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It’s All About Out: Thetford Outdoor Program Delivers Dose of Nature

  • Thetford Academy outdoor program member Tim Gray talks about the red pine in the Thetford Hill State Park on Dec. 1, 2017 in Thetford, Vt. Gray was talking to Lyme School third graders who are in a forest ecology program at their school. Listening are Abby Carcomo, left, Harper Bellamy, Abe Prince, Deming Dwyer and teacher aide Jean Ball. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thetford Academy Outdoor Program teacher and naturalist Scott Ellis walks with third-graders from the Lyme School in the Thetford Hill State Park on Dec. 1, 2017 in Thetford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Members of the Thetford Academy outdoor program and third-grade members of the forest ecology program at the Lyme School sit around a camp fire in the Thetford Hill State Park on Dec. 1, 2017 in Thetford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thetford Academy student Nic Skinner shows third-graders from the Lyme School his sit spot in the Thetford Hill State Park on Dec. 1, 2017 in Thetford, Vt. Skinner is in Thetford Academy's outdoor program. Members of the program were showing the Lyme students some of the projects and work they have done in the forest. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, December 04, 2017

Thetford — In the more than 500 acres contained on the campus of Thetford Academy and Thetford Hill State Park, Scott Ellis finds endless potential for learning. Standing within a grove of 70-year-old red pines during a Thetford Outdoor Program class on Friday, he saw teaching opportunities all around him.

“You look at something like these trees; it’s not a teaching moment, it’s a teaching continuum,” said Ellis, 38, a White River Junction resident and naturalist in his first year leading TA’s outdoors program. “These trees were planted. Well, why were they planted and when? Why is their bark flaky? You can learn so much and still only be scratching the surface of what’s around us out here.”

That’s the idea behind the Thetford Outdoor Program, a half-day class that provides science, English and elective credits and explores a multitude of initiatives within Thetford Hill State Park. Its nine students recently erected signage presenting an historical timeline of the park, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, as well as interpretive wooden-platform descriptions of some of the mixed hardwood tree species on site.

TOP students showcased the new features to 17 Lyme Elementary School third-graders and teacher Tricia Gautreau on Friday. While temperatures were chilly, every student asked said it beats nearly any curriculum indoors.

“I’m an outdoor kid, always have been,” said sophomore Hunter LeFevre. “To learn this kind of stuff, it’s what I’ve always been into, so to get credit for it is pretty awesome.”

LeFevre was stationed near the bottom of the park, along TA’s Dan Grossman Cross Country Running Trail. There, he manned the first interpretive historical placard that students produced and erected earlier last week. LeFevre informed the Lyme students that the 262 acres that became the park were donated in 1931 by Dwight Goddard, who may have been the only practicing Buddhist living in Thetford at the time.

Spencer Williams and Nic Skinner were at the next stop to explain the many camping fireplaces in the park, presumably built by the CCC. Remnants of 10 constructed fire pits, some housed in stone with chimneys, were recently discovered by TOP students.

Following a chronological progression, senior Lauren Townsend talked about the 1942 fire that destroyed some of TA’s original buildings and forced classes into the town library, while other students highlighted the construction of Interstate 91, the park’s original state campground (closed in 2008), and the effects of Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

“It wasn’t as damaging to Vermont as (2011’s) Tropical Storm Irene, but it was pretty bad,” said junior Henry Wimett, of Hartland. “It caused $6.9 billion in total damages and 73 fatalities, including one Vermonter.”

Ellis credited TOP students for uncovering a wealth of historical knowledge during the project.

“Their curiosity guided a lot of it,” the teacher said. “We found interesting things, and it led them to questions. That’s magical learning, when students are curious about their own backyard, and presenting is a great way to demonstrate the knowledge.”

After building a fire near the park’s approximately 1,100-foot height of land — where the class has also constructed the wooden foundation for a large yurt — TOP students introduced their visitors to places of quiet solitude they’d discovered and claimed. Nestled within the hillsides near the summit, the spots are meant to offer each student a place for restorative contemplation and observation. They may be asked to reflect on assigned reading or simply rest with their thoughts.

“Just being outside, in and of itself, has so much value, and it ties into place-based education,” Ellis said. “I’ll ask them to come out here and to sit quietly, staring into one area of the environment until they get bored. After they get bored, accept it and just remain in the space as long as they can, up to 20 minutes or so.

“I check in with each of them in their sitting places, which gives us all some one-on-one time. They’re usually anxious and ready to move on to the next part of class, but I think they appreciate the alone time.”

The visit ended with a tour of each student’s tree descriptions, impressive wooden platforms laser cut with help from shop teacher Chris Schmidt.

Townsend’s depicted the American beech; she explained that it’s deciduous, but that its leaves take longer than most to fall. She also highlighted the beech’s oval-shaped trunk.

Blake Buccellato chose a black cherry tree because it’s a wood he works with a lot in shop class, while sophomore Tim Gray presented a red pine, one of many planted 70 years ago to help prevent erosion on the hill, he said. “The bark on the red pines has multiple layers, which helps it be resistant to forest fires,” said Gray, a Lyme resident and former LES student.

Ellis, who previously taught at Canaan’s Cardigan Mountain School, the Greenwood School in Putney, Vt., and the Keystone (Colo.) Science School, hopes the Thetford Outdoor Program will continue to expand.

“The future vision is to keep getting more and more kids outside,” he said. “There is so much here, and it’s a way to use the natural resources we have for education. Can we teach math in the outdoors? Can we teach science and history in an outdoors classroom? I think the answer is yes. It might take some work, but I think we can get there and that everyone can benefit from it.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.