CHAMPAIGN – Dominique Luckett pushed her kayak into the water and paddled the length of Kaufman Lake on a warm and windy October day, past geese and trees turning brilliant colors.
It was the first time she'd kayaked on open water.
"That's a workout," she said, rubbing her arms after she got out of her kayak.
Dominique and several of her eighth-grade classmates from Jefferson Middle School were kayaking last week as part of their physical education class. Their teacher, Lynne Srull, bought five kayaks using a $2,000 grant she received this fall from the ING Unsung Heroes program, which provides money to teachers to pay for innovative class projects. Srull was one of three teachers from Illinois who were among 100 finalists receiving an ING grant this year.
She expanded the outdoor education unit she teaches to eighth-graders from three to six weeks this year, and added kayaking and archery.
Srull has an interest in the outdoors and adventure travel, and she's found a niche teaching outdoor skills to her students. She teaches fishing, camping and orienteering with compasses. Her students learn how to set up tents, make a campfire, and pack a backpack safely.
She wants to teach them something they can enjoy in the future, expose them to something new and maybe spark an interest.
"Maybe it's something a kid will become passionate about. You just never know," she said.
Srull had her students write about their experiences after kayaking on Monday. Several girls wrote: "I felt strong. I felt confident. I felt free."
"(I want them) to be confident and feel powerful and have that carry over, that there's a lot they can do," Srull said.
The students practiced kayaking in the pool at Centennial High School a couple of times, learning how to get in and out of the boat, how to paddle, and what to do if the kayak tips over. Then they got to paddle on Kaufman Lake.
Dominique liked getting outside on the lake.
"You can go a little bit faster," she said.
"And you don't crash into people every two seconds," added classmate Shelby Campbell.
"It's really pretty," Dominique said.
It didn't take her long to get across the lake. "I got a rhythm so I was able to glide every few pushes," she said.
Kaela Williams was having more trouble. She admitted she just floated around when she kayaked at Centennial's pool. On Kaufman Lake, she was having difficulty at first going in the direction she wanted to go.
"I kept going right," she said.
Another student also didn't get the hang of it right away, and ended up against the bank of the lake, under some overhanging tree branches, as Dominique and some of her classmates shouted instructions.
Later, a boy capsized his kayak in the middle of the lake. He held onto the back of another boat as that student paddled back to shore, while Srull towed the upside-down kayak.
She said the students on the shore were all encouraging the others as they worked against the wind to get back, and they cheered when they made it to the bank.
"It was good for them to see, if that happens, this is what you do. Don't panic," Srull said.
Even with a couple of mishaps, "There was so much learning going on," she said. "I was nearby but gave them a little space. They wrote about being in the boat alone, the independence. I saw them pick up more than at the pool, how to turn the kayak.
"They did beautifully."