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Steve Ettinger
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Teaching with fishing earns entry to the Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame

Eileen Rice uses fishing as a unit to educate first graders and the culminating day of fishing is an event that changes lives. She will be inducted into the Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame on April 6.

“Fishing Teacher” Eileen Rice took her classroom outside and into the Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame.

“My husband Bob said, `Why don’t you take your kids fishing? and I said, ‘Well, do you think my principal will allow me to take first graders out and have them swing hooks around?’ “ Rice recalled. “I’ve been lucky, all my principals and superintendents have full-hearted support for this program.”

As a first-grade teacher (and a couple years with second graders) for more than 30 years, Rice built a unit around fishing that culminates with a fishing trip.

Rice is part of an all Chicago-area threesome who will be inducted April 6th during the Illinois Conservation Foundation’s HOF gala.

Also being inducted are Nan Buckardt, director of education for the Lake County Forest Preserves, and Doug Aller, of New Concept Benefit Group, which hosts such events as the No Child Left Indoors/Family Outdoor Day at William W. Powers State Recreation Area.

Rice’s unit began in her final two years at now-closed St. Gregory on the North Side, culminating with fishing at Axehead Lake. In the mid-1990s, she took it to B.J. Hooper Elementary in Lindenhurst, culminating with fishing at Sterling Lake.

That scene stunned when I first witnessed it 1997.

“That is where I we had the huge group,” Rice said. “Nobody forgets that: bus after bus, 350 kids and another 200 adults.”

What most struck me, as a new father and husband, was how the guys looked comfortable. So often guys, at least this guy, feel like a largemouth bass in a goldfish bowl at school events.

“It is the one trip we get a large number of dads or uncles or grandpas come with us,” Rice said. “Highlight for me is that it helped me make that connection.”

For the last 25 years, she has been at East Prairie School in Skokie, which goes through eighth grade.

“Great part is seeing my little first graders grow up and graduate,” Rice said. “Every year the No. 1 memory of graduating kids is of the first-grade fishing trip. It is awesome. Even seven years later, that is such a strong memory for them.”

The fishing day is usually held at Skokie Lagoons, High water once forced a move to Axehead.

In the beginning, the unit was informally known as “Fish, Fishing and Environment.” It covers a range of subjects from writing to biology to math.

“Children are learning the most amount of information than in any other grade,” Rice pointed out enthusiastically. “The information they learn in first grade is about 80 percent new information. So many opportunities to see those light bulbs go off. So many opportunities to see them shine, it is so exciting.”

Rice had role models of teachers in grammar and high school (St. Benedict’s).

“The teaching bug bit me when I was teaching ballet,” Rice said. “I decided when I wasn’t going to advance in ballet to go into teaching. I still love ballet. My one friend in college called me the “Fishing Ballerina.” Now I am being called the “Fishing Teacher.” My poor mom would say, `You are in the sports page again for fishing.” She is probably rolling over in her grave.’ “

The Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame 2023 Gala is at Abbington Banquets in Glen Ellyn. Details are at

“It’s nothing I ever expected in my lifetime, I was just taking my kids fishing,” Rice said. “That was my main goal: to expose them to the outdoors. I never in my wildest dreams saw this.”

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