Alice Noyes

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"MORAGA -- Students in Alice Noyes' fifth-grade classroom learn the most enduring lessons from dirt and disasters.

For 19 years, the Rheem Elementary School teacher has taken math, science, art, literature, history and other subjects outside the four walls of her classroom. A school garden she and Sarah Stocco established in 2008 and an annual trek to the Balclutha, a three-masted, square-rigged cargo ship built in 1886 and preserved at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, have proved to be fertile ground for learning.

Noyes retired this year and although she predicts she'll be "that weird lady who often visits the garden," it's clear her co-workers, students and their parents will welcome her with open arms.

Principal Elaine Frank refers to a Teacher of the Year nomination letter she wrote in 2010 and again calls Noyes "a brilliant teacher, a consummate leader, a gifted artist, a passionate environmentalist, and a deep thinker." She says Noyes was "the force" that turned a "derelict asphalt area" into a garden.

"It was her vision, inspiration, and creativity that made it happen," Frank says.

A single online request for people to share their memories about Noyes results rapidly arriving emails.

"I'll never forget my first meeting." writes Gail Kang, whose two children were students of Noyes. At an open house, Noyes talked of devoting evenings and weekends to learning innovative, enriching teaching strategies.

"I remember at first feeling sorry for her that she had to do all this extra work. But then I realized that she seemed to view this self-education as being more like an enjoyable pastime rather than drudgery," Kang recalled.

Aurelie Hardin, 28, was in Noyes' class in 1998. She credits Noyes' engaging teaching style and help that she received to complete a Bermuda Triangle assignment for inspiring her to become a teacher.

"She made the task enjoyable, helping me use already acquired knowledge to build my confidence. She truly valued my efforts. From that task on, I felt I had a teacher who had my best interest. I now teach kindergarten and thank Alice everyday."

Sam Ghiselli, now 13, offers an example of how real-world learning leading to hard-won confidence is Noyes' greatest legacy. The then-shy, thoughtful boy was cast by Noyes as King George III in a history enactment, assigned to be first mate during the overnight Balclutha field trip, and worked for two, nine-hour days with Noyes and her husband, Bill Noyes, to build the garden's greenhouse.

"Mrs. Noyes was not an easy teacher, she pushed, and expected a lot," says Sam's mother, Cathy Ghiselli. "Sam found that with that push, he discovered a strength within himself he did not know he had."

Recently selected to deliver a speech at his middle school graduation, Ghiselli says her son attributes to Noyes his ability to speak up courageously and "let his positive voice be heard."

The recipient of the attention is reluctant to accept it.

"There are so many of us; I'm just one," Noyes says, about her place among retiring teachers. It's true: second-grade teacher Sue McKinnon is also retiring this year and has been at Rheem for 22 years. But agreeing to "represent all," Noyes says nearly two decades of watching kids' eyes light up as they explore the worlds' mysteries is worth celebrating.

Noyes spent her childhood years exploring Tilden Park.

"My parents let us roam freely until it was dark. I loved nature. We'd go to the Little Farm; (naturalist) Josh Barkin was there. He was my first inspiration."

Out of her experiences came an appreciation of learning by doing.

"Do it, build it, tear rocks apart to study geology, see science in a stream. That's how kids learn best," she says.

Real-world tests, not sit-down academic ones, are invaluable. The overnight ship trip, she says is life-changing. The first year (aboard the C.A. Thayer), it rained the entire time and the chimney on the stove blew off.

"The gangplank rocked so much that the National Park Service came and thought we'd have to leave, but we stayed," she recalls. "The kids get tested to their limits: exhausted, cold, scrubbing decks, hauling ropes heavier than they are. There's no way they can do these things without teamwork. They learn they aren't a single entity. They bring that back to the classroom."

Noyes says she will not miss testing.

"Every minute I'm testing, I'm not teaching."

And even though she'll no longer read stories aloud, work with students in the garden or sing with the whole school, Noyes is already prospecting for future opportunities to "open kids' eyes" to discoveries.

"I have a grandchild and one on the way," she says, "and I'm interested in the Lafayette Community Garden and maybe doing some teaching.""