Viewpoint: Without Walls
By Rick Erickson
All teachers have heard this philosophy more than once during their formal training: "Tell me, I'll forget; show me, I might remember; involve me, and I will understand." This dictum explains why I see a sparkle of excitement in my fifth-grade students' eyes every morning that we head out for a day in the woods.
Each fall I am amazed at how many of my students at James Madison Elementary School in Virginia have spent little or no time in the woods during the summer. This year, I found that only 32 percent of them had gone camping during the past nine months. Our area in northern Minnesota is loaded with lakes and campgrounds, so a lack of places to camp is not the problem.
I also found that 46 percent of my students had not been hunting or fishing during the past year. Granted, about half of those kids wouldn't go even if they had the chance. But what about those who wish they could have gone but never got the chance? When I asked if they had done other outdoor activities such as hiking, berry picking, or exploring for a couple of hours, our classroom participation rate went up to 89 percent. Nevertheless, a few children had not had any outings in the great outdoors during the previous year.
Children need to experience the environment in order to understand it. When I pull out my science book and present a lesson on water pollution to a youngster who has waded in streams--chasing tadpoles, frogs, turtles, minnows, or snakes--the lesson comes alive. However, the student who has never been knee-deep in muck sometimes has a difficult time understanding the purpose and direction of the lesson.
By bringing students into the woods and allowing them to get dirt under their nails, teachers can give them a firsthand look at the web of life. Chief Seattle said: "Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself." I try to emphasize this vital web to the students at all times while outdoors. For example, each year we take a field trip to the heart of our city to study Silver Lake. In the early 1900s, this lake had the world's largest white pine mill. Not only was the lake affected by the mill, but also there was a dramatic change in the land when the massive white pines were cut. The lake is now weed choked year-round, and swimming is off-limits.
Raising a child's level of concern for the world should be one of our schools' top priorities. Global climate change, pollution, and many other serious environmental concerns will affect students' lives in the future. Are we doing the best job of preparing them for what lies ahead? I ask myself that question just about every day.
Another benefit to teaching in the outdoors is allowing a particular lesson to come alive. Fifth-graders at our school read The Sign of the Beaver, a story about a young boy being taught the ways of Native Americans in frontier America, and Hatchet, a story about a boy who crashes in a plane into a lake in remote northern Canada and has to survive on his own. Both stories deal with learning to live in harmony with nature. After reading the stories last year, the teachers and students visited a nearby environmental center for a day of outdoor survival-skills training. But this was no ordinary day trip: It was the middle of December.
First, the students learned what to do if they found themselves in an emergency situation during the winter. Working as teams, they prepared makeshift homes out of dead trees and branches. Next came the challenge of building a fire.
The students chose big sticks as starting fuel; bigger branches awaited the blaze. Needless to say, our first attempts were futile. Many attempts later, most groups were able to get their fires going.
Next, the students learned how creatures stay alive during the deep cold of winter. With their partners, students took baby food jars filled with room temperature water and placed them outside where they felt the water would stay the warmest. After a half-hour, we came back and measured water temperature. Jars that were even partially exposed to the cold had dramatically cooler temperatures.
Not surprisingly, when we got back to our school at the end of the day, the kids were wet, cold, dirty, and exhausted. Yet 90 percent of the students rated the overall day as a 9 or 10, on a scale of 1 to 10.
The next few days in the classroom involved personal reflection, reading Jack London's To Build a Fire, and reading Brian's Winter, the sequel to Hatchet. The students' reading and writing showed a strong sense of purpose.
The outdoor-education setting may be the best way to reach the student who does not do well in the brick-and-mortar classroom. Many times I have watched shy, quiet students become curious and full of questions when outdoors. A child who has a difficult time staying on task can become deeply involved in a project and not want to stop. When the real-life education that goes on in the outdoors is brought back into the classroom, students can make the connection between their life and their education. By teaching the students to respect all living things in the outdoors, we also teach them to respect one another. I encourage the students to leave the outdoors better than when we arrived. The students find pop cans, used bullet casings, and other human debris and bring them back for proper disposal. This is no different than their daily job of cleaning the classroom before they go home. In both situations, they are learning respect for their learning environments.
Another outdoor setting that I use is our school forest, about 120 acres of land 15 minutes north of Virginia. Many teachers, students, government agencies, and a local mining company put in extra time and effort to help this project become a usable school forest, complete with safe walking trails, outhouses, and signs protecting the property.
This spring we are looking to brush the trails once again, paint the entrance gate, and put up new birdhouses. The birdhouses are being built in our classrooms to replace older ones that have been shot up or have deteriorated. Though outdoor education takes a lot of extra effort, we have found through the years that, if we keep the school forest looking maintained on a yearly basis, the public becomes more aware of our efforts and gives the property more respect. Also, local law enforcement agencies have become aware of our presence, and now patrol the area regularly.
Our fifth-grade teachers and students visit the school forest several times a year. A few years ago, I was taking my class out only two or three times a year. Now my goal is to get the students outdoors 18 to 20 times, roughly 10 percent of their classroom time.
Why the change? In my class surveys, students were continually ranking the outdoor activities as the most meaningful and memorable. Even the most reluctant learners were excited to spend a morning in an outdoor classroom. For example, one fall, on our first trip to the school forest, one student was behaviorally out of control. He left the group repeatedly to explore the woods on his own, never going out of my eyesight but not paying attention to the consequences I levied. By the end of the trip, he had accumulated three hours of after-school detention. What's more, his behavior had made him an outcast among the rest of the students.
After the trip, I sat down with him to talk about his behavior and how he had broken the rules that he had agreed to follow. After my lecture, I asked if he had anything to say. "I'm sorry," he said, "but that's the first time I've ever been able to be out in the woods."
Throughout the year, this child grew tremendously. He became socially accepted by his classmates, and caused no further problems on field trips. His stories and reflections after being outdoors were good; and his drawings were even better.
The late 1800s horticulturist Luther Burbank wrote: "Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water-bugs . . . bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hay fields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets; and any child that has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education." We are obligated to give our children the best education possible, even if it means getting a little dirt on the knees and mud on the shoes.
Opinions expressed in Viewpoint are those of the author, not the DNR or Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. Send your submission to Viewpoint, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, 500 Lafayette Road, St. Paul, MN 55155-4046. E-mail: email@example.com.
Rick Erickson is a fifth-grade teacher in Virginia. He recently completed his master's degree at St. Mary's University in Winona.