teacher at Sultan High School for five years, Monger teaches physical science, biology and Green Sustainable Design and Engineering, which is more commonly referred to as “gardening.” During his time in Sultan, he has been able to transform the educational experiences of his students by capitalizing on the Sky Valley’s abundance of natural resources. The world is his classroom and the lessons are dynamic, as he has incorporated the nearby forest, rivers, creeks and salmon into his curriculum.
His three greatest influences are Coho salmon, salmon berries and the Douglas firs of the Pacific Northwest, which is evidenced in everything that he does. He strives to teach his students real life lessons based on meaningful, straightforward concepts that are profoundly relevant. His goal is to create connections between what students do in class and the world around them.
“If I can teach them that salmon are important, if that’s the only thing I teach them, that’s a raging success for me,” Ryan said. “I’d take that over good test scores any day.”
Biology students spend time at the Sultan River, where they analyze water quality by measuring turbidity, pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature, nitrates and phosphates. These measurements, taken monthly, determine whether or not the river is healthy enough for our salmon to thrive.
In the winter, they tap maple trees and collect the sap, boiling it to create homemade maple syrup.
His gardening class is remarkably diverse, offering students the opportunity to pursue their own interests. Students can raise salmon in the school’s onsite salmon hatchery, cultivate their own gardens, maintain the school’s greenhouse, restore habitat in the forest, identify and remove invasive species or care for chickens in the school’s chicken coop.
Students can champion their own projects, which has been a rewarding process, Monger said. It’s inspiring to watch what they come up with and to witness the level of dedication that comes with empowering students to invest in their own interests.
“Letting students do their own thing is actually very effective,” Monger said.
Each year, students exceed his expectations by spearheading projects that continue to serve the school even after that student has moved on. A covered outdoor classroom, orchard and native plant museum are just a few of the legacy projects that are highly utilized and will continue to be enhanced.
And new ideas will continue to be embraced. Last year, a group of students tackled an enormous pile of dirt, debris and blackberry brambles, transforming it into an irrigated raspberry patch. Another student, Kim Lopez-Lopez, cultivated her very own vegetable garden, and continued to care for it throughout the summer. Mary Carbajal watered the plants in the greenhouse all summer, and is busy planning a new extracurricular club called the Lorax club, which will focus on environmental stewardship.
Monger has been honored repeatedly for his hands-on, innovative classroom techniques. He traveled to Washington D.C. in 2015 as a recipient of the 2014-2015 Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators, which included a commemorative plaque and a $2,500 educational grant to use for professional development in environmental education.
This year, he was honored at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) National Conference on Science Education, as one of three finalists considered for the Shell Oil Company Science Teaching Award. Although the award ultimately went to a chemistry teacher from Hawaii, Monger received an all-expenses paid trip to the conference to be recognized for his achievements.
His most recent honor is the 2017 Outstanding Biology Teacher Award (OBTA) for the state of Washington, awarded by the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT). Only one biology teacher in each state earns the Outstanding Biology Teacher Award, which is based on teaching ability, cooperativeness in the school and community and student-teacher relationships.
Monger is quick to credit his students for his success as an educator. He will tell anyone who asks that he doesn’t do anything in his gardening class, other than walk around and facilitate. If you ask him how his classes are going, he probably won’t present you with a bunch of grades, statistics, numbers and test scores. But he will tell you all about the students who worked to remove invasive species, or who grew the best onions or the ones who decided they wanted a pond, so they dug one out entirely by hand.
For Monger, it’s about inclusion, passion and enabling all students to succeed. It’s about igniting the learning process and bringing education to life.
“I’ve always said the only educational research I need to know is the look in their eyes,” Monger said.
Ryan lives in Sultan with his wife Joanna, their three kids and their dog Sally. Their daughter Sophia is one, William is three, and Joshua is six. The couple lives on three acres located right on the Sultan River, where they raise chickens, geese and lots of fruits and vegetables.