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Teacher brings wildlife to his students, then lets them explore

Rockstar Teacher: Carl Warfield

 Senior David Velez manages the reptile room in Project-Based Science

Kentwood — It was Friday, snake feeding day, in teacher Carl Warfield’s East Kentwood High School classroom — a miniature jungle where hundreds of snakes, birds, fish, amphibians and even spiders co-exist with high-schoolers.

Senior David Velez was busy feeding snakes in the reptile room, a portion of the classroom where 100-plus serpents representing 13 species live. David knows a lot about them, down to their eating schedules, where they come from and their temperaments. For example, Carl (who shares his first name with Warfield), is a picky diva who only eats live rats. Hades is temperamental and skittish, prone to biting when on the defense.

There are also geckos, a tegu and even a Gila monster.

‘I just thought that, in my lifetime, where was I going to be more effective? Where is the biggest need in this school with all of its diversity? It’s for me, looking like me, doing what I’m doing.’

— science teacher Carl Warfield

One at a time, David picked up thawed white rats with tongs and presented them to the hungry snakes. Instantaneously, they snapped and curled their long bodies around their lunch. Meanwhile, he explained the process of incubating clutches of snake eggs and what they need to survive. 

“A lot of our bull pythons and few of our retics (reticulated pythons) are gravid (carrying eggs) right now,” David told a visitor. 

While David fed the snakes, Warfield explained how he feeds his students opportunities to develop their interests in the Project-Based Science class, which students can take for up to two years as juniors and seniors. They take on long-term projects that demonstrate their scientific knowledge around topics of personal interest.

“I just feed the aptitude and then give the kids a ton of responsibility,” Warfield said, noting that students end up learning everything from A to Z about their topics.

While David’s focus is reptiles, senior Kiara Bannister’s is aquatic life and senior Sunny Debose’s is aviation. Warfield’s students over the years have researched automotive technology, alternative fuels, furniture design, reattachment limb surgery and hovercrafts, to name a few topics.

Students delve into their passion in ways that are truly hands-on and student-led, because of the program Warfield has grown.

“My passion has been about giving them opportunities,” he said. “If I had a dollar for every parent who’s asked me, ‘Where were you when I was in high school? I might have been a doctor, or a scientist or a researcher because of this environment,’ I would retire.”

A Scholar of Animals

Warfield, whose educational background is in marine science, also teaches  Advanced Placement environmental science and general environmental science. Over the years, he’s also taught astronomy, Earth science and other courses.

Originally from Kalamazoo, Warfield is the son of Western Michigan University professors. He grew up loving animals and aquatics and had aquariums all over his house. He went to Boston College for his undergraduate degree and to Western for his teaching degree. He began his career in education as an intern at Grand Rapids Public Schools before he started teaching at East Kentwood 26 years ago.

From the macaw perched near his classroom door to the stingray that swims across the aquarium to the tarantulas that keep watch from their cages, he’s always filled his classroom with creatures great and small, captivating the attention of even the most reluctant learners. The animals have played a big role in the Project-Based Science course, which he started 23 years ago when he already had some snakes in his classroom. 

Warfield also had an interest in breeding cockatiels, and connected with math teachers who were interested in doing a project in genetics with the birds, which is now in year 10. 

“We actually still have birds in there from the original breeding,” he said.

Warfield and students take trips to a pet store in Lansing for exotic animals, including baby sharks, a stingray and several coral specimens.

“I try to accommodate every kid’s interest,” he said. 

Biology teacher Chad VanHouten said it’s impressive to see how much students come to know about their topics. 

“If you talk to those kids long enough, you’ll see how much they know. They want to brag about their animal or discipline. What Warfield creates is a place where kids can learn and get competent in their learning,” VanHouten said.

As a Black male science teacher, Warfield always wanted to stay in the classroom despite opportunities to become an administrator. He said it was important to him to continue to serve students in the most diverse district in the state. When he was pursuing his degree, he was one of very few education students who were Black males.

“I really had to weigh what my life calling should be. I was really torn,” he said about considering moving into administration. 

But he knew where he belonged: in his classroom, filled with curious students learning there’s no limit on what they can do in science.

“I just thought that, in my lifetime, where was I going to be more effective? Where is the biggest need in this school? It’s for me, looking like me, doing what I’m doing.”

Launching into Careers

For David, who transferred to EK as a junior, managing the reptile room as his long-term project is the perfect entry into his planned major, wildlife biology, which he plans to pursue at Grand Valley State University.

“It’s a great learning experience. It’s really fun to work with (reptiles) every day,” David said, although, he added, “It has its ups and downs — I’ve been pooped on; I’ve been bit. I’ve been sprayed…

“I feel like, considering what I want to do when I’m older, it’s a great way to get my foot in the door. It’s awesome you can do that at EK.”

Kiara is the lead student on a project raising coral fragments, small pieces of coral from coral colonies, in an aquarium. She created a 280-slide project on coral to prepare. She plans to go to the University of Northern Alabama in the fall to study marine biology on Dauphin Island. Warfield helped her find the program.

“It’s a big thing for me to be able to do this and get hands-on work with coral before I leave for college,” she said. “I definitely learned more in this class than I would on my own.”

Warfield facilitates the class, answering questions and helping out, but students are completely in charge of their own projects. Kiara has had to learn mechanical and electrical aspects of caring for aquariums largely on her own. 

‘He told us on the first day that he’s here to grade and facilitate, but any problems that come along we have to figure out. And we did. I think we’ve all grown because of it.’  

— Kiara Bannister, EKHS senior and future marine biologist

“It definitely prepared me in a way that I wouldn’t expect,” she said. “You never expect to get a phone call saying something is overflowing and it’s flooding the classroom. … He told us on the first day that he’s here to grade and facilitate, but any problems that come along we have to figure out. And we did. I think we’ve all grown because of it.”

Warfield is filled with knowledge, David said.

“He has been my No. 1 mentor when it comes to this stuff. He calls me his right-hand man. … He teaches me more and more every day. He’s a really great teacher and you can learn a lot from him. If you just sit there and pick his brain for a few minutes, you’ll be an expert by the end of it.”

Read more from Kentwood: 
Videographer first learned his craft in high school
National Teacher of the Year shares thoughts on empowering students, teachers

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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