Moving Past the Traditional Classroom

By: Jen Heyer

“The future belongs to the curious.  The ones who are not afraid to try it, explore it, poke at it, question it and turn it inside out.” – Unknown

Curiosity is something that kindergarten students don’t struggle with.  All day long as a kindergarten teacher I hear questions, wonderings, hypotheses, and stories.  That natural curiosity is what brought me to bring my kindergarten students out to our school forest to learn for the last two and a half years.  I have taught in Eden Prairie, MN for 18 years; 16 of those years in kindergarten.  I was seeing an interesting trend happening, something Richard Louv calls, “Nature Deficit Disorder.”  My students didn’t want to walk barefoot in the grass and they didn’t want to get their clothes dirty.  The great outdoors is a child’s natural habitat; how could this be happening?  I committed to changing my teaching schedule around in a way that would have my students in the traditional learning environment four days a week, but on Wednesdays, we would spend our day outside, a classroom without four walls.  The first lesson is always the same when we start the year: set up the rules (be kind to yourself, others and nature), we do five minutes of “sit-spots” so the children can build stamina up to ten minutes of silence to observe and take in the story nature is telling us and we make a mud puddle to smear ourselves with mud; I reintroduce the connection with nature that many of my students have lost.  This program that I’ve created, Wilderness Wednesdays, has changed and evolved into a day that is spent focused on connecting with and learning about nature and of course, meeting Minnesota State Standards.  There is rarely a Wednesday that I’m missing students, children want to learn in the forest, and this is the one day of the week that parents say they can count on their children telling them what they did that day at school.

During the development of this program, I heard about the American Wilderness Leadership School in Jackson, Wyoming that SCI sponsors.  I had the great honor of not only attending AWLS, but also receiving a scholarship through SCI and my experience was simply amazing.  To say that I was exhausted after my week at AWLS is an understatement.  Between the adventures, learning, professional connections, food and leadership – it was an experience of a lifetime.  I was fortunate to spend that time with 34 educators from 12 different states; not only teachers, but naturalists and biologists.  AWLS has you on a full schedule – breakfast around 7am in the morning and learning all the way until 9/10pm at night depending on the discussions we were having.  In the eight days that I was there, besides meals, we had one reflection time; it was a lot to take in!

During the time I spent at AWLS we split our time between traditional classroom learning, outdoor learning on the beautiful AWLS campus and some field trips around Wyoming.

While in the traditional indoor classroom:

  • We spent time getting to know all of the curriculum materials that we were provided with.
  • There were several sessions on wildlife ecology and conservation.
  • We were instructed on firearm safety along with some beginning exposure to an electronic/laser shotgun and a pellet hand-gun.
  • “Match the Hatch” was a session on fly-fishing and we had the opportunity to tie our own flies.
  • Harlan Kredit, a ranger at Yellowstone, was one of the highlights of the week at AWLS. He met with us to discuss the Yellowstone ecosystem.
  • Firearm cleaning took place at the end of the day we spent on the range.
  • We each took our NASP test to become certified archery instructors.

While on the AWLS outdoor campus:

  • We were led on a hike to discuss wildlife ecology in the area.
  • Our outdoor survival skills were put to the test in starting a fire and building a shelter.
  • We studied a nearby stream during stream ecology after we had a brief lesson in the classroom.
  • The majority of our training and practice for the National Archery in the Schools Program took place either on the target range or the 3D archery range.
  • I really enjoyed range day, which was a surprise because this was very new to me. We spent time on the hand-gun range, shooting a rifle at different types of targets, along with using shotguns to shoot skeet.
  • We took a gorgeous hike to Granite Falls.
  • Different lessons from environmental education curriculum guides were handed out for small groups to learn so we could teach our peers as students.
  • We had a cookout followed by an outdoor competition where we participated in tomahawk throwing, sleeping bag stuffing, tent setting up, and hula hoop fly fishing.

We went on several field trips:

  • We spent some time at Pinedale, an area with a major gas and oil mining operation that is on one of the longest migration routes in North America. We met with a representative from the Wyoming Fish and Game Department along with a representative from the Bureau of Land Management.
  • We stopped at a park for a great picnic lunch and to play a game from the DNR Project WILD curriculum.
  • We visited Trappers Point, a national historic landmark where trappers, traders and Indians met to exchange pelts.
  • We made two quick stops to the National Elk Refuge and the Grand Teton Visitor Center to learn more about these natural areas.
  • We were given several hours of free time to explore the town of Jackson.
  • The whitewater rafting trip down the Snake River was an adventure that none of us will forget.

It was helpful to see the framework AWLS had in place in balancing indoor and outdoor learning.  It’s something I’ve been working on in my own classroom for going on three years now.  While I was at AWLS, I tried to stay mindful of how us educators learned differently between the sessions taught indoors versus the ones taught outdoors and see the similarities between the adults and my students. During the outdoor lessons, I really saw people using communication, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and curiosity in their learning.  There was a natural need to learn and want the experience to enhance their lives.  It gave me the confidence to continue teaching my students outside.   I’d like to bring that framework back to my school district and make some progress with conservation and environmental education.  I am currently on the school district’s K-12th grade Science Curriculum Writing Committee.  More and more educators seem interested in making a move to enhance their lessons with outdoor education supporting their curriculum.  The morning that we spent learning different activities from the DNR Project WILD manuals was such a huge benefit to have.  The enjoyment that everyone had in their learning, while we were active outside, was evident in the smiles and discussions afterwards. I’d like the Eden Prairie school district to commit to having our educators have more exposure to the DNR Project WILD lessons and program.  Along with supporting the Project WILD Program, I’d also like to bring the National Archery in the Schools Program to the district.  Through AWLS, I was able to get NASP certified.  Currently, our elementary curriculum focuses on fitness elements that primarily correlate with the traditional sports.  It would be a huge benefit to our students to introduce another life-long opportunity which is proven to improve self-confidence, focus and strength.  Archery expands the definition of athlete and gives the unique opportunity for any type of student to find success amongst their peers.

The best surprise of my time at the American Wilderness Leadership School was the amazing networking opportunity I around all the educational professionals that were there, whether it was the staff that led us through our time there or the colleagues that I learned alongside with.  These connections, will benefit me on a much different level than any other professional development opportunity that I have had in the past.  I’m looking forward to the support of these colleagues in my teaching and enhancing the learning of my students.

The adventures of my kindergartners on Wilderness Wednesdays can be followed at my classroom Twitter account, @HeyerLearning.