Sharon Thomas, 51, reacts as a representative from SeaWorld tells her and her class that they are receiving free tickets to both SeaWorld and the Georgia Aquarium, at Panola Way Elementary School in Lithonia on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. After Thomas relayed lessons she learned while on vacation at SeaWorld about plastic waste reduction, her third-grade class took up the torch to reduce use of plastic. SeaWorld heard about their actions, such as opting for reusable water bottles and giving up straws entirely, in a letter from Thomas, and decided to give the class free tickets to SeaWorld and the Georgia Aquarium. CASEY SYKES FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Photo: Casey Sykes
Photo: Casey Sykes

DeKalb teacher surprised with SeaWorld tickets for her, students

Sharon Thomas turned an experience at SeaWorld into a lesson on pollution for her third-grade students at Panola Way Elementary School.

On Tuesday, National Teacher Appreciation Day, that lesson paid off big.

After students presented reports on pollution and its effects, especially those on sea animals, Thomas and her nearly two dozen students were given passes to both SeaWorld and the Georgia Aquarium for their efforts to investigate pollution impacts and to reduce their plastic footprint.

“Who really knew that a trip to SeaWorld would be so big?” Thomas said.

Thomas and her family were visiting SeaWorld during summer vacation in 2018 when they stopped at a restaurant for a meal. She noticed they were not given lids or straws with their cups. In June 2018, SeaWorld announced it would no longer use straws, lids or plastic bags at its 12 theme parks.

“At first, I was frustrated and did not understand,” she said.

She learned the items find their way into the water and get entangled with wildlife there. According to Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental group, 8 million metric tons of plastic finds its way into the oceans annually.

Thomas, who was assigned this school year to third grade, decided to use her SeaWorld experience in the students’ lesson on pollution.

Students talked during their presentations of reducing their own carbon footprints as well as helping those around them to do the same. In issuing a call to action, third-grader Delano Martin mentioned talking with people at his church about stopping using straws as well.

“Let’s let the children be the investigators,” Thomas said. “I think learning is more meaningful that way.”

Thomas, a 17-year educator, wrote to SeaWorld asking for the tickets for her students after discovering only three of them had ever been there.

“As a teacher at a Title One school, where every student has free lunch, I understand the financial challenges that may prevent the students from having this opportunity,” she wrote. “However, I feel that my students have a special connection to SeaWorld because of our (class assignment). I am sure my students will never forget this experience.”

Joe Sanchez, SeaWorld’s supervising trainer, Skyped in with the news from Orlando.

“We have secured some really special things since you guys worked so hard and have done such an amazing job,” he said while announcing the tickets to both places. “I hope other kids across the country can learn from you.”

Principal Corey Stegall said he found out last week that SeaWorld intended to surprise Thomas and her class.

“I was blown away that an organization that means so much to the world is interested in celebrating the tough job we have as educators,” he said. “I’m totally behind celebrating our wonderful teachers like Mrs. Thomas … and her students.”

Thomas said the trip last summer has been life-changing. She and her family stopped buying dozens of bottled waters and instead use water bottles and an in-home filtration system. They also no longer ask for straws at restaurants.

“I was just doing what I do in the course of the day,” she said. “I had no idea all of this would come from it.”

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