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Organization seeks to expand schools’ use of outdoor education

  • Tyler Piper, 11, middle, and his fellow Sharon Elementary School sixth grader Devyn Potter, 11, left, look for a slight color difference in two maple syrup samples while learning about grading the natural sweetener from Thetford Academy sophomore Jackson Kingsbury, 16, during their visit to the academy's Environmental Studies and Outdoor Education program in Thetford, Vt., Thursday, March 14, 2019. Students in the program earn two science, one English and one elective credits in the two semester program. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Tait Linehan, 17, takes a taste of maple sap from a line he trimmed in the sugar bush near Thetford Academy where he is an outdoor education student in Thetford, Vt., Thursday, March 14, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thetford Academy senior Aiden Cudhea, 17, right, answers questions from Sharon Elementary School students during a tour of the sugar bush used by the academy's Outdoor Education Program in Thetford, Vt., Thursday, March 14, 2019. Students in the program reported to the visitors on their experiments in sap production based on tap type and size, tubing size, what side of the tree is tapped and other variables. Sharon Elementary students are, from left, Elsa Skarsten, 12, Willow Clifford, 11, Devyn Potter, 11, Conor Jerrait, 11, and Tyler Piper, 11. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thetford Outdoor Program Coordinator Scott Ellis drinks from a sap bucket while giving Sharon Elementary sixth graders Devyn Potter, 11, left, and Tyler Piper, 11, middle, a tour of the program's sugar bush in Thetford, Vt., Thursday, March 14, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kolton Pittman, 16, left, and Hugh O'Donnell, 18, right, demonstrate the use of a two hand tool to join maple sap tubing while teaching visitors from Sharon Elementary School about the tools used in collecting sap during the Thetford Academy Environmental Studies and Outdoor Education program in Thetford, Vt., Thursday, March 14, 2019. Students in the program are required to teach the skills they learned while preparing to make maple syrup. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, March 18, 2019

Their feet dangling from a bench inside the Thetford Academy Sugar Shack, six second-graders from Bradford Elementary School listened to high school students explain how maple syrup is graded, while a wood fire sent scribbles of smoke and the fragrance of boiling sap across the school grounds one afternoon last week.

Nearby, another group watched wide-eyed as sophomore Rebecca Wells poured syrup over cookie sheets of snow, then distributed samples on wooden skewers into their mittened hands. A third group tromped around in the sugarbush, boot prints in contrasting sizes making patterns beneath the maples.

“Big kids teaching little kids is the idea,” explained Scott Ellis, outdoor program coordinator for Thetford Academy. “One of the best ways to demonstrate your knowledge is to teach someone else.”

Education that pulls students out of their classrooms and into the woods, or into learning opportunities in their communities, has moved to the center of the school experience, particularly in Vermont. Collaboration is essential to this work, and the network of local collaborators is poised to grow.

The Upper Valley Teaching Place Collaborative is seeking to forge new connections in the region that will create additional opportunities for place-based education. Formed in 2017 to serve as a centralized resource for place-based ecology education professionals, with funds from the Wellborn Ecology Fund, an arm of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, the group was originally known as the Wellborn Hub. It recently changed its name, and with it, its operating structure. Next Friday, March 29, the Bradford, Vt.-based group will hold a community meeting at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science to introduce its new vision and to invite community members to take part in advancing place-based ecology education.

“The idea is to be more inclusive and build a broader network of basically anyone who shares our vision, to get more people involved in what we think is a really important way of working with youth in our communities,” said Emily Shipman, the organization’s coordinator.

Shipman hopes to facilitate more relationships like those that brought elementary school groups to Thetford Academy last week. At next week’s meeting, organizers plan to brainstorm ideas and create working groups that will meet regularly throughout the year.

Place-based ecology education, as the name implies, emphasizes learning traditional subject matter such as science, math and language arts through immersion in the local environment. It dovetails both with Vermont’s “flexible pathways” legislation, enacted in 2013, which encourages work-based learning in local communities, and with the growing outdoor education movement. At least a dozen schools in the Upper Valley currently have programs that regularly get children outside for extended periods of time, according to information compiled by ForestKinder, a website run by two Ottauquechee School educators who were instrumental in bringing the forest kindergarten program to the United States.

Such programs can be transformative, proponents say. “The increased time outside has huge benefits for children in terms of physical and emotional health,” Shipman said. “It really has shown that there’s an attention restoration factor that goes back with them into the classroom.”

And it’s not just for little kids. Thetford Academy’s outdoor education program, one of the few such programs in a high school environment, has been a hit with students, Ellis said. “Some of these guys are a unique group that maybe haven’t thrived in a traditional classroom,” he said.

Aiden Cudhea, a senior from Thetford, said that description fits him. The program, which meets for half a day, five days a week, throughout the school year and covers multiple academic disciplines, allows him to dig into classes in a way he normally doesn’t. “It’s a hands-on approach to learning, and I’m into that,” he said.

Getting young people out of the classroom and engaged in their learning aren’t the only goals of place-based learning.

“It also instills in kids a sense of belonging in a place and pride in a place,” said Shipman, who grew up in Piermont. “Our work is really just all about celebrating the Upper Valley.”

The mission isn’t without challenges. Even in the relatively rural Upper Valley, finding places to implement place-based learning can be difficult for some educators.

Ellis realizes that Thetford Academy is lucky in that regard. “We have over 100 acres of land right out our back door that is our living laboratory,” he said.

Such a setting is not a prerequisite for place-based education, however, Ellis said. “There’s nature all around, if you’re looking for it,” he said.

Uneven access to forests and other enriching places is another reason for collaboration. Along with connecting students to settings that might not be available on their own school grounds, collaborative efforts help educators develop new ways of using the resources they do have.

In a 2016 Atlantic article that featured Ottauquechee School’s ForestKinder program, organizers Meg Teachout and Eliza Minnucci emphasized collaboration as one of the key components of a successful outdoor program.

That idea is beginning to take hold. Janis Boulbol, a sixth-grade teacher at Sharon Elementary School, also took her students on a field trip to Thetford Academy last week. It’s one of numerous collaborations she’s participated in over the past few years as an advocate of placed-based ecology education.

“The value of these connections and collaboration has been incredible,” said Boulbol, who meets monthly with like-minded educators around the region and who piloted a program called “A Week in the Forest” at Sharon Elementary last year.

“I think the more we continue to connect with one another, the more resources, curricular ties and community engagement we can share,” she said. “I also think that it can build support at the local, state and federal level for advocacy around this shift in teaching and learning.”

The Upper Valley Teaching Place Collaborative launch meeting will take place on Friday, March 29, from 1 to 4:30 p.m. at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee. For information, email coordinator@uvtpc.org.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com and 603-727-3268.

Correction

Sixth-grade students shown visiting the Thetford Academy Outdoor Program in photographs with this story are from Sharon Elementary School. Earlier captions incorrectly identified what school they attend.