One teacher tells the story of how she moved the classrooms of her rural elementary school outside and was able to make them more effective as a result of her efforts.
As a result of the few cases of Covid that have occurred in Vermont, many education professionals in the state predicted that rural schools would return to traditional in-person learning. Several previously perceived challenges, such as small class sizes, were turned into opportunities at Albert Bridge School, where I taught from kindergarten to sixth grade. It is made easier to maintain social distance by the fact that our classes have between 8 and 12 students in them. We have a part-time coordinator who is dedicated to promoting place-based learning. As a result of the “Mountain Curriculum,” we have a strong school identity as well as a strong community identity. These pieces allow us to broaden our approach to outdoor education while also strengthening ties with the surrounding community.
When we look back over the last three months, it is clear that we performed admirably considering the circumstances. Adapting to this new educational model, on the other hand, has proven to be extremely difficult. Several achievements have been made, including an increase in collaboration between staff and parents, who frequently express their appreciation for the fact that their children can attend school. It is undeniable that children enjoy going to school. In addition, the community provided outdoor materials, and volunteers were in abundance.
Every year, especially in small schools like ours, we face a slew of difficulties. For example, we must rearrange staff to accommodate multi-age groups and strike a balance between the needs of our school and the expectations of our community in terms of the school’s budget. During the pandemic, collaborating closely with community organizations has been a top priority. This is done to ensure that families have access to the resources they require for food, housing, and transportation needs. No matter how bad the public health situation is in a rural community, our school is a vital link in the chain of survival.
OUTDOOR LEARNING AT CAMPUS
Families were given a choice of attendance options, including remote or in-person instruction five days a week, as well as afternoon remote instruction.
Before the school year began, our teachers worked with socially isolated parents and community volunteers to prepare outdoor spaces so that each class could have its outdoor classroom.
All outdoor classrooms must have the following elements to function properly:
- The use of a fire pit (fire marshal approved)
- Shelter made of tarps
- Access to a nearby stream (our students, like many other children, enjoy water play and exploration). It’s also an excellent location for observing erosion, conducting buoyancy experiments, and calculating the speed at
- which water flows.
- Seating: Most classrooms have seating made from logs or mats, hammocks, or five-gallon buckets, as well as other unconventional materials.
- Outdoor sinks with foot pedals
- The following items should be kept in outdoor storage containers: whiteboards for students, pencil/marker boxes, mud kitchen supplies such as old pots and bowls and serving utensils for creative cooking outdoors, notebooks, fort-building supplies such as poles, bungee cords, string, and tools such as hammers, mallets, and wrenches.
- Each student will require a set of water-resistant notebooks.
Activities and schedules for each day: The school day begins in the classroom with a lesson. Students check-in, eat breakfast and go over their schedule for the next day. The following is an example of a second-grade schedule:
- 8:00 a.m.: Breakfast is served at 8:00 a.m.
- 8:15 a.m.: Virtual morning meeting for the entire school
- The time is 8:30 a.m. 8:45 a.m.: Start writing in your journal. Prepare to spend time outside.
- 9:30 a.m.: Go to the outdoor classroom with your group.
- 9:15 a.m.: Individualized reading time
- The time is 9:30 a.m. Stations for math and literacy
- Class discussion and reading begin at 10:00 a.m.
- 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Stations for math and literacy
- Free choice/nature exploration/science activities begin at 11:00 a.m.
- At 11:15 a.m., students should return to class.
- Wash your hands and eat your lunch outside or inside at 11:45 a.m.
- 12:10 p.m. – Pack up your belongings and head home. This is the final activity for the day……………………………..
- 12:30 p.m.: dismissal from the school
The weather this fall was pleasant, which made learning outside a breeze. On certain days, we will continue to abide by the pre-Covid rule that we are permitted to go outside as long as the temperature has a “real feeling” of at least 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
As the weather gets colder, there will be more obstacles to overcome. When the temperature drops, it becomes difficult to write while wearing gloves and remaining seated. Some instruction had to be relocated indoors due to the colder temperatures. It was necessary to rethink how academic content could be completed outside while remaining active to keep our bodies warm during the cold winter months.
The following are some examples of future and success stories:
- Nature manipulatives such as sticks, acorns, and rocks are used to teach math concepts.
- Nature writes on a variety of surfaces, including clay, dirt, dirt, rocks, and “wood cookies,” which are cross-sections of tree trunks that vary in size depending on which tree they were taken from.
- Journaling in a sitting spot allows students to take note of, wonder about, and reflect on their immediate surroundings.
- Reading in hammocks is a popular pastime (each student owns their own).
- Discussion and observations on stream health and maintenance, as well as how to study streams without causing harm to the natural environment, are included.
- Comparison and contrast of westward expansion using social studies concepts, Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and students’ outdoor explorations are used to illustrate this point.
- Literacy walks are when a story is placed throughout the forest, page by page, and students walk from tree to tree to read it aloud to themselves (this also works for sight words).
- In the Story of the Day section, students can choose to either review the day as a group or individually.
WALKING FIELD TRAILS
Walking field trips on Ascutney Mountain provide opportunities for integrated lessons that connect science, math, and literature topics. Free exploration and unstructured play are also given plenty of attention during the day. During lessons, students observe and interact with their surroundings to locate and manipulate materials.
Ascutney Outdoors was a local non-profit organization that generously allowed us to construct an outdoor shelter on their property. A donated concert canoe was placed near the main lodge, which is at the base of the rope tow ski slope. Students have easy access to the 1,500-acre town forest, stream, streams, waterfalls, as well as ski hills and forest trails, thanks to the canopy’s location. The meadow is large and open, with a large number of hay bales that have been wrapped. Jumping from one bale of hay to another in the meadow is a favorite activity for students (and teachers). We look at many different aspects of the mountain, including the seasons, water cycles, trail construction, conservation, and plant life cycles, among other things.
Walking field trips quickly became the highlight of the students’ and teachers’ week as a result of their enthusiasm. These outings provided an opportunity for everyone to get to know one another and talk while walking and practicing social distancing techniques at the same time. I had no trouble recognizing that we were all a group of learners on the mountain.
Every student was required to bring a change of clothes with them on field excursions. We also encouraged them to put on extra-dry socks as a precaution.
STRATEGIES TO SUCCESS
We used several resources to guide us along this journey: The Forest Days Handbook by David Sobel, the Upper Valley Teacher Place Collaborative, and Natural Start Alliance.
In addition, we used an instructional model to carry out our strategy. Art, music, and guidance teachers are paired with classroom teachers for a one-month rotation to provide additional support. Having a second adult in each classroom ensures that there is always another adult present. Additionally, our curriculum incorporates an interdisciplinarity model that emphasizes the expertise of the various specialties. This strategy has been modified to be used in outdoor learning environments. For example, the first-grade class was paired with an art teacher for a month one month. They learned perspective by drawing with their eyes open in the fresh air.
In addition to comfort, outdoor education requires a certain amount of flexibility. Families are accustomed to sending their children to school dressed and equipped appropriately for the occasion. However, as a result of our community’s commitment to outdoor education, we have received numerous donations of socks, rain boots, gloves, and hats over the years, ensuring that we always have the appropriate item for any student.
Local organizations, the school board, and the town government have joined forces to offer their expertise, time, tools, materials, encouragement, and assistance as we continue to place a strong emphasis on safety. Almost everyone has been forced to reconsider what is truly significant in their lives, their communities, and the greater world at this time. This has meant that we have united around the values of our community: caring for, learning from, and appreciating our natural environment. We hope that our students will recall this moment with happy memories of wonder and exploration and that they will also recognize that the connections and memories that we make together are just as important as academics in their lives.