May 1, 2023

Mrs. Rice, The Fishing Teacher, Inducted into Illinois Hall of Fame

Photos courtesy of Eileen Rice.

The 2023 Illinois Conservation Foundation Outdoor Hall of Fame nomination of first grade teacher Eileen Rice was a chance for Chauncey Niziol to recognize—and thank—a schoolteacher who he feels embodies Mother Nature in the classroom.

A teacher in a classroom engages her first grade students in a lesson.
Eileen Rice in her classroom addressing her students in a lesson.

“As a member of the Illinois Conservation Foundation’s Outdoor Hall of Fame I have always felt this award is not something for the people who are doing something for themselves, but those who are undertaking projects that will affect the outdoor lives of our children for generations to come,” explained Niziol, host of Chauncey’s Great Outdoor Radio Program on ESPN AM 1000 who was inducted into the Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame in 2012.

As a sophomore in high school Rice was invited on a fishing trip with her mother’s companion. That first fishing trip hooked her, and she accompanied him on many additional trips. As a college student her fishing companions expanded to include her boyfriend, now husband, and her future in-laws.

Rice introduced a fish-based education program to students in 1992 while teaching at St. Gregory the Great in Chicago. Before starting a job at Hooper Grade School in Lindenhurst in 1994, Rice visited Bass Pro during their Spring Classic in Springfield, Missouri. It was there that Larry Whitley interviewed her for a radio program for Bass Pro Shops and her unique education program involving fishing gained recognition.

A student's project of a paper fish colored with yellow, orange, pink, gray, and black crayons glued onto a blue sheet of construction paper. Pieces of white paper with names of the parts of the fish is glued on to the blue construction paper marking the corresponding anatomy parts.
A colorful project where Rice engages students with fish anatomy.

Fish are the theme of classroom lessons, which are aligned to the Common Core Standards, throughout the month of May. In a classroom decorated with fish pictures and mounted fish, students sing songs about fish and fishing. Math lessons entail fish rather than apples and oranges. Reading lessons revolve around books with aquatic themes. In science lessons students learn about the parts of the fish, the life cycle of a pond and create a “Chain of Life” that hangs from the ceiling of the classroom. Recesses on the school yard are dedicated to learning how to cast a push button, close face spinning reel and learn safe fishing practices, such as looking left, right and behind so no one gets hooked.

The fish-based lessons culminate with a field trip to a local Cook County Forest Preserve Lake where many students catch their first fish.

“I vividly remember the shock on the face of the Cook County Forest Preserve fisheries biologist who asked the students questions about the fish anatomy,” Nizoil recounted of his 1995 outing with Rice’s students. “They answered as if they were second-year college students.”

“That first year I helped out I arrived to see cars lined up on the road with dozens of parents and volunteers ready to help,” Niziol said. “Then a stream of busses started down the road, with hundreds of first graders screaming, ‘Fish! Fish, Fish!’ It was one of the greatest visuals I have had.”

A diorama of a blue underwater scene. Different fish are suspended from the top of the diorama. Fake leafy plants and rocks are scattered on the bottom of the box.
The creation of underwater dioramas are part of Rice’s lesson plans in May.

At that moment Niziol knew that Eileen Rice was not just a teacher who fished, but a teacher who wanted to teach a first grader to love fishing and the outdoors.

For more than 25 years Rice has worked with first grade students at East Prairie School in Skokie. Today’s lessons also include the creation of dioramas about what students think it is like underwater and observing fish in small fish tanks. And in case you wondered, first grade students attending online classes during the pandemic also learned about fish, but without the hands-on lessons leading up to a fishing trip.

The classroom lessons also address pollution and the importance of clean water for fish and wildlife.

“My students head off on the field day knowing that we should leave the area better than when we arrived,” Rice said. “They work had to make the area look nice for our next trip, as well for everyone else visiting the area.”

Rice relies on a host of people to bring the fishing program together. The easiest recruits are her family, including her husband, children, sister and in-laws. Over the years, many volunteers have stepped up for the fishing day and line the shoreline of the lakefront to make sure every student catches their first fish. Support also comes from the Cook County Forest Preserve District’s Fisheries Department, Bass Pro, Fish Tech and Plano.

A group of students and three adults are in a mowed grassy field. One of the adults, a teacher, aids a young student in getting ready to fish.
Rice helping students prepare to fish during a field trip.

“I am truly appreciative of the many companies and individuals who have helped me over the years,” Rice said. “As all teachers do, I have asked for help and showed school administrators and school boards the impacts the lessons have on the future anglers of this country. I am grateful that I have had the full support of three different school systems.”

On the morning of the Hall of Fame banquet, Rice was surprised with another recognition when the school district superintendent presented her with a certificate of recognition from the Illinois House of Representatives. Joining in the presentation were District 16 State Representative Kein Olickal and an aide, both of whom had attended East Prairie School as youngsters and fondly remember the fish lessons.

In Eileen Rice’s opinion, incorporating fish and fishing into her first-grade classrooms has been a win-win for learning.

“I think it is important that teachers be able to teach about what they are passionate about,” Rice explained. “When teachers are excited about teaching their students are excited about learning.”

Kathy Andrews Wright is retired from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources where she was editor of Outdoor Illinois magazine. She is currently the editor of Outdoor Illinois Journal.

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